“Who doesn’t like zombies? I sure do. Or at least, I used to. If, like me, you’re a little bored with the seemingly endless drama of The Walking Dead and want the perfect blend of gritty survival with tense strategy (and no annoying children named Carl), let me introduce you to Dead of Winter.
Dead of Winter: The Long Night is a standalone expansion of Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game that throws the player into a very “Walking Dead” world of zombies, survivors, betrayal, and strategy. It is a 2-5 player game with three gameplay brackets (you can choose these when you pick your objective card) ranging from 60-210 minutes.
I played a medium-length co-op objective scenario with a co-player, and a four-player short-length game, and both took us over two hours from setup to completion of the game.
That’s my first comment: this game has an exorbitant amount of components that all have to be placed in specific places, shuffled, separated, organized, etc. It took us almost twenty minutes just to get ready to play, and it wasn’t even our first time setting up the board. You also better have a dining table capable of seating twelve to play this game. We have a 3’ by 5’’ game table and this is what our board looked like:
So yeah. Lots of little fiddly bits to keep track of and move around. Just to give you an idea, you have the board full of character tokens and zombies that spawn at specific times under specific conditions; the crisis deck that needs to be resolved each round; each location has a separate deck of cards that need to be shuffled; each player has character cards, a super-secret solo objective that may involve a betrayal, a hand of cards being drawn from search decks at locations, action die, the exposure dice, and any wound tokens they may acquire; tokens for making noise, setting explosive traps, barricades, helpless survivors, unruly survivors, wounds, frostbite, and zombie infections; and crossroads cards that insert story elements into each player turn.
If you think that sounds a little overwhelming, you’d be right!
Once we were finally ready to go, the going got easier. We plotted and planned in the co-op version and got really into the strategy element, which was super fun. We won by the skin of our teeth. The four-player version had a little more of a ‘every player for themselves’ feel that could have been great, but we all got so focused on working together to complete the main objective that not a single person managed to complete a secret or betrayal objective. We actually had a harder time with the larger party because we were constantly spawning so many zombies that we ended up losing to them in a somewhat anti-climactic fizzle of glory.
Mechanics: 3 out of 5
This is where I felt the game contradicted itself the most. First, it is easily one of the most atmospheric games I’ve ever played. You’re struggling to survive the zombies, sure, but you’re also forced to hoard food, scavenge supplies, and roll to see if your survivor caught frostbite during their sprint from the colony to the abandoned grocery store. You can gain despair wounds and are constantly waging a war against plummeting morale.
Everything ties together nicely to form this picture of hopelessness and desperation.
Unfortunately, a lot of the mechanics were clunky, awkward, or conflicting. The game tries to take a narrative approach by developing the characters you’re playing with Crossroads cards, but they were awkwardly shoe-horned in at the beginning of the other player’s turn where they were usually forgotten. And the scenarios often directly conflicted with the actual events happening in-game.
It also attempts to incorporate player dynamics and backstabbing by including betrayal objectives, but it’s hard to focus on what your teammates (or secret enemies) are doing when you’re too busy trying to remember what pieces need to move where and how many dice to roll when, because the game is also heavily strategic. It seemed to me like the designers needed to choose one or two of those game types and streamline the game in that direction, because as it is the game is kind of hard to play even the fourth or fifth time around.
Gameplay: 4 out of 5
That being said, this game is hella fun. After the learning curve (and after we accepted that we were going to just forget the crossroads cards forever and not worry about it), we definitely got into the drama and tension the game’s atmosphere creates. It was harder, but also more intense and wilder with the larger group. I think it has a lot of replay value depending on who you play with, even if you play the same objectives over and over.
My main complaint is that after the tense gameplay and the hours flying by as we struggled to keep our characters alive, the game sort of just ends. Win or lose, once we completed the final turn, we all just sort of sat back and wondered, ‘is that it then? Are we done?’ I think this would have been a great area to incorporate the storytelling element they were aiming for with the Crossroads cards. Arkham Horror: The Card Game (one of my all-time favorites; see another writer’s take on the game) is a great example of how this can be a really effective way to end the game on a satisfying note. Win or lose, at the end you read a little blurb about what happens next, and it really wraps everything up nicely and leaves you feeling like you just finished something. If each objective had something similar in the rulebook or on a card, it could have ended the intense gameplay with a bit of narrative denouement to leave the players feeling accomplished. It also could have smoothed out the bumps in the mechanics caused by this particular element.
Components: 4 out of 5
This game is f*ing beautiful. From the board to the cards to those infinite little tokens I was complaining about earlier, every single piece looks and feels amazing. They all tie nicely into the theme as well; the locations are snow-swept, the cards look battle-worn, and many of the words look scrawled in blood when appropriate. The artwork for the characters—who were very diverse, which was refreshing, fun, and practical—was to die for. My main qualm is that there are just too damn many of them. From a design standpoint, the components probably could have benefitted almost as much from some streamlining as the mechanics could. And not to be that person, but I found three grammatical errors on a single crossroads card. I feel like the game could have used a little bit more polishing and finishing to reach its full potential and go from a fun game to a favorite game.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5
I’m nitpicking a little bit here, obviously; since the overall game was so beautiful and so engaging, I ended up noticing the small hiccups and positing my opinion about how they could potentially be resolved. I probably wouldn’t recommend this game to someone who doesn’t play many board games—it’s fiddly and a little convoluted at times—but for the seasoned gamer looking for a great evening of zombies and mayhem, Dead of Winter: The Long Night is definitely worth checking out.
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