Zombie Board Gaming Makes Pandemics Visceral

Coop board gaming has never been as deadly. 

Ben Guarino

Pretend, for a moment, that the box lids containing the board game Dead of Winter: The Long Night are jaws. They have unhinged to swallow whole the best of the zombie tripes. There is shambling. There is brain-hunger. There is the fear of losing one’s precious humanity. And there is plenty of action — mostly in the form of acts of desperation. Dead of Winter is the rare game that isn’t Pandemic that equates survival with winning. Perhaps the key difference here is just how hard winning gets as the board fills with zombies, hungry mouths, and graveyard emigrants.

In practice, The Long Night is a slush of action management, paranoid cooperation, and resource collection. The game, which is a sequel to the hit 2014 Dead of Winter, has a narrative core. Players venture forth from the relative safety of a walled colony into perilous but resource-rich wilds.

Two to five players need to work together to achieve an overarching goal (for instance, collecting a specific number and type of supplies from the remote locations). Meanwhile, a new crisis pops up every round, triggering adventures that don’t always end well. The game does not truck in dull moments.

That is why, at first blush, the sheer number of options available in Dead of Winter: The Long Night are overwhelming. Goals aside, the rounds play out in a sort of if-you-give-a-zombie-mouse-a-brain scenario: You will want to recruit more colonists to take more actions. But if you have more colonists, you will have more mouths to feed.

If you don’t play enough food cards, the colony will starve and lose morale. If you play food cards, the waste pile will increase. And if the waste increases too much, your colonists will become depressed and lose morale. If your colonists lose too much morale, you lose the game.

And so on.

It all sounds terribly downbeat. It kind of is! The world has ended, and baby, it’s cold outside. Whenever you leave the comfort of the starting colony for a remote location, the grocery store for instance, you have to roll to see if you make it. But do not let those dice rolls intimidate you. “The Long Night” is the most co-op fun to be had this side of “Pandemic Legacy.” To balance out the layer of crap you have to deal with, “The Dead of Winter” relies on a snappy and simple action system.

For each survivor in your party, you roll dice plus one. Each special action you want to take, like killing a zombie or rifling through the pile of cards at the gas station for that katana, costs a die with a high enough roll. (What that high enough roll is depends on the character you want to take the action — searching with the blind motivational speaker, for instance, means you have to have rolled a six.)

At first you may be confused by the sheer number of moving pieces. But after a few turns under your belt, the idea of taking certain actions click. And then you will realize there are too many things you need to do, and time is running out.

Your party is made up of characters with their own skills and flaws. A sniper might be able to take down a distant zombie for free; the blind motivational speaker is not a good resource gatherer, as you might expect, but has the power to deliver such a moving eulogy that the colonys morale doesn’t take a hit when the sniper is chomped dead.

Whereas the cooperation in Pandemic deals in globetrotting, a clinical view of a cube outbreak from 30,000 feet up, The Long Night is a more intimate affair. To its credit, the zombie game avoids the avoids the so-called quarterbacking problem, in which one particularly vocal player dictates how turns should be best played. What if the loudmouth is, after all a traitor?

Even if the people at the table are not actively working against you, each person has a hidden objective that needs to be fulfilled in order to win. It’s a delicious tension: I could hand my katana over to a friend she would be better equipped to defeat the zombies massing at the colony gate. But I might need to hang onto my katana card, per my secret victory condition. And so the graveyard gets another cardboard body.

The Long Night is a game that is happy with you losing. Or if you win, you win feeling as though you just barely escaped. Should you start to win too easily, “The Long Night” comes with other modules that snap onto the base game, beefing up the threat: a mysterious facility called Raxxon that contains fantastical weapons and deadlier monsters, or a bandit outpost out to plunder your loot.

Winter is here. Now go play in the snow.