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Subject: An analysis of Hit Z Road - There is way more here than you realize rss

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Todd Fast
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(This review is a design critique from the perspective of a group of boardgame designers. If instead you want to get more of an overview of the components of the game, gameplay, etc., you may want to read some of the other reviews first.)

To make an analogy, Hit Z Road is like a grindhouse flick directed by an auteur with an art-house sensibility. If you enjoyed Night of the Living Dead for its social commentary, or Tarantino's Death Proof, you'll understand what I mean. Here, it's pedestrian game mechanics from a legendary designer that somehow say and do something more than they have a right to. On the BGG review scale, the gameplay itself is 7-ish, but it is oddly engaging nonetheless. I'll talk about the many positives of the game in a moment, but first some of the more observable gaps in the design:

First, there is a notable absence of a catchup mechanism, and the game is subject to a runaway leader--which is probably consistent with what would happen during the zombie apocalypse--but is less fun because of it. In fact, this is a game that once you've been bloodied, it's an easy slide to elimination.

The auction using the same resources needed for encounter resolution is tense but frustrating. The lack of scoring opportunities is really the problem here: the set of resources that are needed to choose the best from scarce scoring opportunities are the same ones that allow you to succeed at them. This is made worse by the fact that there are multiple end-game scoring bonuses based solely on remaining resources, creating even more of a pinch.

The victory point (VP) bonus amounts from the end-game bonuses are large (3) compared to the number of VPs collected from encounters (mostly 0s and 1s, some 2s) during the game, and given that most encounters do not offer any VPs at all, the bonuses can completely eclipse whatever happened during the course of the game.

So everything is really about the resources, with number of survivors a close second. The general strategy seems to be to hang back through the first (Chicago) deck, taking what encounters you get, while conserving and gathering as many resources as necessary in order to get through the end game and hopefully snag some resource bonuses. It's harrowing at best, and counter-intuitive.

Where most resource-heavy games provide ample scoring opportunities that players trade off mostly with opportunity costs, this game is all about the resources themselves, to the exclusion of scoring opportunities.

In effect, the game is something of a sly critique of modern, resource-heavy game designs. Unlike "point salad" games that pivot around opportunity cost tradeoffs, here, scoring opportunities must be very carefully weighed, as they have a much more tangible cost. Nothing less than survival is on the line. To play effectively, you have to pass up a large number of scoring opportunities that would be normal turn fodder in most resource-oriented games. This is a game about laser focus. It is anti-Feldian.

Overall, the design is well executed in its minimalism, but given the trappings (zombies, dice), the strategic subtlety is probably lost on the target audience that this game will resonate with. But for players who likely know who Mr. Wallace is, there is more here than meets the eye, leading me to believe it might be significantly better with experienced gamers. But even then, in order to breathe, it takes some reflection and repeated plays that the game simply may not get.

For what it's worth, there are some things that you could house-rule to make the game a little less brutal: a few extra resources at the beginning of the game; a rule limiting the number of bites or the amount of adrenaline needed during an encounter (e.g. max 1 bite, or spend 1 adrenaline for all bites); or an alternative use for encounter cards without VPs (e.g. use once per game to increase a bid by 1). I'm not sure if these ideas would make the game better, but I expect they would make it more conventional, which depending on the players might be considered better.

But despite the apparent shortcomings, I still rate the game a 9, msinly for the execution of the game's overall conceit. There is subtle but substantial world-building in its fantastic production work, which includes a surprising number of Easter eggs to be discovered. You've probably noticed a few, including the unique game box art, but I had no idea there were so many gems hiding inside; Please see my post in the forums section with details on over 50 Easter eggs.

In 2016, we're currently in an upswing of fashion where designers and publishers are trying to imbue their games with storytelling in order to deepen the emotional resonance of what is, in essence, playable math. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the limitations of the medium, or because most game designers are not master storytellers, much of that storytelling seldom reaches beyond reliable but tired tropes, even cliche.

The failings of the current trend are why Mr. Wallace and team's effort in world-building here is so groundbreaking. There is legitimately more depth in the Easter eggs hidden within than in other games that purport to make storytelling a first-class feature of the experience, to the point that finding and decoding these details is itself a metagame. I am deeply impressed that Mr. Wallace and his team have the supreme confidence and courage to downplay such storytelling richness in order to let it subconsciously infuse the experience. It's brilliant in my opinion, and kudos to the entire team, especially to the publisher for giving it a chance.

