Where Frostbite Is More Dangerous Than A Horde Of Zombies - Dead of Winter Review

Zombie games have flooded the market, let's be honest. It can almost be said that if you want a guaranteed Kickstarter project, simply make a game about zombies and include miniatures. Hey it worked for Zombicide which is probably my zombie game of choice to date, but I don't actively seek it out as it tends to overstay its welcome.

It's always interesting though to see someone take the reins and give us something different in an otherwise very repetitive genre. Here we have Dead of Winter which might as well be deemed "The Walking Dead: The Board Game" (not the actual official one!) as rather than caring much about the zombies, it's more about the survival and the discontent between the players.

Now I mentioned hype was a dangerous thing in my Five Tribes review and I stand by that view. Dead of Winter probably got the most hype of all the Gen Con games so it had a lot to live up to. When I first played this game I was expecting greatness as a result. However did it live up to the hype or should I have prepared for disappointment?

NB: - I've decided to forgo rules explanations in my written reviews from now on. They shockingly enough take far longer to write than any other part of the review and from feedback received the majority of gamers look up the rules on BGG anyway. I'd therefore rather talk more about my thoughts on the game than spout exposition.

"A very striking cover, though the Crossroads line is maybe a bit un-necessary"

Designer: Jon Gilmour & Isaac Vega
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
# of Players: 2-5
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 100+ minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 92 / 8.30
Dice Tower 2014 People’s Choice Rank: 44
Category: Co-Op with Hidden Agendas & Traitor
Images courtesy of BGG.com
  
A Warm Start To The Morning

Before you get started with the game, you'll notice the biggest positives about it. Dedication was obviously given to the artwork and components in this game. The board and cards give a perfectly rendered representation of a post-apocalyptic world suffering from an outbreak of zombies and a new ice age. The characters look great and you even get standee models of each and every one as well as the zombies. I prefer this to miniatures as looking at a load of unpainted plastic isn't anywhere near as impressive. So all in all, I can't fault the components.

I've touted the fact that variety is something I appreciate in a game and there's no shortage of that in the characters. There's loads of them! Each with their own stats and special abilities that match the type of person they are. There's even a dog you can play. . . . however we'll get on to the logistics of that one later. So you can bet that each game is going to play out differently based on the selection and that's a good plus point right off the bat.

"The setting is done so well by the artwork"

A Milder Afternoon

The co-operative nature of this game is a light one it has to be said. You have to work together to fend off the zombies (or you can just mostly ignore them) and survive the harsh winter conditions, but ultimately each player has their own agenda which if completed will grant them an overall victory. On top of that there is the possibility of a Betrayer (the traitor mechanic from Shadows Over Camelot) who again has their own agenda, but to do so is actively sabotaging the colony's efforts. There's a good variety to be had here, but I found them to be pretty basic, mostly consisting of "Hold X of this" much like the Crisis cards.

The result is that everyone hates everyone from the word "Go". The majority of the agendas usually involve collecting items or followers in such a manner that is inherently suspicious. This is great for the main part of the game as the banter between players is constant much like in Shadows Over Camelot (my game of choice) and BSG. However this is a double edged sword. It also means that there is very little incentive for a player to help out another player when the main game objective has been met so the last couple of turns, IF the colony hasn't died yet which is pretty commonplace, boil down to just staying alive and waiting.

"So hold up, we survived the zombie horde but I don't have 3 tins of baked beans, therefore I lose?"

I quote "IF" in giant letters because actually completing the main objective in this game is difficult and then some. The game is hard enough already with the suspicions and the Die of Death (more on that later), but I firmly believe this game is impossible to win with a Betrayer in the mix who knows what they are doing, I've NEVER seen a co-op victory when they're involved and yes, yes I know others will call me out on that, but from a personal perspective from playing and watching games I've never seen it. My first game I got to be the Betrayer - I literally only tried to mess up ONE Crisis objective and it turned out I didn't even need to bother anyway because they didn't have the resources as a group anyway. That's how hard they are to do, can you imagine how much harder it is when the Betrayer actually actively gets working? It makes the game a good challenge, but maybe a little too difficult at times and when the game isn't a short one that can be a pain. Ghost Stories is a tricky game that you lose constantly, but that has a short setup time and is over and done with pretty quickly - with this game you have to invest a lot more time.

Another little issue that can arise will be familiar to anyone who's ever heard of a game called Terra. It involved everyone having to work together to save the planet but only one person ever won the game, so if you found out you weren't winning, then you're not going to save Earth any more, what do you care? The same applies here. You can win this game as a co-op (without a competent Betrayer), but if you know whether because of character death or bad luck that you haven't met your personal agenda, why are you going to care if the colony lives or not? You have the ability to tank the whole game if you know you're losing overall.

