Victory Point Games’ States of Siege series is all about checking the progress of really bad things coming at you from a variety of directions. Can you imagine a system better suited to simulating a zombie apocalypse?

Neither can I.

Playing the Game

Dawn of the Zeds has the chintzy components VPG is known for, only they’re slightly less chintzy than some of their other releases I’ve played. The cards are a bit thicker, the art is a bit more involved (though most is computer-generated and I don’t care for it), and it comes with a nice big pile of chits and markers. This game is begging for the company’s recent Gold Banner treatment (better paper and much thicker counters), but when a game is this good I’ll take what I can get. And what I got is highly functional.

Everything happens on an 11×17 map with Mountain, Forest, Suburb, and Highway tracks that all converge on a central town. Each track has some named spaces that provide combat and other bonuses, along with villages containing helpless Villagers and Civilian Units that can fight. These far-flung units can’t move at the beginning of the game, but unlock as soon as they meet the zombies face-to-face. After that the Villagers turn into Refugees that try to flee to the city center, and the Civilian Units come fully under your control to use as zombie feed as you see fit.

A few Civilian Units begin under your control in the Town Center, as do four Heroes. You get to choose one Hero and then draw three random ones, and other Heroes sometimes appear as the game progresses. They all have multiple special abilities, move much faster than Civilian Units do, and often are better in combat than even the largest Civilian Unit. The tradeoff is that Civilian Units can absorb up to four hits before being removed from play, and they can potentially re-enter the game. Heroes can absorb only two hits before dying, and death is permanent for them. With the exception of Villagers/Refugees player units can never stack with one another, so it takes some strategy to position Civilian and Hero Units where they will do the most good.

To put this in perspective, Zed Units soak up six hits before being removed. Oh, and two Zed units can also stack to form a Zed Mob that combines its strength values. I hate it when that happens. So will you.

The Heroes are varied and interesting. Many excel at hand-to-hand or gunfire attacks (the two types of combat), and some have Forager abilities that are crucial for obtaining supplies and ammo. The craziest is a dog named Pickles that can’t fight but can co-exist in spaces where Zeds are (useful for scavenging in choice areas later in the game) and can bark to keep them from moving towards town. Pickles is also lovable. (We love you, Pickles!)

Attached to Town Center are a Hospital and Laboratory. Only Heroes with a Science special ability can be assigned to these. In the Hospital they can heal wounded Heroes to bring them back into play at full strength, and in the Lab they can conduct research to make healing easier, invent a Super Weapon, and ultimately discover a cure for the zombie plague.

Zeds appear on the ends of the four tracks leading to town and shamble down them towards the Town Center. It might seem like a good strategy to put everyone in the Town Center to concentrate your power, but if any Zed Unit steps into that square the game ends in a loss immediately. No fights. No special cards. Just THE END. Your job is to hold them off until the National Guard arrives to bail you out.

This happens by working your way to the bottom of an Event Deck. At the beginning of the game you mix the National Guard Arrives card in with some other cards, put them on the bottom, and put the rest of the deck on top. The rest of the deck is mainly Event Cards, but is also seeded with special Zed Cards designed to make you cry. The worst of these, naturally, is the Braaaaaiiiins card, which moves all Zed Units at once. Any Zeds that win fights as the result of this get to fight again if another player unit is adjacent. And again if another one is. Etc. If one of these chain attacks hits at the wrong time you can lose the game much faster than you ever thought possible.

There is also a deck of Fate Cards. This contains some helpful stuff and some awful stuff. Really awful stuff. Fate draws are tense and cause some huge power swings.

Event Cards drive the game. At the beginning of each turn you draw one and it determines how the five phases of each turn play out.

First, there’s the Refugee Movement phase. If any Villagers have been turned into Refugees you move them closer to Town Center. When they get there you can either move them to a refugee camp (providing a better ending if you survive to the end of the game), or equip them and use them to heal a few existing Civilian Units. There are also VIP Survivors that sometimes enter the map and provide a special bonus if you manage to shepherd them to town, and a gang of Raiders that move fast and will steal your supplies and ammo if you don’t kill them.

