Licensed games have a… checkered reputation, to be sure. No getting around it, regardless of the strength of the creator, the love and devotion put in, the objective quality of the final product, the very nature of the project means that folks will think of it as being a shameless, hopeless, cash-grab. Certainly, when I sat down to play The Walking Dead: The Board Game I was… cautious? Despite being told that it was pretty okay, I still had my reservations, not the least of which being that this was the sort of game which lives and dies on theme, but I had never seen the show and I, like so many in the world, am beginning to find zombies teetering on the edge of “overplayed.”
I had a good time, though. And it did at least one thing I thought was keen enough to look into. Page three of the rule book:
Whenever you move, place a zombie token in the space you were on, as long as it is now empty.
Interesting, indeed. Especially given that at the beginning of the game, the board is cleared of zombies.
That’s strange, isn’t it? The board is fairly large, about 250 hexes, almost entirely open but for the barriers around Atlanta in the dead center, and no zombies anywhere. It seems counterintuitive for a game about traversing a zombie-filled wasteland… sure, they can appear when drawn by cards, but you still have these vast, untouched swathes of zombieless real-estate.
But when you start to move–and this is really a game about exploration, so lots of movement is necessary–they appear, a Tron-lightcylcle-wave of them left wherever you go (augmented by circular pileups when you fire your weapons and they come running from all angles). The narrative explanation is that your movement throughout the area is causing them to grow active; as I’m not familiar with the source material, I cannot say for sure how canonical it is to have zombies existing in a semi-dormant fashion until folk breeze past them, but from a player’s perspective I can say that this sells me on two messages, both alike in dignity:
1) Things are getting worse. I’ll level with you: dropping a zombie token every time I move? That’s really fiddly. It takes waaaaay more tokens than I want to deal with on the regular. It futzes with the pace of play. But it means that this beautiful, open, unsullied land starts turning to hell before your eyes, and that can create wonderful moments when two or three players pile up in an area which transitions, with a surprising speed, from an open world to a barely-navigable hellscape. Suddenly you have to ask yourself if it’s worth a hard slog to get where you need to go, or if it’s more effective to take a wide berth where it’s still clearish, or if you should just bugger on out of there. When it works, it works well.
2) You gotta keep moving. I think there are other aspects of the game which make it a less-than-perfect example of an exploration game… the lack of justification for the resource scouting, the arbitrariness of the location scouting, things of that nature. But by gum, is it a game that tells you from turn one that once you leave a place, you don’t want to have to come back there. But even better: you CAN go back there. Going home is never NOT an option, because saying that you can’t revisit a hex you left is the absolute worst sort of arbitrary rulesmanship. But you shouldn’t, not just because this is a game about moving to new places, but because this is a game about attempting to escape a dangerous situation… nominally, you are seeking out a safehouse, after all. What the game lacks, or which might be interesting, is a more purposeful benefit to moving back… not just to cross your trail or get more resources, but to re-scout a location you’ve already obtained. Its set up this nice worrying situation, in which going back isn’t fatal, but it is unwise… and then it doesn’t really give you a lot of cause to GO back, because it’s never not unwise. On the whole, it’s a mechanical interaction which I feel starts to go a great place but doesn’t quite get there.
But still, I had fun. I blew up some zombies pretty good, and the genre isn’t QUITE saturated just yet, so… good times.