What is Dead of Winter? A cooperative game? A competitive game? An immersive story? A psychological experience? The answer is all of this and this is what makes Dead of Winter so interesting.
The game itself is fairly simple. The setting is a zombie apocalypse (but do read on, I don't like zombie games myself but although there are zombies everywhere in Dead of Winter, your mind will be occupied with other things). You play a number of characters with different abilities. You roll action dice for your actions - the higher the roll, the more difficult actions you may take. You use your actions to search locations for useful stuff (food, weapons etc.). You use what you find to feed the colony and avert crises, and of course to kill zombies. Everybody wins if the colony objective is fulfilled.
If this had been the entire game, Dead of Winter would have been nothing more than a luck-based cooperative game. But then comes the competitive dimension. Each player has a secret objective as well. Some may want to hoard food (and not share it with the colony!), some may want to bring as many other people to the colony as possible (and increase the number of mouths to feed!) and there may even be a betrayer (who wants the colony to fall!).
This is where the game starts to get interesting. As a non-betrayer, you must balance between giving to the colony objective and keeping for your personal objective. As a betrayer, you must help the colony long enough to complete your personal objective (and to hide your true intentions to avoid being exiled by the others) before the time is ripe to tank the colony.
So it's all about bluffing and deduction then? No, there is a story-telling element as well. Each character has a background that adds a role-playing element to the game. There are so called crossroad cards, that trigger at certain occasions and usually put the players in an ethical dilemma. With the right mindset, the decision is not about "is it best to lose a moral or a food" but rather about "can we really leave those helpless people to die out there?"
This leads us to the psychological dimension of the game. How will players react to those ethical dilemmas? Will they put the common objective or their personal objective first? Will they rather see all players losing than being the only player not winning? This is the main reason why I bought Dead of Winter: to see how my friends would react in those situations.
In my personal experience, this is only comparable to Avalon (reviewed at Boardgamegeek). Players, who I have known for decades, display the most unexpected reactions to the challenges of surviving Dead of Winter. Joy and sorrow, excitement and anguish, anger and accusations are all feelings connected to a game of Dead of Winter.
So why have I decided to part with game then? Let me first present (and reject) some of the common complaints about Dead of Winter.
Dead of Winter is a luck feast
Yes, there are dice in Dead of Winter (and I usually don't think they belong in a modern game) but the luck is mitigated. You roll the action dice first and decide what to do with them later. Even with a bad roll, you can take actions, and if things come to worse, you can always negotiate with the other players. "OK, I can take out the garbage, but then I want someone to find me a weapon.")
The exposure die, that kills you in 1 out of 12 rolls, is a bigger problem but somehow it works anyway. The die adds a level of uncertainty that can break even the most optimized plan and the feeling when you anxiously watch this fatefull roll fits Dead of Winter very well.
Whatever Dead of Winter does, other games do it better
I admit that my experience of cooperative games is limited but I still haven't played anything that beats Dead of Winter in its genre. Purely cooperative games like Forbidden Desert are all about beating the mechanisms and are often ruled by the experienced alpha player pointing out the optimal decision at every point. Betrayer games like Battlestar Galactica are far less immersive and the decisions far less interesting. ("Now we need to play red cards but I'll keep some of mine, not because I need them but in case I end up being a cylon in the next phase." Sorry, BSG fans, but even a zombie apocalypse make more sense.)
Dead of Winter is broken since nothing can prevent the betrayer from tanking the game
A game of Dead of Winter is poised on a knife-edge. If the players are not careful, the betrayer won't even have to do anything to push the colony over the edge. But there are plenty of examples of sessions from the community where the betrayer does lose so it's all a matter about learning to master Dead of Winter (and since when does time to master makes a game bad?)
A greater challenge is the eternal question of whether it's fair to tank the game if you can't win (see Boardgamegeek). I don't want to start a similar thread here but in my humble opinion, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. How people react when put in this situation is all part of the psychological experience of Dead of Winter.
So if none of those arguments convince me, why the divorce? I have touched upon the answer throughout this review. Dead of Winter is cooperation, competition, story-telling and psychology at the same time. But with a player group that only focuses on some of those dimensions, Dead of Winter doesn't come to its own. The first game may still be interesting, as you watch your friends' reactions. However, to play a game where the players try to play another game isn't fun in the long run.
In conclusion, if you have a tight gaming group, willing to immerse themselves into a psychological story, Dead of Winter is defintely your game. I don't regret having introduced it to my gaming group but as the cliché goes: it is not your fault but mine. Farewell, Dead of Winter, I will always remember you will be happier with another gaming group.
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