Monday, 28 April 2014

Zombies Keep Out, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

In our last article we headed back to the much-beloved world of zombies, taking a look at the box contents for Privateer Press' new release, Zombies Keep Out - a co-operative game for 1-6 players.  Now it's time to have a good look at the gameplay mechanics, and reward it with its coveted* Games & Tea final score (*Games & Tea final score may not actually be coveted).
In Zombies Keep Out, players take on the roles of the Bodgers - a team of tinkering goblins who find their workshop under siege from an approaching zombie horde.  The players must work together to fend off the zombie horde and cobble together 3 contraptions to stop them, before the zombies overrun the barricades and swarm through the workshop!
The zombies' shambling routes are arranged into nice neat columns (whoever said zombies are messy?), with the zombie pool at the bottom of the board and the workshop along the top.  To begin the game, the bottom two rows are filled with zombies, with one in each space.  There are four different types of zombies - Creepers, Leapers, Brutes and Runners - each of which are colour-coordinated with a certain area of the workshop.  The initial setup zombies are placed to match up with their corresponding locations, so the cellar (far-left) is faced with yellow Creepers, the front doors (centre) with a pair of red Brutes etc.  With the zombies places, the initial barricade tokens are placed on each workshop location, giving the Bodgers' stronghold a decent headstart over the horde.  Then a face-down contraption card is placed next to each workshop location, initial part cards are dealt out to the players, and then you're ready to go!  This is a nice, short setup sequence, meaning that players won't be left waiting for mountains of game components to be sorted and shuffled.
The player most prepared for a real-life zombie outbreak goes first - which in a crowd of zombie fans can lead to some arguing before the game even begins!  Once the argument has been settled (trial by combat is a favoured way of resolving things), the game can finally begin as the zombies get underway!
The first phase of each player's turn is dedicated to the zombies, as the active player draws a Terrible Things card off the top of the deck.  The Terrible Things cards throw new ever-changing challenges the players' way, ranging from minor annoyances to flat out disasters!  Terrible Things include adding to the number of active zombies on the board (as in the example above), moving zombies, backtracking on an in-progress blueprint, discarding all-important parts cards, or getting bitten (which is one of our favourite mechanics, and will be mentioned in more detail later!).
Each Terrible Things card contains three options, and the player must choose one of these actions to go ahead with.  Once the action is chosen, the player discards the card face-down and carries it out.  The rejected options are never revealed to the other players, which is a nice minor rule to keep players from second-guessing eachother.  The chosen action must be possible however, so a player wouldn't be able to choose a "All zombies in the rear row shamble forward" option if there were no zombies in the rear row.  In the event of none of the options being possible, then all zombies on the board advance!
Whilst there are four different zombie types, Privateer Press have kept things simple in terms of movement, and each zombie only moves one space when prompted.  The zombies always follow the path of the appropriately-coloured arrow, so the grey Runners always shamble straight forward, whilst the Creepers, Leapers and Brutes do their utmost to head towards the matching area of the workshop.  Now moving one space at a time may seem quite harmless and manageable, but once the zombie numbers begin to rise, chaos can ensue!
Each space can only contain a maximum of 3 zombies, so if there are ever any more than that, the active player must shamble some of them further on until only 3 remain.  Of course, this can have a knock-on effect of causing further spaces to exceed their zombie limit, and further shambling is called for!  In worst case scenarios, a simple shamble can cause a butterfly effect which brings the whole workshop crashing down!
"Avon calling..."
If a zombie needs to shamble whilst in the final space of a column, they deal damage to the barricade and are returned to the zombie pool, and this is where strategic zombie-placement comes into effect.  The grey Runners only ever deal 1 point of damage to their target, but if any of the other zombie types ever hit a section of the workshop which matches their colour, it deals 2 damage instead.  If an area of the workshop ever loses its final barricade token, it's considered to be overrun, and the contraption behind it is removed from play, and any further damage which would be dealt to that section is instead dealt to the next section across in the direction of the central doors.  If the doors are ever breached, or three of the contraptions are destroyed, the zombies have overwhelmed the workshop and the players lose.
Once the Terrible Things card has been resolved, the player then takes their action for the turn.
We'd just like to pause at this point to make a small note about the turn sequence.  We think it's a bloomin' good sequence!  Most zombie games involve the player taking their turn first, and then the zombies activating afterwards.  By reversing the process in Zombies Keep Out, players are given the chance the react to the unfolding events, rather than being left on the sidelines for a round until the turn passes back to themselves.  It may only seem like a little thing, but it makes a lot of difference to the way the game feels.
Anyway, moving swiftly on to the players' actions.  During each turn the player may only take one action out of five possible choices.  Three of those options revolve around the part cards, so this seems as good a time as any to take a closer look at them.
There are three sections to each parts card, relating to the three possible actions for which they can be discarded in exchange.  To use the card to Defend, the player selects one space on the board and can remove a zombie of the specified colour, returning it to the pool.  The card above is a versatile one, allowing the player to kill any of the zombie types.  Some are more limited in their zombie-killing options, whereas others may restrict players to one zombie type, but allow them to kill two of that zombie instead.
To carry out a Repair action, the player can add a number of barricade tokens equal to the number shown to any location in the workshop, as long as they don't exceed the starting number of barricades.
To Tinker, the symbol on the parts card must match the next symbol along on the blueprint track of any contraption card.  If it matches, the progress counter can be moved one space along the track.
Once the progress counter reaches the final space on the blueprint track, the contraption is complete, and it can be put to use on subsequent player turns.  The one and only win condition for the game is to complete three of these contraptions, so good hand-management is key to victory.
Which brings us to Push The Button actions.  When a contraption is complete, a player can take a Push The Button action to activate the contraption during their turn.  Contraptions have a range of effects, from allowing players to draw extra cards, to allowing them to destroy zombies without having to discard.  Completing a contraption at the right time can turn the tide of battle!
And then the final action is simply to Scrounge, which allows players to draw two extra parts cards.
In addition to their action, players may also trade cards with eachother, ensuring that the correct parts come up when needed.
Once the player has taken their chosen action, play moves onto the next player, and another Terrible Things card starts the ball rolling again.
So that just leaves biting!  The bite rules were one of our favourite things about Zombies Keep Out, so we'll go into them in a little more depth here.  The only way players can get bitten is as the result of a Terrible Things card, and upon getting bitten they receive a bite token.  If at any point every player has at least 2 bite tokens, the game is over and the zombies have won (but seeing as the players are turning into zombies anyway, it's a win-win situation really).  The number of bite tokens a player has reduces their action options, but the rules about behaviour are the most fun!
After one bite, players can no longer trade cards, and must slur their speech for the rest of the game.
After two bites, they can no longer tinker either (picture a mindless player who can only bash things and nail up planks of wood!), and their speech must become barely intelligible.
After three bites, they can no longer use speech at all, and can only communicate through grunts and hand-gestures (imagine the fun of trying to teach the game to new players at this point!).  Also the player has to choose their Terrible Things option before even looking at the card, by grunting and holding up the appropriate number of fingers before drawing it.
And after four (or more) bites, the player has fully turned into a zombie!  They can only communicate through zombie noises, and instead of taking an action in the second phase of the turn, they draw a second Terrible Things card instead!
And that's the basics of Zombies Keep Out.  It's not the most complicated game by any means, but is a nice casual take on the zombie board game genre.  The quick setup time and small board mean that it's an easy game to get out, play through, and put away again, making it a nice way to break up a long gaming session.  It's also quick to learn, and within a few minutes of our first session everyone confidently knew what they were doing.  Being a casual game, it does create a very good atmosphere with like-minded friends, but this is where the issues with Zombies Keep Out start to arise.
It's a good social game, and the bite rules are fun for those who have been bitten and entertaining for those who are watching, but the flipside of this is that the overall experience begins to diminish as player numbers decrease.  When you're only playing with 2 players, for example, and one player gets bitten, it becomes less fun for the healthy player as they no longer have a coherent teammate to communicate with.
The solo game suffers from the same setback, as you're left trying to play a social game without the social element.  There are many cooperative games on the market which can be played solo - some, such as Firefly, work incredibly well, and some, such as Arkham Horror, are a masterclass in futility as the game mechanics fail to translate to a single player.  In both of these cases however, you're still left feeling immeresed in the game, whether scraping together a living as a planet-hopping transport captain, or struggling against an unstoppable tide of eldritch horrors.  With a solo game of Zombies Keep Out, you aren't left feeling like you're boldly taking on the army of the undead single-handedly, but instead feel more like you're playing a game of solitare - simply hoping you draw the right cards from the parts deck for the blueprints in front of you.

