Choosing between the needs of the many and the needs of the few adds so much to the game, but the decision making goes further than that. In between rounds of play, you draw from the Crisis deck. This draw usually gives players a choice of two options. They can either meet the conditions of the card for a minor benefit, or ignore the card and take a consequence. An example might be to take in a group of starving kids and gain morale (a sort of sliding scale that cannot reach zero), or leave them to their own devices and lose morale. Of course, taking the kids in means more mouths to feed later, so the cost is not inconsequential. One that came up when I was collecting gas cans was a cold spell Crisis card that required us to burn gas to avoid losing lives. It was hard to pony up the last gas can in hand that round, for sure.
I’ve deliberately left out many of the details about the actual mechanics of Dead of Winter. Quite simply, there are so many interacting systems that it would be hard to summarize them. Suffice it to say that you will be managing multiple characters and their different special abilities, risking a one in twelve chance of instant death when moving from place to place due to zombie bites, and using various items, weapons, and equipment you find throughout the game to survive. Or, at least, to meet the victory condition that all players share.
So what can you do when another player seems to be focusing too much on their secret objective and not pitching in to meet the shared goal? You can call for a vote to exile that player. Again, you might think this seems uncooperative, but in practice, the threat of exile keeps everyone working together, even if it’s just to throw off suspicion. If a player is exiled, they still play the game, and are given another win condition, so they still remain involved in the experience.
Though I cannot say I would recommend it, there is a fully cooperative variant included in Dead of Winter. Simply don’t draw secret objectives, but use the “hard mode” side of the shared objective that you choose for your game. I am certain that Dead of Winter would be better than most co-ops when played in this way, but you really lose much of the experience by not having those delicious secret objectives in there.
Dead of Winter is easily the best zombie themed board game I’ve played, and one of the best co-op games, as well. It is highly thematic, has great production values, and features some of the most compelling decision making points I’ve ever seen in a board game. There is a high amount of replayability due to the interactions between shared and hidden goals. While it isn’t a pure co-op, the teamwork aspects are undeniably strong. Playing Dead of Winter feels like you are experiencing an episode of your favorite zombie TV show or movie. If you aren’t totally burned out on zombies, you should give it a try. Just watch out for the guy hoarding gas cans.