I was about an hour into zombie horror board game Dead of Winter when I gave up all hope of ever being happy again. My players were surrounded by the undead, I was nearly out of supplies, and my heart was beating like a jack-hammer. It took all my courage not to flip over my brother-in-law’s table and scream: “Screw it, let the zombies eat my face! I don’t even care anymore.”
This week’s spooky game highlight, Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game ($50), isn’t a traditional Halloween board game, but it’s still terrifying as hell. It takes The Walking Dead and says: “Hey, this world doesn’t seem awful enough. Let’s add a crap-ton of snow, make most of the characters useless, and throw in even more survivor-on-survivor betrayal (and that’s saying a lot for The Walking Dead).” In that sense, it’s far more realistic a zombie survival experience than something like TWD, but it will also leave you feeling like an empty shell of a human being.
The game pits two to five players against a sea of the undead, with each player controlling a faction of survivors in the joint colony. Each player has to work as part of the team to complete a general task, like strengthen the town’s defenses or find a cure for the zombie virus. But they also have to complete their own secret objective that the others don’t know about, and that’s where things can get tricky. This could be something small like needing additional food in your personal inventory, or wanting to kill extra zombies as part of a blood-thirsty revenge quest. However, it’s also likely one of the players is planning on betraying the colony or getting everyone killed. You can never know because anyone could be lying about it.
The survivors themselves are a rag-tag bunch of a few actual good characters with decent skills, deadweights, and even more useless characters that you still love playing with because they’re just too awesome (Sparky the Stunt Dog is a national treasure). My personal favorite is Forest Plum the Mall Santa, more commonly known as the worst character in the game. He’s so awful his only ability is that your colony gains morale by getting rid of him.
Since the game’s central premise is about survival, players spend most of their time solving various crises, scouring for resources, and taking out the trash (that happens a lot more than you’d think). Things like food, medicine, and weapons have become scarce, and every round becomes an Outlast-style struggle to find and hold onto the most basic items needed for human survival. However, it’s hard because any time a character does anything other than stand still and slowly die, they’re put in harm’s way. Through the roll of a dice, they can be exposed to frostbite, get injured, or even be instantly killed. Then, of course, there are all the freaking zombies, and those bodies really start to pile up after awhile.
The game is a behemoth exercise in multitasking, and it’s easy for everything to go off the rails really quickly. By the time I’d mentally surrendered to my inevitable demise, I’d already killed one of my survivors and everyone else was surrounded by a giant horde that’d seemingly sprung up overnight. And it became really stressful. Every time another zombie was added to the game board, my heartbeat increased to the point where I was actually having a little trouble breathing. It’s a very intense game, and you really feel the pressure mounting if (and when) you start to fail. I’ve got to be honest, I was relieved when my entire colony died.
That’s not to say Dead of Winter is a bad game—quite the opposite, actually. This wasn’t like when I tried out A Game of Thrones board game, where the frustration came from its unnecessary complexity. Here, it was because the game was doing exactly what it needed to. This isn’t a game with easy rewards—it’s more like an escape room that you never actually escape, only endure. It will make you panic, shout, and possibly make some new enemies. And when a board game makes you feel this strongly, it’s clearly doing something right. Any fans of the survival horror genre will get the experience they’re looking for out of Dead of Winter. Others, like me, may have trouble with the emotional cost it demands.