Wednesday, June 19, 2013

If I Only Had a Brain (A Review of Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead)

Zombies!  Relentlessly, they sweep over the globe in wave after wave of evil hordes.  Rising in all corners of the earth, the unremitting infection grows and spreads like a plague from Hell.  Armies are overwhelmed.  Cities fall.  Civilization crumbles.  Humanity sits precariously on the precipice of extinction.  Bands of survivors fallback to dwindling strongholds and vulnerable safe havens in desperate efforts to stem the dark, rotten apocalypse…or simply to survive.

Sounds like the new World War Z flick opening this Friday?  Alas, there’s no Brad Pitt to be seen here.  Instead, you will take charge of a world region reeling against an inexhaustive onslaught of walking corpses in the board game Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead.

How it Plays
Despite the title, there is no negotiation in this game.  There is also no begging for mercy.  In Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead, you will lead one world region (roughly equivalent to a continent) against an ever-growing onslaught of walking stiffs.  “Ah, so miniatures of sweeping armies,” you say, “with lots of gory, die rolling.”  Not quite.  More like lots of resource management as you labor to keep control of your territory.  As zombie hordes multiply and crawl across the land, you will use freedom (a.k.a. action) points to collect resources and spend them to stall, ward off, or eradicated the undead.  But mostly just to stall.  No resources are required for crying, which is good, since you’ll be doing a lot of that.

To begin the game all of the numerous tokens, pieces, and cards are separated into piles of common supply.  Players choose a region of the world, depending on the total number playing, and take the corresponding player board and dice.  Regions consist of twelve territories, the populations of which are identified by a face of individual six-sided die.  The populations of each territory are predetermined at the beginning of the game so that all regions start overall with an equal number of food, uh, I mean people.

The zombie diner table is set!

This equilibrium will not last very long.  Trust me.  Before play even begins, some one rolls a twelve-sided die.  Everyone compares the result to their individual “outbreak generators” on their player boards.  An outbreak occurs in the region indicated and you will place a zombie token there on its active side.  Then roll the d12 again and repeat the process.

Turns in Zombie State are simply structured and well-outlined.  First, players collect resource cards, of which there are four types.  Some territories produce a particular resource, which will be indicated by an icon on the map.  Additionally, you can play special tokens to non-producing regions during the game which will aid you during this phase.  Each player collects a number and type of cards as indicated by any icons or tokens in populated territories they control.  No dice, no merchandise.

Things won't stay this quiet for long.

Next, everyone collects a number of freedom points as determined by a separate popularity chart.  To begin the game, all players will receive six points.  As you lose territories, their population die will leave the board and cover up boxes on this chart, decreasing the number of freedom points you receive each turn.  After losing two territories, you will only get five points and on down it goes.  Hence one of the greater ironies of definition in Zombie State: the less land you own, the less freedom you have to do anything!

In the third phase (but not on the first turn) one player will draw three event cards that affect everyone.  These can be good, giving you bonuses, extra resources, or a special ability.  Or they can be bad, initiating exactly the opposite kinds of things.  After experiencing the game’s relentless brutality, you’ll come to view these bad events as the equivalent to stomping on a kitten.

Good cards...
...bad cards.

The next phase deals with all things zombies.  First, zombies eat your people.  For each zombie token in a territory, reduce that population die by one pip.  If it falls below 1, remove it and place it over on your (un)popularity track.  Munching zombies are then flipped over to their inactive side and double – meaning you place a number of new zombie tokens, also on their inactive sides, equal to those that just fed.

After the feeding frenzy, remaining active zombies move to another territory in a programmed formula that sends them to the most protein-rich targets.  The first horde, up to three tokens, will move to the highest populated adjacent territory.  If any remain, a pair will migrate to the next largest.  If there are still more, then one each moves to the next lowest population and on down in increments.  If there are still more, which can happen, then you start the formula all over again.  If there are no populated territories adjacent to active zombies, then they do not move.  If brains aren’t on the menu, they’re stuck with leftovers, I suppose.

