On one level, Dead of Winter by Plaid Hat Games is just a worker-placement, roll-to-survive-against-zombies apocalypse game. On a second level it is a game-as-commentary on the morality of the human species under stress, or perhaps a meditation on the proclivities of... blah blah blah blah blah!
What it actually is, is a bloody good romp in a snowy wilderness, where violence is a necessary evil, resources are in short supply, and where maybe, just maybe, the people you thought were your pals really aren't your pals at all.
I'm Forest Plum! And this is DEAD OF WINTER!!
Dead of Winter Components
As far as games go the Dead of Winter board isn't a table-eater like, say, Arkham Horror and its many expansions. But, once you standee all 30 characters and 30 zombies in the box, your table starts to look like a queue for the ladies loo during the intermission of a play! Luckily, the game uses its real estate effectively, remaining quite compact considering the extended cast of characters, cards, and tokens it has.
The board immediately evokes the setting of the game: blues and greys depicting an icy, unwelcoming place called THE COLONY; weird bio hazard symbols; spatters of blood. You surround this with six Location sheets, oddly, printed on thinner card-stock than the board, representing places outside the relative safety of the colony: School, Library, Hospital, Gas Station, Grocery Store, Police Station. All are equally bleak and foreboding.
Cards, Characters and Zombies
There are many, many cards. Cards for Survivors, Useful Items, Starting Items, Location Items, Objectives, Secret Objectives, Betrayal, Exile, Crisis, Crossroads. With a palette of vividly-muted colours, the card-stock is decent and the art is great.
The character art is also great throughout Dead of Winter. You can steer the fate of Mike Cho - the Ninja, Olivia Brown - the Doctor and Brandon Kane - the Janitor. All the character tropes are here. You can even take control of Sparky - the Stunt Dog! Yes, that's right - in a bleak, post-apocalyptic, dead-infested world canines hate zombies too! As the zombie figures start to mass at various locations around the board it all definitely begins to feel very oppressive, with a real sense of impending doom.
Finally there are a tokens for Food, Wounds, Starvation, Frostbite, Noise, Barricades; 30 Action dice to channel the fate of your Survivors; and a 12-sided Fate Di... that killed Mike Cho - The Ninja... on the first roll in the first round of my first ever game! My partner consoled me and said it wasn't the end of the world...
Lay out the Colony board and six locations. Separate and shuffle the many decks of cards, laying them in the appropriate spaces. Select a scenario, randomly or by design. The scenario cards offer a short, medium or long game, which is a nice touch. Set the round and morale markers, and place zombies according to the scenario.
You have your own player-board detailing the round summary and player actions which is very helpful. It also serves to hold your own personal pool of dice. You receive four random Survivors, pick two, and return the others to the deck. Put your character standees at the Colony, and take one die per character plus another one. The player whose character has the highest influence-value on their character card takes the first-player knife token.
Shuffle the Crossroads cards, set them within easy reach of everyone and you're good to go.
A round in Dead of Winter plays out in two parts:
The Player Phase
Firstly, two things happen - a Crisis Card is revealed. During the round players will need to contribute resources (fuel, food and weapons) to the crisis-pool to prevent it from happening. Then the player to the right of the active player draws a Crossroads card and reads the intro text silently, without sharing the information. This card only triggers if certain conditions are met during the turn. When it does trigger the rest of the card is read and the group must resolve some sort of moral dilemma. If the conditions of the card don't arise then nothing happens and the card is discarded at the end of the round.
Each player rolls their dice, and these are used to take actions with their character. You can attack zombies, build barricades and search for useful items. Each of these actions has a dice-cost. Other actions, such as playing cards into the crisis, contributing food to the larder to keep morale up, moving between locations, or sharing items with other players have no cost.
Unfortunately, although moving has no cost, there may be a terrible price to pay. A character can move from one location to another once per turn, but when they do, unless they have a special ability which avoids it, they must roll the aptly-named EXPOSURE DIE. This checks for possible effects from zombies. And it is pretty likely that you will suffer either a Wound, Frostbite (which adds a wound every following turn, unless you can discard it, until you have three wounds... and your character dies). Or, like Mike Cho - Ninja, you get bitten and just DIE... on the first roll of your first turn!!
