States of Ziege
For a while there, Darin Leviloff’s States of Siege system was a big deal for solitaire gaming. The concept was brilliantly simple: what if, rather than sprawling hex maps and proviso-laden movement priorities, conflicts were portrayed as tug-of-wars along lanes? The inaugural title in the series, Israeli Independence, was more a proof of concept than a full-fledged game, but it quickly drew imitators and iterators. Before long, the series stepped into many of history’s overlooked corners. Zulus on the Ramparts. Ottoman Sunset. Hapsburg Eclipse. Mound Builders.
The best entry in the series, however, gamified the under-publicized zombie invasion of Farmingdale. I’m speaking, of course, about Hermann Luttmann’s Dawn of the Zeds.
If you haven’t heard of the States of Siege games, the basic idea goes like this. In the center of the board is your base. For Dawn of the Zeds, that’s the town center of Farmingdale. Sprouting from your base like spokes are multiple lanes — between four and five depending on the level of complexity, each with its own features of geography. The mountain path, for example, has a mine where ammunition can be readily acquired, while the suburbs are tightly packed with pockets of resistance and can eventually have their bridge to town severed.
Your goal is to prevent an enemy from setting foot within your base’s hallowed circumference. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. Every turn opens with the flip of a card, which indicates the lanes that are under threat — say, an incursion through the forest and via the interstate. Dice are rolled, spaces are yielded, and hopefully your turn sees you mustering your resources to push back the threat. Imagine four bungee cords strapped to your center base, pulled tighter or looser but always threatening to snap you in the eye. That’s States of Siege.
In most of these games, the action is undertaken at a remove. These are abstractions of complex political and military situations; the resolution is too zoomed-out to depict individual tanks or brigades. Combat is a measure of attention and priority, not tactical maneuvers. The result is springy, sometimes even humorously so, spaces along a lane changing hands back and forth and back again. Enemy units don’t even have hit point values. They either occupy a space or get pushed into the space behind it.
Except for in Dawn of the Zeds. Here, enemy units have to be chewed up before they’re removed. Here, your lanes are safeguarded by individual heroes and bands of civilians. Here, the bird’s eye abstractions of the States of Siege system are swapped out for tangible measures of individual badassery. This conflict is personal. And that, in turn, breeds an entirely different sort of drama.
The ironic result of this finer resolution is that Dawn of the Zeds comes across as more familiar than its peers. Maybe even traditional. Maybe even — gasp! — mainstream. When the game opens, you’re presented with four heroes, a gang of “heroic” civilians, and generic civilians whom one suspects will very abruptly become zombie snacks. After the requisite flipped card and resultant incursions, you’re left to take actions that feel entirely familiar. Like, say, moving one of your heroes from the town center out to the forest, scavenging for food at the farm, and then spending some ammunition to shoot at the nearby swarm of undead. These aren’t mile-high considerations. They’re straight out of any old game about shooting zeds and making sure you don’t run out of bullets and granola bars. Can I pepper your expectations by noting that each hero comes with a grocery list of personal abilities? Didn’t think so.
But it’s worth noting just how much of a departure this was for States of Siege. Individual people! With hit points! And abilities! Enemy chits that represent hordes of zeds! Which can’t be removed outright, but have to be whittled to shavings! Barricades that stand up on the map! Unless you’re like me and you find their three-dimensionality distracting, so you leave them lying down!
The trick is that these alterations don’t throw out what makes States of Siege such a fluid and engaging system. This comes with a price; the third edition unspools over five rulebooks. You read that right. Five. With six rulebooks’ worth of cross-referencing between them. These aren’t strictly necessary, and the rules eventually collapse into a perfectly serviceable step-by-step index across two pages, but it’s easy to see why the designers came to the (bad) decision to spread this game over such a glut of manuals. Take, for instance, what happens when one of your heroes suffers their final hit. First they make a saving roll. If they die, they die. But a successful save sends them to the hospital, where they’re given an EKG token to indicate their coma. Now you need the heal action, first to remove that EKG token and then to remove one wound at a time until they’re as healthy as the day the zombie plague appeared. The hospital comes with stations for medical staff, but they aren’t necessary to undertake the heal action; that’s for bonuses only. Meanwhile, healing also reduces your infection level, which increases whenever — wait a minute, when exactly does infection increase? And what do you do during the infection phase of each turn? And what’s the difference between a regular outbreak and an unchecked outbreak? Before long, you’re thumbing through the indexed rulebook and cursing the fact that the rules aren’t even indexed in order. Who wrote this rulebook? The zeds?
Okay, so the documentation stinks. But how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Here’s the thing: Dawn of the Zeds is one of the finest solo games I’ve played. And that merger of personal and sky-high considerations is what does it. Let me illustrate.
About halfway into my last play, I was certain my defenders would hit the breaking point. I’d sent Horatius, the lab primate, down into the tunnels beneath Farmingdale. Why? One, because Horatius has gorilla strength and he’s tough and he has the great ape trait, all of which combine to make him an absolute beast in melee combat. More importantly, Horatius knows the tunnels, so he’s immune to the labyrinths that might otherwise see him getting lost in the dark. He’d spent half the game down there, single-handedly beating back the zeds marching over from the labs. As far as I was concerned, he might as well stay put for the rest of the game.
Until a pair of unlucky draws upended my plans. Dawn of the Zeds requires a bit of setup, mostly around the deck that takes you through escalating challenges. This time, I’d drawn two events in a row that brought major zed incursions down on my head. Both the mountain path and the forest buckled entirely, and those repeated hand-to-hand fights brought a super-zed onto the interstate — a bad development, since my special firemen civilians were already injured there. The hospital was filled to capacity. Any additional hits and units would start dying outright.
Now, this in itself was an opportunity, thanks to a G-Man from the nearby airbase. This guy could sacrifice a weakened unit to research special zeds-immolating weapons. But doing human experiments is only as effective as the people left standing to hold the guns and grenades he developed. As more wounded piled up, our G-Man began carrying out a grisly triage. Heroes and effective civilians received treatment. Everyone else was turned into super weapons.
The result was a race against time. Packed hospitals, three lanes in retreat, Horatius injured in the tunnels with no recourse to medical aid, and a sniper running dry now that we’d lost access to our best scavenging location. Twin layers of tensions, acted out as both personal failures on the ground and management missteps far beyond any one actor’s comprehension. Weathering that maelstrom — which I did, barely — was visceral in a way that board games only rarely achieve.
There are any number of reasons why I play solitaire games. Dawn of the Zeds is one of those uncommon specimens that flips many switches at once. Management, narrative, and risk, all folded into a singular experience. It’s a reminder of those golden days when Victory Point Games was an independent publisher that produced one experimental title after another — not always to the same effect, but always interesting, always pushing boundaries, and sometimes creating a true classic along the way.
A complimentary copy was provided.