Slow and steady gets the secret
There has been a certain resurgence in public interest in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster of 1986, possibly due to the popularity of HBO mini-series based on the events. However, instead of joining the ranks of well-irradiated Chernobyl tourists, may I recommend a less radiation-filled way to satisfy your curiosity? For example, playing ZONA: The Secrets of Chernobyl the board game. ZONA is more focused on recapturing the feeling of the post-apocalyptic wasteland, rather than being factually accurate, but at least playing the board game won’t kill you, although it might your characters.
Players take on a role of scavengers– tourists, soldiers, scientists and even a setting appropriate, if not a tad stereotypical, round-bellied drunkard – exploring the area surrounding the nuclear power plant and attempting to uncover its secrets. The first player to collect two secrets must make their way to the sarcophagus – a huge concrete structure enclosing the exposed reactor – to complete one last challenge and win the game.
This, of course, is easier said than done. As to be expected with a post-apocalyptic setting, every step of the way something is attempting to attack or throttle the scavengers’ plans. Mutants and anomalies spawn around the map and even crossing from one area to another can deal damage to the characters.
The most interesting part of ZONA is its event cards. Each one of them carries several self-contained scenarios that will offer a test or a moral choice, as well as help to build on the setting and ground players within this world. The events will vary depending on the locations of the characters, with some scenarios related to very specific zones on the map and even character’s reputations. Reading the event cards is the biggest joy of the game, as you feel fully submerged in the world of the game and are eager to find out more about its grim origin, even if you end up fighting a vicious kikimora as the result.
Almost everything within the game – whether a fight or an event – is resolved through a dice test, where players take the base stats of their character (for the particular skills that is being tested), roll three dice and add both together to see if they have passed or failed. Items can be used to manipulate the results and it is usually a good idea to be fully equipped before going into the most dangerous areas.
Throughout ZONA, players will be rolling dice a lot, in fact, all the time, to the point it becomes exhausting.
This wouldn’t be so taxing if the pace of the game was much swifter. Every location takes a while to get to, impeded by penalties for crossing certain borders, anomalies and mutants needing to be cleared and areas being outright blocked before they can be interacted with. With so many things slowing players down, the designers, bewilderingly, added another mechanic – massive irradiation that triggers around every 4 rounds – that make players backtrack and hide in bunkers to avoid masses of damage. Having spent several rounds frantically dice rolling to clear a path and having achieved very little as the result, it is hard not to get discouraged. It is not that the tasks are hard to do, but the amount of time that takes to do them that drains the will to keep going, which might be thematically appropriate, but as a gameplay experience is not very entertaining.
The slow crossing of ZONA’s expansive map gives a good impression of what it would be like to traverse the waste land. But among this slow trudge, there are interludes of levity through narratives that build on the world, even if the stories themselves are grim.
PLAY IT? Maybe
ZONA: The Secrets of Chernobyl is a better experience than it is a board game. It oﬀers really intriguing, at times, outlandish fantastical narratives, but is hindered by its bad pacing.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED: Eldritch Horror
ZONA: The Secrets of Chernobyl contains a lot of horrors, even without the presence of Cthulhu, however its scavengers have less imaginative ways to deal with them than Lovecraftian investigators.
Designer: Maciej Drewing, Krzysztof Głośnick
Artist: Wojciech Bajor, Tomek Zarucki
Time: 2-3 hours
What’s in the box?
◗ Voice of Zona token
◗ 3 dice
◗ 40 Secret location event cards
◗ Ten character miniatures
◗ Ten character boards
◗ 40 Character starting items
◗ 4 Backpack boards
◗ 40 Rouble tokens
◗ 60 damage tokens
◗ 20 emission cards
◗ 21 rumour cards
◗ Token tray
◗ Emission marker
◗ Eight lock tokens
◗ 12 Weakness tokens
◗ 4 Reputation tokens
◗ 4 fatigue dials
◗ 56 threat tokens
◗ Market place board
◗ 126 items cards
This review originally appeared in the February 2020 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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