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April 8, 2020

Harvey O’Brien, Playing with Dead Things VI

by Conor Heffernan


Dead of Winter gives you access to a significant story-building element, but still relies heavily on risk-reward exploration, co-operation, and, crucially, paranoia. Social deduction has also become an important and popular gaming mechanic, particularly with larger groups.

Games using the ‘traitor mechanic’ emphasise the psychological dimension of gaming, drawing out the personality of the player in a kind of light role-play, and you can end up learning a lot about your friends when you’re not sure who actually are your friends. Exercises in paranoia that use this uncertain space include the popular party game Werewolf (1986), designed by Dimitry Davidoff and Andrew Plotkin, recently rejigged by Bezier games into One Night Ultimate Werewolf (2014) by Ted Alspach and Akhisa Okui, and numerous spin-offs and re-themes, and tabletop games like Shadows Over Camelot (2005), designed by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, where one of Arthur’s knights of the round table is a traitor (and it doesn’t have to be Lancelot: someone draws the ‘traitor’ card at the beginning at random), Battlestar Galactica (2008), designed by Corey Konieczka, where because cylons now look human, anyone could be one, and Homeland (2015), designed by Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart, where ‘someone has been turned’ and it could be that someone is a political opportunist trying to manipulate the situation or an outright terrorist trying to overthrow the system entirely.


In Dead of Winter the traitor mechanic complicates the theme of co-operation and the moral dilemma of self versus societal interest. One player is out to bring down the colony to serve their own interests, but outwardly, they are just another faction leader and still contribute to public goals and public needs. Secretly they want the larger project to fail, and they will have been actively damaging the colony’s capacity to survive by sabotage. You are never quite sure who it is, because inevitably all groups act selfishly to some degree because they need to do what they have to do for short-term goals and sometimes they can’t share that food or fuel or medicine because they need it. The question is who is doing it because they are up to something more? Reading a player’s response to the crossroads cards will sometimes help, but most of the time you are trying to figure out who has and has not contributed to the community needs based on a succession of crises which must be faced by the colony on the whole each around. Each failure has consequences. Each success really only extends survival. It’s tough just hanging on, but when someone is working against you, the nights seem ever colder, ever darker, ever more terrifying.


Dead of Winter captures the essence of an epic zombie story in a claustrophobic setting, rewards strategy but requires tactics and luck, and always generates a tense but fun gaming atmosphere. Players feel engaged and enabled to affect the outcome, but will find themselves frustrated sometimes by luck, sometimes by story outcomes, and sometimes because someone is out to get them. It’s a pretty apt concoction of elements and a lot of fun to play. In the end, that’s what all modern gaming comes down to, and here it shares heritage with but greatly improves upon the oldest

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