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DiceDead

Dice of the Living Dead looks like one of those innumerable games from the 70s that required only a piece of paper and a pencil. Remember those? No? Well that’s because a lot of them were terrible. Especially the ones that used dice, and this one uses loads of them. I’ve hesitated to try it for months because the entertainment value has to be as paper thin as the game itself, right?

Not quite.

PLAYING THE GAME

Although you can get a minimalist ink-friendly version that prints on one sheet of paper, do what I did and print the two-page Ripley version (also use the Ripley rules, as they look nice and incorporate a few tweaks and print well on a single sheet of letter paper if you set them up as a booklet). I also laminated mine so I can use a dry erase marker to keep track of things.

Now take a look at the trail of spaces on the map. Your job is to get at least one survivor to the end of it before running out of time. Some spaces are red. These are bad because they make you fight extra zombies. Some spaces are green safe houses. These are good because they give you extra time and often provide extra supplies. They are also bad because they just as often unleash horrible terrible awful zombie attacks. They also force a check on your infected party members (oh, you’ll have plenty of those) to see if they zombie out. Finally, they make you eat up scarce supplies, and you lose survivors if you don’t have enough to feed them. This game is nasty times ten.

The core gameplay uses both Yahtzee and dice placement mechanisms to create a compelling little press-your-luck design. You always have five survivor dice, plus one supply die and one zombie die. There is also a timer die to count down from five hours (or six in some cases). These are all d6, so it should be easy for any gamer to scare up a set big enough to play, but you should use different colors for each type if possible. (At last, I’ve found a perfect use for the zombie die I received from the Eaten By Zombies Kickstarter!)

At the beginning of your turn you roll all the dice except the timer. The zombie die is then pulled and can’t be modified. If it shows a five or six, you know one zombie is showing up that turn for sure. A three or four means two zombies. A two means three zombies. A one unleashes three zombies and forces you to knock an hour off the timer die. It is bad.

Much like Yahtzee, you can then lock in as many dice as you want and reroll the remainder, then do that one more time before you must accept the final result. Unlike Yahtzee, survivor dice go to different pools depending on the number showing.

Fives and sixes go to the Fight Pool, and each one in there gives you a fight die to roll against those of the zombies. Ack! Zombies!

Fours go to the Movement Pool and let you move two spaces on the map. Threes go there as well, but only let you move one space. If you put at least three fours or three threes there you can pretend you have a fourth die of that same number, adding some precious bonus movement.

Twos make you lose one hour. They are bad. So, so bad.

Ones are immediately removed and add an extra zombie to whatever the zombie die shows. They are beyond bad.

Finally, there is the scavenger die. A six is handy as you can add it to the Fight Pool, or put it in the Movement Pool as a four. A five lets you add two ammo (MOAR AMMO!), a four lets you add one survivor, a three lets you add two supplies, and a two lets you add one supply. By now you’ve likely guessed that a one is not good news, and you are both smart and correct. A one forces you to mark a survivor as infected. It can still be re-rolled, but if you get another one you must mark another survivor as infected. Infected survivors are bad, bad, bad.

After locking in all the dice and moving them to their respective pools you resolve movement. Sometimes this lands you in a safe house (you must stop when you get there, so extra movement points are wasted), but regardless of where you end up you must duke it out with some zombies.

The zombies get one die per zombie indicated on the zombie die, plus one more for each survivor die that ended up in their pool, and one more for lagniappe if you landed on a red spot. As mentioned, you get one die for each survivor die in your Fight Pool. You can also expend ammo points to gain extra fight dice on a one-for-one basis. Ammo is good. You will cherish ammo. Precious, precious ammo…

You roll your fight dice first, Yahtzee style up to three times. Higher numbers are better, and whenever you roll a one (except on your initial roll), you immediately lose one hour from the timer die (oh so bad). Once those are locked in you roll the zombie fight dice one time. If there are any sixes you can remove them by infecting one survivor per six. Of the remainders, your fight die remove zombie fight die that are equal to or lower than them. This means your six will take out a zombie six, or a zombie three and another zombie three, or any combination of dice that add up to six. You can also combine two of your fight dice to remove any single zombie fight die that is equal to or lower than their combined value. For every zombie fight die that remains, you lose one survivor. Ouch.

