Publisher: Victory Point Games
Designer: Hermann Lutmann
Artists: Tim Allen, Jessica Schultz, and Heather Wagenbach
Playing Time: 60 minutes
Genre: Solitaire horror tower defense game
Retail Price: $39.99
Well it seems as we’ve had a lot of coverage on zombie themed games as of late and the reason behind that is zombies are a hot theme right now. We’ve taken a look at All Things Zombie, Posthumous Z, Last Night on Earth, and have a lot of gaming news pieces regarding other upcoming titles. Now our friends Hermann Lutmann and Victory Point Games are on the verge of releasing their first foray into battling the undead and I have to say it is a winner. I presented a bit of a sneak peek, of Dawn of the Zeds, on our last show but now it’s time for a full fledged review.
I suppose the town of Farmingdale and the surrounding communities were pretty nice places to live. I wouldn’t know for sure though because I’ve been plunked down right in the middle of a zombie infestation and rather than take a look around at the local sights I’ve been tasked with killing scores of undead while doing my damnedest to keep the locals amongst the land of the living. I’m not alone though because I have a small band of stalwart heroes at my side and many of the hardier folk of the community have taken up arms to save themselves and their neighbors.
Dawn of the Zeds is the ninth release in VPG’s States of Siege line and it’s a doozy. I’m sure most of our visitors have by now read one of our previous reviews of SoS titles but just in case a quick rundown might be in order. The underlying theory of States of Siege games – regardless of the era or theme – is that you are taking on a position where your back is against the wall, or soon will be, and you have to succeed with the odds stacked against you. Other titles in the line have the player taking the reins of Imperial Japan in the Pacific during WWII, leading the Confederacy throughout the American Civil War, being the driving force behind the French Revolution, and even commanding the British Regulars at the Battle of Rourke’s Drift. SoS number ten will cover the Boxer Rebellion. Those are just a sampling of the themes involved in SoS and the scale can be epic strategy, encompassing huge swaths of the globe, or tactical situations where only a single battle takes place or a smaller territory is fought over. DotZ falls right in the middle as the action takes place across a map of the Farmingdale area which might be a hundred or so miles across.
As in other States of Siege games there are separate tracks in which the enemies approach and if any of those units make their way to the center, or zero space of the track, your game ends in defeat. The action is card driven and events (good and bad, but mostly bad) occur to not only pace the game but to add a narrative flow to the proceedings. Once you finish a SoS game you’ll have a clear story to tell – although mostly it will be a tale of defeat as these titles are not easily beaten; a fact that boosts their replayablity because the design doesn’t frustrate you but leads to many rehashings of opportunities lost and ongoing tweaking of your strategy.
Dawn of the Zeds embodies the best of what has come before in the SoS series and brings a lot of new wrinkles to the game table.
The map is broken into the aforementioned tracks and there are boxes along the way through which the undead advance upon Farmingdale. Some of these boxes are clear spaces with nothing of note but others may be bedroom communities (or villages) surrounding the larger town as well as points of interest such as the Mine, the Nuclear Plant, and so forth. Also included on the map are tracks for you to keep an eye on what’s available to you such as ammo, supplies, or actions. The Laboratory and Hospital are separate areas on the map as is the Infection Level track. This keeps much of the information that you’ll need right in front of you and there’s also a handy play aid that has the combat results table on one side and a sequence of play on the other.
A variety of cards are also included (VPG loves chaos and one way to represent this is through event cards) and broken into two decks: one is the Event Card deck and the other is the Fate deck. I’ll have more on both of those in a moment. There are also larger Hero cards that give a breakdown on the abilities of each of the eight heroes along with rather extensive biographies for each. Yes! Even Pickles, the official town dog, has a tale (or is it tail?) to tell…Plenty of counters represent Heroes, Civilians, Zeds, Refugees, and other markers for Wounds, Barricades, Research, and so on.
Dawn of the Zeds is one of Victory Point Games deluxe titles so it comes in one of their larger zip lock bags. I want to point out that it seems to me, and I am basing this review on an advance copy I received during VPG’s visit to ConSimWorld Expo, that everything just seems a lot sharper and crisper compared to previous VPG releases. The map really pops and the cards and counters appear to have a more vibrant appearance. Of course, if you’re a component snob, you’ll still turn your nose up at VPG production quality but if you actually enjoy playing games, as opposed to lovingly caressing abstract wooden or plastic pieces, you’ll find the component quality to be pumped up a notch.
