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Author Topic: [Zombies at the Door!] Introduction to my fine zombie boardgame.  (Read 7494 times)
Eero Tuovinen
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« on: March 26, 2007, 04:11:41 AM »

As some of you might know, my current big project, as far as my own game design goes, is Eleanor's Dream, a story-telling game for parents and children. Eleanor has been going a bit slowly lately, however, as I've been swamped with other projects. One of those is this small and efficient zombie game I wrote last December for publication in Roolipelaaja, a Finnish rpg magazine. The zombie game has proved surprisingly powerful in actual play, so instead of forgetting the project after finishing it, I've been refining it for independent publication.

I just decided this weekend that I'll be going to Spiel Essen with my zombie game in tow, so it's past time for me to put the rules of the game and current state of the project up at the Forge. I hope that this'll be an useful reference for other people intending to go to the Spiel; I intend to have the game available in English and German at the time. There's also some outstanding issues that people here might be interested in solving. And if somebody wants to play the game, all the better.

Theoretical introduction

There are a couple of points that I can easily outline after playing the zombie game several times:
  • It's a boardgame with all the attendant social structures. It's rather surprising how easy one of these was to make after it's being fiddled with for the last couple of years.
  • I created it originally as a roleplaying drill that prepares players for playing the Mountain Witch and Primetime Adventures, two examples of games that require players able to recognize and pace a thematic character. I'd noticed that while the latter floats without those skills, especially TMW is never played to its potential if the majority of players lacks these GM-like skills. In retrospect the game is only partially successfull as a drill, partly because I ended up including a real conflict resolution system instead of sticking with "your character dies if the other players do not like it". Playtest tells me that the game is rather brilliant in pinpointing players who have trouble with "Forge-like" play habits, such as thematic play and being considerate of other people; correcting these problems, however, is left to the group, this game does nothing to your skills apart from pointing out the lack and allowing you to play several times to see if you've progressed anywhere.
  • While the first version of the game was 80% ready, as is typical for a small and simple game, that last 20% has required a surprising amount of work. The first version had all kinds of stupid murk, starting with limiting the ability of the active player to declare conflicts and ending with a non-understanding of what the board text of the game should be doing. I just changed the rules for the board text after playing the game three times during the convention last weekend, so that part is still a bit under consideration: I'm pretty positive that if the current shape of those rules proves just as useless as the former ones, I'm going to remove the texts for the board alltogether.
So if you find those of interest, then perhaps taking the game out for a drive would be worthwhile.

The state of the project

The game is all but finished, really. It's been playtested by myself around dozen times, every time a success in terms of fun pastime, and others have played it as well without me a couple of times. My interest in making this kind of a small game was inspired mostly by the fact that the game seems to be working really, really well. I'll be interested in getting more independent playtesting done and encourage anybody to take a swing at the game: it takes around half an hour per player to finish with zero preparation time, so it's comparable to a mid-length boardgame if you don't have an insane number of players. The game seems to work with all audiences that have any interest in catastrophic situation drama, with the exception of the hardcore old-school roleplayers, who don't seem to be entertained by the stories.

Of production plans: this is a boardgame by all gauges, so that's what I'm making. I got brilliant one day and figured out that what I'm going to do is a VHS video case: the game is movie themed and doesn't have too many parts, so if I can fit everything in a VHS case, it'll be a rather smart-looking, cheap and high-quality product just like that. Getting the dice and playing pieces won't be a problem either, so here's the outstanding material components:
  • Game board: small, either directly in the VHS cassette size, or folded twice. Needs high enough resolution for text, and preferably colours, too. I've been considering cutting the cardboard myself and printing the board graphics on stickers, finishing by taping the sides of the board.
  • Cards: the current rules do not mention it, but I've been playing around with the idea of adding around 30 character cards: character illustration, fit names for several countries and a couple of words of archetype description. The idea would be to have them as a default chargen method and an easy way for having support characters; while cards would limit the setting of the game slightly, they would also be a component I'd expect players to grow out of with a couple of games under their belt.
  • Rules: the main question for these is whether I'll just print them on a printer and staple them myself, or go to a printer. Depends on the length of the print run I end up making, which depends on how I'm going to make the board and cards.
I'm trying to get production costs under 5 euros to sell at 20 euros, which is rather comparative for boardgames and roleplaying games both. That five euro cost limit leaves me around three euros per box to play with for boards and cards; we'll see if it can be achieved. I'd prefer a production sequence that allows making 50 copies at a time, but even a hundred is acceptable. For actual sales purposes I could swing 200 in Finnish/Swedish and another 200 in English/German without appreciable risks, but I'd really prefer to start small, show the game around to boardgame distributors and figure out a separate production cycle for making higher runs later on, when I've proved the concept.

Further elaboration: I've been considering making two variants of the game and publishing them concurrently. If I end up with a production cycle that allows that kind of customization without added expenses, I'd just rather have a "zombie game" and a "heist game" or "romance game" or whatever both available at the same time, just because roleplayers tend to get stuck on fictive details and I don't particularly want to drive away folks who are not attracted by dead bodies on the cover. The game system is rather flexible in some regards, and there are some interesting synergy advantages to having two different sets of character cards and two different boards available, too. The main problem here is that I'm not totally set on the degree of customization I'd be doing: it could be just different texts on the board and different characters, or it could be actual changes in the rules, perhaps even different arrangement of spaces on the board.

