Zombies, man. It seems like everywhere you turn, there’s more of them. Brains this, lumbering movement that. They appear endless and unstoppable.
But that’s just sort of what they do.
As it turns out, the same also applies to all things zombie – including board games.
Some zombie games embody the sense of survival, using your instincts and strategies to persist in a post-apocalyptic world. They stir up tension and anxiety, knowing that your plans may or may not work against the mechanics of the game. They embody the feeling of dread when things are stacked up against you and don’t look like it’ll be getting any better. Some are suspenseful, creative, and it takes your skill and luck combined to make it out.
And then there’s those where you just want to rack up the kill count.
Players are survivors in a town, trying to plow through the hordes of living dead – or die trying. Usually it’ll be the latter. Players are attempting to make their escape from zombie-infested streets to a helicopter nearby. The first player who reaches it will be airlifted to safety. The rest, erm… not so much.
Zombies!!! (yes, with three exclamation points) is a tile-based game of zombie survival. The game contains two decks: the tile deck, and the event card deck. To start the game, players begin on the town center tile. Mix the Helipad tile piece in the lower half of the tile deck randomly. Similarly, shuffle the event deck and deal three cards to each player. Lastly, each player receives three heart tokens and three life tokens.
Event cards represent various incidents that can befall individuals, and players are allowed to use up to one event card per round. Sometimes they’ll help through tough spots, but many are there to hinder the other players. After all, only one generally makes it out alive.
Turns consists of a series of short, uncomplicated steps. First, the player flips over and places a new tile piece depicting various roads, stores, and locations in the town. Sometimes these tiles will be just be roads. Other times they could be the hospital, police station, or toy store. Tiles may contain additional heart and / or bullet tokens to acquire, but tiles always come with zombies. Place a number of zombies on that tile equal to the legend in the corner of the tile piece (in the case of tiles with buildings), or the number of road exits (on those without). Next, players fend off any zombies currently on their spot and, if successful, draw back up to three event cards. Players then roll a die and move up to that many spaces, combating any zombies they encounter. Should they survive, they move to the next zombie, or until their movement runs out. Lastly, they roll a die again and move that many zombies one space each. The turn then passes to the next player.
Combat in Zombies!!! is rudimentary as well: when attempting to kill a zombie, roll a d6. On a roll of 4-6, you succeed and get to take the zombie as a trophy. On a 1-3, you fail. When that happens (and it will), the player must either spend a bullet token to increase their die result by one per bullet used, or spend a heart token to re-roll.
Be careful though: if a player runs out of heart tokens, they die. When that happens (and it will), they lose all cards, items, half their zombie trophies, and start over again the next turn.
Players win if they are the first to reach the center of the Helipad tile, or, alternatively, if they can collect 25 zombie trophies. Because, you know, they’re pretty much a zombie-killing machine at that point.
I Don’t Think They’re Dead Yet
Before the current era of popular zombie board games, there was Zombies!!!
Before Zpocalypse, there was Zombies!!!
Before Zombicide, there was Zombies!!!
Before Last Night on Earth, Zombie Survival, Zombie Dice, Mall of Horror, or Munchkin Zombies, there was Zombies!!!
Zombies!!! was around long before The Walking Dead Game. Hell, this game predates The Walking Dead books.
Zombies!!!, as far as board games go, is one of the earliest and most successful ones. Released in 2001, it quickly grew a fan base. Since then it has become something of a franchise of its own, including a second edition of the game in 2006 with newer artwork and some rules clarification. It doesn’t have the claim to be the Patient Zero of zombie-based board games – that title going to the 1978 Dawn of the Dead game – but it doesn’t need to. Zombies!!! made a name for itself in the time we now consider the rise of designer board games. For starters, it presents itself as a direct homage to some of the classic Living Dead zombie movies of George Romero and the fun-but-campy Evil Dead series of Sam Raimi. (Army of Darkness had been around for less than a decade at that point, and there seemed to be an opening for a zombie game to capitalize on it.) What’s more, the game was portable, affordable, and not terribly complicated.
Plus, it has zombie minis. People really love minis.
