“It’s Risk! It’s Risk with zombies, and you are just fighting a war of attrition!”, said one of my players about three hours into our game of Zombie State. I had been trying to get people to try this game out with me for almost two weeks. I kept hearing, “Two to three hours? I don’t know if I’m up for that tonight”. Finally, rather than just trying to get a pick up game going, I scheduled a night of it with my gaming group via Facebook. “The first four people to RSVP can play!”. On the invite I said the game might realistically take us three to four hours, given the learning time associated with tackling a game this complex. A few friends RSVP’d “yes” and we were all set.
The appointed evening came and we started setting up the game and digging through the rules. I had read through the rules once a week or so before, but without the board set up in front of me, it was difficult to get much out of them. Mr. “It’s Risk”, did most of the actual reading. Every paragraph or so he would stop and stumble over the words, not because he can’t read well, but because of grammatical errors. Given that the rule book is 14 pages long, he likened this to “taking a cheese grater to his brain”.
Other than the rule book that could use some polish, the components of the game were quality. The cards are a nice heavy textured card stock. The game comes with 60, smaller than average, colored dice that are used as population markers, similar to Caledea‘s army mechanic. They did not skimp on tokens, we never ran out, nor did we ever come close. The boards’ height is smaller then average, but just as long as a standard size board, making the whole game capable of fitting on a standard size dining room table (which is not something I can say for all games!). Overall the game had quality components, and after seeing how much they fit in the box, it’s no wonder that this games costs approximately $60 in most stores! I’m actually surprised the game isn’t a touch more expensive.
So we set it up, we got through the rulebook, and all felt like we reasonably understood what was going on. Time to play! Well, it wasn’t time for me to play, I still had to wait for it to get around to my turn. Which was a bit of a lengthy process. The game is divided as follows: there are a maximum of 15 turns in the game. Turns have phases. Phases have rounds, and rounds have sections. Firstly everyone, in order, collects the resources that their surviving populations produce. Then everyone figures out how many “Freedom points” (like action points), they will get that turn. Then we enter the Zombie phase. This phase has sections: Zombie Feeding, Zombie Moving, Zombie Combat. Each player does this in order. Then we enter the action phase, which is where the game slows down dramatically for each player. Especially during those early rounds, I think I could have played a side game while I waited for my turn to come back around. Instead however, I ran off to the kitchen and made “bacon caramel popcorn“. When I got back, the game was just rolling back around to my turn. The reason this phase takes so long is that there are so many things that you can do. You are only limited by how many freedom points and resources you have. You can get more resources. You can draft military. You can move military around the board. You can engage in combat with any zombies you meet. You can test new technologies. You can build barricades. On and on and on. Admittedly that’s also kinda the cool part about this game. You are much less limited in what paths you can take, then in some other games.
The technologies, for me, are the shining point of this game. You certainly don’t have to buy any of these, but you can, and they help tremendously. Each successfully researched technology gives you a special ability. Early on I got “Mobilization” which let me move my troops for free. Invaluable! Other players picked up other really cool technologies, such as “Resource Infrastructure”, that let non-producing land suddenly produce whatever resource they wanted. Being able to pick and choose which abilities are important to your strategy is very similar to mechanics found in Puerto Rico. But unlike Puerto Rico, it isn’t a race to get the good abilities, everyone can get each ability, should they want to.
One of the games short selling, in our groups opinion, is the lack of direct player interaction. The #1 way of messing with your opponents in this game is to set up barricades and control your population in such a way as to funnel zombies toward your opponents. That’s pretty much it. You make it slightly easier for your opponents by having technologies researched, and you can make the game slightly harder by forcing the mutation track to advance faster, but ultimately there is no way to directly interact with other players. Our group proposed that a fun variant on this game would be the ability to trade resources like in “Settlers of Catan“. After all, in a zombie apocalypse, wouldn’t you trade with your neighbors if it was in your best interest? This variant idea also seems to ring true to what we thought this game would be: “Diplomacy”, but with zombies! This would at least introduce a small amount of diplomacy into the apocalyptic situation.
With the learning curve involved with figuring the game out initially from the instructions, it took us 5 hours to finish our game. It was remarkably close at the end, with second and third place each coming in just a mere point behind the previous rank. Ultimately the game ended in our case because the virus went airborne, taking us all out (aka, the mutation track hit 15). Although there was a couple instances where people nearly kept the zombies out of their territory for a round, which would have also signaled the end of the game. Unfortunantly for them, some unlucky outbreaks cropped up in their territories.
Ultimately, this is a game I would play again. It was interesting enough to certainly peek and keep my interest, despite the 5 hour playing time. If I can rustle up the same people to play again (and thus there is no learning curve), I think we could hammer out a game in 3 hours as the box suggests.
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