Clear the table for Dawn of the Zeds, a zombie game you won’t want to miss

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Although I’m a sucker for the “just add zombies” approach to game design, I’m not sold on its viability for boardgaming. I know there are some co-op zombie games. But I’m over co-op boardgaming that doesn’t have some sort of traitor gimmick. There are probably even games that stick some poor sod with the role of zombiemaster. But I was convinced zombies aren’t a good subject for boardgaming.

And then I played Dawn of the Zeds and realized I was dead wrong. Victory Point Games has done a dead-on job of expressing zombie mythology, and they’ve furthermore done it in a solitaire game, so I don’t even have to press my friends into service.

After the jump, when there’s no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the tabletop

Dawn of the Zeds is based on Victory Point’s “state of siege” series. This is basically a gameplay model — you might call it an “engine” if this were a videogame — in which you roll dice and draw cards to move counters closer to the board’s vulnerable center. When the counters reach the center, you lose. I first encountered this series in Levee en Masse, an iPad game about the French Revolution. Mobs and hostile armies draw ever closer to France while you draw cards. Cute for a playthrough or two. You’d think this model would be well suited to the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Zulus on the Ramparts, which I also played as an iPad game rather than the tabletop original, imagines the Zulu attack as a zombie scenario in which the Brits hold out as long as they can. This one wasn’t even cute for a playthrough or two, since it was terribly translated to the iPad. Ugh. How Not To Make a Boardgame Port.

But Dawn of the Zeds is the state of siege engine in a no-holds-barred, no-historical-faffing-about, no-iPad-version-available zombie game. And surprisingly enough, it’s fleshed out with enough variety, interactivity, gameplay, and narrative meat to shame the French Revolution and Battle of Rorke’s Drift scenarios.

Designer Hermann Luttmann’s credits consist of games on the Franco-Prussian War, the Civil War, and baseball. I’m not sure if he considers Dawn of the Zeds a departure or if it’s what he really wanted to do all along, but I’m thrilled at how well he expresses zombie mythology using the state of siege model. The slow relentless approach, the sudden unexpected outbreaks, the tragically heroic last stands, the dire shortages of ammo, and even some delightfully B-movie touches, like the invention of a super weapon; the insidious Dr. Marteuse and his infected assistant, Noelle; and a redneck heavy metal band gone rogue. But mostly, Dawn of the Zeds captures lovingly the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse. You never win a game. You just hold back loss long enough. Or not. I’ve won (i.e not lost) about a third of the games I’ve played.

The basic structure is that you draw a card and follow the instructions for how the zombies move, whether new zombies appear, whether you use up some of your supplies, and how many actions you get for your units. Each card also includes an event. Some cards refer you to a separate fate deck, which can lead to horrible — or wonderful — chain reactions of nested events within events. When things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong.

The event deck that drives the game is constructed during set-up. You follow a set of rules to cull and shuffle a series of escalating events into the game length you want to play. Somewhere near the bottom there’s a “National Guard Arrives” card. This will end the game if you’ve secured a route into the town center. If not, the card goes back into the deck and you have to hold out a bit longer.

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The full “campaign” game includes every single card, which seems like a tactical error. So everything is going to happen? Why would you play that way? But the shorter games with fewer cards mean you’re never guaranteed any event. Still, a couple of the cards are included in every deck. For instance, Dr. Marteuse will show up every game if you hold out long enough, but you’re never sure if his assistant Noelle, a Typhoid Mary of the zombie infection, will wreak havoc. The Noelle card might not be in the deck this time. Similarly, you can’t count on the helicopter airstrike, the VIP survivors, the elite rangers, or the valuable scientific information in the dossier in Doctor Marteuse’s office. But you also might not have to deal with the dead rising from the graveyard at St. Thomas, the infected rats, the collapsed bridge to the suburbs, or the various types of uniquely powerful zombies created by Dr. Marteuse. It’s a great balance of good, bad, inevitable, and no-shows.

The map of Farmingdale is no simple set of tracks where you scoot counters. It has unique features that play into various systems. For instance, you’ll want to secure the farm if you’re short on supplies. If you’re going to try to shoot the zombies, which is the best way to fight them without raising the infection level, you need someone at the security station or the mines to forage for ammo. The suburbs are uniquely vulnerable for all the people who live there. And the tunnels under the city? Hoo-boy. They’re a blessing and a curse. A blessing for how it’s relatively easy to hold back zombies in their narrow confines, but a curse for how often the zombies can spill out into other parts of the map, or how you can get lost in the catacombs, or how tempting it is to push to the far end of the tunnels to hold the labs for a research bonus, or how Dr. Marteuse is somewhere in there breeding special zombies with unique powers. I’ve lost two games to his leapers.

