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Dead of Winter – Game Mechanics Review

I brought Dead of Winter to our game group during a time when we were playing various cooperative games and having a great time trouncing the AIs of different thematic games.  We had been playing a lot of Zombicide so another zombie game wasn’t really what we were looking for though.  But this game is less about zombies and more about human interaction, which is what makes The Walking Dead such a great comic book series (Huge fan).  Besides the psychological aspects of the game there are multiple mechanics from other games in here, but the Crossroads system is something awesome and unique.  Let’s discuss all of it:

Playing Dead of Winter has an almost RPG feel to it.  It’s due in part to the secret objectives and the story-style text in the game’s various cards.  The art also plays into this, showing ‘actors’ that look like ordinary people caught up in their situation.  Additionally the different mechanics in the game contribute to this thematic storytelling very well:

Main Theme

In Dead of Winter, players represent a small team of people trying to survive the winter in a zombie apocalypse.  All the players together are in one big colony trying to survive together.  Each player is given two characters to start, representing their group.  The players then need to work together to face the challenges that arrive, exploring the area around them while fighting zombies and braving the cold.  The picture is painted quite well with great art and text throughout all cards and the board itself.

Secret Objectives

In a normal game of Dead of Winter, each player draws a secret objective.  This objective will give the player a specific set of goals to try to hit during the course of the game in order to win.  There is a slightly less than 50% chance that someone will get a “Betrayer” objective meaning that their objective is for the colony to fail.  Many gamers have strong opinions about traitor mechanics on one side or the other, but I believe the main purpose (and the reason I like it) is to remove the alpha-gamer side effect of cooperative games.  That is, the way that in many cooperative games one player will just kind of ‘take over’ and tell everyone else what they need to do so that everyone can win.  There are multiple different ways to help remove the alpha-gamer from cooperative games, but secret information and traitor mechanics are some of the most powerful ways.  It works really well in Dead of Winter.

Crossroads

The main contributor to the RPG storytelling feel comes from reading and interacting with the Crossroads cards:

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Yeah… I sleeve all my cards…

The Crossroads cards for Dead of Winter are written in a way to tell a story.  The player behind you draws a Crossroads card for you, and if you meet the condition of the card, then the card is read and the card’s effect comes into play.  The interactions with these cards often have one or more players making a hard decision about what to do to continue.  For example, booting the helpless survivors out resulting in a morale drop but saving on supplies, or to keep the helpless around because “It’s the right thing to do.”  Nearly every time a Crossroads card is read, there is a discussion among the players as to what to do.   And when that discussion starts, everyone starts to think about their secret objective.  The intersection of these two game elements creates this RPG feel I was talking about.  You start to suspect EVERYTHING.

Crisis Cards

The Crisis cards are events that last the whole round and give all the players an objective to hit for that round.  Really though, hitting the objective just keeps the group’s head above water.  You are always on your heels and as a team you have to work together to keep the colony together.  When paired with the other mechanics of the game, it makes hitting these objectives on the Crisis cards incredibly hard because you still are so suspicious of each other.  To me, this difficulty is the reason this game is so fun.  You never feel like you’ve won until the very end, when you just sneak by.

My One Issue

Well, there is two….. but the second one is kinda minor and on the edge.

After playing Dead of Winter a number of times, the biggest issue I have is with this line from page 11 of the rulebook:

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It’s hard to explain fully why I dislike this rule to someone that has never played before, but let me note that as a house rule we ignore this for our games.  The reason why is that this rule can be used in a pretty cheap (and frankly unrealistic) way to force a loss onto all the survivors from the betrayer.  Here’s how it works:  The betrayer takes advantage of this rule here:

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The game is so tight with resources that as the betrayer you could merely not pay food into the supplies for a turn to cause hunger early in the game.  It’s highly possible you will get away with it as long as you play along with everything else, helping to get every other resource that the colony needs.  You just toss up your hands and say, “Man, this game is hard.” And noone expects anything.  Then towards the end of the game, when you go last in the round, you “eat” all the food to up your dice as your turn begins.  Because of that last line in the “Pay Food” step of the Colony Phase, you cause a loss of two morale crippling the colony.  Then you also cause the Crisis to fail.  If done right, this instantly ends the game with a victory for the betrayer.  Now…… yes….. this is the rules of the game, but again, I find this tactic so anticlimactic, cheap, and anti-theme I just can’t stand it.  Whatever, that’s me.

My other issue is with the promotional materials for Dead of Winter.  (I told you it was a real edge case) Promos are something I always seek out for games I enjoy, and I think a lot of gamers do the same.  If you don’t agree, go look at the amount of KS exclusives that come with many of the Kickstarter games and know that the reason they are there is to create a level of exclusivity that many gamers seek in their purchases.  Now, the Promos for Dead of Winter fall into three categories in my opinion: normal cards, broken cards, and cards that are just silly.  My complaint is that there aren’t enough normal cards.

The first set of promos has a card that forces someone to go get you a drink…..come on.  As for broken cards, most Promos are so incredibly powerful that they would make the game too easy.  The difficulty of Dead of Winter doesn’t need to be tweaked in any direction, it’s great right where it is.  They have an app as well that let’s you play with the promos and other cards.  I understand the idea of changing your game up for fun, but for me this is just the wrong way to do it.

Should it be in your game collection?

If you were in my game store and you pulled Dead of Winter off the shelf and asked me if it was a good game, I would ask you:

  • Can your library take another zombie game?
  • Do you normally play with 4 or 5 players?
  • Do you like cooperative games that are very intense?
  • When you play boardgames, do you like to pretend you are the characters in the game? (RPG style)
  • Do you like storytelling in your boardgames?

 

If you answer Yes to most of those, then Dead of Winter is probably for you.  My gaming group pulls out Dead of Winter almost every time we are able to get 5 players together.  In a normal two hour session, the times where everyone is quiet trying to hide their objectives while figuring out everyone else’s objectives are awesome.  You can feel the intensity.

David Gerrard

@dagerr

 

 

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