The latest in the Osprey Wargaming Series arrived at my door with a bunch of other wargames. However, I had seen a lot of positive buzz about this game online so swooped in and snatched it up for the first review of the batch. As a part of the Osprey Wargaming Series, or Blue Books; I think we are all familiar with the format and the 64 page limit. That makes it a quick read.
Zona Alfa is set to take place in a Eastern Bloc country where something really bad happened. This really bad thing was corralled into an exclusion zone. Your team is entering the zone to snatch goodies and anomalies and haul them out. People often refer to this game as being themed around a series or set of genre books called STALKER, Roadside Picnic or Metro 2033. I am not familiar with any of these sources, but the author calls them out. I was thinking more along the lines of the Natalie Portman vehicle: Annihilation or the real life Chernobyl Incident. The game is agnostic enough where you can tailor the setting to fit your own needs.
Now, with a rambling pre-amble out of the way, let's get into the game.
Things I Liked
First off, the opening couple of pages has a peak into the designers intent. I am a BIG fan of designer notes. I can then use these to determine if a game successfully met their goals. Plus, as a designer myself if often helps me get a better feel or insight into the craft of designing. These ones also give a bit of background on the genre and just generally set the tone of the book. The author was looking to create a smaller scale gaming experience with a high "Cool Quotient" and a "bring what you want to the table" approach to gaming. Gangs are typically between 3-10 models and the board is only 3x3 for 1-on-1 games. However, there is a lot of opportunity for multiplayer games.
I think one of the most interesting things about the rules is the way it uses Action Economy. Each model has a level of combat experience. The higher the combat experience the more actions it can take. Each "action" is a singular action. Therefore, a rookie can only move or shoot or spot, etc. Meanwhile, a veteran soldier can move and shoot and spot in their activation. This is a simple way to add differentiation between combat troopers. Green soldiers are more likely to freeze or get caught in the open, while the veterans are less spooked and can do more. To me, this is the biggest "innovation" in the game. I put "innovation" in quotes because it is probably not unique to this game, but it is a key feature of it. I love these Blue Books because I take something interesting away from each one I read.
There are also mechanics for doing things other than fighting via Complex tasks/Skill Checks that allow an RPG lite element to be used in the game. I think that is a good thing.
Terrain provides benefits as cover, however it can work on three different levels. The first is to make it harder for the shooter to hit, the second is by adding protection to the target's armor, and the third is to boost their morale to avoid getting pinned by the shots. This is a great way to differentiate terrain and I think adds to the tactics of the game. The downside is it is more to remember in game, but the differences make sense to me. Related, being in cover makes it easier to rally from being Pinned.
One of the key elements of the rules is that the Zone itself is hostile to you. You come across hot spots that when investigated resolve into encounters and potential rewards. You trigger them by getting within a certain distance. These could be wandering monsters, environmental effects, and other interest items. These areas also serve as Objectives so there is a reason to engage with them. They are a mix between "hotspots" that generate hostiles in Force-on-Force and treasure tokens in Frostgrave. This elements lead me to believe this game could also be played solo very easily, in fact I am pretty sure the author has solo-play rules up online.
Things I Do Not Like
Most mechanics resolution is a roll of a d10. However, in this game you are trying to roll low. That is not intuitive to me, so that will take a bit of getting used to. I prefer games where you roll over a stat rather than under, but mechanically it makes no real difference. Just a personal preference.
Critical success and critical failures also exist int he game. However, when rolling multiple dice for some actions, it can get a bit confusing. A Critical success allows you to take another action, so Veterans can get up to 4 with a critical! Meanwhile, a critical failure gives you a pin counter. Personally, I am not a fan of Crits in a game like this. It is intended to add a cinematic feel to the game, but I do not think the game needs them at all and is just something else to remember.
Melee is simultaneous, so an attacker and defender could kill each other off. Both sides roll for and compare who has more. Attackers must use an action while defenders do not. After the success are calculated, the attacker can choose to convert hits into parries to reduce hits on them. This process seems like it strongly favors an attacker in melee, which is probably intended. I will need to try it out to verify if this is the case.
Shots that do not hit can cause pinning. That is good! However, each deflected hit does not modify the Pin test, it is the number of rounds that a model that has been shot at that causes the modifier. This seems like a difficult thing to assess, and number of deflect shots seems more intuitive and easier to recall.
There is a small three-mission campaign in the book, but no other scenarios. Despite the Zone constantly creating new environments I think a handful of team vs. team scenarios would have been helpful for replayability. Like many skirmish games, I fear without scenarios the game will get stale quickly, even with the environment constantly changing. It should be no problem porting scenarios from other games into this one.
Meh and Other Uncertainties
Most of the mechanics are pretty straight forward for a skirmish game. Skill rolls are rolling a d10, apply modifiers to the roll, and compare it to an opponent's stat as a Target Number. The number of dice you roll depends on the firepower of your weapon or other similar variables. They are sensible, but a QRS will help you get through it all. Targets also get armor rolls, which is nice as no one wants to just stand there while your guys die.
Zona Alfa does use WYSIWYG as well for the models. This can easily be ignored if a player wishes, especially as models progress. I find once they have a bit of an identity in the group, you need WYSIWYG a lot less. Instead of Model A has an AK-47 you get to, Iron Ivan is over there with his surprisingly accurate AK-47.
The games uses a combination of model stat lines, Weapon stat lines, and a some keywords for skills and the like. I think it would be pretty helpful to have a roster or each model on index cards while you play. That is not bad advise for most skirmish games.
The game allows pre-measuring. I have no qualms with this in a modern setting where range finders and similar details are very common. I think it is a strange artifact of modern game design that pre-measuring or not pre-measuring is a huge deals for some players. To me, it is not a huge factor either way. It is more of a Yes/No question in my mind.
The game has a lot of types of guns, gear, and skills. There is a lot of ink spilled on the campaign element, which is fine. It tends to follow the Necromunda/Gorkamorka/Mordheim model that is a very popular template. The injury table is not extensive and the inclusion of Med-kits means it is unlikely your best characters/boss will go Out of Action for good, however things could get ugly for your rookies.
A note on Factions, there are some factions that are aligned and will not fight each other. This is good if you can have multi-player games, but not so good in one-on-one fights. Instead of fighting they are playing against the zone, but that makes for a boring campaign. Choose your starting factions carefully and in consultation with your opponent.
This game brings two big elements to the table. The first is the action economy and the second is the Zone mechanics. Both of these features help differentiate Zona Alfa from its peers to provide a unique experience. I like that the setting and gear are agnostic enough that you could place this in any setting you really wish, but the Eastern Europe/former Soviet Bloc vibe is also a unique aspect.
The designer wanted a "Bring what you want" and high "Cool Quotient" in his game. The Action Economy allows a more cinematic feel as Heroes can be bigger than those around them. They can do more and survive longer. There are even mechanics for them to save the day with complex tasks/skill checks. Overall, I think he accomplished what he set out to do. I have some minor quibbles with the rules and potential replayability, but overall you get what it says on the tin with this game.
This is not a hardcore competitive set of rules. Campaign games frequently have some combination of equipment, stats, and skills that will put someone or something over the top. However, it is not intended to be such a game. You and your buddies are suppose to just get together and explore the Zone together. There are some situations where combat against other players isn't even a thing! If you approach the game with this "explore the Zone together" mindset, you can have fun. This would be great as a multi-player club event, a convention game, or a short group campaign with RPG-lite elements thrown in.
Overall, I am glad I picked this book up and look forward to giving it a go.
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