“Did Napoleon Dynamite do the artwork for this game?” my friend asked as I was explaining Rise of the Zombies, a tabletop co-op zombie survival game. The developer, Dan Verssen, is known mostly for a dogfighting card game called Down in Flames and a solitaire game about air strikes in Vietnam called Phantom Leader. I’m currently addicted to Phantom Leader. There are other versions of Phantom Leader involving Hornets, Warthogs, and U-boats. You can even play it on the iPad. Don’t get me started or we’ll be here all day. Verssen isn’t known for lavish production values. I didn’t even need to use the word “lavish” in that last sentence.
“I think this is supposed to be a liger,” my friend mused, studying one of the zombie cards.
He has a point. Rise of the Zombies, a card game with a tiny smattering of chits, doesn’t have much, uh, visual punch. I hate to ding the artwork for such an obviously modest project, but there’s no style to these sketches. There’s no color. Literally, and figuratively. And who picked this wretched font? As near I can tell, the zombie herd is actually a zombie hero.
As a design, Rise of the Zombies doesn’t seem very well thought out. The interface, as it were, is a sometimes incoherent sprawl with little thought for how to relate the cards to each other. The manual recommends that if players want to fight each other, they should make it dramatic. Like a movie. Which is one of the dopiest things I’ve ever read in a rule book, which should instead contain rules. But what Rise of the Zombies does right is the stuff that really counts.
After the jump, no one gets left behind except the guy who made the Napoleon Dynamite crack.
The best thing I can say about Rise of the Zombies — and, frankly, it’s a pretty good thing to say about any boardgame and an absolutely crucial thing to say about a co-op game — is that the social dynamic bubbles up generously through the cracks between the rules. I’m not sure this would happen so well if the rules were tighter. I’m inclined to be charitable and say the sloppiness might be a precondition for the social dynamic.
For instance, it might seem like the developer is opting out of meaningful timing rules. During a single phase, the players all play their cards, attack zombies, move, add new locations, and so forth. It all happens in any order, at any time. Play any card whenever you want.
You might expect this to lead to a mad rush — the game is timed, which I’ll get to in a moment — but you learn after a playthrough or two that the order of actions matters. Sometimes, it matters a whole lot. When someone leads the way into a new location, will everyone else follow? Can everyone else follow? Should he have first checked with everyone else? Did someone else want to go to another location? Should I have waited to attack because my friend could have given me a better gun? Or should I jump at the chance to finish off that zombie for the experience points before my friend gets it? And furthermore, who’s going to attack that hard-hitting zombie last and therefore be the target of its attack during the zombie attack phase? Do we leave that guy behind to shield us from the ravening horde of zombie dogs at our heels?
What feels at first like the developer opting out of the rules is instead the developer letting table talk drive the gameplay. It’s the traditional “we have to stick together or those things will get us” mindset vs the instinctive “every man for himself” mindset. In other words, the stuff of any decent horror movie. I might have to jump in front of a zombie to protect a weaker survivor. I might have to let my friend go first into the corner store to loot it instead of dashing into the safer open field. I might have to forgo using my flashlight to search for extra cards because it could attract zombies. I might have to burn my hard-earned experience points to use a medkit for my hurt companions instead of using it to equip a rockin’ Lee-Enfield rifle. Or I might not do any of those things out of arguably enlightened self-interest. Because the weird and arguably dirty little secret about Rise of the Zombies is that it gets easier when the other survivors die. Well, I get more powerful, which is close enough.
And one of the potential problems with Rise of the Zombies is that dying — which is almost certain to happen — means dying. As survivors die out, the table fills with people who aren’t playing the game anymore. I’m not sure there’s any good way around this. It would have been interesting to have killed players turn into zombies, but the zombies here are a procession of obstacles streaming mindlessly out of their deck. They move, they attack, some get special abilities, period. Zombie mindlessness is ideal for rules-based automation.
But as more people die, those who survive get more health, and therefore more cards each turn. They also attract fewer zombies. This concept makes Rise of the Zombies a scalable game, for anywhere from one to five-plus players. From a gameplay perspective, more players is better. The solitaire game is a dash to the chopper with a smattering of zombies bringing up the rear. It’s more like the last scene in a zombie movie than an actual zombie apocalypse. Think running of the bulls at Pamplona. The two-player game is a lean collaboration to see if you can each get to the chopper together. It could involve a valiant sacrifice. With more players, you get a loud sometimes ungainly group of people bumbling through the infested ruined neighborhoods of the apocalypse, arguing, fighting, and, oops, dying.
The deck of cards is mostly full of weapons, items, skills, and instant reaction cards. But the fifteen or so locations are the main pillar of gameplay. You need to draw, play, and traverse six of these to get to the usual chopper. The best decisions are about when to go and where. Do you brave downtown? Surely not. Way too many zombies. The open field is your best bet. The gas station seems safe, but after the biker blows everyone up by firing into flammables two games in a row, maybe it’s not such a good choice. Everyone wants to be first into the corner store for purely selfish reasons. The residential area would seem safe, but because there was a birthday party, it’s got way more zombies than you’d expect. And don’t even think about risking a trip through the playground. If there’s one thing worse than the sewers or the graveyard, it’s being pounced by those fast child zombies.
Finally, there’s a weird real-time mechanic. You set a timer when you start playing, based on the number of players and your choice of difficulty level. The difficulty level has no other effect than the time limit. In other words, you pretty much pick how much time to allot the game. Chintzy, hard-to-read, sickly zombie-green, plastic digital clock included! It doesn’t stand up very well, so it will mostly likely lie flat and forgotten. Better to prop up someone’s iPad.
We’ve lost a few games to the timer, but it mostly feels like a needless gimmick, especially given the rules’ quaint insistence that you can never stop the timer. Never. Never ever. Uh uh, no way, no how! Whatever, rules book. One reason the timer is a pointless concept is that Rise of the Zombies mostly opts out of any sort of meaningful scoring mechanic. The only rule is that whoever makes it to the chopper wins. Everyone else loses. If you want to play multiple games, there’s a gruel thin scoring system, which includes the option for “epic” victories by letting any of four epic cards come into play. That would be a pretty neat idea in a game with a meaningful scoring system. But given all the cool stat tracking and logbooking Verssen puts into the Phantom Leader games, Rise of the Zombies has a disappointing lack of persistence and evaluation. “How’d we do, coach?” you want to ask as the chopper airlifts you and the other guy who survived out of the town where the other three guys died.
You won’t get an answer. Hopefully, you instead got a tale to tell.
Rise of the Zombies
A game lasts for 30 to 90 minutes. You'll start a timer at the start of the game. If the timer reaches 0, the Rescue Helicopter flies away, and everyone dies. Ha ha.