Review: Zombie World
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 17, 2019
Last year Magpie games kickstarted their new Powered by the Apocalypse game Zombie World, a game by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman. This weekend at Breakout Con I managed to run the game for some friends—new and old. I ran Zombie World twice, both off the books “hallway” games. I mentioned to Mark Diaz Truman I was going to print and play with the PDF (which went out to Kickstarter backers a while ago) and he sent me a demo copy they had on hand.1 I hadn’t a run a game in almost two years, and I’ve never run a PbtA game before. I was nervous!
I didn’t prep for either game, and both games worked fine being played totally off the cuff. The dream! I ended up flipping over the illustrated population cards when I needed to come up with a new NPC. (I’ll try and make an online generator for spitting out zombie world NPCs in the future: that would be handy.) When things were meant to get worse, I would usually sit on the move till I had a good sense of when or where to mess with the players. I am not that familiar with how people normally run these games, what the cadence is for calling for moves versus just letting players accomplish things, etc. I found myself often asking players if they agreed with my choices, or if I was being a dick. Ha. I had fun running both games, and I learned a bit in both.
The first game was set in a prison. I had one player who was always ready to draw from the Bite deck when the need arose.2 So the group’s simple mission to search for food and some supplies turned into a series of unfortunate events that ended with my cousin bitten by a zombie, who later later turned and killed bit another player, leaving a third player to kill them both, while the forth fled away in the darkness. The two surviving players returned to the prison to find it fallen to infighting, which is where we ended things. The flow of the game felt quite natural. The pace of success and failure worked really well.
The second game was set in a hospital. Michael, who played in the first game, reprised his character. We decided he arrived at this hospital with the survivors of the prison. This game started with the group being told there might be a zombie on the loose in the floors of the hospital above them. I escalated things from there because of some failed moves. The characters were quickly on a mission to purge their hospital of zombies. I felt I got a bit more tripped up on who would draw for what in certain situations in this game.3 I hate reading rule books mid game, so just went with what I thought made the most sense, and that worked out well enough. This game ended with the players trying to flee up onto the roof while running from a swarm of zombies—no one died! After the game one of the players, Stephanie, made what felt like a really helpful suggestion that likely would have made the game flow a bit better. She thought I didn’t include enough downtime between the moments of tension or action. This would have given the players more of an opportunity to interact with one another and with the NPCs.4 If I had simply had some of the NPCs in their enclave push back against their plan it might have shifted how the game played out. In this game the players didn’t get a chance to reveal their traumas or past, nor play up their various relationships. The way I was running the games was maybe too close to how I’d have run a D&D game. I should watch some zombie films or replay Last of Us to remember that the real monsters in the zombie genre are other people!
I love the rules and structure of this game. I suspect people will hack it or remix it for other genres. I can imagine someone doing a “Grotty D&D” version, where you replace the bite deck with an ignoble death deck and call it a day.
Character creation was super fast and produced these really interesting people (eg. crotchety priest turned enforcer, a psychotic prize fighter turned xenophobic cult leader). Character creation is quick because you are just dealing out some cards. The slowest part is people talking about the relationships they might have—you deal cards between players to facilitate that. If characters die it’d take seconds to get them back in the game because you wouldn’t do that step again. Death is always on the table in this game, you are fighting zombies after all. I might declare this game to be the most OSR of all the PbtA games. It feels like its in that same headspace, anyway.5
The 2d6 dice rolls of your typical PbtA game are turned into a deck of cards: 6 Misses, 3 Edges, an Opportunity, and a Triumph. (This spread is a bit ‘tougher’ than the 2d6 distribution would yield.) The cards also work well because there are moves (like helping/hindering another player, going on point, foraging, etc) that involve drawing additional cards from that deck. You know how many cards of each type are in the deck, so can think through how helpful or not that will be. Drawing from the deck felt a bit like a ritual. There was a bit of a pause and some tension while people picked their cards and flipped them over for everyone to see.
There is a separate deck for seeing who gets bitten by a zombie. Unlike the “2d6” deck this one isn’t reshuffled. You draw a card and see if you are safe, threats escalate, or you are bitten. Players know there is one bite card. Each player that avoids it is making it more likely for the next player to draw.6 Everyone knows that card is coming, soon. A good source of tension.
I really liked Zombie World. I haven’t run a game in ages, and this felt incredibly easy to run. I took it out of my bag Friday afternoon, we made characters quickly, and just started playing. That it’s all cards really feels like it changes the whole dynamic of the game. This feels like the sort of game you could trick people into playing RPGs with. It sounds like my real copy should arrive in June, which is when I expect the game to go on sale. Keep your eyes open.
This is the hotness.
Love that guy! ↩
Joe DeSimone! You thought he was just a cartoon head on Twitter, but no, he’s real. ↩
I also realize thinking back that I am trained from running a lot of old-school D&D to often treat all the social interaction as something managed by player skill. (“Yes, you were convincing, the NPC does what you want!”) In this game some of those interactions are also meant to be possible pivot points for the action. I would often have NPCs do what the players say because it sounded like a convincing plan to me. Or players would “open up” or “get in each other’s faces” without having to draw and see how that interaction gets complicated. ↩
A close contender would be the absolutely amazing The Warren. Perhaps the only thing really holding it back from claiming that title is that it’s a game about rabbits. ↩
This reminded me of the “trap” card in Kingdom Death monster. ↩