It has been said that the monsters that we obsess over can say a lot about our subconscious fears. Vampire stories are evidence of the sexual repression of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Frankenstein’s monster is a commentary about the dangers of practicing science without morality. Werewolves demonstrate the narrow line between genteel society and violent anarchy. The list of examples can go on forever, but ends somewhere around the point where The Stuff represents our obsession with self-image and the dangers of addiction.
Our obsessions with these particular monsters seems to run in cycles, but there is one monster that seems to have remained in the spotlight of popular culture since it was first introduced: the zombie. While it may be true that White Zombie is the first film to feature zombies as a central narrative component, this isn’t the kind of zombie I’m writing about. That zombie, which was also the focus of The Serpent and the Rainbow, is a manifestation of different fears than the one that we see in the modern walking dead. The modern zombie has its origins in Night of the Living Dead. I’ll skip the discussion of just what subconscious fear these new zombies represent, partly because they represent everything from consumerism to internet addiction, but I will say that we see these zombies everywhere.
They are on television in series like The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, iZombie, and Z-Nation. They are all over film. They’ve invaded literary classics with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Thanks to Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, even Galactus has been the victim of flesh eating zombies. What’s even more amazing is how many zombie themed tabletop board games there are. Heck, the board game company Twilight Creations has no fewer than five such games. Last year, when I wrote about horror games that were worth playing on Halloween, I hadn’t imagined that I could create a list devoted purely to zombies. Turns out I can, but that wasn’t before playing a couple of games that were so bad that it felt like they were eating my brains. Here are 10 games where you can experience zombie terror without losing your mind.
10) Dawn of the Zeds
Victory Point Games is one of the most interesting stories of the hobby gaming industry. A small independent board game publisher that has moved from being a desktop publisher to being a small-scale boutique publisher, they also make it their mission to turn game players into game designers. The company started as an offshoot of designer Alan Emrich’s course on Game Design, and many of its initial publications were designed by him and his students, but since those days, the pool of talented designers has come to include people who were merely once consumers. If you live in Southern California, do yourself a favor and head over to the Victory Point Games office some time. They’ll give you a quick walkthrough of their facilities, and probably sucker you into play-testing one of their upcoming games.
Hermann Luttmann’s Dawn of the Zeds is one of Victory Point Games most successful titles and is currently in its third edition. It is the ninth game published in the VPG’s States of Siege series of solitaire games, games that are designed to simulate situations that are ideal for solitaire play because they present scenarios challenging enough that they have a high replay value. The entire series uses a variation of the mechanics designed by Darin A. Leviloff and topics have ranged from the Russian Civil War to zombie apocalyses…or are those the same thing? States of Siege games can be remarkably challenging with game sessions often ending in defeat, and Dawn of the Zeds is no exception. The latest edition was designed to go beyond solitaire play and includes a multiplayer cooperative option.
Can you save the citizens of Farmingdale, or will everyone become brain eating victims of “Zombie Epidemic Disease?” If you are as lucky and as skilled as I am, you’ll have the good folks of Farmingdale moaning “brains” in no time.
9) Dawn of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead has been out of print longer than most Robot’s Voice readers have been alive, and tracking down a copy might cost you a healthy heaping of brain stew because copies of the game can range in price from $50 to $150 depending on whether it’s a “playing” copy or a collector’s copy. But who minds forking out enough money to buy Lego Dimensions and a couple expansions, when you can get a game with exciting and compelling game components like those pictured below? Aren’t they sweet? No? Well, if the price seems too expensive, I hear tell that there might be a print and play version of the game somewhere in the Internet-o-web-o-sphere that’s just perfect for a gamer on a budget.
Published by Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) in 1978, Dawn of the Dead has the dual distinctions of being the first zombie themed hobby board game and the first licensed zombie-themed board game. It predates Yaquinto Games’ post-apocalyptic pseudo-zombie game Attack of the Mutants by three years. Dawn of the Dead was a slight departure for SPI, in that the company specialized in war games with rules that read like econometric theorems and like those other games, the rules of Dawn of the Dead can be a bit dry. Having said that, they are also pretty easy to understand once you start to actually play them and with this game, SPI pretty much created the template that is used by almost every zombie board game since. In these games, one player plays the zombie hordes which have strict limitations with regard to movement and tactics, and the other players play survivors who have to accomplish some menial task in order to win the game. In this case, the goal is to make a shopping mall safe enough for the survivors to use as a refuge. You need to make sure that your heroes can spend their time shopping and listening to Olivia Newton John and not worry about getting their brains devoured. Come to think of it, this is pretty much the plot of the film, without the wandering motorcycle gang to mess up your shopping mall paradise.
It can be played in about 90 minutes and, if you happen to own a bag of zombie miniatures from Twilight Creations, you can improve the look of the game significantly. I will never understand the wargamer’s tolerance for little pieces of cardboard as a substitute for cool looking plastic, which I say as someone who loves to play a lot of games that substitute little cardboard squares for minis. The paper components would make more sense if the games cost less than their high toy factor competitors, but this isn’t the case, as any quick glance through a GMT catalog quickly confirms.
