I’m here to tell you that you and a few friends can gather around your dining room table, play with some cardboard zombies, and have a wonderful time. Plaid Hat Games have released Dead of Winter, a board game where your goal is to survive a harsh winter during a zombie apocalypse.
The objective of Dead of Winter is to survive both the harsh winter elements and the attacking zombie hordes, and players are cooperating to achieve this objective…kinda. The problem is that while all players are working toward a shared objective, each player also has a secret personal objective that may or may not put them at odds with the group. Oh, did I mention that there is also a chance that one player might be an outright traitor?
This might be a board game, but there is no way it can leave you feeling bored.
Like all the best zombie fiction, the true threat is never the zombies themselves, it’s the other survivors! Gathering around a dining room table and experiencing this with friends is fantastic. Everyone is raptly engaged the entire game. While everyone is working together to achieve the main objective, a gnawing suspicion toward their fellow players is also ever present. It’s an enjoyable tension.
Face the Elements
Every player controls a couple cardboard standee survivors and use these survivors to achieve objectives such as finding weapons, food, medicine, or tools to help keep the zombies at bay.
For example, if a player has his survivor go to the abandoned police station and finds a weapon, she can contribute that card to the objective, or simply hoard it in secret in case they wish to sabotage the efforts made by the other players as they satisfy their own selfish objectives. It’s as if the game is always asking if you are working toward the whole group’s survival, or simply your own.
With gameplay consisting of moving your little cardboard survivors from location to location, it stands to reason that the harsh winter of roving zombies would provide danger, and the game simulates this well with the exposure die. Whenever a player fights a zombie or moves to a new location, they must roll the 12-sided Exposure Die.
While you have a 50% chance of nothing happening, there is also a chance you could take a wound, get frostbite, or even suffer instant death, resulting in lower morale for the colony. When moral gets to zero, the game is lost. Even the harsh Minnesota winters where I’m typing this aren’t as harsh as that darned Exposure Die, and it feels like the world is in slow motion as you await the results of that cruel little sucker.
Players at a Crossroads
As if all that isn’t enough, there is another level of tension in the game. At each turn a player draws a Crossroads card which has a good chance of triggering if other players match the requirements on the card. The Crossroads card might be triggered for something as simple as if another player is holding a food card in their hand, or it might be something über specific that will rarely trigger.
Regardless, these Crossroads cards are great fun as they add instant decision making to the game. Players might be forced to make a choice between bringing helpless survivors into their colony, burdening scarce food supplies, or leaving those same helpless survivors out in the cold to freeze.
The Crossroads cards add a wonderful story-telling element to the game, making you feel as though you are playing out the experience of a survival colony and being faced with the same types of decisions they might be faced with. It’s great fun and insures that no two plays of Dead of Winter will be even remotely the same. This might be a board game, but there is no way it can leave you feeling bored.
The game is meticulously produced and you feel like you are getting excellent value for your money. From gorgeous artwork to high-quality cardboard markers, it’s all top-notch.
Normally with a game like this, I’d want plastic miniatures, but the cardboard standees were excellent, and the VAST number of them would have made plastic miniatures cost prohibiative. With Mice and Mystics, Plaid Hat showed that they know how to make beautiful miniatures. With Dead of Winter, Plaid showed that they also know when to use restraint and not make miniatures.
Included in the game are dozens or survivor standees, each with slightly different special abilites. The characterization was well done, offering diversity and variety, further adding to the game’s replayability.
The inclusion of Sparky the Dog as one of the survivor standees is symbolic of a few moments of levity and humor that Plaid Hat sprinkled throughout the game. Dead of Winter keeps the dramatic tension high as you play. Decisions feel like they matter and that they have weight. A small touch like Sparky the Dog pulls the game just slightly back from the edge, and this is excellent. The game make you think, it forces you to act, it invites you to feel, then thankfully, it makes a joke and lightens the mood just enough.
My wife is my primary gaming partner and the combination of both the zombie theme and a potential game traitor was too much for her. We house ruled it and removed the traitor element, making the game fully cooperative. You could also pretend that it’s bunnies clawing at your door and not zombies, but it’s simpler to just use this game with a gaming group that prefers grittier, tense games.
I can’t reiterate this enough: Dead of Winter is a blast. I’d be shocked if it’s not in the conversation for board game of the year.
Dead of Winter offers dramatic tension, excellent production values, storytelling opportunities, gorgeous artwork, and heaps of fun. Just thinking about the game makes me want to play it again.