Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dawn of the Dead Review

This is a board game based on the movie of the same name. It completes, to my mind, the 'Big Three' of zombie games, what with Mall of Horror (a recent inductee into my own personal Zombie Hall of Fame), and Zombies!!! by Twilight Creations (both reviewed elsewhere in this Blog).

Written and directed by George A. Romero, the master of zombie flicks, the movie charts the adventures of four people trying to find a safe place to hide, and wait for the all of the dead to rot away. They discover one of those huge American shopping malls, infested with zombies. They land on the roof, and begin the dangerous process of clearing the mall of the infestation, in order to barricade up the doors, and live in luxury. There is more to the movie, but this game focuses on the characters’ efforts to gain control of the shopping mall.

The game is not available to buy any more, but there are places on the net that you can download the components from, ready to be printed out, stuck together and played. Thus the low Presentation score; it could rise if you go to town with your manufacturing, but essentially, you have a very functional board and counters. And the rules read like a dictionary! They could have made the rules a bit friendlier…

Essentially, it is a two-player game, with one player taking control of the zombies, and the other player controlling the four humans. However, we have very successfully played three player games, with just as much (if not more) fun. The rules suggest splitting up the human characters into three piles, and running the zombies according to the solitaire rules, but we find it much more fun to split the humans into two piles, and have the third player control the zombies. Using this method, you could conceivably play a five-player game (four human players, one zombie player), but I have no idea how that would pan out.

The rules, as I have stated before, are a hard read, and there is a lot to take in about various little sub-systems, and modifiers that are easy to forget. It is the rules that make me think that this must have originally been an Avalon Hill or SPI game – very, very thorough, with no ‘soul’ behind them. They are dry, but informative. We are still, however, discovering things that we are doing wrong after several plays, and no doubt will continue to do so for a time to come. The rules simply place no more importance to any of the systems used, so basically, what seems like a simple enough little rule can get missed, or dropped as being unimportant, when in fact it makes a huge impact on the game play!

(For our first few games, we had all completely missed the fact that human characters that moved in the last movement turn cannot move in the current turn – kind of important, really!)
The humans win if they manage to kill all of the zombies, close all four external doors of the mall, and get a hunting rifle each for Steve and Fran (two of the human characters). The zombie player wins if any three human characters are killed, or any two if one of them is Fran. (Fran is the worst character, and the temptation is to use her as bait, or fodder, but this rule puts an end to that little plan.)

The Humans have different values for their attributes, depending on how good they are; Peter and Roger, being ex-cops, are quite competent, but Steve and Fran (especially Fran) are a lot worse than the cops.

The game plays remarkably well. The rules are, in essence, quite simple, and once you have played one game you should be fairly conversant with the way it runs. Essentially, it goes like this: The humans move first, then the zombies. Humans can move up to the movement value on their counter (anything from 12 to 20), using movement points to achieve special actions (such as shutting doors – zombies can’t open doors). At any time during their move, the humans can shoot as many times as their rate of fire (from 2 to 5), rolling dice, with modifiers for range, shooting through a doorway, etc. Peter and Roger roll two dice, Steve and Fran roll one (until they get a hunting rifle).

Zombies are strewn throughout the mall, with the green side face up. Nobody knows the value of these zombies until an attack is made by either party. Then the chit is turned over to reveal a number between 2 and 11. In order for the Humans to kill the zombie chit, their attack roll must equal or exceed this value (after modifiers), and it is removed from the board.

More than one character can move in a human turn. The characters moving must begin in the same space, and move as a stack, up to the movement value of the slowest character. The benefit of this is that for each shot (up to the fire rate of the worst character) gets three (or two) dice instead of two (or one). The problem is panic. Each character has a panic value (from 1 to 3). The lower the better. In certain circumstances, characters must make a panic check, which involves rolling a single dice higher than their panic check (with modifiers sometimes). For example, firing at a zombie in the same space as your character requires a panic check with no modifiers. If you fail, the human turn ends there and then. And if more than one character is moving as a stack, they each have to make the roll…

Then the zombie gets to move. Each zombie that saw any human do anything during the human turn gets to move one square toward the humans. The zombie player then rolls a dice and moves that many zombies (those that didn’t move in reaction) one square anywhere.

