Sunday, September 2, 2018

Last Days: Zombie Apocalypse. An Unhappy Review

Lately Osprey has increased its menu of wargames rules with the zombie variant and published Ash Barkers' Last Days: Zombie Apocalyps.



Since I am a great lover of the zombie gaming genre but good rules are few and far between I inquired after these rules, read some (positive) reviews and, encouraged, proceeded to buy and play them. This resulted in a pleasant Friday night game of about 90 minutes in excellent company. However, how did LD:ZA conduct itself?

What was good? 

LD:ZA is a pleasant looking hardcover 108 page book with full colour interior. Font is pleasant to the eyes,  The book has a fine systematic layout in the approximate order you will follow when starting a game. This will inevitably sometimes run counterclockwise to the order in which you do things but I generally was able to quickly find the required rule while leafing through during my first game. Character sheets and refuge sheets are included in the book. A 2-page Quick Reference Sheet is downloadable from the Osprey site as are the sheets.

There are some points that are less than obvious however. The Rarity number of weapons for example is the maximum number of that weapon you may have at the start of the game. It can be deducted from the rules but isn't actualy stated anywhere.

Note the difference between Skill Type and Skills. A Skill Type is an area your character may develop in. This does not actually give him any Skills at start. Actual Skills are noted under (somewhat confusingly) Special Rules. It took me some time to work that out....


The book has comicbook style artwork which does great things for the atmosphere.

Character generation
In a skirmish game I like my characters properly distinguished in skills and equipment. LD:ZA has a comprehensive character generation system in which you can quickly and easily generate a team/gang. A 100 point team will give you 6 to 8 characters and reasonable equipment. LD:ZA is set at the high point of zombie infestation and you don't start with a frying pan and a kitchen knife. The characters even have a kind of character type (like Selfish or Trained). Although this only seems to be used in combining team members in likely combinations.  Each team has a hideout that also gives benefits and can be used in scenarios.

Most characters are pre-generated. However, choosing Survivors enables you to tailor-design your team with skills and equipment you can choose yourself, which is a good balance between convenience and possibilities.

Campaign
LD:ZA has a Campaign system (which is an absolute must have in my book) that is simple enough. Loot, feats and injuries are rolled for afterwards and yield bonuses or penalties that influence future scenarios. Quite a few skills you can award your characters play no role in the game itself, but in the Campaign phase. The Campaign also develops your characters skills through earned XP.

The book includes 6 scenarios, ready to play.

Mechanics
The mechanics are well tried and simple. LD:ZA is an alternate activation IGO-UGO game where characters have Action points to be spent on actions. Downtime during play is limited that way and interrupting actions during your opponents turn can be done through Lock and Load which enables you to fire in your opponents turn.  The game has a Menace (zombie and other misery happens) Move and Shoot Phase that each start after the former has been completed.

Characters have stats for things like shooting and close combat. Action tests consist of a D6 die roll plus a stat value that must overcome a threshold to succeed (usually 7). Hits may translate into damage depending on the damage value of the weapon, the target's Endurance and a D6 roll. So there is a To Hit + To Wound sequence. Shooting and close combat are nevertheless quick affairs and easily handled.



Zombies are summoned by making noise like running or shooting. The more noise, the more zombies.

It is meant to be played on a 3x3 foot table and urban terrain. Most skirmish games require lots of terrain and this is no exception.

Where is the errata? 
It is in the Last Days official Facebook Group.

What could be better? 

There is a story somewhere
Ash Barker emphasises the narrative as an essential aspect of a good skirmish game. I agree with him fullheartedly. However using pre-generated characters and refuges somewhat diminishes this. The links between games and campaign events are a bit abstract to my taste. You can lose your refuge to zombies on a roll of a table for example. It is a shame to play such a dramatic event only in that way. I understand the reason however, since zombies would be absolutely incapable to overrun a refuge in a real game. Getting taken out by zombies should be lethal, but actually is hardly a problem. See below.

I have a feeling some opportunities were missed here.

Where do I hide? 
What makes a skirmish game interesting in my book is maneuvering figures and interacting with terrain in a tactically interesting way. This is usually prompted by the presence of ranged weapons and the need to take cover from them. So you need to maneuver for a good firing position or, lacking that, for evasion and/or close assault. A good skirmish game usually sees a lot of movement taking place within firing range to successfully evade enemy fire.

