We’re now seeing more and more people trying their hand at traditional ‘hobby’ games - the kind of tabletop titles that used to seem rather inaccessible to casual players familiar with the likes of Monopoly and Scrabble, and are now more popular than ever before. There are a number of reasons for this - board game cafes, the recent rise in popularity for tabletop gaming , more publishers creating a wider variety of board games - but arguably one major factor behind the rise in newbies getting into more complex games is that there are more titles being made that help to bridge that gap between casual and hobby board games.
The line between the two opposing levels of complexity is gradually blurring thanks to tabletop titles that are able to gently introduce newer players to a collection of richer mechanics they may not have encountered before. A prime example of one of these ‘bridge’ board games is Dead of Winter. There’s quite a lot going on in Dead of Winter when you consider the narrative elements, personal win conditions, traitor mechanics, playable characters and dice rolls, but it presents these varying elements in such a digestible way that casual players don’t feel overwhelmed.
Dead of Winter was one of the first mechanically robust board games I ever experienced and it continues to stand out as being an immersive, yet incredibly accessible game for numerous reasons.
Zombie-themed board games may seem like a dime-a-dozen if you regularly stay up to date with hobby releases, but it feels fresh if you’re used to the kinds of theme-light titles, such as Boggle or Connect 4, that most people have grown up with. Playing a board game with an evolving narrative and actual stakes is exciting, especially when you’re otherwise used to games that use thematic elements as a kind of paint job to appeal to broad audiences such as a particular age group or gender identity.
Dead of Winter presents an experience where choices matter and players feel a real sense of agency over the plot.
What’s more, a zombie horror apocalypse is a fairly recognisable setting when it comes to modern fiction, helped by popular television shows such as The Walking Dead and video games like Dying Light. This familiarity makes it unlikely that Dead of Winter’s theme is going to put off casual players who might feel otherwise alienated by board games that force people to take in intense world-building, such as Twilight Imperium or Gloomhaven. Dead of Winter does all this whilst presenting an experience where choices matter and players feel a real sense of agency over the plot.
The Crossroads event cards are a perfect example of how Dead of Winter achieves this balance between immersion and accessibility. Players will have to encounter Crossroads events throughout the game - they’re not a voluntary activity - meaning that even the most uncertain and inexperienced participants can get stuck into making decisions that shape the story. Crossroads cards provide little snippets of decision-making and storytelling that will have consequences without being entirely unforgiving.
There’s no player elimination in Dead of Winter; instead, players learn from their mistakes by losing resources, gaining damage or taking another character to replace a deceased one. A lot of the potential harshness inflicted by these consequences is mitigated by the fact that Dead of Winter is also a co-op board game, which does a lot to help newer players to feel less out of their depth. Players aren’t left alone to figure things out for themselves; they’re able to discuss their ideas and ask for advice from the others at the table. Not only does this encourage less experienced players to engage in the game, it does a lot for the immersive aspects of the title - echoing that feeling of needing to work together in order to survive as the last living outpost.
Dead of Winter involves so much emotional investment that finishing it is rarely as cold and brutal as tallying points and comparing totals.
There are still opportunities for players to take the initiative and think for themselves if they want to, thanks to the game’s secret objectives. These can be as simple as having a certain item in your inventory by the end of the game, or as complicated as having to work against everyone else as a traitor - which might be a bit much more a newer player to handle. The great thing about Dead of Winter is that it’s entirely playable without the secret objectives, if you’re worried about it proving too much. On the other hand, Dead of Winter works so well with the traitor mechanic and the nature of the game can be quite forgiving on whoever has an opposing secret objective.
Dead of Winter is a pretty challenging title for the survivors to win, with a lot of luck and careful decisions required to succeed, meaning that the traitor might not need to do too much if they don’t feel confident enough to do so. If they do want to get more involved, there are plenty of opportunities to subtly tamper with the game - such as sneaking useless inventory cards into the colony deck or gently convincing another player to perform an otherwise inadvisable action. Regardless of whether you choose to play with the traitor mechanic or not, Dead of Winter has a lot of replay value, thanks to its multiple scenarios, meaning that you can always experience the game another way further down the line.
Not fulfilling secret objectives might mean failing in the traditional sense, but being able to say you survived the scenario is often satisfying enough that it doesn’t really matter whether you complete your objective or not. Dead of Winter involves so much emotional investment that finishing it is rarely as cold and brutal as tallying points and comparing totals - which does a lot to avoid putting casual players off. Instead, it sparks discussion that will undoubtedly continue to encourage newbies to play it, or something similar, in the future.