Lions and Tigers and Zombies, Oh My!

I’m so tired of shambling hordes, but the zombie games keep coming towards me.

What is your favorite zombie game and why?

Greg Schloesser: I am frankly perplexed as to the popularity of zombies.  Yes, they make for a good horror movie, but there is a zombie-mania throughout the U.S. and perhaps even the world.  How many TV series can be made that are centered on zombies?  I am not part of the mania, so as such, am not naturally drawn to zombie-themed games.  I have found most of them to fall within the “American-style” gaming category, an area of our hobby that tends not to appeal my tastes.  Move around, collect items, roll dice to fight zombies, lose health points, etc.  This mechanism is generally not one of which I am fond, and most zombie games that I have played use this system.  If forced to choose, I’d say Last Night on Earth was the one that appealed to me the most, and even then only modestly.

Ben McJunkin:  I’m not certain, but I don’t recall ever having played a game containing zombies (much less a “zombie game”).  I’m not averse to zombies as a subject-matter (for instance, I’ve seen a handful of zombie movies in my life), but I have no particular affinity toward zombies.  I’ve played a few games that could easily be adapted to contain zombies.  Mansions of Madness, for instance, could have contained (or may contain, for all I know) a zombie scenario without negatively impacting play.  I would have liked Escape: The Curse of the Temple just as much had it been Escape: Oh No, Zombies!  But these games are few and far between in my rotation.  I am partial to games that allow players to strategize and optimize slowly and methodically, which does not seem well-suited to the zombie theme.  Running away from things (or running towards them with weapons, depending on the game) has never really been in my wheelhouse.  So, until some adventurous designer releases a game about medieval zombie merchants sailing in the Mediterranean, I suspect I’m unlikely to stumble onto a “favorite” zombie game.

Larry:  More “Get Off My Lawn™” crankiness.  I am sick unto death (or, in this case, non-death) of zombies.  They hold no appeal for me at all, nor do I find hordes of mindless creatures which are easily outrun to be even mildly terrifying.  So if a game is centered around zombies, I ignore it.  This works out well, as the vast majority of such games wouldn’t be attractive to me anyway.  Maybe that makes me a “No Fun Allowed” strategy gamer, but so be it.  So I guess the answer to the question is “none”.

Not that you asked, but a close second to zombies for subjects I don’t give a rat’s behind about is Cthulhu.  Now Lovecraft’s creation is much more legitimate than zombie nonsense (it actually qualifies as literature), but it doesn’t really grab me and it’s been way overdone IMO.  Liga mentioned recently that the designers of Kingsburg, a game I enjoy, have come out with a new version themed around the Cthulhu mythos.  My first reaction to this was that it pretty much destroyed any interest I would have in such a redesign.  Sure, generic fantasy is a bit dull, but it’s still more attractive to me than yet another invasion of the Great Old Ones.  Sorry to all you Cthulhu lovers out there, but maybe it means that I’ll be the last human on earth not to go insane!

Mark Jackson: I can’t think of any zombie games I’ll seek out to play – but I can think of more than one that I’ll actively avoid. (I’m looking at you, Mall of Horror… and you, Give Me the Brain.)

However, I do think that the Zombies of Morindan are a very nicely designed set of squad figures for Heroscape. It’s just a shame that you need to buy two packs of them to make them really shine.

And Larry’s not alone in his Cthulhu hating.

Dan Blum: I liked zombies better when they were still underground.

OK, in all honesty I have never been very interested in zombies, and I think it is inarguable that they have been incredibly overdone at this point. Certain people like to hammer on Euros for their repeated use of certain themes, and there is some justice to that. However, if you mock a recent Euro for having a medieval farming theme and in the next breath say how cool the latest zombie game is, that pretty much guarantees I am not going to take your opinions seriously.

And I agree with Larry and Mark in re Lovecraft games. It was a fine, fresh gaming theme back when the Call of Cthulhu RPG and the first version of Arkham Horror came out. Now it, like zombies, has been used far too often. It’s stale. If you use it for your game I assume you couldn’t be bothered to think of a decent theme.

Now, I don’t really care that much about theme, so I am not opposed to playing games with these themes. However, I usually don’t, for three reasons. One is that use of one of these themes makes me suspect that the game’s mechanisms are not that great and the (inexplicably) popular theme was used to get people to buy it. Another is the reason Greg mentions; games with these themes tend to not be to my tastes even when they have actual design thought behind them. Finally, these themes encourage people to use dark graphics which usually look bad and are always difficult to use.

