This is one of the Osprey Games hardcover rule books. They are a bit bigger than the Wargame Series of books and do not have the distinctive blue soft cover. This is not the first Opsrey Hardcover book I have purchased. I also have Horizon Wars, Frostgrave, and Mad Dogs with Guns. It is also not the first Zombie game in my collection, as I also played The Walking Dead game.
Last Days Zombie Apocalypse is written by Ash Barker. He is relatively famous in the wargaming community for his work in the industry, but also his popular YouTube Channel Guerrilla Miniature Games. I admit, his battle reports for this game intrigued me, even the ones from before the game was published. It looked like it had a lot of elements I find enjoyable in a skirmish game such as distinctive characters, campaign play, and an opportunity for some narrative gaming. The game is set after a zombie apocalypse has collapsed society as we know it, and you get to control a band of survivors struggling to stay alive in the new world. Of course, the enemy is the zombies, but also other survivors as getting the few supplies left is a zero-sum game.
Now that we have a feel for the game, let's shamble into the review!
Things That I Liked
I love it when a game has designer notes. Ash has a nice forward that lays out what he was trying to accomplish beyond the 4Ms of the game. It is only a few pages long, but those few pages were excellent in describing the type of game we were getting into, and were good food for thought for other aspiring game designers. The way he establishes what made skirmish games so appealing to him was clear, and his taste and design aesthetic was clearly laid out. Kudos to Ash!
I also liked that each character could be purchased as an archetype, that gave them different skills, stats, etc. right from the moment of purchase. You could plan roles for each member of the gang, create interesting story beats/backstories for them, and they were different than other members of the band right away.
The game has the player with Initiative choose if they want to move first or shoot first. This is a nice little decision point that has clear drawbacks and potential advantages. However, it feels like in most situations it makes sense to shoot first since the game is alternate activation. It also has an interrupt mechanic called Locked and Loaded where a model can choose to hold their action and fire a lot later as a form of interrupt. I am not sure it is needed in an alternate activation game, but it does add a tactical element to game play and a decision that is needed. It also seems to fit the genre pretty well.
I am enchanted by the art in this book. It can get a bit samey, but I like the style of action shots mixed with full character shots. The art work is more stylized than most Osprey titles, but I like it.
Things I Did Not Like
This game can be rather token heavy, with a lot of activity to track such as noise markers, damage, ammo, Action Points, etc. This doesn't include injuries and upgrades characters will pick up as you play. There is a lot going on during a basic game that requires tracking. Noise tokens lead to a roll that can attract zombies, ammo tokens can cause you to run out of ammo. These are all important elements to the genre of Survival Horror, but I am not sold on the methods or mechanics to add them. I feel like each could have been simplified into a single roll. However, it becomes a decision point how much to shoot as the more you shoot the more noise you generate; I just feel like it ends up being clunkier than I would like.
The game uses Action Points. For some I have an irrational hatred for Action Points and Hit Points in miniature games. I understand why a designer would choose them, but I just find them clunky and unwieldy in game. I prefer 1 action per turn as it forces tacticalgame play. However, that does detract from the cinematic nature of this game.
The game uses simple stat plus d6 roll with modifiers looking for a target number of 7+ for success, or opposed rolls to determine action resolution. This is a simple enough system and it makes sense. I am less thrilled about the damage system. It is a bit convoluted and involves dividing uneven numbers and rounding down. Not a huge fan but it is a good way to make strength and endurance actually matter as stats. Again, it is a bit clunky but it works.
Meh and Other Uncertainties
The star of this game is all about the campaign system. If that is the case, how can I put the “Hook” of the game in this section? Deep breath....
Individual games matter, but the tactical play devolves into simple decisions of target priority. However, that is not always easy with Zombies breathing down your neck! However, the simple game play leads into the campaign where actions in game have consequences with death, injury, and loss of supplies. The game definitely has RPG lite elements that I enjoy. Stat increases seem easy to get what you want by spending extra Experience Points, and I am not sure I am a fan. It also disincentives skills with the current system as attribute bonuses are always better than a situational skill. By spending extra XP you can almost tailor your models and avoid sub-optimal results. However, I do really like the loot table mechanism as it allows for more variety without have a huge list/table like d100. Since this is a game of Survival Horror, the Injury table is not super severe with only double 1's Death. However, injured characters can degrade pretty fast.
The other element that will be controversial is the Zombie “threat” itself. They really aren't a threat. Instead, they are more of a “friction” that a player needs to control for. Sure, if enough of them arrive you can be in trouble..... but that doesn't seem to happen that often. In addition, a somewhat experience gang will only have Zombies act as speed bumps to their objectives. However, I think this was a feature and not a bug of the game. The focus is on Humans vs. Humans and not Humans vs. Zombies. Therefore, they are more like a scenario complication than an actual threat.
Deep breath..... So, you can see why I put the two big hooks of the game into the Meh and Other Uncertainties section of the game. They are good hooks but there are trade-offs between what I like and what I did not like.
This game also bases every scenario around retrieving loot from the battlefield. Thematically it makes sense, but it does make the 6 scenarios in the book feel a bit samey. I had the same criticism of Frostgrave and its Loot system as the main objectives of the game. Unless you are constantly feeding the campaign new scenarios, new monsters, and new variations the game will get stale. It just does not have the tactical game play depth needed to survive on its own merits.
Final thoughts. This was a good first effort and it is clear a lot of thought went into the game to try and match the genre. Ash hits on the key elements that he outlined in his forward, but...... I can't help but feel the game could still use some more streamlining to make it more intuitive and less token reliant.
The main hook was a miniature based survival horror game. However, it feels light on the horror and survival elements that I feel it needs to really catch the feel of the genre. It seems to focused on letting players get “what they want” instead of challenging them to actually “survive” the horror with their opponent being another friction of surviving the campaign. The zombies are not threatening enough, the upgrades in the campaign too easy, and decisions too basic. The game really needs a deeper set of psychology rules like Strange Aeons Black Marks that corrupt a model's psyche as well as a more robust injury system.
In a horror genre, player' models should slowly degrade and only use gains to offset and slow the inevitable collapse.... that's horrifying. Knowing you ultimately can not win only try to make it to the next scenario and the end of the campaign. Therefore, I do not think I have found the definitive horror miniature game yet, but I am getting some ideas!
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