A surprisingly versatile and agile game for all kinds of players, undead or otherwise
I am not a zombie fan, per se. I don't object to them, but I'm not one that will run out to see a Romero film or stuck with The Walking Dead past season 4 or 5 (whenever Negan appeared and I was like: "Oh. This is just the latest replacement for The Governor. Yawn.") For me, the zombie thing is something like my attitude toward vampires in the 90s, when everything was blanketed by them and my old business partner even convinced me to write a comic series based on them in order to get more exposure for our studio. Yeah, I did it, but I kinda gritted my teeth. So, Tiny Epic Zombies initially did not appeal to me like most of the other TE games did, solely for thematic reasons. I didn't really know much about the game play, except that it was supposedly a co-op, which is normally another strike in my book. But, when I finally gave in and traded for a copy, I realized how wrong I'd been. Yes, it was zombies, but Gamelyn's clever appropriation of all of the standard themes AND clever implementation of those themes in a game that could be played cooperatively OR competitively and/or one-vs-all and/or free-for-all made it an instant success in my eyes. On top of that, it's filled with green zombie minis and not just tokens. The amusing thing about those minis is that having their hands raised in the typical zombie attack pose means that they stand up on the board as easily on their heads as they do on their feet, so we frequently end up with some of them doing handstands whenever we play. (Cue the Eloise joke from Reservoir Dogs.) But let's get into how it plays, with or without calisthenics...
First off, the game takes place in the most appropriate setting possible: a shopping mall. I know it's an increasingly archaic locale in this world of Amazon, but there it is. After all, as a designer, you want a contained board for a constant physical threat, so presenting open terrain like Kingdoms isn't workable. Plus, the mall is right in the wheelhouse of classic zombie films like Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Comet. It's also a good excuse for why you might be finding random weapons or useful pieces of equipment all within the same structure. The "you can walk through walls, regardless of art" is a little chintzy, but one can see where it's necessary in terms of balance, as otherwise the zombie player could just stack green dudes in the right spots and the human players would never be able to make progress. The map cards are double-sided, but aren't overly dissimilar from each other, having the same mission icons and abilities on each side, so you're not going to unbalance a game by using any particular store. The only real difference is between the Motorcycle (Parking Deck Z) and the Police Car (Echo Ridge Security), since those two vehicles move differently. But, otherwise, you're switching map sides for layout variety, which will come with the random draw and placement of the cards, as well.
Second, the combat system is excellent. Zombies are there to be (re-)killed. Period. It shouldn't be a question of whether you can take down the rampaging hordes. The question should be: How much risk am I taking, both in the course of shooting something or walking in to deal out a face-to-face beatdown? No matter which route you take, the zombie gets removed. The upside to melee combat is that you might be so juiced by purging a walker that you get to move again. The downside is that, in the course of removing the pest, you might take wounds. The risk in shooting is the possible lack of ammo for other problems and how close that ammo is to those wounds you took earlier when punching a walker back to the floor. And that latter part is the genius element of this whole thing. You have one track of numbers along the top of your character card that shows both wounds and ammo. If your ammo gets too low (or wounds too high) and equals or drops below your wounds, you're dead. It's not just a situation of running out of ammo. Running out thematically means you can't defend yourself in your weakened state and are, therefore, Overrun and dead (only to walk again...) But mechanically it means you don't really have to keep track of two stats. They're all on the same measure and flow together perfectly with the theme and most people's understanding of the background material. It's really quite brilliant in its simplicity. I've had many games where I've "avoided the action", so to speak, because I haven't taken many, if any, wounds. But that's largely because I've had good shots and/or a good shooting weapon and it was convenient for what we were trying to accomplish. But I was also constantly aware that all it would take is one moment of being Overrun, where the zombie player drops one in your space, and I could be perilously close to death because my ammo had run so low. That's good tension and makes for an exciting game.
But the real magic of the game's excellent weave of theme and mechanics may be the objectives. Let's face it: most zombie games are pretty similar in execution. You're mostly trying to stop the rampaging horde. But TEZ adds in a trio of objectives in each game (drawn randomly from a total of nine) that are right out of Hollywood and, thus, fit neatly into most zombie films you've ever heard of: Quarantine the Infected, Discover a Cure, Fix the Helicopter; these are all standard tropes of zombie films, but they're also widely varying approaches to the game. Quarantine means trying to not kill the zombies when you walk into a room with them, thus taking more risk in every close encounter. Discover requires the human players to find the proper tokens in the correct order. (This one is even more challenging in the competitive mode, since you don't want to share information.) Fix forces the human players to venture out and retrieve tokens to their home base (the central courtyard.) The other six are similar, in that different strategies have to be employed based not only on what objectives are in play, but which combination of goals, as some will typically be more challenging than others. Then you combine that with the different characters that can be played and the replayability factor of the game ends up being quite high, despite what some would consider to be a monochromatic theme.
