Hit Z Road (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer:  Martin Wallace
  • Publisher:  Space Cowboys
  • Players:  1 – 4
  • Ages:  12 and Up
  • Time:  30 to 60 Minutes
  • Times Played:   > 5

Hit Z Road

Hit Z Road is a Zombie-themed horror board game about a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.  You’ll earn resources as you cross the country, but you need to be careful in spending them, as they are necessary to survive the hordes of undead Zombies you encounter along the way.  

Hit Z Road made its debut at Gen Con 2016, and it was one of my favorite games of the convention. Don’t let the theme and emphasis on dice rolling fool you: there are some strong elements of a Martin Wallace-style Eurogame here.   

And the theming of the game is excellent.  The idea is that Hit Z Road was made by a kid named Martin who survived the zombie apocalypse.  He made the game to commemorate his own trip across the country.  The game “components” are made from repurposed game parts from other games and household objects.  That’s why the box looks like an old game with new information scrawled across it.  Some of the in-game cards are repurposed Ticket to Ride and Dixit cards, and other game components are made from bottle caps or even old keys.  

Gameplay Walkthrough

Each player takes the lead survivor of their color, four additional survivors, and four each of the three resources: Adrenaline, Ammo, and Gas.  

HZR Player Components

The game is played over eight rounds.  To win, you need to have at least one survivor make it all the way to the West Coast by lasting all eight rounds; among those players that do, the player with the most points wins.  The game gets progressively more challenging each round: the first two rounds are with the relatively easy Level I card, then there are three rounds with the moderately-challenging Level II cards, and the final three rounds are with the difficult Level III cards.

Each round begins with the “planning phase” in which 8 cards are drawn from the deck and placed face-up on the table in four rows of two cards each.  These represent the four “paths” that players can go down.

HZR Card Row

Players examine the paths, then an auction begins.  Players take turns bidding resources — the very resources they need to escape the zombies — in order to determine the order in which they choose a path past the zombie horde.  The following auction rules apply:

  • If choosing to bid, a player must move his marker to a space higher than his current space.
  • He may pass, but he can bid later, provided the other players have not also all passed.
  • Other than the “0” space, only one player can be on a given space.  
  • When all players pass in a row, the auction ends.  
  • Players then get a “initiative” (i.e. turn order marker) based on their results.  If several players are still on “0,” their turn order carries from the previous round.

HZR Auction Board

The auction is critical: with four players, there are four available paths.  Each path has a varying number of resources that a player receives, a number of zombies to defeat, and/or a number of victory points to gain.  The first player naturally gets top choice, which usually gives them an easier path (or, at a minimum, a path with more victory points or resources).  The last player will get whatever is leftover (i.e. the hardest path or path with the fewest rewards).

The paths each have two cards, which are resolved in order from left to right.  The top left is the “scavenge,” or the resources a player gets.  Then, if there is text on the card, that event happens.  Finally, there is a fight in which a player must defeat all of the zombies on the card.  (Some cards also give tokens, which can affect future cards.)

When players begins to fight zombies, they can first spend bullets to do a ranged attack, rolling two dice per bullet token used.  The crosshairs equals a hit, and that many zombies are removed.  The rest of the combat comes down to melee or escaping.  For melee, players roll equal to the number of characters left on their team.  Hits with the crosshairs symbol kills zombies, but the zombies can also kill the player’s characters with skulls, unless a player spends adrenaline to avoid it.  (Some cards require that one or more red horde dice be rolled, and these have skulls that can’t be cancelled by spending adrenaline.)  A player can escape by spending two gas tokens, but this isn’t always the best route since the player doesn’t get the card, which sometimes have victory points.

If a player gets hit during melee and doesn’t have the adrenaline to spend — or doesn’t want to spend it — he loses one of his survivors.  But this is devastating, since that player will roll fewer dice on future melee battles.  

Players can be — and frequently are — eliminated from the game.  If this happens, one of the keys is put beside the bottom row of cards in the next round.  Players must spend two extra resources to go down this path.  If two players are eliminated, two keys — one requiring two resources, the other requiring four — are put out on the bottom two rows.

If more than one player survives, the points will be tallied to determine the winner.  Players add up the points from their cards, plus they hand out the “epilogue” cards, which are worth three points each.  The epilogue cards go to the player with (1) the most adrenaline, (2) the most ammo, (3) the most gas, and (4) the most survivors.

HZR Repurposed Cards

The winner is the player that made it to Los Angeles with the most points.  If nobody made it to Los Angeles, there is no winner.  

My thoughts on the game…

Martin Wallace came out with two games at Gen Con 2016: Via Nebula and Hit Z Road.  Both are excellent, and they show of the breadth of Wallace’s game-design genius.  I didn’t expect to like Hit Z Road more than Via Nebula, but I think I do.  Hit Z Road is a simple-but-effective resource management game with a clever and unique use of the Zombie theme.

At first blush, this isn’t a game I’d expect myself to like.  I disdain the use of the zombie theme in games — candidly, I don’t get the entire zombie craze — but it works well in this case, and this feels like a Zombie-themed road trip.  Making the game from repurposed household objects and components from other games was brilliant, and everybody I show the box to exclaims how cool of an idea that was.  I’m also not normally a fan of dice rolling, but it also works nicely in Hit Z Road.

Don’t let the theme and emphasis on dice rolling fool you: there are some strong elements of a Wallace-style Eurogame here.  The auction is essential: it can be nice to snag the best path (either due to a low zombie count or good resources), but at what cost?  Overbidding in the auction can be fatal, and while Hit Z Road is simple to learn, it can be unforgiving to poor resource management.  This is a great introduction to Wallace’s emphasis on careful planning.  

