A friend of mine called Run, Fight, or Die “trashy”. Since I like the game, my initial reaction was to disagree. But, really, he wasn’t wrong. There’s a very B-movie vibe to the game, from the lurid cartoony blood-splattered art style to the heap of sickly grey miniatures to the overbright plastic dice to the sometimes loosey-goosey rules. But is all that such a bad thing for a quick game about zombies? Shouldn’t it be a little trashy? A little grindhouse? And is that necessarily a contradiction to Run, Fight, or Die also being a smart design, focused on pacing, interactivity, and variety?
After the jump, trashy doesn’t have to mean dumb.
Mechanically, Run, Fight, or Die belongs in roughly the same category as Nations: The Dice Game or Roll for the Galaxy, games in which people sit around a table and throw a whole mess of dice at a time, all but resigning themselves to whatever the bones decree. Within a couple of reasonable re-rolls, of course. But those other games are exercises in resource management, with dice as your resource and with everyone rolling his dice at the same time, mostly ignoring the other players. Run, Fight, or Die wants you to take turns and watch each other. It wants you to care about what the other guys roll. It wants someone else’s turn to matter. It wants to be more interactive than the usual multiplayer solitaire played with handfuls of dice.
It does this mostly by ending as soon as one player dies. Every player’s turn is therefore a game clock. Sometimes someone dies quickly. Any dice game is going to involve an element of pushing your luck, and luck has a way of being unreliable. That’s why they call it luck. So some games of Run, Fight, or Die will be over in a few turns when, oops, someone miscalculated and now he’s dead, so the winner is decided by whomever took an early lead. Dead guy excepted, of course. You can’t win a zombie game if you got killed. You can metagame these abrupt early endings, by the way. If there’s a new player at the table, grab some points quickly rather than fussing around to get solid footing. He’ll miscalculate the threat level, get himself killed, and then you can start another game counting on him to play more cautiously. New guys are always getting killed by zombies.
There is an element of multiplayer solitaire in that each player has his own board. Zombies march down this board and if they get to the bottom, they’ll take a bite out of your hit points (which are also victory points, so you’ll want to stay healthy). The zombies are easy to dispatch, of course. Half of the die faces are ways to get rid of them. But the thing about zombies is that there are always more coming. They’re part of the erratic game clock, lurching and herky-jerky, twenty on one guy’s board while another guy has only a couple stragglers. This is where all the sickly grey plastic miniatures come into play. Line them up and knock them down.
Each turn is basically a balancing act between clearing the zombies from your board or getting the resources you need to survive and earn victory points. The dice themselves are designed to give you just enough leeway to get yourself killed. Of the six die faces, three faces are ways to dispatch zombies; two faces are ways to look for valuable loot, companions, events, and locations; and one face is a gotcha that adds more zombies than usual (not to mention depriving you of a more helpful die face). You get two rerolls every turn, with a potential penalty for rerolling die faces that add more zombies. It’s that whole pushing your luck thing. Do you accept the extra zombie, or do you take a chance on even more zombies?
Sometimes you can’t kill your zombies fast enough, so you just keep them at bay. Run, Fight, or Die often comes down to holding out just one more turn because someone else is on the verge of death, so the game is almost over. You’ve got the points for the win. There’s no way he can hold out with all those zombies at his doorstep, right? But then he gets a molotov cocktail, a lucky nuke-all-zombies roll, or some fortuitous combination of a chainsaw loot card on a narrow bridge location with exactly the right number of melee attack die rolls. Now you’re the guy on the verge of death. Can you hold out for just one more turn again?
One of the things I like most about Run, Fight, or Die is the way it introduces victory points. You mostly get victory points by finding survivors in a deck of cards. Some survivors are a valuable asset. Some are a huge liability. The lower value survivors tend to be more helpful, whereas the higher value survivors tend to be a hassle. The screaming cheerleader, the obnoxious councilman, and the local coward earn you more victory points if you keep them until the end of the game. Good luck with that. You’ll need it. The attractive nurse, mysterious occultist, and spunky mom won’t earn you many points, but they’ll certainly help you get to the end of the game.
Although the game usually ends when someone dies, a location card representing getting out of town can end the game abruptly and unexpectedly. A player can call the end of the game when enough survivors have been discovered, but that’s not likely to happen. In some games, a mutant zombie shows up at the local playground, or he springs into play from a random event. He’s tough, but he’s also a victory point pinata. The survivor cards you need for victory points can change hands or go away. A heroic dog goes to save someone else. A town drunk wanders off to another player. An infected survivor turns thanks to an unlucky die roll. Run, Fight, or Die can be as random as, well, a die roll.
Sometimes that’s what decides a game. A die roll. You really need that book icon on your last re-roll to nuke all the zombies about to attack you, which will mean you win because there’s no way the next player is going to survive the horde on his board. You didn’t get that book icon, so now the zombies descend on you and you’re dead and the game is over and the guy after you who probably would have lost next turn is instead the winner? You might complain that it all came down to that die roll. And it did, so you’re not wrong. But that’s just the nature of throwing handfuls of dice in a push-your-luck scenario. Sometimes luck pushes back. And with a bunch of zombie miniatures bearing down on you, with more coming every turn, what better way to capture the trashy B-movie vibe of a cheap zombie yarn?
Run, Fight, or Die isn’t an easy game to buy. The $50 base game was followed up with expansions. Two of the expansions feel entirely optional: a co-op variation and extra pieces to raise the player count from four to six. The co-op variation is different enough from the base game, with enough unique components, that it’s worth considering if you’re looking for a cooperative zombie game. It certainly nails the feeling of everyone pulling together to hold back the ever-increasing horde. But the higher player count is a questionable value. As with many games, Run, Fight, or Die can bog down with more than four people at the table. The third expansion, the Zombie Horde Expansion, introduces new types of zombies to add a tactical element to each player’s board. In addition to the garden variety regular zombies, you also have to deal with fast zombies, super-tough zombies, and zombies that can’t be shot with a gun. I’d say it’s a must-have for its tactical variety, but it adds another $30 to the price. Suddenly your trashy B-movie push-your-luck zombie movie went from $50 to $80. Ouch.
(By the way, in the picture above, you can see that I’ve spraypainted the special zombies a different color. So, yep, here’s me officially painting miniatures. I’ve reached a whole new threshold of dorkdom.)
A hugely successful Kickstarter campaign introduced the Big Box edition, which replaces the $50 base game and supposedly has room for all the expansions in a single box. It’s available for pre-order at the publisher’s website for only $30. However, I’ve seen several complaints online about the box being too small and, even more alarming, the cards being miscut and colored differently so that the expansion cards are easy to tell from the base game’s cards. I have no idea how serious the issue is, and it seems the publisher hasn’t acknowledged any of the complaints. But all this means that buying Run, Fight, or Die can be complicated.
Run, Fight, or Die
As in most zombie games, you represent a unique character with your own character traits, except in Run, Fight, or Die! you will also have your own individual board with zombies you alone will encounter. Zombies move closer to you every round. You run from location to location, searching for weapons and survivors in a frantic attempt to stay alive. Survivors may bring new skills to help you in your desperate fight for survival, or in some cases, new challenges to overcome. In either case, every survivor provides you victory points. The game ends either when one player finds five survivors and declares the last round, or when a player reaches the town line (and the total Followers in play meets a minimum), or if a player gets bitten and turns.