Mall of Horror Review
Zombies are cool, and every game could be improved with the addition of a few. So any game based round the entire premise of a zombie outbreak must, by definition, be cool, right?
Unfortunately, most of the available board games out there seem to get it a bit wrong. Of course, it depends on what you are looking for in a game, and if you are after a tense and strategic battle between the forces of the dead and that of the living, you could do worse than take a gander at the (now out of print, but download- and print-able) Dawn of the Dead board game.
And if you are after a tongue-in-cheek battle for survival against overwhelming hordes of plastic miniature undead, then the Zombies!!! board game (the three exclamation marks seem to be mandatory) and it’s plethora of expansions could be worth a look.
The thing that all of these games use as their central theme, however, falls short of the real reason zombie stories work: the way that mankind is ready to screw over everyone else in order to reach their goals.
I mean, sure, Zombies!!! has loads of ‘screw your neighbour’ cards, and the whole idea is to reach the helicopter and escape leaving everyone else behind, but the game itself is mainly about killing zombies (in fact, in that game, you can win by being the first to kill fifty (or so) zombies instead of reaching the helicopter).
Not so with Mall of Horror, the new game by Asmodee Games. The goal in this game is to screw your opponents over, and survive by any means necessary until the helicopter arrives to rescue anyone left alive. And maybe – just maybe – kill the occasional zombie on the way.
So it transpires that a whole bunch of people find themselves trapped inside a big ol’ American shopping mall (called the Monroeville Mall, which is where the original Dawn of the Dead was filmed), and need to keep the hordes of ravenous undead from their delicate sweet meats until the helicopter arrives to whisk the survivors off to safety.
Each player takes control of a gang of three people, who all have their own special talent. The dizzy blonde is worth the most points at the end of the game, but attracts even more zombies, the strong man can help to keep the zombies out of each location in the mall, and the gunman is worth an extra man during votes (“Yeah? Well I’ve got a gun!”).
At the start of the game, the characters are all semi-randomly strewn throughout the locations in the mall, and some zombies are added (never much of a threat at the start of the game), and the mayhem begins!
The locations are mainly just areas you can hang out, but two of them have special significance – the Parking Lot, and the Security Office. At the start of each turn, the characters in the Parking Lot get to vote to decide who will make the dash out to the supply truck and back. The winner of the vote gains a card from the deck (which allow you to hide from zombies, kill one or two of the undead, barricade doors, and so on). Then the characters in the Security Office vote to see who will be Chief of Security for the round. The Chief always goes first whenever moving, and also gets to check the security cameras, and thus knows where the zombies are arriving.
Voting is the meat-and-bones of the game, and is where deals are made and just as quickly broken. Players are allowed to make any promises they want before the votes take place, but nothing whatsoever is binding. Popular campaign promises are “If you let me go to the truck, I will use whatever weapon I find there to kill any zombies that threaten us” and “If I become Chief of Security, I will tell everyone where the zombies are going to be”. Of course, once the votes are cast (secretly and simultaneously on the handy voting wheel), and the decision is made, all bets are off, and it is up to the winner to decide whether to keep his promise, or renege, and risk losing credibility in future votes.
Once the truck is searched, and the Chief is elected, the zombies arrive. The Chief takes the four dice, and rolls them under a box to hide the results. The Chief can then take a peek at the dice, which show the four locations that the zombies will be arriving this turn (adding to the zombies already at those locations).
Everyone needs to then move a single character from one location to another, as the characters scramble about looking for a safe bolt-hole. Each player selects, in secret, the number corresponding to the location he or she will be moving to. Everyone reveals at the same time, and in clockwise order from the Chief, moves one character to the selected location.
The dice are then revealed, and the zombies are added to the board. An extra zombie goes on the location with the most characters, and a second extra one is placed on the location with the most dizzy blondes.
Finally, each location is checked to see if it is breached, and someone gets eaten. If the zombies equal or outnumber the characters inside the location, they break in and feast. The characters at the location must then vote to see who gets sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ (read: to keep my characters alive). The chosen character is removed, and all the zombies at that location wander off, bloated with fresh meat…
Then you do the whole thing over again. The game finishes when all of the characters are at the same location (which won’t happen quickly, as each location can only hold a certain number of characters), or when there are only four characters total left. The survivors tot up their points (printed on each character – blondes are worth 7, strong guys are worth 5, and gunmen are 3), and the player with the most points wins.
The game is great fun to play, and very evocative of the genre, with the survivors of the zombie apocalypse bickering and arguing over every little decision, while the ever-growing numbers of the undead build up until they break in and render all arguments moot in a bloodthirsty tide of grasping claws and gaping jaws. Well, fun to play if you like that sort of thing, anyway…
The alliances and promises that get broken during play are incredible – husband and wife turning on each other – close brothers at each other’s throats – best friends shouting blue murder. It’s divine!
I think it goes without saying that if you play with someone who takes games very seriously, and is a terribly bad loser, then real blood may be spilt during play. It is best to print off a honking great sign before playing, and pin it to the wall for all to see – merely with the words “IT’S ONLY A GAME!”. However, if everyone takes it in the vein it is intended – as a forum for a great, back-stabbing hour of play, then you will have a blast!
There are, however, one or two little gripes that I feel I must air. The rulebook is a bit of a mess. It has been translated from French into English, and the translation is passable, barely. It could have done with a native English speaker giving the rules a once-over before publication. They are also strangely set-out, with rules being all over the place. The rules for the various cards, for example, are strewn throughout the rules rather than being collected in one place. However, with a couple of readings, and a couple of turns’ play-through, these problems will be ironed out.
Another slight problem is that this is an elimination game, and some players may find themselves watching from the sidelines if they lose all of their characters. The rules do say that if a player loses all of his characters, he gets to place a single zombie in the mall, but this is small recompense for having to sit the rest of the game out. It has to be said, though, that this rarely happens, as it is mainly the leaders who will get hosed by votes and so on, leaving the trailers – those with only one character left – to their own devices. And as the game can easily be played in an hour, then those knocked out will not be lonely for very long…
For a self-confessed zombie freak, this game pushes all the right buttons with me; it’s nasty, it’s atmospheric, it’s simple enough that my wife can play and enjoy it, and there are some toys I can muck about with when my five-year-old gets his mitts on it. And it’s got zombies! What more could anyone ask for?
Review by David Plank