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Subject: City of Zombies review (pre-production copy) rss

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Darrell Ottery
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So, this review is kinda long. But I figured that as an early review more detail was better than less. Jump to the bottom if you want the tl;dr summary.

Never heard of you - who the hell are you?

Since this is my first posted review (although a long-time user, if not recently frequent poster) who am I, and what do I know about reviewing?

In brief, I'm an FLGS owner, in a UK store that specializes in boardgames over and above CCGs, miniatures, and RPGs (though we do of course carry and support those things). I've played games for years - since I was a child - starting with a family tradition of playing card games with relatives, right through to the current day, which is well over 35 years, and probably longer than that if only I could remember that far back.

Since I evaluate all the new titles that get released on a weekly basis with two different hats on (firstly that of a gamer - Do I personally like the game idea? Is it something I want to own? and secondly that of a store owner, where the priorities in assessing are somewhat different: Is the game commercially viable? Likely to have an audience locally? What is it in competition with? and therefore finally Is there a place for it on our shelves?) I'd like to think that I have a pretty fair idea about what makes a game both good, as well as fun and enjoyable. Note that those aspects are not necessarily concurrent with any given title – there are plenty of well-designed games that just aren't fun to play, and plenty of titles that are an enjoyable experience with friends, but to which there isn't much in the way of gameplay, skill, or depth.

The upshot of all that is that I feel I've got a fair basis for being able to review games. Personal opinions, are of course, just that - personal, and what makes a game great for one person isn't going to be so for another. So, take the following review with as many pinches of salt as you would like to - YMMV. I know mine does with regard to other reviewers, both on the Geek and elsewhere.

Let me preface this review by stating that the copy of City of Zombies being played for review purposes was a pre-production version, played before the Kickstarter project was launched. As such, the game components were not necessarily those of the final printed quality, although everything was present in terms of finished artwork, rules, and so on. So effectively the version played was as close to the final version as was possible at the time.

Since I imagine this is likely to be one of the first reviews of City of Zombies on the Geek, because the rules aren't up yet, and (at time of writing) the KS has only just begun, I could well understand if readers expect this to be a shill review - I'm naturally cynical and suspicious myself. Some might even say dubious, but that's another matter... I just had early access to the game before it went to print, but after plenty of playtesting within its target market. I have tried to remain objective, but I have offered some input and suggestions to Matt (the designer) into how to get the game published and indeed listed on the Geek, so there is undoubtedly some bias to the review because of some inside knowledge. At least I'm trying to be up front about that.

However, preamble and disclaimer about potential bias out of the way, let me cut to the chase - the review itself.

What's in the box?

I'm not going to comment on the contents of the finished game, simply because I played a pre-production copy (though finalised in terms of artwork, board layout, and so on). Components such as dice, turn marker, and cardstock were not at that stage finalised, but I've subsequently seen samples of the final product and don't see any issue with them. Cartamundi are printing the cards, and when it comes to card printing, if WotC are prepared to use them for Magic, that's arguably good enough for me. I don't have any worries about the quality of the components from everything that I've seen so far. In the box, there should be a game board, a couple of packs of cards, some dice, and a turn marker. Oh, and the rules. Don't think there's anything else that I've missed out from what I've seen.

A brief history of the game and its development (from my POV)

A few months ago, this guy walked into the shop on a day when I was in, and asked if I knew where he could get a game board printed (we get this kind of thing from time to time as an FLGS). As such, I told him that the answer largely depended on what he was after – for a single one-off board - go and abuse the office printer, go to Staples (other print shops are available, but the local branch is about 10 minutes walk away), print it out, and either laminate, print on decent cardstock or foambfoamboard, or go to a charity shop and pick up an old unloved copy of Monopoly and fix the board to that. Turns out that the brief was a little more in depth than that...

Eventually, after some discussion, Matt introduced himself and asked if he could show me a prototype of the game he had developed, so we fixed up a time the following week to do so. It's not uncommon to get people asking our advice on how to develop a game, how to get one printed, how to design, and so on - I suppose every gamer is a wannabe designer sooner or later – and being in the industry, albeit at the retail end, gives us a bit more insight into how games get manufactured.

