Saturday, 7 October 2017

Hit Z Road

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Hit Z Road is a zombie game from Martin Wallace. Now that's not something you hear often. What I noticed most about the game before getting to play it was the art direction. The components and artwork were designed to make it look like a game hand-made by a child, reusing parts from other games, using unwanted rubbish like bottle caps, pasting stickers onto the components and even directly writing on them. The child made this game based on his experience during an arduous journey through USA. The world had fallen apart and devolved into an apocalyptic zombie wasteland. The child was part of a group traveling from Chicago to California. They had decided to make the trip because California was a safe haven. They succeeded and the child lived to tell the tale, through this boardgame.

Hit Z Road is an auction game. After listening to the rules explanation, I expected it to be a very Euro, light-to-medium weight game. What surprised me was it turned out to be more visceral. It had more story and it was more immersive than I had expected. I was pleasantly surprised.

You start the game with a group of 5 survivors. You are the leader and your pawn is in the player colour (green in my case). The other survivors are white in colour. The bottle caps are the three types of resources you have in the game. The red ones are fuel, the blue ones bullets, the yellow ones adrenaline. Your first goal is to survive. As long as at least one person in your group reaches California, you succeed. Only among the surviving players you then determine who is most successful by comparing score. Throughout the game you may collect cards with point values. If you have the most fuel, bullets, adrenaline or survivors at game end, you also score points.

This burger joint customer loyalty card is used as a player order marker.

There are even stamps on the back.

A three player game is set up this way. The deck of cards on the right is set up depending on the number of players. It is divided into three stages, the first stage having the easiest cards and the third having the hardest. At the start of a round, you draw three sets of two cards each. The players bid for turn order to pick sets. Everyone must pick a set. The small board at the bottom is what you use for this bidding process. During the bidding rounds, you may bid a higher amount or pass. You pay your bid using any combination of the three types of resources. When you take a set of cards, you execute whatever is specified on them.

At the top you can see various round tokens. These are miscellaneous items you may collect during your journey. Some cards tell you to take a specific token, and then later on some other cards tell you what happens or doesn't happen if you have or don't have a particular token. E.g. if you pick up a teenager, you may later find that he helps your group with a task that nobody else can do, or you may find that he steals your resources and vanishes. The items augment the values of the card sets. A card set becomes more attractive to the player who has a certain token which he can make use of. A card set can also be shunned by everyone except for a single player who has the right token to prevent a disaster on one of the cards. These affect how players value card sets and how they bid for turn order.

The black pawns are the zombies. The dice are used for combat. The black dice are regular dice, the red ones are the tougher ones. Combat consists of two stages. The first stage is ranged attack. You may spend bullets to shoot at the approaching zombies. You have one chance to decide how many bullets to spend. You then roll the dice. Each crosshair icon rolled kills a zombie. If there are zombies left, you now have to decide flee or fight. You may spend two fuel resources to speed away. If you don't have enough fuel, or don't want to spend it, you enter melee combat. This is a fight to the death. One side must be completely wiped out. You kill zombies by rolling the crosshair icon. If you roll a lightning bolt, you may spend an adrenaline resource to kill a zombie. If you roll crosshair + lightning bolt, you either kill one zombie, or spend an adrenaline resource to kill two. If you roll the skull icon, one of your survivors dies. If you roll skull + lightning bolt, you may spend an adrenaline to save the survivor. Skulls on the black dice always come with lightning bolts, but the red dice have skull-only faces. That's why they are tougher.

I find it interesting that the number of dice you roll during combat depends on the number of human survivors and not the number of zombies. When there are many humans and few zombies, more dice means more opportunities to kill zombies, which makes sense. However it also means more chances of getting bitten by a zombie. I try to explain it this way - since there are so many humans, there is a higher chance that someone becomes careless and gets bitten.

When there are few humans and many zombies, the smaller chances of scoring a hit against zombies makes sense. Fewer humans means less killing power. However it is also harder for zombies to kill humans. This is easier to explain - when there are more zombies than humans, not every zombie can get close to a human. The zombies will get into one another's way.

These are the bonus cards to be claimed at game end. You claim the corresponding card if you have the most fuel, bullets, adrenaline or survivors.

The Play

In our game, this was the situation after 2 rounds. Strictly speaking, any cards you claim should be added to a face-down stack and not laid out this way. I like it this way because the cards become my picture book telling my story. On the cards, the star icons at the top right mean point values. They are only meaningful if you make it to California. The icons at the top left mean resources you get to collect. The numbers at the bottom right are the zombies you need to fight. You claim the resources before deciding whether to fight the zombies. You may claim resources then flee by paying two fuel resources. You don't need to return the resources you have just claimed. However you also won't keep the card (or its point value). Some cards have additional instructions you must follow.

That card with a big #2 is another player order card. Every time you complete a bidding round, you take the corresponding player order card. You follow this player order not only when taking card sets. You also follow this player order for the bidding next round.

With these three sets of cards, naturally the top set is least desirable, since you have to fight zombies twice. Cards being grouped into pairs creates interesting combinations and variability.

