Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Zombie State

When Han brought out Zombie State, he said (something to this effect), "It's a zombie game, so I had no choice - it's a must buy". I'm sure most gamers out there can appreciate this, but probably not their significant others. Han is a big Ameritrash fan, so we make a good combo - he buys most of the Ameritrash games and I buy most of the Eurogames. He's the one who introduced me to zombies. I never had much interest before that. The Walking Dead is a still-ongoing graphic novel series that I quite enjoy.

The Game

Zombie State is played on a world map, divided into 5 regions (sorry Australia, you're merged with the Asian continent), and depending on the number of players (2 to 5), certain regions are in play. Each player controls one region, and every territory in every region starts with some population, represented by pips on a die. Some territories produce goods, which are needed for raising armies and research. As part of game setup, some zombies appear in some territories. These zombies will start biting people, converting them to zombies, and the zombie plague will spread and spread. The players scramble to try to save their people and their territories. They try to kill zombies where they can, and generally just try to survive. When the game ends, you win if you have the most population remaining.

The gameboard is quite wide but not very high. The timer track is on the far left.

Every round zombies will either bite or move. Each zombie will bite one population point, reducing your population die by one, and creating one more zombie. If that area has no more population, the hungry zombies which have not bitten anyone move to the neighbouring territory with the most population. If there are too many zombies, they split up and move to multiple territories. If all neighbouring territories are vacant, the zombies get confused and they sit around doing nothing.

Your resources in the game are freedom points (FP's) and 4 types of goods. FP's are basically action points. Depending on how many of your territories still have population in, you get between 2 to 6 FP's. You need FP's for moving armies, fortifying armies, producing extra goods, performing research and using some technologies that you have already researched. You use resources for raising troops, research, and in some cases for using technologies too.

Research is a very important part of the game. There are three streams - medical, military and physics/science. You spend resources to research a technology, and get a 50% chance to succeed in developing the technology. If you fail, on your subsequent tries your chances improve. If other players already have the technology, your chances will also be better. Technologies give you various benefits. One lets you kill zombies from afar, one lets you build walls cordoning off zombies, one lets you migrate your population, one lets you produce goods in territories which originally do not produce goods. The technologies are important in combating the zombie plague and in surviving.

The player reference sheet is intimidating at first, but soon I found it to be very useful and practical. The track along the top tells you how many Freedom Points you get at the start of the round. Territories with no population left will have their dice placed here, and the track tells you how many territories you have left, and how many FP's you get. The small box on the top left is for storing your FP's, represented by the plastic pawns. Each time you spend an FP, you remove a pawn from the box.

Below that box you see a long box containing the round summary, which is quite handy. The technologies take up most of the space. You don't need to remember them all when you play. Just browse and find what you like. At the start you can only attempt to develop the Tier 1 techs. After you have developed three of these (like I had done here), you can move on to Tier 2.

A close-up of the Popularity Track, which is used for tracking FP's you get.

The Play

In our 3-player game, Han played Europe (yellow), Allen played Africa (red) and I played Asia (green). North and South America were not in play. At the start of the game I decided to invest in a technology that gave me +2 to my die rolls (on a 12-sided die) in future when I attempted to develop new technologies. I thought it was good investment. For the rest of the game I rolled quite well in my tech rolls and ended up not really utilising this ability very much though. But I think I still benefited from the confidence it gave me to invest in tech rolls.

From very early in the game, I was already torn between short-term and long-term concerns. Should I build more troops to try to slow down the advance of the zombies? Should I build attempt to develop new technologies? Would my people survive long enough to be able to benefit from the techs? The zombie armies grew at an alarming rate. The people they bit became zombies themselves, boosting their ranks. It was a mad scramble trying to contain the outbreak. And then there are literally Outbreaks throughout the game. Some happened at fixed turns, some came up from the event deck. When Outbreaks happened, a zombie appeared at a random populated spot, and we had to start worrying about containing that new zombie. At one point in the game, Allen had separated his populated territories from zombie-infested territories using a wall, but when an Outbreak came up and he rolled the die, a new zombie appeared precisely in the territory on this side of the wall, as if some smart (oxymoron?), previously-unaccounted-for zombie had breached the wall.

I played Asia (green). The dice on the board represent population level. I had lost all my population (all bitten by zombies) in Mongolia, West China and Bangladesh/Burma. One zombie just walked into Beijing (red side), but I had an army which could defeat it. India is a lost cause, 8 zombies there.

West China used to produce the blue resource (I don't remember what it was), but since I had no population remaining, I couldn't produce there anymore.

I was quite lucky in this game. My initial zombies were all near the borders with Europe, and the zombie plague spread westwards, and never seriously threatened east Asia or Australia. Heavily populated India was a zombie magnet. As the zombies swarmed India, I used my Evacuation tech to get my population out of the neighbouring territories. I managed to create a no man's land between zombie-infested territories and safe territories. This protected my remaining territories, but it also meant the zombies now headed for Han's territories to my west. Sorry man, this is not a cooperative game.

