I was given a review copy of this game by the publisher.
“What’s going on here?”
“Is he hospitalized?
“Is he dead?”
“Did he join the Carthusian Order to spend the reminder of his life in silent contemplation, prayer and distillation of green liqueurs?”
It’s been over two weeks since I posted a review. I’ve been coming up with excuse after excuse to postpone writing about the third edition of Dawn of the Zeds. I’ve told myself that there’s a lot more to explore, that I haven’t even read all the rules, that I haven’t played on all difficulty levels yet, that I’m not ready to share my opinion. On top of that I simply wanted to play the game more, more, more! I’ve been hit by Z.E.D., the Zombie Epidemic Disease…
Zeds: Background and History
Dawn of the Zeds was designed by Hermann Luttmann and as far as I know it’s been a solitaire gaming staple ever since its first edition in 2011. The game is part of the States of Siege Series, a number of solitaire games released by Victory Point Games, where the player is in charge of coordinating the defense against an enemy that usually outnumbers the defenders. Some other popular games in the series are Zulus on the Ramparts and Cruel Necessity. Most of the games in the States of Siege Series are based on real conflicts, but Dawn of the Zeds draws on George A. Romero’s zombie apocalypse movies rather than historical accounts. From the publisher’s website:
[T]hings are far from fabulous in Farmingdale and, for once, everyone isn’t blaming the Mayor. Some kind of virus or poison is turning ordinary people into vicious, zombie-like killers. It is not clear how the disease spreads (though it seems that physical contact is certainly one way), but it is obvious what the illness does to its victims.
These undead . . . are now converging on your corner of the world around Farmingdale. As best you can tell, you have been left to your own devices to stop them while the National Guard organizes a relief column, but [it] could take days, perhaps weeks, for them to fight their way to you…
[Y]ou realize that you must coordinate the defense of the town . . . You must lead the good citizens and emerging heroes of these communities to halt the Zeds’ advances by (re)killing them, to attempt to coordinate the discovery of a cure to this vile scourge, and to preserve as much of the area and as many of its inhabitants as possible. There’s no time to lose…
Dawn of the Zeds is Focused on defense. Your main goal is survival. At its core it’s a tower defense game of sorts, but when you raise the difficulty and complexity other goals and challenges are added.
The third edition of Dawn of the Zeds (DotZ) was released in 2016 and adds cooperative play and a versus-mode where one player plays the side of the zombies. The graphics have been overhauled, cards have been added, there are new kinds of units and more. For a complete list of the changes see the entry in the BGG game database. Some people seem to prefer the grittier look of the second edition. Personally I think the second edition board looks better, but the third edition board is less of a mess and looks more functional.
I haven’t played the other editions of DotZ and I will therefore not comment further on the differences, and in this review I only look at solitaire play.
Technicalities: Five Rule Books?
Dawn of the Zeds has a lot of cardboard components, lots of cards and five (5!) rule books. When I sat down to learn how to play this game I was prepared for the worst kind of introductory game imaginable.
The rule books are remarkably well laid out and edited, however. This is the third edition of a rather complex game with many rules and many exceptions to them. My guess is that three editions, three stages of editing and rewriting, has helped getting everything in the right place and to make such an efficient system of cross-references.
The cross-references are great. Whenever I don’t find what I’m looking for I usually find something like “[r]ule 4.7 can be found on pg. 21” or “[i]f you are instructed to make a Fate Draw, see Appendix 1.” Different color text is used for different kinds of information. Everything is indexed, numbered, paginated and clarified with examples. And one of the rule books, The Basic Game, says “START HERE!!” in big, red letters on the front cover. So I did.
The rule book for the basic game is a good place to start for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a good way of learning how to navigate the text and avoid getting lost among the paragraphs. Sometimes I started looking for things all over the place, until I realized that had I just read the basic rules more attentively I would have known where to look. Secondly, the game has so many rules that playing with all of them from the beginning could be overwhelming for someone new to the game.
If you start at the basic level and then work your way up from levels 1 through 5 the rules are introduced gradually. This arrangement makes the learning experience surprisingly smooth. The downside of this approach is that your first play will not be by far as interesting as subsequent plays on higher levels. I made the mistake of playing the basic game twice. Don’t do that! Move on to level 1 when you’ve gotten the basics down, and learning the game will be more stimulating and exciting.
I wrote “surprisingly smooth”, not “smooth”. It is a game with five rule books, after all, and you’ll have to consult them frequently. It’s not an elegant game. It’s complex and hard. The way the rules are presented, however, makes learning the game enjoyable as long as you’re up for a challenge and are interested in exploring an intricate system of game mechanisms. If that sounds like your thing you’re in for a treat.