I did a three-player game with Ivan and Allen. Ivan taught Allen and I to play. The early game felt mild. I could collect resources in a leisurely manner. I could spend resources to claim cards with points. The zombies were not that scary, and sometimes we gained new group members. It was only later that I realised the early game was just the calm before the storm. It was the chance to brace ourselves for what was to come. I should have been more thrifty with my resources in the early game. I had underestimated how many resources I needed for the rest of the game. Ivan was better prepared. In the early game he often forwent opportunities to score points in order to preserve even just a little bit of resources. It turned out this was prudent indeed. Cards worth points are normally cards with zombies, i.e. you often need to spend bullets and adrenaline to kill the zombies before you can claim the card. Sometimes it is better to only spend fuel to flee and forgo the card, preserving bullets and adrenaline.

Among the three of us, I was most resource-poor and ended up last. No surprise there. Both Allen and Ivan managed their resources better, but even so by game end they more or less ran out of resources too. Ivan had a little bit more, and managed to claim some of the bonus cards at game end. He won the game. Despite coming last, I had a blast with the game. This was what happened.

As things went from bad to worse, I found myself down to three survivors, and no resources. We were surrounded by six zombies, and they were a horde. We had to use at least two red dice when fighting them. Running out of resources was horrible. It meant every round I was the one forced to take the worst card set. I had no resources to bid any higher than 0. It was hard mode all the way for me.

I had thought being outnumbered 6 to 3 surely meant game over, but to my surprise I managed to survive with one last person. It was like I had plot protection and I was destined for greater things.

Unfortunately the so-called greater things turned out to be another zombie horde. This time it was 1 vs 6, and I had to fight with a red die again.

Ivan and Allen grabbed their popcorns and sat down to watch how I was going to deal with 6 zombies. Just the previous night at the airport I had killed three zombies single-handedly. That was already a minor miracle. Facing off six of them now, I muttered under my breath - you've got to be (insert-strong-emphasis) kidding me. To my surprise, and to the laughter of Ivan and Allen, I survived. The zombies fell one after another. I kept rolling, and rolling, and rolling, and the dreaded skull icon never came. I had run out of adrenaline. If I rolled a skull with a lightning bolt, I would have to die because I had no adrenaline to pay. Yet I rolled no skull plus lightning bolt, and no skull. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. Every time I killed a zombie, it was exhilarating, but I could not celebrate because I knew upon the next die roll it could well be my turn to die. I almost collapsed with relief when the last zombie fell. In total, my brave little survivor character killed 9 zombies consecutively.

For the past two months I have been writing about the many games played at the Broga Bliss boardgame retreat organised by I played a good variety of games. I had not expected that the most unforgettable moment would be from Hit Z Road.

The next card I had to deal with was also the final card of the whole game I had to deal with. I needed to pay one fuel resource, or lose one survivor. I had no resource left, and I had only one survivor left - me. So I died. Poof! Most anti-climatic ending to my zombie story. I slayed 9 zombies only to die of... sorry sir, gas no stock. I guess the story was supposed to be me getting badly injured after the fight and eventually dying of my wounds. I met another survivor group which had medication, but they would only trade. They wanted fuel. I had none. They left me to die. Pricks!

I arranged all the cards I had claimed, and made this fancy storyboard. I had claimed a total of 15 cards. We played 8 rounds, and if I had claimed all cards, there would be 16. The one card short was because I had fled the zombies once.

The core game mechanism is a very Euro style auction mechanism. Cards you take are mostly independent cards, each card telling an unrelated little story or describing a scenario. However if you let your imagination take flight, you can easily link them all up into a convincing story. The items element helps. They can establish cause-and-effect relationships between some cards. The whole chain tells a consistent tale of desperate survivors scavenging, rationing resources and fighting for survival. I am sold that this is indeed a zombie game, even if my left brain teases me that this is a Euro auction game.

The Thoughts

If you remove the setting, the theme and the zombies, Hit Z Road is a game of resource management and risk management. It is an auction game. You need to spend your resources wisely. You gather resources in the early game, and you try to make them last till the end. This being an auction game means you need to be good at assessing the value of things. Is this risk worth taking? Is that victory point card worth this many resources? If you analyse with your brain that's the conclusion you will come to. If you play with your heart, it can be a rather different matter. When I played, I was immersed in the story. I built the story from the disjointed events depicted on the cards. I had to manage crisis after crisis. I had to make tough choices. I had to make sacrifices. Every bullet spent and every gallon of gas used felt painful. "Was it worth it?", I often asked. Many times I had to choose between taking a risk or not. Avoiding risk is not free. You can't afford to flee forever. You will eventually run out of fuel. Do you flee now or save the fuel so that you have the option to flee in future when you get into a worse situation than now? Every fight with the zombies is a death fight. You can never be sure which day will be your last.

The game is of low to medium complexity. Non-gamers and casual gamers can manage, so I think it will work as a gateway game. The zombie theme is a plus.

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