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Subject: Gen Con play test - Zombies 101 rss

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ErikPeter Walker
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2012 marked my second trip to Indianapolis for Gen Con. I visited the new First Exposure playtest hall and to to play a game in pre-production, tentatively titled Zombies 101.

The theme was surprisingly contrived, even for a zombie game. The players are high school students who have all been infected. The goal is to make it across the school to the science lab and grab the antidote to escape. I think they were trying to lighten up the theme to further differentiate it from the games that inspired it (Zombies!!!, LNoE, or so I would guess), and even though I hated it (see below), I think there is still time before market saturation in the genre--I wouldn't be surprised to see this game make $100K on Kickstarter.

The best glossary definition in the game was "Enemy: anyone other than you", so you can bet it's going to be a competitive, "take that!" type of game.

Unfortunately, my experience was sort of excruciating. Despite seeming pretty straightforward, my game took more than an hour and a half.

Every turn, the zombies move, or spawn, or both (choices are made by the active player, but they must adhere to strict movement rules). Then players move and attack by spending energy and playing cards from their hands before drawing up to 5 cards. Cards are refreshed at the end of every player's turn. Overall I felt like the upkeep was easy but time-consuming, and the choices were mostly dictated by the cards I drew.

The spawn step brough up some balance concerns that I didn't have time to discuss with the presenter. Now, getting knocked down leaves you defenseless until you can stand up on your turn. In a four player game, the zombies may move/attack four times before your next turn, compared to twice in a two player game, unless there are rules about small games we weren't informed of. It just seemed weird that a player could end his turn relatively safe and begin his turn dead, simply from unlucky luck.

So if you die before reaching the antidote, you rise as a smart zombie and try to kill your friends before they escape. You can't use items (a big disadvantage) but you can attack at will to make up for it.

The dumb thing about how the mechanic works is that all players could "win" simply by getting killed before they pick up the antidote. On the plus side, the game would end a lot faster that way... But still, if you can win a game by purposefully tanking, there's something wrong.

My biggest gripes with this game were the rehashed theme and incredibly long play time for such shallow depth. The prototype seemed far along enough that they were testing for ambiguous card text, not completely wonky rules. There are some new concepts for the genre, but not enough to really distinguish it for non-zombie fans. Time will tell, but I got the feeling the core will not change much before release. In fact, the whole thing felt more like a demo than a real "see if this works" playtest. But most of all, it felt like a waste of my valuable Con time.
 
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A. B. West
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Beech Grove
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Ouch! I realize how valuable GenCon time is.

Can you give any more impressions about the First Exposure area? I was curious about how that worked.
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ErikPeter Walker
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If I was a better person, I would have tried more games, because it seemed like they were honestly trying to do something productive at Gen Con, but the first experience was such a drag I never went back. Now, that's not to knock on the game too much; despite being a train wreck, the game would likely stand on its own against the other, also wildly loose games in the zombie genre. It isn't my style.

Here's my impression of First Exposure: When I signed up for a few time slots, they included a survey to gauge my interest in different themes and styles (e.g. "on a scale of 1 to 10, war games are: 1 so boring ... 10 awesome!"). I was excited about this factor. When I showed up, however, it seemed planning had kind of gone out the window, and I was basically directed to join the only game available at the time.

There was a big room with many tables. A couple copies of each game were set up at each table, and the play tests were run by designers and, I assume, other people involved in the production of the game. My game was not run by the designer, but he was pointed out to us and stopped by once to see how we were doing.

One thing I was not expecting is that the game was explained to us by our presenter. There weren't any rules to refer to if we had a question, we just had to ask him. He seemed excited to share the game with us, but somewhat defensive about rules questions we had, which is what gave me the impression that the game is further along than the "playtesting" stage and closer to pre-production.

It was frustrating to be thinking "well, that's not super clear" but not be comfortable giving feedback, simply due to the guy's salesman attitude. In particular, the way reactionary effects were resolved felt inconsistent, but we were simply assured "that's how they work" and left to deal with it. When I left the playtest and talked to the people running it, they assured me I should have been more vocal about it, but I wasn't feeling cooperative by that point.