Going back to the original question which kicked off this article (finally), my favorite zombie game would have to be whatever scenario of Betrayal at House on the Hill I played that involved zombies (I think there was one). If that doesn’t count, I guess it would be Zombiaki, which was OK. Dishonorable mention goes to Zombiegeddon, which is presumably a good game I would enjoy playing, since it’s almost the same game as Jäger und Sammler, but which has such dreadful graphics that when we tried to play it we bailed during setup.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I know it could be seems strange but Zombies is a theme that doesn’t interest me particularly and it also, at present, not fitting my family tastes. In my gaming club are all frenzy about Zombicide and I must admit it actually works fine. I also played Zombiaki and the old Zombies!!! Both interesting but not excellent.

So, if I have to say the best Zombies games I have played it is Zombicide because it is a real well done collaborative game with enough tension.

Undead are charming and I have used a lot in my Dungeons & Dragons adventures but outside the rpg systems I found Zombie quite boring because are too much well defined (stupid, slow, …) to let designers possibly to make something really new.

The real Zombies game I love is the computer game Plants VS Zombies that I think is one of the best PC/Tablet games ever.

Erik Arneson: First, Mark Jackson is absolutely correct about the Zombies of Morindan for Heroscape. They’re excellent to play, and you need to buy at least two packs of them to make them really shine. Highly recommended.

As to zombie games, I’m a fan of the genre (which seemingly puts me in the minority around here). My favorite is Zombicide. (I’m also a fan of cooperative games, so Zombicide hits that niche as well.) Every game I’ve played has been tense, most have been losses, and I’ve always been ready to play again right away. Perhaps it has something to do with the people I tend to play with (I’ll take on the zombies with Chris and Sue any day!), but Zombicide is just flat-out entertaining.

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12 Responses to Lions and Tigers and Zombies, Oh My!

  1. No love for Finstere Flure? Or is that not “technically” a Zombie game?

  2. John Lin says:

    How is there no mention of Dead of Winter among all these experienced boardgamers?

    • Dan Blum says:

      Why should there be?

      • huzonfirst says:

        Well, given that it’s the highet rated game from last year, it’s a reasonable question. John, I haven’t played Dead of WInter, for two very good reasons: it’s cooperative and it’s about zombies (see my feelings about zombie games above). As a result, I have no interest in the game whatsoever, But those who consider those two things to be plusses evidently love it.

        • Dan Blum says:

          Sure, but this wasn’t a survey of all zombie games. If Dead of Winter was anyone’s FAVORITE zombie game it would have been mentioned.

          I haven’t played it either for the same reasons. I am willing to play some cooperative games but I don’t seek them out, and I tend to avoid zombie games.

      • John Lin says:

        I really like Dead of Winter because it attempts to take the subject matter of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world seriously as opposed to in a slapstick or tongue-in-cheek manner like most other “zombie” made-for-kids games. And the game is not a straight cooperative game at all. In any given game, there is a slightly less than 50% chance that one of the players is an outright traitor trying to subvert the group’s mission. And even among the group that is trying to accomplish the overall mission, each person has an individual hidden agenda that they must accomplish in order to win. Some of these hidden agendas can be quite antagonistic, such as requiring the hoarding of certain critical resources, or even requiring the death of other players’ characters! Since the group can vote to kick out a member if they suspect they are a traitor, an actual member of the group can be exiled due to antisocial behaviors that were necessary due to their hidden agenda, and once exiled they will become traitors for real (in addition to the other hidden traitor if already present). And many other mechanisms in the game, such as the various “missions,” the Crossroads system where special events are triggered by various events happening in the game, or the different starting characters with unique survival abilities, make each game play differently, adding replay value. Like the best “zombie” TV series (aka The Walking Dead), Dead of Winter is not really about the zombies, but most interesting due to the human interaction in an atmosphere of paranoia and forced cooperation due to limited resources and an overwhelming threat that threatens the group’s survival. So get off your high horses and give Dead of Winter a chance! =P

        Here’s another description of the game from the official website: “Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means the players are working together toward one common victory condition–but for each individual player to achieve victory, they must also complete their personal secret objective. This secret objective could relate to a psychological tick that’s fairly harmless to most others in the colony, a dangerous obsession that could put the main objective at risk, a desire for sabotage of the main mission, or worst of all: vengeance against the colony! Certain games could end with all players winning, some winning and some losing, or all players losing.”

        • Dan Blum says:

          That’s all great but it sounds as if you have to be invested in the theme, which is typical for this kind of game. I am not a theme-centric player and I could not be less interested in this theme without the aid of powerful narcotics. Which is not to say it’s a bad game or anything – just probably not a game for me.

