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Reviews - Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead
 
by Lee Valentine


Zombie State boxZombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead
Published by Zombie State Games (2010)
Designed by John Werner
Contents: 1 game board, 30 pawns, 60 six-side dice, 5 oversized player reference boards, 30 plastic tanks, 25 plastic border outposts, a 12-sided die, 142 game cards, 250 markers and tokens
2-5 players
2-3 hours
$49.95 ($59.95 shipped)

 

John Werner has released his first major game, Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead ("ZS"), from his own company, Zombie State Games. If Risk and Pandemic had a love child that grew up reading World War Z and watching Romero films, it would be ZS. Players are in charge of world governments. A zombie plague has been released on the world. Can your people survive even while your neighbors perish? ZS has the traditional theme and conflict associated with American-style games, but its limited use of dice rolling during combat gives it a bit of a Eurogame vibe. If Risk is an area control game, ZS is an "area stop loss" game.

Gameplay
In this competitive game, each player is in control of the game equivalent of a continent (or more) of area called your "territory". Each territory is divided into smaller regions, much in the same way that a Risk board is. Each of your regions starts with a die representing the current population within the region. Then the zombies arrive. At the start of the game, each player only gets two zombie outbreaks of one token each, which represent the mere beginnings of an out-of-control zombie plague.

The basic turn is divided into two parts: the zombie actions, and the player actions. Zombies are not operated by a player, but instead are operated independently by the game's mechanics. Zombies feed, move, and then fight military units. To feed, a zombie eats a point of population in its current region and then spawns another zombie token. The only thing stopping the zombies from growing exponentially is that there just aren't enough victims to feed on. When zombies run out of victims in their current regions, those that didn't just feed move to neighboring regions with high population scores. Finally, after feeding and moving, zombies who end up in the same region as military units fight them.

Combat between zombies and the military is very simple and results in heavy casualties for both sides. Small plastic tanks represent military units. Each zombie typically destroys one tank, and vice versa. Military units have a variety of ways to upgrade themselves to be more effective than trading on a one-for-one basis, but life is always rough for the humans, even the ones in tanks.

The human actions portion of each turn is propelled by a two-prong resource management system. Each region you control gives a leader a point of "Popularity" which can translate approximately on a two regions-to-one popularity basis into Freedom Points (read "action points"). The second prong is a natural resource management mechanic. Six regions in your territory start with a printed "Resource" icon on them. There are four groups of resources in the game: chemical; food and population; fuel; and iron and wood. While your territory's regions with Resources still have living human population there, the regions produce Resources of the appropriate types, tracked with Resource cards. These Resource cards are traded in as specialized currency in the game for everything from developing and using technology, to creating and moving military units. Almost every action takes one Freedom Point and one or more Resource cards to activate. As zombies reduce your population in a region to zero, your Popularity decreases, and your Freedom Points and future resource production may fall as well. This can produce a vicious death spiral in the game if you lose too many of your territories to the zombies.

During the human actions portion of each turn, players spend Freedom Points to take actions where they, in turn, spend some of their resources to do things, like construct and maneuver military units, or else develop and use medical, military, or advanced scientific technologies to fight off the zombies. There are many technologies to choose to develop, and they directly affect your personal play experience each game.

Use of the technologies leads directly into the two primary paths of victory: keeping as much of your population alive as possible and eradicating the zombies in your territory. These can be mutually exclusive play options. Sometimes you'll just wall off sections of your population with zombie hordes right outside the gates. Other times you'll rain down nuclear fire on your own people (or neighboring players' populations) to try to purge the zombie plague from your land. If your territory is zombie free for an entire turn, you win. Alternately, when a player has his population devoured utterly by zombies or after 14 turns have passed, the player with the highest remaining population total wins the game.

Not all player positions are identical, particularly in five-player play. For example, Europe has a lot more points of ingress and egress for zombies than does South America. Wall off a few points of entry and South America won't get zombies coming in from neighboring countries, but neither will they readily leave your territory to feed on your neighbors instead of you. Also, while all players start the game producing the same number of resources as everyone else, each territory's resource mix is a little different than its neighbors', which can impact which technologies you develop and which strategies you pursue.

There are only a few ways of engaging in direct player-versus-player interaction, and most (nukes aside) are subtle, like setting up bait to make zombies invade a neighboring territory instead of remaining in yours. While the game is often a form of multi-player solitaire, you remain intently interested in what's happening in your neighbors' countries, because when the zombies are done eating them they may turn on you next. The "Diplomacy of the Dead" part of the title is somewhat misleading. The game is not primarily one of negotiation, particularly since you can't invade each other's regions. There are some possibilities for interaction in multi-player play if you develop the right technologies (particularly nukes, which can be dropped on neighboring regions), but I don't consider negotiation a core game mechanic, at least in games with smaller numbers of players. In multi-player play negotiation will be primarily limited to propping up the guy who is about to succumb to the zombies, because he will trigger the game end when he does. Obviously, there is almost no diplomacy to speak of in two-player play: if I win then you lose. Perhaps "Diplomacy of the Dead" was an in-joke, because the dead in this game don't negotiate, they just turn your population into zombie chow. This does not detract from my enjoyment of the game, but it may set up false assumptions about the product among consumers.