Currently outstanding issues:
  • More independent playtests.
  • Haven't yet playtested the cards idea.
  • Have to figure out how to create the board and cards.
  • Have to make the components small enough to fit the VHS case; mainly limits the thickness of the board.
  • Have to arrange for English and German translations before Essen, maybe a Swedish translation before Ropecon. I'm optimistic about this one.
  • I probably need a better name. "Zombies at the Door!" was the name of the article I wrote this for, but I'm not totally happy with it. Ideally, the name would be recognizably something that could be a zombie movie. Hinting at it being a game wouldn't hurt, either.

Rather good, in other words. I'll start fiddling with the material component questions and art of the game after finishing our current Primetime Adventures translation project. Meanwhile, I'll be interested in any comments and especially ideas or perspectives on innovative means of creating boardgame components. If the game is received well at Ropecon and Spiel, I might be making an industrial size printing next year, but for now I'm mostly interested in easily scalable handicraft solutions.
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Bryan Hansel
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« Reply #1 on: March 28, 2007, 01:50:29 PM »

If it means anything, I love the title "Zombies at the Door!" It fits in nicely with the zombie cheese genre.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #2 on: March 29, 2007, 03:48:01 AM »

You think? I value a native opinion in this detail a lot, because my own style sense for English is only 90% accurate. That name was originally Finnish and intented to convey the feel of an utterly simple zombie game. Now I'm wondering if it'll look good on a VHS case as a part of a typical horror movie cover. I'm at a bit of a loss for other options, though; adding gore or puns on actual titles doesn't seem to roll on the tongue.

There's also the actual play angle that's saying that apparently I'm not comfortable myself with the name: we tend to call the game "the zombie game" when discussing it. I don't know if that's indicative of anything, though.

Luckily, this particular bit doesn't slow down the design part, so I have a couple of months yet to ponder.
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contracycle
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« Reply #3 on: March 29, 2007, 09:22:42 AM »

I found the name a bit grey.  How's about "Let Them Eat Brains"?  Or "Late Afternoon Of The Dead"? "The Dead Pile"?
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newsalor
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« Reply #4 on: April 11, 2007, 01:04:37 AM »

I'll offer a testimonial about the power of the Zombie-game.

I played it with total RPG newbies, who were at this RPG event to promote their console dance game club, a few weeks ago. They like it and now I heard that they've played it again among the dance clubbers with one member who has roleplayed before. They still love it.

I'm sure that they would buy a romance themed version too.
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Olli Kantola
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« Reply #5 on: April 22, 2007, 11:34:39 AM »

I played the game twice in Maynooth Game Soc., the game reports are here.
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Sami Koponen
Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #6 on: April 23, 2007, 01:30:10 AM »

Thanks, Sami. I've been waiting for these reports. Both games ended with everybody dying, then? Did you use the new rule about the starting player marker moving around? I'm pretty interested in the balance of the game, so what do you think? Is it too difficult to survive, or too easy?

Also, player influence and character protagonism: were the players interested in each other's characters? Did zombie players get invested in killing everybody? Did the board position of the zombie marker, with its narrative constraints, come into play?

How long did the games last?

The black mongrel is a brilliant character, I'm going to steal him the next time I play.
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Sam!
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« Reply #7 on: April 24, 2007, 01:29:04 AM »

Thanks, Sami. I've been waiting for these reports. Both games ended with everybody dying, then? Did you use the new rule about the starting player marker moving around? I'm pretty interested in the balance of the game, so what do you think? Is it too difficult to survive, or too easy?Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
Also, player influence and character protagonism: were the players interested in each other's characters? Did zombie players get invested in killing everybody? Did the board position of the zombie marker, with its narrative constraints, come into play?could break through all obstacles, they also did so and when one could<
Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
How long did the games last?
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Sami Koponen
Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #8 on: April 24, 2007, 02:55:21 PM »

Um, did you write these questions before or after reading the reports? You should find most of the answers from there.

Just making sure I understood it correctly.

Quote


As for killing off characters: I agree completely, that's how the game works. It's practically a given that all but 2-4 of the characters will be killed rather quickly before the actual story even starts. It's just a question of who it'll be and how the others react to it, and most of the time that's up to the dice. I don't find this a problem personally, because I find it just as fun to play without a character. Playtests seem to indicate that a significant section of gamers disagree with me, though, so I might have to think about it.

Quote
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Sam!
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« Reply #9 on: April 25, 2007, 01:35:43 AM »

Yeah, character investment is one of those complex things. In my own experience, though, it is not so much about the volume of narrated material (which I might term as the "traditional" model about this thing, that incidious thought that you can make your game better by shouting more and longer), but rather about the quality; I've got invested into other people's characters from the first sentence, while other characters have been left completely insignificant even after several sessions of play.

Sure it's about the quality, in this case especially what you do in the character creation phase. The problem is that not everybody can come up with a fine story on the top of their heads. It usually takes time to ponder and find out what a character's story is. Pyry's mechanic is a good example of this. Had he never found a fitting place in the story (which in fact was founded by Sipi, wasn't it?), he would not have survived as long as he did. Thus the quantity of a story contributes to its quality. But then again ZATD! isn't that simple: dice have mixed things up several times in my experience (I believe this is partially because of the d6: play with, say, d10, and the majority's opinion starts to weigh a whole lot more). The characters survive rather randomly, and naturally the game focuses on those, who happen to be alive.

Quote from: Eero Tuovinen
As for killing off characters: (--) I don't find this a problem personally, because I find it just as fun to play without a character. Playtests seem to indicate that a significant section of gamers disagree with me, though, so I might have to think about it.

Small wonder. The majority of (role-)players seems to consider their character as the reason to play. Collaborative playing, where you really treat every character and the whole game / story as commonly shared (blurring seriously traditional player and GM roles), is a new thing. It takes time before people adapt to that.
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Sami Koponen
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