Though here at journey's end I lie in darkness buried deep, beyond all towers strong and high, beyond all mountains steep, above all shadows rides the Sun, and Stars forever dwell: I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell.
Originally posted on menwithdice.com
You may never have played a game where warrior monks explore an alien pyramid and face metaphysical manifestations of subconscious fears. Then you might find something new and different in Zoneplex. Zoneplex plays in 2 hours or less and accommodates 3 to 5 players. There's over 6000 games in boardgamegeek.com's database that are ranked higher than Zoneplex, but let me give you some reasons why this game should outrank at least a few thousand of those.
Snacks not included
The nature of your turn is determined by flipping over a card. The card will dictate that either you will move or you will fight. If you move, the card will indicate a number: 1, 2, or 3. For example, if you draw a 2, it means you’ll add 2 tiles to your hand, add 2 new tiles to the pyramid, and move exactly two spaces in the pyramid. If you draw what the games calls a Fear, then you’ll have figure out which players will help you fight it, and how the wealth earned from defeating it will be distributed.
You’ll have a starting hand of a 3 pyramid tiles. If you drew a movement card, then you’ll be adding more pyramid tiles to your hand. From among all the pyramid tiles in your hand, you’ll place some to construct the pyramid. There are a few things to consider as you build the pyramid. Some of the tiles have walls that obstruct movement; other tiles are teleporters and liberate movement. Players will be able to place these movement altering tiles in such a way that they find suits them best.
Some of the pyramid tiles will be spirit chambers. Most will have some bizarre symbol on it. Players are given a card randomly and secretly at the start of the game. This card will tell them which bizarre symbol they’re supposed to care about. Think of it like a hidden agenda…only it’s just a nonrepresentational bizarre symbol.
Each player will also be equipped with a set of spirit stones. If you end your move in a spirit chamber, you can deposit a spirit stone. If it happens to contain a bizarre symbol you’re supposed to care about, it’s worth 2 points. If it’s an opponent’s bizarre symbol, it’ll cost you 2 points. You'll earn one point out of a stone in a neutral chamber.
As you place pyramid tiles and move around, there are a few meaningful decisions. But the decisions regarding arranging the pyramid and positioning your warrior monk isn’t going to be what gets you coming back to this game. You’ll come back to face the fears.
If your card pictures a monster, which the game calls a fear, then its go time. First you’ll figure out the fear’s strength by adding a 4 sided die roll to its base strength. Most of the time a fear will be too difficult to defeat by yourself. At this time you call for allies. This is where the negotiating starts, and this is where the game shines.
At minimum, if the fear is defeated, all players who participate will gain one warrior monk strength. Warrior monk strength will help you face future fears, and is also included as part of your score. A winning score in this game can hover around 10 points, so 1 warrior monk strength can be a significant part of your total. All who face the fear undertake the risk that if they are defeated, all participants drop by one warrior monk strength.
But the warrior monk strength boost is just one small incentive to be on a fear fighting team. Another attraction is the relic cards. Even though these fears are intangible manifestations of a monk’s subconscious nightmares, once defeated, they leave behind tangible relics. Relics aid your quest in the Zoneplex in a variety of ways, including giving additional movement, helping defeat fears, or granting victory points.
The biggest prize to bag is keeping the fear itself. There are three types of fears. There’s no real difference in the three types, other than just to have 3 differentiations. In order to be eligible to win, you must have claimed at least one each of the 3 fears. It doesn’t matter if you have sixty-four jabillion points - If you don’t have all fear types, you can’t win.
So when a new fear must be dealt with, the current player cuts a deal regarding which players will be involved, and what swag they’ll get for their efforts. Once the team is assembled, the participants may sacrifice spirit stones to help fight the fear. Those are those stones that were placed in the pyramid as players move. You might remember these placed stones score you points. So players will sacrifice stones, meaning they usually lose points, in order to knock the monster down a peg. For each spirit stone sacrificed, that four sided die is rolled again and subtracts from the fears strength.
Spirit stones are your biggest source of victory points. However getting all 3 fears is a winning prerequisite. You’re not going to get all the fears without some spirit stone sacrifice. So the game forces you to undercut one facet of the victory condition in order to achieve the other requirement for winning. This is one of the clever parts of the game, and causes dynamic change in who the lead player is.
That four sided die (which is of course pyramid shaped) is numbered 0 through 3 instead of 1 through 4. After the spirit stones are sacrificed, each participating warrior monk rolls a die. The die roll plus the warrior monk strength is counted against the monster. The big trick is that a die result of 0 is a critical miss. This means that the monk contributes absolutely nothing to the attack. A single zero result could have a big impact on whether or not a fear is defeated. A warrior monk could have a strength of 4 (which is a lot), and be able to destroy the fear with his raw strength alone, but there’s a 1 in 4 chance that his strength will be worthless and instead the fear will win. Since critical misses happen at a 25% rate, and since they can have such a big impact on the outcome, that little zero on the die really makes the need to negotiate for allies important.
If there’s one element that this game delivers with excellence, it’s the negotiation. Every player has a bargaining chip. There’s incentive to ask people in, there’s incentive to shut people out. All players want their hands on that fear. Nobody wants anyone else to get it. But maybe they’re willing to get in on the fight for some relic cards. Perhaps you’re willing to go in just for bump in warrior monk strength. However as the fear drawer and team builder you don’t want so much wealth being spread around. So you might shut some players out. But those who are shut out may be willing to sacrifice a spirit stone to make sure the fear gets defeated, and that leverage may get them in on the team. However defeating the fear could allow too much benefit for several opponents, and you’ll sit out and watch them fail for lack of your support. Perhaps all players will boycott the fear since it’ll cause a full set of 3 fears for the winner. But the boycott may be broken if the current player trades some of his previously captured fears. This game really delivers the negotiation part the best. The incentives are just right for meaningful back and forth.
So while negotiation is the most interesting part of the game, you don't have any control over whether or not you will have a negotiation on your turn. You flip over a randomized card and it dictates what you’re going to do this turn. While this can be a potential source of frustration, however it buttresses the need to cut a deal. The lack of control you have on what you’ll encounter in your turn results in the need to take control when its time to negotiate - even on other players turns.
The main attraction of this game is the negotiation. But Zoneplex completely hangs its hat on that negotiation. Without it, there’s not a whole lot of meaningful decisions with exciting payoff to attract interest. I just don’t see the negotiation by itself giving this game legs for infinite replay value.
Zoneplex deserves credit for being original and different. Its uniqueness can even be seen in just its production style. The tiles and consequently movement segments are triangle shaped. This alone stands out in a hobby full of mostly hexes and squares. You also have a unique cross of artistic styles. Half of the time the style is 8 bit video game, and the other half of the time its a highly colorful psychedelic style.
Even the rulebook is quirky. There are times where it instructs you to re-read passages using an ominous voice. In a part where the rules explain an unlikely scenario where no player wins, the rules instruct to shake the table for effect. We keep hoping for that to happen, just so we can perform that instruction. Sure you can always shake a table, but how often do you get to shake a table because the rules said so?
As of drafting this review, Zoneplex is ranked 6508 on boardgamegeek.com. That rank is not earned by poor gameplay, but by obscurity. Zoneplex may not be the best thing since the pyramids, but it’s certainly worthy of a rank of at least 5000 higher. An increase in ranking by 5000 positions would certainly merit consideration for one of the most under-rated games.