29 August 2018
Gives the phrase ‘shuffling zombies’ a whole new meaning
After he so impressed gamers worldwide with the elegant complexity and hard-science-grounded theming of Terraforming Mars, you might be surprised to learn that Swedish designer Jacob Fryxelius has followed up with a quick(ish)-playing deckbuilder that involves killing blob-headed zombies. Terraforming Mars was a brainy game. After the Virus is a brain-eaty game.
Despite the cartoony styling and pulpy theme, Fryxelius’ latest somehow manages to compress all the tension and shocks you’d expect from a decent zombie movie (or episode of The Walking Dead) into a small-deck co-operative card game. In ways both good and bad.
Each player picks from four characters: leather-jacketed teen rebel Robert, ex-military loner Adam, tough survivalist Jennie and shotgun-toting, elderly pub landlady Ruth (a strong choice for beginners and those playing solo). Then they form a slim draw pile from their own selection of starting cards, including weapons (which often need to be prepared by sliding other cards under them as ammo), events (like ‘run’, which is handy if you have no weapons) and people (both helpful and in need of help, like survivors, who require saving), which are shuffled together with as many zombie cards as there are players – or more, if your chosen mission tweaks the setup.
You can’t add to, or take from, each other’s decks, and you can only affect your fellow undead-battlers by killing their attacking zombies or using one of the game’s all-too-rare healing actions on them. For the most part, you’ll all be focusing simultaneously on your own play area, drawing five cards per round and trying to kill zombies (by returning them to your zombie deck, which is stacked with single brain-eaters on top, the mob sizes ramping up the further down you go) or escape them (by putting them into your own discard pile, meaning they’ll pop up again soon enough) before they can inflict crippling wounds on you. If a single character receives three wounds, it’s game over for everyone.
To win, you’ll need to meet certain conditions set by your mission – there are 16 in total, forming a zombie-apocalypse mini-campaign – while scouting cards from your area deck to boost your survival options, and struggling with the growing numbers of undead that invade your draw deck. Which happens every time it depletes to fewer than five cards, the number of invading zombies increasing by one with each wave.
It is, frankly, a brutal and sometimes frustratingly unforgiving game – especially if you’re going solo. Thematically, this is highly appropriate, but that’s little solace if you’re consistently dying only a few waves into each mission, thanks often to just one bum hand. Victory is so rare and hard-earned, you may well tire of the game before getting very far with it. This, combined with some frankly hideous artwork and shonky graphic and component design (the counters don’t even fit the character-board tracks), could seriously limit After the Virus’ appeal. Ironic, given the relentless popularity of the genre it inhabits.
If you loved Terraforming Mars, then that’ll make no difference to what you think of After the Virus. It bears out its survival-horror theme with a remarkable mechanical purity, but suffers from ugly art and is viciously, utter-bastard hard.
Designer: Jacob Fryxelius
Artist: Daniel Fryxelius
Time: 15-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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