Han and Allen weren't as lucky with their zombie distribution. All hell broke lose in Europe and Africa. They had to keep spending on troops to fight zombies. Eventually most of the northern half of Africa was devastated, and the western half of Europe too.

Every round three event cards are turned up. Some events are good, some bad. Outbreaks are bad. Free walls are good. Sometimes you lose or gain FP's. Sometimes some types of research become less, or more, expensive. Some of these make you feel like you've won a lottery, e.g. a free wall when you desperately need one to hold off the zombies. Some make you want to bang your head against a wall. E.g. I had one Outbreak in Japan, which was in the middle of my group of "safe" and isolated territories. I had the MV1 virus screening tech, which could prevent Outbreaks, but I had forgotten to keep one good to pay for using it.

After I managed to isolate my territories from the zombies, I spent a lot on techs to further ensure the safety of my population. I even managed to repopulate some territories next to zombie territories because by them I had walls to hold the zombies off. I had the luxury of developing new goods production facilities, and even conducted air strikes to kill off some zombies in Han's territories. I don't think this is normal. We are not playing Puerto Rico here. Colonists? Goods? What zombie game is this?

India and Pakistan remind me of Twilight Struggle. In our game, they didn't need to fight anymore. All the people had turned to zombies.

Close-up of India and Pakistan. The 3 population in Iran are shuddering with fear.

A wall built to stop the zombies in India from entering the Indonesia territory.

Middle East, North Africa and South Europe have all gone to hell.

Asia was looking sweet. I had repopulated Indonesia since it was now protected by a wall. Anyway I had bombed the zombies in India to oblivion. Australia had a new uranium mine (yellow), Hong Kong had a new corn farm (orange), North China had a new oil well (purple).

Eventually the game ended when for one full round I had no zombies in any of my territories. I had bombed them to oblivion. The game can end in 2 other ways - the end of a timer track, or one player loses all population. We were close to the end of the timer track. Things were more settled down in Europe and Africa by then, so Han and Allen's people weren't at risk of extinction. We didn't really bother to count our scores. It was quite obvious Asia survived with most people remaining. The Australians were probably saying, "What zombies? All we had was a bunch of Indonesian refugees!"

The Thoughts

Zombie State is a fun game. One would squarely categorise this in the Ameritrash camp, but surprisingly I find that it is quite a low player interaction game, or "multiplayer solitaire" game, which many Eurogames are often described as. Everyone is trying to survive, and you can't really interfere much with others' plans. You can try to manipulate your population near your borders with other players, and try to get the zombies to go after other players instead of you, but the ability to do so is limited. You can try to reseach techs that other players already have, because you'll have a better chance of success. However tech needs differ depending on your situation. You will be so busy trying to save your behind, you won't have time to mess with your opponents. The most you can do is laugh at their misfortune.

The game actually feels a little like a cooperative game (assuming you don't laugh at your opponents). You are all on the same boat. You are all part of humanity trying to survive the zombie plague, so you feel like you are part of the same team. I tell you this is a scary game. Watching the zombies grow in number and spread is nerve-wracking. You feel so doomed, facing an unstoppable tidal wave. Zombie feeding and movement is deterministic. You feel very helpless because there is so little you can do, especially in the early game. You need to pick your fights wisely and fall back where necessary. Calculating the zombie actions can feel a bit mathy - how many people get eaten, where the zombies will move, how to trick them into moving the other direction. On the other hand, the events introduce quite a bit of randomness. Most of the bad random events are not too severe. Some can be bad though, e.g. Outbreaks. They only introduce one more zombie, but sometimes just one zombie can trigger a chain reaction that wipes out one big swath of your population.

Zombie State tells a compelling story. It is a serious take on the zombie genre. You can say it's an "experience game", but that tends to have a negative connotation, that your decisions don't matter much. I don't think this is the case here. There is definitely randomness in the game. The excitement comes from how you try to manage the disaster. You will get a mix of good and bad surprises, and you have to manage the bad ones while trying to make the most out of the good ones. This is a once-in-a-while game, and not something you want to play repeatedly and frequently to hone your skills. I certainly had a fun ride.


wankongyew said...

Wow, I love this concept. It seems like a very obvious game to design in retrospect. The board looks really garish from your photos though.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

The graphics design is indeed a bit garish, but it's generally quite functional, so no complaints there.

Lord of Midnight said...

I've written to them to see if we can bring this game into MY & TH. :)

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Wow Jeff, you're selling games in Thailand too? I didn't know that.

phelanwl said...

This game seems like a lot of fun. I recently bought it. Can't wait to try it.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

don't forget to plan for the long term, i.e. the right technologies to go for. things will be bad in the early game, so you need to plan long-term to turn the tide. have fun!