Prepare to suspect your friends, your family, your pets, your spouse and that guy that you sometimes see at the gym who gives you a spot even when you don’t really need one but you are too polite to tell him to go away. Dead of Winter has a way of making you distrust people who you know wouldn’t lie to you and resent every word that comes out of their mouths. It has a way of making you absolutely sure that your friend is a traitor who is trying to undermine the colony and send you all to your doom and it has a way of making you even more of a nervous wreck once you’ve finally convinced the rest of the players to Exile someone only to find out that they weren’t actually the traitor at all.
Dead of Winter is a thematic semi-cooperative game that manages to use a few simple mechanics to shine a bright spotlight on the tension between players. Set in a post-zombie apocalypse, Dead of Winter manages to avoid falling into the ‘just another zombie game’ category and stand on its own as a unique, tense, thematic and fun game. Dead of Winter is more about the tension that arises between players who are not only trying to complete a shared goal and collectively avoid looming Crisis but also trying to complete their own hidden agenda along the way.
In typical cooperative game fashion, Dead of Winter tasks players with collectively reaching a goal while ensuring that certain pitfalls that would lead to a loss for all players. Atypically though, Dead of Winter also assigns each player a Secret agenda card that lists certain criteria that must be fulfilled in order for each player to win. If a player is unable to complete their Secret agenda before the shared main goal has been completed, they do not get to share in the victory. This adds a layer of tension to the game that wouldn’t exist otherwise as each player will be looking out for not only the colony but their own self-interest during play.
What really ups the tension in Dead of Winter is the fact that Betrayal agenda cards are shuffled in with the regular Secret agenda cards to start the game. There is always a chance that one person is a traitor who is trying to undermine the entire colony so that they can fulfill their win condition. Players are not allowed to show one another their agenda cards and so even little things can be misconstrued and taken to mean any number of things. Seemingly little things, like a player not contributing a card to help resolve a looming Crisis, cast suspicion. When someone has been looting at the grocery store and they neglect to add food to the colony’s dwindling supply you just know that they must be the traitor. The delicious irony is that you yourself have an agenda that you need to accomplish as well and these same accusations will be leveled your way sooner or later.
When one player actually is a traitor, the stakes are raised even higher, especially after the traitor player takes an action that deliberately harms the colony. All players go on high alert when this happens, meaning the traitor player has to pick and choose the right moment to strike so as to not make it too obvious for fear of being Exiled. Players can call for a vote to Exile another player at any time during their turn, and if a player is Exiled, they are forced to draw a new Exiled agenda that changes their win condition. Being Exiled makes the game more difficult for that players as it is much more difficult to survive without the aid of the colony. Successfully rooting out and exiling the traitor player can be thrilling and fun although Exiling a non-traitor player can be heart wrenching.
Sitting like a delicate cherry on top of the delicious tension-cake that is Dead of Winter are the Crossroads cards. At the start of each player’s turn, the player to their right draws a Crossroads card. Each of these cards lists a triggering condition on it, and if that condition is ever met during that turn, the game is stopped and the text on the card is read aloud. These cards almost always offer up multiple options for the player to choose from and some even put the options up for vote to all players in the colony. The choices are often difficult as they can present two equally appealing, or two equally disastrous options. The Crossroads cards add an interesting and thematic twist on the game and fit in perfectly with the rest of the mechanics as they will only trigger under circumstances that match the game in progress. The only downside to the Crossroads cards is that there can be long stretches of game-play where none are triggered, although this really speaks to how much they add to the game when they do trigger.
Even though the zombie theme has been done to death at this point, Dead of Winter uses it as an effective framework to hang the real meat of the game on and it works wonderfully. The shared survival situation really amplifies the tension between players and the ever present possibility of a traitor in the colony means that, even in games without a traitor, the tension stays high from start to finish. Dead of Winter can be played with 2 to 5 players but really should be played with 5 players to get the most out of the game.
A note on ‘true’ cooperative play: Dead of Winter does offer a fully cooperative variant that does away with the secret objective cards in favor of each player working together to complete the ‘hardcore’ side of the chosen main objective. The game is still fun when played this way, and this is the game’s recommended way to play with 2 players, but it loses a huge amount of the tension that makes the game so good to begin with. If you are looking for a game to play solely as a true-cooperative game there are many better options available.
A note on “chrome”: Dead of Winter‘s art style fits the game well and the components are all good quality. The instructions are clear and easy to understand and the game is easy to teach. The characters and zombies are all represented by cardboard standees and tokens rather than plastic miniatures, although this doesn’t detract from the game in any measurable way. The only downside to the cardboard standees is that there are only a few different variations on the zombies themselves. It would have been nice to have more varied zombies.
The bottom line:
Dead of Winter is an excellent semi-cooperative game. The game mechanics truly play up the inter-player tension and, while the zombie theme has been done to death, it really just serves as a backdrop to increase the drama between players. The Crossroads card system can add a wonderful touch of storytelling, although it can be a bit disappointing when very few or none of the cards are triggered during a play-through. The possible existence of a traitor and the fact that each player has their own win condition, even when not the traitor, really makes Dead of Winter a fun and tense experience.
Get this game if:
You love games that tell stories.
You like games where inter-player tension is as important as the game mechanics.
You want a game that can be enjoyed by cooperative and competitive players alike.
Avoid this game if:
You are tired of zombies.
You are looking for a true cooperative experience.
Dead of Winter can be purchased from Amazon here.
Rules for Dead of Winter can be downloaded here.
The copy of Dead of Winter used for review was purchased by the Author.
Dead of Winter is an amazing game. The theme, mechanics and game-play all work together harmoniously to create a wonderful amount of inter-player tension and drama.