Dead of Winter is a thematic zombie survival horror game about a colony of survivors trying to outlive the cold harsh winter while ravenous zombies are beating up against their barricades. Like in any good zombie genre fiction, the real monsters aren’t the walking dead outside, but your friends. You all have to be a bit of bastard to survive, but one of you might be want to see the colony fail and is actively working against it.
Mechanically that means you have a common objective (find a cure, survive, etc.) and a private objective that you need to achieve. My private objective was ‘Going home’ and required me to get two jerrycans, a can of food, and a weapon. I had to reach both conditions in order to win the game.
The traitor is working against the common objective, but also has a private objective he or she needs to achieve, which means it’s often better for them to remain dormant for quite some time. Just another hardworking member of the community. The silent type, keeps to himself. Nothing to see here, move along!
Turn based slog
Play rounds start with a crisis card that will stick around for a full round and needs to be dealt with by the end of it. To do this players offer up scarce item cards from their hands. A round sees everyone rolling dice, the outcome of which will limit your available actions (searching and finding item cards, fighting zombies) for this round. Then everyone does their actions one by one in what can be quite a lengthy process.
Much like in Arkham Horror or others of its ilk, this is where the game turns from an epic story into a miserable sprawl as you wait for your turn to be cool. Technically, the threat of a hidden traitor should make other players’ turns more interesting: why did they choose to go to the hospital? Why did they risk infecting people? But in practice you just find yourself faffing about while other people agonise over fuel and frostbite.
A neat flourish is the crossroads card that is drawn during each person’s turn. It’s an encounter card like you would have in Arkham Horror, except each crossroads card has its own condition that may or may not trigger on your turn. One might trigger if a certain character is in play, or if you have a character in the colony, or if you go to the hospital.
If it does, you get treated to a story bit that usually ends with a choice of both moral and mechanic consequences. In our game, we had the choice of taking in a survivor called Fat Earl who would eat all of our food OR we could give him a different reception and *gain* five food. Ah, tasty, tasty Earl. These story nuggets are all very well written pieces of genre fiction and terribly good at hitting the right tone. They add on to the different and very varied characters perfectly. My trucker character actually died during a crossroads card because he was having a heart attack and no one wanted to take the risk of carrying to the hospital.
Wot I think
The kind of thematic narrative game my roleplay friends go bonkers over, and that Jan and me only like in well-measured doses. It can be fun if you get into ‘cooperative puzzle overmind’ mode where you focus completely on all the ticking gears in the puzzle. But otherwise you are just looking at a long night of eating pretzels and waiting around.
Add to this that hidden traitor is my second least favorite mechanic. Though, in this game it seems to be handled a lot better. It’s fine to cooperate nicely and then suddenly turn on people at the very last moment. And when you do get found out, you don’t have to uselessly hang on in play but you get a different objective. Which might be to kill the other colonists, or to do a 180 and go back to helping them! Leaving everyone guessing as to what you’re doing. That doesn’t sound so bad. Still, to me it doesn’t add much either.
So, all in all, there’s some nice improvements to the thematic coop genre. But the narrative swooshes don’t compensate for the slow pacing, and the hidden traitor mechanic doesn’t add much to sway the balance. I haven’t played either enough yet to be sure, but I think I prefer City of Horror: fast, genre savvy, and everyone is a traitor.