Solo will not be needed for this game...

And finally we should touch on the replayability, of which there isn't a great deal.  It's certainly a fun little casual game, but there isn't much going on to make one playthrough different to another.  Sure, you don't know what the next Terrible Things card might yield, but when they all serve roughly the same purpose - and the entire deck is cycled through once per game anyway - repetitition creeps in fairly quickly.
So is this the zombie game we've been dreaming of to keep our undead fandom satisfied?  Alas, no.  But at the very least it's a nice little casual game which will tide us over until the next contender steps into the ring.
The Good Points
  • Zombies Keep Out is quick to set up and easy to learn.
  • Up to 6 people can play at once, so it can accomodate a decent-sized gaming group.
  • The bite rules lift the game up a notch, so as long as the group is willing to play along it creates a very fun atmosphere.
  • The box and board are relatively small, making it an easy game to transport and play.
The Bad Points
  • There's not a great deal to mix things up between playthroughs, and replayabilty suffers as a result.
  • Being a social game, a lot of the atmosphere is lost with fewer player numbers, and solo mode verges on becoming a drag.
  • Some variety in the zombie miniatures would have been nice.

Recommended Number of Players: 4+
Zombies Keep Out is a textbook "the more, the merrier" game.  The atmosphere doesn't hold up well with 2 players, and whilst 3 is a step in the right direction it's still not great.  6 players works very well, but anything above/including 4 should make for a decent session.
Average Game Time: 45 minutes (30 minutues solo)
For a casual game, Zombies Keep Out has quite a decent play time.  At 45 minutes, you're unlikely to be playing it more than once in a single gaming session, which is actually a good thing as it extends the game's otherwise meagre lifespan
Replay Value: Low
Whilst it's fun laughing at the grunts and frustrated hand gestures of your infected teammates, this isn't enough to hold up Zombies Keep Out by itself.  It's a nice little game for the first couple of playthroughs, but following on from that it becomes stale and repetitive, with nothing really to keep it refreshed.
The Future: Shambling
Zombies Keep Out is a new release, so the future is quite open at the moment.  The first expansion is already on the horizon in the form of Night of the Noxious Dead, but to be honest it doesn't look like it'll be enough to breath life into the core game.  The expansion features a new zombie type, new contraptions, new Terrible Things and new parts, but on the whole it looks like it's going to be more of the same, which isn't going to help an already samey game.
Price: £25
Zombies Keep Out will set you back around the £25 mark.  This is a decent price for a board game, but has to be weighed up against how much replayability you'll be getting out of it.  Being a new release from a big name in the miniatures world, it should be fairly easy to track down at your local gaming store if you fancy taking a chance on it.
Tea consumed during this review: Typhoo, milk and 2 sweeteners. Brew rating: 7.5/10

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