It’s fair to say I believed the hype about Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter. I was a long-time fan of the company’s podcast and had enjoyed the descriptions and design talks about the game leading up to its launch; so much so that I was happy to pre-order it.
I’d been looking for a replacement for old classic Arkham Horror for a while, and this looked like it would fit the bill: a story driven co-op with a horror theme but the bonuses of being shorter, less fiddly and with a tension-building traitor mechanic – as well as the much lauded ‘crossroads’ mechanism (more on that later). It duly arrived, we duly played it, and it has since been duly traded away. So what went wrong?
Theme and components: Check
Out of the box, Dead of Winter is a triumph. While the churlish could point to thin location and player boards – or even complain about old-school standees (in this day and age!) being included rather than minis – overall the production quality is excellent. The artwork is evocative and high quality, the rulebook solid and the tokens, dice etc up to snuff. I don’t care a jot about minis and the like, so I was more than satisfied.
On the downside it’s a bit of a bear to set up, with a multitude of card decks needing to be shuffled and placed, alongside a plethora of tokens – and that’s before you get to choosing a scenario, setting it up, and then dealing each player their choice of starting characters. This is definitely a game you should play at the owner’s house, giving them time to get it ready before you arrive – but once it’s ready to go, I think it looks pretty cool on the table.
It’s also worth pointing out that players that enjoy this kind of game are prepared for a lengthy setup process. Arkham Horror takes just as long to get ready, while players of games such as Descent or Star Wars: Imperial Assault will see nothing to put them off here. With highly thematic games, it seems to go with the territory.
Can you keep a secret?
So far, so what – it’s just another thematic zombie game with nice bits: but the first semi-USP comes with the secret roll cards. Before the game starts, two secret objective cards per player are shuffled in with a betrayal card and one is dealt to each player.
While Dead of Winter is a two-to-five player game you don’t have a betrayer with two, leaving a 45-ish per cent chance of someone being the betrayer with three-to-five players. There is a betrayer variant that swings this wildly in the other direction, giving you an 80-ish per cent chance. But either way, the lot of any betrayer may not really be in their hands – and sadly the same goes for everyone else.
Because here lies Dead of Winter’s first real flaw: unbalanced objectives. Some of them are just plain easy, while others take a real effort and may not be possible despite your best efforts. The aim of this seems to be to create tension: to force people into situations where others may think they’re showing betrayer tendencies. But unless you are dedicated role-players, it is a very real possibility this tension will fail to emerge – especially as after one play you know those super tough objectives are out there.
Attack of the randoms
While not fatal on their own, you are trying to complete your unbalanced secret objectives while competing with the oldest and lamest of all board game mechanism – the ‘one in x chance’ of something terrible happening. And you thought we’d moved on right?
Some caveats here. First, I love me some random – and second I know Ameritrash games are the beating heart of random. I get that. But there are ways to do random right, or cleverly, or with a bit of imagination. Instead here we seem to have incredibly naivety.
Every time you move to a location, or fight a zombie (unless you have particular equipment cards or special powers), you need to roll a 12-sided dice – on one side of which is a tooth. If you roll this, that character is dead. This in itself isn’t a big deal – you’ve probably got more characters (you start with two each and often pick more up) and if not you just grab a new one out of the box. The bigger problem is ‘morale’.
Morale is the game’s timer – the ticking clock of doom which, if it reaches zero, will mean the players lose. In anything but the easiest scenario this should be causing the tension, which is ramped up by the fact every character death causes a one-point loss in morale. Which brings us to the ‘one play’ which put the nail in Dead of Winter’s coffin for me.
This was my fourth game of Dead of Winter and we had a group with some new and some experienced players (five in all). After the epic set up/rules explanation we embarked on a short scenario to give everyone a taste of what this game had to offer.
As it was a short scenario we started with just six morale. The base was surrounded by zombies so as a first act my tough guy – who had the ability to kill two zombies with one blow – ploughed into the fray. And promptly rolled the dreaded ‘tooth’.
