Zombie 15′ – A Zombie Game That Has Brains, And Heart, But Perhaps Lacks Soul

Zombie 15I picked this game up for like $70.00 right at the Iello booth, back at Gencon 2014, based primarily on the giggles of the crowd and 3D terrain they had built for the demonstrations. I mean, they seemed to be having fun, and I’m not talking a nervous laugh from having a co-operative game played by total strangers, but real, live fun. People were frantically screaming at one another and the soundtrack was blasting creepy ass shit at the passersby, and so when I got to the booth with a flaming Franklin in my pocket, I was faced with a choice between it and Sons of Anarchy, which had no giggles and no three dimensional, epic, +5 Terrain of Awesome Sauce. I, obviously, went with Zombie 15′.

How could a whole crowd of ballyhooing folks be wrong about this, right? As it turns out, I erred badly in assuming that they were Ameritrash folks. I suspect that had I asked them if they were more “Agricola” or “Broadsides and Boarding Parties”, they’d have undoubtedly gone with the former, which is why they loved the demo so much, and I don’t. You see, this game is the pinnacle of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing“, in my opinion. You look at it and it totally screams “Zombie killing! Ninjas! Guns! Anime babes! Feck yah” but what isn’t immediately apparent is that while you were paying so much attention to the box, you forgot to look at the fact that it was being held aloft by the lesser known cousin of The Most Interesting Man in the World, The Most Efficient Six Sigma Certified Optimization Engine Expert in the World. And he’s wearing a suit whose wide pinstripes are actually comprised of small, block lettered lyrics of show tunes.

Cue the jazz hands. Ugh.

ShitintheBox- Zombie 15Now, it’s not a bad game, don’t get me wrong. The art is absolutely gorgeous, and the components are tip-top. It comes with over 100 models, and although like 99 of them are made up of three model styles, the models are outstanding. Even the rule book is awesome, well detailed, easy to read, and full of great examples. Sadly, It’s that the engine running the game seems to have been designed to function as a training seminar on how to break people of Analysis Paralysis, accomplished solely by adding a timer to the game. There’s a modicum of randomness, all done by cards, and there’s “gotcha” moments that are memorable and make the game slightly more entertaining. But at its core, the game feels at times as if it’s not much more than a worker placement game that rewards optimizing your move instead of delivering blade swinging, baseball bat smashing, cap peeling, zombie killing awesomeness.

The only way I can say it is that it’s almost entirely devoid of any soul, whatsoever. For instance, when you kill some zombies, it’s not done in a tense way like needing to roll a five or better on a D8; Killing zombies is done by moving a little marker on a weapon card, and saying “I killed some zombies”, then removing them from the board. It’s like doing of an impression of Ben Stein doing an impression of a baseball color man, all while having sex: “OK, I’m now putting it in your hand. I’m becoming slightly aroused. I’m rather enjoying this. What a exquisite busom. I’m actually considering beginning sexual intercourse at present…how do you feel about that, ma’am?” There’s just not much soul to the game. It’s so mechanical, with all actions being declared and automatically performed that there’s just no energy in the game. In short, it looks like Christophe Boelinger and plays like Reiner Knizia’s less interesting cousin.

The 3D board that made me want it. Not included.
The 3D board that made me want it. Not included.

On top of play being repetitious almost to a fault, having very few decision trees which would make the game less of an optimization exercise, the setup is one of the most tedious of all time, thanks to nearly-invisible writing on the tiles and the fact that several tiles on the scenario guide aren’t even labeled. They literally tell you to set up a bunch of tiles, and leave a couple of them very poorly or entirely unlabeled. There’s 32 double-sided tiles, and they are beautifully illustrated, but the identification text is really small on them, so you have to dig through and find the right 18 or so in order to make the map. God have mercy on you if you didn’t organize them numerically in the box, because if not, you just added ten extra minutes of setup to a 15 minute game. In fact, the setup is, in many cases, longer than the game itself lasts. Heroscape can’t even boast that, and it’s MADE OF FUCKING LEGOS. Boy, what a bloody mess.

Despite the obvious and painful shortcomings I’ve noted, I haven’t written the game off yet. We’re around a third way through the fifteen-mission campaign, and I plan to finish it. For the $70.00 US I paid for it, you can bet your left nut I’m going to get my money’s worth and finish it, like choking down the last few swigs of the overpriced, $15.00 pint of microbrew beer you got on a date to seem sophisticated, despite knowing it would taste like a dog’s tongue after he licks his asshole. So, let’s get to the merits of the game and try to get past the fact that you’re asking yourself how I know what that might taste like.

Theoretically speaking, there’s a lot to like in the game, as some things are done really well, with some truly on the cusp of brilliance. The first thing that is a big time draw are the variable character powers. There’s like 10 characters, and they all are completely unique in how they play. That’s a huge bonus, and would add to the replay value a ton, had I the will to play through it after I’ve completed the campaign. The game is really hard to win after the starting scenario, especially under the gun of the timer, so it’s not like it’s some cake walk. When we played the second scenario, I got absolutely slaughtered, and in the first four or five turns. Such is the life of an apocalyptic survivor, I suppose. The reason I mention this is because my skill set wasn’t conducive to that particular mission, but in the previous mission, it was a key element. So, the character powers make a real impact in the game, and it speaks volumes of the amount of care that went into testing and balancing this game.

