Zombies are the least of your problems in Dead of Winter

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In Sarah Northway’s zombie apocalypse strategy game, Rebuild, you manage a colony of survivors through hunger, bandits, zombies, despair, and strife. On the way to the end of the game, you might uncover story beats. Many of these give you choices with important gameplay implications.

One of the most memorable was the option to abandon the colony. To basically betray the characters you were controlling, the very game you were playing, in an attempt to secure a solitary victory. You had to lie about going on foraging missions when you were instead looking for a rumored cabin the woods. Then you had to secretly hoard food for yourself. Sometimes you even had to kill characters who figured out what you were doing. If you pulled it off, the colony fell to the zombies but you, the main character, lived happily ever after. You might have even gotten a high score.

After the jump, why can’t they make a boardgame like that?

One of things I’ve been most excited to see in recent boardgame design is a new perspective on the division between cooperative gameplay and competitive gameplay. Traditional traitor games like Shadows over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica introduced a fundamental twist to how we play. In those games, we’re fighting against a system, working with each other, helping one another. We’re all in this together, except for the players who drew the traitor cards. Those people are secretly working against us. The resulting suspicion, the accusations, the psychology of playing the group, the challenge of forming — or infiltrating! — circles of trust. These are far richer types of interaction than optimizing who’s going to go where in Pandemic or Eldritch Horror. Collaborative math is a terrible excuse for interaction.

But since the introduction of the “traitor mechanic”, a handful of designers have conceived clever twists on the concept. Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald has players competing against each other, but only so long as no one in your faction is in last place. You can’t win until you make sure none of your putative colleagues are losing! Archipelago, a brilliant and subversive take on cooperation, is about European powers trying to subjugate a New World. If they do, they all win, even though some win more than others. So if you want to win Archipelago, you have to make sure no one loses. It’s cooperation as a catch-up mechanic. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, where your persistent character’s progress is arguably more important than the outcome of any given game, is cooperative within the parameters of however badly you want that certain magic item.

Dead of Winter’s clever twist on the concept of cooperation makes it stand out as an important contribution to boardgame design. This is a cooperative game unlike any other cooperative game, and it’s a traitor mechanic unlike any other traitor mechanic. In addition to the group objective — it varies by game — every player has a secret individual objective. Any given player only wins if he accomplishes both objectives.

This does a couple of important things. The first is that it creates a traitor mechanic exactly halfway between cooperation and competition. We all need to accomplish the main objective. But in addition, we each need to do something that runs counter to the main objective. It might even be directly opposed. For instance, your secret objective might be to hoard food while the collective objective is to gather food. Good luck lying about how much food you can contribute. But even if your secret objective is not in direct opposition, you’ll have to spend time doing something out of self interest instead of for the collective good. Every player is a traitor in Dead of Winter, but to varying degrees. Unlike most cooperative games, every player is competing with every other player. It’s never “Did we win?” It’s always “Which ones of us won?”

The other important thing this does is it counters what’s commonly called “the Pandemic problem”. This refers to the fact that in a fully cooperative game, the best way to win is to let whichever player best knows the game call all the shots. There is no reason Pandemic needs to be a multiplayer game beyond the social dynamics of figuring out a puzzle, and if you really want to figure out that puzzle, you should probably trust the guy who’s played it most. Sure, you can move your own pieces and hold your own cards. But if you know which player best knows the game, always defer to him. In Dead of Winter, a cooperative game in which everyone has secret information and secret goals, everyone has an ulterior motive. There is no Pandemic problem.

This dynamic keeps the game tense up until the very end. You don’t want to accomplish the main objective, which ends the game, until you’ve accomplished your secret objective. This means not everyone wants to win at the same time. I might be ready to finish on turn five.

“Let’s go! Let’s do this thing! Put in that last can of food for the collection!”

But another player is sandbagging because he hasn’t found the guns he needs for his secret objective.

“Quit screwing around at the police station and let’s go! We can only hold out for so long!”

“Hold on, I just need one more turn.”

“You’re going to get us all killed!”


The game clock is limited to a number of rounds, and everyone loses instantly if a morale value drops to zero, usually from characters dying. The end, good or bad, can roll around pretty quickly (Dead of Winter is a far shorter game than, say, Battlestar Galactica). But with secret objectives, there will be different opinions about when the game should end.