Overall I think most of the people I saw were enjoying themselves, and the first exposure hall is probably a good way for unknown designers to generate a little buzz about their projects. Maybe someone else who attended, and had a more positive experience than I did, can chime in and fill in the details of how the feedback process is supposed to work.
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Doug Snyder
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I also play tested a game in this area on Sunday. They were basically pulling in whoever wanted to try it out. They had 3 RPGs and 3 board games and let me choose which I wanted to do. I chose to play test a card game, but when I got in the room I was seated at a table to play a 2 person abstract. There was no play test sheet to complete. I just gave my feedback directly to the designer, who seemed genuinely interested in my suggestions for the game.

In short, it seemed to be somewhat disorganized. I did pick up a flyer for METATOPIA, a game design festival they do in November that is billed as a special convention for designers and publishers. It looks like this is the 2nd year for it and I would love to hear from anyone who was at METATOPIA 2011 to see if it was more organized than the event at GenCon.

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ErikPeter Walker
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What game did you play? How was it?
 
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Doug Snyder
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I think the name of the game was Attrition. The game had a neat aesthetic look - designed like an ancient scroll. From a game play perspective, the designer was still working through the rule set.
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A. B. West
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Thanks alot for the info about the First Exposure area! Tipped!
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Matthieu Regney
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Hi Voxen,

I'm the lead designer of Zombies 101 and one of the Angry Ducks. I'm sorry you had such a poor experience. I'm mostly disappointed that you did not feel like you were being heard. This is very surprising to me because we had a great experience at the first exposure playtest hall having round table discussions with players long after their slot was finished. We, indeed, took a lot of the feedback that we received at GenCon and implemented quite a bit into the game. We are now a good 40 playtests into the new version that we have made since GenCon and feel that we have addressed most, if not all, of the balance issues that you saw in your game.

As far as "the dumb thing" about players who have died and come back as zombies has been addressed as well. This was our largest concern going into the playtest at GenCon and I applaud you for seeing that. I would have loved to have had a discussion with you about it to hear what you thought. Indeed, the "Smart Zombies," as we are calling them, needed an overhaul and we knew that. Not only have we completely revamped them but we also have some really good ideas for expansions as well (if we are lucky enough to be able to get to that point).

To address your long run time, I have to say, this is something we have worked on as well. We realize, in a card game, when you are learning new cards there is a lot of reading and learning of new cards. Our game has a large discrepancy in playtime when measuring a group's first game in comparison to a group that knows the rules and the cards. We also have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to learning how to move the zombies. We get that but we also know that these are the things that make the game more fun for players in the long run. I want players to enjoy this game the 3rd, 10th, and 20th time they play as well as the 1st. To alleviate some of the initial run times in early games we have simplified language across the board and actually cut cards that we felt were to complicated and/or wordy.

Again, I'm sorry you had a bad experience but if you feel like having a discussion, it's people like YOU that I personally want to hear from. I want to know why someone didn't like the game. I'll be honest, I'm truly surprised. We had rave reviews at GenCon. We've had published and celebrated game designers play this game and have gotten loads of positive feedback. Perhaps you just had a bad playtest? Please, I'd love to hear more.

 
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ErikPeter Walker
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It is possible that my playtest group was extra slow--I remember one player in particular had trouble deciding what to do, and people consistently forgetting upkeep and asking the same rules questions over and over again--but the core of my dissatisfaction was personal preference. 101's apparent influences--LNoE and Zombies!!!--are some of my least favorite (and lowest rated) games ever.

The hand of cards you draw pretty much dictates your actions. 101 does have some improved tactical elements thanks to limiting energy costs, but the choices were never difficult. In my experience the primary fun in games like this comes from the unpredictable events--"oh, I can't believe you dodged me three times!"--that allow players to snatch victory from the edge of defeat, or vice versa. I don't get hooked by that type of game; I can't suspend my disbelief enough to care about the Random Event Generator.

