Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dead of Night

A couple of months ago, while browsing BoardGameGeek, I ran across a game called Dead of Night. It's a free web-published zombie survival game (as in, you are trying to survive a horde of zombies, not that you are a zombie trying to survive). The game rules, card, bits, and everything can be downloaded and printed from here. I decided to check it out, since people had good things to say about it on BGG, because I think zombie survival is a fun theme for a board game, and because I thought the idea of free board games sounded pretty awesome. In printing out everything, I wasn't going to go all out for quality, since I didn't want to waste a bunch if the game sucked.

To cut to the chase, while the game was fun, the experiment resulted in me coming to a much greater appreciation for published games that you have to pay for.

The game itself was actually pretty fun. The game premise is pretty straightforward: A swarm of zombies is trying to reach you and eat your brains, so you need to get the hell out of there. I think it captures the feel of a zombie movie pretty well. In the movies, there seems to be a never ending line of zombies that keep coming after you. They don't move all that fast, but they just never stop coming. So, you need to hole up somewhere and figure out a way to escape. When they get close to you, you need to beat the crap out of them with random objects, or set them on fire, or shoot them, to buy you some time. You might find a car, but of course it's out of gas, or you can't find the keys. Or the place you hole up in is falling to ruins, so you need to patch up holes in the walls and board up windows.

The game can be played by 1-6 players. If you play solo, your objective is simply to stay alive. If you play with others, you cooperate to stay alive. But, they also have some sort of point system to determine a winner. I would prefer just to have a cooperative game, since the competitive point system aspect is a little weak. If played by players trying to optimize points, this will almost always lead to players turning on each other at some point, usually the very end, for no apparent reason. "We made it, buddy! We are about to escape these hundreds of zombies! ...Now, let me shoot you in the face so you will lose enough points to let me win, or shoot you in the face before you shoot me in the face since I'm ahead of you in points." I'll talk more later about problems with the competitive aspect and one way I think it could be improved.

There are currently three "official" scenarios made that specify initial board set-up, winning conditions, and any other special rules or conditions. The three scenarios can be played individually, or can be played consecutively as a trilogy of sorts. These scenarios present situations you might find in a typical zombie movie. In the first one, the players start off holed up in an old house. Zombies, sensing their brains, slowly shuffle towards the players. The players either need to hold out until dawn, or find a car, find the keys, and find some gas to fuel it in order to escape. The second scenario picks up where the precious one leaves off, with the players driving down the road. However, the road is blocked by a military-style gate. The players need to figure out a way to open the gate so they can proceed with their escape. Of course, there are some zombies milling around the area. The third scenario has the players crashing their car. They manage to escape the crash before the car explodes into flames. Luckily, there is another house close by, where they might be able to hole up or find another means of escape. Unfortunately, the house is also on fire, and there are a bunch of zombies in the area.

On each player's turn, they first draw a card. Cards are divided into two decks, Act I and Act II. Generally, in Act I, you are trying to gather supplies and zombie-proof the area. In Act II, the stakes are raised and the zombies have probably reached people by then. Cards can have some good or some bad consequence. For example, you might find some ammo or car keys, or a zombie might pop out from under a bed or cupboard or you might panic and lose your turn. Cards, good or bad, might have a symbol on them indicating that you need to advance zombies and add some more to the mix. The zombies follow simple rules in their movement: They advance straight towards the closest meal. If there is any ambiguity, the player moving the zombies determines exactly how they should move.

After drawing a card, a player can take a few actions, such as moving around, searching a room, starting fires, barricading doors and windows (assuming you have items to do so), resting, and moving around items or trading items with others. While you can gather a number of different items, you are limited in realistic ways in what you can carry and hold. So, you might be armed to the teeth with shotguns, molotov cocktails, chainsaws, and pie (yes, pie - it heals you). But, you can only reasonably hold one or two things, and strap a few more to your back or stuff things in so many pockets. Further, some vital items are especially cumbersome. Probably the most important item to find is a gas tank to refuel vehicles. But, lugging that thing around slows you down, and you can't lug that thing around and shoot zombies at the same time, so you need to plan appropriately and work well with others.

Due to the way zombies are deployed and moved, the difficulty scales more or less to the number of players. But, damn, there are a lot of zombies. I played solo, and was probably moving close to a hundred zombies by the end of the game. I imagine that with more players, it could get pretty crazy, and I bet it is vital to work together. In solo play, I imagine an individual player has a bit more time to gather together enough useful items and move around to strategic positions. The more players involved, the less any individual player can accumulate and move around. So, I bet the zombies move relatively faster the more players involved. So, it's probably pretty vital to work together as much as possible by delegating duties, with one person barricading the house, one or two fighting off zombies/running around as a zombie herder, one guy actively searching for vital items, etc.