The game runs around two to three hours, but could run longer or shorter depending on the level of analysis paralysis your play group suffers from. Luck is introduced from a few factors: periodic zombie outbreaks are random; there is a series of random events from cards; and you have to roll a die to determine whether you develop a particular technology you are pursuing. However, much of the game is non-random and potentially calculable, occasionally leaving players thinking hard about their board positions to try to isolate zombies or control their movements - that's where the analysis paralysis can creep in. Short of a nuclear holocaust on your own soil, outright destruction of the zombie masses is often out of the question, so the game is particularly bleak, start to finish, regardless of the strategies you choose to employ.

Components & Packaging
Zombie State ships with a variety of sturdy components. There is a large, mounted and wrapped game board. There are large chipboard-mounted player reference boards, easily as thick as some game boards from other games. There are tons of dice, as well as plastic pawns, border outposts, and tanks. The nice, thick, chipboard tokens that are part of the game are fully pre-punched, which was a pleasant surprise. My only complaint in terms of the physical quality of the components comes from the event and resource cards, which are somewhat thin, but still usable.

The packaging is great. While I wish it shipped with a few more gripseal bags, the game comes with a few of them. There is a packaging insert that separates the cards and the various components into nice wells, making it pretty easy to setup, store, and carry the game.

The 16-page rulebook is full-color and printed on glossy paper. While some of the event cards and technologies occasionally leave a gray area, almost every question that I asked of the designer I had already correctly divined the answer to, leading me to believe that the rulebook was generally quite clear. The rules contain lots of pictures and examples, making the game easy to learn. Zombie State Games even did web-based video tutorials of some of the more commonly invoked game rules (see the web links below), so I think players will be up-and-running in no time.

If there is one thing that is occasionally lacking about ZS, it is the game's appearance. The zombie art on the tokens is acceptable, but the graphic design and art on some the components (particularly the "Starting Player" card) is pretty mediocre. The card and reference sheet layout is quite readable but somewhat bland. The game board itself, a map of the world, is reasonably attractive and very functional, but even that is somewhat pixelated on the edges of the continents. The plastic components look pretty good overall. Still, the game is designed for functionality over appearance, rating high for functionality and lower for appearance (aside from the game board, which is good all around).

The game's art is of greatest concern with regards to the packaging. The front of the game box nominally features a lone zombie approaching military units with an urban wasteland in the background. With a loose belt and a half-opened shirt, the "zombie" image could have easily been a drunken vagrant for all that I would have known had the word "zombie" not been part of the game's title. Perhaps an army of half-rotten walking corpses challenging military units would have been more relevant imagery. While the back of the box is serviceable, it is not very ornate either.

Conclusions
Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead is a unique play experience. It has the ticking time bomb elements of Pandemic, combined with the more strategic decisions of a traditional area control game. While it lacks the ability to conquer your neighbors' territories that is so enjoyable in Small World or Risk, fighting the zombies on your own soil will keep your hands more than full. I really enjoy the challenging decision making involved in ZS. You definitely have to develop a long-term strategy early on, while managing a variety of short-term tactical puzzles. The game seems fairly well balanced, although the technology choices aren't as deep as they seem at first glance, because depending on the number of players, some technologies are immediately going to be better or worse than they are in plays with more or fewer players. If the game played in about 2/3 of its current time and had a bit more player interaction, I would have given it an A for gameplay. As it is, it is still worthy of a B+.

Even with its flaws, ZS is a strong, interesting game. It is fundamentally different than just about every other zombie game on the market that I've played. It's probably a "must have" for most serious zombophile board gamers. From the flavor text on the Event cards, to the technologies, to the strategies used in the game, ZS really captures the feel of a worldwide zombie invasion. If you value play experience over game appearance, and if you don't mind a strategic-level game where you are operating a government instead of keeping individual survivors alive, this could be the game for you. If you think that the only zombie games worth playing are those involving individual heroes armed with shotguns and machetes, then this will not be your particular cup of gore.

For Retailers
At this time I am not certain that ZS is available through regular distribution channels. This game is available direct to consumers via the publisher's website. Zombie State Games offers retailers individual copies of the game for $35 shipped, which is effectively free shipping and about a 30% discount off of the MSRP of $49.95. The discount rises to around 40% if you order six copies or more of ZS.

The game is getting a lot of online hype, and will probably sell well at conventions and via direct sales. The box art could detract from the sales potential of the game in stores to gamers who haven't heard about the gameplay, because the box art isn't reflective of the overall high quality of the game. When I have played ZS in a game store, I saw the game takes up a lot of space and attracts gamers over immediately to see what's going on. This is the kind of game that you will definitely need to actively demo or talk up if you intend to carry more than a copy or two in stock at any one time.

Max Brooks' novel World War Z is the clear tie in to sell this game. If you also sell SF books, then perhaps a display of World War Z books with a sign that says "if you like World War Z then you'll love Zombie State" might make the sales job easier. It looks like World War Z is making its way to the big screen. I think that Zombie State Games missed the boat by not spending a bit more money on packaging art and trying to secure licensing rights for World War Z. This game could have been a runaway sales hit for them with that kind of marketing edge. As it is, it's still got the popular gamer appeal of zombies attached to a solid game to help sell it.

Lee's Ratings:

Overall: B+
Gameplay: B+
Rules Clarity: A-
Packaging: A-
Components: A (for most components); B (for game cards)
Appearance: B (for the game overall); C+ (for box appearance)
Retailer Salability: C+ (with World War Z store tie-in or demos this could rise substantially higher)

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