The next thing I want to praise this game for is the soundtrack, which truly is the highlight of the presentation. There’s something about the air raid sirens behind creepy music that kind of makes a grown-ass man want to drop a little mud in his shorts. Add to that the random sounds of chaos, destruction, and of course, the obligatory zombie growl indicating that it’s time to draw a card and add zombies to your location, and it is the perfect recipe for Existential Dread Soup. It’s done perfectly for what the game is, or rather could have been, and it has a bunch of different tracks that time out the zombie spawns, meaning that you will have more or less pressure depending on the scenario’s listed track. Just the soundtrack alone is awesome, and it’s the total embodiment of what Vlaadi Chavtil was going for with Space Alert, but better in many ways, because Space Alert’s soundtrack is not nearly as engaging when it comes to building the mood. This game is absolutely elevated because of it. In addition, they build upon this with the mechanic of the “timed growl”, because it triggers the placement of zombies. Better still,  it’s not anyone’s tile that the zombies appear on, it’s your tile, if you’re the active player when the growl hits. This not only acts as an event timer, but it also forces players to weigh the benefit of sandbagging their turn if their character is strong, or act swiftly if they’re weak. It’s superbly done, and I anticipate it being copied and honed into what will end up being the defining mechanic of the decade. I mean, what if X-Wing came with a bad ass Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack and every time a Vader respirator sound plays, you refresh your missiles or something, and when the Emperor laughs after 20 minutes, the match concludes and is scored, or perhaps a scenario ends and if the Rebels haven’t completed the objectives, they lose. It’s not just mood-setting, it’s integral, and it’s utterly fucking awesome.

What also makes the growl mechanic brilliant is that you have to draw a card upon the growl, which could be one, two, three, or four zombies placed on your tile, or if you’re truly unlucky, the “horde” card will pop and you place the entire horde on your tile. “What, pray tell, is the horde,” you might ask? Well, every time a player uses a weapon that makes sound, you add zombies equal to the sound rating of the weapon to this little box that reads, “Horde” on each side. This always starts at three, so at a minimum, you’re getting three new friends who want to eat you placed in the box. If there’s only three, you lucked out, because the last time I played, fourteen appeared and killed me dead as Elvis. This adds a lot of realism to the game, because I don’t give a shit who you are or how much of a Billy Badass you think you are, if fourteen zombies have you cornered in a two-room house, you’re not making it out alive. All in all, the growl mechanic adds a great deal of stress to your turn, which really means that while you’re trying to optimize the turn, which is definitely the way the game pushes you to be, you know that at any time, you might have a bunch of baddies descend upon you.

The last really slick thing I want to note is that there’s sort of a progression system in the campaign, which allows you some choices upon beginning the next scenario. First, you can start out with your starting weapons, fully loaded and repaired. The second choice is that you can keep the weapons you found, in their current state of ammunition or disrepair. The third, and most compelling, is that during most scenarios, you can find little backpacks, which can be turned in at the beginning of a scenario, and that allow you to take whatever weapon you want from the deck, which allows you the opportunity to tailor your character to your play style or character’s strengths. I love the idea of finding items in a game like this, and I really like the fact that there’s a huge array of weapons and items to choose from, some of which are unique and interesting, such as a defibrillator which can revive wounded comrades, or on the flipside, heavy machine guns that can burn down a crowd of zombies like they’re butter. It’s one of the high points in the game.

As you can tell, I’m a little bit mixed on this game as far as how I feel about it. All of our reactions have been somewhere between tepid and downright Arctic, at least thus far, but I just can’t see this getting much better over time. It is what it is: a very slick looking game that smacks of too much Euro influence on what should’ve been the coolest zombie-themed game ever made. The soundtrack is awesome, the art is awesome, the rules are easy to understand, the components are awesome, but the game play itself straight up fucking sucks. Maybe I’ll house rule it and add some dice to add tension, because the only tension to be found is in the timing of the zombie growls on the soundtrack. I guess, to sum it up, if there was ever a game that needed some dice and a couple quick, simple mechanics to govern them in order to add some excitement, this is the one.

Why Zombie 15′ Makes George Romero Jealous:
– Absolutely grand components that outshine pretty much every other zombie game, ever
– The artwork is astonishingly good, and appropriate, and it looks phenomenal on the table
– The soundtrack has raised the bar, forever, for all games
– There are some memorable moments to be had, albeit few and far between
– Variable character powers and item exploration FOR THE WIN
– Interesting campaign design that would be awesome in any other game

Why This Is A Soulless, Shambling Pile Of Putridity:
– It’s straight up boring, with almost no excitement
– Declaring something dead, unlike rolling to kill it, is total bullshit

Oh, God, how I wanted this game to be the one; The game to unseat Last Night On Earth as the best zombie-themed game I’ve ever played. It looks the part, for sure, with exceptional art, awesome components, and the soundtrack makes Flying Frogs’ soundtracks look like a tone deaf crackhead singing Celine Dion’s greatest hits at a karaoke bar. And not Whitney Houston, either, just some random, talentless crackhead. Sadly, this game has almost no excitement that isn’t derived directly from the soundtrack, and it plays like an optimization exercise. It literally is a Euro-style gamer’s version of Last Night on Earth, with every move you make an effort to optimize your turn. The nail in this game’s coffin is that you just say, “these zombies are dead”, sliding a token on a card. It’s ridiculous. Don’t buy this game unless you like Euro co-operative games. Maybe you’ll like it, but we sure as fuck haven’t.

2.5/5 Stars

Check this game out here, if this sounds like something you’d be into:

And how I plan to play:
When attacking, roll 1D6 and resolve:
– on a roll of 1, you lose 2 durability/ammo.
– on a roll of 2 or 3, you lose 1 durability/ammo.
– on a roll of 4, you kill all the zombies that are allowed by the weapon but lose one ammo/durability.
– on a roll of 5 or 6, you kill all the zombies that are allowed by the weapon.

Yes, I just made that shit up. I’m going to try it out, because I can’t like it much less than now.

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