After moving on to greyer (as in matter) pastures, fighting may take place if you have any military units present in the recently infiltrated territories.  Combat is resolved very simply.  Each of your units destroys one zombie token, but is removed from the board, as well.  You can have barricaded units which increases your defensive strength to a 2-1 ratio.  A few technologies can increase your firepower still further, but not too much more.

Those technologies are researched on your turn, which finally takes place after all the zombie action.  That’s right, it’s time to stop acting like an all-you-can-eat buffet and put up a fight!  The problem is that your efforts are akin to throwing rocks at an aircraft carrier.  At least, at first.

No matter.  On your turn, you will spend freedom points on a variety of actions.  You can collect a resource card, draft a military unit, move a unit one space, barricade a unit, airlift a unit (for 2 points) anywhere, research a technology (spending more than one point to increase your chance of success), or use a technology that you already have.  In addition to the freedom point cost, some actions also require expending one or more resource card(s).  When a military unit moves into a region occupied by zombies, combat is immediately resolved as part of the action at the same 1-to-1 ratio as in defense, unless you have researched a technology that increases your bang.

We're gonna need bigger guns - and more of them.

All of these actions let you bite back.  Besides fighting and defending with your military, the various technologies that you can research and use on your turn give Zombie State its real flavor.  Although I’m not sure the undead have taste buds.  These techs allow you to manipulate zombie movements, prevent outbreaks, destroy tokens, manage your resources better, move your population about, and erect impassable borders to protect a valuable refuge.

Technologies are divided into three tiers and grow progressively more powerful in each successive tier.  The catch to researching these scientific boons is that it’s a 50/50 proposition on a random die roll; at least the first time you try studying one, while spending only one freedom point and having zero modifiers.  If you fail, you gain a +3 bonus to your next roll on that tech.  If other players have successfully learned it, you get +1 for each.  If you have the technology Research Focus, you earn a +2 on all research rolls.  And if you want to ensure your chance at a scientific breakthrough, spend more than one freedom point for a +2 bonus for each point.  Also, before you can attempt a tier two technology, you have to have three from the bottom.  Similarly, you must own two tier two techs before venturing into the top tier.  Zombie moaning can’t alliterate like that, let me tell you.

Player boards are huge, but have tons of helpful information.

When every player has spent their freedom points, all inactive zombie tokens are flipped back to their active sides.  Player markers move up one (or more) spaces on a mutation track which can cause more random zombie outbreaks.  Then the beating continues.  The game ends when one player has successfully and completely eradicated the zombie virus from their region (not very likely), if everyone survives after twelve rounds (somewhat likely), or one or more players are completely overrun and wiped out (very likely).  Any player to achieve the first scenario is declared victor, while the one with the greatest surviving population is the winner in the latter two cases.  Surviving at all, however, should be considered a massive consolation prize!

3-player game in progress. Asia was doing well, but couldn't keep them from pouring out of Europe.

A Brain Burner – or a Brain Eater?
Playing Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead brings several idioms quickly to mind.  Kicking a man when he’s down.  Pouring salt on a wound.  Adding insult to injury.  Rubbing it in.  Poison the well.  Burning the barn down, too.  It can’t get any worse, can it?  Yeah, well just when things look most bleak, something does happen to make it worse.  The virus breaks out behind the walls of your fortified safe haven.  An event cripples your military right before an important offensive.  Your neighbor funnels six zombie hordes over the border.  A bad event costs you precious resources just when you need to research that make-or-break tech.  A critical roll you need for an important medical breakthrough fails spectacularly, despite spending an extra action point to reach it!

…deep breath…

One thing Zombie State exudes in spades is that thematic feel of foreboding doom and desperation against an inexorably relentless global onslaught of swarming dead that you might associate with a zombie apocalypse in books and movies.  It’s actually a rather strange mix of Ameritrash and Euro elements which create a decidedly unique gaming experience.  The randomness and overall theme are solid Ameritrash elements.  The programmed movement, mathematical combat resolution, and lack of direct player interaction are more common in Euros.  On the whole, Zombie State is really more Ameritrash.  Yes, Euro games have luck, too.  However in this title, the arbitrary mechanics have weightier than normal effects because they impact arguably the game’s two most significant aspects: successful research and where zombie outbreaks occur.

