Monday, March 2, 2009

Last Night on Earth Review

I’m not one of those obsessed zombie fan boys who feels the need to engross themselves in all things brainless, but I had seen Last Night on Earth (Flying Frog Productions) staring out at me from the wall of my local comic store for several weeks so I decided to buy it. Besides I had picked it up and read over the box so many times that the folks in the store were probably starting to think that I was going to steal it. The packaging is excellent and the box wasn’t so big that I couldn’t fit it in my backpack. So I bought it, rode home on my bike, and introduced it later that night to my regular gaming group.

First off, the components of the game are of exceptional quality. It has two decks of cards (hero cards and zombie cards) and both are glossy and have high quality cinema style pictures on all of them. They have been shuffled a bunch of times and seemingly show no wear so far. The heroes and zombies are all represented with nice plastic miniatures; you can actually tell who the heroes are from the pieces and there are a couple of different zombie poses (I personally like the groping zombie the best, but I’m sure that not all feel that way). The game board consists of a central square piece and then six additional L-shaped ones that wrap around the central piece to form a big square. Each contains different buildings that one would find in a typical small town. The game never uses all of them in any scenario creating a somewhat random playing environment (woe to the heroes denied access to the gun shop and the police station). Set up is very easy; some shuffling, set up the board, pick up a scenario, and you are on your way.

The game pits the players against one another. It is zombies vs. heroes. I think that the ideal game is five players (four controlling one hero each and the fifth being the brains of the zombies) though a one on one game is surprisingly good (one player controlling all four heroes). Once you get the hang of it a game should take about 1 ½ to two hours, though this could be considerably less is the players know what they are doing.

In most scenarios the objective is for the heroes to accomplish a certain goal before the sun comes up; at which point the zombies overrun the small town and presumably humanity is doomed. No pressure. Some examples are to destroy the spawning pits from which the zombies emerge, prevent the zombies for overtaking the manor house, or to find some keys and gas up the truck in the center of town and get away. The game does a good job of recreating the climatic ending of a zombie movie. The urgency is certainly there as the sun tracker counts down and the constantly spawning zombies allows no rest for the weary heroes.

Each game turn consists of the zombie turn followed by the hero turn. The zombie turn appears to be the more complicated of the two. Not necessarily in strategy, but in the sense that the zombie(s) player has more options available to him (Her? Them? It?) Each turn they draw a number of cards from the zombie deck, all of which succeed in making life miserable for the players in a variety of ways. Locked doors, shambling zombies of superhuman speed, and the dreaded Undead Hate the Living card (which allows the zombies to fight better). The zombie are very limited in their movement, but they do have the advantage of being able to eat their way through walls and other obstacles. They are also very hard to kill. After moving the zombies fight any heroes they share a space with. At the end of each turn there is also a chance that more zombies may be spawned into play, which is why the heroes should concentrate on the goal of the scenario, rather than just playing the role of zombie slayer. Trust me, they will just keep coming.

In most scenarios the burden lies squarely on the shoulders of the heroes. Based on who the players wind up with this could consist of a bunch of high school kids overmatched by an army of the living dead or the town sheriff and priest carefully slaying zombies while the local drifter loots for supplies. For the hero turn the player decides if they want to move or search the building that they are in for supplies. They can fire a ranged weapon and then fight whatever zombies are in the same space. On turns when no zombies are in the area the hero turn can go by very fast, so make the most of it. Working as a team also goes a long way. Zombies also have no choice but to go after a hero that is closed to them, so they can also be used as bait to lure zombies away from crucial areas.

The first handful of times that we played the zombies had the clear advantage, easily whupping up on the heroes with relative ease. The more we played though, the winning strategy became more apparent. Heroes can not allow themselves to be pinned down and surrounded, they need to try to get themselves some ranged weapons, and they need to keep the scenario goal in mind at all times. There is nothing wrong with getting a hero killed if he is able to accomplish something in death. There is even something heroic about it, and really, isn’t that what being a hero is all about? Besides, under a lot of circumstances a new hero will come into play. Now, after playing a bunch, I would say that the games are pretty balanced between the two groups. And it was very exciting the first time that the heroes won, even if it took about a dozen games to get there.

The characters are not at all equal to one another. There are clear winners (the gun toting Sheriff Anderson) and losers (Billy, the useless son of the sheriff. He’s a slightly faster runner than the others. Wow. Apparently the apple has fallen very far from the tree in this case.). I have no problem with that, some people would be better at surviving a zombie apocalypse then others and this reflects that. I would recommend picking the heroes that you want to use for the first couple of times because it is hard to learn the rules when you are getting killed quickly. After everyone has the hang of it I recommend the random draw for characters because it is a lot of fun to see who you get stuck with. Billy, Jenny, and Johnny seem to be at the weak end of the spectrum, with Sheriff Anderson being the ass kicker of the group. The others all have their uses and if someone plays them to their strengths they should be just fine.

My main complaint with the game is that some of the rules are open to interpretation and a bit vague at times. Clearly I am not the only one who feels this way since Flying Frog has put a very lengthy FAQ on their website to address the numerous discrepancies in the rules. Many of the issues stem from the use of the word “turn” and what exactly it refers to. Many of the cards in the game have effects that last for a turn, but it is not made clear if this is just the players turn or the entire turn (i.e. all of the zombie players on a given round).

The game is also very open ended and ripe with possibilities for custom scenarios, which the game makers clearly support. There are a couple of new free scenarios on the Flying Frog website, plus the game comes with a lot of extra pieces to use in creating your own scenarios. I’ve only tried to make my own a couple of times, and I have struggled a little bit in getting the balance right. So far they have all been pretty one sided, but I see no reason why they can’t improve given some more time to play around with it.

This game is a winner, even for non fans of the zombie genre. We’ve played it about 25 times so far and I would happily play it 25 more. The changing scenarios really keep it interesting as do the wide range of characters available and the randomness of the board. And I know this sounds ridiculous for a game about zombies, but it seems grounded in reality. A person should not be able to kill a zombie without some difficulty and if zombies were overrunning a small town I’m not sure that anyone would be able to stop them. And this game is cool with that.

All in all a very good game. It’s a bit pricey at $40+, but seeing the quality of all the components you certainly see what you are paying for.

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