We’ve reviewed a lot of smart games lately, a lot of intricate and very cleverly designed ones. Let me tell you, we have some even smarter and even bigger ones coming too, with all sorts of clever twists, but sometimes size isn’t everything. Sometimes smarts aren’t everything, either. It’s not always about brains, you know.
Unless, of course, you’re playing Zombies, in which case it really is about brains. Brains and bullets and using the bullets to keep your brains where God intended. Sure, you can try and tell those wandering cadavers that brains are overrated, that they should consider a vegetarian option, but it’s really very difficult to engage them in any kind of extended dialogue. Because they’re dead.
The goal of Zombies (or Zombies!!! if you’re a pedant, which I’m not) is as straightforward as the rest of the game: Get to the chopper without getting eaten. The game is fast, mean, messy and very economically designed, so if you fancy something with simple rules that you’ll be able to drop onto any table the world over and have everyone rolling dice and making threats within 60 seconds, your credit card should, at this point, be emerging from your wallet like a mouse from its hole.
What I like most about Zombies is how all the players have a hand in everything that goes on. The post-apocalyptic city that they’ll wander through is randomly generated, with each player laying out a new tile on their turn. These could be just another humdrum street, or they could hold a special building like a hardware store or hospital. The corners of the tiles also tell you the amount of ammunition, first aid and zombies to place on that tile. Then, you roll a die and you move that many of the city’s zombies anywhere you like, preferably away from you towards other people. Easy.
But, of course, with everyone laying out new tiles on their turn, wherever they fancy, and then moving zombies where they want, nobody’s dash for the chopper is going to be easy. In fact, you won’t actually see that chopper for a while, since it’s hidden near the bottom of the deck of tiles, so you may as well bide your time stocking up on equipment.
Zombies even has a streak of cruelty in the way it dishes out perks. Although each tile contains ammunition and health, valuable special items and special events are administered via a deck of cards that players draw from every turn, plenty of which actually give you a chance to penalise another player (perhaps a wicked act of revenge for an earlier slight), while others only grant you a special item or bonus only if you can reach a certain part of the city. Get to the police station and you can liberate a shotgun. Find the army surplus store and grab a grenade. Fantastic.
Where’s the police station? Oh, there it is, halfway across town and it might as well be a hundred miles from where you’re stood right now. You’ll need a shotgun just to get there. There must be twenty zombies between you and it and… oh no. That guy who’s path you blocked by laying out a dead end city tile has just played a card that spawned even more zombies. Right next to you. Great. Thanks.
Combat in Zombies is as easy and murderous as everything else in the game. On a roll of a six sided die, your regular gun lets you kill a zombie on a 4 or higher. If you miss, it takes a bite out of your wellbeing. You use your stack of ammunition tokens not to fire, but to boost your die roll by one point per token, so if you rolled a two, spending two of these will save your bacon, inasmuch as bacon is ever saved in Zombies (imagine fumbling it from one frying pan into another slightly cooler one). Otherwise, if you fail to hit… well, you’d better start hunting around for more of those heart tokens, as you just lost another one. Pick up more ammunition, while you’re at it, as it never seems to last as long as you’d like.
Both these tokens appear on almost every new tile placed in the city, but your challenge is in sizing up the risks involved in getting to them. In fact, the risks involved in getting anywhere. Zombies is all about what you choose to chase after and how much you really want to put your neck, head and cerebral cortex on the line.
Importantly, though, Zombies takes steps to prevent a player from ever feeling victimised. If you do end up as dinner for the dead, you’re refreshed, returned to the starting tile and given a chance to start over. You can and surely will send zombies against whatever players you might blame for your demise. When the helicopter finally appears you will, of course, absolutely cover it in zombies. You complete knob. But that’s fine. That’s the sort of thing you’re all doing to each other, all the time.
You won’t run out of zombies either, because even just the base game has ONE HUNDRED ZOMBIES in it, which is pretty incredible considering it comes in a small box and is a borderline budget game. Add a few expansions that include extra cards, city tiles, types of zombie and perhaps even glowing zombie figures and you can absolutely terrify the people you game with. One expansion is even a dirt-cheap BAG OF ZOMBIES and nothing else. Horror.
(I should probably add that there’s also a second way to win the game: Kill 25 zombies. I’ve never, ever seen this happen and it’s surely almost impossible because a) dying takes zombies away from your total and b) they’re zombies and you should be avoiding them. They’re bloody dangerous.)
If you fancy something on the scale of Descent or Space Hulk, but perhaps something that’s both simpler and more immediately violent, Zombies is well worth a go. By the way, it’s also a roll-and-move game. Don’t tell Quinns.
*crawling intro dressing gown, blinking heavily at the monitor*
What’s this? Paul wrote a review of Zombies!!! in the dead of night? Well, I guess that’s all right.
I owned Zombies as a teenager and wasn’t particularly impressed by it. There are a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to play something this simple and this… cruel. At the time I had no concept of an “entry” game that eases non-board gamers into the cardboardy waters of more complex games, or the appeal of a game that nobody has to take seriously, or that can be played while drinking as heavily as you please.
The second reason that Zombies didn’t impress me is because it just isn’t very impressive. Paul hits the nail on the head up there when he describes the rules as economical. Some games manage to compress fantastic systems into tiny manuals. This isn’t one of them. It fits a functional system into a tiny manual. It’s economical.
And yet, and yet,Zombies!!! does succeed thematically, and this is the reason I’d recommend it to anyone over the more expensive zombie apocalypse sim that is Last Night on Earth. It impresses a couple of feelings on its players that are so vital to the genre.
One! You can, and will, feel like a badass as you shoot each zombie and pluck it off the board, yet this can give way to utter panic as the zombie crowd redoubles itself or you run out of ammunition. Zombies!!! routinely coughs up absolutely hopeless situations, where you’re backed into a corner with one bullet left and IT’S HOPELESS and OH GOD.
Two! As Paul says, despite its small box Zombies!!! understands the importance of pitting you against an actual horde of the bastards. Want to get into the shopping mall? Good call. But there are zombies in the street, zombies in the foyer, zombies in every goddamn room of the place. The fact that Last Night on Earth only comes with enough zombies to pack out the average kitchen is a joke.
There’s one other reason I eye up Zombies!!! every time I’m in a game shop these days. It’s because I have no choice. This game has more expansions than I’ve had hot dinners (I have had about eight hot dinners), and together they physically block my line of sight.
Thoughtfully, they’re all numbered. Zombies!!! 5: School’s Out Forever adds a massive university onto the town, and a host of improvised weaponry.Zombies!!! 7: Send in the Clowns adds a carnival and zombie clowns. Does any of this make the game better? You bet your ass it doesn’t. But it does make it bigger, bigger, bigger, and – uh – I’ve forgotten where I was going with this. But they certainly make it bigger.
Oh yes! I’ve heard that Humans!!!, which is both an expansion for Zombies!!! and a standalone game that lets some players (or all of them) play as the zombies, is actually the more entertaining game. So, if you feel like picking up Zombies!!! and an expansion, that might be the one to get.