The two-sided player aids, on the other hand, leave something to be desired. The information on the front side is useful. The combat tables obviously have to be at hand at all times, just like the sequence of play. However, what I most frequently have to consult the rule books about, unit movement, is completely missing from the player aids. The most basic rules about unit stacking, movement and directions of retreat are not that complicated, but there are many exceptions and special cases. As far as I’m concerned the back of the player aid could have been dedicated to movement rather than the limited and simple symbology.
Apart from being well organized and approachable, the writing does a good job of immersing you in the theme without obscuring the rules. The player aids could have been better, but since the rules are easily navigated it’s fine. To sum it up: I’ve often been more than four times as frustrated while trying to learn games with less than half as much rules text. Petra Schlunk and Alan Emrich did an impressive job developing Hermann Luttmann’s design. The game is rather big and complicated, but easier to approach than you’d expect. When I started playing my first game it was a smoother experience than I had anticipated, and so far – eight games in – I haven’t had to search online to solve any rules issues.
Cinematics: B-Movie Theming
This game takes the b-movie approach to the zombie apocalypse theme. Overtly. Everything from illustrations and layout to card names and flavor texts has the blunt, visceral, sensational vibe of exploitation cinema. The tone is unabashedly colloquial, rough and tounge-in-cheek. Blood is splattered everywhere, even decorating the pages of the rule books.
On some of the cards the illustrations are framed by curtains as though you were watching a projection screen in a movie theater. On other cards the illustrations look like frames on a roll of film. In this way the game’s wrapped in dual layers of fiction. That’s probably why the humorous tone and the comic book style of the hero portraits – things that I tend to dislike in a game – only annoy me a tad bit. It’s a zombie flick, after all, on top of being a board game.
The arrogant macho vibe of some of the writing and imagery strikes me as ironical rather than sincere. I’d prefer a more understated approach to the heroes, their backstories and their portraits, though. Something more everyday might have provided a more interesting, more striking contrast to the brutality of the zombie infestation. But as much as I’m inclined to dislike this kind of aesthetic and tone, it works in the bizarre context of a b-movie zombie apocalypse.
The worldbuilding has been thoroughly done. All characters have a background story. A web of connections between events, people and places is gradually revealed as new cards are drawn, as rules are looked up and as more threats appear. I like the wide variety of protagonists; paranoid loners, officials, police officers, women, men, military personnel, civilians, scientists – even a dog and a pro wrestler!
When it comes to the depictions of zombies and events, the exaggerated in-your-face brutality feels just right. This imagery, combined with the thorough worldbuilding and the intense onslaught that the game mechanisms provide, makes for a strongly thematic experience.
The setup has many variables, but there are certain restrictions to the randomization of cards, counters and characters to ensure that although the game will be tensely unpredictable, there will also be dramatic escalation and a sense of direction and development. Setting the game up is something of an ordeal the first few times, but with some practice and a counter tray I now manage to do it in just over ten minutes.
The board has four tracks representing roads and highways leading to the town center in the middle of the board. Your heroes are in the town center at the beginning of the game, and it’s the town center that has to be defended; if a zombie enters this space the game immediately is lost.
The Zeds usually appear on the track’s start spaces, the spaces furthest from town, and start moving towards you. They are few and slow at first, but not for long. Between the start spaces and the town center are villages, cabins, mines and farms. Some of the villagers will stand firm and defend their homes while others will take off when the Zeds show up. Any refugees reaching the town center will be saved and housed in a temporary shelter, but they will also increase the infection level, making Z.E.D. outbreaks more likely to occur. And that means even more Zeds.
As the coordinator of the defense you’ll be under constant pressure. You’ll always wish that you had more units in more places and more actions available. As the surrounding villages fall to the Zeds and chaos ensues, as unexpected outbreaks occur in places you thought were safe, you’ll have to start prioritizing. You can’t be everywhere. Supplies and munitions are running low. The hospital is getting crowded. And where’s the National Guard?
The driving mechanism behind the onslaught is the deck of Event Cards, stacked in four randomized segments of increasing intensity. Somewhere towards the bottom of the stack is the card representing the National Guard and some much needed firepower. There might be a few other cards in there that bring some hope, but most of them just make things worse. And you have to go through all of them to win.
I lost a particularly intense game while playing through the phases of the last card in the deck. Before I got to the last phase, where I would have won, a group of Zeds forced their way into the town center. And that’s just one of the ways you can lose – when the Zeds take over too many locations and chaos erupts in them, you’ll lose as well.
The Event Cards lead you through five phases. Some of these phases mainly concern the zombie epidemic, zombie movement and outbreaks. The fifth phase is the action phase, and that’s where the bulk of your decision-making will take place. Depending on the card you’ve drawn and the circumstances surrounding the event it represents, you get between one and three actions, although there are some rare exceptions where you get as much as four actions or as few as no actions at all.