They also popularized the idea of a tile-based game system instead of a traditional board. Doing so allows for a much greater variety of setting; no two towns will be the same. Plus, there’s something innately appealing about a sprawling map on a gaming table to look at. Space and time constraints, however, sometimes create problems with that.
The initial version of the game had the Helipad at the very bottom of the deck, so you had to play out the entire deck in order to win via escape. As the game reached a wider audience and not everyone had large kitchen tables, a common house rule that popped up was to shuffle the Helipad in to the deck randomly. You would still get some massive towns to explore, but there were also times when the game could be relatively short. It proved to be so popular that in the second edition they included it as a variant. Additionally, the second edition changed the placement of the Helipad officially to be randomly in the bottom half of the deck, rather than always on the very bottom. It was a small but helpful change.
This brings up a key factor in enjoying Zombies!!! – flexibility. From the event cards to the rules intro, it’s evident the game is meant to be taken in stride. Have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to house rule certain things your game group finds entertaining or flavorful. For example, in addition to the random Helipad spacing, we play that whenever a character dies, a zombie pops in their place. We refer to the zombies streaming out of the Helipad tile as the Zombie Conga-Line. We create brief and ridiculous backstories for our characters so we can mourn (or celebrate) their untimely deaths. There is a great amount of genre-based flavor on the surface, which should entertain Immersionists who enjoy light world-building. If you try to play this game too seriously, not only are you missing a component that led to the game’s creation, but you’ll likely get frustrated or bored.
Speaking of which…
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Much as it pains us to say it, the core game is not perfect. There are some arguments out there that Zombies!!! is little more than a cleverly disguised Roll-And-Move game. We don’t go that far, but it is true that much of what happens to you each turn is based on simple dice rolls. Strikers and Tacticians particularly would find that fact tiring if not for other aspects the game provides. In the case of Strikers, they know what their objective us: either make it to the Helipad, or collect enough zombie trophies to win. Rushing headlong into a building for ammo and to clean house should satisfy their inner Rambo. If other players are encroaching on their goal, that’s what event cards are used for.
Daredevils, on the other hand, will rush headlong into a building just to see what happens. As with many zombie games, chaos is expected. Due to the simple rules of the game and the way it indirectly fosters people to take gambles (i.e. getting items), Daredevils should be content to run around town with their Boom Stick. Similarly, Architects may enjoy running around town simply because there’s an unfolding town to do so in. Plus, there’s precious items to get if it’s worth the risk.
The event cards are another area of mixed feelings. On the one hand, well-timed cards can drastically alter what they may or may not be able to do – like, say, living. The issue that arises here is how “swingy” some of the base cards are. Some are incredibly timely and powerful, while others only benefit you if you can reach certain buildings – and there’s a sizeable percentage of those. Tacticians should enjoy figuring out when a good time to play certain cards, but there’s also a possibility that combined with the randomness of movement and combat, adding in unusable cards might be too much for some of this archetype. That said, since you can’t actually attack other players, getting them into a lose-lose situation is the next best thing.
By doing that continually to the front runners, however, it will prolong the length of the game. Be wary with that. Socializers should enjoy the atmosphere, but they – or anyone for that matter – could lose interest if it feels like the game has stalled out.
Zombies!!! is the father of modern zombie board games, and even if it occasionally stumbles, it does a lot of things right. The creative tile-placement layout, zombie minis, and ease of play made it a coveted game since it came out. If your desire is for a simple game to run around town trying to blast your way through zombie throngs, this is a game you will enjoy. We certainly do. Yes, the game can drag out at times, especially with lots of players, and at times there is a feel of repetitiveness to the turns, but Zombies!!! never claimed to be a nuanced game. The strategy is simple: survive or die. What Zombies!!! lacks up for in depth, it easily makes up for in the flavor and theme. And bodies. Lots and lots of bodies.
Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Artwork: 3.5 in First Edition, 4 in Second Edition
Rules Clarity: 4
Replay Value: 4
Physical Quality 3.5
Overall Score: 3.5
Photo Credits: 2nd Edition Cityscape by Indigo Trekka.