I’m constantly bewildered as to why The Walking Dead is as popular as it is. As someone who initially watched the show religiously, the sheer levels of tedious boredom that plagues the vast majority of the series’ episodes started to burn my retinas off and I stopped. I still make a point of reading what is happening each week on the show to see if I have made a mistake and should return, but even the 100 word synopsis’ of the majority of episodes are boring. I’d estimate one in five episodes of this global phenomenon of a TV show actually feature any real action/story progression. In fact, I go as far to say you could easily fit all the episodes into a season or two and it would be a far better show more worthy of its lofty place in modern society.
However, there is no denying the premise of The Walking Dead is solid; where surviving in a post-apocalyptic world and fending off the hoards of zombies is only half the battle. At its core it’s about who you can and cannot trust and what secret baggage and motivation your allies may have. Where The Walking Dead fails to convey that level of paranoia in a convincing and engaging manner, it is a theme that could easily be applied to a board game.
And it has. Enter Dead of Winter: The Long Night…
And not only does it capture the themes of The Walking Dead, it delivers them in a tension packed wallop into the depths of treachery, paranoia and fate where each character is always one step away from death.
Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game was designed by Jonathan Gilmour and Isaac Vegareleased and published by Plaid Hat Games in 2014. It is essentially a worker placement game with elements of card management. While the game is co-op, it features hidden roles with the possibility of having a betrayer player in the game who will be actively working against the collective as stealthily as possible. In fact, every player has a unique role that they have to complete as well as the group task.
Despite being a game that was always very high on my wish list, I never actually got round to playing it. However, the recent release of the stand alone expansion, Dead of Winter: The Long Night, finally allowed me to get my hands on the game. As a stand-alone expansion, you don’t need the base game to play. In fact, The Long Night has all that comes with the original Dead of Winter, with just the characters, location and cards varying. It is possible for these cards and character to be mixed and matched with the base game.
Where The Long Night differentiates from the original is through some rule additions and three separate “modules” that are compatible with the original game for two to six players.
The game kicks off by selecting an objective card – either of their own choice or drawn at random. These cards not only explain the victory conditions, but determine the initial set-up, length and difficulty of the game. Every player is then dealt a secret objective cards, with the possibility of a betrayal card being issued to one or more players. Everyone starts with five equipment cards from the starter decks and four survivor cards, of which they must pick two and return the rest to the survivor deck. Each survivor has a unique ability plus an ability score for searching and attacking as well as an influence score.
Once set-up is complete, the group turn over the first crisis card which adds a mini-objective that must be completed each round. All players roll their dice which is one plus one for every survivor in their hand and put them in the unused dice space on their player reference sheet. Starting with the player who holds the knife token, they take it in turns to take their action. Many actions such as attacking or searching cost one action dice equivalent to the number on the survivor card. However, moving a survivor, playing cards and spending tokens does not cost a dice so each turn a player have multiple options and once all actions have been completed, play passes to the player on the left. Simple enough.
Where the game comes into its own is with arguably the most brutal dice in all of board gaming; the exposure dice! This 12 sided dice controls your fate and will determine if you live or die. Every time a player moves or attacks a zombie, they roll this dice. If they are fortunate to land on a blank side, they are fine. However, get a wound or frostbite icon and they take the corresponding token. Three wounds of any type and the survivor dies, although they can be treated. Yet that isn’t it, one side of the D12 has the bitten icon – and this causes instant death to the survivor. Not only that, but it starts a chain reaction that can decimate the colony or a specific location!
Another sublime addition is the crossroads deck. Before each players turn, the player to their right draws from it and secretly reads it. If the conditions of the card are triggered at any point, the card comes into play. When this happens, the player is usually faced with a choice – sometimes to positive effect, more often as a negative effect, that adds new conditions or bonuses to the game.
Once all players have had their turn, the colony phase begins where the group must pay food costs, check the waste pile and resolve the crisis. These are managed by cards and actions played by the players during their turn and if they don’t meet the criteria for any of them, the group loses one morale. If the morale hits zero at any point, the game is immediately over – which is usually the goal and win condition for any betrayer. The other way to lose is if the round tracker drops to zero, with it dropping a point after each round. Essentially, this controls the amount of rounds in any game and the amount of time allowed to complete objectives.
Next, zombies are placed with one going next to the colony for every two survivors currently there and a zombie in each location for every survivor there. With limited spaces for the zombies, should a location or the colony entrance require a zombie be placed when there is no room, immediately the survivor with the lowest influence in that area dies.
Another marvellous game mechanic to be addressed before the next round commences, players can now hold a vote to exile any player they choose. In the result of a majority vote in favour of, that player and all their survivors’ immediately lose access to the colony. If they are a betrayer, they can then decide to start attacking fellow players. If they are not, it is essentially removing a player from the game in terms of completing objectives and managing the settlement, so you always have to be sure.
It is a lot each player has think about and manage, with countless possibilities. Thankfully, each player reference sheet explains the flow and options of the game so no need to constantly reference the rules. Despite the initial daunting experience, it can picked up in a few rounds and it is literally a case of rinse and repeat. For your first game of The Long Night (or if you are indeed playing the original Dead of Winter) then I would stick with this version of the game, minus the modules.
