19 December 2016
TTG sets off on a journey to discover whether the zombie genre can be saved by this quirky entry
The latest offering from Space Cowboys is a zombie game designed by Martin Wallace. 'Another zombie game?' I hear you cry. Yes, a bold move in a market perceived by many to be already saturated with experiences involving the living dead.
In our interview with the talented French studio last issue, they told us the brief for Hit Z Road was: ‘How can we make a zombie game that is different to the others?’ That brainstorm threw up the idea of a game created by a zombie apocalypse survivor. This is a boy called Martin, who has survived the ordeal and made a game that recreates his family’s fraught but ultimately successful journey down the USA’s famous Route 66. That would make us, as players, fellow survivors – playing his game to pass the time in a world where entertainment is a distinct rarity.
The clever concept permeates the entire production, which is styled throughout to support the idea it has been cobbled together using whatever Martin could scavenge along the way – be it components from other games, bottle caps, ID cards or car keys. Even the box itself gets the makeshift treatment. A marker pen effect is applied to the (fictional) packaging of a typical 1960s family game called Hit the Road: The Travel Game. The strapline is crossed out and amended to ‘My Zombie Game’, the ‘Made in’ sticker ends with a question mark, and ‘As seen on TV’ becomes ‘No more TV'. Even the rulebook gets a thematic spin. It’s done as a scrapbook, comprised of torn-out sheets of graph paper, sticky notes and photos, all overprinted with a handwriting-style font to give a homemade, personal feel. Despite all this, it is easy to follow and setup is quick and simple.
Gameplay is a mix of bidding, worker placement and dice combat. Each player is responsible for a group of survivors, represented by wooden meeples, and the challenge is to make it through eight rounds of encounters. You win if your group is the last one standing or, in the case of a tie, has the most points.
Hit Z Road has no board. Instead, at the beginning of each round four paths are laid out, each consisting of two face-up encounter cards. These are drawn from a deck which is subdivided into three randomised levels of increasing difficulty, ensuring the game reaches a challenging finale.Each of the two-step routes can only be taken by one player and new paths are dealt each round, so not only is every round different, but each player has a totally unique journey through the game. Each card on your chosen path will either provide resources, trigger a special event, or force you to fight zombies – sometimes all three!
Before players choose which path they want to take, there is an auction phase. Here, players have the option to bid precious resources to change the order of play. Resources are essential for surviving encounters, so offering up too many might be foolish. However, getting first pick of the available paths is increasingly valuable as the groups get more and more strung out, clamouring for the easiest path.
Once the playing order is set, players take it in turns resolving their path one card at a time. First, you take any resources shown on the card – ammo gives you a ranged combat advantage, fuel helps you run away when things go south and adrenaline gives you a boost in hand-to-hand combat. Next, you read and apply any event text on the card. This might add more zombies to the encounter or provide you with an item to use later. Finally, if your card has any zombies on it, you fight!
Combat is resolved using custom dice. You can spend any bullets you have amassed to make a ranged attack roll. After that, things get ugly as you move into melee. You roll dice equal to the number of survivors in your group, hoping for crosshairs to kill zombies. Any skulls rolled mean a survivor is bitten and will die unless you stockpiled some adrenaline tokens to save them. The most difficult kind of encounter is the horde, which sees you rolling the more proportionately dangerous red dice. Fortunately, fuel can be spent to run away from tough encounters, but you may also leave behind vital points.
If you complete your first encounter card, you bank the points and move on to the second. When all players have done this, a new round begins with bidding on freshly laid-out paths.
If all your survivors are killed, you are out of the game. The last player left alive is the winner. If more than one of you makes it to the end, the tie is broken by points earned from encounter cards completed along the way.
Rather oddly, Hit Z Road has player elimination and plenty of downtime. It's odd because player elimination has been all but done away with in modern game design, and is generally seen as undesirable and reserved only for fast-paced party games with a quick turnaround. Here, getting knocked out early and then just sitting there while the other players continue is no fun. There is also quite a lot of downtime – when it isn’t your turn, you just watch the other players tackle their encounters. You might as well make a cup of tea. Thankfully, the game plays in under an hour so none of this is ruinous.
Above all, you need to look past the fact that this is ‘another zombie game’. Hit Z Road takes a highly original thematic approach that elevates it above your average zombie-slayer. It is lean, compelling and tense – but only when it’s your turn, and only until you are knocked out. Those are the only elements of the design would have been better left behind to fend for themselves.
Hit Z Road overcomes the tired zombie theme, its inconsistent pacing and the questionable inclusion of player elimination to deliver a thematically rich and mechanically captivating spin on the dice-rolling, worker placement and bidding genres.
Publisher: Space Cowboys
Genre: Worker placement/dice rolling
Time: 30-60 minutes