Game Review – Zombie 15′ – A Timed Zombie Romp

If there’s any genre that has seen a recent oversaturation in the board gaming industry, it would have to be zombies. Starting, really, in 2005 with the Marvel Zombies phenomenon and hitting full stride with the runaway success of the Walking Dead television show on AMC, zombies have become one of the hottest vehicles to deliver a board game (next to, of course, medieval farming). While the Twilight Creations “Zombies!!!” series was one of the frontrunners of the genre, it’s been overtaken by newer, shinier, and (arguably) better games like Zombicide and Z-Pocalypse. Looking to add to that list of fun, new, shiny, zombie themed board games is Zombie 15’, a unique, timed game from Iello (King of Tokyo).

Zombie 15’ was, as so many new games today are, a Kickstarter project that ran in 2013 and has recently started to ship to backers. Now, I’m not typically a huge zombie fan. I like Walking Dead enough, but I actually tend to like the human interactions more than the zombie slaying, and while I like Zombicide quite a bit, much of it has to do with its teach-ability and fun game mechanics; if you replaced its zombies with renegade marauders, I’d still like it just the same. So it was with some reservation that I backed Zombie 15’. What pulled me in was the really wonderful art style that Iello seems to consistently churn out (Asmodee is another publishing house that seems to employ artists that just “grab” me) and the fact that the game only lasts 15 minutes (hence the ‘15’ in Zombie 15’) due to the soundtrack that serves as a primary game driver.

The “timed soundtrack” game is sort of new to board games (we saw a lot of these ‘interactive media’ games in the late 80s to mid-90s) and was really resurrected by Queen Games’ Escape: Curse of the Temple and earlier by Czech Games’ Space Alert. I haven’t played either, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from a “timed” board game, and was a bit skeptical when it came to Zombie 15’. Fortunately, Zombie 15’ really delivers on the promise of a 15 minute game time, and what’s even better is that those 15 minutes are fun and tense.

imageBaby, I Ain’t Holding Your Hand – The Gameplay

Every game turn is comprised of two basic phases: the player turn and the zombie turn. On the player turn, survivors have four actions to spend however they chose. They can move, search defined search areas, attack zombies, use items, or stand up if they were previously knocked down. The actions are simple and well defined in the rulebook. On the zombie phase, the zombies attack. That’s it. Unlike Zombicide, where the zombies are automated and move then automatically deal damage should they be in a square with a survivor, Zombie 15’ zombies are static and can be fended off with items the player is carrying. You pick your highest Fend number, and if there are fewer zombies than that number in your square, you fend them off. I f there are more zombies, you take a point of damage and are knocked down. It’s a really simple system that works well for the game. You can usually ensure there are fewer zombies in your square than your fend number, but that’s where the soundtrack comes into play.

The first time I introduced my wife to Zombie 15’ and mentioned that I had had to set up the soundtrack, she cocked her head and, with an “are you kidding me” tone in her voice, said, “It has a soundtrack, eh? How’s THAT work?” Like me, she was a bit skeptical. But about 3 minutes into our first game, she was entirely comfortable with it, and the gameplay additions it brings.

That’s one of the really nice things about Zombie 15’: the soundtrack adds to game and gives it another layer past the relatively simple rules. Essentially, the purpose of the soundtrack is not only to time your game, but to also dictate when your zombies spawn. There are three tracks on the CD (with, I believe, more to come in the future), each with ‘zombie growls’ at different timed intervals. Upon hearing a growl, the active player draws a card from the Zombie Spawn deck and puts that number of zombies (from 1-3) on the active space. Pretty simple, but it works really well. Adding a wrinkle to the zombie spawning is the Horde card, which has the potential of spawning a significant number of zombies and really ruining a survivor’s day.

imageThe number of zombies spawned by a horde card is determined by the horde pile, a pile of zombies that increases every time a survivor uses a weapon that makes noise. Using a pistol? Every time you shoot you add a zombie to the horde pile. Shoot twice on your turn? Add two zombies. Overwhelmed and need to use all four of your actions to shoot? Add four zombies, and so on. Now, not all weapons make noise, so survivors are able to use careful planning to avoid adding zombies to the horde. That small bit of strategy adds a fun piece of decision making to deciding on how you use your weapons.

