Stunning components and artwork throughout.
Clear and concise rules, easy to start playing straight away.
Those not willing to embrace the stories this game is telling may find the experience lacking.
Lack of variety of cards my prove an issue with repeated plays.
So here we go again, another bloody zombie game! I understand the eye rolling, the board game market has been flooded with Zombie titles over the last couple of years and disappointingly very few of them have honestly nailed this genre, the one exception being City Of Horror that came pretty close.
They all make the same mistake by focusing on the dead when really its us the humans who are the biggest threat in these final dark days of civilization, fortunately designers Jon Gilmour and Isaac Vega understand this, the dead in Dead Of Winter are just as they should be an unstoppable tide of doom, they gather at the fences patiently waiting for us to screw up, to get greedy, to be human. They could be robots or rabid weasels that’s not the point here, they are needed for the story that Plaid Hat wants to tell. So if you are of the oppinion that the world really doesn’t need another Zombie game then I have to strongly disagree with you, there is always a place for a really good one.
So yes lets get this out in the open now, I really like this game, I mean REALLY like it. And if that’s all you need to be convinced then good for you sir, but if you need some further convincing then I intend to give it my best shot, so read on.
What Dead Of Winter does so very well is take the tense meta game of Battlestar Galactica with its twisty turny traitor mechanisms and a dash of resource control and apply them to the world of Zombies, so far so so right? The ace in the hole for DOW is in the addition of the Crossroads cards, now if you’ve seen the box you will notice that below the title it states that this is a crossroads game. So what is this crossroads stuff then? well its a set of cards that are linked to either characters or events that may or may not occur on players turns and are triggered whenever a survivor moves somewhere or performs a specific action, when that occurs then the card stops play and the magic happens. These cards all come loaded with richly thematic text that will set a scene and either give a specific character a choice or the group as a whole where it might come down to a vote. These cards are intrinsically linked to the survivors that you are playing in this world and all of them have repercussions to single characters or potentially the whole camp.
But let me hold up and back up a tad before we get into those, I need to set the scene some more. To get the most out of DOW you need to approach it with the same head-space of Eldritch Horror or Robinson Crusoe, your’e here to tell a story. If you can’t allow yourself to slip into your characters roles and embrace that, to make their decisions from that perspective then you’ll be missing half the game. You’ll be left sitting to the side with a confused look scratching your head trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Life is pretty cheap out here in the post apocalypse winter, you start the game with two random characters each will have a couple of stats for searching and fighting and one special skill. This being a co-op (of sorts) everyone has a goal and there are a bunch of mission cards that set a scenario of what you are attempting to do to win the game. These cards are linked to a small piece of story in the rule book which should be read aloud to set the scene and get everyone in the mood for whats coming. There is also another glorious addition, each player begins with a secret objective that will allow them to win the game. It might be hoarding a set number of food cards or equipment, whatever it is it will be something that eventually will be a test of your character whether you keep items that will allow you to win over helping the colony out of a tight spot. And worse there is the possibility of someone getting a Betrayal card these will give a win condition that will see you chuckling merrily while you watch the world burn. So from the very beginning the seeds of distrust have been sown which has the potential to derail choices that might be for the good of everyone down the road.
Once the game is underway in addition to attempting to fulfill the main goal every turn there is a Crisis, these represent the ongoing issues of trying to survive in this frosty environment and will revolve around the colony having to secretly add specific items to a pile to complete this challenge. Failure to meet the goals of these cards come with hefty penalties whether it be more undead piling at your colony, injured survivors or the cold touch of desperation as your morale is drained.
So lets set the scene, supplies are sparse you start with a scattering of basic equipment but to sustain the colony you’ll need food every round or risk starvation. Then a crisis hits we need fuel for the generators before they stutter and die, things look desperate and then someone stands up and agrees to go scavenging.
David Garcia was an accountant before the freeze but he’s keen to prove his worth, so throwing one final look to the small group he leaves behind he sets off across the bitter tundra to that old gas station on the edge of town, the hopes and dreams of the others going with him.
