Thursday, January 19, 2006

Zombies!!! Review

For decades, the modern zombie – as brought to you courtesy of George A. Romero, possibly the most influential horror director ever – has been a laughing stock. Too often the victim of low budgets, bad scripts and laughable acting, the zombie has languished ineffectually just outside the spotlight, moaning desperately to itself and waiting for its chance to shine. A few years back, something strange happened – the zombie became cool again. The ultra low-budget but brutally effective apocalyptic horror of 28 Days Later – with its sprinting ‘infected’ (essentially fast moving zombies) - brought the image of the zombie bang up to date and back into the mainstream consciousness. Since then we’ve had a remake of Dawn of the Dead (which was surprisingly good), Shaun of the Dead, and even the return of the godfather of the modern zombie, George A. Romero – with Land of the Dead. And that’s not even going into lesser known movies such as the Australian zombie movie, Undead – or big misfires like the video game adaptations Resident Evil and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. When zombie movies are good, they are rich in allegory and drenched in haunting imagery – not to mention terrifying in their implications. Often, the zombies themselves are not the biggest hazard to mankind – it’s other people and their petty struggles for power, recognition or supplies that often poses the most dire threat to the survival of the human race. Where lesser zombie movies go wrong is in focusing on the gore or the gunplay, too often going overboard on both and neglecting the human element that forms the core of the great zombie movies.

So does Zombies!!! the game get it right? Sadly, no. Obviously setting aside the fact that it’s nigh-on impossible to drag political and social commentary into a board game such as this, it’s unfortunate that the designers have also forgotten to include any fun whatsoever. Despite the lurid, graphic imagery, Zombies!!! is essentially a simplistic children’s game, featuring dull roll-and-move gameplay that seems to drag on endlessly.

The game itself sees players trying to escape town by reaching the helipad – or winning by killing a predetermined number of zombies. Each turn, players take a tile from the draw pile and turn it over. This tile is added to the current town layout (making sure that roads connect to roads and that a road does not connect to a wall, for instance). Players then combat any zombies on their current space by rolling a die and succeeding on a roll of 4, 5 or 6 – failure leads to the loss of life tokens (all life tokens lost equals a dead player, who is then resurrected back at the town square with all life and bullets restored). Players then replenish their hand of event cards before rolling for movement. Any zombies encountered while moving are fought (by rolling the die and winning combat as above). A die is then rolled for zombie movement – for example, on a roll of 4, the active player moves 4 zombies one space each wherever they want. The player may then discard an unwanted event card and play passes to the next player.

It’s a pretty simple game, but it’s made harder to actually learn because the rules are so badly written. One of my biggest gripes with the rules is that Zombies!!! has been in print for several years, and the rules are still in the same sorry state that they always have been. There are several officially recognised rules variants available on the publisher’s website – including one that speeds up and streamlines the game considerably – so why are these not included in the box, given that they too have been available for several years now?

It’s not all bad though. Included in the box are 100 plastic zombies, and they’re very well made in an appropriately lifeless grey colour. It’s a lot of figures considering the price of the game, which is a big plus. The player figures are not so good however, being identical and very tacky looking ‘shotgun guys’. All figures are well made and will stand up to repeated punishment though.

The overall look of the game is also a big strength – the appropriately lurid artwork and OTT fonts recall any number of cheesy B-movie horrors – you can see that tongues are firmly through rotting cheeks with the dark vein of humour that is apparent through the artwork.

The game itself is far less than the sum of it’s appealingly visualised parts though. Little more than an endless exercise in die rolling, the game long outstays its welcome and can last for hours with no end in sight, players simply at the whim of the dice with nothing to think about between turns and no interesting decisions to make when it is their turn. At no point do players ever really feel overwhelmed by the zombie threat (zombies should be incredibly numerous and totally overwhelming) as, in a bizarre decision, only 1 zombie is allowed per space. Also, the event cards add little to the gameplay and are often useless, many of them being specific to certain buildings that are often not worth trying to get to due to the amount of zombies in the way or because the building tile has not even drawn yet. Several cards seem totally unbalancing and the game as a whole seems to have been very poorly playtested.

Several vocal supporters of Zombies!!! answer the cries of poor playtesting and badly written rules with arguments of their own. Complaints that the game drags out too long are met with suggestions such as using the quickplay rules or taking tiles out of the town tile deck in order to speed up the arrival of the helipad (which is placed either as the last tile in the deck or among the last few tiles of the deck). This is all well and good – but does not fix the fact that a) the game is still a largely pointless and lazily designed series of die rolls and b) the quickplay rules, despite being officially approved by the game designers, are not included in the box. Why should players be forced to hunt around for solutions to lazy design and badly worded rules in order to make a game enjoyable? There are several hundred games out there that are all perfectly playable as they are, and players should not have to waste their time fixing a game that they have paid good money for. Another argument is that the various expansions available for the game fix some (if not all) of its shortcomings. This involves purchasers of the game to basically spend lots more money in order to make the base game more enjoyable – which is an awfully naïve suggestion as far as I’m concerned – spending more cash to improve an awful game that you’ve already wasted time and money on? No thanks!

Admittedly, playing one of the expansions alone (seeing as they are far smaller than the base game) is more enjoyable than playing either the base game alone or the base game plus expansion – but this is purely because the game is far shorter, lasting around 30-45 minutes max. Shorn of the long running time, the game is leaner and enjoyably mindless rather than mind-numbingly dumb.

Zombies!!! is one of those games that has achieved massive popularity despite it’s numerous, glaring shortcomings – but without the option of Euro-games in high street stores, mainstream consumers aren’t really given any viable options – and information on which games are worth playing is very thin on the ground for the average person. Zombies!!! certainly looks appealing, and packs a lot of well designed components into it’s neat packaging – but sadly, the game itself is totally lifeless. Dead, rather than undead.

Summary

Presentation: The one area of the game that’s tough to fault. Superb zombie figures (100 of them!), B-Movie style visuals featuring numerous homages to classic zombie movies and a nicely compact box. Shame about the dull, generic-looking player figures though. 9.2/10

Clarity of Rules: For such a simple game, the rules are a total mess. Given the amount of times this has been reprinted – and the length of time that the game has been available - it’s crazy that the rules still haven’t been revised and made clearer. 5.1/10

Game Length: Drags on interminably for hours, no matter how many players are involved, and with players at the whim of the dice, the going gets pretty dull, pretty soon. Given that officially-approved quickplay rules exist, why aren’t they included? 2.4/10

Value: Lots of components for the price, but you probably won’t be playing this very often. 6.3/10

Overall: A dreadfully dull experience that lasts for hours, seemingly without end – which is a shame, because it’s clearly designed with passion for the subject matter. If it was the designer’s aim to make players feel like zombies after playing this, they’ve succeeded admirably. 3.4/10 (not an average)

Review by Jason M. Brown