The Colony Phase
You need to discard enough food to feed Survivors at the Colony...or bad things happen. You need to check the resources contributed to the crisis...or bad things happen. You need to control the cards in the waste-pile...or bad things happen. Then you add more zombies, based on survivors at the Colony and outside locations. The round-marker drops by one, a new crisis is revealed, a new Crossroads card drawn, first player token moves and it all begins again.
Each character has stats for combat and searching. Spend the dice in your pool to carry out either of these actions. Killing a zombie is easy - assign a die to the task. That's it. BUT...this almost always results in the dreaded roll of the exposure die. Similarly, searching at a location requires you to spend die. But if you don't find what you want you can Make Noise to search again at no dice-cost. This however runs the risk of attracting more zombies during the Colony phase.
Characters can equip themselves with weapons and tools or swap items with each other if they share the same location. Each character has a skill or ability which helps them succeed at certain tasks, and these can be invaluable.
If, in the unfortunate but likely event both of your characters suffer horrible deaths, you're not out of the game. You lose any benefits they had, then simply draw a new character from the stack and start them off at the Colony.
Levels of Difficulty
Scenario cards are double-sided: Normal difficulty on one side, increased difficulty on the other. This increased difficulty usually involves adding more zombies to the Colony or Locations at the start of the game, along with more rounds to survive and less morale to lose. The game is difficult enough on the easier side, but if you like car-crash TV, Play Hard! But it is rewarding.
The artwork is immersive, and you invest in your characters. Even Forest Plum - Mall Santa, despite his total lack of any discernible skills. You have the option to give up on him, remove him from the game, and raise the morale of the group by one point immediately. But you don't want to! Because he looks like someone's kindly drunk granddad.
In its simplest form everyone wins the game by completing the main scenario objective before the round or morale markers hit zero. Adding the Secret Objective card ramps up the complexity and uncertainty. These objectives must be accomplished by individual players, on top of the collective goal of completing the main scenario objective. This can be a very difficult balancing act.
Secret objectives might require a player to end the game with three fuel and three food cards in their hand for example, and this is probably going to be at odds with helping to stave off each round's crisis, or the need to feed the Survivors at the Colony. It means that completing the main objective makes you a winner, but if someone also completes their secret objective then they are a winninger-winner than you, turning you into a loser.
THEN, to ramp it up even more, you can add Betrayal Secret Objective cards. These give at least one player goals which will certainly hurt the group, but help them win the game. With this variant comes the opportunity for heated group discussions and votes to Exile a player.
Any exiled player moves all of their survivors to locations outside of the colony and draws a new Exiled Secret Objective card. From that moment they cannot contribute cards to a crisis or food to the supply... and just imagine if you have exiled the wrong person! You're in a horrible situation because exiling a second person immediately drops the group's morale to zero...and you lose the game!
Final Thoughts on Dead of Winter
Survival really is the watchword in Dead of Winter. The game relentlessly pursues your mind, body and soul. Every round is a fevered quest for the supplies you need to satisfy the current crisis. You want to stay in the cosy safety of the Colony but there's no food there, no gas, no medicine. So you have to venture out, tortured by the ghost of Mike Cho - the Ninja, knowing that the Undead are waiting for you. Because you can see them! Loads of them, stacking up in front of the grocery store and the hospital. But you need that food. You need those pills. And sometimes all you have to defend yourself is a walkie-talkie...and one snow-shoe!
I have read and heard criticisms that Dead of Winter is the same old same old every round. With the inclusion of Secret Objectives and Betrayers, this isn't the case. Everything quickly falls apart. paranoia sets in, and you watch every little twitch and frown on player's faces. Is someone adding something nasty to the Crisis pile? Why do they seem to be holding so many cards so close to their chest.
Dead of Winter is lot of fun, very thematic, and high on the table-talk scale. If I can give you one piece of advice before the zombie apocalypse, it's this: Be kind to Forest Plum, and tell Mike Cho - the Ninja to be a bit more careful out there!