Firing ranges in LD:ZA for long-range weapons (available from the start of the game) range from 24 - 30" and thus cover most of the 3x3 table within sight. However, since any form of cover behind which you can still be seen only decreases the shooting roll with 1 point, taking cover is largely pointless. Hits are usually scored on a roll of 3-4 (Shooting skill 3-4 being average) which only rises to a 4-5 for any form of cover. Firing rates for long range weapons are initially usually 1 but rise to 2+ as soon as more equipment is found or immediately by starting with Survivors with the Double Tap Skill (may reroll Shoot or Damage rolls). So being hit in cover is quite likely and indeed happens all the time. I had three of my characters running through a field of fire behind the cover of cars the entire time and still all three were killed. In this game running is just as effective by the way (also a -1 to hit) as taking cover. The problem is you cannot shoot in that turn.

This unsurprisingly resulted in a game where the teams more or less remained in their starting zones and fired at each other. Enhancing the effects of cover would have solved this.



What is bad? 

Has anyone seen my zombie? 
You start the game with a few zombies on the table. These die quickly and easily (zombies are hit +1) and that is OK.

However, zombies are quite rare in this game. A noise counter doesn't produce a zombie but only a +1 on the zombie roll (that needs a 7). So you need 3 to 4 noise counters in one location to reasonably summon a zombie. And even then none may appear. In this game zombies seem to be outnumbered by the survivors! You will certainly not encounter a horde anytime soon.

Zombies are also rather weak in close combat. They are slower than humans (no runners here) and have a lower Close Combat stat. This wouldn't be a problem if only they were actually menacing. But even getting taken out by zombies just earns you a roll on the Campaign Injury table with a very good chance of survival. You can get infected through such a roll but being killed by a zombie has no effect on that whatsoever. I miss a narrative opportunity here.

So zombies are far from lethal. Leaving them out altogether would hardly change the game. All this kinda makes them no more than a mild annoyance in the background and the idea of a Zombie Apocalypse a bit hard to swallow to be honest. A rather fatal flaw for a zombie skirmish game in my opinion.

Overshooting things
In a game where shooting is so effective Lock and Load (the "Overwatch rule") that lets you shoot in your opponent's movement phase is obviously quite powerful. But this is compounded by the fact that having fired through Lock and Load during the Move phase (without any penalty on To Hit by the way) you can fire AGAIN during the shooting phase (again without any penalty). L&L therefore gives you twice the number of shots for just 4 AP.

And since maneuvering and taking cover doesn't make much sense, sitting tight and L&L is the obvious alternative and not even a dilemma. You can even move for 2 AP AND L&L.

The fact that multiple shots (more than 1) only cause a -1 for all consecutive shots make automatic weapons not only powerful but as accurate as a normal rifle.

In my opinion (and this is a matter of taste, I know) this contributes to the fact that LD:ZA quickly becomes a rather static shootout. This may be realistic, but not very interesting game-wise.

A dog's life
You can pick a dog as your team member. That is great! It has 8 AP (2 more than a human) and is a good close combat fighter.

However, dogs (the Animal Skill/Special Rule is in the errata) may not run, cannot learn from experience and may not retrieve loot. Which makes them slower than humans (?!) and a lot more useless. Even a human burdened with loot can stay ahead of a dog! Picking dogs as team members seems rather pointless that way. A missed opportunity IMO that doesn't do justice to Man's best friend.

Who's gonna drive me home? 
There are no car rules. Enough said. Another missed opportunity.

Conclusion
LD: ZA could have been a very good, fast and furious zombie skirmish game due to its simple and effective mechanics. But the irrelevance of zombies and the overpowered ranged weapon rules force it into a rather static shooting game with an occasional zombie to swat away while you shoot at your human opponents from somewhere around your starting zone.

It is also a shame that none of those cars littering the table can be used to run people over or flee: they cannot move, there are no driving rules and you would be a close and ill-protected target inside a car anyway. There is too little interaction with terrain in general.

I think a lot of opportunities were missed here; rules wise as well as for the benefits of the narrative. My impression is that too much was sacrificed for simplicity's sake. House ruling can fix most of it, but it needs quite a bit of it to result in an interesting game that suits my tastes. A separate blog dedicated to house rules for this game can be found following this link.

I will play an additional test game soon and include scenario play to see if this makes a significant difference. 

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review that's a real shame, we have been using SOBH recently with elements of ATZ thrown in for good measure, like you say you really need a horde to make it fun.
    Cheers
    Stu

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  2. I was looking forward to playing and I really wanted to like them. And they have a few things going for them. But too disappointing in too many respects.

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  3. I totally agree with all of your criticisms of the game. This is very much a missed opportunity and is not a game I shall be playing.

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