      • John Lin says:

        For whoever might be interested, here’s a detailed write-up I did for my friends of my first play-through for Dead of Winter, since it was such an epic game:

        Dead of Winter First Play-Through!

        As many of my friends know, I’ve been wanting to purchase and play Dead of Winter, a new “zombie apocalypse” board game that has gotten very positive reviews. Since its release, the game has been completely sold out everywhere, and I missed my one chance to buy it on coolstuffinc.com when it was restocked because the shipment sold out the same day I received the e-mail notification that the game was back in stock!

        Well, thanks to my friend David, I had a chance to play the game tonight for the first time along with Sharon and her friend John. I tried to keep my expectations low, but it turned out we had an epic game and I thought the game was really fun! Here is the narrative of what happened during my first game:

        Dead of Winter has several different scenarios you can play, and the one we picked was called “We Need More Samples.” The goal was simple: We had 6 turns to collect 12 tissue samples from zombies. Every time a player killed a zombie, they rolled a dice, with a 50/50 chance of successfully collecting a tissue sample from the dead zombie.

        I received four character cards, of which I was allowed to choose two, and a secret agenda card. My secret agenda was twofold: in order to win I had to accomplish the group’s main objective of collecting 12 tissue samples, plus I had to build a personal hoard of at least 1 food card, 2 fuel, and 1 weapon by the end of the game. I chose two really cool characters: the Soldier, whose attack is so good that he is able to automatically kill at least one zombie and also has a 1 out of 3 chance of killing two zombies while defending the main colony if he rolls especially well, and the Student, who has really poor stats, but is able to use the special ability of any character that happens to be in the same location.

        During the first turn, Sharon sent her first character, the Secretary, to the hospital to search for medical supplies. Now, whenever you move a character in the game or fight a zombie, you have to roll the “Exposure” dice. This is a d12 in which there is a 9 out of 12 chance of nothing happening, a 1 out of 12 chance of taking 1 damage (each character has 3 life), a 1 out of 12 chance of getting frostbitten by the cold (your character takes 1 initial damage, and another damage every subsequent turn until it dies), and a 1 out of 12 chance of being bitten by a zombie, in which case your character instantly dies! David suggested that we play without the insta-death bite penalty, or at least give everyone at least one free pass on it, claiming new players always seem cursed to roll the rare “zombie bite” right away, but I said “No way, I’m HARDCORE! Let’s play the game it was meant to be, ROAR!!!” =P Anyway, the chance of being bitten is only 1 out of 12, right?

        Well, Sharon promptly contracts frostbite the moment she steps out of our base on the way to the hospital! Luckily, though, I had a medicine card, and generously offered to give it to her so she could heal her Secretary, which she gladly accepted, phew! However, by searching the hospital, Sharon also triggered the first special “Crossroads” event of the game, which would either cause our group to lose 1 morale or make a noise that would attract two zombies to the front of our main colony. David said two zombies wasn’t too big a deal, keeping group morale up was more important, and I proclaimed, “Don’t worry, my turn is next, and my super Soldier can kill those two zombies automatically since he’s such a badass!” So Sharon, who had to decide how to handle the crisis, chose to have two zombies placed in front of the main colony instead of the group losing morale.

        So on my turn, first thing I did of course was to automatically kill those two zombies with my Soldier. But remember? Every time you fight a zombie you have to roll the “Exposure” dice. And sure enough, on my very first roll, on my very first turn, I rolled the incredibly unlucky “zombie bite” and my Soldier instantly died! Now, when a character dies, the character with the lowest “influence” that is in the same location also gets bitten by your character, and faces a moral dilemma: He can choose to commit suicide, in which case his character also dies but the infection ends immediately, –OR– he can choose to gamble by rolling a d6, in which case there is a 50% chance that he will survive the infection with no ill effect, or a 50% chance that he will also die, and subsequently infect yet another character in the location, and so on and so forth. Since we had just started the game and only Sharon had moved her characters out of the colony so far, 6 of our 8 characters were still at the main base, so we were facing a possible full-blown epidemic!
        The character who got infected by my Soldier was David’s Janitor, who David had generously selected for his ability to clean out the main colony’s waste (see, if the waste from the colony gets too high the group’s morale drops because the place becomes a pigsty). David, in high dudgeon at my terrible roll, plus my earlier refusal to give everyone a free pass on the zombie bite, plus the loss of one of his two characters, heroically chose that his Janitor commit suicide rather than risk passing on the zombie infection and possibly wiping out the rest of the group during the first turn of the game! But let me tell you, he was not happy though, lol.