So he’s dead – no biggy. One morale down. But it gets worse: the next player in the compound has a decision to make. They can just die and stop the infection spreading – or roll and take a big risk of survival vs getting bit, and passing it on again. With so little morale to play with they fell on their sword – so we were down to four morale.
Much like the game Battlestar Galactica (which it borrows quite heavily from), Dead of Winter has an objective players can meet each round – or face the consequences. In our case, if we failed to meet it – which needed quite a lot of fuel – we would lose two morale. So with two already gone, it was all hands to the pump (ho ho).
With our safe bet having tried and failed to get fuel from the petrol station (random card picks FTW), someone less likely tried their luck. En route they too rolled the tooth – and took both themselves and the person already at the petrol station with them. We failed to get our petrol, lost two more morale, and it was over. Worst. Walking Dead episode. Ever.
The highlight (and this is clutching at straws) was that we did actually have a traitor – but they didn’t even have enough time to complete their simple objective because two random dice rolls finished us all off before we got going. Otherwise, he’d have won.
And that’s the second big problem with the morale system: the betrayer rarely needs to show their hand before the final turn, because either the players are going to hell in a hand basket anyway – or morale has gotten them close enough that one really destructive final turn is enough for the betrayer to blow the game, without needing to draw any suspicion before it is too late to do anything about it (they can be exiled, in theory).
While this was a laughably short game, in some ways it was the best of the four I played. Two were tedious processions to victory playing the starter scenario with new players where we didn’t have a traitor, while the other was another defeat – again with no traitor – which threatened to ignite into a really fun experience but never truly shone (despite providing some laughs). It’s possibly the most fragile game system I’ve ever experienced.
Still, you might love it 🙂
Does Dead of Winter have the capacity to give players a fantastic thematic game experience packed with intrigue, tough decisions and a tense endgame? Absolutely. But does it equally have the capacity to provide a shallow and worthless one? As you can see, the answer is yes to that too.
I’m not reviewing Dead of Winter in my usual style because I realise a lot of people LOVE this game and I didn’t want to give it my standard treatment, as that format wouldn’t allow me to get things across the way I wanted. I can see I may not be the right audience and if you search t’interwebs you will find many an honest, glowing review of this very popular title. All I wanted to do was share my experience which was, sadly, a lot less positive.
At the time of writing Dead of Winter is in the top 20 games on Board Game Geek and games rarely get up that high by accident. But equally, just because they’re flying high doesn’t mean they’re for everyone.
The promise of better to come: Crossroads cards
I’ve saved the real jewel in Dead of Winter’s crown until last and that’s its one genuine board game innovation – crossroads cards (and I’m not belittling this – many, many games have on innovation at all and one bit per game is above average!).
At the start of each player’s turn, the player next to them draws the top crossroads card from the deck and reads the intro to themselves: this intro tells them in what situation they need to pause the game and read the card out. This could be very open – perhaps if a player leaves the colony to go to an outside location – or very specific – if a particular character is in play and this player controls them.
This restriction is interesting because it means not all cards are read out, so they do add a unique feeling to the game that’s akin to RPGs – that, “Oh god, will opening this door spring a trap” feeling. Each card has an ethical dilemma of some kind on it, either for the group to vote on or for the player to decide themselves. These can be great for adding theme, a laugh or even give you some character insight.
But sadly in Dead of Winter they don’t quite seem to work. You can have games where very few trigger, while many of those that do are no-brainer decisions. But on the plus side Plaid Hat is already working on another ‘crossroads’ game, this time set in space with an Alien style them – which could be awesome. But this time I’ll keep my powder dry and wait for the reviews before pulling the trigger.
* If you’re a fan of this game, good on you. But please don’t pick holes in my story if I have made small rule errors in the retelling. The facts may be a little off as this was a while ago, but believe me this happened: we played the rules right, we lost in a turn and it was crap.