Sunday, 17 January 2016

Zombie Tower 3D

Plays: 4Px4, 3Px1; 2 on easy difficulty, 3 on normal.

I sometimes get invitations to review games. Most of the time I decline. Only occasionally when the premise of a game intrigues me I would commit to play and review it. Playing boardgames and blogging are what I do to relax and to have fun, so I don't want to make any part of it feel like an obligation. When Cosaic first contacted me about Zombie Tower 3D, I had not heard of this game. It had some quirks which piqued my curiosity, so I thought why not.

The Game

Zombie Tower 3D is a semi-cooperative game. You are survivors stuck in a crumbling building infested with zombies. You are separated by jammed doors and fallen walls, and have no means to reach one another. The best you can do is shout to communicate and coordinate your survival efforts. You can pass equipment to one another through small slits in the walls. You can't see what's happening on your friends' sections of the building - where they are located, where the zombies and (non-player) survivors are, what equipment they have found so far. You can only communicate verbally. To win, you need to get out of the building. You must also each get a vaccine before you leave. There are two ways of leaving. The first way is by having one player get hold of both the communication device and the battery, and then everyone meet on Level 3 (I shall avoid the USA 1st-2nd-3rd floor vs UK / Malaysia Ground-1st-2nd floor dilemma by calling the floors levels). The second way is by everyone collectively gathering enough flares and then meeting on Level 1. There is a timer mechanism in the game. If you can't escape by the end of round 12, you lose. If any one of you dies, you lose.

Now here's the twist - this game is semi-cooperative. If you win together, victory points come into play, and only one player will be the winner with the highest score. The others do win too, but not all wins are the same. You score points based on how many survivors you rescue, and based whether you fulfill the three objective cards dealt at the start of the game. These cards require you to have specific items when you escape, which means you need to either have found and not used those items, or you need to have convinced others to give them to you if they have found them. This mechanism creates hidden agendas and competition among players, even as they all try to collaborate to ensure survival. Sometimes you intentionally delay the game hoping to find the equipment you need for scoring, lying to your friends that you still haven't found your vaccine. Sometimes you pretend not to have the shotgun your friend is desperately asking for, because you want the zombies to catch up with the big group of survivors he is leading and kill those survivors, who are worth 1 victory point each.

Sharing equipment is essential. E.g. if you have a gun but no bullets, or vice versa, it is useless. If one player has a gun and the other the bullets, they need to decide who to give his item to the other. Also each player needs one vaccine. An extra vaccine is of no use to you, but you need to make sure all your teammates get one, else you can't win.

This is a 4-player setup. You are supposed to only see your side of the building.

Jeixel, Calvin. In this photo I can see the cards of the player on my right, but I am not supposed to. Those cards on the board determine where new zombies pop up and where new survivors are found.

The sequence of a round is straightforward. First everyone simultaneously draw cards on their respective sides of the building to determine where new zombies and survivors appear. Then the players take turns using 3 Action Points to perform actions. Some actions require AP's, some don't. You can move. You can search, which means drawing a card from the deck for the specific level you are on. You can pick up or drop off survivors. You can heal yourself. You can use equipment. You can drop equipment through the slits on the walls, or pick up equipment left by others. You can even gain an AP by taking injury. Sometimes this is necessary.

Calvin, Kit Loong. When you search, you draw a card. The 3 card decks for each level are placed on the roof of the building. They have different card backs.

Ah Pek (Uncle) is cautiously guarding the staircase. In this photo you can see the slits on the walls. There are slits on every level.

After all players have completed their actions, it is the zombies' turn. Zombies on the same floor as humans will move towards the humans, prioritising the non-player survivors over the players. After they all move, they bite the humans in the same room as them. Survivors who are bitten turn into zombies (of course!). Players who are bitten take one point of damage. If you hit your health limit, you die and everybody loses.

Zombies go for survivors first and not the players. In this photo there are survivors on the rightmost rooms on Levels 2 and 3. So the zombies on these levels will all walk towards the right. The player character on the left is safe, at least for now. There is no survivor or player character on Level 1, so the zombies there will just chill.

This is one of the player characters. Each character has a different start location and a unique special ability. The big white box is for placing survivors tagging along with you. Survivors don't move on their own because they are too scared. They will follow you only if you tell them to.

The Play

My first two games were played with non-gamers. The idea of the 3D building immediately caught their attention. They told me the rulebook looked intimidating, but after I taught them the rules, they were able to digest them just fine. They found the rules logical and natural. They kept referring to Left 4 Dead, which I have not played before. In the first game I decided to just go for the normal difficulty level, and we lost rather spectacularly. I later found out that I had played one rule wrong, which made the game much harder than it should be. I had thought that zombies knew how to take the stairs to go hunt down humans on other levels. Actually they don't. We had inadvertently played in hell mode. For the second game, I played with a different group of non-gamers, this time playing with the correct rules. I was scarred from the first game and decided to start at easy difficulty. The difference between difficulty levels is the number of starting zombies during game setup. This time we won rather easily, and never got into particularly difficult situations. I think the easy level is mainly suitable for teaching the game or playing with casual players or children. When I played, I treated the game as a fully cooperative game. When you are still familiarising yourself with the game, you can choose to play this way. However the intention of the designers is there should be competition and hidden agendas amidst the collaboration.

