Programmatic movement games are problematic. When they work well, they lead to some amazing stories and experiences. When they don’t, that mechanic is responsible for some of the most frustrating times I’ve had with gaming. Zeppeldrome takes this mechanic – including the ability to directly impact other players’ movement – and manages to blunt the worst aspects so you are left with generally positive plays.
The Basics. Zeppeldrome has a modular board. The game begins with a start and a finish piece, but in between there are four boards (designated a through d) that must be included. Each section has a special hazard that the players must encounter and overcome. For example, one option for section b might include “headwinds” that prevent forward movement – forcing players to move at angles. Another option includes a “slalom” that forces the players to move through color coded hoops. The tiles can be selected randomly or chosen by the players.
Once the board is set up, the players line up and start the race. Each player is given a hand of four cards. And, each card also has two parts – the flight plan and a special power. First, each player simultaneously chooses a predesignated flight plan (or can flip a card over for a single move in any direction). Then, players take turns and may optionally play the remaining cards in their hands as actions.
Most of the cards either add steps to the flight plan (either before or after the card) or immediately move the Zeppelin (usually up or down). Since the flight plan card is fixed, moving a Zeppelin, or adding flight steps can cause an opponent’s piece to go awry or your own piece to move further or into a better position. There are also cards with unique or unusual effects.
After all players have moved, turn order is recalculated based on the player’s new position and everyone draws back up to their hand size. The first player to successfully navigate the obstacles and cross the finish line wins.
The Feel. Surprisingly enjoyable. As soon as I read the rules and realized players used programmed movement and that other players could monkey around with the flight plans, I prepared myself for the worst. Programmed movement games can go overly long, they can cause frustration, and a single disruption can lead to disastrous consequences. Fortunately, Zeppeldrome ameliorates the majority of these issues.
Despite being able to move the other players or add to their flight paths, the result is usually some inconvenience or perhaps a wasted turn at worst. First off, players will have a maximum of three cards in their hands after playing a flight plan. That puts a limit on how much you can mess with your opponents and how much they can mess with you. Plus, even if you add steps to the flight plan, the original flight plan is still carried out. With rare exception this means that the players’ dirigibles continue to move forward even under the worst circumstances.
And, when a player’s plan goes a bit off course, you don’t fall into a bottomless pit, end up going backwards, or have your ship utterly destroyed. Usually, you get bumped up or down or lose a little forward momentum. In that way, it avoids the feeling of utter hopelessness where you get so far off course that you end up spending multiple turns just to get back on track. Instead, the jabs are significant, but unable to take a player out of contention entirely.This makes the whole game seem more good-natured and less spiteful.
Partly because players continue to move forward, the game is relatively brief. It simply does not outstay its welcome. Sometimes, other games just will not end as players constantly spite one another. Zeppeldrome doesn’t have that problem. Even if every player used every card to mess with the leader (assuming all 9 cards could be used that way), it means that one of the other players gets a lot closer to their goal – and therefore the game still reaches its conclusion. Zeppeldrome is remarkable in this way. I haven’t played a single game that went overly long or that outlived its welcome. In fact, most games seemed to end just a bit too quickly.
Zeppeldrome isn’t going to appeal to everyone, though. It’s a light game with some fun interaction and a little puzzly element as you plan where your ship is going to end up. But it’s no grand resource management game or heavy brain burner. It’s light, accessible, and easy to learn and play. This is the kind of game that would go over well with family and casual gamers, and may work as a “filler” for heavier gamers.
One mild negative to look at is a sort of “gang up on the leader” element. It’s easy for players to lash out at the person in the lead. So players may not want to shoot out in front if they can help it. Some players like that type of game and challenge, others consider it a problem. But, frankly, it rarely came up in my games. And the reason is that most of the cards that can hinder another player can also help you just as much or more. It can be very difficult to add a damaging flight step to an opponent when you can add a very helpful one to yourself.
Components: NA. This is a pre-production copy of Zeppeldrome and the pieces are not representative of the final product.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. For a relatively light game, it has a wonderful blend of luck and player direction. Most games aimed at the casual crowd tend to be overly luck driven and devoid of substantial player choices (other than who to play the “screw your neighbor” card on). Zeppeldrome avoids this nicely. Players get a selection of flight paths and special powers, and can take it all into consideration before playing each turn. And, each turn, they draw back up to four. So players remain on a relatively even playing field despite the randomization of the cards.
Mechanics: 4 of 5. Zeppeldrome does a wonderful job of implementing a zeppelin race. Sure, the zeppelins aren’t speed machines, so you don’t get the sense of a formula one racer. But most racing games get lost in explosions, handicaps, and restarts – things which make racing less fun. Zeppeldrome uses simple mechanics and rules to give meaningful choices as players move forward. The one difficulty here is that the player in the lead always gets to go first. It’s a minor advantage, but it provides trailing players with one more obstacle to avoid.
Replayability: 3 of 5. With the plethora of tiles to create the racetrack, you can have dozens of unique experiences with the game. But I wonder just how often I would return to this game. It’s a little long for a “filler” – at least with my group. And it’s simply too light for me to take down off the shelf with any regularity. That said, for someone who enjoys programmatic movement, there is certainly significant replay value in Zeppeldrome.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. Spite is definitely present. In fact, the game calls itself, in part, the “screw your neighbor” game. So it isn’t shy about hampering your opponents. Still, the interference can damage but does not destroy your neighbor. It feels at about the right level, mitigating enough progress to matter without razing whole turns worth of effort. Plus, a lot of the spite cards can also be played as helpful cards for yourself. So the temptation to help yourself rather than damage an opponent also keeps spite down.
Overall: 3 of 5. Zeppeldrome succeeds as a quick, enjoyable, relatively light, player driven game. It’s a testament to the design that it can use one of my least favorite game mechanics and still give me a great time. For the right gamer, I think this is an excellent choice. That said, it’s not a game I’ll be coming back to with any regularity. Not because it’s bad, but simply because it’s a little like cotton candy. Enjoyable enough while it’s there, but when it’s not I don’t really miss it. I’ve never had a craving for cotton candy.
(A special thanks to 12SP for providing a pre-production copy of Zeppeldrome)
(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my GeekList of reviews, updated Fridays)
Nuance over novelty
You should submit some of those pictures to BGG