What, then, do we like about it?
This game is an ode to the survival horror genre. Players take on the roles of small groups of survivors, working together from their fortified base, the Colony, to gather fuel, food and other supplies from locations in a small town beset by an Arctic winter. In some respects, it does remind me a bit of Silent Hill, 28 Days Later and 30 Days of Night, all rolled into one.
The objective of the game can change, as there are several different missions. In the version we played, we had to keep the fuel coming every turn. Miss one delivery, and it was curtains. At the same time, however, you have to keep the Colony's overall morale up, and this can be eroded by a variety of factors, but most particularly, by food shortages, and the deaths of survivors. Every time a survivor ventures out of the Colony, he/she is taking their life in their hands, and there is a dreadful red fate dice which can decide what happens to you.
Apart from the weather conditions, the town also has a zombie problem. Infections and zombie 'surges' tend to kill more characters than anything else. The game comes with many, many stand up card zombies of a very high quality to keep track of where the zombies are gathering. They are also surprisingly big and do a good job of representing the zombies wandering around town and lurking in buildings, not to mention massing outside the fences of the Colony.
This is a co-op game: you have an overall objective to meet, as well as your own private objectives. Ultimately, to win you need to make sure that the Colony goal is achieved and also ensure you meet your own goal. It means you are playing together but at the same time, you have one eye on your private objectives. Ultimately, it seems likely that only one player can win, but as your personal mission is secret, it is harder to stop other players.
However it is also possible, although not likely, that one player is a traitor. In our game none were, but a traitor will be working to stop the Colony from meeting its objectives. If enough players become suspicious of you, they can vote to exile you from the Colony. This is similar to the discovery of Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, but there is scope for an innocent party to be exiled. It will be interesting to see if this ever happens.
The game uses an innovative dice activation system for characters that limits what they can do, based on the rolls you have at the start of the round. This reminds me very much of Song of Blades and Heroes, except you are rolling your pool first and then deciding which characters under your command act. Dice are allocated to various actions, some of which require a specific result or higher (e.g. searching a building for supplies) and some of which require you to simply sacrifice one die (building a barricade). Many characters also bring particular skill proficiencies to the game, like killing zombies, searching particular locales (the school principal knows his way round the school, for example) or healing people (the town doctor).
There is a strong story-driven element to the game which is generated by so-called Crossroads cards. These are drawn by the player next to you on your turn but only read out if certain conditions exist, often if a particular character is in play. Many of these deal with the back stories of the survivor characters, but they can also introduce new characters to the story or change the plot. Crossroads cards require players to vote on an outcome or present the individual player with difficult choices. The whole game experience feels like you're playing through a series of the Walking Dead - there are strong RPG undertones which might attract some gaming groups to it.
Favourite moment? There were so many, but certainly having the weather close in, trapping our foragers away from the Colony and forcing them to fend for themselves was a great moment. Or Kelvin's joy at a ninja joining his group, only to find that the ninja was infected, turning into a zombie and infecting his gypsy fortune teller as well (forcing the Colony to shoot her)! This was just the tip of the iceberg - the fireman going into his parents' old home, to be attacked by his undead father, or the sheriff screaming in the basement of the police station and bringing more zombies down on him, or the park ranger sitting on top of the hospital and sniping away at zombies in the snow. The atmosphere is constant and the tension never lets up.
Dead of Winter has plenty of depth: the variable mission structure, both for the Colony and for individual players means that no game is ever going to be like the last one. I'm certainly keen to give this one another go, and soon, and for anyone still dithering about whether to buy their own, go out and get one now, as they seem to be selling out as fast as retailers can stock them!
You can see Dead of Winter played by Will Wheaton et al on Table Top -