This is the point when the cruel hands of fate may intercede, you see whenever a survivor moves anywhere or performs an attack you roll the Exposure Die (an incredible apt name for this) on this monstrous creations twelve sides rests your survivors fate, it might be a blank and nothing happens, a wound, not terrible but three of them will kill you, frostbite okay worse and untreated will add a wound each round, or a bite which equals death. And worse if your travelling to a populated area the bite can spread which will result in the deaths of more and should that occur when your returning to the colony the results could be catastrophic. OK so the dice is bad got that, you will come to fear this evil little twelve sided beast.
Anyway back to David our heroic accountant, you remember hopes and dreams and all that. So Davids sets out and roll’s the dice. Its a bite he’s dead. What? Wha..? But hey. Nope he died, gone. Back at camp everyone sits around as the lights begin to fade and die, David didn’t make it back and the fuel is running low the morale of the colony drops and then everyone looks around at who’s next. And that could very well be the first action of your game, all bets are off.
Every decision in DOW is loaded with these terrifying consequences and not just for that player, but the whole camp and before long you get attached to your small group of survivors. And as the crossroad cards start to resolve building a tapestry of tales that enhance the story your telling it can truly hurt when someone dear to you bites the dust.
As an example in the game I played last night I was lucky to count Sparky the stunt dog among my happy few. Faithful old Sparky scampered out to forage for supplies (damn clever that dog, makes Rin Tin Tin look like a moron) on his way out a crossroads card was triggered and a helicopter crashed with the pilot wounded and trapped calling for help. Now Sparky had the option of rescuing the pilot or just leaving them and taking the supplies. The gamer’s response would likely be to take the stuff and scamper and put the colony and main objective first, after all we don’t need another mouth to feed at the colony we need that equipment. But this is Sparky the goddamn stunt dog! No way he ignores somebody in distress, so I did the right choice for the story I was telling and ole Sparky pulled the pilot from the wreckage and brought her back to the camp. This little moment is a prime example of how this game should be played, it brought some humor to proceedings and lets be clear this game can get pretty dark, some of those cards are grim (we’re talking HBO Game Of Thrones grim) with terrible decisions to be made. But this was a spot of light during the bleak days we’d had. And as it turns out Sophie the pilot ended up being terribly useful as she went on to become a stand up member of the colony.
played as just a game then you’ll find the mechanisms actually pretty simple (aided by a well put together rule book) and you can whiz through proceedings and potentially leave mildly satisfied, but if your not willing to stop and smell the flowers you are going to miss half of the game or more importantly the whole story.
There are a couple of gamey issues that threaten to derail proceedings, items scavenged from locations become instantly available to all from your hand wherever they are located. I get that this decision was made to avoid over complication of hand management and bookkeeping. If you really needed to it could easily be explained away and to be honest I welcome the decision by the designers. There is also the point that you can’t un-equip items, but again to allow this would break the carefully created threat that the game sneaks up on you. There’s a worry that some of the card pools aren’t huge and may lead to an over familiarity with continued play, there are however plenty of objectives and the option for hardcore rules so it will be dozen’s of games before you ever exhaust those. And whilst the box lists this as playable by two, the sweet spot is three or more, with two of you its a straight co-op removing the distrust and potential betrayal from proceedings which guts the heart of this game from it.
But that’s nitpicking what Plaid Hat have achieved is something special, the art and design of this thing is spectacular and most importantly it totally nails the world and theme it set out to. This for me is the first true Zombie game to come out of the hundreds that litter game store shelves. If your a fan of the Romero films or read the Walking Dead comics or played the incredible video games by Tell Tale then you are going to lap this up.
I should probably end right there, but I’d be remiss not to mention you can vote to exile players whereupon they receive a whole new set of missions to mess with you, or the desperate resource management and defense of the colony you need to maintain whilst everything else is going on, or the sudden desperate realization that somebody has snuck damaging cards into a crisis and plunged the colony into turmoil, I could go on and on. I cannot wait to see what further adventures Plaid Hat have planned in this Crossroads series and hopefully we’re see an expansion or two for this game.
So as summer draws to a close I know what game will be slouching to my table as the dark nights close in, its going to be a helluva winter.