The Long Night includes a few base game modifications: first up is the optional vote for who hold the first player knife (which also decides any in game ties), rather than passing to the player on the left after each round; locations are now numbered which allows for random deployment should any card demand it; as well as barricades, players can also now place explosive traps that can take out all zombies in a location; a graveyard location is introduced to house dead survivors and possible bring them back later in the game as undead enemies; a new despair wound token is introduced, which is harder to treat than frostbite and a normal wound; and finally, the dreaded helpless survivors that count as a survivor without any abilities or the option to move them can now becoming unruly, making them even more of a burden.
As for the module, the first one introduces bandits to the game. These no-gooders spawn in locations when a crisis is drawn and occupy survivor spaces. Fortunately enough they can be fought off without the need to roll the exposure dice, with a 4+ dice roll being successful. The bandits also like to scavenge, and at the end of each phase they take a resource card for every bandit at a location and return it to their hideout face-up, which the survivors can also venture to, but with much higher risk than the other locations – but as you know what they have, it may be worth the risk. Possible the coolest aspect of the bandit module is the ability of any exiled player to take control and become the leader of the bandits and actively fight against the colony.
Smallest (and possibly least consequential) of the additions is the improvements module, which allows for upgrades to be made to the colony. When the upgrades are built and put into play they provide additional bonuses for the players.
Finally, the Raxxon module which introduces a secret government research station filled with horrific mutations and cutting edge medicines as a location. Collectively, players much play action dice on Raxxon in order to contain the experiments from pouring out to wreck havoc. Not only that, but contained within Raxxon’s resource deck are special pill cards which provide the player with a scenario determined by a dice roll, potentially crippling or enhancing a survivor.
There is no denying that Dead of Winter: The Long Night is a lot to digest. For starters, I feel the rules could have been slightly more clear on some of the mechanics. The artwork and style are great, although I would have loved a game with miniatures instead of cardboard characters – although I appreciate that would drive up the cost of the game. The plastic figure stands are troublesome, a real weakness for the game as a whole. I would also have liked some of the text on the crossroads cards to be clearer and the icons that separate the various cards depending on what modules are used to be bigger, although they are both minor gripes. Perhaps more crucially, gameplay is very much shaped by the amount of players, the secret missions and the collective goal. While on plus side is it almost guarantees no two games will ever be the same, the flip-side is more damning as basically some play-throughs will be far less engaging or enjoyable than others.
This is simply not a game for everyone. You will have to work hard to understand the flow of the game and get up to speed. With The Long Night, is is definitely best to ease yourself into it, allowing all the elements to be added over a few games. Only then will you get a true feel for the feel of the game, but I’m aware many people will be scared off long before they reach this point.
Yet without questions, at its heart Dead of Winter (both the base game and the stand alone sequel) is not only a very special game, but a special experience. The various elements complement each other beautifully to bring a wonderfully tense and immersive game to the table. The theme is sublime, with elements such as the crossroad deck really adding to the narrative of the game. The unknown intentions of your fellow players true motives; the fact that anytime you move or fight off a zombie you have a one in twelve chances of your survivor dying and potentially spreading triggering a domino rally of death through the location; and the realisation that if you over look anything such as cleaning out the waste pile, it could quickly spiral out of control and lead to your demise.
If you already own Dead of Winter: A Crossroad Game in buying its sequel you are increasing the pool of cards and getting the three modules, but that’s not much for the £45 price tag. Having never played the original, I can’t comment on how the minor core gameplay changes have affected the overall feel of the game, but they are all nice aspects to have. If the additions were available as a expansion for half the price, I’d tell you to jump on it, but it boils down to a simple decision of how much you want them.
As for the modules, I feel the improvements module is neither here nor there, nice to have but not essential. Raxxon brings a whole new depth to the game with multiple different zombie types, but again I don’t feel as if the game is vastly improved with its inclusion – just makes it a different, and more challenging, experience. However, the bandits’ module really is the winner for me. It authenticates the experience more and it provides new possibilities for any exiled player. As with The Walking Dead, it is the fellow survivors who are more dangerous than the zombies and I think that is captured perfectly with the bandits’ module.
If you don’t own any Dead of Winter games, then forget about the original and get this.
And you really, really should think about checking this out. While not perfect, it is deeply engaging and fascinating and intriguing and enigmatic and complex and challenging. It feels exactly like I’d image a zombie apocalypse would; it creates tension, it provides a wonderful narrative, the tide can turn in a heartbeat, and best laid plans will constantly have to evolve or change completely. Despite being massively interested in Dead of Winter when it first launched in 2014, I never got round to playing it. While I do regret not getting it, by waiting I have picked up what is essentially a more advanced second print with new features. It was only this past Halloween weekend I got to finally play the game and I am confident the more I play it, the more I will enjoy it. I’m really struggling to think of any other title out there than compares to Dead of Winter in terms of theme, mechanics and flow.
When you boil it down, Dead of Winter – The Long Night is a board game interpretation of The Walking Dead-esque world, and you can see the influence the comic, and more so, the TV show have had on the game. But where The Walking Dead series is bogged down by chronic levels of boredom and nothing happening, the game bypasses that. One visit to your table will easily take you two or three hours, but it won’t feel like it. It will feel like 30 mins and 30 weeks at the same because it strikes the perfect balance between fear, paranoia and action. For me, this game is utterly compelling to me, and I’m desperate to play more and truly get to grips with it. I have very little doubt that with a few more games, this title will find itself in the upper echelons of my favourites games list.
And I just really wish the producers/writers of The Walking Dead could get their hands on this and learn from it. Maybe then we would have a TV show more worthy of is fandom.
NEXT WEEK: I take a look a flicking marvellous two player game that plays in 10 mins and is a tonne of fun.