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Dead of Winter – With Due Consideration

Dead of Winter - GamesQuestFor those who are regular readers here on the GamesQuest blog, you might remember that previously I wrote a preview post about Dead of Winter, the latest big title out of Plaid Hat Games. In that post I explained why I was looking forward to getting the game and what I thought made the game stand out.

As a follow-on to that preview, I’d normally write about the components and how the game plays. However, last week I released my first ever component video and chose Dead of Winter as my starting point for a series of similar videos.

With the components already covered, and with the various scenarios played, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to my thoughts and feelings about how Dead of Winter lives up to my original expectations.

On with the show… Does Dead of Winter live up to the hype???

If you decided to watch my component video, and made it all the way through to the end, then you’ll know that my closing comments summed the game up as a quick to play, shorter, possibly lighter version of Battlestar Galactica that’s fun and something I think people are going to like.

I stand by what I said in the video. It certainly plays fast and I do think people are going to like it. However, after multiple plays I’m starting to notice annoying flaws in the gameplay and thematic flow.

At first I thought we were playing it wrong or missing something in the rules, but we weren’t! The more we played, the more these things started to spoil my enjoyment… So, let’s take a look at exactly what it is that bothers me about Dead of Winter.

First things first… Dead of Winter a Crossroads Game???

Firstly, I’m a sucker for a good old fashioned immersive storyline, and for all intents and purposes the Dead of Winter crossroads cards should help spin that engrossing tale! Board Game Crossroad Dead of Winter GamesQuest

Unfortunately, out of the box, the crossroads elements don’t work as well as I’d hoped. The idea behind them is that they add twists and turns to the game, providing players with interesting choices. However, if you play the game strictly to the rules then whenever the card triggers it gets read out in its entirety. Options… consequences… the whole lot…

In some instances this isn’t such a bad thing, but from time to time a card comes up that you just shouldn’t read the whole thing for. A good example of this might be a conversation that starts and, depending on how you respond to it, the outcome moves in different directions. With this type of card, if you read out the whole thing, then you might as well have just discarded the card because you’re probably going to choose the option that gives no negative effects!

After a couple of crossroad cards we house-ruled it so that the person reading the card works out the most thematic approach to revealing the crossroad effect and does that. In general it worked to fix the issue but brought up further problems when it came to a crossroads card that called for a vote. The person reading the card obviously had insider knowledge so everyone could wait for them to cast their vote. This would skew the game somewhat so we were left with going back to reading the whole card or excluding the reader from the vote.

Board Game Dead of -Winter Zombie - GamesQuestIt seems there was a thematic balance to the game that I really wanted to work, but it’s continuously interrupted by oddities and peculiarities. Players can work out the way a certain card should be read to make the game more realistic, but currently the use of the crossroads cards seems very disjointed. A factor only worsened by cards that relate to a specific character…

Inevitably there’s a moment just after a character specific crossroads card is drawn when the reader glances at your characters, or worse still asks “Which characters do you have?” At that point you know what type of card it is and if it doesn’t trigger you’re free to wander around with next to no chance that you’ll trigger it throughout the rest of your turn. Again, you can house-rule it so that before a crossroads card is drawn the current player tells the reader what characters they have but that’s just adding more clumsy house-rules to an already flaky system. To make things worse, the chances of a character-specific card actually triggering are pretty slim when you consider the number of characters in the game.

So, as you can probably tell, the core game mechanic does a lot towards making things interesting, but has enough flaws that it feels clumsy and under-developed. Something that, unfortunately, I found hampers the gameplay too much for my liking.

And another thing… Is it my turn yet???

Board Game Dead of Winter First Player - GamesQuestThe second thing that really bothers me about Dead of Winter is the down-time experienced by the players who aren’t active or reading the crossroads card. Occasionally there’s a vote which involves everyone, but for the most part you have nothing to do until you get to your action phase and you get to do all your actions while everyone sits around watching or waiting.

