Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Purification Is Setting In: "Zombies!!!"

Ten (!) years ago I read the following blurb in the March 2002 issue of the late, lamented gaming mag Inquest:

" (Zombies!!! is) zombie-killin' fun, pure and simple.  There's no complex strategy here.  The undead miniatures spawn along desolated city streets, and you've got to hack, blast or punch your way through their gruesome hordes to the escape chopper.  It's a game that cries out for beer, pretzels and holy water."

By the time I read this, I'd already been a fan of zombies ever since George A. Romero scared the fertilizer out of me with Night of the Living Dead back in 1983.  Needless to say, I was already predisposed to a buying copy of Zombies!!! long before 28 Days Later exploded on the scene that same year and turned the walking (or in this case sprinting) dead into a bona-fide cultural phenomenon.

I played the crap out of Zombies!!! when it first came out.  As far as I was concerned, there'd been nothing like it ever before (I was wrong, BTW).  Everyone I played this game with was similarly compelled to run out and buy their own copy.  One local game retailer had no less then three of my friends march in and buy it on the exact same day!  Of all the games out there that I should have gotten commission on, it should have been Zombies!!!

But ten years was a long time ago and there's been a lot of board game innovation and evolution in the interim.  Does this venerable zombie-slaying title still have the "BrAiNSsSS!!!" to be a contender?

Zombies!!! is a horror / exploration / fight-for-your-life style board game for two-to-six players.  Participants take on the role of survivors attempting to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse.  The game board, representing streets and buildings in a typical city, are laid out randomly via thirty different map tiles.  Players roll dice to determine how far they can move each turn and engage in combat every time they find themselves in a space with one of the shambling rotters.

Fights are ludicrously easy.  If you roll a four, five or six on a six-sided die you kill the zombie.  If you roll a one, two, or three, you take a point of damage and one of your "Heart" tokens gets removed.  Players can also use "Bullet" tokens to augment a poor die roll.  Major structures around town have additional Bullets and Hearts inside which players can collect.  In addition, cards can be played to improve your situation or hinder your opponents.  At the end of every turn, another die roll determines how many zombies move one space.

Yep, these are the slow-assed, shuffly, olde skool kinda zombies!  A-w-w-w-w-w-w, yeah!    

First player to reach the center of the Helipad tile or kill a predetermined number of zombies wins the game.  On the other hand, if a player looses all of their Heart tokens half of their zombie kills are discarded and they move all the way back to the center of town.  

Hoping to get inside the designer's head and scoop out all of that yummy gray matter?  You can read the game's full rules right here.  

This being the glorious month of October, we decided to revisit Zombies!!! for Halloween.  We gathered at Dean's place last Wednesday night to shotgun our way through endless waves of mouldering undead.

For the purpose of full disclosure, we played with the core game components, the School's Out Forever tiles, a smattering of cards from various expansions and a rules variant designed to speed up the game. 

Here are some house-rule highlights:
  • "Guts" tokens represent how many cards you can hold at any given time.  If you roll a "1" in combat you lose a Guts token and every time you roll a "6" you gain a Guts token (to a maximum of five).  
  • The amount of zombies you need to kill in order to win the game is influenced by how many players.  Ergo, we needed seventeen zombies in order to win.
  • We determined Movement by rolling a six-sided die and then adding our current count of Hearts. 
Andrew was Red, Chad was Yellow, I was Black, Dean was Orange and Mike was Blue.


Andrew made the first drive, moving six spaces in a bee-line right down a zombie-choked street.  In his first battle he lost one Bullet and one Heart but killed his second target on his first roll.  He picked up (and then promptly burned) a Bullet in order to kill a third target.  While strolling through a "T"-intersection he got jumped by a particularly resilient ghoul who cracked his skull open like a hard-boiled egg.  Killed on his very first turn, Andrew went right back to the center of town!  Hey, if yer gonna get killed in this game then it's wise to do it early.  

Just prior to Dean's turn Chad played "No Guts, No Glory" resulting on a moratorium on Bullet use until the end of his next turn!  Nonplussed, Dean put down the Skate Shop, rolled up a total "8" for movement and then killed his first zombie with authoritah by rolling a "6".  After snatching up a Bullet he then blasted another shambler in the mush with another "6".  A "1" then materialized in his final fight, forcing him to spend a Heart.  He blew another Heart on his follow-up roll of "3", re-rolled and got a "4" for the kill.

Mike played "Adrenaline Rush", which doubled his movement roll from 6 to 12.  With three Hearts thrown in for good measure, Mike became the equivalent of Barry Allen with a crazy Movement total of 15!  He moved eight spaces down the street and then ducked into the Florist Shop.  His first roll of "1" cost him one Guts token and one Heart but his next roll of "6" was an insta-kill!  After snapping up the Bullets underfoot, he blasted another ghoul with a "6" and scored another Heart.  But his next two fights took a turn for the sour when he rolled a "2" and then a "1", costing him two Hearts and one Guts token.  His luck finally turned around when he tossed his third "6", vaporizing his opponent's skull like an over-ripe melon.