Another aspect of the game that adds another layer to that decision making is the fact that weapons can break and run out of ammo. Every time you use a weapon, it either degrades in durability or loses ammo. Typically, more powerful weapons hold less ammo or break more quickly. It’s another simple feature that adds to the overall gameplay. Weapons “make sense” and are diverse enough that there’s a situation for all of them. Some are one handed weapons, so you can carry two, while some are two handed or heavy, making the choices in what you’ll yield a bit more difficult. We stumbled a bit over the weapon carrying and dropping rules at first, but there are some good examples in the rulebook that clarify things.

imageDriving gameplay is a campaign book that has 15 different ‘missions’ that make up one connected campaign. It’s actually one of the most successful parts of the game and helps to decrease some of your initial set up time. The neat thing about the campaign is that missions are pretty clearly linked together, and the introductory ones build off of each other to teach the rules. While not uncommon for board games to build rules like this, the fact that the campaign maps are directly linked to each other was a pretty cool feature. In scenario #1, you find yourself trying to get all of your survivors to meet up at the police station. Scenario #2 starts at the police station and requires that you add only one tile to the initial scenario #1 set up. Again, it’s a simple thing, but the connectivity of the scenarios is a nice touch. There are also some simple campaign rules for those that want some character continuity throughout the entire campaign. They’re nothing to write home about, but do add some of that continuity that people look for.

Don’t Get All Stingy With Your Bullets – The Components

The art style was one of the things that initially drew me to Zombie 15’, and if you like the recognizably French art style they employ, you won’t be disappointed. The art is colorful and wonderful throughout the game, from the player boards, to every card, and right down to the tokens. It has a playful tone that carries through the fact that all of your survivors are teenagers. Simply, the art is well done and appealing, and the box will certainly catch the eyes of a buyer on the shelf. The box is also well designed internally, with an insert that has a place for every component. The card well is a bit shallower than I’d like, as it doesn’t allow for sleeved cards to fit in the box easily, but not everyone sleeves their games. It’s a minor quibble, but I do appreciate when companies accommodate those of us that are anal retentive card sleevers.

The cardboard components are pretty normal quality for an Iello board game, which is to say they’re of a fairly high quality. The tiles and tokens are sturdy and thick with a glossy finish. Mine don’t have any warping and came out of their tile sheets with relative ease, though I have heard instances of tiles that have some splitting at the corners due to not coming out of the tile sheet cleanly. I don’t think this is a widespread problem, so I wouldn’t expect later retailer copies to have widespread problems.

imageThe zombie and survivor miniatures are one of the major selling points for the game for many, and they don’t disappoint. Now, there are a bevy of different materials people are making board game miniatures out of these days, and if I had to compare the material in Zombie 15’ to another game, I think it would probably be the early iterations of Flying Frog Press’ successful Last Night on Earth zombie series. The miniatures are certainly softer than the plastic used in newer Fantasy Flight games or in Zombicide, and as such seem to have softer detail overall. This softness of detail is more evident in the Alpha Zombie than anything else. I haven’t primed anything yet, but in the past the ‘soft’ material has made priming an interesting endeavor for painters, as it can sometimes leave the miniatures feeling tacky. I only plan on painting the survivors (if anything) and they’re actually not made out of a colored plastic as first glance might indicate. By touch, they appear to be painted with a colored paint that should act as a solid primer out of the box. If I find differently with the survivors or any tackiness gained by priming, I’ll amend my comments later. But out of the box, the miniatures are nice looking and functional for the game, if not a touch small.

Who Died and Made You King of the Zombies? – Overall

Zombie 15’ is an interesting little game that is bolstered by its high production values, fun and youthful art style, and quick, easy-to-teach game play. The soundtrack works much better than I expected, adding some really great thematic elements to the game while actually adding to the game play in an organic way. I don’t want to define Zombie 15’ as a filler game because I think the linked scenario format of the campaign book will find most play groups playing multiple scenarios in a night, but if you really need a short game to fill in some time, Zombie 15’ does work for that, holding incredibly true to that fifteen minute game time. I don’t know that I’d crown it the King of the Zombies at this point – for my money that title still lies with Zombicide – but Zombie 15’ is a welcomed addition to a pretty crowded genre and is a really great companion game to Zombicide if you’re looking to scratch a smaller zombie itch on board game night.