There are 30 survivors you can command in Plaid Hat Games
’ runaway 2014 hit, Dead of Winter
, each with special abilities and motivations that help determine the fate of a colony of humans during a zombie-besieged winter. Don’t get attached to them — death will be your steady companion.
Pop culture had sufficiently hit peak-zombie by the time of this game’s release — the saturation was evident in the board gaming arena, too, with titles like Zombies!!!*, Zombie Dice**, City of Horror** and Zombicide*** (see footnotes) springing up in recent years.
Dead of Winter's designers had to be aware of this, so they created a unique stew of mechanics drawing on tried-and-true game design models — much the way musicians in our century must be ever more clever cross-pollinators of previous genres to create a new sound. (If you were a kid in the ‘80s, you saw the birth of the last wholly new genre in American music — hip hop. Think about it.)
Their bid for novelty was to make Dead of Winter a cooperative game: The general idea is to work together to conquer one of the game’s many mission scenarios before the colony collapses. Then, to make it a more competitive game, each character draws a card with a secret objective on it. Usually that objective requires that the colony must survive to win, but for you to score an individual win on top, you must do something extremely selfish — like hoarding medicine or building a large, cult-like following within the colony. And just for fun, one of the players might be an out-and-out traitor who wins if the colony fails.
To this framework, the game adds a ton of pressure. You have the general objectives, every player’s secret objective, plus…
• A new crisis every round that requires players to team up and amass stores of particular items. Fail to meet the crisis requirements and your colony's morale will dip toward overall mission failure and colony collapse.
• You have to feed each character in the colony every round. Not enough food? Morale drops.
• Used items make piles of trash. Take it out or morale drops.
• Headed to one of the town’s six locations to rummage for crucial items? Roll a die. Fight a zombie? Roll a die. Did you roll a tooth symbol? That character’s dead. And morale drops. (You can also get frostbite and die slower, if that’s any consolation.)
• More zombies show up at your colony and at the town’s outer locations each turn. They never stop coming. If you don't properly thin the herd, they will overwhelm your barricades and chow down on whoever's unlucky enough to be around.
If this doesn’t sound like too much fun altogether, there is also a deck of "Crossroads Cards" — these can be triggered during each player’s turn and force you to make delicious choices like extending your resources versus letting hapless survivors starve. Or eating stray ponies. (Don’t be too hard on yourself when you find yourself making cruel, utilitarian decisions. It’s just the logic of the game. Tell yourself whatever you need to get to sleep at night.)
With all these walls closing in, players scramble to collect items, fight off zombies, search dangerous locations and build barricades to buy more time. You’ll have to work together to figure out which characters are best suited for the challenge at hand — while possibly working against each other at the same time. (There’s also the option to vote another character out of the colony if you feel he or she isn’t on the level. This happened to me once when I got caught throwing worthless items into an important crisis pile in an effort to sabotage the group. I got voted out of the colony, but got to draw a new secret objective that kept the game relevant as I fended for myself on the outside.)
There are several scenarios you can play, each of which has a different game length and difficulty. Throw in the variety of rotating characters, crises and unknown motivations, and the result is an inexhaustible carousel of tough choices, bad breaks and skin-of-the-teeth escapes.
Dead of Winter is tense and tough as hell — as a good co-op game should be — and uses board games as a medium to give the played-out zombie franchise some wicked extra legs.
* In the 21st Century, hobby board game design is generally refined enough to where almost any new title will at least be playable. Not this game. It’s terrible. Don’t play it for any reason.
** Rumored to be fun as hell.
***Definitely fun as hell.
Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.