Zoneplex – Only Don Coscarelli Could Come Up With A Wilder Game

What the? I don’t even….??
The theme and setting is important to a game’s greatness despite what some may have you believe;  a theme that isn’t completely integrated into a game can remove the shine from a  solid game, whereas a great theme tacked onto a terrible game will still find some small semblance of love despite its flaws. Well, Zoneplex, from Mysterian Games, is very different as far as the mechanics and gameplay, but I am here to tell you: this game has the most outlandish, wild, B-movie theme of any game I’ve ever played. The story behind this game is so astonishingly unconventional and quirky that you can’t help but kind of marvel at the oddity of it all. There were definitely some psychoactive substances being consumed when this game was first envisioned. 

The short version of the story is that the game takes place far into the future, with Earth just a distant memory and an age of human colonization well into its second century. Near a black hole, this giant pyramid called The Zoneplex, like a big ass space ship straight out of Stargate, is just chilling out. The human colonies sent their greatest mystic warrior monks in order to control the incalculable power found in the Zoneplex. Now, it’s never actually explained what makes this Zoneplex so powerful, or even what it can do, just that it’s bad ass, and you need your space monk to go and gain control of it. Now, I want you to be seated when I tell you this: the players have avatars in the shape of a robed person, and they are referred to as “monkles”. Yes, you read that right, it wasn’t a typo. When you pair the 70’s album cover artwork, the crazy fiction, and the overall “style” of the game, the only thing you will find out of place is the fact that Marc Singer is not anywhere to be found. Hell, it really should have come with a vial of patchouli oil or incense to round out the experience.
The components for the game are all well-made, and the artwork is as colorful and odd as you’d expect based on the fiction. I have to admit, the little “monkles” really are cool looking, as far as wooden meeple variants go. There is no board, per se, as little triangular tiles make up the board and are placed as the first phase of the game progresses. There’s also a neat little tracking board that keeps track of everyone’s level, the baddie level, and other things. All in all, the production quality is quite good with the exception of the card backs, which display ridiculously laughable “8-bit retro” style artwork. The problem is that the art is abstract and vibrant in many places while being incomprehensibly out of place in others; the 8-bit retro look paired with the beautiful art in other places just seems like they ran out of money for the artist or something. That said, from a value-of-components perspective, for a relatively unknown game, they did a really great job and I think the game, on balance, looks really nice.
At its heart, it’s actually a very clever design in a lot of ways, despite it being an unlikely mash-up of very different mechanics. It’s got hand management, area control, tile laying, set collection, secret information that becomes open later in the game, and negotiation in a very Ameritrashy potpourri. You build the pyramid from the ground up by placing tiles, fighting enemies and collecting one of three colors to achieve one of the several victory conditions. Enemies, called “Fears” are drawn blind from a deck, and many enemies are supremely difficult, so in many cases you need to join forces with opponents to win. Just as in games like Dungeon Run or Munchkin, you can promise the spoils of victory or items you have in hand to them in order to lure them into battle. And like Cosmic Encounter, depending on the outcome, the involved players gain, or lose, a static bonus in addition to anything gained via the aforementioned promises to allies. It all works well together, perhaps in spite of itself, and while I don’t think this will ever be a favorite game of the group, it was enjoyable in a lot of ways.

One thing you kind of have to accept is that it’s very random on one hand, since a lot of the things that happen are controlled by a D4, and on the other hand, you can only mitigate that luck to beat the Fears in very limited ways. What this boils down to is that you’re going to get your ass kicked a whole lot. The baddies have very high strengths, and your maximum rating is 4, so you’re going to have to roll big to beat them, and even if you did roll big, it’s never enough. You have to get rid of some stones in order to reduce the baddie’s strength, but you do so via a roll, so if you get rid of a stone that you placed in order to roll another die and roll a zero, you feel like a total moron for doing so. It’s not frustrating, really, but it does totally suck when that happens. What eases that pain is if another player tosses a stone into the mix, which is how they help you, and they roll a zero, because you cost them a stone and they lose just like you do, so it’s a nice way to hose your neighbor. The downside is that getting rid of stones extends the game length, and you can expect a four player game to run about two hours, assuming that you’re doing some serious horse trading during the pre-battle parlay.

A smartly designed tracking board!
A really unique aspect of the game is how it breaks up the game flow into two different sections; the first phase has hidden information and is devoted to building the Zoneplex board, and the second is essentially a race to get the three required Fears and be able to enter the “eye” tile with enough “influence” to win. In the first section, players place tiles and move about the cabin, so to speak, and the idea is to place your “sacred stone” markers on tiles that have the symbol that matches your secret symbol, which will give you extra strength during the second phase. This is arguably the weakest part of the game as it’s pretty much drawing a card, laying the amount of tiles that the card indicates, and moving that same amount of tiles. It’s just not that much fun, although there are a lot of different kinds of tiles that you can place, from teleporters that allow you to move to other teleporters,  to “reliquaries” where you can gain relic cards that provide you abilities, to icon-laden “sacred tiles” that give you a bonus if you’re standing on one that matches your secret icon.

