Better Left Dead

Do you ever have something that all your friends rave about and think is the best thing in the world? And yet you are on the outside looking in and can’t for the life of you understand why they are getting so excited about this? You try to go along with it and give it a go, but ultimately everything you do just confirms your initial impression. Well I have a game like that and it is Twilight Creations Inc’s Zombies!!!

zombies

I know zombies in general are starting to get a bad rep, mainly due to everybody coming up with “great” idea for a zombie game/book/movies/West End musical (I may have made that last one up). Zombies!!! being released in 2001 arrived towards the start of this craze, so we cannot accuse it of bandwagon jumping. But at times it sadly feels like a soulless tie in.

The one thing I cannot criticise the game for is its style and look. As the game builds, you see all the zombies before you, there is a sense of hopelessness. How are you going to get through this horde that just seems to build and build with every single turn? There also lots and lots of miniatures in the game, which is not a bad thing either (although they are only two sculpts – zombie or player – I’d have killed for a bit of variety in the posing). In addition the art of the game is not too bad. It might not be to everyone’s tastes and there are some cards that break the theme with some silly images, but on the whole it remains consistent and ties into the image the game is trying to present. And you begin to think perhaps there is something here. But unfortunately the actual game play experience turns the game into a turgid grind.

The board is made up of tiles, which every player turn will be revealed, added to the side of an existing tile and then a number of zombies will appear there. Certain buildings will also be revealed as you turn them over, such as the fire station and the sporting goods store. This will have health and bullets inside which you can collect to help you kill the zombies and heal from fights that haven’t gone your way.

shotgun

All the players begin in the town centre with two ways to win. Find the helicopter and escape or kill a set number of zombies. Your turns involved building the city, moving yourself and moving zombies. This is where the first problem emerges – everything is dice based so it feels as though there is zero skill involved in the game. You roll to move your playing piece (entitled shotgun guy) – a mechanic as old as every boring childhood game you ever played. Who didn’t love it when playing Snakes and Ladders and you kept on rolling ones. And to move the zombies is also done with rolling dice. The number you get corresponds to how many zombies can move a single square. There is no really planning that can be done about this. Some might argue this makes the game unpredictable. I would argue that there is a need for some form of balance between pure luck and strategy.

Combat with zombies is also done with dice, which needn’t be a bad thing if you were to have some interesting mechanics about it. So when you fight you roll and ordinary dice. Have you rolled four or higher? Well done – you’ve just killed a zombie. That’s it. You can spend bullet tokens to add one to your roll, but that’s the only decision you have.

I get that with combat you need to have a rapid system due to the number of zombies involved. But surely they could have come up with something a bit more interesting. This system is so devoid of both flavour and excitement. You want to feel that you are cutting through swathes of the undead. Instead it’s just pure dumb luck with little may to manage the odds. I do not feel any connection between myself as a player and the character I am supposed to be.

If you lose all your health in zombie fights, you return to the town centre, although you have to return half of the zombies you killed, ensuring that there is a penalty. This is both a good and a bad thing. Firstly it avoids player elimination, which is a cardinal sin for games with a long run time. But thanks to random move, you can be a long way from the action and depending on how your luck is holding up, may take you a long time to get there.

cards

The only variation to this is the event cards, which the players are allowed to play one of each turn. However, these cards lead to further problems. The cards might give you a piece of equipment, but you need to be at the exact location to find it. Great – I can find a fire axe – but the fire station is at the other side of the map to me. Essentially that card is useless. But worse at the cards that are punitive to other players, because this makes an already long game go even further. Because you can guarantee that the player who is in the lead get stung by every last one of them. The second someone is close to their zombie kill target or the helicopter, everyone turns on them.

I know this irritates some players more than others. Some people hate Munchkin for the exact reason, although because the game is specifically designed for that it doesn’t mind me. But this should not be the theme of the game. A zombie games should be about survival – not being screwed over so horrendously. And as a result, when you think you are close to ending this crawl of a game, along comes all your friends to make it last even longer.

I have not played Zombies!!! for quite some time. The game became a chore very quickly and it is not an experience I particularly care to repeat. For me a zombie game’s experience should reflect the common themes of the movies and literature upon which they are based – survivors grouping together against a remorseless horde rather than loners out for themselves. If you want to play the survival aspect with zombies the game that instantly springs to mind is Plaid Hat Game’s Dead of Winter. If zombie killing is your thing Raven Distribution’s Carnival Zombie will be much more up your street. Zombies!!! has been out for nearly 15 years and it really does show its age. Doing the same thing over and over again over the course of several hours just does not cut it in a modern board game for me. This is a game that really should stay dead and buried.

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