Chad played a 4-way intersection tile and then diced up six points of movement.  Just as he was about to pick up his pawn, Andrew played "Brain Cramp", forcing him to wander off into a completely deserted part of the board.  No zombie kills for Chad that round!

Just as I was about to enter a juicy-looking building, Chad played "Claustrophobia", effectively barring my entry.  I quickly changed plans and used my six Movement points to venture out into the four-way intersection where I killed three zombies with one economic roll apiece!  Boo-ya! 

Andrew drew a boring ol' straight-away street tile.  He then rolled a "6" for movement, went into the Skate Shop and found a "Chainsaw" (courtesy of the "Ooooo, What Luck!" card).  

Dean discovered the Toy Store, but with his crappy movement roll of "3" all he could do was admire it from afar.

Mike pulled the Fire Station.  Just before he ventured inside, Dean played "Power Outage", preventing him from picking up any Bullet or Heart tokens!  After we all agreed that this was a gloriously dickish move, Mike consoled himself by moving four spaces and pureeing a zombie on a roll of "5".

Chad drew a "T"-intersection and then rolled a "2" versus his first zombie in combat, requiring him to spend two Bullets.  He then moved five spaces and whacked another zed on a roll of "4".

I started my turn by bringing out the University's front gates!  Still in the Toy Store, I proficiently dispatched the fiend on my space with a "6" and then rolled up a "2" for movement, giving me a grand total of five (with an extra three for my Heart-count).  I bagged a second zombie in the store with yet another "6" and then finished the extermination with a "2" boosted up with a coupla Bullets.

Andrew started his turn by tabling the Lawn & Garden Center .  Thanks to his friggin' "Chainsaw", Andrew overkilled a zombie on his space with a "5" and then generated none movement points.  He got a "1" in his next fight, costing him a Guts token and a Heart but he quickly rebounded with a roll of "6".  For his final action he chucked down "Electro Shock Therapy", giving him three additional Guts tokens!

Armed with seven movement points, Dean ventilated a mobile corpse walking down the middle of the street with a "4" and then played "Why Don't We Go Some Place More Private?".  This allowed him to enter the Lawn & Garden Center, move into Andrew's space and then escort him back outside behind the loading dock where he presumably treated him like Ned Beatty in Deliverance.  Hey, I know it's a zombie apocalypse but a man got needs!     

Mike played a "T" intersection tile and then rolled a "6" to liquefy the zombie in his space, earning him a Guts token.  He then got a "4" for movement and added two for his Hearts.  Poking through the Fire Station, Mike chucked a "2" against his first walker, forcing him to expend two Bullets to finish the job and pick up a Heart.  With the last of his opposition defeated, Mike gathered up two more Bullets and a Heart.

Chad drew the Sporting Goods Store and then killed the zombie pawing all over him with a roll of "5".  After dialing up five total movement points, he scored a "6" versus the first zombie in his path, earning him a shiny, new Guts token.  Unfortunately he got jacked up in the entrance to the Sporting Goods Store and rolled a "1" in the resulting fracas.  After spending a Heart he bounced back with a "5", getting the kill and picking up a new Bullet in the process!

After adding a parking lot to the university campus, I rolled a "4" to drop the deader in my space and collect a free Bullet.  With a grand total of six movement points I proceeded to haul ass, ganking another shuffler along the way with a glorious "6"!

Andrew revealed and placed the Army Surplus Store but after scoring eight big movement points he ran back into the Lawn & Garden Center and totally cleaned house!

After placing a humdrum ninety degree street tile along the hinterland of the map, Dean turned his attentions to the task at hand.  In response, Andrew played "They're Coming For You,  _(Dean)_" which allowed him to place a zombie on every legal square in the previously deserted Lawn & Garden Center!  Dean managed to take down the zombie on his space and then generated six movement points.  But alas, it was all for nought when he got completely swarmed and had to go all the way back to start!  Another timely and prick-tacular card play!      

Although Mike rolled a "1" versus the first zombie in his space he spent three Bullet tokens to polish it off.  He then played "Where Did Everybody Go?", forcing me to move five spaces through a veritable gauntlet o' ghouls.  My first roll was a "1" prompting the loss of one Guts and one Heart token.  Mike decided to reward my subsequent "6" kill shot by moving me down the vacant Toy Store street.  I then cast another "6" to obliterate the zombie standing in the entrance.  

Chad brought out the Drug Store and then rolled a "6" (plus three Hearts) for a total of nine movement!  He got snake eyes in his first melee but then scored another "6" on the re-roll after spending a Heart.  After replacing the Heart with the one sitting on the ground (?) he went on a crazed undead killing spree, rolling no less then two fours and two fives!

I played the university's Administration Building and then rolled a "3" (plus three Hearts) for a total move of six.  I handily plastered the only zombie in my path with a roll of "4".

After pulling a four-way street intersection tile, Andrew diced up an impressive ten movement points for himself.  In battle he rolled four "2"'s in a row, all solid results thanks to his "Chainsaw".  This allowed him clean out the Skate Shop with ease. 