To beat the game you need to communicate a lot and coordinate carefully. It is almost impossible for everyone to find exactly what he needs. Usually you will need to find ways to pass equipment among yourselves in order to win. Even just the basic requirement to win - everybody getting a vaccine shot - can be quite challenging. Sometimes you need to pass an item to the player sitting opposite you. That means first passing it to the guy on your left or right, and then him bringing it to the other wall to pass on to the final recipient. That can be very tricky to coordinate when the place is swarming with zombies. When we played we had to keep asking where are you, which slit is easier for you to get to, how soon can you get there, what else do you have, etc. Even after we finally gathered all the items we needed, coordinating the right time to get to the assembly point was a challenge too. Get there too early, and you may find yourself surrounded by zombies before your teammates are ready to leave the building.

Zombie movement follows very exact rules. They are predictable, and you must make use of this. The new zombies and survivors that appear every round can throw a wrench into your plans, but that's all part of the fun. You want to make use of your understanding of zombie behaviour to control their movement, e.g. halting them in their tracks by staying away and taking survivors away from the level they are in, or steering them in a particular direction by dropping of a survivor that way. Cruel, yes, but sometimes it's necessary. Think of it as saving yourself first so that you can in turn save more other survivors. When you are about to be bitten, you can push a survivor traveling with you forward to take the bite for you. But then he'd turn into a zombie and you'd have more zombies to contend with next round. You need to think of that too.

My non-gamer friends enjoyed the game very much and asked to borrow it. They were disappointed to find that it had sold out, but I told them there would be a Kickstarter campaign starting in February. That's Cosaic's current plan as far as I'm aware of.

Benz, Ruby, Xiaozhu, Edwin and Eva. Only Ruby, Xiaozhu and Eva were actually playing with me, but the others were interested and sat down to join us.

Kit Loong and Calvin standing behind were probably grumbling about how I had taught them the wrong rules in the game we played earlier, causing such a miserable loss.

My 3rd and 4th games were played with gamers. I decided to go for normal difficulty level straightaway, since this was not a complex game. Aaaaand Sinbad died a rather horrible death. He was rather unlucky. He was unable to save any of the survivors on his side of the building. They were all bitten and they turned into zombies, resulting is a large horde. His character was good with guns and could kill an extra zombie each time he attacked, but he couldn't find bullets for his gun, so he didn't manage to make use of his special ability at all. In hindsight we were a little careless. We should have foresaw Sinbad's sticky situation earlier and worked out how to help him out a few rounds earlier. By the time we realised the gravity of the situation, it was already too late.

Sinbad, Allen, Jason and I decided to have another go. This time we were more careful, and eventually managed to escape. We had to coordinate carefully when and where we were going to pass items to one another, and when exactly we were going to meet at the assembly point. To win the game you still need to last till the end of the round after reaching the assembly point, i.e. after the zombies do their moving and biting. I still played the game as a pure cooperative game, not quite bothering about the victory points. However my gamer friends were not so innocent. They were already thinking about post-survival bragging. Jason had two objective cards which required having the dynamite and the detonator. Allen had announced that he had them both and asked if anyone needed them. Jason tried to convince Allen that he needed the equipment to kill some zombies. However he didn't sound desperate enough, and eventually Allen didn't pass the goods to him. If Jason had put on a good enough show and convinced Allen to hand over the goodies, he would have become the top scorer. I was oblivious to all this during the game itself. It was only post-game that we discussed this, and I was able to appreciate the self-interest, brinkmanship and lying aspects that can emerge when playing this game.

Allen, Jason. This time I was playing with hobby gamers.

This time the character I played was the doctor. His special ability was he could turn a zombie back into a human, at the cost of one health point.

All the survivor tokens have a zombie side at the back.

The Thoughts

Zombie Tower 3D is a game with a wide appeal. The 3D tower is eye-catching, and the core mechanisms are intriguing. That's at least enough to get many to be interested to give it a try. It is not a particularly deep game, so it's not something gamers will play regularly or do in-depth strategy analysis on. This is a light strategy game which feels like a party game. You need to communicate a lot, and you need to coordinate your efforts meticulously. It's funny that despite all players being restricted to different sides of the building, the game is very high in player interaction. The information barrier forces players to actively contribute to the discussion.

The victory conditions in Archipelago share similarities with those in Zombie Tower 3D. It's either everyone loses, or there is only one true winner, the one with the highest score. Some complain that this makes the game less fun because a player who can't be on top will try to make everyone lose. I don't see this as a problem. In my view, we should stick to the theme and setting. In Zombie Tower 3D, surviving will always be more important than having more glory.

What would be funny though, is a group of players who should have won the game end up losing because of the mistrust among them. E.g. a player claiming he needs the shotgun to kill zombies coming at him, but others who do have shotguns being unwilling to give it to him because they believe he only wants it for the victory points. That player asking for the shotgun may actually be in trouble. Can you trust your friends?

This is a game that I imagine casual players can keep on playing and playing. For regular gamers, it still provides some challenge because of the randomness and the luck element. The normal level is not exactly easy to beat. I have yet to try the hard difficulty.

I thank Cosaic for this review copy. It's a game I will treasure. If you are interested in the game, watch out for the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, estimated to start in February.

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