Next there’s the Outbreak phase. The map has an Infection Level track that rises for all kinds of reasons, including hand-to-hand combat with Zeds and refugee units entering Town Center. If the current Infection level is equal to or less than the number printed on the Event Card, an Outbreak is triggered and bad things happen fast. First you reduce the Infection Level by 5 (OK, that’s good), then you make a Fate Draw and execute its event (this can be good or bad), and then you add a full-strength Zed unit to the track indicated on the Fate card. This Zed appears at the Chaos Marker closest to Town Center, or the closest Village if there is no Chaos Marker, and often immediately triggers hand-to-hand combat.

I haven’t talked about Chaos Markers yet. These appear in named spaces that Zeds land in or pass through. They block player unit movement and require any unit that enters to waste a turn getting rid of the marker. They also tie into a lot of event cards, causing worse things to happen if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. You will come to hate Chaos Markers.

After Outbreak is the Consume Supplies phase. You begin the game with a random amount of these, and can increase them through Foraging. Full-strength Civilian Units (Heroes and weakened Civilian Units don’t count) are counted and checked against the number on the card (unless the card outright tells you to consume or not consume), and if there are more of them than the number you lose one supply. If you don’t have enough you must apply one hit to any player unit on the map. This problem obviously becomes less pressing as the game progresses, but by then you have bigger problems to worry about.

After that it’s the Zeds phase. The Event card lists what tracks the Zeds move on that turn, and sometimes gives them an extra burst of speed. If they land on a space with one of your units hand-to-hand combat begins. If they land on a fleeing Refugee those Refugees are eaten and the Infection Level increased by 2.

Finally there’s the Actions phase. This is where you finally get to Move your units, erect defensive Barricades (this requires two supplies), remove Chaos Markers, Forage for ammo and supplies, conduct Research, Heal units, and fight. Only you won’t get to do all those things because there are never enough action points to do everything you need to do. Using them wisely is critical.

Those are all the basic phases, but each Event Card also has some event text at the bottom that applies during one of those phases. Often the event provides special benefits to the Zeds, but sometimes they give you extra resources if you have a unit in the right space at the end of your turn or otherwise benefit you.

Combat is simple. You compare the strength of the attacking unit to the strength of the defending unit and apply combat shifts (for terrain and other bonuses) to determine what column to use on the combat chart. Then you roll 2d6 to see what row you use on that chart. This tells you how many hits the attacker and defender take, and which unit retreats after hand-to-hand combat. In gunfire attacks you consume one ammo to do the same thing, but use a fixed column based on the attacker’s Strength, attack an adjacent enemy, don’t take hits, and the defender never retreats (except under special circumstances).

That’s it. Survive until the National Guard arrives and you get to check your level of victory to see how things turned out for humanity thanks to your efforts. Or die.

You will usually die.

Is it Worth Your Time?

I look for three main things from the games I play:

Are the Decisions Interesting?

A lot of this game is dealing with what the Event and Fate Cards throw at you, but the choices you make to do that are always interesting. Even the initial Hero pick sets the tone for the entire game, as you can go with a combat-heavy badass like the Sheriff, or guarantee that you’ll be able to do some research by choosing one of the wimpier scientist heroes.

Once you get a feel for the decks your choices become less random and more strategic. You have a better feel for the odds of horrific Zeds cards coming up, or the odds that a particularly hairy bunch of Zeds will move the next turn and ruin your day if you ignore them (NOTE: The odds of this are always 100%). You also know what kinds of benefits you’ll receive and can plan around them instead of wasting actions on things you get for free.

And trust me, you never want to waste an action in this game. Even when the Zeds hit the fan and your units are being consumed like franks at an MLB game, you always have too many people and too few options. The game does a good job of keeping you on the edge of your seat, head-down, scanning the map to see what sacrifices are acceptable.

Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?

This depends on what you want to get out of this thing. Obviously you either hold out until the National Guard swoops in or you watch everyone get turned into the living dead, but a lot of what happens is outside your control. You can try to mitigate your bad luck but the dice guarantee that your planning seldom pays off (FRIGGIN’ DICE).

If you can live with that and care more about reacting to what an emergent narrative throws at you, this is your game. Dawn of the Zeds tells a different story every time, and it is always interesting, even when you’re losing. Maybe especially when you’re losing.

Here’s an example: In every game I’ve played I’ve ended up with Captain Piazza on my team. She is astounding on paper because she can hit Zeds up to three spaces away, and she always uses a fixed column on the combat chart instead of having to use her relatively weak Strength. Theoretically this will let her whittle down even the biggest Zed Units as they cover the distance between them and the business end of her sniper rifle.

Only she never hits anything. Ever. In my last game with her I threw more snake eyes than I’ve ever thrown in every game I’ve ever played combined (minus Risk). Despite her supreme suckitude I managed to burn through enough events that I knew the National Guard would show up at any second, and my only concern was a full-strength Zed unit with an strength of 8 that was parked two spaces from Town Center.

My only other units were too far away to help. Looking down, I remembered that I had picked up an explosives card via a Fate Draw. This applies 1d6 hits when Zeds wander into it, so despite her ranged advantage I sent Piazza one space towards the Zeds to set the charges.

She got the job done, and my next Event Card draw moved the big Zed pack smack into her. Piazza is hopeless in hand-to-hand combat, but she has a trick up her sleeve. When Zeds move into her space she can roll 1d6, and if she gets the right number she applies one hit to them and retreats one space. She got it. Then the explosives went off. I rolled a six. KABOOM! No more Zeds. The next draw would have moved them into Town Center. Then the National Guard showed up and I told Captain Piazza she was now a Major, but that I was commandeering her sniper rifle and never wanted to see her again in this brave new world we had forged together.

Each game overflows with little anecdotes like these. I love them. If you don’t, run. Run as if there’s a zombie horde at your heels.

If There’s a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?

With one exception, most definitely. It’s really neat to play a zombie game at this macro level, where you’re managing large groups and individual heroes. Actually, “really neat” doesn’t do this design justice — it’s flippin’ amazing. You don’t so much play this game as you write and direct your own epic zombie TV series.

The exception I mentioned is the stacking limitation for Player Units. There is every reason thematically to let Heroes stack with the larger Civilian Units, and for Heroes to stack with Heroes, but here it is verboten. I’m sure it would throw off the balance, but I’m considering experimenting with a house rule that lets you stack Heroes with one Civilian Unit, using its reduced strength side or cutting its FV in half (rounded up). Or maybe the solution is to give heroes special abilities and bonuses that only apply when they’re with a Civilian Unit or another Hero Unit. However it’s done, it just makes sense to have heroes enter a group and contribute their special heroness. Especially for Pickles. Why a dog can’t coexist in a space with anyone she wants to (Pickles is obviously a she) boggles the imagination.

The Verdict

This is a very different zombie game. Instead of focusing on a handful of heroes holding out or fleeing to relative safety, Dawn of the Zeds gives a bird’s eye view of an extended community dealing with the apocalypse. Combat is quick and brutal. Heroes are powerful but brittle. A cute and lovable dog barks at Zeds and brings you lots and lots of precious, precious ammo. Weak units you decided to write off to buy some time throw back massive zombie mobs against all odds. Characters you’ve come to rely on fumble miserably at a critical moment and are eaten. It’s like playing a season of The Walking Dead, but in an hour or two.

My only complaint is that there aren’t enough Heroes. Those that are included are great, but replayability would benefit greatly if you weren’t always stuck with the same cast. Of course, there are fan mods for that. And an expansion on the way.

Mr. Johnson just oiled his double-barrel boomstick. Bring it.