The second phase begins when the board is laid out, and it is more interesting because the game state at the end of the first phase really does impact how this phase goes for you. The secret information is gone at the beginning of this phase, with players revealing their symbols and for the first time revealing what their “influence” level is based on their played cards and how many stones they have laid on which tiles, among other things. At this point, the object is to simply have one of each of the three Fears, which are gained by beating them in battle, and in addition, getting to the “eye” while in possession of the Fears and having the most influence points. Just being in the “eye” provides the player a bonus, but it’s a lot harder than one would think to have more influence than everyone else because there is absolutely a “beat up the leader” feel to the game, although there are very limited ways to do this.  

Klatuu, Verata, Cthulhu…
The main way to mess with opponents is to play cards that steal their relics and to refuse to help them when they’re faced with a tough battle. With regard to the latter, it’s a very calculated risk you must weigh when going in with another player because you have to remove one or more of your stones to help in battle as I noted, which generally hurts you more than it helps. Sure, you might get offered a card, but is that worth reducing your influence points, and potentially losing anyhow, which results in losing a strength point, which also reduces your influence? Generally, helping others is only useful if you planned on doing so from the first phase onward, and that’s because if you put a sacred stone on a sacred tile that doesn’t have your symbol, it’s a -2 influence penalty, so in helping an opposing player, you can actually remove that stone, which removes the penalty. All in all, there’s a lot of factors to think about, and if you didn’t thoroughly read the rules before playing, you will find out late in the game that you totally screwed yourself over in the first phase. Now, you can place stones in the second phase too, but the fact that the information becomes open really kind of hoses your ability to be sneaky about it.

The major complaints fielded about this game were centered on two things that really kind of bothered the players. The first is that you continually need to remember to update your influence status, which is a little fiddly and very crucial. If you forget to update it, or forget about a card you’ve got, when a player enters the “eye” and their influence bumps up two points, they might win simply because you have poor memory. I, personally, don’t feel it’s a big deal. Now, what we all agreed upon was that the movement situation kind of sucked. When you draw a card, it tells you how many tiles to move, and this is kind of the Talisman situation where if you need to move one space, but draw a card with two on it, you can’t opt to move one space and then stop. It doesn’t add anything to the game and it really is just there to lengthen the game, whereas in Talisman, it makes sense to a degree. This just kind of pissed everyone off; where the rule book is unintentionally self-deprecating, the movement is self-defecating. Other than those two criticisms and some passing laughter about the absurdity of the setting, we all pretty much got along fine with the Zoneplex, and mostly enjoyed our adventures therein. 

The long and short of this game is that it is one of the weirder games I’ve ever played, not only due to the theme and setting, but in the game play. It’s actually a little refreshing because it’s not the same old stuff, which is saying quite a lot these days, but “different” is clearly not enough to make this game really rock the houseboat. Once you know how to play it well enough to make smart decisions in the first phase, I think the game really kind of becomes better than you’d think it would be the first time you play. I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that I liked the game a little more each time I played it rather than the usual, where I like games a little less each time I played. The mix of tile-laying, area control, and negotiation really worked pretty well, and I was kind of in awe, or perhaps better, in disbelief, that they managed to put ideas that don’t seem to work that well together into one very solid package. Now, while I was not unique to the group in enjoying the game more with each play, there were a couple players whose scores steadily declined over several plays while their negative commentary increased. 

Now, I found out about this game via the designer emailing me and offering me a demo copy, and after some research, I really kind of had to review it. I don’t normally accept review copies anymore, but seriously, the theme was just too wild and the rules just too compelling for me to refuse. This is a GameSalute-produced game, which was Kickstarted, and it is a testament to people who know what they’re doing looking a game over. This could’ve been a total train wreck, but I suspect GameSalute had some input. I reviewed this because people should really know about this game, if for no other reason than to understand that games don’t have to be about Renaissance-era courtesans, alien invasions, or worst of all, zombies. This review copy will be sent to whomever bugs me about it first, per my site policy, although if you want it, you’re going to have to cover shipping. Star Trek: Attack Wing pretty much guaranteed that I’ll have no money in the foreseeable future. 

Why The Beastmaster, Dar, Is Clearly Cut Out To Be A Warrior Monk:
– Zoneplex’s theme puts most B-movies to shame with its ingenuity and oddity
– The rule book is really well organized and the game is relatively easy to learn
– When the art is good, it’s very good
– While the theme is tremendously absurd, it’s also really funny
– One word: Monkles

Why George Romero Will Unleash Zombie Hordes Upon Mysterian Games:

– The movement mechanics get in the way of the game rather than expand it

– When the art is bad, it’s very bad
– “Contrived” does not begin to describe calling the fighting “facing your Fears”
– It lasts about a half an hour too long for what it is

Overall:
If you like games like Munchkin, Dungeon Run, or Cosmic Encounter because of the alliance mechanic, you might want to check this out, because this really does a good job of taking those games’ mechanics and making them its own. I’d argue that it’s really the core of the game, along with area control. The upshot is that there were a lot of things we liked, but a few things we didn’t, and the things we didn’t kind of soured some of us on the whole game. I think there’s certainly a place for this game on people’s shelves, but the buyer has to really like a very finite set of things in order to really appreciate it. I’ve never played anything quite like this, and it’s a refreshing change from the same old shit that has been churned out, ad nauseam, in the board game world.

Rating:

3.25/5 Stars

Behold the mighty Zoneplex here, and tremble:

Company Website

Despite me telling Shelby, the designer, to put the rules on his site, you have to go to BoardGameGeek.com to read the rules:
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