Just before Christmas, my son had his sixth birthday. Knowing we were a game loving family, his godfather went into Eclectic Games in Reading (UK) and asked what they’d recommend. He came out with City of Zombies. (It later transpired that Eclectic Games is thanked for their support in the credits. Fair play to them, they back a good horse).
So, what’s the aim of the game?
Like most good games the premise of City of Zombies can be summed up in a single phrase. ‘Stop the zombies from reaching the barricades’.
How do you do that then?
With that little known anti-zombie agent, Maths.
The beauty of this game is that it becomes so involving for the players they don’t notice they are carrying out some fairly complex maths operations. It’s teaching by stealth. Better still, it’s a cooperative game, where you all help each other, so the older (or better at Maths) child isn’t always going to trounce his younger siblings. It’s even possible to play solo.
So how does it work?
The game consists of a number of zombie cards, descending towards your defensive barricade. Surviving zombies move down the board each turn, and new zombies arrive at the start of every turn. If the Zombies overrun the barricades you lose. Games are a set number of turns; 15, 10, or 5, depending how long you want to play/attention span of your players. Turns count down to 1, and the closer to the end of the game you are, the nearer the zombies start to your defenders. If you reach the end of turn one without being overrun, you win the game.
Right I get it, I have to kill the zombies, How do I do that?
Each Zombie card has a number on it. A player rolls three dice (D6) and then can combine those dice rolls to exterminate as many zombies as possible.
Great! Err, what does that mean?
If you rolled 3, 4 and 5 and there were 5 zombie cards in play with the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 12 on them, you have a number of possibilities. You could just use the roll values to kill zombies, 3, 4 & 5 or you could do something a little more clever, like 5-3 = 2 and use the remaining 4 to kill zombies 2 and 4. Alternatively, you could have 3*4 and use the 5, to kill zombies 12 and 5. The only condition that exists for this stage of the game is that you must use ALL of the dice. Not a problem in the example given, but it can often be awkward and that’s where the creative maths starts to creep in. In the basic game there are only simple numbers, but you can feed in other cards, to bring in 25, 36 and even prime numbers like 19 and 29.
The extra cards make the game brilliantly scalable. Not only do they have more complicated numbers on them, but some of them have (optional) special powers, like you must use all three dice to kill a particular zombie, which suddenly starts to soak up your firepower.
My boys (6 & 9) unsurprisingly have markedly different mathematical abilities. We play that the special abilities apply for myself and my oldest but not my 6 year old, who is free to use the dice how he feels. It gives him much greater power than us in the game and means he is using simpler maths. Another important point is that whilst the other players can give suggestions, it’s the player who rolled the dice who gets the final say. So, if my youngest is unimpressed by his older brother’s mathematical jiggery-pokery he can completely ignore it. It can be difficult not to let the older ones run the show, but, with a bit of patience shown by all, it is possible!
So if our team survives we win, is there any more to it than that?
A little. There are a few non-zombie ‘event’ cards that are shuffled into the zombie assault. Some of these work in the player’s favour, whilst others hasten the onslaught. These can mess up your defence, or sometimes sweep the streets clean, saving your necks.
Each player also chooses a character card that represents them behind the barricades. Each character has a special power, but their use is restricted, so choose your moment wisely.
There are also other survivors who are hiding on your side of the barricade. If you survive they survive too. Extra survivors are gained if you clear out all the zombies on a given turn. This gives a method of scoring the game. If you save 72 people, then you have done brilliantly, if nobody else escapes, then you’ve won, but only just. You can use the number of survivors to judge how difficult or easy the game has been for your players, which can help you decide which cards and rules to use in next time. It also gives a ‘Hi-Score’ for your budding zombie-slayers to beat.
‘Nobody else escapes’? What’s happened to them?
They’ve been eaten. By zombies.
Eaten?, this game says its 5+. Is it at all suitable?
Clearly this is a judgement call for you to make. You know your children best. The basic cards have very cartoony zombies on them, which aren’t (I don’t think) scary at all. There are some more realistic cards, but they have the really big numbers on them, so they are for older children. The rules do say that survivors can just be ‘Frightened away’ if you prefer that to eaten. In reality It’s a lot like Pokemon; the rules might say ‘knocked out’ but it’s very hard not to say ‘killed’…
Does the game play straight out of the box?
Yes. There are some quick set up rules included which explain the basic rules. There is also a full rules sheet, which explain variants and simple ways to ramp up the difficulty. The full rules are still only a few pages long. The game is exceptionally intuitive and one you’ve played it a few times, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing.
What about the first time?
Hmmm, it isn’t that tricky, particularly if you regularly play games that are slightly beyond the norm. Having said that, trying to play anything the first time with eager children jammering at you, is never easy. If you have time and opportunity, I think things will run more smoothly if you have a read through and a practice go on your own. This is doubly true if you don’t have much dice rolling experience beyond a Christmas game of Cluedo.
So this game is good then?
To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever played a better conceived children’s game. The concept is simple and engaging. The rules are simple and engaging. It’s a great family game, with enough danger in it to switch on young attention spans. It teaches them maths, without them noticing and encourages fast mental calculations. I should also mention the production values are second to none. It’s a beautiful product. It really is a fabulous game.
Is that it?
We’ve not used them yet, but the City of Zombies website has printable blank cards for you to make your own zombies and at end of the rules there is a mention of the Times Square expansion deck coming early 2015. This is to have a twelve sided dice and zombies up to 144! I can’t wait!
City of Zombies was designed by Matthew Tidbury and created by Thinknoodle games and has its own website, where there is all sorts of information and fun stuff about the game. @cityofzombies and @thinknoodle can both be found on Twitter