There are many ways to measure the cult status of a genre film or television show. You might look to see how many people line up to “watch” midnight screenings of a film, even if they will spend most of that midnight screening making “ironic” jibes at the screenplay, ignoring things that are actually interesting about the film, and making life a living hell for the movie theater’s ushers. You might look to see if a show has enough of a fan base that years after it has been cancelled, it suddenly finds itself getting a big-screen production directed by an Academy Award winning film maker. Those would be examples of genre properties that had wide reaching cultural appeals. Sometimes a genre property doesn’t have widespread appeal, but has fostered a deep attachment in its fan base. Fans of that kind of property might seek out a license to produce a role-playing game based on the property over a decade after it has faded from most public memory. The Army of Darkness role playing game is an example of this level of appeal.
I’ll be among the first to say that Sam Raimi’s film Army of Darkness is one of the best horror comedies ever produced. It’s on my short list of favorite films. I find it baffling that the film only earned $11 million dollars in domestic box office. What is wrong with you people? This movie is genius! Genius, I tell you. Wait, you say that there is a new cable series based on the movie? Whew! Rant averted.
Now that I don’t have to spend the next 5,000 words professing how amazing Army of Darkness is, let me share with you a fun game that you can play as you get ready to watch Ash vs. The Evil Dead. In the early 2000s, Eden Studios published a line of licensed horror action themed games, a line that included role-playing games based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel in addition to Army of Darkness. These games featured Eden Studio’s in house “Unisystem” mechanics, but of the licensed products, Army of Darkness is my favorite of the bunch due to the combination of horror, comedy, and over the top action which make for a perfect combination for the average role-playing game session. I know that the “deadites” aren’t exactly walking dead zombies, but they are close enough for S-Mart and that makes them close enough to make this list.
7) Smash Up
As I’ve written before, we are in a golden age of tabletop gaming. There are more excellent board and role-playing games on the market than you could play in a lifetime. Well, if you won the lottery you might come close to being able to play all the games worth playing, but you’d still fail. I’m already at the point in my game collecting and playing life where I own more games than I can play. This means that there are very few games other than Dungeon and Dragons or Savage Worlds that I will play more than once, and Alderac Entertainment Group’s excellent card game Smash Up is one of those games. It is a fast-playing and easy to learn card game where players mix and match armies populated by geek culture obsessions, such as space aliens, pirates, ninjas, dinosaurs, and steampunk armies. Oh, right, and there is a zombie army.
What’s great about Smash Up is that it makes a great gateway game for your friends who might be interested in learning more about the tabletop hobby, but who are intimidated by the potential of reading an SPI rules set. Hidden among the cartoony illustrations of pirates and ninjas and zombies (oh, my!) is a tactical area control game with a good deal of complexity that is shared by many games that look more complex. Besides, who doesn’t want to experience a battle between Steampunk Dinosaurs and Ninja Zombies?
All Things Zombie started its gaming life as a set of skirmish rules for use with metal miniatures and won an Origins Award in 2006. That version of the game is fun, but as a miniatures game has limited appeal to non-hobby gamers who often don’t have the money to spend on mountains of metal miniatures and who lack the thousands of hours required to paint armies of figures. The Lock N Load publishing skirmish war game version of All Things Zombie, now in its Second Edition, takes a giant step toward creating that holy grail of hobby games, the gateway wargame; a game that combines the complexity of a wargame with everyday appeal. Because it uses the same hexagon maps that players of other LNL games, and Avalon Hill classics like Advanced Squad Leader, hard core wargamers will find comforting and familiar.
It also has a graphic design and “stat line” that places it firmly within the camp of the traditional “cardboard chit” war game market, which can alienate novice gamers. So in order to give itself a chance with the neophyte, All Things Zombies has an easy-to-learn rules set, a high-concept theme, and a nice comic-book aesthetic. That, and the fact that it isn’t about the Battle of the Bulge or the Siege of Stalingrad, give it a chance to get past the initial intimidation that someone new to board wargaming might be feeling. (One could spend a lifetime playing games about the Battle of the Bulge or the Siege of Stalingrad and not have enough time to play them all, but unlike gaming in general, there are only a handful of Battle of the Bulge simulations that are worth your time.)
All Things Zombie is suitable for group play and for solitaire play, and forces players to make some interesting tactical choices, choices that simulate the walking dead genre perfectly. Is your character packed and loaded with the latest in firearms? Great! You’ll be able to blow the heads off of a good number of zombies, but when you fire your weapons you are likely to attract more zombies and you may soon become overwhelmed by the hordes of brain eaters. The growing tension as more zombies fill the game board makes for a compelling and fun game, and for those who get bitten by the wargame virus, LNL publishing has a number of other war games that should prove quite accessible to novice gamers who are now familiar with the All Things Zombies system.