One Sentence Synopiss: Semi-cooperative Chibi Zombies.
Let’s face it, there are some themes we have no shortage of in the board game world: pirates; vikings; Cthulhu; and yes, zombies. The over-saturation of these themes make standing out a difficult task for newcomers to each respective arena, forcing those games to really present something unique mechanically, or offer a clever twist on the theme that differentiates it from the masses. Zombie Tower 3D, currently out in Japanese with an English edition on Kickstarter, happily accomplishes both.
Zombie Tower 3D is a chibiesque-zombie themed, challenging, semi-cooperative game for 3-4 players who each traverse the multi-floored play area on their side of a 3D board. Each hero attempts to avoid zombies while finding survivors and completing secret objectives for victory points which will win them the game, simultaneously cooperating towards shared objectives to actually make it out of the three-story collapsing building where the game is set. Players are blind to what’s happening on their pals’ sides of the tower, however: do you trust that they’re surrounded by zombies and just can’t make it to an opening to give you that needed magazine, or are they hoarding it for their own objective?
Games start with the construction of the 3D board which has different components and a dual-sided base depending on whether you’re playing with three players or four. The tower goes together extremely easily, and once the top helipad is placed the whole thing as actually pretty sturdy and comfortably holds the three decks of search cards (one for each floor) that are placed on top of it. Players then each get to choose from one of the game’s unique characters, and one randomized beginning item card is passed out to each person. Two of these items, the first aid kit and barricade, are immediately useful, whereas the shotgun and pistol both require the player to find ammo but may end up being more desired in a tight spot.
Players also each receive three randomized minor objective cards that award bonus victory points if completed. Along with survivors, these cards are the means by which players earn points and ultimately win the game over their fellow heroes. Some of them are harder than others, but in my opinion not always balanced accordingly; it has been my experience that the objective to finish the game with two or more fire-hazards in your area, for example, is more difficult to accomplish than finishing the game with the first aid kit which you might luck out on and just start with anyway, but the first aid objective is worth two points to the fire-hazard’s one. Other items are more needed by survivors and are less likely to get passed (e.g. pistol mags or a shovel), therefore also making those objectives harder to achieve if you aren’t the one to draw the card.
The game’s difficulty is determined by having each player draw 3 cards from their deck of 12 room cards, and placing between one and three zombies on each room space indicated depending on how hard of a game they’d like to play.
Those cards are then shuffled again and placed in each person’s play area. Players also each receive a handy reference card detailing the phase order and actions they’re able to take on their turn, and listing the conditions the group must meet if they’re going to escape the building alive; Condition A stipulates players must each have a vaccine, that one person has a battery and communication device, and that all players end their turns in room 2, while Condition B is met if everyone has a vaccine, the group has a total number of flares equal to the player count, and everyone ends their turns in room 10.
Zombie Tower 3D is played over a series of rounds with 4 phases apiece, the first and last phases of which are taken simultaneously. During the first phase every player spawns zombies by drawing one card from their Room deck and placing the number of zombie tokens indicated on the drawn card’s room space. Players then draw a second card and place a lone survivor in a similar fashion. If the round finishes and players have completed two entire cycles of this deck, the game timer has run out and everyone loses.
Each player gets three action points to spend during their turn in the second phase, taking actions in any order or combination. The first action, moving, is perhaps the most important action of the game: most of players’ time is spent getting away from zombies, moving to pick up survivors, or getting in good positions to comfortably search for items. I’d liken the forethought required for movement as somewhat akin to what’s needed in chess, and I think it’s one of Zombie Tower 3D’s strongest aspects: you need to take into account where zombies are currently, judge where zombies are going to move at the end of the turn (more on that later), figure out what sort of position those elements will put you in for later turns, and determine which spawn cards are left in your room deck to avoid any unwanted zombie spawn surprises in upcoming rounds. It’s very possible to paint yourself into a zombie-infested corner or put yourself into a situation that keeps you on the move for multiple turns in a row, and those circumstances burn precious turns for completing win conditions.
Searching is the second action a player may take and involves drawing the top card of the item deck for whichever floor the player is on. Different floors have different items, with many of the objective items on the second floor, and many of what I’d consider the most useful items on the third floor. Knowing where certain cards are is nice for planning purposes and helps towards knowing which card piles you need to search for your minor objectives, but I think it takes away somewhat from the feeling of frantically searching a collapsing building for items you need before it all comes toppling down. As it stands a well coordinated group of players can get through the 2nd floor deck pretty quickly given a little luck, and it’s not too much additional work to finish the win unless certain players stall to increase their own victory point score. You see which decks players are drawing out of as well, so there’s no bluffing saying you’re searching for items on the second floor when you’re really sleuthing for pistol magazines on the third.