And the Crisis objectives are oddly very generic and repetitive. Given that you have a huge variation of characters and a good number of secret agendas, it seems weird that the Crisis cards are all just "Collect X of Item", you don't even care what the story is on the card when it just amounts to the same requirement. And these are extremely difficult to pass. Resources are scarce in general and actively searching multiple locations usually results in mass player death (see later) so when you have to ignore all of your other reasons for having medicine for example just to spend it all on one Crisis card, you're lucky if you can ever pass them. And then if the deck decides to flip over another one that's exactly the same you're completely screwed. You thought finding 5 Medicine was hard? Try finding 10 in two rounds!

Taking the game length a bit further, this game easily takes 90-120 minutes to finish which is a pretty good length overall however be warned that the downtime in between turns can be pretty extreme with a high player count. I don't think I'll ever play this again with 5 players as a result of sitting around with nothing to do when it's not my turn. The game requires about 20% of your attention when you're not taking your turn as aside from making guesses at who might be a Betrayer, there sadly isn't much else to care about aside from the odd event trigger (more on that later). Therefore with new players or those with a lot of followers to handle, the downtime is a big drag. With less, more experienced players this does get cut to a much more tolerable level so it's a game that rewards repeated play with the same group rather than different people - good for some, not for me.

Getting Colder In The Evening

This is where things get very subjective so don't put me in the freezer please. There are a few niggles with the mechanics and theme in the game that I have issue with and these are shared opinions by many, however for some people they actually don't matter.

Firstly there is the inventory system. When you find items in this game, you can effectively trade them between players no matter where you are on the board. So in essence if I find a gun at a police station I can instantly give it to a survivor at the gas station miles away (well I say miles, but see the "Rifle" later on). This "teleportation" of items was apparently designed to improve the streamlining of the game which it certainly does, but I can't imagine it would be that much more fiddly to simply say that you have to be in the same location to trade a physical item as the laws of time and space would dictate. It would make the game harder yes, but then balance the game out, it's already too hard as it is so tweaking that rule and then making the game a little less punishing would help.

But if you want to really go mad, then there is the dog "Sparky", a usable character that apparently is able to pick up and use any item he finds................what?............cue a face palm worthy of Jean Luc Picard. Now I don't think a game which promotes betrayal, death, zombies and a dead world is really going down the "light and silly" route for theme so I just don't get this character. He's been the subject of many a BGG forum thread and it's a love or hate relationship. I'm on the hate camp and no X-Road card that talks about attaching exo-skeleton crane setups with guns on them is going to be a suitable defence! I will stress however that this is a very minor aspect of the game and you could easily just leave him out of the game with no other alternations needed, I just thought it should be mentioned because many defend the game for being highly thematic, yet seem to ignore glaring oddities like gun wielding dogs, teleporting items and portable radiator horses (yeah I'm getting to that one). It's minor as I said, but many minor issues can just keep grating me in the game.

"Again I'll stress, the artwork is FANTASTIC, but the dog, come on, is that thing using a pistol??"

The zombies themselves also don't seem to do very much. Now I get that the game is about the survivors and I like that the zombies aren't overbearing any more, but they almost seem pushed back too far and in that case why not leave the zombies out of the game entirely and just focus on post-apocalyptic survival? They are reduced in this game to a Euro-style pop-up mechanic where they appear and potentially cause wounds, but mostly just seem to stand there and not do anything. We had 12 zombies appear in one turn from a busted Crisis card by our colony. . . . . and then we never had them do anything from that point. I think focusing on survival against the elements would have worked better thematically or perhaps replace zombies with other human colonists seeking to cause trouble, which technically is what the Betrayer is, but make it even more of a human focus. Currently they seem to be reduced to the level of the zombies at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead, they're pushed so far into the background you don't even notice they are there.

We Won't Survive The Night

Now we're on to the two biggest pet peeves I have with the game.

Earlier on I referenced the Die of Death - that is not an exaggeration. When you do pretty much anything in this game whether it's moving to a location or killing a zombie you have to roll this little red custom die (which inherently is cool) and run the risk of taking either a wound, an infection or becoming frostbitten, which essentially boils down to "wounds over time". This die is just designed to kill people on a regular basis, it's so unforgiving. The amount of wounds caused by actively killing zombies makes the colony look like the most inept bunch of survivors ever and actually makes players not bother trying unless the main objective requires it.

And I'd like to think that Arctic Explorers can survive in the cold for more than 5 minutes without getting frostbitten. Here though, every single location move warrants a roll. Considering you can use the rifle to shoot at ANY other location, they can't be that far away can they? Just simply going to the gas station to pick up some baked beans can result in a character death straight away. That's just not fun for anyone who has bad luck. I saw one player lose both his characters on the first turn (bad infections!) and in this game if you die mid way through, you've basically lost because anyone who has survived longer is going to be closer if not already achieving their personal agenda and you simply won't have time to catch up. The die does a good job of racking up the tension, but I don't want tension to simply be a case of trusting to my luck with dice and if you've ever played a dice game with me, you know just how far my bad luck can go......

