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Grave Business – awesome theme, but one-dimensional.

Grave Business is a game about necromancer entrepreneurs  who use zombies as their labor force.  It’s an awesomely funny premise, and I really wanted to like this game.  Can you sense the “but”?

In Grave Business you and your army of zombies wander out into the graveyard, vying to be the ones to dig up valuable treasures and useful corpse bits.  Your opponents have their own zombies with the same ideas.  How do you determine which zombie gets the goodies? By who has the most brains.  Each zombie token has a number of brains listed on one side, as well as a number of bones which are used for tie breakers.

This is a look at the graveyard. Each of the squares contains a treasure (yellow) or body part (red). Notice the zombies on the edges of the board. Each zombie matches the players color.

Each round the graveyard is full of goodies and players take turns placing their zombies (face down so you can not see the number of brains) on the outside edges of the graveyard board or on particular spaces on the graveyard.  These zombies attempt to dig up all the goodies in their space, row or column.  In addition to placing your zombies on the board, you can also send them at other people in an effort to be annoying.

Sending your zombies at the other players can take one of two different forms.  You can attack their zombies in order to get them off the board for this round, or outright kill them if they have taken a significant amount of damage already.  You can also steal treasure and body parts from their lab and vault.

Attacking is a very simple process.  First, you declare that you are attacking.  Then you flip over the zombie you are attacking, showing how many brains and the name of the zombie.  Then your opponent flips over a body part from a pile of body parts associated with that zombie.  If they flip over a normal body part, their zombie takes damage and is removed from the board.

Stealing is also a very simple process.  If you have a zombie on one of your opponents’ lab or vault spaces at the end of the round you get to take one of their tiles at random.  Their only recourse for this is to attack your invading zombie in an effort to remove them.  Otherwise, you are guaranteed to  get something for your hard work.

This is a look at a player board.  The gravestone represents each of the zombies that you can control.  Each player stacks the body parts associated with their zombie on the headstone associated with that zombie.

This is a look at a player board. The gravestone represents each of the zombies that you can control. Each player shuffles and stacks the body parts associated with their zombie on the headstone associated with that zombie.

At the end of each round you can use the body parts you gathered to make new zombies.  Each body part has a number associated with it.  You can make new zombies by using parts totaling at least as much as the number on the headstone on your player board.

Which that brings me to a very important topic: winning.  The player with the most points, both on the body parts and treasures, that still exists in your lab and vault (pieces used to make zombies don’t count) is the winner.  You can also win if you have dug up all of the “master zombie” pieces, but this really seemed like an afterthought in the game, and never really became much of an issue in any of the games I played.

Ok, so that “But”.  Ya know, the one mentioned at the top of this article.  This game is pretty one dimensional in regards to strategy.  The player who has the most zombies wins.  Almost always.   There is very little reason to save your body parts for victory points, as having more zombies is a huge advantage and the points associated with body parts is lower than the points associated with treasure.  Why is this such a big advantage?  Primarily because of the way that attacking works.

When you attack, the defender loses roughly 90% of the time.  So if you have more zombies than your opponent, it’s an easy strategy to see.  Wait until they have placed their zombies.  With your extras, beat up their zombies, and place any remaining extras on the spots you want.  Done.  Simple.  Fool proof.  The only way to fight this strategy is by equally throwing all of your body parts towards the creation of zombies, and if your opponents manage to get any sort of lead over you, kiss your game goodbye because catching up is nearly impossible.

Rubber shelf matting.  Its a life saver for gamers with warped boards.

Rubber shelf matting. It's a life saver for gamers with warped boards.

Lastly, a little bit of praise and scolding in regards to the components.  The artwork is fun.  It’s cute and grotesque and I can appreciate that.  Kudos to Chuck Whelon for making a really nice looking game.  However, the boards left something to be desired.  They were on the thin side, with the result being that when we opened the shrink wrap the boards were already slightly warped, which caused them to not lay perfectly flat.  This was a bit annoying because the boards would spin with ease.  We fixed that with a little bit of rubber shelf matting. I highly would recommend investing in a roll of this for games with similar annoying issues.

As I said, I really wanted to like this game, because I love the theme.   How awesome and wacky is a group of competitive necromancers who are entrepreneurs?  Exactly.  You know you love that theme.  Just admit it to yourself right now.  I just wish it would have been executed a little differently, because this isn’t one I can see us excitedly breaking out again.

