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Michael Carpenter
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The zombie apocalypse has come and everyone that is still alive must not only fight off hoards of zombies, they must survive a number of other threats, including each other.



QUICK FACTS:
Style of Game: Thematic Co-operative
Play Time: 45 to 120 minutes minutes
Theme: Zombies
Number of Players: 4-8
Main Mechanics: Action Point Allowance, Area Movement, Crossroad Cards and Hand Management
Components: Good
Weight: High end of Medium Weight


THEME AND MECHANISMS:
Dead of Winter is categorized as a thematic game. It would be hard for me to say it isn't thematic. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Everything in this game ties together to make a very thematic feel. No one aspect of Dead of Winter makes the theme for me, but when you combine the size of the game and the way it makes the game feel with the mechanisms that create a tense feel, the environment that ensues is thematic and engaging.


GAMEPLAY OVERVIEW:
The specific setup of Dead of Winter relies on which main objective the players choose. Players will be working together to complete this main objective but each player will also be working on a secret objective. In some cases a player may have a counter-productive secret objective that makes him or her a betrayer of the group. Once all players have received the standard starting resources (standees, cards, and dice) the play will begin with the starting player, or the player with the most influential character card.

Each round of the game is made up of two phases, the Player Turns Phase and the Colony Phase. During the Player Turns phase players will be rolling their action dice simultaneously to determine what actions they will be able to perform on their individual turn. The number rolled on each die must match the required amount to perform different actions based on each character's requirements. Next, one by one, players will use all of their action dice to complete actions such as killing zombies, searching in locations outside the main colony, or building barricades to help protect survivors. There are also several actions available that do not require an action die. These actions include moving from location to location, sharing item cards, and helping to resolve crises that occur throughout the game, but there are several other actions. Some tasks in the game will require players to roll the Exposure die to see if they have been wounded or bitten by a zombie. If a character receives three wounds or one bite they will die. There are ways to heal yourself or others if wounded but bites will kill you immediately and may even spread from character to character. Once all players have had an opportunity to finish their turn, the Colony Phase will begin.

During the Colony Phase players will further the progression of the game's attempt to defeat the players. This is done by following 7 steps. Most of which are to complete the requirements that the game forces the players to complete to not suffer consequences. Some of these requirements include feeding survivors, making sure the colony isn't too dirty, and adding zombies. Players will also check to see if they have completed the main objective of the game. If the players have not completed the main objective they should move the round tracker and pass the first player token counter-clockwise. If the players have completed the main objectives players should reveal whether or not they have completed their own secret objectives as well. All players that have completed their secret objectives are considered winners. Any players that have not completed their secret objective does not win. If at any point players complete the final round of the game but not the main objective OR the morale track reaches 0 all loyal players lose.



ASSESSMENT


My assessment of board games is broken into three core areas: Depth of Strategy, Quality of Design, and Replayability.

Depth of Strategy


Dead of Winter offers as much of the puzzle feel that cooperative games offer as any cooperative I have played. Although, I haven't played a ton of cooperatives. There are two major facets of decision-making occurring. Players must work together to complete the main objective but they must also complete their own secret objective so each player must determine how best to balance these requirements. Players must make decisions that benefit the group, or at least appear as though they are doing so, or they will risk being considered the betrayer. However, at the same time many of the choices you must make to benefit yourself hurt the progression of the game. This is the case in any cooperative game with a traitor element, but in most of the games the decisions are almost always done in secret so it is harder to pick up on the traitor's intentions. In this game though, it is almost the opposite. It is as though all of the players but the betrayer look suspicious because whether they are the betrayer or not, they must do things that help to complete their own objectives and these decisions are in your face and blatantly obvious to the other players.

"We need to search at the Gas Station!"
"Why aren't you searching at the Gas Station?!"

"Uh..."

Now, good players are going to be able to balance these intentions better than this and being able to do so is part of the strategic fun this game can offer.

While this not so secret struggle for individual success is occurring the game is progressing ever so steadily, not caring whether the players are cooperating with one another or not. Therefore, every round the players prioritize their own well-being over the group makes the game that much less likely to be won. There comes a point in almost every game of Dead of Winter I play where everyone stops the accusations (temporarily) and agrees that we have to determine how to solve the portion of the puzzle that remains. This is where the real struggle begins at times because there are times when there is no way to complete both the main objective and your own secret objective so each player has to make a decision that impacts the entire outcome of the game. Do I help the other complete the main objective or not?

As for the puzzle itself. It often feels easy to solve, hard to complete. I don't mind that though because it essentially allows you to organize your strategy for completion, and then a few elements of the game begin to derail the strategy, some caused by the mechanisms and some caused by the player's intentions.



Depth of Strategy:
4.0 = There are several potential strategies available but some are clearly better than others and you must figure them out to win.




Replayability


There is definitely replayability in Dead of Winter. The variable setup (including the secret objectives), the different characters and character abilities, and different main objectives allow for a different game each time you play. I don't see many elements in the design of this game that would hurt the replayability because the mechanisms aren't that difficult to grasp and the game offers opportunities to play short, medium, and long games, as well as, easy or hard scenarios. There are only two negatives I would think are worth mentioning about replayability here but there are pretty significant in my opinion. One is the same thing all cooperative games suffer from and that is the simple fact that they are cooperative and some groups just simply do not like cooperatives games as much as competitive for various reasons and two, is that Dead of Winter has the zombie theme. This is/was a very popular theme but it seems to be becoming a polarizing or shunned theme. If you are considering purchasing this game now, as opposed to when it came out in the hay day of zombie games, I would caution you that the theme may not be as widely accepted anymore.


