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Kickstarter.com has been making waves in board game development lately. Its no-risk preorder model allows indie designers and larger publishers alike to take more risks when releasing games. When a designer has a project that he wants to fund, but doesn’t have the money up front to print the game, or fears that the game may not have a large enough audience, he can pitch his project on kickstarter.com. Potential buyers can “invest” in this idea by pledging money to the project, and in return will receive a copy of the game when it is printed. Most kickstarter projects offer some nifty goodies that are exclusive to the kickstarter campaign. If the project does not earn enough money to fund it, the investors are not obligated to pay anything. This is great for both the game publishers, and the consumers; the publishers don’t end up with a bunch of unsold stock in their warehouses, and the consumer doesn’t lose money if a game isn’t printed.
One of the many publishers to begin embracing kickstarter as a means of offering game preorders is Mayday Games. Until now, Mayday Games has mostly been known for manufacturing card sleeves for hobby and euro games, but Mayday is entering the game publishing business with a bang this quarter with no fewer than three kickstarter projects, all of which are either already funded, or well on target to be funded. One of these titles is an interesting Zombie themed deck building game designed by Max Holliday, called Eaten By Zombies, which I was fortunate enough to play an advanced copy of.
In Eaten by Zombies, players work to defeat a zombie horde, by fighting, fleeing, and scavenging for items. Notice I didn’t say the players are working together to defeat the zombie horde; the game may seem to be somewhat cooperative at first glance, and there are ways to achieve a cooperative victory, but the easiest, and most prevalent way of winning involves being the last player alive. In order to stay alive, sometimes friendships have to be sacrificed. Eaten by Zombies turns the act of throwing other players under the bus into an art form. It’s more like throwing the other players under the bus, tying them to the bumper, backing over them a few times, and then dragging them for a few miles. You may think that this is one of those fabled "direct conflict" deck building games. No, it's not. Eaten by Zombies could only be categorized as a “Passive Aggressive deck-building game”. Players never really directly attack each other, but instead modify the environment to benefit themselves, and if someone gets eaten in the process, that’s just life.. or death.. or undeath. Imagine a zombie apocalypse let loose during a family reunion, and you get the drift.
Although there have been a slew of both zombie themed games and deck building games, Eaten by Zombies manages to tackle both with a great deal of originality. The art style in the game is wonderfully distinctive, with its fusion of 1950’s propaganda and zombie horror that manages to be both sinister and humorous at the same time. And, while Eaten by Zombies utilizes deck building mechanics, it only shares some passing similarity with others in the genre, focusing on hand management and deck un-building just as much as deck building; delivering mechanics and gameplay that are just as unique as it’s art style.
Box – The box for Eaten by Zombies is great. It is designed to look like a blood spattered ammo case. The box is smaller in size than other deck builders, but it is sturdy, and contains a lot of room for expansion. Despite it's smaller size, thought has been put into storage and expansion for the game. The box includes foam inserts and card dividers to keep the contents organized, and safe.
Cards – Being a card game, the cards are probably the most important component in Eaten by Zombies. I am happy to report that the cards are spectacular. From the wonderfully colorful artwork, to the sturdy, well-finished, linen textured cards, there really isn't anything negative to say about them. I am admittedly a bit of a card snob and so I usually complain about flimsy stock, sticky cards, no spring, or rough edges, but these cards have none of those issues and are some of the best I’ve seen in a game to date. Mayday could have easily chosen lesser quality cards as a vehicle to push their card sleeves, but they win a gold star in my book for not skimping on the components.
I don’t want to gloss over the quality of the artwork on the cards either. Max Holliday and John Huerta have really nailed the graphic design and illustrations in this game, with a very unique and compelling art direction. The cards are colorful, yet manage to be playful and edgy at the same time. Such a distinctive art style and graphic design has the potential to turn some people off, but I much prefer a distinctive art style over the mostly forgettable, unassuming artwork on similar games.
Manual – While I have very positive things to say about most of the components in Eaten by Zombies, the manual is the weakest part of the package. While the rules of Eaten by Zombies are not overly complex, the manual seems a bit disjointed, and the lack of diagrams and examples makes it hard to follow. The manual references different kinds of cards, and numbers on the cards (such as attrition, cost, and level) that are never graphically shown in the manual, causing some anxiety about the rules. Aside from missing a diagram detailing the parts of a card, the manual also fails to include a diagram of the play area, which resulted in some confusion about terminology (such as Zombie Horde and Zombie Threat). Certain terminology is used in the manual before it is defined, causing added confusion that could have been mitigated with a diagram to reference. While it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the game, and I eventually figured it all out, the manual could use some TLC for future editions of the game.