The rulebook itself if pretty nice. It is portrayed as a pamphlet for what to do in the emergency that zombies are attacking. It is pretty funny (especially if you have seen a few zombie movies in your time). The rules are structured loosely enough to allow players to be pretty creative. In a way, it is almost like a role-playing game; if you think of something cool to do that isn't necessarily obvious from the rules, it is encouraged to do so, as long as it is not too overpowering. You get a decent enough idea about what might or might not be too much from the rules. But, I could see how this flexibility in the rules might lead to some imbalance or trips to an FAQ. And some rules seem a little weird and seem sort of like exploits when you play them to their optimal advantage. For example, because there are limits to how much you can carry, it is often better to throw items around in the path you plan on going since that will allow you the most movement and "carrying capacity" for your buck (i.e. for the number of actions you can do). So, you sort of end up playing a game of leap frog with items (throw gas tank, grab chainsaw, run forward, drop chainsaw, pick up gas tank, throw it, pick up chainsaw, etc.).

So, the rules and gameplay have a couple of wrinkles, but it was pretty fun. And, you could come up with your own scenarios that mix and match different board pieces and starting and winning conditions. So, there is a lot of potential replay value.

My main problem was with the pieces and cards I printed out. Now, I know this is rather unfair, given that I didn't put full effort into my printing. But, I think that I would still have issues if I was meticulous about it. The game is free, except for the fact that you would have to spend money to replace all the ink used in the process. I used my parents' color printer, which was fairly low in ink in some of the colors. But, I sucked dry every color in the printer, and obviously everything didn't come out looking all that great. That wasn't a big deal. But, I would say that you would plan on buying a full cartridge of ink if you plan on printing bits with any quality whatsoever. Also, you will need to invest in some type of nice, hefty card. I just printed on paper, and that was pretty disastrous. Since you can't print out a whole board in one go without a massive printer, it is broken up into pieces. Paper just doesn't cut it there. It's impossible to keep stuff lined up decently, since you're moving dozens of bits all over the board. The little zombie bits were kind of a nightmare. I had a really tough time picking up all the little pieces of paper to move all the zombies. By the end of the game, there are so many zombies, and it takes so much time for me to pick up and move individual zombies, that I would forget what I had moved and what I hadn't. I'm not sure if printing on card would help that issue all that much, though having more players would help. I would suggest trying to get some sort of figurines to replace as many of the zombie bits as possible. Having to move a hundred little chits is too much. Another issue I had was trying to print some of the two-sided things. The images are given in pdf files, and some are simply not lined up properly for two-sided printing. Or else I was doing something very wrong and couldn't figure it out. I would much rather the images were given as jpegs or something so that I could line them up myself in some program where I could snap images to guides and stuff and print them. But, instead, I ended up with some items with a Frankenstein image on the back, and I gave up on the room pieces and just drew important details on the backs (you don't know what is in a room until you reveal it, so on the back of the room tile, you need to know the location of doors and windows). And, on top of all that, it took me hours upon hours to print out everything I needed, even when you don't factor in time to reprint messed up double-sided bits. Then you need to cut all the pieces apart, which cramped my hand all to hell. I think half the horror in the game was trying to create the pieces.

So, as I said in the beginning, this just made me really appreciate the contribution publishers have with boardgames. Sure, this game is "free" if you ignore costs associated with printing. Factoring the cost of ink and decent card stock to print, Dead of Night probably wouldn't be a lot cheaper than a game like Last Night on Earth, which is $40. And the quality of the bits for a game like Last Night on Earth would probably be much better than whatever I would be able to print and cut out. Plus, all I would have to do is open a box instead of spending a whole day creating my sub-par bits. So, I'm not sure if Dead of Night is worth it, even being free, though I did enjoy playing the game. Maybe if you already had some board or bits that you could appropriate to play the Dead of Night rules with, it would be worth it. But, it was just a pain in the ass to construct pieces that made my eyes bleed anyways.

Getting back to the rules again, I'm not exactly sure why there needed to be competitive winning conditions. But, if you wanted to have individuals winning, I think you could do something like introducing hidden character roles with individual winning conditions rather than having global winning conditions. Two of the official scenarios already out there give players 1 point for each zombie killed, 10 points for escaping, and 10 points for making it to the end of the game alive. The other one (the one where you need to open the gate) is a little more nuanced: 1 point per zombie killed, 5 points for powering up the generator (the gate needs power to be opened) for the first time, 5 points for opening the gate, 10 points for escaping in a vehicle, and 5 points for making it to the end of the game alive. So, you can see where backstabbing would be an almost inevitable strategy.

I think you could come up with some interesting roles based on some stereotypical characters from zombie movies, or just some interesting roles based on what is possible in the game. For example, some hero type of character might get points based on the number of players still alive at the end of the game. One type of character might just love to kill zombies, so he would get more points for doing that. Or there could be some crazy/evil type of character who tries to undermine the others while staying alive himself. Or, given the use of fire in the game, why not some sort of pyromaniac, who might end up blowing up the gas tank rather than use it to fuel a car because he likes to see the boom. Essentially, create interesting victory conditions that would, if played with optimal strategy, lead players to do certain things in line with the type of character they are playing. In some cases, players might benefit by working together, while in others players would have cross purposes. The roles and individual victory conditions would be hidden, and there would be enough roles that are somewhat similar enough that players wouldn't necessarily tip off what character they were. So, players might try to figure out what the other players off and work towards trying to maximize their own score and minimizing others. Of course, the scoring would have to be balanced out and all that. I think something like that could be much more fun and interesting and lead to play that makes more sense.

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