Replayability:
3.0 = Short-term replayability will be high, but may fade with time.




Quality of Design


Hand Management: This is a fantastic implementation of hand management because every card ends up influencing the game whether played or not. Sometimes you can sit on a card for a long time to make it seem as though you do not have the necessary card to help the group and then play it much later in the game after having an opportunity to search locations and claim that you found the card the group or other player needed. There is also a mechanism that allows players to contribute cards face-down to a crisis resolution that makes for constant anxiety because if there is a card that does not help resolve the crisis the group can really suffer AND assume there is a betrayer. This mechanism is really enjoyable and I think it gets overlooked because of the constant tension that is felt from all the mechanisms and theme in the game.


Action Point Allowance: This is the mechanism that seems to get the most focus because the whole game is driven by what actions you can take. The feel of the action point allowance is very tense and exciting the first few times you play but it becomes pretty similar every time you play after that. You roll your dice, you often times struggle to get what you need, or you get exactly what you need. That's dice rolling. I am fine with that. It is actually the other aspect of this system that seems to bring about some resentment. Players start with one die no matter what, and then one die for each character they have control of. Therefore, each player starts with 3 dice (one automatically, plus 2 for 2 characters at the beginning of the game). Unfortunately, as characters die or are gained, the player loses or gains a die for each dead or new character and can be eliminated if all of their characters die. There are ways to mitigate the chances of being eliminated but just simply having less actions than other players gets frustrating and one bad roll of the Exposure die can kill one of your characters, not necessarily a bad decisions. This is thematic to me, bad luck occurs in a zombie apocalypse, but it can frustrate people.


Area Movement: Area movement is surprisingly influential in this game because while the movement itself is free, in terms of cost, it is not only risky to move, it changes the entire progression of the game. Moving characters will typically cost a roll of the exposure die (which is always a threat to crush the group), it will change how many zombies are attracted to the location during each Colony Phase, and it will alter the food requirement at the colony. There is much more to moving your character than just simply running all over the board. In fact, moving is typically a MAJOR aspect of devising a winning strategy during the moments you are trying to solve the game towards the end.


Crossroad Cards The Crossroad Cards are an innovative addition to this game. As the active player progressing through his or her turn, the player to the right will be reading a card silently that has an action or situation on it. If the active player performs the action or the situation occurs the player triggers the Crossroad Card. This will temporarily stop the game and require the active player or the group to make a decision based on the flavor text and the options given on the card. I like this system but wish the cards would trigger just slightly more often.


Quality of Design:
4 = A good design that engages the player for several plays.


FINAL THOUGHTS:
Dead of Winter came on the scene with a bang. In my opinion, I think it lived up to the hype. The game is well designed, it uses zombies as a backdrop to a much more important social interaction feel, and the mechanisms blend well with each other and the theme. There is a bit of down time between turns but typically you will be involved in the decision-making process or at least engaged by the decisions the active player is making because you need to try to unravel his or her intentions.

The biggest win in my book about this game is the necessity to balance the main objective with your own objective. I love having to make sacrifices and hide my intentions which easily makes this my favorite aspect of the game.

Some people seem to have a problem with how the end of the game plays out. Since some people lose, despite accomplishing the main objective, it is easy for a player to try to sabotage the entire group whether he or she is a betrayer or not. That to me is thematic more than anything. People harp for "theme" in games, and then when something thematic annoys them they say the mechanism hurts the gameplay. I'm not all about simulating things to a T in board games but if I am playing a game that has a theme that obviously conveys anguish and difficult scenarios to deal with, then I am okay with having some mechanisms that are going to try to crush me. In Dead of Winter, I fully expect other players to feel as though they are stuck between a rock and a hard place and when that happens people snap. If that happens in the game and I become a target or the group has to stop a certain player, I am okay with trying to deal with it (assuming it does not escalate the actual hostility at the table).

One of the big things in this game was the Crossroads Cards. There was a lot of hype about this new system that would make the game innovative or more exciting than the typical cooperative because now every decision could alter the game. I guess that it true, but this was actually a disappointment for me. I think it is more of the fact that the hype made me think that they would be much more of a factor than they are though because the mechanism works and is enjoyable to have in the game.

All in all, Dead of Winter offers an experience that will have you engaged and thinking at all times. You have to balance several weights pulling on your intentions and you have to be almost as good at social interaction as anything else. I don't like a ton of cooperative games but there are about three or four that I will still play regularly and Dead of Winter is one of them. The only thing that keeps me from liking it more is that I don't always like the actual tension that is created between players in my group so I have to be ready to deal with the type of interaction it seems to create.

If you like cooperatives I would try this game. If you like cooperatives and zombies, this is a must-buy in my opinion!


Overall Rating -
One of my favorite cooperative games.



If you enjoy my reviews please recommend and check out my geeklist For the Meeple, by the Meeple

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