Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Eaten by Zombies

Periodically I’ll be participating in the game night blog carnival, which gives me a chance to review some board games that might be a good break from your typical RPG session nights. Be sure to check out the other participants and their blogs.

This month I’ve got a fairly new entry into the deck-building themed games, Eaten by Zombies. Players are regular Joes and Janes trying to survive in a zombie apocalypse periodically running out of their safe house to scavenge supplies, all the while either avoiding or fighting their undead neighbors. What results is a fairly competitive, cutthroat card game with a slight cooperative twist.

Play is rather simple beginning by turning over a card from the zombie deck. At that point a player can decide to either fight or flee from the zombie horde in front of them. Their hand will comprise of swag cards that help them run, fight, or draw cards to potentially add to their fight/flee ability. To beat off the zombie horde, or valiantly run away, they simply must match the values on the zombie cards for fighting or fleeing. Players will find that very tough zombies are easier to run away from, while zombies easy to kill are harder to run away from.

If they successfully kill all the zombies, or run away from the horde, players can then gather up swag (cards from a common pool) equal to value of the cards played. Note that this means that players can play far more cards needed to kill off a lone zombie, simply to increase their played card value so they can pick up that expensive shotgun as swag. These swag cards are immediately placed in the player’s hand. This is a very subtle mechanic. Players will begin to see that they can tailor their hand to plan out their actions for the following turn, focusing on gaining flee or fight cards. Killed zombies are added to the players discard pile (ending up in the player’s draw deck on future turns).

If players fail to fight off or run away from the horde, they can lose a lot of cards. These cards must be from their hand, or their draw deck. When fighting zombies, fortunately you can always take out a few, reducing the number of cards needed to discard. All of the swag cards discarded this way are returned to the common pool to be picked up by everyone on later turns. Players cannot discard zombies in their hand, but can discard them from their draw deck (if they are lucky enough to draw them off the top).

Even when players successfully run away, they must discard some cards. However they also have the option of losing cards from their discard deck (except those pesky zombie cards). Again, this becomes a subtle mechanic where players might select weak swag cards to gain in their hand, only to use those newly gained cards as a discard (or even replace cards lost running from the horde).

If a player is ever required to discard more cards than the combined total in their hand or draw deck (including cards in their discard pile), they lose the game. It will also be increasingly difficult to get rid of zombies cards that the player kills, so if they ever draw a hand with all six cards being zombies, they also lose the game.

Zombie cards are fairly tough to get rid of, but they can be played to increase the size of a horde that other players face. This is something that will usually throw a wrench into their opponent’s plans, as they realize the lone zombie they could have easily run away from now has become a huge group. Again, another subtle mechanic is that players cannot draw up to their full hand of 6 cards until the end of their turn. While they might gleefully throw zombies into fights for other players, they’ll be faced with a limited hand size on their own turn. It makes for an interesting choice during play.

Lastly, if a player is eliminated, it doesn’t mean they are out of the game. They instead become a zombie player. They gain a smaller hand solely of zombie cards which they use to turn other players into zombies (by forcing opponents to hold 6 zombie cards). This is exceedingly difficult to pull off, but possible. Avoiding complete elimination and including another means of winning the game is a nice touch.

Of course not everything has to be so cutthroat. All the players could also pull off a cooperative win, by killing all the zombies in the game. Like the zombie win condition, this is difficult to pull off, but might be enticing enough to encourage a few players to work together near the end of the game.

Surprisingly even with the amount of control due to building up your hand prior to your next turn, things can be deceptive as the zombies you face could mushroom to a huge group due to other players. Additionally, on later turns, more and more zombies are revealed each time the zombie deck runs out and is reshuffled. As there are varying toughness and speeds of zombies, it can become increasingly difficult to predict if you have enough cards to successfully fight or flee.

The game has an interesting flow. Things progress fairly slowly as players build up their hands and deck. But with a twist of fate it all can come crashing down as players might have to discard a third of their deck or more. When things go bad, they usually go really bad, and it can be almost impossible to crawl away from a dust up with a growing zombie horde. It captures this impending dread of being overwhelmed by the undead rather well.

The Good - The mechanics for a deck-building game are rather tight. You focus on building up your hand primarily, and adding to your deck as a secondary goal. This allows you to focus on the immediate game, rather than tuning your deck of cards in hopes of good draws in future turns. I also like how everyone stays in the game, even if they get devoured (although being able to win as a zombie is difficult). Also, interaction with other players becomes a key part of the game as people begin to kill off zombies.

The artwork is rather good and the overall design of the cards is sharp. The game comes with a series of dividers with additional clarifications of their effects which is a nice touch. I like how you can get a random assortment of different swag cards before each game, adding to the replayability.

The Bad - Even with a solid hand, you can get a raw deal with the zombies you are faced with. A game can quickly degenerate down to ‘let’s pick on the little guy’ with folks just piling on a player to wipe them out quickly. Getting crushed in one deal, losing half your deck, is difficult to come back from. So the vicious game play can rub some people the wrong way. Be prepared to be brutal playing this game.

I like the overall card design, but the color scheme can be a bit of an eyesore. I get the idea of using different backgrounds to represent weapons from other items, but a more subtle color pallet would have been nice.

The Verdict - Eaten by Zombies is an odd game. On one hand you have these nifty hand building elements, allowing to hone your cards and plan out your next turn. When you successfully kill a zombie or deftly flee, you craftily pick up or discard the cards needed for your next turn. This is an elegant mechanic for deck building games. Only it’s saddled with random zombie card draws, and with players being able to unexpectedly pile on more zombies. The outcome of a fight (or flee) gone bad can be particularly harsh, where a player can suddenly find themselves crippled for the game.

And this is what makes Eaten by Zombies hard to pin down. You’ve got this portion that has a solid strategy element, only it seems marred by this huge random part of the game. Even worse, a completely unexpected draw of cards can wipe a player out for the remainder (mind you I am not talking about elimination, but not having any options such that it becomes impossible to have any other outcome than being a zombie on later turns). It’s odd that for something that has so much strategic play, you have this wildly unpredictable aspect.

In the end it is a strange mix. You’ve got a game having this potential to unfold crazy events due to other players (throwing an army of zombies at an opponent). If it kept that theme throughout, I think folks would enjoy it more. No one complains about Munchkin as the theme of the game is telegraphed to everyone at the start. Munchkin is about screwing your friends over. However Eaten by Zombies has this other strategic aspect to the game and in the end I feel it gives very mixed messages to the player. Even with playing smart and planning out your moves, you can still get wiped out, so why bother? Why have this portion of a player’s turn dedicated to thoughtful decisions, if it can be countered so easily by a random draw of the zombie deck.

As a cheap game, for those that love zombie themes, I can see some enjoying this. It really does seem to capture that hopelessness of being surrounded by zombies. It is not a bad game and with the right crowd of friends that enjoy thwarting the plans of their buddies, this is something they will get a kick out of. However is this game fun with a variety of player styles? Would it be worth picking up on a limited budget (or trying to keep a limited game library)? I’d say in that case folks might want to pass on this. I like Eaten by Zombies, but I can’t rave about this game being a must have.