Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Dead of Winter review

Stuart has been a busy chap, attempting to keep his own little corner of the world from falling apart following the recent zombie apocalypse. You missed out on that? Oh.

Dead of Winter

I’ve owned Dead of Winter for ages, and have now played it close to a dozen times with two, three, four and five players. I’ve sat in front of this keyboard several times and tried to summarise these thoughts into a coherent and entertaining form, and it’s really difficult. Why has this been a challenge? Is it because I am a mediocre writer? Almost certainly, but also DoW is full of contradictions and problems that should hold it back…

(Heads up – there are no rules descriptions or gameplay examples here. Go watch a video if you want that – this is analysis.)

Firstly, I’ll focus on the bad.

Any way you cut it, the ‘survive the zombie apocalypse’ theme is a tired one. This is not entirely Plaid Hat Games’ fault, but I can’t help but wish that had the ever growing threat had been criminals (Assault on Precinct 13?) or even the popular suggestion of wolves at the gates as opposed the commercial decision to tap into the zombie phenomenon, the game would have felt fresher.

DoW is mechanically simple. To a fault? Well, one of the highlights and real hooks that differentiate the game from the throng of co-ops that are released each year are the player specific hidden goals that force players to look after themselves, as well as the communal goal. The vast majority of these hidden tasks are simply requisites on what you can and can’t have in your personal inventory at game end. There’s nothing particularly interesting about ‘have a book’ or ‘don’t have anything except medicine.’

On that note, much of the game does boil down to going to a location (effectively a deck of cards) then rooting through to find items. Once again – pretty mundane.

Finally, the social contract that players enter into when sitting down at the table has to contain a couple of amendments for DoW. If a player – traitor or otherwise – wishes to take the attitude that if they can’t achieve their own specific objectives then the world can burn, tanking the game for everyone else isn’t going to be that difficult and can leave a sour taste in the mouth of the other players at the table.

Oh God Oh God OH GOD (Thanks Daniel Thurot for the image!)

Oh God Oh God OH GOD (Thanks Daniel Thurot for the image!)

So, in summary… Dead of Winter is my current game of the year.

Er…What?

Yes. This is one of those beautiful games, nay pieces of art where analysis of the component parts in isolation doesn’t change the fact that as a whole, this is a masterpiece. It’s a mess, but a beautiful one that simply works.

No matter how clichéd, old or passé the zombie theming is, this is a proper thematic game that generates the most fun I’ve had around a gaming table this year. Is it the best designed? No. But that doesn’t impact a genuine sense of fun that permeates the games’ soul. DoW draws you in and puts you at the very heart of the narrative – rather than being a third party that watches someone else’s story – this is YOUR story and you and your friends are living it.

The traitor, or threat of one, fundamentally changes how players feel about other players going about their mundane tasks. Is Neil going to the library for the good of the team? Is it for his personal task? Is it because he wants us all to fail?

When decisions are made by the group, you have to live or die (or un-die) with the consequences. If the players choose to bring in another helpless survivor to the colony and you were the only dissenting voice then you have a right for some moral indignation when it is a lack of food that saps away that all important last piece of morale. Even more so when Hamish, that traitorous bastard, wanted us all to fail all along. These moments are crafted by the players, interacting with each other and the mechanisms of the game. These moments are also truly things of beauty and will live long in the memory of this gamer.

Just go and buy Dead of Winter. No funny closing line. Just get it. Even if you wouldn’t be seen dead playing a zombie game.

Cards DOW

Dead of Winter is available now and yes, you should get it, for it is wicked awesome. Designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac Vega, it was released by Plaid Hat Games at Gen Con earlier this year (where it promptly sold out). Between two and five can play with games taking a a good couple of hours at least, and though a lot might come across as pretty straightforward it really is a brilliant, immersive experience.

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