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?
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.
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…