Quite frankly, the number of people I talk to in this regard who haven't even heard of playtesting, let alone blind playtesting, have got an idea that is essentially just a clone of another game, or is the same idea/genre as half a dozen titles I can reel off or point to on the shelf as their immediate competition, is immense. Most go away wishing they'd never asked, having now understood the enormity of what it actually takes to get a game design to market, or to get a publisher to take a look at it. And some few actually listen, aren't disheartened, and go away, do their homework, and get some place further along the process. As to whether or not any of those designs will ever actually see print is another matter, but if I've saved someone their time and life savings developing yet another roll-and-move Monopoly clone, for which there really isn't a massive market, then it's probably been a good day.

The first look

So, Matt brought the game in the following week, and immediately I could see that it was head and shoulders above everything else I've seen to date - based on the target market for the game, he's done his homework. The artwork style fits the intended audience. I admit, I did groan when I heard it was a zombie-themed game, because it's not as though there's a lack of those in the market currently - Zombies are very much the theme that just won't die. However, I steeled myself to try the game and give it a fair verdict despite my initial thoughts. A zombie theme is not one that will draw me personally to a game, in much the same way as a train or railway theme, or a Cthulu or Lovecraftian horror won't – they're just not my thing. Those subjects aren't necessarily an immediate turn-off, though, but if that's the only thing going for a game then it's unlikely to ever become a personal favourite. That said, those are all good, strong themes for the game playing public as a whole, so they are at least commercial if the game is any good in its design.

The other thing going against Matt from my initial viewpoint was his opening statement that the game was designed as an educational game. Usually, the 'E' word is the kiss of death for a game - kids don't want to play anything that can be seen as school work, and the only copies that get sold are to unsuspecting parents and relatives who want to help little Johnny with his homework in a 'fun' way. Back when I was a kid (and my staff would likely say that was before the wheel and fire were invented) although I actually enjoyed school and playing games, the two were very much not combined - even then I knew that an 'educational' game, branded and marketed as such was very likely to have all the fun sucked out of it.

So, armed with an educational zombie-themed game I was already against the game and hence expecting to find flaws or other problems with it, especially considering that Matt is new to boardgame design. But, we set to it, with Matt explaining the background to the game and me only half-listening to him whilst I read the rules, just as if I'd opened a boxed game and was learning how to play from scratch. And then we started.

What's it about?

The game itself is straightforward in concept - for whatever reason there's been a zombie outbreak, and some plucky kids have run away from the city along with some other survivors, have called for help, and have barricaded themselves inside a protective shelter and are awaiting rescue. The aim is to last out until the authorities arrive without the zombies overcoming the barricade and losing the survivors. It's a co-operative game, with a ranked scoring system to encourage repeat plays to see if you can do better next time.

The means to defeat the zombie horde is by manipulating the numbers rolled on three dice to exactly hit target numbers on matching zombies. Simple enough, right? Well, the process is made more difficult by the fact that your opponents are zombies, and as such, in abundant supply, and they just keep lurching forward until destroyed.

The initial feel was something akin to that of Space Invaders, with waves upon waves of unthinking opponents moving closer and closer to your base, with your aim being to last out as long as possible before being overrun. Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing at all - it gives justification as to why the hordes are unending and relentless. Could easily be re-themed to be a UFO invasion, and still fit mechanically. Or probably at least another dozen ideas for that matter.

So, how does it work?

Well, I'm not going to recite the rulebook, but since it might not be up here by the time this review gets posted, I'll summarise as I go. I'm sure it'll be along shortly.

At the start of the game, each player chooses a cartoon kid hero. The artwork for these is colourful, cute, well-illustrated (props to the artists!), and gives me the impression of kids TV shows. Not exactly Scooby Doo or TMNT, but not dissimilar [I'd love to see a re theme though, provided Scrappy gets to die, that is]. Both girls and boys are equally represented amongst the options.

Each player also draws a number of survivor cards to represent how many they managed to save along with themselves when they ran from the eponymous City of Zombies. I recollect this as being four cards, but I might misremember. The survivor cards vary between one and four survivors each, thus giving each player between 4 and 16 potential survivors to be responsible for.

