For when you want to run from zombies without actually having to run.
If you aren’t familiar with it, Zombies, Run! is a popular mobile app which encourages you to run through a story. You’re a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, running to escape from the zombie horde as you move from base to base. Through your earphones, you’ll be told how close the zombies are to you and if you’ve collected supplies along the way. It’s a pretty cool idea that has quite a following, but what if you want to run from zombies without actually having to run? Well, it seems the team behind the app have managed to adapt it into a board game and I was lucky enough to spend some time playing it.
Zombies, Run! The Board Game is a story-driven, co-op card game for one to four players. With a phone app telling the story and indicating threats, your team run from place to place on the island of St. Florian, solving puzzles, rescuing people and hopefully escaping zombies.
I’m going to keep this spoiler-free, but the story begins with you at an airport as the zombie outbreak kicks off. On the instructions of a mysterious stranger and the app itself, you start running for safety, using the game’s cards to evade the zombies that pursue you. During this section of the game, you’re introduced to the choices you can make (and the consequences of them) and the puzzles you’ll face along your journey, as well as the game’s general mechanics. This tutorial lasts around forty-five minutes and, in conjunction with the manual, gives a pretty comprehensive rundown of the game.
The board is set up in various, easy-to-understand sections. Across the top are markers A to E, where zombies are placed as they appear, alongside a deck of zombies and a ‘close call’ deck. Below those are your five opportunity stacks of five cards each, as well as a deck of opportunity cards. These are used to deal with zombies. Finally, you have a row of four ‘plan’ cards, which are used in conjunction with opportunity cards.
Zombies, Run! The Board Game is split into two portions: story and decisions; and running.
Running is a key part of the game and occurs when you decide to travel between locations. These are real-time sections in which the app will tell you when zombies appear or advance along the A to E track (which the designated Leader handles). This is where opportunity cards come into play. Each zombie has a symbol (talking, stealth, thinking and running) and a number on their card to indicate how many opportunity cards you need to use and what symbol the final card must have on it. Opportunity cards have two of these symbols, one on the left and one on the right. Players need to create a ‘plan’ by connecting a chain of these cards, matching symbols end to end. If they make a chain long enough (matching the zombie’s number) that ends with the correct symbol, the zombie is removed from the game.
These sections can be very intense, as players work together to create a plan (or, perhaps, work separately to generate multiple plans to deal with several zombies) in real time. There’s a constant stream of new zombies, each with their own symbols, and you only have a finite number of opportunity cards to work with. The Leader has a deck of cards to themself that they can add to the opportunity stacks, but this is also limited and should only be used when absolutely necessary. Should a zombie reach the end of the track, they catch the players; a ‘close call’ card is drawn and kept until the end of the run, which lasts three minutes at most. But what a three minutes it is! Should a ‘close call’ card be drawn, players need to announce what body part they check for bites. If the card shows that body part in red, a member of the party (the characters, not the players) dies.
The fact that it’s the character that dies rather than the player strikes me as a touch odd. On the one hand, it does remove the issue of player elimination, which can be an issue in co-operative games. Having said that, it means you feel as though you’re managing this group of survivors, rather than being the group yourself. The survivors act more like lives for the players than anything else. It feels a little odd playing, but it does tie into the story somewhat, as these characters won’t crop up again.
Speaking of story, you experience it through exposition and dialogue between characters in your party whenever you aren’t running (and sometimes when you are). At various points you’ll be able to make decisions regarding directions to travel (more on this later) and whether you should intervene in certain events. Your decisions will have consequences sooner or later, be these items to support you on your journey or more dangerous zombies to face. Often, your decisions will be met with a skill check using you opportunity cards. These act as timed puzzles in which you need to meet certain criteria with your cards before you inform the app whether you’ve succeeded or failed. Success means safe passage, or perhaps benefits, whilst failure results in consequences, some of which are severe. Our group failed one and ended up facing a zombie requiring a ten-card plan, which severely ate into our opportunity cards.
This balancing of resources is key to Zombies, Run! The Board Game and demands players think before using their cards rather than simply pile them in quickly to eliminate threats. The Leader can restock from time to time, but the only way to get more cards (other than when the story tells you) is to rest at the end of runs, which can lead to the zombies catching up to you, making future runs more difficult.
An interesting addition is sealed envelopes in the box. At certain points in the story, you’ll end up needing to solve puzzles to advance. The app will tell you to open one of the sealed envelopes in the game box, which contains physical items to help you solve them. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that this is a really neat addition to the game, giving you something tactile to work with. It would have been nice to have them be larger for working with a group of people, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. The puzzles aren’t easy, either, and require some genuine experimentation to solve. You can brute force them via the app if you want, but you’ll find that more zombies get added to the track for every failure.
There are instructions on how to reset the game with regards to these envelopes for future plays, but you’ll likely know the solutions to the puzzles. In some ways, you’ll only be able to play the ten-(or-so)-hour-long campaign once, but that’s ignoring all the choices you can make that will change the game. Further, you don’t really have to follow the story if you don’t want; you can just run around the island using the included map to travel to different places. You won’t come across all the interesting puzzles, but it’s a nice thing to be able to do.
Whilst the campaign lasts around ten hours, play sessions can be very short if you want them to be. At the end of most run phases, you’ll have the option to save the game there and return later. This is nice, but the way your play area is handled feels a bit off. The game essentially tells you to reset the play area each time you continue your game, meaning all your spent resources come back and all the zombies are returned to the zombie deck. Whilst you do have to select a character to stand watch, putting them at risk, there seems to be little penalty for leaving the game when your resources are low. On the plus side, it saves faffing around with resetting your game board next time!
In spite of a few odd rules, Zombies, Run! The Board Game is quite excellent. It works well with groups of different sizes (although singleplayer is a bit tough at times), and has multiple save slots should you want to play with more than one group. The inclusion of physical puzzles and a large map adds an extra dimension that many other narrative games lack. The (mostly) light-hearted story is entertaining enough, with choices that aren’t always easy to predict the outcomes of. Running from place to place feels as intense as it should if you’re being pursued by zombies (although I would have liked there to be music during these sections). There’s no way a board game based on a running app should work half as well as this, but somehow it does!
Zombies, Run! The Board Game is available now, you can find places to buy it from its official website.