When I first heard about Zombies, I immediately figured it was yet another "beer and pretzels" style game patterned after the old horror movie themes. The few snippets I read on the web didn't do much to interest me. The little information I could gather did little to dispel my initial suspicions. Indeed, it did sound exactly like a VERY light, "beer & pretzels" type affair: lots of dice rolling, with little, if any strategy involved.
One of my gaming buddies, Michael Labranche, concurred, but said the game was still lots of fun to play ... if you have the right attitude and don't take it too seriously. Plus, he claimed that you get one hundred cool zombie miniatures and six shotgun-toting heroes. For twenty bucks, he claimed, how could you go wrong? So, with his encouragement, I stopped by our local hobby store and secured their final copy.
The game itself is released by Journeyman Press, the same folks who brought us the Age of Empires Collectible Card Game. From my understanding, the company is now defunct, having been closed by their parent company. However, one of the game's developers, Kerry Breitenstein, is active on a Zombies discussion board and is talking about upcoming expansions. He hopes to find another publisher for the game and possible future expansions, so the game may yet rise from the dead.
The components are surprisingly quite good. It's hard to argue with the 100 plastic zombie miniatures or the six plastic "Shotgun Guys". The cards are full color and sturdy with some nice, campy artwork which helps evoke the 'B' Horror movie atmosphere. The 30 map tiles are a bit thin, but still work just fine. There is also an abundance of bullet and life tokens, which are the a tad bit thinner than the counters found in traditional wargames. All-in-all, the components are well worth the game's market price. As to whether the game play is worth it, however ...
The theme is straight out of a typical 'B' horror flick: A strange disease has affected the community, turning the citizens into mindless, flesh-eating zombies. A few hapless individuals have managed to escape the ravages of the disease, but find themselves abandoned in the middle of the town and in the midst of a hundred or so of these hunger-crazed creatures. Their ammunition is running low, so they must battle their way through the zombies, acquiring new ammunition and dispatching as many of the vile creatures as they can. Ultimately, their aim is to make their way to the heliport and be whisked away to safety. However, time ... and the ever-increasing number of zombies ... are against them.
Players all begin at the town center, which is the only tile which begins the game in play. On a turn, a player draws a map tile and places it to the table. The tile must align properly with a previously placed tile (no roads running into buildings) and then must be populated with zombies and/or bullets and life tokens. If the tile has a named building depicted on it, the tile will indicate the number of zombies, life and bullet tokens which must be placed INSIDE the building. If there is no named building, however, a number of zombies equal to the number of road exits are placed onto the streets. Thus, tiles with more road outlets will be more heavily populated by these ravenous undead creatures.
Players then move their "Shotgun Guy" by rolling a die. Each tile contains several movement spaces, but you must stop movement when you encounter a zombie and a battle ensues. If you successfully dispatch the zombie, you may continue your
movement up to your rolled amount. This die roll method of movement has come under some criticism as it can really have a huge impact on the game. One intriguing suggestion is to allow a person to move an amount equal to a die roll plus the amount
of life tokens he possesses. I've utilized this variant in several games and vastly prefer it to the original movement rules.
Combat is simple ... exceedingly simple. Roll a die. If you roll a 4 or better, the zombie is slaughtered, removed from the town and placed into your 'kill' pile. If you roll less than a four, you may use a number of bullet tokens to bring the total up to four in order
to defeat the zombie. Or, you can use a life token and re-roll the die. Fighting is to the death ... your's or the zombie's ... so you must do one of these two things. If you cannot (out of bullets and life tokens), you have fallen victim to the zombies and are
killed. Mercifully, death isn't permanent, however, as you get to start again at the town center with a fresh supply of three bullets and life tokens. However, you do lose half of the zombies in your 'kill' pile.
The 'reincarnation' rule does prevent players from being eliminated from the game, but the penalty for dying isn't severe. The game is ultimately won by the first player to reach the helipad, so late in the game it is often wise to die and reappear at the town center ... especially if the town center is located near the helipad. This matter has been discussed extensively on the Zombies discussion board and a few suggestions have been put forward to improve this aspect of the game.
Of course, the law of averages will undoubtedly cause you to lose about one-half of your encounters, so your supply of ammunition and life tokens will rapidly deplete. Thus, players are constantly searching for building which contain more ammunition and life tokens. Sadly, this is a matter of pure luck as these tiles are revealed randomly. You may well find yourself on the far side of town when a building containing extra tokens is revealed and placed. By the time you are able to reach the building, you will have either been dispatched by the evil undead or will have been beaten to the loot by your opponents.
The game can also be won if a player successfully slays 25 zombies, provided he still has all of them in his 'kill' pile. This is very difficult to achieve, however, as bullets are in extremely low supply in the town. I still don't know why there is such a HUGE
supply of bullet tokens in the game as there is absolutely no way all of them will be acquired during the course of the game. One suggestion I like is for each player to begin the game with 5 bullets and to place more bullets onto the board when tiles are
placed. We did increase the number of bullet tokens each player begins the game with to five and this did help diminish the frequency of player deaths.
A bit of spice is added to the game by the use of event cards. Each player possesses three cards and can play one per round, whether it is on his turn or not. These cards can hinder the efforts of your opponents, or aid you in your quest to slay the zombies. Several are weapons, which are extremely valuable and give you bonuses to your combat die rolls. Unfortunately, as seems to be the bane of many games which utilize event cards, many o the cards are infuriatingly vague and some are way too powerful. Numerous times each game we were forced to arrive at a consensus as to how or when a card could be used and to what effect. To me, this points to a game wherein the developers thought, "Hey, this is a neat card!", but never fully play-tested it with outside groups and studied how the card would interact with other cards and in various game situations.
That's just about it, rules-wise. It is very simple to learn and play, but takes a bit too long in its current format. The rules call for the helipad tile to be placed on the bottom of the draw stack, meaning it will not appear until the very end. The player who currently has the fewest zombies in his "kill pile" has the honor of placing the helipad tile when it surfaces. Of course, he will place the tile closest to his shotgun guy, making it easier for him to reach the safety of the tile first. This is a bit unbalancing, too, as the player who has succeeded in surviving and killing the most zombies may be left with little chance to reach the helipad. Various suggestions have been given to alter this placement mechanism, but none seem to be a stroke of brilliance.
Some folks have also suggested that the helipad tile be shuffled into the bottom five tiles, so the timing of its appearance will be a bit more uncertain. After my first game, I have used this method in all subsequent games and it worked well.
As you can tell, the game carries a similar story line as the Day/Dawn/Night of the Living Dead movies. Fans of those movies should enjoy the theme, but the game is so vanilla that it leaves much to be desired. I'm not a big miniatures game fan and Zombies has the same feel for me, but with even less strategy to be employed. Place a tile, move and roll dice. Hope the dice fall in your favor and make a run for the helipad. That's it. Fortunately, it seems easily adaptable to a wide variety of homegrown variants, so there may just be a really good game which can be developed with these components. Those
interested should sign up for the Zombies discussion group on Yahoo groups forum. It is already filled with some interesting ideas and suggestions to improve the game. As is, it is good for a few plays, but will quickly be relegated to my stack of 'dead' games. I guess I should have guessed as much from the box cover, which boldly declares, "This one's a no-brainer!"