I liked Dead of Winter. And I certainly wasn’t alone in that fondness, back in 2014 the game was all the rage. There were some dissenting voices, but I didn’t really pay them much attention. I probably should have.
Dead of Winter: The Long Night is an unusual product, in that it acts as both an expansion to the base game, a stand alone product and a re-implementation. If you’ve never experienced the zombie menace of the original, you can politely continue to ignore the original as you have done up until now, or if you simply want to add new characters, new Crossroads cards or new modules you can mix and match between the two to your heart’s content. I’m not going to dive into how the framework of the game works and how a typical round plays out, if you’re not aware of all that you can read my review of the base game here.
Great diversity, and a set of characters arguably more powerful than the originals.
What you’re all really here for is to find out, what does The Long Night add, and is any of it any good? The first question is easily answered – other than improved cardboard quality for the various locations, you get new characters, new Crossroads cards, new Location decks and three new modules.
Improvements is the easiest of the new modules to implement, to the point that I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to permanently include them. You add a new deck to the setup along with Advancement tokens. Four Improvement cards are always available to players, who will get an opportunity to place tokens on a card of their choice when items or game effects indicate to do so. Improvements all have a number on the card, place enough tokens to equal or exceed this and the Improvement is added to the colony. Without spoiling the surprise, Improvements are additions to the colony that make managing life just a tad less unbearable such as adding food or some rather swanky additions to your defenses.
The Bandits module adds a new location, the Bandit hideout, as well as a bunch of bandit standees and cards all marked with the bandit icon. Their biggest annoyance is that they’re essentially space hoggers. No, not interstellar swine, rather they take up spaces normally reserved for characters. So not only do they restrict survivor movement, but they also count as survivors for the placement of new Zombies step.
My favourite item card
If there are still bandits at a location after the Add Zombies phase, each bandit effectively steals a card from that location’s search deck and places it in the Hideout. Bandits can be attacked, and the Hideout can be visited as a normal location if players wish to attempt to retrieve stolen items. An exiled player can also become Leader of the Bandits, but don’t get too excited as all this means is that the exiled player gets to decide where new bandits are placed.
And then we have arguably the grand-daddy of the new modules, Raxxon. At setup you’ll also add all the cards with the Raxxon icon, as well as the Raxxon location and its accompanying experiments and side effect decks. The new location impacts the game in two major ways – firstly the search deck contains Pills which can be consumed by survivors for buffing effects, but always with the chance of unfortunate side effects, and lastly the threat of Containment failing. Should you control a survivor at Raxxon, you may as an additional action place dice at the location. The experiment deck lists a containment code on the Audio Log side of the card, if at the beginning of the colony phase any dice placed there match this code, all players vote to either discard the card without triggering the effect or to reduce the number of Zombies placed at a chosen location by 3.
If the Audio Logs code has not been matched, or if players have voted for the the second (or thumbs down) option, containment has failed and special zombies make their grand entrance. These cannot be killed by player special abilities and bring their own unique nastiness to the game as well as their pleasant sounding monikers – hunter, frostwalker, claw, stinker, to name but a few. Yeah, I doubt anything good will come from allowing a spewer to wander unchecked.
Special zombies still in ‘containment’…
As for changes to the base game content, barricades now have an explosive trap variant, some card effects may apply a despair token to a survivor that prevents healing and helpess survivors can now also become unruly, which really just means that count as two. And for that increased narrative experience, TLN also provides two special scenarios. This is well and truly the definitive addition of the game, which is great for those who don’t own the original as it’s all but removed from existence. But it’s not all that great for those of us who do have the original game lounging on our shelves, as you’re going to pay full price even if all you wanted as just those three modules. I’m not quite sure what to make of that – the base game has a ton of characters and Crossroads cards that you can easily play 5 – 10 games without seeing everything, there must be owners out there who aren’t interested in new characters and just want the modules?
It’s not you Dead of Winter, it’s me. I was younger then, less experienced, my wings untested against the buffeting winds. You showed me things I’ll always hold dear to my heart, but I’m in a place in my life where I just want more out of this relationship. I’ve been hanging around with Dark Moon and New Angeles and well, they just seem to have more direction, more drive. Please don’t look at me like that, there will be others! You’re attractive, sure you can be a little dour at times and living under the threat of you constantly wanting to murder me takes getting used to, but you’ll meet someone new and soon I’ll just be a distant memory.
