Dead of Winter is a 2-5 player co-operative game with a twist. Set during a bitter winter in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, it tasks players with banding together to meet a variety of objectives. Objectives include things like killing a certain number of zombies, building a number of barricades, or hoarding a certain number of resources. However, each player also has a ‘secret’ objective, and that player only wins the game if they achieve their secret objective, as well as the group objective. Secret objectives aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but normally they require some kind of selfish behaviour that makes the game harder for everyone else. Moreover, each game has about a 40-50% chance that a player will have a ‘betrayal’ secret objective, which is something explicitly designed to sabotage the group objective. If other players get too suspicious, they can vote to exile a player from the game, but if they exile two players who weren’t traitors, the game ends immediately.
The secret objective/betrayal mechanic is what gives Dead of Winter its unique appeal, and it is a very interesting concept. It gives the game a kind of ‘meta’ dimension, as the player dynamics go beyond the actual moves you make in the game and can manipulate the way players interpret rules or behave towards each other during the game. It’s an unusually deep and sophisticated system, and the first time you realize how a player’s behaviour was influenced by their secret objective is likely to be something of a mark-out moment.
Each player manages a small team of survivor characters, and it is possible to recruit additional survivors during the game. However, you have to balance the increased capacity you get from having more people against the drain on resources. This is a theme throughout the game: doing anything, even moving, involves risk, and playing the game is a constant trade-off between risk and reward. This tension is an important dynamic and you’re made to wonder whether a player’s potentially reckless behaviour is just down to their personality, due to a secret objective, or part of a conscious plan to sabotage the group’s efforts.
Dead of Winter’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t work well with just two players. There are no secret objectives in a two-player game, meaning a major part of the game’s dynamic appeal is lost. The game is still playable, usually using stripped-down objectives and with more characters per player, but it’s really not that much fun. Ideally you want four or five players to enjoy the game properly. This is a bit limiting, as many co-operative games (like Eldritch Horror) work serviceably with any number of players between two and eight. Considering Dead of Winter’s price tag of £40-50, you want to make sure you have enough interested players to make it worth your time and money. With only two players it’s a much worse game and in my view not worth playing over other options.
The game is well-produced, with substantial character cut-outs and cards that are robust and satisfying to handle. The art style is distinctive; not necessarily the most attractive style you’ll ever see, but appropriate enough to the tone of the game and vaguely reminiscent of something like The Walking Dead. The game is generally well-written, with a large pool of objectives, which come with their own introductions and conclusions, as well as a number of text-heavy Crossroads, or scenario, cards that can be triggered during each player’s turn. Players often have to make a choice during their turn; sometimes this is fun, but occasionally it boils down to ‘do this one massively complicated thing that takes a paragraph to describe and consists of multiple stages, or do nothing’. Considering how long these games often take, I know which option I’ll always go for.
While not as long-winded as something like Arkham Horror, Dead of Winter still generally takes 2-3 hours, and the set-up process is fairly lengthy. Again, if you’re only playing with two players, this is another factor that might encourage you to pick something else instead. But with the right group, a game of Dead of Winter is a unique, thrilling, and potentially disturbing experience.