Some claim to barely have to use this die, however this is only achieved by following the same tactic every game with regards to fuel usage at the beginning and where you go to search for items first. This gets boring and repetitive quickly and because the search is random, sometimes you get lucky and find all the items that negate exposure rolls, but some of the time you won't get that lucky. . . . . also if a human dies of frostbite within 5 seconds in this game, how the hell does a HORSE ignore exposure die rolls? My girlfriend keeps two horses, I've seen them shiver in English weather, I'm pretty sure an ice age would kill a horse by the time you ever found one randomly in a deserted town. . . . . . .maybe it's a horse that swallowed some nuclear waste and then evolved into a whole new Pokemon breed. . . . . . . hey makes about as much sense as a gun-toting dog!

"If you don't like death by random, then this will be your new nemesis"

The second peeve is the biggest hype the game received - namely the X-Road cards. The concept of these sounds amazing and it was one of the aspects that brought me in. Random events that may or may not trigger on another players turn. . . . . . except you should put some high emphasis on the latter option there. You're lucky if 25% of the cards actually go off because a lot of them have such stringent requirements such as the next player controlling a specific character at a specific location. Every player will be constantly asking the next one who they are controlling which instantly gives away that the card is unlikely to trigger. They should have been more flexible with the triggers so that you have more occasions where you sit in anticipation hoping it will go off, but instead you pick it up, instantly notice it's never going to trigger and just put it down and don't look at it again going back to the "downtime phase".

Also the rules stipulate you have to read out the cards in their entirety - that's including the options AND the consequences. I don't get this at all, and it's the same problem that BSG has with their crisis cards. You know the outcome of your choices in advance so you're like a game show panel debating whether to go for Answer A or Answer B. It means that on nearly all occasions the option that doesn't involve morale decreasing will be chosen (because there is NEVER enough morale) regardless of the story on the card. Threads have commented that you can simply house-rule it so that you only read the story part and the options. I always prefer that rule.

Sometimes you get lucky though and a story does emerge from these cards, but that means the storytelling capability of the game is wholly dependent on luck, which doesn't ring right for me. If I play for example Arkham/Eldritch Horror, I'm drawing a new encounter card all the time and my story unfolds to such an epic scale with all sorts of different events and tests, etc. And in Eldritch you even have the Condition cards telling a story. The immersion is deeper for me there than it is here. In Tales of the Arabian Nights you are always telling a story. In Arkham Horror you are ALWAYS telling a story. Here the story is based on whether the cards LET YOU tell a story, otherwise it boils down to an RPG session without a moderator and I burned out on them a long time ago. It's like reading a book that just automatically shuts itself before you can read the next paragraph because it's bored and denies you access to the rest of the content. I'm all up for imagination, it doesn't have to be spoon-fed, but the story has to tell itself to you, otherwise in the words of Mr Vasel "why even read a book I'll just imagine it?!?"

Verdict

Now with all the good and bad things I can say about the game, ultimately I was a bit disappointed with the overall experience.  However despite several of my rants above, I don't hate the game and it's not bad by any means, don't get me wrong, it's still enjoyable and I could happily sit down and play a small game of it (just not max players again!), but I didn't feel it met the hype that was going for it. The niggling issues with the theme/mechanics are impossible for me to overlook when I'm playing the game whether it's obscure oddities, random event cards, mechanics that don't work right, whatever, so it falls flat for me. Check out the discussions on BGG, this game is very widespread in opinion and I'm just waiting for the floodgates to open on this review.

The game is none the less proving to be a top contender for 2014 for many gamers and I applaud the designers for trying to take a different route with the bloated zombie genre. It certainly is a welcome change and shows plenty of promise out of the box with all the cool artwork and components, but I feel that a few tweaks are required to make it great. For now it sits on my "OK" list - it's not bad, but if I want a Co-Op with a traitor I'd still choose Shadows Over Camelot (BSG is too long for me).

I do however look forward to another game in this system to see if the potential can be exploited fully for me. We have an "OK" first movie, can we improve it in the sequel?


You Will Like This Game If:

  • The traitor mechanic is the reason you enjoy games like Battlestar Galactica
  • You don't want an easy ride, this game beats you down pretty hard sometimes.
  • You're bored with zombie games and are looking for a different take on the genre.

You Will Not Like This Game If:

  • The issues in the rules and theme are going to grate you.
  • You feel that the downtime is too long.
  • You hate the prospect of dying and losing the game just because dice hate you.

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