If you haven’t made it to a safe house yet, you start a new turn. Otherwise you play the safe house phase, which begins with setting the timer die back to five (or six in some cases). You then resolve whatever event is listed for that location (most of them are bad, and if you have to fight zombies you can only gain fight dice by using ammo). Then you divide your remaining survivors in half and lose that many supplies. If you are short, you lose survivors on a one-for-one basis. Oof.

Remember how all those survivors were getting infected while you were rolling all those dice earlier? This is resolved in the safe house phase by rolling once for each infected person. On a five or six, nothing happens. A four makes you lose one infected and one survivor. A two or three makes you lose a survivor, but not an infected. A one makes you lose two survivors and no infected. Did I mention that this game is nasty, brutal, and just plain mean?

Rinse, repeat, die, or get to the end with at least one survivor. There’s also a scoring system so you can see how well you do from game to game, but I didn’t think it was worth the effort. Surviving is enough for me.

IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?

There are three main elements I look for when playing all types of games:

ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?

They are. Choices are limited, but they add a great deal of tension to an elegant design. Focus too much on movement and your ammo dwindles and your survivors get overwhelmed. Focus too much on combat and you stall out, often having to deal with the agony of watching the merciless timer die tick down.

Re-rolls also require some thought because they can bite you badly if you blow them. Should you stay on those threes and fours on your fight roll, or throw those bones again and risk losing time or getting lower values? Whatever you choose, this game keeps you engaged, and that’s a triumph for any design.

IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?

Oh yeah. I feel relieved every time I make it to that last space on the board (and pass my final infected rolls–this game kicks you in the rear even if you manage to get out). I also feel awful each time my little group succumbs to the zombie horde, because often it’s due to a reckless decision of mine or the opposite problem of being too conservative when I should have taken a risk. The inclusion of a scoring system is pure gravy.

IF THERE’S A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?

Surprisingly, yes. The appearance of lots of zombies can really slow you down. Few of them means the potential for faster movement. Survivor dice grapple with zombie dice. Scarce ammo gives you the edge. Safe houses are dual-edged. People gotta eat, and you gotta feed them. All by rolling a few dice. It’s abstract, but it’s pretty amazing how well everything fits together, flows well, and becomes a nail-biting zombie escape adventure.

THE VERDICT

This is the kind of stripped-down design that I would never guess would work. Had I created it, there would be all kinds of event cards, equipment, randomized safe houses, survivor special abilities, various kinds of zombies, minis, and other chrome tacked on to drop a curtain in front of the simple dice mechanisms. I’m talking Elder Sign: Zombie Edition. Mads Brynnum knows better, which is amazing because he based this on The d6 Shooters, a game that uses a similar board and mechanisms but is laden with event cards and other trappings. Mads stripped the system down to its essentials to create something that takes little time to play yet still retains its theme. It’s also one of the simplest games to print and try out, so grab the files and get running. The zeds are right behind you…

Friday

I am a sucker for deckbuilding games. If you aren’t, move on, because despite not really looking like one on the surface that’s what Friday is. A solitaire game that captures many of the card culling and card combo tricks that make more complex games like Dominion and Thunderstone so varied and interesting. The game is named for its lighthearted backstory of Friday trying to help a hopeless Robinson Crusoe get into shape so he can get him the hell off Friday’s island. Cartoony art adds to the playfulness. It is all a lie. This game is brutal, especially while you’re learning how all the cards interact. And once you get over the initial learning curve there are three more levels of difficulty to hurdle.