Now that everything is laid out in front of you and you’re ready to play, what exactly is going on in Dawn of the Zeds? Chaos baby! Lots and lots of chaos!
You begin by setting up the board and determining how many supply and ammo points you have available. Cross your fingers you roll high because if you don’t have much at your disposal you’ll be spending precious Action Points trying to search for guns and butter. You’ll place your Villager counters on the various Villages around the map. These Villagers will most likely become Refugees during the game. It makes you wonder what these people have been up to all day. Don’t they have phones? Or T.V.s? Or radios? What the hell have these people been doing? Watching Tivo’d episodes of America’s Got Talent? Regardless, they’ll stay put until a Zeds counter lands in their Village and then they skedaddle.
You’ll also randomly select four Zeds counters (they have varying attack strengths) and place one on each track at their beginning space. Each track also has a title such as Forest or Suburbs and the Event Cards control how the Zeds make their approach.
Each Village will also receive a randomly drawn Civilian counter. These are folks who had better things to do than hunker down in their basements or blissfully watch reruns all day and they’re ready to fight those damn dirty Zeds. Farmingdale also receives two Civilian counters that are available to take action immediately whereas the Civilians in the Villages have to wait for the Zeds to strike before they can activate.
You’ll select one Hero and then randomly draw three more heroes to begin the game with. Each Hero has their own special ability and you just might find yourself thinking a couple of these folks are completely useless. After a few plays though you’ll find that there might be more to these characters than meets the eye; Mayor Hernandez immediately comes to mind! Your Heroes begin in the center box of Farmingdale and you might receive more Heroes as the game progresses.
Finally, you’ll shuffle your Event and Fate decks. There are specific rules on setting up the Event deck but suffice to say that there are some events that won’t be included every time you play, there are two particularly nasty “Brains” events which will take place and the card which triggers the end of the game (if you’ve survived that long) will be somewhere in the last eight cards you draw. The object of the game is to hold out until the National Guard arrives and when you draw that card, from somewhere in those last eight cards; it’s possible that the game will end right then and there. It’s also possible that the game could continue for a few more card draws depending on the instructions on the National Guard card.
Interestingly enough, those of us who have watched a fair share of zombie movies know that the military arriving isn’t always a good thing but a way of looking at this end game trigger is that the National Guard is taking the situation out of your hands. Now you can make your exit from the hell that has broken loose in Farmingdale…
Each turn is begun by turning over an Event Card and this card determines what’s taking place right now. The card will indicate an event and tell you when it takes place in the sequence of the card. You’ll begin at the top of the card and read down tackling each section in order. First you see how many spaces Refugees move toward Farmingdale. Then you check to see if another Zed counter has been generated based on the Infection Level. Next you’ll find out if you’ve had to lose a point of supplies, because survivors need to eat you know. The Event Card will also indicate what track Zeds advance upon (Forest, for an example, or maybe all of them if you’re especially unlucky!) and they’ll attack any counter, except for Villagers, occupying that space. If the Zeds enter a space with Refugees, Civilians, or Heroes then a battle takes place. It’s important to note that Villagers become Refugees the moment Zeds control their space and they’ll remain Refugees for the remainder of the game. Control is simply if a Zeds or Chaos (Zeds leave Chaos in their wake) counter remains in that space at the end of the turn. If Zeds are in a space, during the Zeds phase, with only Refugees then those Refugees are lost and the Infection Level increases – I told you these people should have been paying attention to the news!
The last item on the Event card will indicate how many actions you will be able to perform this turn. You have a nice number of options to choose from and you can make Gunfire Attacks (all other attacks are Hand-to-Hand) which also consumes an Ammo point, move a Hero or Civilian unit, forage for Supplies or Ammo, build Barricades, Heal the wounded, Research a cure, Restore order from Chaos, and so forth. Let’s just say that, as in all States of Siege games, you always wish you had more Actions to use because there’s so much going on that needs your attention.
Combat takes place in both the Zeds phase of the Event card and during the player actions – if the player chooses to attack. Zed initiated combat is always Hand to Hand and it can be awfully devastating. Add into this the fact every time you get stuck in with the Zeds the Infection Level increases and you’ll see that going toe to toe with the zombies is a necessary evil. Gunfire Attacks are performed at distance so the Zeds have no chance to harm the attacker or increase Infection.