There are also berserk zombies. Once a turn, the zombie player checks any zombie to see if it goes berserk. On a four or less, it does (he also makes the same roll to see if any previously berserk zombies are still berserk). Berserk zombies can move two spaces, and require panic checks to shoot at. It is not much, but it makes all the difference… They can also attempt to break through glass doors.

The zombie player rolls on the Zombie Generation Chart to see if any more zombies find their way into the mall via doors the humans haven’t got around to closing yet, and makes any zombie attacks if there are any zombies on the same space as humans. Just before a zombie attack, any humans on the same space get to shoot at the attacking zombie – if they make their panic check (at minus one if the zombies is berserk). If the zombie is still alive, then the zombie player chooses how many characters are being attacked (the human player chooses who is attacked if there is a choice), and divides the zombie value accordingly. A quick roll on a chart provides the result – No Effect, Stunned, or Infected.

When Stunned, the character can do nothing until rescued, by having another character move into the same space – with the attacking zombie. Note that if there is already a character on the same space, that character will have to move away then back to qualify – and moving off a space with a zombie costs movement points equal to the value of the zombie!

An Infection is worse. The character chit is replaced by an Infected chit (there is one for each character), with significantly lower attributes. And each turn, the human player must roll two dice for each infected character – on a 2 or a 12, the infected character becomes … a Super Zombie! These creatures can move three squares in a turn, and team up with any other zombie chits (adding 2 to the zombie chit’s value) to make an almost unstoppable force. They always require panic rolls to shoot at (with nasty modifiers), and can break through glass doors automatically. We’ve never seen one pop up in any of our games, and I can only count myself lucky (or unlucky if I happen to be the zombie player) that we haven’t! If a character is already Infected or Stunned, and receives another Infected or Stunned result, they die.

That’s pretty much it for the rules. There are lots of other wrinkles I haven’t mentioned, but the main gist is there. As for how it all fits together, well, it is very atmospheric. The human player seems to cut a swath through the ranks of the undead, and then (usually) something goes terribly wrong, and it all goes completely to pot! In the games we’ve played (properly), we have had a win for the zombies, and one for the humans. In the zombie win, the last few zombies managed to polish off the remaining humans, even after all the doors had been closed. When the humans won, they had one death, and another infected, before managing to wipe out the last zombies, securing the victory. The game seems delicately balanced, and works very well. The only problem is that the rules as written are quite user-unfriendly, and it is easy to miss out certain rules that tip the balance one way or the other (our first few games were easy wins for the humans).

Despite this, hidden under the veneer of a stale rules set and mediocre components, is a rather excellent game. If you can get it, and are a fan of the genre, I highly recommend it. It is very evocative of the theme, with the slow-moving zombies meandering around the mall, and the quick-moving humans running about, gunning them down – until one of them panics next to a berserk zombie with a value of ten! We’ve always had fun playing it, no matter what the outcome (even as the zombie player, who generally doesn’t have much tactics available, watching the plans of the human players get ripped to shreds due to a big glut of high-strength zombies is especially satisfying).

Summary

Presentation: This can be what you make it – literally. The game comes as a zip file that you can print off, cut out and stick together. Even when new and out of the box, the game would hardly win any beauty contests. The chits and board are of typical SPI-game functionality, and anyone of a certain age with certainly get a twinge of nostalgia from just looking at it. 5.4/10

Clarity of Rules: This is where the game really suffers. The rules are complex and all-inclusive of pretty much everything you might want to do when beating back an undead horde. Unfortunately, they are not necessarily intuitive, and certainly not easy to absorb or even reference during the game. Fiddly and crunchy rules, in a dry and uninteresting rulebook. 3.5/10

Game Length: The game does last about an hour and a half, and that is plenty. Any longer, and it would become boring, any shorter, and it would feel half-finished. A good 90 minutes of zombie-bashing fun! 8.3/10

Value: You can’t beat the price! The effort and resources used to actually make it can be tailored to suit any pocket. Colour printing is better, but even this can be sacrificed for the sake of thriftiness… 9.7/10

Overall: A lost gem of a game that could really do with a new polish and some nice components. It’s Zombies!!! done right – a really good zombie bashing game that works. Exciting and nail-biting, and very reminiscient of the movie it is taken from. 8.6/10 (not an average)

Review by David Plank