I have a curious relationship with anything that deals with an apocalypse of any type, which I suppose comes from being brought up in the United Kingdom in the 80s. With the United States to our west and the Soviet bloc to the east, the dangers that the cold war could suddenly break out into something rather warmer seemed to be a staple of society back then. TV shows like the terrifying Threads didn’t help (seriously, watch it on YouTube, it’s the definition of bleak) as kids who watched it and similar broadcasts very sure that we were going to end up the victims of some nuclear conflict or other. But then we grew up, Russia broke up, and the threats now come from other parts of the world – and for some reason we now all seem to think that we’re all going to be eaten by a horde of zombies. Our relationship with how the world may end has shifted and we’re now reasonably alright with it being part of light entertainment. Life, nowadays, is generally much improved – unless you’re the poor bastards in the world of Zpocalypse.
Nuclear holocaust isn’t the only thing they have to contend with, oh no, for designer Jeff Gracia has decided to throw hordes upon hordes of zombies into the mix as well. Everything has gone to crap, but just as you and your fellow survivors think that all hope is lost, a chink of light appears as a message comes through. Survive a few days more and you’ll be plucked to relative safety by the army. All you need to do is live! And while it would be easy enough to stay inside your fallout shelter, hiding away from the awfulness without, well… that wouldn’t make for much fun in a game, would it?
Scavenging and survival are your two main objectives in Zpocalypse, as you aim to save a group of people under your guidance until the cavalry arrives. This is not, however, a co-operative game. Plenty of opportunities exist to make life even harder for your opposition, as if living day-to-day in an atomic zompocalypse wasn’t tricky enough. Anything you can do to make your life easier is encouraged, even at the cost of the lives of others. Survival of the fittest is the order of the day, pulling in victory points at every possible opportunity, but even the strongest isn’t guaranteed to make it through this game.
Saying that, you’re going to have to be strong if you’re to get through the initial challenge of the frankly abysmal rulebook. I know that a second edition of the rules are currently in the works and will be made available to players soon (I plan to add an extra part to this write-up when I get my hands on them) but for those of us who own this first edition? Well, I’d be surprised if one in ten people who have a copy of Zpocalypse have managed to navigate through the rules and played out a full game correctly. Efforts to get this to the table have swiftly become a festival of house rules where “that sounds OK, let’s do that” is an often heard phrase. Early impressions where that the contents of the box were more like a playset with which you could do whatever you please, with the rulebook acting as a set of general guidelines rather than a ‘this is how you play’ affair. You know, like a rulebook should be. This one, though well written, can easily see you having to skip from page to page and back again in order to work out something that should prove simple.
Anyway, as time wore on and research was done with various groups of players, something good came out of the awfulness. Underneath the mess of instructions, we found something that actually worked. Piecing together a rule change here, an errata there, we somehow managed to come out with the semblance of a working set of rules and ended up having fun with Zpocalypse – which is great, because this is a game that really does deserve a bit of attention.
Beginning with a couple of people, your squad will look to grab as much useful stuff as possible that will not only keep you alive but also help fortify the safehouses in which you’ve made your bases. Exploration of the randomly generated map (something which I love in any game – it adds to replayability) will reward you with new items and people who can be brought on to your team. Of course, more people in the team requires more food to keep them going, but managing to keep their bellies full will mean that more stuff can be done. Things that you find can be kept and used in the way they were meant to be, traded to other players or even broken down into elements that can strengthen the walls and barricades. Some of it will be more useful to others and can prove useful as bargaining chips when you’re over a barrel and in need of assistance, so while I said that this isn’t co-operative, there are chances to work with opponents.
Each round represents 24 hours in the Zpocalypse world and is split into a series of phases. Games normally play out over the course of four rounds, but you’re encouraged to just do a few two-round plays at first in order to get to grips with what’s going on. This is definitely a good call, because although you’ll come to realise the game isn’t particularly complex, there’s a lot of working parts that need to be understood before you can just get on with things and devote yourself to a full-scale play. Players are given their own individual board that allows them to keep track of their squad’s health, armour and weapon skills, all of which are totalled up from your squad members. With every character in the game having their own abilities, it’s a good job that the maximum size is four – it can be easy to pass through a certain phase of the game and miss the opportunity to use them.
You will also have a daily mission that can be attempted while also just staying alive – managing to do so will often provide a very useful boost but are also dangerous things to go for. Getting one of your characters trapped behind a wall of the undead just so you could potentially score a few extra points isn’t worth the loss of their contribution to the group in the end, but sometimes the risk is well worth it! As in most situations, safe is better than sorry, so there’s no harm in focusing on building barricades and holding back the tide of zombies that want to sink their teeth into you. Combat is dice based and happily straightforward; work out whether it’s ranged or melee, add a few numbers and hopefully wipe a bunch of nasties off the board – and that’s it. I like that the focus of the game isn’t just on killing as much as possible, though you’ll certainly have to get your hands dirty if you’re to make it through the nights.
Zpocalypse was originally funded via Kickstarter and did rather well, as evidenced by the huge amount of extras that are available already for a game that’s only been officially out for under a year. Greenbrier Games have since made expansions both large and small available, and throughout you’ll find a very well put together product. You get plenty of good quality zombies in the base box as well as minis representing your survivors (though can get even more of both should you want them), the map tiles are nice and thick, the cards are decent and the custom dice are lovely. The extra elements that are available really add to the game, and I particularly like the accessories pack that turn your barricades from small bits of card into massive lumps of moulded plastic that look like they could hold back a real zombie horde. Or at least cause them to stub their toe quite badly.
All told, this is a decent game that is somewhat crippled by that wretched rulebook. Once you get your head around it, perhaps by using some of the fine resources made by fans of the game to help their fellow players, you’ll find a solidly entertaining experience that’s enhanced if you throw yourself into the storytelling side. I’m delighted that Greenbrier have listened to the owners and are releasing a follow-up rulebook and hope that it’ll streamline play, and with that due to be released soon I think that Zpocalypse will gain a bunch of new converts. Until that is done and made widely available, I can only really give Zpocalypse a cautious recommendation. Put your trust (and your copy of the game) in the hands of someone with patience who is willing to decipher the rules, then devote your playgroup to a couple of shorter games so you can get your head around the flow of things. If you’re looking for something you can just leap straight into, I’d suggest an Xbox 360 and a copy of Left 4 Dead, but if you’re up for putting the time into Zpocalypse, you’ll be rewarded.
Zpocalypse was designed by Jeff Gracia and released through Greenbrier Games in 2013. Between one and four can play with games taking around two hours. Copies of the game are now available through retail, but are available direct from the company in the US for $60. Meanwhile, UK and European folks can get theirs from Gameslore for a splendid £37 – not bad at all!