There’s people who’ve criticised Battlestar Galactica for its downtime, but at least Battlestar involves all the players at the end of every players action phase and the active player only has one, maybe two, actions to do. In Dead of Winter however, you get an action die per character you have in your group. plus the additional die, so there could be some serious down-time if a player suffers from any level of analysis paralysis.

You need my help… Why should I care???

Board Game Dead of Winter Secret Objective - GamesQuestMy third and final major issue with the game is the “semi-co-operative” element. Again this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you’re never sure who to trust – are they spam-searching the Police Station because they need specific items for their personal objective, or are they arming their group in preparation for killing the rest of us?

It’s great to have that element of suspicion but, as I’ve witnessed first-hand, this approach also means that even if you’ve contributed a tonne of cards to completing the main objective – no one cares! They don’t want to help you meet your personal objective, just in case you’re the traitor…

Being a winner in Dead of Winter boils down to your personal objectives. Imagine that you need to meet a specific condition to be a winner – the main objective has been met and you know this is the last round before the game comes to an end. Now, imagine there’s nothing you can do to meet the condition but other player could help you do it. What do you do? Ask them to help you! But that’s where the problems lie! There’s absolutely no reason for any of the other players to help you achieve your personal objective. So long as they have met their objective why should they care?

Of course you could add your own house rules to ensure that players give a damn about each other, but by this stage the game is becoming so heavily house-ruled I just don’t want to see it on the table anymore.

A few final things… What the moose were you thinking!!!

Exposure Dice Dead of Winter - GamesQuestOn top of what I consider to be some fairly major flaws, there’s some rather odd theme choices that hurt my head a little.

  • Characters collect items for their group, the guy in the Police station can search for items and the girl over in the Library can equip them because it’s a shared pool.
  • It feels very much like a high level of difficulty is masquerading as replayability.  Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we want to play it more.
  • The exposure die lives up to its name… Characters just randomly die… For example on the first turn a player moved a character, rolled the die and dropped dead. They moved their second character, rolled the die and dropped dead… That’s just not fun for that person, especially in the first round of a game…

Despite the problems… Dead of Winter ain’t all bad!

Zombies Dead of Winter Board Game - GamesQuestSo after reading through all the issues I have with the game, you might think that I hate Dead of Winter. However, you’d be wrong. The game has many excellent features and qualities that I really like:

  • Great components – I’m not a fan of cardboard standees but Plaid Hat Games have done a great job with all of the components including the standees!!!
  • Thematic zombies that aren’t too overbearing – The zombies are always there, keeping you in check, but they’re not the focus. Zombies get a bad press, especially when there’s a new zombie game coming out on a near weekly basis. The approach to the theme used in Dead of Winter is refreshing change from the usual offerings.
  • A shed load of characters – There’s a lot of characters, each with their own valuable skills. If that wasn’t enough, their artwork is fantastic!
  • Interesting choices when crossroad cards are read sensibly – With a slew of house-rules the crossroads cards can make the game more interesting. If you really want to, you could go on the Plaid Hat Games site and check out their crossroads card generator. This’ll let you create your own cards for use in the game. You might even want to fix some of the existing cards to make it more obvious what to do with them using your house-rules.
  • Unique approach to semi-co-operative gameplay – The suspicion is strong in this one! Yes people don’t care, but there’s no denying that the suspicion adds a lot to the feel of the game.

The end is nigh… A final thought!!!

All in all, Dead of Winter isn’t a terrible game and there’s definitely plenty of potential enjoyment to be had!

Unfortunately the issues that I have with game are too large for me to overlook. As a result, I simply wouldn’t choose to bring it down off the shelf very often. If I want to play a game with suspicion and co-operative play then I’d always go for games like Nosferatu, The Resistance or the meatier Battlestar Galactica over Dead of Winter.

So, if you’ve played Dead of Winter and have an opinion, whether you agree or disagree with me, then leave me a comment below and let me know your own experiences with the game!

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Tom Randell

Driven Instructional Designer by day, board game fanatic by night! Tom has a long background in eLearning design and is a strong believer that story and narrative are crucial to creating excellent learning and gaming experiences. A passionate blogger, game reviewer and play tester, he enjoys spending his time playing games of all genres.