        I then decided to send my Student to the hospital to join Sharon’s Secretary in searching for medical supplies. Her Secretary had a special ability to draw four cards and keep one, and my Student could utilize her special ability since he was in the same location. So I rolled the “Exposure” dice again while traveling to the hospital. And unbelievably, I rolled the “zombie bite” again!!! My Student was now instantly dead, and I passed the zombie infection on to Sharon’s Secretary who was in the same location! The entire group was in an uproar, moaning “Oh my god, first turn and John’s already lost both of his characters!” Since Sharon’s Secretary was the only character at the Hospital, she elected to roll the dice and see if she survived instead of committing suicide since there were no other characters there, and luckily, she rolled well and her Secretary survived.

        Now, if both of your characters die, you are out of the game in “Hardcore” mode. But I sheepishly told David, “Okay I guess I’m not that hardcore” and the standard rules allowed me to get one new character so I could continue playing the game, and I drew the Farmer, whose special ability was to get two cards instead of one when scrounging at the grocery store.

        And now, after my double deaths and infections, everyone started running like scared rats away from the main colony before I got bitten by a zombie and infected everyone again with my horrible luck! =P David played a “follower” card and got a pet Dog as a new character, which had a special ability of being able to run around the town without being bitten by zombies. However, this activated our second special Crossroads event of the game, in which David had to choose between giving me one of his two characters, or keep his characters and cause the group to lose morale. I said, “David, you yourself said that morale is very important, so give me your Dog.” David, royally pissed off that I had already gotten his Janitor bitten and had to commit suicide to avoid a pandemic in the colony, and now facing giving me another one of his characters, had had too much and refused to give me his Dog, instead electing that the entire group lose morale. I couldn’t really blame him, though, but I commented, “David, you literally are a SELFISH DOG!!!” and our entire group including David–the good sport that he is–burst out laughing.

        After this terrible start, however, the group started rolling–successfully resolving each turn’s crises, killing zombies and scavenging for weapons, food, medicine and other useful items. During my second turn, I rolled terribly yet again and my weak Farmer was unable to successfully kill any zombies or scrounge for any items. As penance to atone for my earlier terrible rolls to the group, I decided to stay alone at the base and clean the toilets, so to speak, the job that David’s Janitor would’ve performed if my Soldier didn’t bite him and kill him lol.

        David was the next person to get bitten by a zombie, when he traveled to the police station to try to search for weapons. Sharon’s Mayor was already in that location and thus bitten and infected too, much to her annoyance. She rolled the dice to see if he would survive the infection, but he was a goner too. Sharon was able to find another follower later, though, a Pirate, who was as strong of a fighter as my dead Soldier, and whose special ability was to take a card from any other player.

        In the meantime, John (Sharon’s friend, not me), had been busily scrounging for food all game at the grocery store, and had built up a huge hand of 8-10 secret item cards he kept in his hand! Every time there was a crisis involving food or we had to feed the people at the main colony, sometimes he suspiciously said he had food and sometimes that he had no more food, and we were like what the heck? What the hell do you have in your hand, you hoarder!

        At last, we reached the final turn to accomplish our group and individual goals. It looked hopeless; we had only collected 6 of the 12 zombie tissue samples at that point over the 5 previous turns, and the entire play area was aswarm with zombies. In addition, I still only had one character, my lowly Farmer, and was short both a fuel card and a weapon to complete my personal hidden agenda. Facing certain defeat, I was forced to resort to begging for help, “Does anyone have a weapon they can give me, or fuel, please?” Sharon had two weapons, one for each of her characters, but didn’t want to give me one. David said he could give me a weapon and fuel, but I had to use them for the benefit of the group. I was caught at this point in an interesting moral quandary: I could accept David’s offer and accept his items but break my promise to use them in order to accomplish my personal goal but screw over the group in accomplishing the main objective, or I could accept the offer and use the items to give the group a chance of winning but certainly fail in accomplishing my own hidden personal agenda.

        Since neither option was acceptable, I was forced to gamble and search the police station to look for fuel. Sharon changed her mind about giving me one of her weapons after David looked at the rulebook and discovered that a character was allowed to “hand off” a weapon to another character even if they had already used it, so long as both characters were in the same location, so that I could satisfy my personal hidden condition of having at least one weapon. So Sharon agreed to give me her sniper rifle after using it if I remained at the police station. With no other choice, I agreed and drew a card praying for fuel…and failed. I got a redundant weapon instead, a Colt 911 pistol.

