Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Brains for dinner



A battle of survival between two gangs of desperate survivors foraging for food, supplies and weapons whilst fending off bloodthirsty zombie hoards. So, another evening up at the Falkirk club then. Luckily, we were all playing the survivors, otherwise it would’ve been difficult to tell! Zombies seem to have infested my gaming schedule recently. The cause of this miniature outbreak is still unknown.

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What, with All Things Zombie earlier this month and this week a chance to participate in a demo of the recently released The Walking Dead: All Out War, the Zombie Survival Guide paperback in the porcelain reading room is becoming well thumbed. So to speak. One of the gents at the club, David Muir, kindly arranged a demo and soon had quite a bit of interest. So much so that he had a 6’x4’ table set up with some extras provided by the motley gang of seven survivors. DM, um, GM’d as most of us hadn’t played before.

I must admit, I was quite looking forward to playing a zombie game based on The Walking Dead comic book series, created and written by Robert Kirkman. Although I haven’t read the original comic books, I’m a big of a fan of the TV show. I didn’t think it would have been my kinda’ thing initially and I came late to it only after Amazon started putting the series on its Prime service. Which for me meant a box-set binge after being hooked after the first episode - that horse and tank scene!  I’m currently up to the usual cliff-hanger at the end of season six, so no spoilers please! 

I think what has kept me watching is its consistency and solid direction that has kept the core survival element in focus throughout. Life just gets relentlessly tougher as the disparate survivors have to fight for increasingly scarce resources. We can watch as the experiences and cruel necessities of survival gradually mould the characters from vulnerable, floundering refugees into ruthless veterans that see the world in stark contrast. It asks questions about how easily the structure and values of a contemporary society can easily and quickly fall away. 

There’s little episode padding given the series length and I think the writers have done an excellent job keeping the suspense going. I’ve no idea how this compares to the comic book series. Comic books have never grabbed me, even back in the black n’ white days when I was a kid. The only regular comic I remember being interested in was 2000AD, mostly because my dad used to pick it up with the papers. Or maybe fetching the papers was just his cover.

So what about The Walking Dead: All Out War game then? Ok, Ok I’ll get on with it. First off, I have to say that I do not own this game. Yet. So, this is only quick overview from David’s demo this week. If I decide to invest (!) then I’ll do a full review, but hopefully you’ll at least get a flavour of what to expect from this game. 

We played The Walking Dead Kickstarter edition, produced by Mantic. The core set retails around £35 and comes with a whole load of stuff to get you quickly up and running, from a custom mat, plastic miniatures, dice, tokens, cards and even barricades and wrecked cars to populate the scene.

 If you want the complete list, just head over to the Mantic TWD page for the details. There are even free downloadable Quick Start rules.

The core concept is that you can play one or more of the characters from the original comic book series that make up various survivor factions. So, for example, you could play as part of Rick's group or even the man himself. This means that it not just a liner coop game, but a competitive team game where the members of each faction have to compete for resources against the other factions and herds of Walkers. We don’t use the ‘Z’ word in this universe.

Which is pretty much how we played. As there were seven of us we had two teams, one of three the other of four. I was on the team of three players. No particular reason. Maybe because there were less chairs on that side of the table at the start! Our host let us randomly choose a character (one of my teammates got to choose two to even the sides up a bit) and I got the heartless mercenary with the terrifying moniker – Derek

Character card: Derek, the heartless mercenary
For this demo game, the objective was simply a race for each team to gather the most resources (loot) before the Threat Level reached a certain point. The game is broken into 4 phases – Action, Event, Melee and End - with play alternating between opposing characters. 

In the Action phase, each character gets two different actions, which could be move, search or shoot for example. If moving they can sneak up to 4” or run up to 8” (in the QS rules anyway, it may have been revised) which generates noise. Which means any Walkers within 10” will move 6” towards the cause of the noise.

For Derek’s initial Actions I had him running for a couple of turns towards a big barrel dump as there weren’t any Walkers close by. Derek also had the Merciless trait which meant he execute one friendly model within the Kill Zone if it suited. Which explains why the others kept him at arms length. What? Did they think I'd actually use that ability?

Once Derek did get in range it was time for the merc to warm up his Smith and Wesson 9mm. I knew this particular weapon would cause Mayhem (noise) and as a result increase the overall Threat Tracker, but I couldn’t resist blowing away one of the Walkers. It had to be done. Derek’s profile card tells me how many dice (custom red and white symbol die) I can roll for his shooting action and any additional bonuses for his weapon. This is rolled against the Walkers single die. The scores are compared with the loser taking damage. If Walkers take damage, they’re knocked prone unless a head shot symbol is rolled which will take them out completely. 

Prone Walkers may get to rise again later in the turn End Phase though, which can be a real problem! Melee has a similar mechanic although additional Walkers may be drawn into a fight via use of a Kill Zone template. Melee also increases the Threat Level and the Walkers get to attack back of course. It can get pretty brutal. 

The Event phase is where Kill Zones are checked and also where an Event card is drawn. This affects the movement of the Walkers and is also where the Threat Tracker will come into play – the cards will have different effects on the game and its characters, depending on the current level of Threat.

Next the Melee phase is resolved, assuming there are any characters crazy enough to be eyeballing a Walker up close. Finally, the End Phase where any prone Walkers are rolled to see if they get back up and where the scenario objectives are checked. 

This is obviously only a brief outline of the basic game phases, with various sub-rules for attack, defence, push backs, wounds, initiative etc. But I soon learnt that this is another example of a game where the mechanics hit the sweet spot of not getting in the way of the action. All these phases were run through easily and quickly, even with seven novice players sitting round the table. 

Little individual stories were soon developing across the board. One survivor from the opposing faction suddenly found himself standing next to some large propane tanks that were set to blow on a dice roll - an opportunity provided to our team (I have to own up to that one!) drawn from an Event card!  Another survivor was doing an Indiana Jones, running for his life with a whole herd of Walkers fast on his heels. Other survivors were cooperating to draw Walkers away whilst their comrades searched for loot (and Victory Points). 

Derek found himself a handy hockey stick whilst rooting in one of the barrels. In fact, he would’ve been happy rummaging amongst the rest if it wasn’t for the fact that some Walkers he’d put down earlier in the game decided to get up and take an interest.

Overall the game was great fun and the post-game comments on the club forum were very positive and I put myself down for another go when its run again. Thanks for hosting, David! It certainly had the thematic feel of the series, with the factions competing against each other. No one wanted to be the first to take out another faction’s survivor directly in our game, although that didn’t stop them getting the Walkers to do their dirty work for them! 

There are boosters available– more character miniatures, Event cards etc. and the rules can be played solo. It has the feel of a miniatures game and has definite replayability, allowing for custom scenarios and factions. I must say, I’m pretty tempted and I’ve added it to my probable purchase list. 

As mentioned at the start, the zombie/Walker thing has somehow infected my gaming radar this month and so, in keeping with the theme, a game of Zombicide (I own that one!) is pencilled in for a resurrection this week. Especially as a certain gaming gent from Pate Manor down the hill (who was on my team for this demo) hasn’t tried that particular flavour of zombie yet. But for now, I’ll shuffle off. Its brains for dinner…