I’d rather have the red/blue pill option
Strip away the narrative and the collaborative social experiment, and Dead of Winter becomes a decent co-operative management exercise. It lacks the ability to tell an emergent story in the way that Pandemic does, which is precisely why Plaid Hat have always placed so much emphasis on the Crossroads aspect and why playing the game without a betrayer is only offered as a variant. Dead of Winter needs the players to invest in it as a form of co-operative storytelling like…er, the deserts miss the rain. Which is why it’s such a disappointment that TLN seems more concerned with giving players extra stuff to worry about as opposed to finding ways to strengthen the narrative aspects. As richly thematic as the Crossroads cards are, they’re not going to contribute much when you only draw THREE that actually trigger.
It’s great that there’s a whole new deck of them, and I get that they’ve been designed to offer a new experience each time the game is played – that’s a tricky design to get right when you’re dealing with 20 survivors – but when you encounter only three of them over the course of 90 minutes, it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable experience. And yes that’s the luck of the draw and it’s conceivable that you could trigger one every second turn, but when they aren’t fleshing out the narrative the game has to rely on its emergent storytelling to make up for the shortfall, which in turn is too often a case of remembering that one game when Morne had two characters die in a single turn.
The Raxxon module is by a fair margin the best aspect of TLN. The idea of a facility housing mutated version of zombies and experimental medication is fantastic, and the risks associated with managing that location are a pathway to loud debating around the table and a decent serving of suspense. It does up the difficulty significantly as well, so I’d caution against adding it if you’re having difficulty with the game at the easier levels. My only personal criticisms are that many of the items in the Raxxon location deck are shall we say, just a tad thematically discordant. Raxxon is also the scheming entity in the Specter Ops game, that should give you some indication as to what I mean. In addition, Raxxon ups the randomness to greater heights and your game could swing very quickly from oh my god this is impossible to burn them all.
I wonder if nameless Bandit 1 has a family…
Unfortunately although the Bandits module certainly gives you enough of a headache in terms of additional risks to manage, the implementation feels more jarring. It likely depends very much on which Main objective you are playing, but we found the bandits far too easy to manage if you simply killed off a few every couple of turns and the Hideout was never sufficient an incentive to visit. The Improvements also come across as less an optional module and more an auto-include. They have such a minimal impact on setup and are so light on rules that I’m not sure why they weren’t just a new addition to the base setup like the unruly survivors and exploding traps.
The Long Night is, ironically, a bit of a victim to my own personal Exposure die. My enthusiasm for the original game I fear was very much a result of not being exposed to more games of that particular genre, and the fact that I’ve now experienced games which I feel do the whole Battlestar experience subjectively better, Dead of Winter’s flaws shine brighter. When the liveliness of the collaborative experience isn’t in full force, the range of actions and abilities on offer just don’t do enough to keep me engaged. Take Dark Moon for example, where the tension never falters and every action and every turn feels critical to success. Or New Angeles where despite its lengthy play time, the balance between co-operation and pressing your own objectives is exquisitely balanced, and the presence of a traitor isn’t easily solved by a vote to exile.
Do not underestimate the power of good cotton sheets
Less, as they say, is more. And with the generosity of content that TLN provides, it just dilutes proceedings rather than enhancing them. Too many characters, too many Crossroads cards. I shouldn’t want to repeatedly play Dead of Winter because of the potential for new combinations, I should want to play it again because the social aspect is memorable regardless of whether I play the same character three times in a row. What I’m getting at, is that if you had issues with the original, none of the new content is likely to change your mind – the ruleset has seen little refinement and there aren’t really any new mechanics per se.
This has been an odd review to write, to the point that it’s really less a review and more an account of my coming to terms with the realisation that I just don’t enjoy Dead of Winter anymore. I appreciate that approach is potentially unhelpful, so let me attempt a more objective summary. If you’ve avoiding picking up Dead of Winter but yearn for a thematic co-op with a betrayal mechanism, The Long Night deserves serious consideration. Despite my personal hang ups, with the right group there’s plenty to sink your collective teeth into and I’d never turn down the chance to play. If you do own the original however, there is just not enough on offer to justify paying full price. Unless, and it’s a big unless because there’s still not much info about it, you’re keen on the Warring Colonies expansion that has been teased, which would require two copies of the game.
I do so enjoy the atmosphere that looming treachery creates, the creeping dread as the walls close in and survival becomes increasingly intangible. At times, The Long Night does its level best to capture the essence of moments like that, but not often enough and without managing to sustain them. For every tense Crossroads card or Exposure die roll, there’s a turn spent cleaning up Waste. Yes, I know every rollercoaster can’t throw you against the back of your seat without that slow pull to the apex, but this one’s just lost its thrill.
With thanks to Solarpop for providing a review copy