Since every other player had more zombie kills, Dean was permitted to play "I Know What You Did" to teleport himself from his current tile to an adjacent tile.  After rolling a "3" for movement and adding a similar count of Hearts for a total of six, he immediately charged headlong into a zombie mosh pit.  His first roll of "2" drained away two of his Bullets.  A second "2" result against his next opponent took away his last Heart.  On a third roll of "2" two the zombies piled on, stripping the flesh from his limbs and ripping his bread basket open like a Christmas present.  This die was then immediately banished for being overtly evil.  

Mike brought out the Police Station and then played "Just When You Thought It Couldn't Get Any Worse" to restock the Lawn & Garden Center to full zombie capacity.  He then handily took care of the fiend on his space with a roll of "5".  Fueled by a movement roll of "2" and his maximum five hearts, Mike became a house on fire.  He plowed through the "T" intersection, boosting his roll of "1" up to four by shelling out three Bullets.  He was forced to spend another round after a roll of  "3" but ended on a high note, dispatching his final foe with a "6".

Chad placed a four-way intersection and then scored a movement total of seven (by rolling a "4" coupled with his three Hearts).  His first fight roll turned up a sad little "1", deducting a Guts and Heart token.  He then rolled a "2" and put the kibosh on his assailant by juicing with a pair of Bullets.

I drew and placed the University Dorm.  My movement roll was a paltry "2" (plus another two for Hearts) for a total of four.  I got a "3" against my first rotter but made the difference up with one Bullet.  

We all piled on Andrew during his turn, fully aware that he was only a few kills away from certain victory.  Chad played "Where's The Admin Building?" steering him away from the re-populated Lawn & Garden Center and back towards the university campus.  Andrew countered with "This Isn't So Bad" which moved two Zombies back into his hell-bent path, which he immediately killed with a pair of "4"'s.  In a last-ditch effort to keep the game alive I dropped "Why Won't You Die?!?!?" forcing Andrew to re-fight his last kill.  Without hesitation he followed through with a "4", flattening his last zombie and giving him the win.


Honestly, folks,  Zombies!!! has gone sour to me.  It's pretty sad when you have a hard time remembering the game's basic turn sequence even after so many plays.  Especially if said game boils down to the equivalent of a one-page rule sheet.   

Many of the antiquated mechanics are unnecessary and really bog the game down.  Placing a new tile at the beginning of every turn is a pointless time-waster.  By the end of it, we were throwing tiles down and not even bothering to stock them with zombies because we'd NEVER, EVER GO THERE.  Why not place new tiles only when someone goes off the map to explore the unknown?  If you're concerned that no new zombies are entering play, then just have a random amount of them appear every turn along the edges of the existing map.

Also the concept of rolling for movement is something that's best left behind with childhood, like measles, smallpox and Monopoly.  Sadly, for a brain-dead game like Zombies!!!, there's no easy way to remedy this.  I highly, highly recommend the variant which adds your current Heart total to your movement roll.  Otherwise, you're stuck rolling a single d6 every turn and pondering a Guyana-style Kool Aid suicide pact half way through the game.  

The other bullshit thing about Zombies!!!: dying is often beneficial!  If the Helipad appears right next to  Town Square while you're plowing through zombies in a completely different zip code, you immediately find yourself struggling with the temptation to put the 'splody end of your shotgun in yer pie-hole and pull the trigger.  This is completely anathema to the whole concept of survival horror.  The key word there is survival, morons!  

Having said that, I'm loathe to throw the dead baby out with the bath water.  The game is easy to chuck down and get into.  It has considerable noob gamer curb appeal.  When the entire map-board is splayed out and covered with a metric shit-ton of plastic miniature zombies, the thing looks pretty epic.  Closing in on your last few required kills or crawling towards the helipad still offers a visceral thrill.  And although the cards can sometimes reduce the victor to the equivalent of a coin toss, the effects that they produce are unexpectedly numerous and often gloriously prickish.  

Indeed, Zombies!!! has since been trumped by Last Night on Earth, All Things Zombie and even the free print-and-play game Zombie Plague.  Even with all the "hurry up" rules variants we still found Zombies!!! to be a somewhat tedious experience that produced a palpable wave of relief when it ended. I'm not even sure if we'll ever play it again, even for nostalgia's sake.

But I still have a soft spot for this one.  Along with Magic: The Gathering and Settlers of Catan, Zombies!!! rekindled my love for board games.  In retrospect, this probably had a lot more to do with the game's awesome subject matter then the game itself.

I give Zombies!!! three pips outta six!    

Wanna vaporize some zombie heads and snack on a cranium-shaped bucket of pop-corned brains?  Click on the image below to order Zombies!!! via and help support the blog! 

P.S. After the game was over and Andrew and Dean toddled off to finish their Blood Bowl match, Mike, Chad and I played a second game.  I must confess: it was a much less annoying experience with only three players.  Victory went back and forth between all three of us before I finally pulled out the win.  Although I wouldn't describe the experience as superior to other zombie-themed games, running it with only three bodies certainly made it more tolerable.    

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