A number of zombies, in the same cartoony artwork style as the heroes, are dealt from the zombie deck across the top row of the board to fill it. There are five rows before the barricade is breached (City, Road, Fields, Backyard, Barricade) and six spaces in each row. The aim is to last 15 turns before rescue arrives. Each zombie card has a target number on it, as well as a small icon in the top left showing the number of survivors that it will 'scare off 'should it reach the barricade.

My understanding is that for the family/younger audience that the game is targeted at, the intent is that that zombies scare off the survivors, but really, we all know they die a horrible grisly death, being chewed upon by the walking dead. More fool them, for trusting the kids I say... In any case, most youngsters I know would relish the gore and splatter from the zombie theme. As such, there is a more gory version of the zombies that Matt has had printed up, which I understand will be in the base game as an alternate art option. When he showed it in schools, the teachers preferred the cartoon artwork, the kids the gory version...

On their turn each player rolls three six-sided dice, and then uses whatever mathematical abilities they have to use all three dice faces to exactly match one or more target numbers on the inbound shambling zombies. This can be as simple as adding or subtracting the faces together, or such things as cubing or square-rooting the numbers. The only requirement is that all three dice faces have to be used and that you have to exactly hit the target number - head shots only to take out these particular zombies. More than one target can be hit and killed if the numbers allow, and if you can kill one, you have to. Not that there's a good reason not to - after all, there's never any shortage of zombies.

As an example, if I rolled the three dice and got a 3, a 4, and a 6, what could I hit? Well, depends what numbers were up as valid targets. I could choose to hit three different zombies, assuming that a 3, 4, and 6 were face up and on the board, but couldn't for example, just shoot the 3 and 4 and leave the 6 unassigned if there wasn't a valid target to use it. Zombie target numbers in the base game range between 1 and 12, though there's obviously scope for variants and/or expansions upon this - something I discussed with Matt during the playing of the game.

So, using the 3, 4, and 6, I could go for, say, a 12 and a 6 [3x4=12 and a lone 6], or a 5 and a 6 [(3^2)-4 and a lone 6], or even 2 2s [6/3 and the square root of 4], and so on – you get the idea. As such, there's rarely any point where you simply cannot combine the dice faces to hit something, but it can occur, usually only if you've been extremely unlucky with the dice rolls, or occasionally if you've been successful enough to wipe out all the current zombies on the board. Squaring is a valid tactic, known as 'powering up' a die, as is cubing, use of brackets, or indeed, any other mathematical function that is known to the player, provided the exact whole target number is reached, and all dice faces are used.

Once you've killed one or more zombies, the other players have their turn in a similar manner, and at the end of the round the turn counter decreases a step, all remaining zombies lurch forward, and yet more zombies pour out of the city and appear at the top of the board. Two dice are rolled, with the higher of the two determining the number of extra zombie cards that are drawn to provide the undead with reinforcements. These fill from the top of the board, into every free space - if there isn't a gap, too bad - they just fill the next closest space. As the turn marker moves closer, so does the start point of the new zombies - at turns 10 and 5, they start on row 4 (Road) and row 3 (Fields) respectively, which adds to the pressure, particularly in the closing turns when a lot of the spaces can already be full of as-yet undefeated zombies.

The zombie deck also has event cards that can cause such things as a sudden uprising of more zombies being added to the board, an extra lurch forward for all zombies currently on the board, bonus re-rolls, additional survivors making it to the barricade, and so on - both good and bad events to spice up the regular play. If an event card is drawn as part of the replenishment of zombies, it is resolved immediately - bad luck if it's the final card that was drawn, more zombies have been placed, and *then* they all lurch forward...

Should a zombie reach the barricade at the bottom of the board, it scares away a number of survivors equal to the value in the top left of the card - I guess some zombies are scarier than others (or, in an alternate viewpoint, hungrier - we all really know what happens to those survivors, right?). If all six spaces at the barricade are filled before rescue arrives the game is over with a game loss. If not, the total number of survivors saved is tallied up and this is the group's score - individuals may be able to crow about saving the most, but the total as a whole determines how good the kids were at staving off zombie assault.

That, in essence, is the game. A zombie-themed, co-operative, dice-based number manipulation game.

So, fairly maths heavy, right? That's got to be a turn-off, yes?