Searching doesn’t always result in fun new toys, however, and certain cards marked with “Danger” can throw a wrench into the best laid plans. Players will know when a “Danger” card is the next draw so they can prepare to deal with one of the three consequences: a cave-in which blocks movement on a space until removed, a fire-hazard which is placed on the space searched and kills any player or zombie in it until extinguished, or the placement of a zombie. Fire-hazards and cave-ins can actually be used to the players’ advantage if timed correctly, but can really hinder movement or searching in general otherwise.
Players may also spend action points to rest and regain a hit point, or to use an item from their hand. Additionally, as free actions players may collect a survivor on their current spot, release a survivor into their current room, or slot an item card through one of the holes in certain room walls to leave for the teammate on the opposite side to retrieve at a later time.
Rounds finish with the zombie phase, during which they’ll move and then bite if finishing the round on the same space as a survivor or the player. If biting the player, the player takes one damage for every zombie on their space and dies immediately if the hit point spots on their player board fill up. If biting a survivor, the survivor token flips to its zombie side and the player will have one additional zombie to contend with on future turns.
As previously mentioned, the manipulation of zombies’ movement is one of the central tenants of the game, and one of its strongest/most enjoyable aspects. Zombies will always move towards a survivor if there’s one on their floor, even if the player is on the same floor or in the same room as the zombie to start with. If the player is not on the same floor as the zombie and there aren’t any survivors either, then the zombie will move one space towards the player. Ideally, players will want to try and round up zombies into large clumps which can be easily managed as one large, centralized group, rather than a bunch of disparate zombies that are spread all over each floor. Doing so frees the player up for collecting survivors, and more importantly for searching rooms. It also allows the player to potentially “kite” the zombie horde up against a cave-in, or better yet into a fire which burns them up.
If neither Condition A or Condition B have been met after all zombie movement is finished, the first player marker passes to the next person and play continues until one player dies or the floor decks have depleted twice, resulting in a loss, or players complete one of the two sets of conditions. If the latter, players add up one victory point per survivor saved, plus the victory points from their secret objectives, and the person with the highest score is the winner.
The overall cooperative element of working together to get out of the building makes for fun and challenging gameplay, and the game’s pace is quick enough and the rules streamlined enough that you really can get through a session in well under an hour. There’s a lot of fun to be had discussing with other players what the group needs vs. what you’re able to contribute given the zombie situation on your side of the tower, which could turn sour at any point. In fact, I enjoyed the meta-cooperative aspect so much that I actually think the game may work better as a fully coop board game than it does as a semi-cooperative one. While I generally like having to work together while also managing my own victory conditions compared to others (a la Dead of Winter), I found very little incentive to pass cards to fellow players other than objective cards we all needed to win. I can see that possibly changing on higher difficulty levels, but if you’re able to get the zombies on your side corralled and moving as a group the urgency of needing items is drastically reduced, and therefore so too is the believability of anyone bluffing that they’re in dire need of a specific item, and that you’re going to be able to leave it in a convenient enough place for them that it’s going to make a difference; that element of suspicion and high-stakes consequences of helping vs. not just isn’t really there to make me fall in love with how the semi-cooperative aspect of the game works. As a cooperative aspect, however, the passing mechanism really opens up the possibilities for some even more difficult play modes that could make players lean more heavily on each other for turn-to-turn success.
As far as replayability, the number of items and the limited character selection may affect Zombie Tower 3D’s staying power for some audiences. However, as I said before I think the heart of the game is really a clever take on movement manipulation/calculation with some randomness thrown in, and the ability to drop survivors for “agro” purposes acting as the mitigating element for that randomness. In that regard Zombie Tower 3D really has a huge amount of potential to see back-to-back plays, and to exist in collections long term.
COG Takeaway: Zombie Tower 3D is a challenging game of movement manipulation and calculation that requires a coordinated group to beat. I’m not completely enamored with how the game’s competitive aspect works, but my play groups found the cooperative elements to be a lot of fun and everyone had a good time playing; in the end, that’s what really matters. In an industry saturated with zombie games, Zombie Tower 3D’s twist on theme and uniqueness of design give it enough differentiation that it’s a welcomed addition to my game shelf, and I think its easy-to-grasp rules, colorful setting, and clever board will make it appealing to families and fans of cooperative games who are looking for some quick, light but challenging fun.
Help support the campaign and possibly upgrade the game! Visit the game on Kickstarter!