Dead (But Not Sick) of Winter
We’re all sick of zombies, right? I mean, unless you’re one of the hundred million people who keep buying all those zombie-themed games, the ones with the ludicrous quantity of undead minis, and the dice games, and every single thing with a dismembered hand on the cover, the zombie thing feels pretty played out?
I understand. And I agree. Zombies have run their course. Down with the undead. Long live the living.
But you’re going to have to take my word on this one: Dead of Winter from Plaid Hat Games is another game with zombies in it, but even so, it’s pretty much the best game of 2014. So buckle up, keep that shotgun close at hand, don’t trust anyone with a bleeding bandage on their arm — no matter how many times they insist they just snagged it on a broken window — and get ready to see how good a zombie game can be.
“Dead of Winter” Has TWO Meanings
Dead of Winter is pretty upfront with its setting: it’s the middle of winter and you’re in control of a band of survivors, one of many groups that have come together to found a colony. In one game, you might start out with Buddy Davis, fitness trainer, and Carla Thompson, police dispatcher, who have clearly joined forces because of their unspoken sexual attraction for one another. In the next, you might have Loretta Clay, cook, and Forest Plum, a professional mall Santa, an unfortunate pairing if ever there was one. They joined up because they were desperate, and it never got much better. Especially after Forest Plum professed his love. Yikes.
In addition to the seasonal setting, there are also zombies. Milling around, peeking through the barricaded windows, chewing on stuff — y’know, zombie stuff. If it makes you feel better, you can pretend they’re wolves. Wolves that break down barricades and turn people into more wolves. In either case, between the undead (or wolves) and the weather, the colony has grown short on food, ammunition, morale, and sanity.
This is one of those rare “good” zombie games. You know the ones I mean, where the undead are more set dressing and less centerpiece. They’re a metaphor, one supposes, for death, or inevitability, or incompetence. You can outwalk any of those things, at least for a while. But then you start thinking, “Maybe I don’t have to outwalk this zombie if I can trip my buddy instead.” Or you start fighting about who gets to wear the new pair of shoes you scavenged because your feet are raw with blisters. Or about who gets to chow down on the world’s last nutri-grain bar. Soon enough you’re wrestling on the ground for control of a dropped pistol and the zombies are getting closer by the second.
The point is, Dead of Winter is about the people, not the zombies, and nothing makes that clearer than the way you go about surviving life in the colony.
Some People Might Be 100% Bad, But Nobody’s Ever 100% Good
As in many other games before it, there very well could be a traitor in your midst. While most of the groups in the colony mean well, there’s a chance — not a guarantee — that someone might be rotten. Maybe they’re insane, or… well, they’re probably insane, because there are zombie wolves outside and it’s probably a good idea to set aside any personal differences. But nobody ever puts aside their personal differences in zombie fiction, so let’s just say that you might be loyal to the colony or you might be the betrayer.
Everyone else is working to help the colony thrive by scavenging for food and medicine, taking care of injuries, building barricades, killing zombies, taking out the trash so you don’t drown in your own filth (really), and contributing to the crisis that appears each round — maybe your food stores are about to spoil, or perhaps a huge blizzard is coming so you need to stockpile extra fuel. Everyone is pitching in.
Or are they?
See, what sets Dead of Winter apart from every other game that does the “everyone’s allied except for a traitor” thing is that each and every group in the colony is a bit selfish. Sort of like real people, come to think of it. For instance, odds are that you didn’t draw the betrayer card. In fact, you’re probably completely loyal and interested in the well-being and health of everyone around you. Except. Except, like everyone else, you’re a little off. Maybe you’re a junkie, and you really need to both help the colony thrive and ensure you’ve got a nice stockpile of meds in your hand at the end of the game, and people notice that you really suck at finding medicine in an abandoned hospital. Or you’re an obsessive historian and you want to collect books, so you spend time browsing the library instead of looking for medicine to cure your frostbitten compatriots. Or, prior to the zombie apocalypse, you completely misread Les Miserables and you really, really want to bring any traitors to justice, so you’re flinging around accusations left and right.
