In Shelter, the cards are coming to get you, Barbara

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As a deck building game, Shelter is pretty simple. Before an encounter, you take your pick of any twenty cards from your collection. You also get to pick a survivor to accompany you, which adds a few extra cards to your deck. The riot cop gives you some nifty stunning equipment to buy you free turns, but are you sure you can do without the soldier’s bad-ass L22-A2 carbine? As for the girl with the construction equipment, she spends a lot of time on the sidelines. Sorry, miss.

At the beginning of every turn, draw your hand up to five cards. Spend your action points putting cards on the table or using the ones you’ve already played, which is usually a matter of firing your gun cards at zombies. The hunting rifle pierces armor, but the Baretta gets off more shots. Do you use your hollow point rounds yet? Which gun gets the reload card? At the end of your turn, you can put a single card at the bottom of the deck if you want to get rid of something you can’t use yet or if you just want to cycle your deck faster. Simple.

Then the zombie player gets to play his deck. He’s not really a player, though. The zombie side of the table is a face-up dummy hand drawn from this encounter’s zombie deck. The zombies on the table follow simple rules — basically they crowd forward and attack — and then new cards are played from the zombie hand by rolling dice. Shelter is a solitaire game that uses cards, dice, and a simple deck-building concept to present zombie sieges.

After the jump, did I mention that it’s an iPhone game?

Shelter smartly recreates the building pressure of a siege. You always start with a set of barricade cards on the table between the zombies and your pool of fifty hit points. Fifty! You’re pretty tough. The zombies start banging on the barricade’s weak points, so one of the first decisions you make when you pick your 20 cards is whether to reinforce the barricade or to just load up on guns. As the wall gets torn down, more and more zombies will pour in. What begins as you using guns to kill zombies from a position of safety turns into a sometimes desperate toe-to-toe war of attrition. Will your ammo hold out? Will you get an armor piercing weapon in time? Where is your first aid kit already? It all comes down to whether you can weather all the cards in the zombie deck. If so, you get more cards for your collection. On to the next round! Maybe you’ll find a new survivor soon.

One failing of Shelter is that it takes a while to truly get underway, and it’s too simple a game to take so long to get less simple. As you work your way through the series of zombie decks, it folds in new dynamics, becoming less of a game about staving off a mindless horde and more of a game about carefully foiling special zombie powers. Borg zombies? Energy sucking zombies? Zombies that steal your guns? Leadership zombies? It’s madness. It’s ridiculous! But it makes for some satisfying gameplay, particularly as you have to make choices about how you’re going to counter certain powers. Anyone can spend a turn emptying all his shotgun ammo into an armored zombie. But what happens when the armored zombie is flanked by a horde on one side, an alpha zombie on the other, and there’s a medical zombie bringing up the rear? Once Shelter unfolds the full zed monty, it takes full advantage of the unpredictability and variety of any good card game.

Another failing of Shelter is that its crammed into an iPhone format. Until you learn the cards, you’ll spend far too much time pinching and spreading and pinching and spreading and pinching and spreading. Rather than opting for a readable layout, Shelter wants you to admire its often amateurish comic book art. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with often amateurish comic book art. But, frankly, I’d rather have a more functional interface. And I wish I didn’t have to sit through a cutscene every time a zombie chips a hit point off a door. Let me skip this stuff already.

The sound is also really distracting, and I bring this up despite the fact that I normally couldn’t care less about sound. But when every single attack involves the same gunshot effect, I wonder why Shelter bothered. Attack with a pistol for two damage? Bang bang. Makes sense. Attack with a shotgun for six damage? Bang bang bang bang bang bang. Uh? Attack with a bike chain for three damage? Bang bang bang. Zombie smacking a barricaded door for two damage? Bang bang. If you’re going to attempt something like sound design, then actually design some sound. Don’t just dump in effects for the heck of it. Also, I’d much rather listen to podcasts while playing Shelter, but it won’t let me. This is one of those weird rare games that insists on hijacking the iPad’s audio. At least the music is really good. Can I get the soundtrack somewhere?

3 stars