Welcome to the first entry in our new series: Board Game Battles! This Versus series pits similar games against each other in a quick, dirty, to-the-death cage match to compete for your shelf space. Two or more titles will duke it out to see which has the better theme, mechanics, fun factor, aesthetics, and value. Get the information you need to know to pull the trigger on your game purchase today!
In both Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactica, players are cooperatively trying to survive until the end of the game. A disaster has killed off a large percentage of the rest of the humans, and it’s up to the players to conserve their resources, overcome crises, defend themselves, and maintain the survivors’ morale.
The twist—implemented a bit differently in each game—is that something is rotten in Denmark. A traitor is (or sometimes it) among you.
Dead of Winter and Battlestar Galactica are marquee titles in heavier, thematic cooperative games involving a secret traitor. So which deserves a spot in your collection?
Battlestar Galactica is a Fantasy Flight games release dating all the way back to 2008. Supporting 3-6 players and lasting 120-240 minutes, it was the genre’s flagship for many years (no pun intended). The game is based on the remade science fiction television show of the same name, which boasts a cult following, and concluded in 2009. The game itself won nearly a dozen awards from multiple countries, including several Golden Geek nominations and a Spiel der Spiele. At the time of this writing, Battlestar is ranked 29th overall and 10th thematically on boardgamegeek.com.
Cylons—a race of synthetic workers that arose and rebelled from slavery, and have since updated themselves to appear indinguishable from humans—have attacked the twelve human colonies and wiped out almost the entirety of all civilization. A giant human warship, the Battlestar Galactica itself, has gathered a ragtag fleet of less than 60,000 survivors, barely keeping ahead of the Cylons. The fleet searches desperately for fabled Earth, the promised land of peace that’s out of the reach of their nemeses.
Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter is a Plaid Hat Games title from as recent as 2014, seating 2-5 and lasting 45-210 minutes. Receiving nearly as many awards as Battlestar Galactica, including the Golden Geek winner in innovation and theme for 2014, Dead of Winter has achieved almost unprecedented popularity so soon after its release. In fact, its debut on the 2015 Dice Tower People’s Choice Top 100 Games of All Time was at number two. It currently holds the 18th rank overall, and 5th thematically, on boardgamegeek.com. There’s no doubting this game is a powerhouse.
Players are tossed into the middle of the zombie apocalypse, complete with all the familiar faces and challenges. The goal: survive the winter. Each game’s objectives are determined by the chosen scenario—varying in difficulty and length of play—and each player has a secret objective in addition to the survival (or, in the betrayer’s case, the implosion) of the colony.
Battlestar Galactica is one of Fantasy Flight’s many licensed games, so you’ll see some familiar faces if you’ve ever watched the television series. The similarities point to a clear top-down design, which shines brightly in every session of Battlestar. The game plays out like a fresh script. If a single turn of the game was described, it would actually sound it could be an episode synopsis. “Admiral Adama issued an executive order to Starbuck, who took her viper out to shoot down a couple Cylon Raiders before they could take out the civilian ships in the sector. Then the President had to make a tough choice when a crisis arose—implement more severe rationing at the expense of morale, or keep things the same and hope the food lasts.” This is one single person’s turn during the game.
The secret traitor is a Cylon that looks and acts exactly as a human does—a sleeper agent sent to wreak havoc through sabotage. Like any other player, the Cylon secretly contributes cards to overcome crises; however, the Cylon might choose to contribute cards that actually hurt the fleet’s chances, perfectly simulating infiltration and foul play.
Fantasy Flight hit the ball out of the park on marrying the game to the television series. The thematic parallels capture the feel of the show wonderfully. Fans of the show will certainly find the theme enjoyable and engaging…but what if you’ve never seen the show? What if you did, and didn’t like it? Sadly, you’re not getting the same effect. While I’ve certainly seen laypersons be pulled into the lore, they still miss quite a lot of the context. When the water shortage crisis pops up, they don’t have that empathic link with the situation that the fans do, because they don’t remember how demoralizing it was to hear the hard numbers after the water tank blew up.
Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter drops you into the zombie apocalypse with which we are all intimately acquainted by now. Rather than seek to build something new or give it a twist, Plaid Hat elects to use our familiarity as a stepping stone so that it can focus more on representing that world through the game. In this endeavor, Dead of Winter succeeds in perhaps a greater degree than any game I’ve ever played.