Setup in Eaten by Zombies is straightforward. Each player starts with a pre-built deck of 12 cards which he shuffles, and draws 6 cards from. The game supports up to four players, so there are four of these preconstructed decks that come with the game. What sets these starter decks apart from most deck building games, however, is the detail of theme. Although each deck contains the same items, the cards are themed with illustrations depicting one of the four players in the game. The character choices give a nod to 50’s television, with names like Barney, who's starting cards depict a police officer; and June, a stereotypical 50’s homemaker who forgoes the cleaver for a bloody rolling pin.
Throughout the game, players will be scavenging for items to use, and add to their deck. Three piles of stock items are used in each game, with two random item piles per player added into the mix, which all players can utilize during gameplay. The game manual does list some suggested item groupings for the first few plays, and for players that prefer a less random distribution during setup.
What would a zombie game be without the zombies? The last step of setup is to build the zombie deck. The zombie deck contains a collection of different zombie cards, tailored to the number of players in the game. This deck is placed face down in the center of the play area, and play begins.
Eaten by Zombies differs from most deck building games in a couple of key ways. First of all, cards that are scavenged (purchased), are not placed into the discard pile, but instead go directly into the player’s hand. Second, there are many things in the game that will force a player to permanently lose cards from his hand, discard pile, or deck, leading to a very different dynamic than most deck building games. Instead of fighting an increasingly bloated deck, players find themselves struggling to keep cards in their deck.
During gameplay, players are directly attacking a horde of zombies that grows in number each turn, and a player will often find himself adding to that horde during another player’s turn. Hand management plays a big part in Eaten by Zombies as well; success against the zombies rewards players with useful items, but at the same time places dangerous zombies into his deck. A player’s hand size cannot exceed 6 cards, and if all six of those cards are zombies, the game ends, and the zombies win. This double-edged sword forces players to choose carefully whether to fight or flee, and self-preservation often has players unloading zombies during a companion's turn. As an added twist, if a player ever finds that he has no more cards in his deck, he is overcome by zombies, and becomes one himself, playing out the rest of the game with a modified set of rules for zombie players.
Each player’s turn begins by adding a card to the zombie horde, a line of zombie cards that the players must defeat or flee from before scavenging for item cards. The active player turns over the top card from the zombie deck, and adds it to the tail end of the zombie horde. After the zombie card is turned over, other players have the opportunity to play additional zombies to the horde from their hand. Too many zombies in a player's hand can bring premature defeat, so playing a zombie frees up some space - and brings the current player one zombie closer to becoming a brain souffle. If there are no more cards in the zombie deck, the discard pile is reshuffled to form a new zombie deck, and on subsequent turns, the players must increase the number of zombie cards they turn over each turn by one.
After everyone has had a chance to add a zombie to the horde, the current player will choose to Fight or Flee. Every item card (called swag in the rulebook), has a number of icons on it representing fight power, flee power, or card draw ability. After making the choice to fight or flee, the player is locked into the decision, and cannot change his mind later. The correct decision isn't always immediately apparant. either; sometimes the player will have the cards he needs in his hand to defeat the zombies outright, and the choice is obvious, but many cards have draw icons on them, allowing the player to draw more cards into his hand. This means that even if the player does not have the cards he needs to successfully fight or flee, he can gamble on the fact that he will draw a card that will give him the icons he needs. This unknown factor gives the game a nice level of tension and a bit of a push-your-luck personality.
If a player fights, and defeats all of the zombies in the horde, he is allowed to scavenge for item cards, but all of the zombies that the player defeated go into that player’s discard pile, and will eventually find their way into the player’s hand. If a player chooses to flee, and is successful, the oldest zombie is removed from the horde and the player is able to scavenge, but he also must permanently lose some item cards from his hand, deck, or discard pile.
If a player is unable to either kill all of the zombies or successfully flee, he is not allowed to scavenge, and also permanently loses cards from his hand, deck, or discard pile. When this happens, all of the zombies in the horde are all returned to the zombie discard pile, resetting the zombie horde back to zero.