“Take the shot. We just need to kill one more zombie and we’ll win this turn.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

It’s cooperation and competition. It’s trust and betrayal. And if that’s not enough, there’s a rich system for an outright traitor, called a “betrayer”, who has two goals. The first is for the other players to fail. That’s how most traitor mechanics work. Just withhold your help and let the system do it’s job beating down the players. They fail, you win. But Dead of Winter’s betrayer also has an additional goal, such as a certain number of survivors dying, or a certain number of cards in his hand, or a certain number of armed characters in his faction. He has to be proactive. As a traitor, you can’t just sit back and wait for everyone to lose, because you’ll lose, too. Furthermore, if you’re outed, the goal for the other players to fail is replaced with a randomly drawn new goal. Now you’ve got an objective that doesn’t involve letting the system do its thing on the other players. Now you’ve got more work to do. One of my favorite replacement objectives for an outed betrayer is that the colony has to win! All that hard work undone. Dead of Winter gives the traitor a powerful incentive to stay hidden. And to make things even trickier, there’s only about a 40% chance any given game will have a betrayer.

Players control multiple characters, each with unique abilities, and it’s relatively easy to get more. This allows Dead of Winter the luxury to suddenly kill characters. It’s also how Dead of Winter manages to get away with an effective “infection” concept. When a character is infected by a zombie — it’s a managed risk, but you’re almost never entirely safe — the infection might spread until someone suicides. Do you take your chances on a roll of the dice? If you survive, the infection is over. But if you roll poorly and die, the next character is infected. If the dice are cruel enough and the players are stubborn enough, Dead of Winter can end abruptly when you least expect it. The entire colony can be wiped out (or at least enough of them to drop morale to zero). There are no Ricks and Daryls. There are only Loris and Shanes.

Whereas different characters come into play in any given game, the map is always a known quantity. There’s no sense of the unknown as you search for specific items. In a way, this makes sense. Imagine that the characters are all in their hometown. We get so used to shifting landscapes in games to create a sense of exploration. But Dead of Winter always puts you in that same familiar town with that same police station at one end of the street and that same gas station at the other end of the street, with the same cards in each location, with searching not so much about “What will I find?” but “When will I find what I’m looking for?” After about ten games, Dead of Winter can settle into a puzzle-style groove. And this is entirely appropriate, because here is where the group dynamics stir into the gameplay more prominently. A game like City of Horrors or Resistance is a structure you dress up with group dynamics. Dead of Winter has considerably more meat on its bones.

Like any good zombie apocalypse, the survivors must also contend with hunger, disease, inclement weather, and a deck of cards with random events. These cards all have conditions that determine whether they trigger. It’s the job of the player who just took his turn to monitor the current player to see if the event is triggered. Oh, did you just search a location? Okay, hold on, let me read you this flavor text and then give you your options. These are great not just for the randomness of it all — I’ve definitely won and lost games based on something that happened because of these cards — but for keeping players engaged. When your turn is over, you immediately get a new task that involves paying attention to what the next player is doing.


Dead of Winter challenges the players with one crisis per turn, always revealed at the start of the turn and resolved after everyone has done his actions. This means you can never say you didn’t see it coming. You know when a hailstorm is bearing down on you, or when raiders demand your food, or when a pack of zombies is shuffling down Main Street toward your colony. As each player takes his turn, he can contribute specific facedown cards to fend off the crisis. If the right number of the right type of cards are flipped up at the end of the turn, crisis averted. Phew. As with Battlestar Galactica, these crises are a great opportunity for a betrayer to sabotage the colony. And, as with Battlestar Galactica, these crises are a great opportunity to out a betrayer. Hmm, who sabotaged this crisis by throwing in a card from the hospital? Only two players have visited the hospital! Let the accusations begin. Now Dead of Winter has truly begun. The zombies were never the real problem. The real problem was always the tension between running away to a cabin in the woods to save yourself or throwing in your lot with the rest of humanity. Dead of Winter has created gameplay from that tension.

  • Dead of Winter

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  • Boardgame
  • Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means the players are working together toward one common victory condition--but for each individual player to achieve victory, they must also complete their personal secret objective. This secret objective could relate to a psychological tick that's fairly harmless to most others in the colony, a dangerous obsession that could put the main objective at risk, a desire for sabotage of the main mission, or worst of all: vengeance against the colony! Certain games could end with all players winning, some winning and some losing, or all players losing. Work toward the group's goal but don't get walked all over by a loudmouth who's only looking out for their own interests! Take that, Pandemic problem!