Monday, January 2, 2012

How I Spent New Year's Day

Having wasted my New Year's Eve playing LEGO Heroica with my family on New Year's Eve, I decided to follow it up by wasting New Year's Day playing a different boardgame with friends and family. This time, it was the zombie survival game Last Night on Earth, which a friend of mine bought at a local game store during their after Christmas sale. I saw Last Night on Earth played back in November, when I got together with some people to spend the afternoon and evening playing boardgames. However, I never actually had the chance to play it myself until yesterday.
I'll be honest: the game didn't quite live up to my expectations. Some of that is undoubtedly due to the fact that this was my first time playing and so I didn't quite grok the mechanics and thus played in a sub-optimal fashion. Some of my disappointment might also have to do with the fact the introductory scenario -- kill 15 zombies in 15 turns -- isn't ideal for someone still grappling with the fine points of the rules. But that's not all that bugged me about the game, as I'll explain.

The game uses a randomly generated map map up of five cardboard pieces depicting buildings and terrain. Half the players take the roles of "heroes" and half take the roles of zombies. The heroes all have names and special abilities and are chosen randomly from a collection of cards. Each hero also has a plastic miniature that represents them on the game board. In our game, there were four heroes: Johnny, the high school jock; Jenny, the farmer's daughter; Becky, the nurse; and Jake, the drifter. The zombies also had minis, too, but no personalities or special abilities.
Zombies can only move one space per turn, but they are unimpeded by terrain (including walls), whereas heroes move 1d6 spaces each. When a zombie and a hero are in the same space, combat ensues. Zombies roll 1d6 and heroes 2d6, with the highest dice roll (not sum -- the dice are treated individually) winning. If a zombie wins, the hero takes 1 wound. Adult heroes can take 3 wounds before dying and teenage heroes 2 wounds. If the hero wins the roll, he successfully "fends off" the zombie, unless he has a weapon that can deal damage. If the hero rolls doubles, he deals 1 wound of damage, which kills most zombies.

Weapons and other equipment can only be found by giving up a movement phase and spending it "searching" in a building. Searching is represented by a random draw from a deck of cards. The result might be a piece of gear, but, more than likely, it's an event card that gives your hero some situational benefit (like "Just a Scratch" that negates a wound by a zombie). There are a large number of cards and only a few weapons, so, unless you spend a lot of time searching or get very lucky, odds are you're going to spend most of the game running away from zombies into various buildings and hoping you get a useful weapon.
Even leaving aside the odds against finding a weapon, one of my beefs with the game is that most of the weapons aren't very effective. A baseball bat, for example, allows the wielder to roll 3d6 for damage against a zombie, but, unless doubles are rolled, no damage is dealt. And a fire axe deals no damage at all. This annoyed me. A lot. My drifter, Jake, got a fire axe, waded into combat with some zombies and I discovered the axe was utterly useless against the undead. That broke my suspension of disbelief and sapped my enthusiasm. Looking through the deck later, I discovered that only firearms had much chance to kill zombies with any reliability, but they also had the chance of running out of ammo and becoming useless.

The chainsaw is the only truly good melee weapon and it's, in my opinion, too good. The game was winding down to the last few turns and the heroes had lost half their number. Things looked terrible for them -- until Becky got lucky and scored the chainsaw. In short order, it was all over for the zombies. I actually felt bad for the zombie players, because they'd played much better than the heroes and a single card turned the tide quickly and decisively. That struck me as unfair and an opposite manifestation of the problem I had with the other weapons.

To be clear, the advanced rules introduce many more complications and I'd like to give them a whirl sometime. I get that the game is -- and should be -- slanted in favor of the zombies, at least initially, but, from what I experienced yesterday, I think the success of the heroes relies too heavily on the luck of the draw. Now, obviously, I don't mind randomness, but I think Last Night on Earth is too random, to the point where it's impossible to form an effective strategy against the zombies. That, plus the fact that most weapons aren't particularly effective, hampered my ability to enjoy the game as much as I'd hoped I might. But, as I said, I intend to play the game a few more times before I render a final verdict.

16 comments:

  1. "Even leaving aside the odds against finding a weapon, one of my beefs with the game is that most of the weapons are very effective."

    Did you mean "ineffective"?

    ;-)

    We tried this game a couple of times, but gave up on it for many of the same reasons you enumerated. It was consistently frustrating experience for the people playing the heroes. Especially since we are a gaming group that tends to roll a lot of 1's (which means a lot of broken weapons).

