Card-Z is a role-playing board game from author Gerald Kielpinski; not so much a game tho' as an experience of a genuine zombie apocalypse! This experience begins immediately as you open the box to a zombie survival pack sent by instruction of US President Sarah Palin - a just plausible / just unreal enough idea that immediately has you looking out the window to check if the world has in fact switched dimensions…
Card-Z excels at pulling the player into the sheer gritty revelation of what the zombie apocalypse would be like; far surpassing most Hollywood movies in empathetic affinity. This is achieved in no small part by its design and illustration which is almost a card version of a slasher B-movie, with images that look like they’ve been lifted straight from Google-Earth, and cultural references that are very mundane in an extraordinary circumstance – all of which has an unconsciously eerie effect on your nerves.
Card-Z has an uncommon dual-layer gameplay. On a macro-level, 19 location cards are laid out on the table to form the map of The Burbz (that’s apocalypse-speak for Suburbs). As your everyday heroes traverse the map, they will encounter loot, food, other survivors (friendly and not) and, of course, zombies intent on nothing less than taking a good bite of your brains.
When a zombie encounter is triggered (by dice roll), play switches to the micro-level by introducing the ‘universal battlefield’ – a simple, hexed rendering of each compound, varied according to the stipulations of the aforementioned location card and populated with zombies as dictated by drawn Encounter Cards. At this point the experience becomes a nimble slugfest as you choose to move/attack/retreat against a straightforward zombie AI system. Movement is standardised across heroes (3 hexes), and attack success is determined by a d10 (roll the chosen weapon’s stated threshold or higher). Melee attacks are generally a riskier move than ranged, but, as you might expect, ranged weapons deplete your ammunition. Retreating is literally a case of taking a look at the number of ‘Encounters’ (ie: mass of zombie bodies) you’ve drawn, saying 'Nope!', and running away. Retreating is allowed only once. however, and you then have to face whatever you blundered into in the neighbouring compound...
Once a location is cleared, it is back to the macro-level location cards and on to the next location. This pattern continues until your objective is complete, or you’re dead. Rather than rounds, the rhythm of the game is set by ‘phases’ of the day (dawn/day/night/‘reckoning’) with night excursions being harder to complete. Reckonings reset the conditions of the entire board, regardless of whether you might previously have cleared a location – nothing can be taken for granted in The Burbz!
Card-Z suggests several scenarios of widely varying length (1-4 hours), as well as modes of play which cater for solitaire play or for two players collaborating or playing competitively. Several encounters (zombie types and other challenges) are included, with weather and personal health conditions coming into play frequently: each one of these brings modifying conditions which are applied to the dice rolls. This is a crucial element for varying the gameplay and effecting strategy. However, it can become bewildering as +/-1 modifiers are not always consistently presented.
Further variation comes from the 18 characters to choose from, each an everyday real-world character with their own particular abilities and starting gear. Perhaps more could have been made of the character stories, or reasons why the scenarios were taking place, but this game isn’t about them, or how, or why; it's about you, right now, thrust into survival, trying to stay alive. In fact to describe this as a game is only true in a technical sense; really this is work! Card-Z is for fans of the genre, perhaps more than it is for fans of gaming. It is the logical next step from zombie survival books and a grittier, more tangible alternative to video-games. Good Luck!
MantiGames' Card-Z breaks onto Kickstarter on 12 October. We'll add a link when the zombies are unleashed.
(Review by Michael Harrowing)