I’m a huge fan of The Walking Dead (comic first, TV show second, mind you) so my collection of zombie-themed boardgames has grown. Plaid Hat’s new game, Dead of Winter (DoW) caught my eye immediately. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the PH booth early Saturday morning at Gen Con to be informed their entire complement of DoWs for the weekend had already been sold out! Flash forward to April, when I spotted DoW in a local Barnes & Noble. Score!
Dead of Winter is a “semi-cooperative” game. The players must work together to survive a harsh winter in zombieland, scavenging for food and medicine, building barricades, and killing off zombies while trying to complete a overall mission goal (which changes each game). At the same time, each player has a secret goal. And you must complete both group and secret goals to win! There’s also a chance a traitor lurks within the group, a character whose goals conflict with the overall mission. A the start of each game, you don’t know whether a traitor exists, unless of course you are the traitor!
We played the game a spin last night with three players. I won’t rehash the rules—you can download them here—but rather I’ll provide my customary post-game thoughts. This review is based on a single game, so keep that in mind. (No doubt I’ll have a better idea of game play after a few more are under my belt, but I want to publish my initial thoughts while they’re fresh.)
Style and Theme: The theme here is solid. The artwork invokes some humor but also has the blood spots, etc., customary to zombie games. The crossroad cards provide flavor text and snippets of dialog. The color of the board and components is black, grey, and yellowish; which evokes a wintery feel without looking too bland. Some classifications were probably made for sake of game play, but seemed weird; a hammer is a tool but a lighter is a weapon?!?
Components: The components are also solid. The game board has a nice feel and the cards seem to be a decent stock weight (and size). Standees are provided instead of plastic figures, but honestly it didn’t hurt gameplay any and probably prevented a $60 purchase being inflated to $80+. A lot of cardboard bits are included, stopping just short of the amount found in your typical Fantasy Flight game (do those guys own a cardboard factory of what?). Also included in the box was a set of small plastic baggies meant for holding the pieces once punched, a unexpectedly classy touch.
Overall Play: What appeared at first to be a fairly complex game was actually pretty easy to master once the game was up and running. Plaid Hat has introductory videos on their website, and I highly recommend them. There are a lot of things to remember, and it’s easy to forget a character’s special ability, etc., in the heat of game play, but summary sheets are provided (which I love) and when we slowed down and went through the lists, we quickly got the swing of things.
Some dangers seemed unbalanced, but it could simply be a factor in this particular game. The zombies also weren’t much of a threat—their numbers increased but it never got to be panic. Starvation and mounting garbage was a far more serious threat to our victory. Likewise, the zombies never became a problem at the outside locations, though that could have been a result of our more conservative searching (which, in turn, may well be the reason we lost). I would have liked it if the zombie fights were somehow more cinematic and not “automatically eliminate the zombie and check for bites.” I prefer my zombie games to feature the zombies as a main threat—exposure and starvation seemed to be a far greater threat for us in this game. At times, feeding the seeming endless stream of helpless waifs arriving at our colony doors and cleaning up after ourselves occupied much of our time; from a strictly thematic point of view, I'd rather lose a zombie game from a horde of undead breaking down the gates than by being buried in garbage. But a think the more aggressive game play that is needed to win the game probably steps up the undead threat level considerably.
Overall, game play was smooth and not fiddly, and the rules provided a good number of character play options without getting complex. Our during-play rules questions were few.
So what’s my final take? Dead of Winter is a keeper. The large amount of crossroads cards (a cool design idea) and varied group missions allows for a lot of replay value. The theme is solid, and the winter/exposure threat puts a slightly different spin on the usual “zombies on Main Street” genre. Most importantly, the secret victory conditions and traitor possibility allow those not enamored with cooperative games to strike out a bit. We’ll definitely be bringing this to the table again.