In order to implement any sort of defense and counterattack against the zombie invasion, you’ll need the powers and abilities that only science can provide.  Technologies are the heart of the game.  Seriously, you can do nothing, and do not stand a chance, without them.  Therefore, failing research rolls, especially the first couple, can really set you back and make it difficult to be competitive.  You can spend enough freedom points on each roll to ensure that you succeed, but those actions are already at a high premium.  If you want to spend just one extra point to increase your odds but still fail, it’s quite maddening and wasteful.  Sure, you get a +3 bonus on your next roll for the same tech as a consolation.  But it hardly compensates for the double whammy – having to spend another action point (or two) and a further four resources.

And here I thought the moaning virus was a Justin Bieber thing...

Once you've successfully developed a tech, it will generally cost one freedom point and maybe a resource card to activate during your turn or in response to zombie actions or random events.  Since they’re not cheap, you’ll likely want to focus in a particular area, developing technologies that synergize well.  You can concentrate on strengthening your military power.  There are a handful of sciences that let you manipulate zombie growth and movement.  A few advancements help rebuild population and resource infrastructure.  Still others prevent new outbreaks and incursions. Content-wise, the technology tree is varied and well-rounded, providing a great deal of opportunity for experimentation and long-term replayability.  We've played a handful of times, purposefully trying new combinations every game, and have only scratched the surface on the numerous combinations possible.

A few techs stand out as more powerful than others.  Raised Borders (tier one) gives you the ability to erect walls which zombies cannot cross.  Hazard Preparation (tier one) allows you to ignore a bad event card.  MV1 Screening (tier two) lets you prevent an outbreak, which is pretty much required if you hope to achieve eradication.  And Quarantine (tier two) protects a region from zombie feeding and movement.  Of course, you’re primary goal will be to quickly develop enough skills to reach the better knowledge found in tier three.  Those three techs are very powerful, as they should be.

Quarantine. No zombies are getting into my hometown!

Despite the apparent strengths of individual developments, each one tends to follow separate tactical paths that pair strongly with weaker abilities.  For example, Evacuation (tier one) allows you to move population pips from one dice to that of another in an adjacent region.  This works very well with Quarantine in order to move people into protected areas.  However, it’s not so effective with a lot of Raised Borders since your population can’t move through walls, either.

Zombie outbreaks may be the source of further frustration, but less so than in scientific research.  While it is still randomly generated, it’s a logical mechanism to keep things from being too calculated.  In a way, it’s a basic form of artificial intelligence.  Though there is no thought behind it, it’s the game’s method of attacking the players and it happens routinely – five times to each player personally and again randomly at progressively likelier rates through event cards as the game progresses.  It can be maddening when the virus pops up inside what you thought was your fortified safe zone, but it’s not as crippling as failing research rolls.  It keeps you and your toes.

Well, dang...I thought I was safe behind these walls...

The event cards provide even more uncertainty and are an interesting mix.  Some are very helpful while others are just nice to have.  Still more are a pesky nuisance while some are downright nasty.  And every so often you’ll be shuffling a few outbreak cards into the event deck just to keep your blood pressure high.

The unpredictable nature of events and the persistent growth and spread of zombies is a brutal recipe.  They play no favorites and have no preferences, instead gravitating towards the regions with the most to eat.  With such a life-and-death struggle against the game itself, it’s probably just as well that there’s no direct player interaction.  You could negotiate with neighbors to try and control zombie migration or construct mutual walls, but the programmed movement will only allow so much manipulation.  However, if you do have the ability to coax zombie movement, you’re actually better off funneling them to your neighbor.  After all, the alternative is to move deeper into your own territory.

