Dead of Winter Review

Dead of Winter is the latest game from Plaid Hat Games. Despite not being a huge fan of any of Plaid Hat's games (except for Summoner Wars, which I love), I always get very excited about each of their releases. They always have really interesting themes mixed with neat twists on game mechanisms. Does Dead of Winter buck the trend of disappointment? Would I even ask such an obvious rhetorical question is the answer was "no?" Read on to find out!

Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game that takes place after a zombie apocalypse has ravaged the world. Players take control of survivors in this world, struggling to live in this new world. The survivors need keep the hordes at bay and make sure the colony is safe and fed.

In a round, players will roll their action dice. On their turn, players will spend their dice in order to take actions with their survivors. These actions are things like searching locations in order to gain resources or items, fighting zombies, or building barricades. The zombies will keep coming and bad things will keep happening to the colony, until either the survivors complete their shared objective, or the colony's morale falls to 0. 

Sounds simple enough, except that Plaid Hat and Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Vega have added quite a few interesting little twists and turns to make Dead of Winter quite a unique experience. First is the fact that although the group as a whole has a common objective, each player has a personal objective. Each player's personal objective states what the player needs to accomplish in order to win. These objectives most often have a bulleted list that includes the group completing the common main objective, but also some other conditions that must be met that will likely make the group's completion of the main objective more difficult. Even if the main objective is competed, players can only win if they also completed their individual objectives as well. 

The great thing about this system is that there are also betrayer objectives. These objectives require that the game end not because the main objective has been completed, but because the colony's morale has fallen to 0. The game also includes the option to exile players from the game if they are suspected of being a betrayer. This adds a lot of tension to the game, and keeps the players from devolving the game into a mess of "well Idecide on a 'm not going to win, so no one is going to win," which, in my opinion, has been the biggest issue with semi-cooperative games in the past.

A huge source of tension in the game is the exposure die. It must be rolled every time a survivor either moves around town or fights a zombie. On about half of the sides is nothing - which is what you'll be hoping to see each time you roll that accursed die. On the other half are bad things, which cause either normal wounds, frostbite wounds, or even instant death. The fact that players can lose a survivor with a single roll of the die is a lot of fun. 

The last twist in the game is the deck of Crossroads cards. At the start of each player's turn, the player to the right of her draws a Crossroads card, and reads the it. Each Crossroads card has a condition on it, which the reader of the card does not reveal to the current player, unless the player fulfills it. These cards contain conditions like, "If the current player controls a survivor at the Police Station, read the following:" and the rest of the card has a bit of story, and then a decision. The player (and sometimes all the players) then need to decide on their course of action concerning the story, and deal with any consequences that decision presents.

Not a super exciting photo, but I didn't want to spoil anything about these awesome cards!!

This mechanism is brilliant. I know reviews can rely on hyperbole a little too often, but really the Crossroads cards are my favorite part of this game. It creates a weight to each player's turn, since she has to go about the things she wants to do, knowing that she might be interrupted at any moment by the player holding the Crossroads card. Not only that, but the Crossroads cards have really interesting story beats that can create some extraordinary moments for the players. I wish I could say more about how much fun we had with these cards, but I really don't want to give anything away.

In fact, one of the things I don't like about the game is that the Crossroads deck is limited. Don't get me wrong, Plaid Hat have provided 80 Crossroads cards, which is a lot - and a Crossroads card won't even be triggered each turn. And I'm usually the first to call out people who complain about this sort of stuff - how many times are you really going to play this game, no matter how good it is? Despite all that, (and perhaps because the cards are just so friggin' awesome) just the fact that the deck is limited (whether or not said limit will ever be reached by me) makes me want more cards.

I also mentioned how much fun that exposure die is. Well, it can also be painful (which is part of why I love it). Rolling a Bite (meaning instant death) on your first turn can really knock the wind out of you and the group - but having to deal with the consequences of that so early can definitely make things interesting for the right players.

Dead of Winter is a great game. There is a lot going on in the game, but not so much to make the game a slog. As the players internalize the rules, the narrative of the story really starts to shine through. The tensions of the individual objectives, the Crossroads cards, the exposure die, and the fact that its a pretty tough cooperative game to begin with all make for a seriously engaging experience.

The first time I played Dead of Winter was with my lovely wife, who is a seasoned gamer, and my dad, cousin, and sister - all three of whom have played some of "my games" in the past but need some encouragement to sit down with one that isn't Wits and Wagers or Telestrations. Right after we lost the first game, we started talking about the stories of our survivors, and what we would do differently when we played again. We didn't have to wait long to find out, because we played again the very next day. And after losing a second time, we set it up to play again...twice. We were up playing Dead of Winter well past 2 AM, laughing and dying horrible deaths.

Dead of Winter is the very definition of an immersive experience. My cousin, usually a "too cool for school" type, started reading the Crossroads cards in character, and was pushing all of us to do the same. We all started making up stories for our survivors about their motivations and why they always seemed to fail so miserably. Based on those memorable experiences alone, I can't recommend this game highly enough. 8.5/10.


  1. Hi Josh,
    Good review, and from other things I've been reading about this game I really hope I get a chance to play it soon.
    But I'm curious about 1 thing...
    If (apart from the limit of crossroad cards) the game is so good, why rate it only 8.5? What makes it drop the 1.5, or what would raise it higher?

    1. Hey, Ian - This is actually a question for Jim, as he wrote this review. I've played Dead of Winter, and whereas I enjoyed it, it was a bit too swingy for my taste. (I have watched many, many characters die immediately due to the exposure roll.) So, I would've probably rated it about the same as Jim. But, as for why he did, I'm not sure.

    2. Hey Ian!

      So obviously arbitrary numbers mean different things to different people, but in writing reviews for Josh and posting them here, I've tried to stick to the scale that he worked out (at the bottom of each page here).

      an 8-9 is described by Josh as, "8-9: Very good game. Highly recommended. Some gamers will like less than others"

      Which pretty much exactly sums up how I feel about Dead of Winter. I did enjoy it very much, but don't think that "Every gamer should play this!" as a rating between 9-10 indicates on Josh's scale.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  2. Hey James,

    Thanks for the review! I just got the game last night, so I'm eager to try it out with my gaming group.

    One thing that you may not know - they are developing a Crossroads app for your smartphone/tablet. It will include all of the original Crossroads cards - plus give you the ability to create your own via the Crossroads Creator and hopefully download cards created by other people as well.