Morale is the key to Dead of Winter. Whenever just about anything bad happens, morale drops. If it ever reaches zero, the game is lost (unless you’re the betrayer, in which case you might win). Lacking food, failing to contribute enough items together as a team to overcome the crisis each round, characters dying to any number of hazards, and even failing to keep the colony from overflowing with waste can all cause morale to drop. So, naturally, it’s in the colony’s best interest to limit this. However, scavenging and culling the zombie swarm are risky. Exposure to injury or death, and story-rich Crossroads cards can result not just in failure, but in having even worse things happen. I feel like this do-or-die-but-risk-death-while-doing tension captures the feel of the zombie apocalypse beautifully.
The “band of survivors” social mechanic is also represented very well in Dead of Winter. There isn’t always a betrayer—in fact, one should only appear in about 40% of standard games—but everyone has incentive to act a bit selfishly because of their secret objective cards. All secret objective cards, survivor and betrayer alike, have a secondary condition, and you actually lose the game as an individual if you haven’t completed all conditions on your card. For example, a survivor’s might say “The scenario objectives must be complete, and you must have four medicine cards in your hand at the end of the game.” So when a crisis comes up that demands the group pay four medicine to avoid a loss of morale…do you cough one up? Do you lie and say you don’t have any? Or do you just admit that you have medicine, but you want to keep it for yourself? If you do, could you end up being exiled by the rest of the players? Everyone’s self-motivation can cause a fair amount of paranoia to take root, causing social disputes about gameplay that sound eerily similar to dialogue from The Walking Dead.
While Dead of Winter’s theme might not be news to anyone that’s ever turned on a television in the past fifty years, its real thematic strength comes from just how completely and remarkably well the zombie apocalypse is represented through gameplay. It achieves a level of immersion that I honestly haven’t yet found anywhere else in any tabletop gaming experience.
Each of these games is a thematic monster, hands down. However, Battlestar Galactica’s strength is drawn from source material that not all players can fully appreciate. Additionally, while its thematic parallel is strong, Galactica falls just short of achieving the same level of immersion I find in Dead of Winter.
Winner: Dead of Winter
Much like the ship itself, Battlestar Galactica is an older game that has held up well over time. Its mechanics have since been emulated in many other titles, including Dead of Winter, and there’s a good reason for it.
As much as I love the game, the truth is that some of the mechanics are a bit wonky, and it isn’t a perfectly balanced game. The difficulty for the humans is can vary significantly based on the number of players. The Cylon Sympathizer mechanic is a bit dense. Space combat can be dull. These hiccups, while far from making Battlestar a bad game, do add up.
However, Battlestar Galactica rallies with its two strongest mechanics—the President/Admiral titles, and the crisis resolution. The titles would be boring in any other game, but when you know for a fact that there’s a secret killer robot among you, trusting an Admiral with the nukes can be quite the dilemma. The President has to frequently make hard choices—choices that you really wouldn’t want a Cylon to be making for everyone. These titles can pass hands by votes or coups or certain events, but they introduce a real strategic depth to the game just by existing.
Each crisis has a flat number (10, for example), and a highlighted set of 2-5 colors among the 5 total colors available (red, yellow, and purple, for example). Players have cards of numerical value (1-5) in their hands of the 5 colors—although each character can access only 2-3 of those colors—and secretly contribute any number of them to the crisis. Table talk cannot be used to coordinate this effort, but the number of cards each player adds is public knowledge. Two totally random cards are added, the whole stack is shuffled, and the cards are revealed. The total number of numerical points from colored cards not highlighted on the crisis is subtracted from the total number of points from colored cards that are highlighted on the crisis. If the difference meets or exceeds the crisis’s flat value, then it is overcome. However, certain crises still have negative effects (although less severe) even if you pass the check.
This mechanic is genius. It serves so many different purposes. The players must manage their hands between being active on the board and saving for future crises. The Cylon has a means by which to secretly sabotage the fleet’s efforts. The Cylon is covered, to a degree, but it risks exposure if it is not careful. A clock is provided, forcing the humans to seek the end of the game before they’re overwhelmed by the crises in the long run. It may be my personal single favorite mechanic in any game I’ve ever played.
Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter is the new kid on the block—but what it lacks in tenure, it makes up for with clean design. Plaid Hat did a remarkable job with this game. It’s certainly obscenely difficult—the colony only survived less than half of the twelve or fifteen sessions I’ve played—but let’s be real. Zombies killed everyone. Chances are, you’re next, and this is okay.
The game is balanced very well. This isn’t to say it’s always fair, but it’s unfair only in the kind of way you’d expect from a world where people come back to life and eat other people.
Even so, some of the mechanics are questionable. For example, if your last character dies, you just draw a new one at random and keep your same secret objective card. While this is more fun than the variant where you just get eliminated, it still makes my eyebrow shoot up when it happens.
The only mechanic that truly stands out to me are the action dice. You roll a number to scale with the total characters in your faction, and then you can assign them to do different things during your turn. Certain actions can be taken with dice of any value, while fighting and searching require a minimum based on the character. It’s fun, clean, and introduces a mechanical decision matrix to compliment the social one.
Again, both games are very solid. Overall, while Dead of Winter is actually more balanced, it just lacks the breakout innovation found in Battlestar Galactica. Dead of Winter’s clean and streamlined structure would likely not have been possible without its ancestor’s groundwork. While Battlestar wasn’t the first game with a secret traitor, it rocketed the genre into popularity, and that effect can be directly attributed to the strength of its mechanics—primarily, the beautifully-tailored multipurpose crisis resolution mechanic.
Winner: Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica reigned for years as the industry standard for a secret traitor game, and with good reason. It’s thematic, it’s innovative, and it’s fun.
Battlestar’s biggest edge here is its clean cut conditions for winning and losing. The Cylon wins if the humans lose. The humans win if they survive long enough to reach Earth. In spite of the paranoia, there’s a real team mentality going on. Whatever else it might be, it’s also a fun, intense cooperative game.
While certain personality types dislike being the traitor in any game, Battlestar boasts the best-integrated traitor mechanic. The Cylon can find a lot of enjoyment value in the game by just playing the role of the villain, whether or not it wins. The paranoia in Battlestar can be intense, to the point of hysteria, and that can be an amazingly fun social dynamic to bring to your table.
Unfortunately, Battlestar can drag. Move, action, crisis. Move, action, crisis. Over and over again forever until you die or reach Earth. While the game is very intense, it can also be repetitive. At 2-4 hours, the longer games can be downright brutal—although I’ve never played a game longer than 3 hours myself.
Additionally, the game could be less fun if you’re not familiar with, or dislike, the television series. I personally wouldn’t know.
Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter is a game that has hit tables steadily since its release. It’s a blast. Who doesn’t like killing zombies?
But this isn’t some mindless hack and slash zombie killer (ahem, Zombicide, ahem). It’s a full on survival drama with the flavor of any five other games you can put together. Players are challenged by what I can only assume is a very realistic representation of the situation. The immersion runs deep, and this makes it a ridiculously fun experience.
Ironically, the moments that break this immersion actually end up providing the most fun. It’s just such a great time for everyone when someone gets to be the dog character, Sparky. Adlibbing him into the Crossroads stories and the narrative is delightful. Just don’t think too hard on how he knew to bring back medicine from the hospital.
The thing that hurt Winter’s fun factor the most to me is the fact that the secret objectives, while they provide quite a lot of thematic depth, take a lot of value away from winning the game. If Dead of Winter were a true cooperative game, the survivors would all win the game together by completing the scenario objectives. I’d be happy sharing victory if that were the case. Instead, the end of the game seems a bit schizophrenic. “Hooray, I win! Ah, and it looks like you won, too. But not him or her, they both lost.” This makes winning feel like less of an accomplishment, in spite of the fact that it’s quite difficult to win. Over the games I’ve played, I’ve found I get more enjoyment out of just focusing on the colony than I do pursuing my secret objective.
My other complaints are minor and anecdotal. Having the least number of characters is less fun than having more. Variance can be absolutely devastating at times, so sometimes individual players get hosed out of the competition. The game can feel repetitive.
Still, overall very fun.
Each is a very fun time, but each also has its moments that can dampen that. Battlestar Galactica has the stronger traitor mechanic and a more meaningful victory condition, while Dead of Winter is more immersive and narrative. I have exactly as good a time playing one as I do the other, and therefore I can’t declare a technical victor.