The rulebook offers a few variants to either decrease or increase the randomness and/or difficulty.  You can begin with one military unit (a logical addition we use).  You can start with a +3 bonus on a tech of your choice.  Or maybe reduce the number of outbreaks.  The rules even invite you to devise your own.  Indeed, I appreciate the way it is phrased.  “There is really no wrong way to alter the game, all that we ask of our players is to have fun!”  Obviously, no one ever needs permission to house rule a game, but this inclusion demonstrates the designer’s awareness that some elements will be frustrating or disconcerting to many gamers.  We played a game in which we eliminated the research roll and simply paid the tech’s cost in resources.  We also restricted ourselves to one advancement per turn.  I particularly appreciate this variant as I’m the one who always fails tech rolls.  All of this still won’t appease everyone, but specific tweaks may attract some players which it otherwise might not have.

There are a couple of issues not as easily fixed by variants.  The biggest is in overcoming the mentality that the winner is usually the one who didn’t get eaten as much as the others.  This is quite a psychological switch in gears from playing other games which have defined goal lines to work towards.  Sure, eradication is certainly a clear cut objective to achieve and evidently possible.  We never sniffed it.  Rather our experience was trying to outlast the others.  Everyone still loses, but at least the one who was snacked on the least can declare a pyrrhic victory.  Not all hobby gamers will embrace that outlook.

A last stand in Italy is as good a place as any.  Didn't you read my last review of Cinque Terre?

Zombie State suffers from a corollary to the “runaway leader” problem – the runaway loser problem.  Now again, this is by thematic design to capture the feeling that you are in a desperate struggle for survival.  It works so well that the weak are almost always getting weaker.  As you lose territories, you lose freedom points with which to take action and resources to pay for them.  The less you can you do, the harder it is to face the blitz of zombies.  The harder it is to face them, the more you’re inundated.  The more you’re overwhelmed, well, the more you lose freedom points and resources.  That’s the cycle in which you find yourself behind the 8-ball fast.  If one player is able to harness some good fortune and smart tech combos to keep the zombies relatively contained, then a version of “runaway leader” syndrome might make things less climactic.

This title is also very, very fiddly.  Every round you flip zombie tokens over and then back over again, stack them and separate them, exchange the 1’s denomination for 3’s, and vice versa.  Movement is also cumbersome.  Moving three tokens there, two here, and one over there, etc., is intuitive enough.  However, you have to pay close attention not only to the population dice values in adjacent regions, but also to what exactly is adjacent to begin with!  Even after a few plays we invariably miss adjacent borders now and then, and have to re-assess zombie movements.  Also, not all borders are reasonably or uniformly drawn.  Some borders are a few inches long, others barely a quarter.  And many regions share lines of 90 degrees and other odd angles, which makes it difficult to routinely keep track of which ones are impassable when occupied by walls.

At least much of the fiddliness can be performed simultaneously by all players, which helps to keep things moving.  However, still prepare for a decent amount of downtime, nonetheless.  On the whole, the game is well balanced for any number between 2-5.  Just keep in mind that game length increases per player.

Asia in dire straights!

All games fit different personality styles and individual preferences.  But Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead, more than any other game I've reviewed, makes me consider the gamer before I recommend the title.  It tackles the hackneyed zombie theme from a distinctive angle with an interesting mix of mechanics both richly chaotic and strategically calculating.  If that sounds like an odd pairing to you, then that begins to describe the one-of-a-kind Zombie State.  That uniqueness is both its strength and its weakness.  Much of the randomness, and resultant bad luck, happens at critical times in game play and will frustrate many serious hobby gamers.

You must come into Zombie State with a different mindset.  With other games, your brain is wired toward creating a grand master plan or super efficient engine that will surely and steadily grind out victory.  This game will eat that brain.  Instead, you need to prepare to manage chaos as best as possible, usually staving off defeat long enough to be the “best loser.”  But if you enjoy the zombie theme, some crazy fun bedlam, and a seemingly insurmountable challenge, you will definitely have a good time in either victory or defeat.  Mostly defeat.

Challenging and tense
Unique and thematic
Well-rounded tech tree to experiment with
Good replay value
Helpful player aids

Extremely fiddly
Low player interaction
Random tech rolls can cripple you
Weak get weaker syndrome
Goal of “losing the best” is hard philosophy to grok

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute for providing a review copy of Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead.


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review! I had considered this for my groups long-haul day, given the length, but I think the majority of the Cons will keep it from being worthwhile for us in the long run.


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