        Thinking I had lost the game, suddenly David burst out to me, “Actually, if you are willing to make extra noise, you can look at another card and choose which one you want to keep!” If you do, though, there is a 50% chance that an extra zombie will appear at that location. My hopes suddenly rising, I said “Okay!” and drew another card…and failed again. This time I got a useless Junk card. Yes, it was literally an item called “Junk.” David then said, “Wait, actually, if you want to keep searching, you can do it up to 5 times, but each time you do there is 50% chance that another zombie will come and you are sure to flood the area then with zombies.” So I drew another card…and failed. And another card…and failed. On my last draw, I had pretty much given up, but miraculously finally drew the fuel card! I had somehow accomplished my personal agenda of hoarding up 1 food, 2 fuel, and a weapon! However, I had raised a horrendous racket during my reckless search, and the police station would soon be completely swarmed by zombies, so I ran away back to the main colony, leaving Sharon’s Pirate behind at the police station. Luckily, I didn’t get bitten by a zombie either on the way back to the base!

        And after that, somehow the group pulled together and started kicking major ass! David used a lighter and fuel to flamethrower 4 zombies at once in one turn! The previous 4 zombies our group killed we had rolled a “3” four times in a row, failing to extract a tissue sample, so I suddenly decided to switch out the “unlucky” die with another with which Sharon had just rolled a “6.” David then rolled awesome and collected tissue samples from 3 out of the 4 zombies! John then used his Ninja to slice and dice a couple more zombies, rolled the lucky dice and collected two more tissue samples, and then Sharon used her sniper rifle to kill one zombie and her shotgun to kill two more back at the main colony, collecting tissue samples from two of them, after fleeing the police station where I had attracted the huge mob of zombies due to my making so much noise during my reckless search for fuel.

        So our group succeeded in the main goal of collecting 12 zombie tissue samples (actually, we exceeded the goal by one!), and everyone actually managed to satisfy their hidden personal agendas! David’s was to collect two medicine cards, John’s was to gluttonously hoard three food cards–the reason he was acting so shady the whole game when it came to contributing food to pass various food-related crises, and Sharon’s was to have only medicine cards in her hand at the end of the game. It was an epic game where we had a disastrous start, the group and myself individually faced almost certain defeat in the last round, then we all miraculously managed to accomplish the group goal and all of our individual hidden goals at the last moment. I can’t wait to get this game myself and play with all of my friends in the future!

        Sorry that this story ended up being so long, but if you enjoyed it and are interested in the game, here is a short description from the game’s website: Crossroads is a new series from Plaid Hat Games that tests a group of survivors’ ability to work together and stay alive while facing crises and challenges from both outside and inside. Dead of Winter is the first game in this series, designed by Isaac Vega and Jon Gilmour. It puts 2-5 players together in a small, weakened colony of survivors in a world where most of humanity are either dead or diseased, flesh-craving monsters. Each player leads a faction of survivors with dozens of different characters in the game. Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means the players are working together toward one common victory condition–but for each individual player to achieve victory, they must also complete their personal secret objective. This secret objective could relate to a psychological tick that’s fairly harmless to most others in the colony, a dangerous obsession that could put the main objective at risk, a desire for sabotage of the main mission, or worst of all: vengeance against the colony! Certain games could end with all players winning, some winning and some losing, or all players losing. Work toward the group’s goal but don’t get walked all over by a loudmouth who’s only looking out for their own interests!

  3. At least Arneson is talking sense here. I think zombies are an interesting, appealing theme, but I haven’t played many zombie games I like (will have to check out Zombicide, Erik). The thing that bugs me about most Zombie games, is that they generally boil down to tactical miniatures combat games, and for the most part, that kind of misses the point with zombies, imo. In those games, the zombies could be replaced with just about any slow-moving, deadly foe, and the game would be the same. Grannies with guns, rabid turtles, dire banana slugs, it’s all the same game.

    What I want out of a zombie game is survival horror and paranoia, hallmarks of the classic zombie movies. Mall of Horror does this better than most, which is why it’s my favorite zombie game. I have only managed one play of Dead of Winter, so I can’t comment on that yet.

  4. Ben McJunkin, “I am partial to games that allow players to strategize and optimize slowly and methodically, which does not seem well-suited to the zombie theme.”

    “Slow and methodical” is actually perfect for zombies. I’ve always wanted to design a zombie game – perhaps I should try the slow and methodical zombie strategy game. Perhaps something that puts you in the role of the inexorable horde, a la Dungeon Lords.

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