First off, the game is highly customizable: the objective in each game is slightly different, so there's no one way to play. You may be trying to collect samples to find a cure, for example. In addition, players can play fully cooperatively or play with a traitor. Finally, each player has their own secret mission they have to fulfill in order to win the game.
However, some things are constant. Each turn, players are trying to resolve an immediate crisis. There are Crossroads cards (which we'll get to in a minute) that can be triggered. Players can stay (relatively) safe in the Colony, but will eventually have to go to the outlying buildings (like the library or the police station) for supplies, risking getting attacked.
During each turn, the current Crisis is turned over. This requires a certain amount of resources to be devoted to it--one Food per person, perhaps. Each player then rolls dice equal to the number of Survivors they have, plus one. Then each player takes an action.
Actions are varied; players can attack zombies, attack another survivor, search a location for supplies, build a barricade, clean up waste, move zombies around, playing cards, moving survivors, and a few other options. Some of these actions require dice of a certain value to be spent; some require any die, regardless of value; and some don't require dice at all. These dice are pulled from the original die rolls at the beginning of the turn.
At some point, players should be placing cards face down to resolve the crisis; however, the card does not have to resolve the crisis (hence why they are face down). Perhaps that player is the traitor, or perhaps their personal objective isn't furthered by helping out with the crisis.
After all players have taken their turns, the Colony Phase begins.
First, players have to pay food. If there isn't enough food to feed everyone, morale decreases. Waste is then checked; waste is simply the discard pile, and if it starts accumulating, it causes morale to decrease.
Then, the crisis is resolved. The face down cards are shuffled and revealed. If the crisis is resolved, good; play continues. If not, that's bad--something bad happens, such as people dying morale going down.
New zombies are then added, which may cause further deaths and heartache.
There's a lot more to it--people bitten can spread the zombie disease, searching for more stuff than normal in the outlaying buildings may attract additional zombies, etc.--but I won't go into all of the details. Two highlights, though: one is the Exile concept. If players believe that someone is a traitor, they can be voted out of the colony. They are restricted in certain actions then and must stay out of the Colony proper. However, they also get a new goal card which they can use to win the game.
The second is the Crossroads cards. During each player's turn, the player on their right draws a Crossroads card from the deck and reads it without indicating to the current player what it is. If a certain trigger is met (unknown to the current player) then the Crossroads card is revealed and read out loud, usually giving the player a choice between two options. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad.
Play continues until the game ends. This can be in a victory (the original objective is met) or defeat. Defeat happens if either morale hits zero or the turn track hits zero.
What I liked about the game:
- This game just drips theme. Not only is the artwork fantastic, but all the details--from how the different components of the game interact to the storytelling in the Crossroads cards--fit into exactly what you expect. With a few minor examples everything is intuitive.
- The many different options for playing are fantastic and integrated well. Fully co-op, traitor, personal goals, exiled goals--they all make things varied and interesting and don't gum up the works like other semi-coops tend to do.
- Each survivor has their own ability. While it seems like this might be overwhelming, it's really implemented quite well. It helps that actions are based off of dice and not actual individual players.
- A hallmark of a good game is that you make interesting decisions with proportionate results. Dead of Winter does this in a way that I have not seen before.
- As much as the theme is awesome, it seems like it could be cleaned up a little. The entire "waste" mechanism just seems to be needless bookkeeping, while the starvation mechanics seem like they could have been reduced down to a more manageable mechanic. None of this is major, but it seems like someone could have taken a comb through it.
- Related: there are a lot of parts to this game. That in and of itself isn't bad, but it makes setup times difficult and it's easy to lose track of what you are trying to do. It doesn't help that the card backs to the items all have to be identical. A few tweaks to the rules and it seems like this could have been reduced a bit.