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Keith Tralins and Brian David-Marshall on The Walking Dead: The Board Game

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: The Walking Dead: The Board Game
As noted in May 2011, two board games based on Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead are due out in 2011 with one based on Kirkman's comic book series and the other based on the AMC television show (which is based on Kirkman's comic book series). To get a better handle on what one of these games will bring, I interviewed Keith Tralins and Brian David-Marshall, co-designers of The Walking Dead: The Board Game, due out in Q3 2011 from Z-Man Games and have weaved their comments into a preview of the game.

"A little more than a year ago, before all the hype for The Walking Dead TV show took off, I started reaching out to [the talent agency] Circle of Confusion and Robert Kirkman to do a game based on the book," says Keith Tralins. "BDM [Brian David-Marshall], Matthew Wang and I are all huge fans of the comic book. I had been toying with a zombie game in zombie world, and I reached out to him and said this is how I think people can experience the world of The Walking Dead in north Georgia. They loved the concept, and here we are a year later."

For Tralins, the essence of the comic was always about how people exist in a world without rules and how vicious they can be to one another, even in situations in which they need each other to survive. "I wanted to play with that as I thought there were a lot of gaming elements from a political standpoint to experiment with and experience. Can I trust the people around me to watch my back? You face 'live together, die alone' questions. I was something I really wanted to play with."

Adds David-Marshall, "I look at the world that Robert Kirkman has created and think about how I'd handle myself with a horde of zombies on my heels. Would I team up with other people? I think everyone has wondered what they would do."

In The Walking Dead: The Board Game, hereafter TWDTBG, each player already starts as part of a team, drawing one of the six starting characters at random, then drawing a random follower to travel together with that character. Each player sheet also has space for a player to track his resources, starting the game with one food, one gas and one ammo.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Each character and follower has some combination of hero, fighter and scavenger dice – those being blue, red and green – with the dice having different ratios of kill, action and wild icons. The starting combination above, for example, would have you roll three hero dice and one fighter die whenever you needed to as a result of an encounter or location.

Collectively a player's starting character and followers are called "Survivors" and are represented on the game board by a single pawn. On a turn, a player can first spend food to remove fatigue from one or more Survivors. The player then moves his pawn 1-3 spaces to reach resources on the board or safe locations.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Any time a player lands on a space showing one or more resources, he reveals an encounter card for each resource depicted. Some encounters require you to kill zombies or achieve a certain number of actions, with you rolling dice in both cases; other encounters compare your resources or group stats against other players or require a vote from everyone in the game. Still other encounters are inventory cards that give you a benefit each turn or allow you to discard them for some special effect.

"The encounters are heavily inspired" by Robert Kirkman, says Tralins, "with the images and titles all directly from the comic, recreating scenes on some level but reinterpeting them."

Tralins goes on to say, "Our approach was to create more of an open environment, a sandbox environment, than to recreate the story of The Walking Dead. Different events can unfold at different times and in different places."

The goal of TWDTBG is to be the first to reach three locations, with the final one representing safety for your Survivors and the conversion into zombie food for everyone else. Three location cards are revealed at the start of the game, and each player holds one secret location card. A player can enter a location only if he has a chance of completing the challenge shown on the card, and the level of difficulty will depend upon how many location cards a player has already claimed: If none, then the player takes the first challenge; if one, then the second challenge; and if two, then the third challenge.

Says Tralins, "The locations you can reach on the board are in the first twelve issues of the comic. Others are unique to the game and people might choose to go in different directions."

From gallery of W Eric Martin

As you can see from the example above, some of the locations (as well as some encounters) require you to kill zombies. To do this, you roll dice equal to your Survivors' abilities, then see whether you rolled enough "kill" icons to match the number of zombies you face. If you don't, your party suffers one fatigue for each zombie that remains, with you allocating fatigue to Survivors. If a Survivor ever has three fatigue, that character or follower is removed from the game. Let all your party members die, and you'll need to start the game over as someone new – assuming not everyone has been killed off, of course.

After you roll the dice, you can choose to spend one ammo to roll the ammo die, which kills from 1-3 zombies, and you can do this as often as you wish. The drawback, however, is that sometimes the noise of the ammo will attract more zombies to you. Roll "Blam!" and you must place one zombie token (representing an unknown number of zombies) on each empty space adjacent to your pawn, giving you more zombies to fight in the future. Says David-Marshall, "Anyone who has read The Walking Dead knows that shooting zombies is not the ideal way to deal with them. The use of guns is so important in the story that it was one of the key things that would set us apart from other zombie games."

"Other items can help you fight zombies without making noise. The ammo mechanism is there to bail you out – but it could be out of the frying pan and into the fire," adds Tralins. "One of the things in the world that Robert Kirkman created is that guns are used but at a cost. They more often hurt the survivors than anything. Major characters are dying not because of zombies, but because of guns players are using." In other words, you can't just blast away at zombies and hope to survive.

In addition to being attracted to the sound of gunfire, a zombie token is placed on the board each time you move your pawn, with the token going on an empty non-location space that you vacate. They may not be too bright, but their ears work fantastically well! "There's a lot of strategy to movement," says Tralins. "If you just start moving around, you'll box yourself in; people will just have to blast through zombies to survive. You never know what you're going to get [with the tokens]: Maybe one zombie and an easy encounter, sometimes an entire horde where you have to pull out all the stops to survive."

When moving on a turn, you can spend gas in two ways, one being to spend a unit of gas to bypass a zombie token on the board. (You can't stop moving on the zombie, however. Your presence will draw them to attack.) Alternatively, you can spend gas to move two spaces instead of one, so having enough fuel allows you to move up to six spaces on a turn.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
A section of the game board from the rulebook, highlighting the inaccessability of Atlanta which can be entered only from certain points

Ammo, gas and food; characters and followers – everyone seems to be fighting on the their with their own resources. How do they pull together to pool their strength? Players whose pawns are on the same space on the game board can decide to move together as one group. Each player in the game still takes his own turn, and on your turn if you're part of a group, you make all decisions as to where the group will move, but you roll dice for all the Survivors in the group, not just for those in your team. If you're required to pay resources or suffer fatigue, you're responsible for paying the costs and distributing fatigue tokens on your characters, but others can volunteer to pay the costs if they desire.

The tricky part of playing as a group, however, is that a non-active player can choose to leave the group at the start of another player's turn, suddenly depriving them of dice and resources on which they might have been relying. Says David-Marshall, "I think most people understand game play as an individual experience. The cooperative rules are the next step that people are going to take. Once you understand how the game works, the cooperative element adds that much deeper texture to the experience."

"It really replicates being in the wild and trying to survive with your band or family," says Tralins. "And the central questions are who are these people, and can they help me or are they a threat? We know that people will end up in the same space. How do they solve that situation? The cooperative experience was always in the DNA of the game, not as the central focus but as a possiblitiy because that's the nature of the story."

Adds David-Marshall, "There's a block of cards that create interesting dilemmas for people who travel together." That said, if one player in the group successfully completes a third location, then everyone in the group wins the game, giving everyone an incentive to stick together – well, everyone but that player perhaps.

Asked about their game being one of two on the market, Brian David-Marshall says, "I think the game stands on its own. I would love to live in a world where there was only one Walking Dead game and we made it. We found out about [the other title] at the same time it was announced."

Adds Tralins, "We worked closely with Robert Kirkman and Skybound and [artist] Charlie Adlard to make sure the experience was rewarding and faithful to the comic. Robert Kirkman had very kind words for the game..."
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