I'm just one guy; obviously there are thousands of players who love the RNG and made this genre wildly successful. But if you want to make the game more attractive to people like me, I'd suggest giving every card a default action and a superior action that requires more energy expenditure. Make choices more interesting. "I know I will run ahead and bash a zombie. But will I run ahead and jump over a guy to get farther, or run ahead and bash two zombies instead of one?"
 
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Matthieu Regney
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I actually have never played "Zombies!!!" and played LNoE once a long time ago and really didn't like it so I can see where the low rating would come from in that. I'll be honest, if I had to point to one game that I took some inspiration from it would be "Lunch Money". Zombies 101 came to me in a dream and the mechanics that I put into it just came to me as I was trying to make the story come to life.

The slow playtests were partially our fault but, heck, it was a playtest and that's part of why we were there. We've cleared up a LOT of language, added simple reminder text, and revised quite a bit of our layout and icon design. Hopefully these changes will keep players from getting lost in all the new things they are faced with when learning a card game for the first time.

Again, you are onto something in regards to the hand of cards dictating your actions. We saw this as something that could be a problem and by the time you played it, it had gotten much better. But again, in the newest version of the game we feel we've addressed this even more in a number of ways. We thought of adding utility cards or add an icon to some cards giving them the ability to do a basic function of the game (ie block, bash, move 1, etc) OR perform the actual ability on the card. We haven't added this in (yet). It complicated the game too much and we wanted to keep the base game (again, hoping to make expansions) simpler. It caused too much AP for players reading all the cards for the first time. What we have done is added more situations where it makes more sense to hold on to cards and the cards you play are more dictated by the situation you are in. It's the old Texas Hold 'Em philosophy. You have to know when to fold 'em. The point is, yes, you are right, but designing something like this is a game of balancing simplicity and complexity and getting it to where the players will feel most comfortable.

Yes, you are "just one guy" but you sound knowledgeable and really had some legitimate points. The fact that you don't like this genre makes me especially want to hear your opinion. Like I said, 99% of our feedback is very favorable so I want to hear from the 1%. Seriously, thank you for the honest opinion.

Are you local to NYC? If so, I would love to invite you to one of our playtest sessions to see what you think of our revisions.
 
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ErikPeter Walker
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Moved off the east coast a few months ago, actually.

Okay. Here goes.

I thought the theme was weird. The apocalypse plus campy high school threw me off. Why is the antidote in a high school? Why don't any of the players want to work together (a common trope in zombie-related anything)? Because that's the story. Fair enough. But it threw me off.

In terms of game length, a couple of the players were definitely bogging it down. But, at the same time, it just felt like the lab was really far away. Plus, I'd think there'd be a sweet spot of 'players get to the lab right as the board is most clogged with zombies'. But for us, we were barely halfway at that point.

Variable setup is a clever idea, but the tiles weren't very exciting ("This one has shelves.") Maybe you've got some great expansion ideas with unique and different hallway tiles with real game-changing features, but the basic ones were not very interesting.

Have you done anything to address the variable power of knockdown with two vs. four players (as I mentioned in my OP)? Or are games with more players just different (placing higher value on actions that prevent knockdown)?

I guess my core beef with the game is randomness. I like randomness, because calculated risks tend to be exciting. But 101 is just bursting with random factors.
- Will the zombies spawn or move?
- What cards will you draw?
- Will you find an item when you search or get bitten instead?
- What will the lab look like? (and will it really matter?)
- And then all of the die rolls.
The question that should matter most in a competitive game, "What will your opponents do?", gets buried by all of the other unpredictability. The fact that each of the mechanics above complicate the game's footprint, e.g. by requiring another unique set of tokens or cards, should be another consideration you make in terms of manufacture, and accessibility.

I just didn't feel like my choices mattered in the long run.
 
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Moved to Student Bodies.
 
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