Well, not really - the game is perfectly playable with just simple addition and subtraction, though it's obviously a bit more luck-dependent if the mathematical skills and tools to manipulate the numbers 1 to 6 are not present, as would likely be the case in younger players. But the game very nicely supports mixed abilities - I took great delight in coming up with most convoluted means to hit specific numbers as they came up, while Matt was working off more straightforward arithmetic.

Is it any good?

Actually, yes. It's extremely good fun, and far, far better than my expectations led me to believe. It's a damned good game in fact.

Conclusions

My first reaction after playing was to set it up and play again, and that's never a bad thing. During play I asked for clarification on a couple of rules, suggested many possible variants and/or expansion possibilities, house rules, and so on, and was keen to give those a try out and see how viable they were for real. We may well have played yet another game after that, too - I don't recall from that original first session. And any game that makes me want to replay it immediately afterwards has to be good fun and entertaining at the very least.

Actually, that's not entirely the truth - my first reaction was to ask when it was going to press because I wanted the ability to put it on my shelves and sell it - it's an extremely commercial game when pitched to the right audience. After all, what parent doesn't want their children to do better at school? And the vast, vast majority of games that offer educational benefit are dull, boring, and repetitive, and children just don't want to play them, which kind of defeats the point of their existence. If relatives buy the kids a new game for Christmas, a birthday, or whatever, how disappointing is it to unwrap a box and find that it's to do with school work?

No, City of Zombies manages maths by stealth, and whether or not you regard that angle as duplicitous, it's remarkably effective. What kid doesn't want to slaughter zombies after all? Big kids, too, for that matter - it's a fun game, and despite straightforward mechanics, offers challenge, replayability, and a certain amount of pressure in trying to last out until rescue arrives (difficulty can obviously be tweaked up or down as player ability and skill demands, as with many co-op games).

Subsequently I've played the game a number of times and it's been equally good fun. No, it's certainly not a really heavy weight hardcore gamer's game. It is something that a gamer could enjoy with younger siblings, with offspring, or with family. But then it was never intended to be a gamer's game at all - after all - it was originally developed as a means to practise maths in an educational game format. It just happens to also be a fine game as well. I can see more experienced game players using it as a warm-up game, or an end of evening wind-down filler. Game length is about 30 minutes, but a shorter game can be played simply by starting at the 10 or 5 turn mark instead of the full 15.

Although perhaps the primary target for this game is the family and/or educational market there's a good game in there for gamers too, doubly so if they have kids or family to play with. There were notes in the draft rulebook that suggested tweaks to the game for those with younger or less mathematically gifted children, notes for teachers in using the game in lesson plans, and so on.

The game system itself is very ripe for variants - using a d4, d6, and d8 instead of three six-siders would mix things up a bit. Equally a d6-1, d6, and d6+1 gives interesting number distribution. That in itself leads to a lesson or discussion on basic probability - an angle that Matt hadn't immediately thought of. No, I really liked the game and its potential as a commercial product. And with my gamer hat on rather than my FLGS owner hat on, I also really enjoyed the game.

Matt has had fantastic feedback from an educational perspective - I'm not qualified to comment on that aspect, but those of you reading this who are teachers, home educators, or similar might be interested in some of the comments made by the teachers and educational experts he has shown it to in development.

tl;dr - Damned good game.

Ignore that it's an 'educational' game. Ignore that it's yet another zombie game. Enjoy puzzling how to optimise killing off the relentless horde. An excellent filler for gamers, a superb game for families. Despite my initial reservations, I wholeheartedly recommend City of Zombies. If not for you, then you no doubt know a friend or family member that would enjoy it.

My rating on the Geek rating scale - a solid 7. Good game, happy to play it. As a gamer it's a puzzly filler, with a younger, more family-orientated group maybe it would push to an 8.
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Dan Boyle
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Thanks for the review - this is the first I've heard of it but it sounds like it's worth checking out the KS. Glad to see you were able to be so open-minded about helping the designer as well!
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Rob Robinson
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grumblesmurf wrote:
At the start of the game, each player chooses a cartoon kid hero. The artwork for these is colourful, cute, well-illustrated (props to the artists!), and gives me the impression of kids TV shows.
 
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