Each game is played with four heroes at the start, each with unique abilities that will often shape your approach. Before the game begins, you get to pick one hero, and then three more are drawn randomly. Do you focus on foraging, on fighting, on research, on Mayor Hernandez’ political prowess, on Sheriff Hunt’s leadership bonus, on Pickles the dog rooting around zombie infested areas unmolested? That’s right, Pickles. His name is Pickles. Pickles. Pickles the dog. You might think that’s a ridiculous name for a dog. You won’t think it’s ridiculous when Pickles keeps your sniper supplied with ammo or when Pickles barks at a zombie mob and distracts it from a wave of fleeing refugees. Events willing, more heroes might arrive. Or heroes might suddenly go by the wayside. A paranoia event, for instance, simply forces you to discard an active hero. Brutal. A lost loved one event roots a grief-stricken hero in place. That’s how Captain Piazza got herself killed in my last game.

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It all comes down to a fantastic zombie apocalypse game spinning out an emergent narrative. Let me tell you about the time the Green Diamond Security Guards — these guys normally staff the underground labs in the tunnels — set out along the freeway and heroically held back a zombie onslaught at the nuclear plant. Until the nuclear plant melted down. It was one hell of a send off.

Or the time Colonel Kingman set up a minefield in front of the community of East Irek, but got bushwhacked by zombies before he could get to safety. Thanks to that minefield, East Irek’s refugees made it to safety.

Or the time Wilson the hermit funneled supplies from the farm as the zombies drew nearer, and he pushed his luck by staying a little too long, but he managed to barely escape back to town by using a zombie trap that feeds the zombies (heals their damage) but delays them (they don’t advance that turn). What’s more, Wilson even managed to salvage the trap to use again, where it later saved a wounded band of civilians manning a barricade at the forest campgrounds.

Or that one game a frenzy card turned up at exactly the wrong time and a mob of zombies pushed their way up the suburbs through three layers of defenders –three layers! — and into the town center before we could mount a better defense. Game over. Which was all the more galling because Sheriff Hunt had just arrested Dr. Marteuse and brought him back to town, where we had interrogated him for information to build a special anti-zombie gun.

Or the time Jack Burton — err, I mean “Big Wheels” Carter — attempted to zombie plow his 18-wheeler loaded with supplies and ammo through a small group of zombies on the first turn of the game, only to get pulled from his truck and eaten. I lost that game.

Or the time Deputy Schmidt, a former Eagle Scout, set up a defensive barricade in the forest, only to have a zombie outbreak occur behind the barricade. To be honest, that one was on me. As the infection level rises and the horde closes in, new zombies tend to appear closer to town. Deputy Schmidt had set up an excellent choke point except for the fact that it was well beyond where any new zombies might have appeared. But if they did, they were in for a rude awakening. Deputy Schmidt was pretty much cut off from town at that point. Nice work, Deputy.

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Dawn of the Zed has a lot of moving pieces, and you’re probably going to play wrong the first few times. Pay special attention to the chaos markers for spawning new zombies, and be aware that you’ll frequently forget to raise the infection level. You can play a tutorial game and a scaled down version to get your feet wet. It’s a complicated game, but intuitive enough and with plenty of information on the cards, the game board, and playing aids. After three or four games, I almost never have to refer to the manual for anything beyond the occasional esoterica. Stuff like “Uh, can I fire through the town center?” or “Wait, can you get lost in the catacombs when you’re forced to retreat?” The manual is thorough, well organized, and cleanly written. Not to mention a four-color process printed on nice paper. What’s up with that? Isn’t Victory Point Games known for cheap games in plastic baggies?

Dawn of the Zeds is part of the publisher’s “gold banner” program, in which they update their earlier releases with production values on par with other boardgames. This 2.0 version of Dawn of the Zeds is gorgeous, with sturdy chits, a lovely board, a great set of hardy cards, and thorough and attractive player aids. The artwork, cramped as it is given the game’s emphasis on information, is even pretty nifty. The chits are made from some sort of weird black charcoal substance that rubs off on your fingers when you punch them out. I was worried this was going to smudge everything, but a quick wipedown with a paper towel took care of any residue. Keep the paper towel handy on your first playthrough. It goes away after that, but it’s an odd substance I’ve never seen in a boardgame before.

Victory Point’s Circus Train — it’s a solitaire game about running a circus during the Prohibition Era, inspired by the novel Water for Elephants — is due a similar treatment later this year and I’m eager to see how that turns out. Of course, I fervently hope Nemo’s War gets the same treatment.

You can get this gold banner re-release of Dawn of the Zeds here for $37. A $49 version includes a mounted map and a cardboard box, but you’re not missing out on anything substantial by getting the cheaper version.

5 stars
Boardgame

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