This entry was posted by The_Null_Entry on Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 at 8:22 am and is filed under Board Game Reviews, Resource Management Games .
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6 Comments

  1. Andy Van Zandt says:

    Thanks for the review :)

    Your assertions about strategy aren’t accurate- Defenders lose roughly 75% of the time, you can’t attack with everything in the 2 player game unless the other player also attacks, and even if you could, the 25% loss ratio in fights would mean you would have to outnumber the other player by several zombies to actually net advantage. In the 3 and 4 player games, your equity loss to the other players from attacking with all your zombies puts you in a cleanly losing position.

    It -sounds- like you only played the 2-player game, and without the 3 specific 2-player rules. In any case, sorry you didn’t enjoy it, I do realize that not everyone will like it :)

  2. Actually, I tried this game in both a three and four player setting. On average I outnumbered my opponents with 2 to 3 zombies by round two, small piddly zombies, but it didn’t really matter.

    While it may be more mathematically accurate to assert that the winning a fight only happens 3/4 of the time for the attacker, that is only assured with starting zombies. Zombies that are created from dug up parts have the potential for a much lower percentage chance. On average in our games, only one combat in roughly 10 actually ended with the defender winning. Maybe it was bad luck, but out of the several games we played, this seemed strongly skewed.

    Given our experience with attacking, or even given the probability of winning 3/4 of the time, out numbering your opponents by even 2 zombies can cause a huge swing in the game. Imagine if you will that there is a particularly tasty row on the board. You and one of your opponents both have one zombie vying for that row. When it comes to the end of the round, you still have two zombies left. You attack their zombie with one of your remaining zombies, the one with the fewest brains will do, given that brains make no difference in combat. Given the 3/4, or better, odds the likelihood that you will win is heavily in your favor. They then remove their zombie from the board, and you place your one remaining zombie on that row (assuming there isn’t another player with more zombies, if there is, you can attack them as well should they put a zombie on that space, because only having one zombie on the row is better then competing over the row), clenching most, if not all, of the goodies present their. And if there are lots of body parts in that row, giving you the fodder you need to make even more zombies to trounce your opponents with. For us this was a vicious cycle.

    The key here is that you do not attack with *all* of your zombies, simply attack with zombies left over, once all others have placed and they have no recourse.

    As always, we appreciated the opportunity to review your game, and hope to review more of your work in the future.

  3. Andy Van Zandt says:

    the 3/4 win rate for the attacker is actually inclusive of zombies built later in the game.

    More importantly, you’re saying you outnumber your opponents- in a 3 player game, you’ve got 6 zombies which are not yours from the outset, which are working against you. to outnumber them, you’ve got to have 7 zombies, and they all have to have built none. in other words, a situation which never happens.

    If you’re counting yourself singly against the other players singly, then the math is flawed. Let’s say it’s a 4 player game- every zombie you have has a specific average yield. You spend one of those zombies to remove that level of yield from one of your opponents, which is 1/9th of all zombies working against you, at the cost of 1/3rd of your own production, with only a 3/4 success rate. This is HUGELY inefficient as far as advancing your position in the game except in specific circumstances where the delta of the yield for your attack is particularly high. Which means if you don’t pick your battles carefully (meaning you probably won’t have a battle that has a high enough return on investment every turn), you’re placing yourself in a losing position.

    You’re also positing that once you’ve spent 3 zombies and removed 1 zombie from 1 opponent (a bad exchange rate, broadly speaking, even before you count the other players and the fail rate in the equation), you’ve claimed all of a particularly juicy row- which is almost never the case, because if it’s actually that juicy, you’ll be contending with people for the choice bits along the perpendicular axis as well. the more people/zombies you have to fight for any given piece(s), the more inefficient your yield per zombie compared to the rest of the table.

    That’s why I say it sounds like you played only the 2 player game, without the 2 player rules… I certainly believe you -perceived- the cause/effect relationship that you described, but you’re making assertions that only work in a fictional vacuum (as if in a 3 player game it’s you vs. 1 other player, 3 separate times, with no interference between instances of confrontation and no relative delta to the other players not involved in the confrontation) when both mathematically and (as or more importantly) practically, they don’t.

  4. We may have to simply agree to disagree, which is fine. Everyone has differing opinions on some issues. However, I would like to address some specifics in your last comment, because I’m always up for a good natured debate.