PLAYING THE GAME

Despite the name, you feel more like you’re playing the role of a hapless Crusoe who gradually gets stronger and more cunning. There’s a draw deck representing Crusoe himself, and each card has a number on it that contributes to overcoming challenges. Some also have special abilities that are useful on their own and can be combined into powerful combos. At the beginning of each turn you draw two challenge cards from another deck and choose one to tackle, discarding the other. Challenge cards are split in half, with the challenge on one half and a Crusoe card on the other. The challenge side has a number on it indicating how many free cards you can draw from your Crusoe deck to try to overcome it, and another number indicating the total number of points you need on those Crusoe cards to win the challenge. Winning the challenge lets you add that card to your Crusoe deck, using the Crusoe side when you draw for the rest of the game. Those are the basics, but there are many clever twists that elevate this design to a level where any solitaire aficionado should go ahead and order it before reading the rest of this review. The first is that you start the game with 20 hit points, represented by wooden tokens (you start with less in the more difficult games). These are easy to spend but difficult to get back, and you are constantly tempted to use them. During challenges you can spend them to draw additional cards from the Crusoe deck to augment the ones the challenge lets you draw for free. And if you lose a challenge you lose hit points equal to the difference between the combined total of the Crusoe cards you played and the number printed on the challenge card. That sounds terrible, except losing challenges on purpose is a key strategy. For each hit point you lose, you get to permanently remove one of the Crusoe cards you played on that challenge from the game. Your starting deck is watered down with Crusoe cards that have 0 or -1 values, so it is crucial to purge that poison so your draws let you defeat the bigger challenges to get the best cards. Only you don’t want to go too far, because there’s another deck of cards I haven’t mentioned yet: The Aging deck. Each time you draw the last card in the Crusoe deck you add one of these to it before shuffling, and they hurt. Badly. For example, one of them has a -5 value (doesn’t sound like much, but just you wait). Some have devastating abilities (activating them is mandatory) that do things like prevent you from drawing any more free cards. Worse still, if you lose a challenge and want to get rid of them they absorb two of your lost hit points for each one that is removed. The Aging deck is so nasty that you want to make sure you aren’t culling Crusoe cards too aggressively, as you cycle through a thin deck faster and have to drop a big stinkbomb into it every time you shuffle. If you spend all your time clearing out cards and not pushing your luck to win the challenges that put superior replacements in your deck, God help you. The main reason Aging and other cards with 0 or negative values hurt so much is that the game ramps up in difficulty each time you cycle through the challenge deck. At first you use the number in the green circle on the challenge card, which often require only a few points to overcome. Once the challenge deck is cycled you use the number in the yellow circle, which is dramatically higher. Then you use the number in the red circle when the deck is cycled a third time, and it makes you want to throw things. If you manage to survive those three cycles you are rewarded with the privilege of fighting two pirate ships to get off the island. These are drawn randomly at the beginning of the game, are loads more difficult than the challenges, and hit you at the end of the game when your hit points are likely to be distressingly low. To give you an idea of what you’re facing, defeating the Cannibal card (the toughest in the challenge deck) requires you to meet or exceed 5 points in the green round, 9 points in the yellow round, or 14 points in the red round. Pirate ships have numbers like 35 or 40 or 52, and often wreak more havoc with special abilities.

IS IT WORTH YOUR TIME?

With games, solitaire or otherwise, three things matter most to me:

ARE THE DECISIONS INTERESTING?

Always. Choosing between the two challenges requires both knowing the capabilities of your deck and knowing if the Crusoe half you could win is important. Then you must decide if you should gamble with hit points to try to win the challenge or lose them on purpose to cull cards. You must decide what order you will activate special abilities to get the most out of them, and figure out what cards are most important at each stage of the game. You must also take the pirates you drew into consideration because ultimately your deck must beat both of them.

IS THERE A CLEAR SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT OR FAILURE?

Definitely. You either get Crusoe off the island or you fail. Beyond that there is a scoring system to let you know how good or bad you did relative to previous games and scores others post.

IF THERE’S A THEME, IS IT TIGHTLY INTEGRATED WITH THE DESIGN?

Surprisingly, yes. Crusoe starts the game like the shipwreck survivor he is, weak and unwise to the ways of the island. As you overcome challenges he gets tougher and smarter, but the challenges themselves become harder, and the aging mechanism throws curveballs at his plans. It’s also neat that his hit points are used to take damage and expend extra effort during tough challenges. Island survival is exhausting work.

THE VERDICT

This is a stellar solitaire design, particularly if you like deckbuilding games. I’ve heard it’s solvable, but I’m guessing anyone who isn’t a computer will get a dozen or two plays out of it before it becomes routine. Can’t ask for much more than that from an elegant, clever, portable gem like this.