The variation among the 18 different characters for the human players isn't enormous, since each of them only has one ability that differentiates them. However, there are a few whose abilities tend to rise above the rest, like the Lawyer, who can spend an ammo to cancel any Event card, even if it's not on their turn. Considering that the cards you'd most like to avoid during your Search the Store step are Events which often dump new zombies in your lap, that's kinda handy. The Survivalist's ability to pick up equipment even if the store still has undead staggering (or handwalking) around is also almost universally useful. Movement is key in this game and the Athlete's ability to move 2 spaces in his first move (Fast as lightning!) makes him incredibly useful in most scenarios. Contrast those with the Farmer, whose ability only activates if he's Overrun and then only reduces one face of the die. Or the Scientist, who only gains ammo if another player kills 3(!) or more zombies in a single turn. Most abilities aren't earth-shattering since, like Tiny Epic Mechs, you're going to be relying on equipment to have the most impact. But it's pretty clear that there are a number of characters that will be first picks for the humans and others that will lag behind.
In that respect, the zombie player's choices are similarly varied in quality. A few have abilities that only activate when a human is Overrun, but others are more versatile. The Photographer Zombie, for example, makes humans spend 2 ammo to kill a zombie with a ranged attack if there's only one left in the store. You'll almost always be in that situation at some point and have to doubly threaten your own survival to be able to pick up gear. The Popstar Zombie cranks up the numbers by allowing the addition of two zombies to an empty store, instead of just one. But, just like with the humans, there's nothing mindblowing, as zombie characters are meant to provide most of their threat with their action tracks, which increase in magnitude every time a human makes noise in the mall.
Likewise, the gear choices present a lot of good choices in the game for both human and zombie players. The latter is mostly concerned with what kind of gear they'd like to delay the humans from discovering, although it's also possible to present quandaries to those players in terms of what they'd like to drop, since they can only wield one melee and one ranged weapon at any time and there's no way to trade items. You just drop them and hope another human can pick them up. For example, the Crowbar can be really key in the Escape the Mall objective, since it always works when used and can send you right to an entrance. Similarly, the Skateboard can also be used to emphasize that key movement attribute. However, that doesn't completely overshadow the awesome attack power of certain items, like the Bazooka which can clear an entire store in one shot (just like the Grenades, except you get to keep it) or the Shotgun, which gives you the option of using a Ranged attack inside your own room, if you're not eager to risk the die roll.
All of this gear is part of the ITEMeeples system that this game carries forward from its precedents, Quest and Defenders. Having those weapons represented on your character is, truth to tell, kind of superfluous. Since you can only have one type of each weapon, you can pretty easily see who's carrying what. Howevah, games are a visual medium (as are zombie movies) and it's pretty cool to see your guy ducking through the mall with a chainsaw, rather than just being a meeple. One of the interesting aspects to this game is that it's clearly trying to be a minis game. It has dudes with different weapons, enemies represented by actual figures, minis for both forms of transports (motorcycle/police car), etc. All of these things could've been represented by just counters and cards. Instead, Gamelyn went the tactile route and I think the game benefits from it. Indeed, given the visceral nature of the theme, being able to see those weapons and figures in 3-D only adds to the high combat aspect of the presentation, even while the combat system itself is wonderfully smooth and simple.
What are the downsides? The Redneck Zombies to the game's 28 Days Later? Well, they're pretty slim. Despite having the option to play co-op or competitive against a pretty solid AI system, I have to say that the game benefits hugely, challenge-wise, from having a zombie player. The more targeted application of the Search deck, which means that items/events are played with a plan in mind, rather than as just a random draw, makes for a much more challenging scenario. I've had weapons pile up in one corner of the mall because I kept drawing them against the AI and pretty much had my pick of the arsenal for whatever I wanted to employ in pursuing my objectives. That's not to say that the AI isn't challenging. It certainly can be, as if you draw the right sequence of cards, you can find the mall pretty much glutted with the green bastards and find your progress becoming much more risky. But it is, as always, a much different animal in the many-vs-one mode.
In some ways, it depends on whether you feel like the zombie theme is enhanced by having a malevolent intelligence (i.e. another player wanting to win) behind the threat or whether it should just be mindlessly savage monsters standing in your way. Either route is acceptable and that's part of what makes the game great, because it functions well in either co-op or competitive mode and in many-vs-one mode or the free-for-all, where the humans are striving to outdo each other while facing the zombies and perhaps leave the mall to become the new governor or something. The ability to apply almost any plotline from any zombie film to the game (admittedly, the bar is not especially high) is, again, testament to the overall development of the game and ensuring that it's a delight for zombie fans and zombie ambivalents alike.
Next up, we will move to the co-opest of Gamelyn's offerings, as we venture back to the world of Aughmoore and try to defend the realm...