The game is best with four players: it makes the auction more interesting, and it is fun when somebody must go down each of those four paths.  At that player count the game takes about 45 minutes.  Sure, Hit Z Road has player elimination, but for such a short and simple game, I don’t see that as much of a problem.  

The game is tense.  I haven’t had a game yet where everybody survived to the West Coast, and we taunt each other around the table about who will be the first to die.  It seems, at least based on my plays, that somebody is going to be eliminated.  You need to know when to conserve resource and know when to spend them, and while Hit Z Road is easy to learn, it takes a couple of games to find the right balance.  And a little luck on the dice rolls also helps.  

Overall, I think Hit Z Road is one of the better Gen Con 2016 titles, and I’m glad I picked up a copy.  This game has a little bit of something for everybody: a cool theme, the tension that only dice can provide, and clever resource management.  This has been a big hit with my game group, and if you’re a fan of Martin Wallace, I think you’ll enjoy what he’s done with a lighter game.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Nathan Beeler: Let me give you just one example of why the game didn’t work for me or any of the group I played with. Early on in a four player game of Hit Z Road we were already struggling, as people typically do in the first experience with an auction game, because we didn’t know what anything would be ultimately worth. This is a typical complaint for auction games, but I love them, so I’m pretty forgiving and willing to roll with it. However, the consequences of misjudging the value of something in this game, however, felt more severe than your typical auction game: underspend and you get a terrible pathway now; overspend and you get a terrible pathway later and have no resources to fight back. It was particularly bad in this instance because some of the paths we were bidding on gave us tokens that were not explained in the rules. Getting a rifle scope seems like it’s a good thing that might pay off later on, right? But in what way? How do you evaluate that going just by the icon? Ok, fine. It’s a random light game, we all figured, we’ll just muddle through and guesstimate. Then a bandage symbol came up. In a game about zombies, having medical supplies seems like it could be useful, even though, again, there was no mention of how they were used in the rules. I spent heavily and happily took the medical supplies home, to the frustration of the people I outbid. This was going to save my bacon later, I just knew it. Then several turns later, I got forced down a path that finally made use of the medical supply token. It turned out that the bandage icon was not meant to indicate a healing token, but instead it was a damage token which killed off some of my survivors. That thing I had blindly fought for and overspent to get was actively bad, and there was no way to know that in advance (that we found). Great.

That little episode might just have been a mildly humorous anecdote in a fun little experience game if the rest of the session had behaved properly. And yes, I’ll grant, we could have looked ahead to read all the path cards so we had a better idea of the utility of the tokens and to know generally how few resources we all got later in the game (so we’d have known ANY heavy spending early is insane). But this kind of game usually rewards a bit of ignorance with fun. You only get to go in cold one time, and there’s a pleasure in letting the experience wash over you. So we purposefully didn’t do that. And yet, even with our ignorance none of us had much fun. The first of us to get eliminated was actually happy he didn’t have to keep playing a game that just felt overlong, unforgiving, and highly luck based. Turned out the rest of us felt more or less the same, and we agreed to end it early, somewhere just over halfway in. I recognize that this game would certainly reward repeated plays and I have no doubt that if the four of us would have played again we would have hewn much closer to the way the game needs to be played. But if Hit Z Road teaches us anything, it’s that life is too short. A zombie apocalypse could be just around the corner. We should spend our precious time doing things that make us happy. So we put the game away and played a different game. And we were happy.

Matt Carlson:  Like Chris, I’m not normally a big fan of the zombie fad.  However, I found myself enjoying Hit Z Road (even the theme – a game about a game about a zombie apocalypse – seemed pretty fresh.)  I feel like I played almost the opposite game that Nathan played.  My group didn’t know much about the game either, but since the encounter deck was stacked with three different levels of difficulty I warned the others that the latter game will probably be worse.  As a result, we kept our bidding fairly low.  I, too, was frustrated by the unexplained tokens – some were good and others were bad (and some could go either way) – but since we didn’t know what they were for we didn’t price them very high.  (I did get the bandage token – yay! – but managed to avoid the bandage-damaging card.)  Maybe if “good” tokens were somehow indicated (by color?) from the “bad” ones?  (And ones that go either way would be neutral?)  My opinion is probably clouded somewhat as I handily won our game.  I also found the game to be fairly short.  I expected a medium-length game but we got through the cards pretty quickly and then it ended.  If my game had lasted a long time, I would have been displeased with the randomness found in the game, but as a 30 minute or so game, it was just right.

Dale Y: I have played it once, and it’s not a bad filler.  The game moves along quickly; and that seemed to be its strongest attribute.  Our group was a little frustrated by the unknown icon issue that has been mentioned by other reviewers here, but we just chalked it up to the lack of experience with the game.  Having seen all the cards now, I think that I have a better feel for it.  I wasn’t as frustrated as Nathan though, as we managed to get all the way through the game.   I’m not normally a theme kinda guy, and the fact that this was a “zombie” game neither sways me towards it nor pushes me away.  However, I am duly impressed with the whole home-brew feel of the game which fits in perfectly with the story.  Definite bonus points on carrying that through all the components.  It has a lot of things that I don’t like in games – high variability/randomness, player elimination, etc – but for a 30ish minute game, I can deal with it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris Wray
  • I like it. Matt Carlson
  • Neutral.  Dale Y
  • Not for me… Nathan Beeler
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