    When I said that the 3/4 win rate for attackers was only garunteed on the premade zombies, I was referncing the fact that you are not garunteed a perfect ratio when you make a new zombie. This really has to do with the player who makes the zombie and the pieces they have available to them. If none of the pieces that go into a zombie has a “Zombie fights back” on the bottem, then the chances of winning against that zombie just rose to 100%. This is not to say that 1/4 of pieces do not contain that message, just that each custom made zombie might not contain one of those pieces. Plus, not all of the pieces get used in the game, so there is yet another variable for how many “zombies fight back” are in each game. However, the initial starting pieces obviously start with the same setup each turn, and given that my set of this game is not immediately in front of me, I will have to take your word that it is a perfect 3/4 division on all premade zombies.

    Secondly, when I was referring to having more zombies then others, I was not stating that you need two more zombies then all other combined zombies, simply two more then an individuals total.
    I will admit that this is a matter of picking your battles, but you only need to best an individuals count by atleast 2 to really wreak havoc.

    Lets say that you are playing a three player game and player A has 3 zombies, player B has 3 zombies, and player C has 5 zombies. Each of the players place their first three zombies on the board. But then player C chooses to attack one of Player B’s zombies with their 4th zombie. The odds are in their favor that they will win the combat, it’s a 75% chance. They remove Player B’s zombie, and places their 5th zombie in it’s place. Suddenly the landscape of the board is heavily against player B, who only has two zombies in play, and has flipped in favor of player C, who has 4 zombies in play. Presuming an average brain count per zombie, player C is in a position to win a larger chunk of the board then player A, and certainly a larger chunk then player B. This system perpetuates the person with the most zombies into a further and further lead, and forces the players in last into worse and worse positions.

    I’m going to add a link to the PDF of the rules for this game, so that our readers can really take a look at this game in more detail:

    http://www.boardgamegeek.com/file/download/7y68ol3hsd/Grave_Business_Rules.pdf

  5. Andy Van Zandt says:

    the premades are actually not 3/4, they’re slightly higher. when you factor in the average built zombie, it moves to 3/4. that’s why i said inclusive. on top of that, saying “sometimes it’s 100%” isn’t useful, because clearly everything is situational. the average is roughly 75%.

    Also if “On average I outnumbered my opponents with 2 to 3 zombies by round two”, something is STRONGLY abnormal with your games, as that means you’re winning both a higher than average number of tiles than normal when on equal footing with the other players, and moreover, they’re not going after body parts at all themselves. Half the tiles in the game are body parts, if people choose to avoid them specifically and let you have them with no contention, there’s nothing really to be done. You’ll win a game under those circumstances whether you ever build a zombie or not.

    As I said in my prior post, if you’re assuming that having more than a SINGLE player is enough to give you an undefeatable (or anything close to that) advantage in the game, you’re incorrect (your example is flawed, but it’s apparent that me typing out another half page on it won’t serve much purpose).

    We can “agree to disagree”, but not because it’s a matter of opinion- it’s a fairly clear cut misperception issue (sort of like what’s discussed here: http://www.shacknews.com/article/62807/sid-meier-and-rob-pardo ). Most people have the exact opposite perception issue… it took several months before I convinced the publisher that -sometimes- it’s ok to build zombies and attack things, because he was convinced that you should only ever go for points. And when I ran a demo at BGG.con, I spent an hour talking to one of my friends about how it’s not always a bad decision to attack in a multiplayer game, because he was convinced it was something you should essentially never do, except to prevent a Master victory.

    I’d hoped to explain how it works so that perhaps you could enjoy the game, but it seems that’s not to be 😉

    That’s ok, there are plenty of other games in the sea, I’m sure you’ll find one that you like :)

  6. I have one final comment, and then I am happy to let the discussion die, as I’m not sure that more back and forth is necessarily any more beneficial to our readers.

    You stated that if I outnumbered my opponents by two or three zombies by round two that “something is STRONGLY abnormal with your games”. I do not believe that It’s an issue of my “games were abnormal”, as I played with a range of different people with similar outcomes. I believe it’s more of an issue of my opponents and I played largely different strategies. I would routinely throw every ounce of body parts into making more zombies. And I would make smaller zombies. My opponents routinely held on to their parts to either A.) make bigger zombies or B.) for points at the end. It was simply a different strategy. But because players are forced to throw everything towards zombies or else be severely outgunned and lose tons of ground, there really is only one strategy to logically play (at least in my opinion). That is why I claimed this game to be “1-dimensional”, because there does not seem to be multiple strategies that are equally good.

    If I had misinterpreted a rule, or some other sort of grave error that caused the game to appear broken, I would be very grateful for the correction and would reevaluate the game. As it stands, my opinion holds, but I do appreciate the banter and general sharing of ideas. And please know that you are always welcome here to discuss ideas about your games or other games.

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