Battlestar Galactica is no slouch here. Fantasy Flight games is notorious for high-quality components, and this game is no exception. From the minis, to the chipboard, to the cards, everything functions properly and looks great doing it. It even managed to win Dice Tower’s 2008 award for best artwork.
A majority of the illustrations, however, are just screen captures from the television series. I think that this was the right call by the developer, as artwork would not have accomplished anything further, but it does give the game a certain anchored feel.
Dead of Winter
Meanwhile, Dead of Winter is aesthetically phenomenal. Plaid Hat is another publisher whose components I’ve come to think very highly of, and this game is partly responsible for that. Each of the thirty different characters has a uniquely illustrated card and standee. Multiple zombie models creep towards each of several illustrated locations, most of which are filled with big stacks of illustrated item cards.
The aesthetic as a whole beautifully matches the theme and the feel of a zombie survival drama set in the winter.
I never thought I’d see the day that a Fantasy Flight game lost out to a similar game in aesthetics, but here it is. Dead of Winter takes the cake.
Winner: Dead of Winter
Battlestar Galactica retails for $35 at the moment—it was even on sale November 2nd for $25—but this low price can be attributed to its age. For the game’s depth, weight, and components, this is a bargain. I’ve bought middleweight Euro games that cost more, had less total mass and design, and considered them good buys.
Battlestar is fairly replayable, but as a heavier game it might not hit the table as often as you’d like. You may also have trouble finding people to play, as the theme isn’t the most approachable. That said, replay value is overall marginally better than other games of similar length and weight.
Three expansions—Pegasus, Exodus, and Daybreak—have been released to date. These expansions add a wide variety of mechanics, characters, and cards—some of which are awful, some are excellent, and some actually correct the game’s inherent imbalances. The expansions run about $25, and are worth the value for the game’s fans.
Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter is yours for $42, down quite a bit from its $60-$75 earlier this year. While this is a bit more expensive than Battlestar, Winter comes with quite a few more cards, pieces, and a million more dice. As far as raw materials go, this could actually be the better deal.
I find Dead of Winter hurting a bit in replayability. Many people won’t agree with this, but here’s my rationale. I’ve played many games of Dead of Winter that resulted in a defeat so crushingly brutal that I just wanted to put it on the shelf and say, “Okay. Let’s try that again on down the road.” While the scenarios lend fresh objectives, I find I still end up doing the same things—go out, maybe get bitten, find some things, sometimes spend them helping the colony, sometimes keep them for myself. The Crossroads cards, while excellent, are memorable enough that they lose their novelty after just a few sessions. “Ohh, right, I remember this card. Truck driver guy has a heart attack. Let’s leave him this time and see what happens.” I’d rate Winter overall as having slightly less replay value than similar games in its class.
While Dead of Winter is a bit too young for an expansion, Isaac Vega has confirmed that one is in development. As of 2 October, the expansion was in prototype phase, and described as a big box standalone that can be integrated with the base game. It will include twenty new survivors, new cards of all types, a new location, a new threat in a “bandits” mechanic, colony upgrades, a new “event card” mechanic, and a mechanic involving “despair tokens.” Additionally, Plaid Hat has just recently released a companion app for the Crossroads cards, which (excellently) features the Dice Tower’s Eric Sommerer reading the text. This honestly makes me giddy.
While this one may be weighted by my own personal opinions on the games rather than objective evidence, I have to give the win here to Battlestar Galactica for better replay value.
Winner: Battlestar Galactica
So, there you have it. Dead of Winter holds strong in theme and aesthetics, but Battlestar Galactica wins in value and mechanics. Check out the team breakdown below to see which game should get the first slot on your shelf, and let us know which team you’re on in the comments!
YOU’RE TEAM GALACTICA IF…
- You’ve ever said the words “frak” or “so say we all” and meant them.
- You looking for a more cooperative experience with cleaner conditions of victory and defeat
- You’d prefer the game that incites the most paranoia and offers greater cover for the traitor
- You dislike high-variance risk/reward
- You’re just SO done with zombies
YOU’RE TEAM WINTER IF…
- You’ve ever been genuinely upset by a Walking Dead spoiler (or if you’ve never experienced a Walking Dead spoiler because you’re always the first to watch every episode)
- You love a game with an immersive theme
- You enjoy story-rich narrative in your games
- You prefer intense, risky gameplay
- You’re happiest putting the emphasis on “semi” in “semi-cooperative.”