Also of note are the Fate cards. Sometimes an Event card will call for you to draw a Fate card to determine where that Event takes place as well as triggering what’s on the Fate card. This could be another event or provide you with a bonus that can be saved for later. Usually the Fate card is discarded after following the instructions but some, like the bonus mentioned, can be held for later use.
There’s loads of action packed into DotZ as well as plenty of twists and turns. Just about every heart pounding moment from a great many zombie movies is crammed into the Event and Fate cards. Look! A new Hero has arrived! Hooray! And that same said Hero later snaps and runs off to be eaten by the zombies… Boo! There are so many random factors involved – strength of the starting Zed and Civilian units, Heroes you begin the game with, the Events that are and aren’t in the deck, and so on – that no two games will ever play out the same. Each time you bring DotZ to the table you’ll have a lot to … wait for it… chew on!
If you do make it to the end, and the National Guard has arrived, you’ll tally up your achievements in order to find out what the epilogue is to your zombie apocalypse adventure.
I will mention there are some rather minor issues with the prerelease I’m reviewing such as typos and a handful of Event cards that seem a bit wonky as to how to effectively proceed with them or how they are timed but these are addressed on Board Game Geek. I’ve also been assured that when DotZ is available, come August 12th or so, the typos and wonkiness will be ironed out.
In the meantime I will provide a few tips for gamers breaking out Dawn of the Zeds:
Game plan before you flip over the first Event card. How you approach that adventure is going to be determined by a lot of things but the most important are what Heroes you have on hand. It doesn’t make sense to try to take the fight to the Zeds if you chose Captain Piazza (the rock solid sniper) and fate has thrown Mayor Hernandez, Pickles the dog, and Doc Sawyer into the maelstrom with her. You might want to focus on getting Refugees to safety, foraging for Ammo or Supplies, and Researching a cure while the good Captain does her best to plug the holes in the defenses. You’ll have other Heroes arrive, when or who is in doubt, but work with the tools you have as effectively as possible.
Civilians are cannon fodder. Zed units can be eliminated. Heroes can die. Civilian counters cannot be destroyed. Once a Civilian unit is reduced to zero hits they are placed in the Hospital. Of course, you have to have a Hero with the Science skill at the Hospital to heal the Civilians but the unit can come back to fight later. Heroes are your special forces and, for the most part, much tougher than the Civilian units but you need to do your best to keep them out of harm’s way. Sure Mr. Johnson is a bit of a crank and conspiracy nut but you sure will miss that high powered shotgun of his when he’s gone…
Don’t run out of Ammo. Supplies are important of course, but you need to make sure you always have some Ammo. Your one avenue of harming the Zeds, without any repercussions, is through Gunfire Attacks. No Ammo means having to fight Hand-to-Hand and the Zeds excel in ripping folks to shreds. Plus the Infection Level goes up, which leads to more Zeds.
When possible, Restore Order and protect Refugees. After Zeds move through a space, mayhem ensues and it makes it more difficult to move around that area. Having too many Chaos markers around the map is going to hamstring the player’s ability to counter punch when needed. Also, Refugees can be a critical component to swinging the balance back to the player. Refugees can reinforce Civilian counters or be set aside in a camp to improve your final score. In a pinch, the Refugees can also later be removed from that camp for reinforcements.
Don’t forget to lower the Infection Level. Whenever you spawn a new Zeds counter the Infection Level dramatically decreases. With everything going on it’s easy to forget to adjust the Infection Level but you don’t want to make what is already a challenging game neigh impossible!
As a final note, building upon the tip above about the Infection Level, take your time when you play Dawn of the Zeds. Sometimes the best plan of action for a particular turn isn’t obvious and if your first few forays into the defense of Farmingdale are simply to blast the zombies you’re going to find the going extremely rough. If you rush through the game you’re also more likely to miss an important phase or instance that helps you out. States of Siege games are designed to be exceptionally challenging but are a lot of fun even when you lose – and you will lose often! If you don’t take the time to understand the rules or consistently miss one important factor you’ll end up being crushed every time out and put the game away in disgust.
And so ends the story of Dawn of the Zeds. Or does it? The subtitle of the game is The Battle for Farmingdale so that would lead me to believe that the DotZ story won’t end here!