Flipping over the next Event Card after a particularly tough turn is a moment of wonderful suspense. The cards determine on which of the four tracks the Zeds will advance, as well as when and where more Zeds will appear and whether the risk of outbreak will rise. A few cards offer a momentary respite allowing you to spend a few actions on foraging for food and ammunition, bringing wounded units to the hospital, regrouping or building barricades.
Although I’m not a wargamer (yet!), it seems to me that DotZ definitely has some wargame mechanisms in it. This is far from surprising considering Hermann Luttmann’s design history and the back catalogue of Victory Point Games. What strikes me as most wargame-like is the use of tables and dice for both armed and hand-to-hand combat, and that different units have different rules for how they move and retreat. The two combat tables add some depth to the dice-rolling and are easy to use. The combat rules take terrain into account as well as whether you’re attacking or defending.
The deck of Fate Cards is a supplement to the Event Deck. Fate Cards are drawn when an Event Card calls for it, usually to determine where a certain event will take place. On top of specifying a location the Fate Cards represent another event or discovery. Sometimes it’s something good: the arrival of a helpful stranger or a group of determined civilians; the discovery of something useful like a munitions cache or a tank of kerosene for burning the dead and decreasing the risk of infection. But more often than not, the Fate Card is bad news: Zeds have started showing signs of intelligence or stronger determination; supplies are spoiled or lost; a surprise attack by Zeds or a group of human raiders that use the chaotic situation to their advantage.
There’s a lot more, though. Starting on difficulty level three you’re able to research the zombie disease, hopefully finding an antidote or developing a more efficient weapon against the Zeds. On level four, the other side of the board is used and there’s a fifth track where the Zeds can advance: the Tunnel Track.
Apart from the gradual introduction of rules on each new level, more cards are added as well, making the game harder and harder. The game starts to get really interesting on level two and I have yet to win on level three. I’m very much looking forward to trying levels four and five.
The partly randomized set-up, the unpredictable combinations of Event Cards and Fate Cards, the die-rolls and the random draws of Zeds units from a cup make for lots of excitement, variability and surprises. The different abilities of the heroes add further to the variation.
This game delivers a constant feeling of tension and urgency. Most of the game feels like complete disaster is just around the corner. You have to use all resources available and it always feels like you have fewer actions than you need. On top of this a story unravels, and the story is a little different every time and always dramatic.
Things That Might Concern Some Gamers
- Dawn of the Zeds (third edition) is definitely a rules-heavy game, but the rule books are well written and easy to navigate.
- To make learning the game less of an ordeal, the rules are introduced gradually through a total of six levels of difficulty. From a pedagogical standpoint this is excellent, but be aware that the introductory level game is rather bland compared to what’s to come. It starts getting really interesting on level two.
- The game is somewhat fiddly and has lots of counters. Setup takes a bit of work.
- Chance is an important element in this game, and there’s randomness on several levels.
- The game takes way longer than advertised. Expect at least three hours rather than the one and a half to two that are advertised. Personally I prefer a longer game to a shorter one and in no way does this game overstay its welcome.
- The theme is presented in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner. I was initially worried about this, but in the end I’ve found the game involving.
- For a game containing no fancy miniatures or other bling, Dawn of the Zeds is rather expensive. Components are good, however, and there’s a lot to explore and high replayability.
- Dawn of the Zeds is challenging and tough. It always feels like the odds are against you, whether you win or lose in the end. Every single decision is important, and there are never enough action points available to do what you want to do.
- The game is strongly thematic. The worldbuilding has been thorough. The mechanisms add greatly to the tension of the story that’s told. The sense of desperation and urgency is constant.
- The rules are well written and edited.
- The graphic design is clear and functional. The illustrations are great for the most part, and help invoking the b-movie vibe.
- Set-up is variable and you never use everything in the box. After eight games and over twenty hours of play I can’t wait to get back to the game. There’s a lot to explore in the box. On top of that there are three small expansions out and rumors of three more in the works.
- The game has several modes of play besides solitaire.
In Dawn of the Zeds the blunt brutality of exploitation cinema is brilliantly paired with wargame mechanisms and a tower defense challenge. It makes for an intense solitaire gaming experience; highly thematic, strongly immersive, brutally tense and tactically challenging.
The game is rules-heavy and somewhat fiddly. The five rule books, however, are well laid out and well written, and the gradual introduction of rules makes the learning experience smooth.
Dawn of the Zeds packs three hours of Ameritrash bliss and it’s one of the best examples of this loosely defined genre that I’ve come across so far.
Other People’s Opinions
To get a different perspective on this game I recommend reading R. P. Kraul’s review on BoardGameGeek.
If you’re interested in the differences between the second and the third edition, this is where you should look.
Thanks for reading! Meow!