To wrap up, with its blood-spattered theme and dice mechanics, Hit Z Road is a game that has the possibility to appeal to a wide audience, but still contains within it the spark of a great designer. It is a richly imagined world and backstory, and I would argue also a bold, subtextual critique of modern games.

I never expected this from a zombie dice game, and I love it. There aren't (m)any board games that I would argue approach profundity or contain any form of useful critique on the real world. But surprisingly, I find that Hit Z Road does (reflexive though that critique is). Like the best of the zombie genre itself, there is substance to be found here for those who look past the surface.

[Edited: for grammar and clarity]
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Andy Couch
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Quote:
deepen the emotional resonance of what is, in essence, playable math.

This is a great line.

I've been fascinated by this game in the previews. Thanks for the look at it from a design point of view.

When I hear Martin Wallace, I think of train games where the math is almost more important than the game or theme. Perhaps this is not justified, but it is the image I get. It is nice to see more story heavy games coming out.
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boardgamemuse
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Thx man. Tom from the Dice Tower gave it high marks too laugh
 
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Rick Rosenkranz
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Good review, and I agree with many of your points. Played my first game yesterday and my daughter kept the cards from her paths as a sort of "diary" of travels through the zombie-apocalypse. She was crushed when she died ON THE LAST CARD. (All three of us over-bid at the beginning of the game, leaving us to suffer as the game progressed. Lesson learned!)

Also, because I was the "rule-reader" and missed the "Flee" option, I think the game turned out more brutal. (By the way, a "No Flee" house-rule might be a good variant for the masochistic!)

Good review!
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Nico
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But I don’t want to go among mad people
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Oh, you can’t help that, we’re all mad here.
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glax wrote:
First, there is a notable absence of a catchup mechanism, and the game is subject to a runaway leader--which is probably consistent with what would happen during the zombie apocalypse--but is less fun because of it. In fact, this is a game that once you've been bloodied, it's an easy slide to elimination.


This is exactly what happend in our game at Essen. Once you're behind you can't do anything to catch up. Bidding for a better turn order makes no sence since the chip leader will just outbid you and will lose only one ressource more than you but this one ressource he will easily get back from choosing the better route first.
I think I don't like games in which an auction is important AND everybody loses everything from every bid. yuk
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Edward
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The game's flair is in its art and brevity. The artwork furtively depicts a curious story. Who are these people? And this kid? The boy who creates a board game to trace his family's ordeal? ~Brilliant; evidence of the sort of imagination necessary to survive an apocalypse! And as for brevity, it only takes about five minutes to determine a winner.
 
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Bruce Danner
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An interesting approach, here. I have been interested in this tight little design for its solo option, which may avoid some of the pitfalls you describe in the multiplayer experience, while imparting some of the thematic tension or "dread" that a good solitaire experience can deliver. Survival games are rich solitaire experiences, in the same way as watching a horror movie alone can be more rewarding (that is, unnerving) than with a group. If you've ever watched the Exorcist alone, you'll know what I mean.

The minimalist theming seems to have something in common with Scythe, which also avoids overblown "flavor text" and instead attempts to play out its theme through its art design, world-building, and gameplay. Still, as you say, the easter eggs of the production take this level of storytelling and theming beyond even Scythe's to something genuinely original. Particularly interesting is its meta-thematic use of retro-games to create a new game. Someday, some enterprising designer is going to take the complete hardware of 1 or several games and use these pieces to fashion an entirely new gaming experience. That's kind of what this work anticipates.
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I.M. Jeremic
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great analysis
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Martin Larouche
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Martin Wallace is a master of the simple mechanisms wrapped around a solid theme that comes out of the game naturally without feeling forced with tons of flavour text that no one reads.

His games always seem average on first approach, yet delivers in spades if you stay with them to learn their nuances.
His recent designs of his i have played all share the same pedigree. Hit Z Road, Via Nebula and Onward to Venus... all games that seem light with strong themes... but play it more and more and you'll see there's way more to them than meets the eye.
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