The different consequences of fighting and fleeing combined with success and failure make for some really interesting decisions on the active player’s part. Depending on the makeup of his hand and the values of the zombies in the horde, it may make sense for the player to intentionally fail to defeat the zombies, even if he must lose cards as a consequence. If the player knows that he has a lot of zombies in his draw pile, and defeating the zombie horde would leave him with no cards in his hand, he would be likely to draw a hand full of zombies. But, by failing to kill the zombies, he can choose to lose cards from his deck. If the cards drawn from his deck are zombies, they are placed back into the main zombie pile, and removed from his deck entirely, benefitting the player. Zombies cannot be lost from the player's discard pile, or hand, however, so choosing to lose cards from the deck is always a gamble.
After combat and fleeing have been resolved, the player draws, or discards from his deck until he has six cards in his hand. If a player ever has a hand comprised of only 6 zombies, the game ends and the zombies win. Likewise, if the player is ever required to draw cards, and he has no cards in his deck or discard pile, he is eaten by zombies, and becomes one of the shambling undead himself. If a player is eaten by zombies, he must return all of his item cards to the piles in the center of the play area, but he is not eliminated from the game. Instead, he begins playing as a zombie, with a new set of abilities, and a new-found hunger for brains.
Zombie players get a turn like surviving players, but the rules governing a zombies turn are different. Zombie players must draw cards from the zombie deck, and place them into a new area called the “Zombie Threat” area. Cards in the zombie threat area change the rules for players in ways that make the game more difficult for the survivors. Effects range from forcing surviving players to discard item cards every turn to banning survivors from playing zombies to the horde. This traitor-like element speeds up gameplay during the end game, and adds new subtlety to gameplay choices.
All in all, there are 3 distinct win conditions for Eaten by Zombies: If all other players have become zombies, the last player left standing wins the game; If any surviving player has a hand of 6 zombies, the zombies win the game; and finally, if the zombie draw pile and discard pile are both out of cards, the survivors win.
Eaten by Zombies is wonderfully thematic. I absolutely love the art, and the component quality is stellar. It approaches the deck building genre from a unique angle, and successfully explores some new mechanics that compel me to re-evaluate what a deck building game can be. Eaten by Zombie's competitive, passive aggressive nature really drives home the dichotomy of group survival and self-preservation found in zombie movies, and makes for some really tense gameplay sessions. Players who shy away from conflict, either direct or indirect, will probably not like the vicious nature of Eaten by Zombies, but for those who enjoy conflict, it definitely fosters a wonderful feeling of general mistrust between the players.
While Eaten by Zombies approaches some new and interesting game mechanics, the rules themselves can seem a bit fiddly and confusing at times. This is definitely exacerbated by the meandering, and sometimes unclear nature of the manual. After a few plays, however, things begin to gel, and players start focusing on strategy instead of rules. The complexity of the rules, when mixed with the player conflict aspect of the game, precludes Eaten by Zombies as an introduction to deck-building games; but for experienced gamers, it can be a lot of fun.
Two player games and 3-4 player games of Eaten by Zombies almost feel like totally different games. I much prefer the games with larger player counts because the introduction of players as zombies only occurs with three or more players, and that wonderful uneasy feeling of mistrust only grows as players are added to the game. I do enjoy the 2 player game, but the missing interaction and gameplay makes it only a shade of the same game with a full complement of players.
As of this writing there are still three days left in the Eaten by Zombies kickstarter campaign, and preordering the game through kickstarter will score you a set of exclusive swag cards. If enough preorders are made, which looks very likely at the moment, a custom Eaten by Zombies die featuring an image of the zombie “Rosie the Riveter” will be included as well.
With stellar components, wonderful artwork, and unique gameplay to back it up, Eaten by Zombies is definitely worth the price of admission. Even if you miss the kickstarter deadline, expect to see Eaten by Zombies in your favorite game store, or online at maydaygames.com. I look forward to seeing what games Mayday Games will bring out in the coming months. If the quality of Eaten by Zombies is any indication, Mayday Games has a bright future in game publishing.
Eaten by Zombies
Published By: Mayday Games
Designed By: Max Holliday
Art By: John Huerta & Max Holliday
Ages: 8+ (The graphic nature of some of the illustrations may increase this for some families)
Play Time: 20-30 minutes
Very good review... it was very informative and covered the game well!
We are updating the rulebook and will post an updated rulebook on BGG when we finish it up. We did rush this to print a bit and are sorry the rules aren't more straight forward.