    Plus, IIRC too many of the GM cards are "denial" type cards, which I am not a fan of. One game I played the zombies and stopped a hero player from entering a building he wanted to search for two consecutive turns due to having a lucky draw of "Locked Door" cards. I didn't have the heart to play my third "locked door" card on his third attempt. I think it would have broken him....

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  2. I own this and am actually a big fan of it, but the base scenario isn't great. The advanced ones are where the fun is at, at least for my group.

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  3. Did you mean "ineffective"?

    Indeed I did.

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  4. If you're a fan of Zombies games you should take a look at Dead of Night (http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/27736/dead-of-night). Especially since you can build it for free.

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  5. Thanks for the review, i think i will leave that one in the store.
    If you like zombie games, you might want to check out Zombies!!! or Humans!!! from Steve Jackson Games.
    The gameplay is not that random and so it is more fun.

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  6. Please make no mistake -- I am not a fan of zombie games, or the genre. On the other hand, I'm a boardgame gourmand, and I have tried a few zombie boardgames (including Last Night On Earth), so I have opinions. I think, far and away, the best one I've tried is "All Things Zombie" from wargames publisher Lock N Load Games. It's a boardgame adaptation of a minis game, and I thought it was very much better than all the other zombie games I've tried in the past (including LNOE). It has disadvantages: it's a bit pricey, it's availability is not as wide, and it doesn't seem to have gotten tons of after-base-set support. But it's still a very good game and if I wanted to have only one game in my collection that was an example of the genre, that I might actually want to play again, it'd be that one.

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  7. "Thanks for the review, i think i will leave that one in the store.
    If you like zombie games, you might want to check out Zombies!!! or Humans!!! from Steve Jackson Games.
    The gameplay is not that random and so it is more fun."

    Zombies!!! and Humans aren't Steve Jackson, they're actually by the same guys that made LNoE and are, in my opinion, just as random and frustrating as it.

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  8. Zombies!!! used to be a favourite game of ours, but it has been quite a while since we last played it.

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  9. A surprisingly fun "zombie-like" (ie: defense against the nigh-infinite horde) boardgame, if you can find it, is also "Evil Dead" by Leading Edge Games, based on the very silly and very quotable movie.

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  10. I own it. The game is fun with advanced rules and some of the other scenarios. Especially when you start making your own. I liked that the game not only provided a framework for making your own scenarios, but also extra pieces to use with them. This game is one of the fall backs for when some one can't make it to DND night.

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  11. @Robot Black: Zombies!!! and Humans!!! are from Twilight Creations; Last Night on Earth is by Flying Frog. Different companies and different creative teams.

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  12. @Adam: Right you are! I've only played LNoE once, but it's so similar in graphic presentation that I assumed it was from Twilight Creations also.

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  13. This game I can't really say enough good things about. Its not the most amazing game in and of itself, but as a great standby game or a great game to just break out every couple of months on an off night ... its really hard to beat. As a good board game or a well designed, thought provoking game, a strategic or tactical game ... come on ... why would anyone hope to get that from a game like this. Look at the box, the production quality ... the very title of the game itself. This game can easily be over or under hyped. It is what it is, a pulpy little zombies board game with alot of randomness to it. Its meant to be played beer and pretzel style with a conversation going, some beer being consumed and good times being had ... all while this little game hums along on the side. If one expects more out of it they are sure to be disappointed.

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  14. My group loves the game - in about 8 games we've played in the past year, the heroes have only won 2, both won at the last turn. I think the best way to approach the game is as a pseudo-RPG in which you tell a zombie survival story rather than as a perfectly balanced battle between teams.

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  15. is as a pseudo-RPG in which you tell a zombie survival story rather than as a perfectly balanced battle between teams<

    The thing that James mentions that kills it for me right off the bat is the thing about axes and bats not huring the zombies. These are no-brainer zombie fighting weapons, as seen in every damn zombie movie. In Evil Dead films, including Army of Darkness (just a mention in AoD though...Ash says "get an axe" when he knows one of the demon zombies is playing possum). We zombie film fans want an axe to hurt zombies, damn it!

    OK James, could you get on top of that Arkham Horror review? One of my players recently got it, and I'm wondering if it would be a good intro to the Mythos and Mythos gaming for my crew when I do Call of Cthulhu later this year (they are all fairly unfamiliar with the good works of HPL).

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  16. When you play the game be sure to read the weapon cards carefully, some of them are able to be used multiple times in a single combat. The bat and blowtorch, I'm pretty sure, can be used to roll as many dice as you like until a break roll comes up. This makes combat much more deadly.

    I've found the introductory scenario pretty balanced, out of five games the humans won four on the last turn and lost one barely.

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