No matter what, you’ve got one of those objective cards. Even if you’re loyal. Which means that everyone is always acting a little… weird. Everyone is looking out for number one, and eyeing each other because everyone else is acting a bit selfishly too.
And it’s utterly brilliant.
Sure, sometimes it’s very easy to be the traitor. All you have to do is play it straight until the last minute, when suddenly the crisis fails because you secretly poured gasoline into the communal soup tureen and now you’re shooting poor Maria Lopez (prior occupation: schoolteacher) in the face, dropping the colony’s morale down to zero.
Then again, the threat of a powerful traitor puts everyone on their toes. In one of our games, a crisis failed — someone gave junk to those raiders instead of food, and they sacked the colony in response — sparking a witch-hunt for the disloyal. Turns out, we voted off the wrong person, and her group (after drawing a new “exiled” objective) started murdering our people. Why? Because she’d drawn the “vengeance” objective for being falsely accused, and now her win-condition was to make sure we suffered, just like we’d done to her.
The Darkness Proves the Light, or Something Like That
Okay, so you’re constantly watching each other, wondering who’s loyal and who’s a traitor. It’s easy to get caught up in that, wondering why that one guy just made so much noise searching the gas station. Sure, he got to look at more cards, and yeah, you really need gas cans, but don’t they realize that the noise will probably attract too many zombies? Is he the traitor? Or is it the guy who never even leaves the colony? Doesn’t he know we have to keep everyone fed? Sometimes, the paranoia can become oppressive.
But at the same time, Dead of Winter is filled with these absolutely gripping human moments. For instance, whenever you travel between locations or fight a zombie, you roll what’s called the “exposure die.” Most of the time you’ll be fine, but sometimes you’ll get hurt. Worse, you might get frostbite, which keeps hurting you until you either take care of it or die. Even worse than frostbite, however, is getting bitten. This isn’t common, but when it happens, your character instantly dies and the virus spreads to another character at that location.
Now that character has a choice: they can instantly kill themselves or roll the exposure die again. If they kill themselves, the virus stops spreading and everyone else at that location is saved. But if they risk it (“No, I’m not bit! I swear!”), they roll the die and have a 50/50 chance of dying and spreading the disease… or of shrugging it off and living to fight another day.
This, along with all those times that someone will risk the cold to heal your frostbite or hand off their precious handgun just so you can stay alive, creates these perfect moments of self-sacrifice, where the needs of the many become profoundly balanced against the hopes, fears, and goals of the one. Do you risk that bite when you’re at the grocery store and at worst it will only kill one other player? What about when you’re at the colony and you might kill a half-dozen people before the virus stops spreading?
Nothing highlights this human aspect of the game better than the “crossroads” cards. While you’re taking your turn, another player takes one of these and becomes a temporary silent observer of your actions. At the top of the card, in italics, it’ll say something like, “If the player moves a character to the school.” And they’ll watch your turn like a hawk. Most of the time, you won’t trigger the card and it’ll go back onto the bottom of the deck. But now and then you’ll meet the italicized condition and your friend will pause the game and read out this little blurb. Maybe you discover a shortcut across a frozen lake — do you risk crossing it? Or perhaps you find a horse — should you take it under your care and ride like the wind, fearless in the face of the weather… or chop it up and feed it to the colony? Or perhaps you meet a new character, a shifty fellow who wants to take control of your group — will you let him muscle his way in, or buy him off with some food?
Sometimes the choice is up to the player, and sometimes it’s put up for a vote. In either case, these cards are simultaneously so simple that they feel a tad gimmicky, and also the unifying heart of the game, keeping everyone on their toes and constantly dealing with unintended consequences.
Dead of Winter is brilliant. No, it isn’t perfect: it can run a bit long, and there’s a lot of downtime between turns. Especially if you’re playing with a full complement of five players, and since the game is best with five, well… too bad. And while some of the game’s attempts of humor are well-appreciated, others can come across as seriously lame. And yeah, life as a traitor can be pretty cushy sometimes.
Still. Dead of Winter is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and there’s a very good chance it will be my game of the year for 2014. Rather than focusing on its zombies and how awesome rad it is to kill them, it’s a game about all-too-human drama. About trust. About our fears and apprehensions.
Please check it out. This is seriously good stuff.