Zombie Fifteen Apostrophe
Real-time games hold a special place in my heart, mostly because many of my best gaming memories revolve around the absolutely bonkers Space Alert. My family played through the campaign mode from the expansion, and even bought my dad a captain’s shirt one Christmas. “Listen up,” he’d say at the beginning of each run. “Emilie, you’re taking care of energy? Son, you’re going right? Somerset, left? Who’s going to jiggle the computer mouse? Remember to say if you need cards.” Then we’d press play on the CD player and proceed to panic like a chicken with its head, legs, and wings chopped off and rearranged at random.
Suffice it to say, Zombie 15′, which pits a pack of fifteen-year-old kids against a zombie horde, with only fifteen minutes to escape each of its fifteen scenarios, sounded exactly like my sort of thing.
GENUINE REAL-LIFE TRANSCRIPT FROM A GAME OF ZOMBIE 15′
Bertram: I’m going to search.
Bertram: Dang it, nothing but zombies. Hm. [clattering sound of zombies on the board] Can I search again?
Somerset: Why didn’t you do a careful search?
Bertram: Ohhh yeaahh. Next time.
Bechtold: [fingers fidgeting on the table] Come on come on come on.
Bertram: Just a second! Uh… I attack with my pistol. [a zombie miniature is tossed into large pile]
Breitbart: That goes in the horde box. No, there — the horde box! Argh!
Bertram: Right, got it. [pause] Now can I search?
Bechtold / Somerset / Breitbart: No!
Bertram: Fine, okay! I’m done!
Bechtold: You’re done?
Bechtold: You need to say “your turn.” It’s in the rules. The turn doesn’t pass unless—
Zombie 15′ Track #3: Grrrr.
Breitbart: Draw a zombie card.
Bertram: But I’m done!
Bechtold: You didn’t say “your turn”!
Breitbard: Just draw it!
Bertram: [draws a card] It’s the horde! [everyone groans as a dozen zombies clatter onto the board] Dammit. Um. Your turn?
To say Zombie 15′ has a learning curve would be an understatement. It’s got a learning nut-puncher. Then again, most real-time games do, and at least Zombie 15′ does all it can to mitigate its sheer overwhelming panic-inducing bowel-loosening insanity. It’s like easing someone into the path of a tsunami rather than just shoving them.
For one thing, it takes almost as long to set up as it does to play, giving everyone plenty of time to clarify the rules they may have forgotten, not to mention building the dread as you populate the city with a few more zombies than you can probably handle. The rest of setting up, which can really drag at times, means sorting through its generous pile of double-sided map tiles, locked areas, search tokens, sorting the decks… all that stuff that allows its fifteen scenarios to work. And the first few are stupidly easy, just in case you’re completely new to all this. For reference, my group beat the first one in just over five minutes, and I’m pretty sure we weren’t particularly quick about it.
While Zombie 15′ tries to break the bad news of the zombie apocalypse slowly, what really makes it agonizingly hard — and stressful, which isn’t a negative judgement — is that everyone needs to know, at a snap, reflexively and with perfect muscle memory, everything that they’ll be doing on their turn. Unlike some other real-time games, which have players all taking their turns simultaneously, in Zombie 15′ you go in sequence, taking four actions at a time. So you might move, kill some zombies with your axe (making sure to degrade the axe’s condition), enter the house, and do a search. That’s four. Or stand up after being chomped on, spend two actions shooting the zombies that pushed you down, and run off. That’s also four. Then, after checking to see if you can handle all the zombies still in your area or if they’ll knock you down, you pass the turn to the next player.
The stressful part, of course, is that you’ve got three pairs of eyes on you the entire time. Judgmental eyes, scornful eyes, eyes that catch every single slip-up, suboptimal move, flub, and misstep. And those eyes are attached to mouthy mouths, with venomous tongues and way too much to say about how you should have done this or shouldn’t have done that.
For example, consider the search. Every character starts with a couple items, though not nearly enough to get through the city. To survive, you’ll have to find new weapons on a regular basis, sending you into houses along the street. When you move in and search one of them, you can do one of two things. First, you can do a regular search, peeling three cards off the top of the deck, studying them for how many zombies they’ll kill, how many they can fend off at the end of your turn, whether they make noise, how durable or how loaded they are. You might stumble across zombies and say a swear and add them to the house. Then you claim some cards and toss the others into the discard. And you do this as fast as possible while still trying not to bend the cards too much.
The second option is to do a careful search. Instead of diving into the deck blind, you can pick up the discard and take a single card of your choice, removing anything stacked above that card from the game. It’s a great way to nab a weapon left behind by one of your friends — whether out of the kindness of their hearts or because they were already carrying something better is up for debate once the game is over — and it’s often a superior choice to risking the zombies that often appear in a regular search.
The thing is, to those of us sitting here in comfort and peace and calm, that seems logical. But in the blurring heat of the moment, when your mind is racing from panic and the judgment of your friends, you’ll stumble. You’ll forget to do the right search, and instead you’ll get trapped in a house with seven zombies and nothing but an empty nail gun and a bent cavalry saber to your name. Right then, staring at your doofus move made by a doofus human being, your friends will think you’re a doofus.
And if this sounds like criticism, I should clarify: this is what’s right about the game.
The unrelenting panic works in the game’s favor, creating a fantastically evoked setting, with all the terror of running from a zombie horde compressed into fifteen minutes. The horde box is another example of this: when your weapons make noise, you add a zombie to the horde box. Then, when the soundtrack growls at you and you suffer the misfortune of drawing the horde card, all those zombies are added to your location. It’s completely possible that you’ll dump a ripe dozen right outside the house you just cleared.
So just avoid making noise? Ha, right. Have fun slaughtering a half-dozen zombies without a gun or grenade launcher. Anyway, the point of the game is that it’s constantly forcing you to make rushed decisions, like staying in a house and searching five times in a row and somehow finding nothing but zombies because it’s a group home or something, or firing your last shotgun blast when you could have battered that last zombie quietly with a banjo, or forgetting to pick up that hefty gas can you need to escape, or running back to carry someone to safety after you’ve forgotten that your character can’t carry people, or passing after you’ve only made two actions because you can’t think of anything else useful to do until your mind catches up with you on the next guy’s turn. You’ll make mistake after mistake, and look like an idiot, and reap a healthy heaping of humiliation.
But will you like it?
I dunno. Zombie 15′, like all real-time games, was divisive within my group. We had some who loved it, and others who hated it, and all shades of “It was okay” in between. It’s the sort of game that will appeal to a select group of people, the sort who are quick to laugh at themselves, who don’t hold grudges when someone flubs the game, who enjoy losing. Or at least who tolerate it.
For those people, Zombie 15′ is going to be one hell of a game. For everyone else, it’s going to be hell. Or just “okay,” but that doesn’t sound as cool, does it?