Zombie Tower 3D* is a co-operative board game for three to four players, being released into the international market in 2016 (it was released in Japan in 2015). The new release is currently crowd-funding via Kickstarter, with the campaign ending on March 16.
The game, which has nice manga-style art throughout, sees you collaboratively trying to escape from a zombie infested tower block. And while the 3D tower may at first look like a gimmick, it genuinely adds to the gameplay.
The Carcassonne-sized box is packed with bits. You get the base board, enough cardboard to build either a three or four-player tower, five character boards and matching cardboard standees, 160 zombie/survivor tokens and more than 100 small-sized (think Ticket to Ride) cards. The rulebook isn’t the best, but does the job – and they’re working on a new version for the crowd-funded edition.
The box states the game is for 10-years plus and takes 45-60 minutes – both of which I’d agree on. While some may worry about the theme it is treated with a very light, cartoony touch – the box is the scariest part of the game. But do see both ‘teaching’ and ‘key observations’ for some possible in-game concerns. As for play time, even including teaching and setup and with four players, the game shouldn’t run beyond 90 minutes.
Zombie Tower 3D doesn’t bring anything revolutionary to the party in terms of mechanisms, so experienced gamers will pick it up in no time – even better, non-gamers should also be quickly comfortable with the concepts on show.
The game lasts a maximum of twelve rounds. If at any point a player dies, or if twelve rounds have elapsed and you’re still inside the tower, you lose: if you escape, you win. Escape involves collecting all the items you need to do so – either with flares (via the roof, room 10) or the communication device (ground floor, room 2) – and all being in the correct room at the end of the same round.
But searching and taking cards isn’t straightforward: for every few good items (weapons, healing kits etc) there are dangers such as extra zombies, cave-ins and fires. However you’ll soon start to realise that even these seeming set-backs can be turned to the advantage of a clever player. You also know they’re coming, as the ‘bad’ cards have a different back, letting you plan who takes what type of card and when.
On each turn (you get three actions each per round) players do a ‘one-point’ action, plus unlimited extra ‘free’ actions as and when when required. One-point actions are: move one room, search a room, rest, or use an item; free actions involve interacting with any survivors in your room, or passing on/collecting items. You also have the option to do extra one-point actions on any round, but each will cost you one health – and you’ll only start with three of four health points, depending on your character.
Each player’s section of the tower consists of 12 rooms, with four on each of three floors including a stairwell at the end of each row. A move action sees you move one space, either sideways on your floor or up/down the stairs. If you’re in a zombie-free room you can search (take a card for that floor) or rest (gain a health point). Otherwise you may want to use items you have to deal with those pesky zombies.
Several walls have slots where you can pass items through to your fellow players. They don’t need to be there (they can collect at any time) so it doesn’t take huge co-ordination, but in a four-player game you can only pass to the players on your left and right – and it’s easy for rooms to become too hard to get to.
At the start of each round, every player places one or two new zombies and a survivor into their part of the tower. Each player has their own set of 12 shuffled placement cards representing the rooms in their section of the tower, two of which are drawn each round, so every room gets one lot of either survivors or zombies in each half of the game.
At the end of each round, it’s time for the zombies to do their thing (including the end of the round in which you intend to escape, which can very much hamper your plans). Zombies on a floor with survivors will move one room towards them, turning them into zombies if they reach them. If there are no survivors on a floor, but you’re there, they’ll move one room towards you instead – doing one damage each if they reach you.
In terms of teaching, one issue is you can’t really help other players as you can’t see their board situation without spoiling this unique aspect of the game. It can be hard to explain your situation, which adds frustration if you’re already exasperated, so sometimes you may need to break that fourth wall and simply take a look at their area. In my experience this hasn’t been much of an issue, but I’d caution against playing with a few people who don’t work well independently, or lose focus easily.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: While simple, the zombie and survivor placement mechanic is clever and works perfectly. Planners can really use it to help them see what may be coming, while others will just have fun dealings with problems as they arrive. Similarly, the rules have a list of what items are on which floors and specifically say you can reference it at any time. All the ‘escape’ items, for example, are on floor two so you know you need to go most of the way through that deck – but it still has a big random element that keeps everyone on their toes.
- The thinker: Zombie Tower 3D has some surprisingly subtle strategic and tactical depth. Picking up survivors scores you points (more on this later), but placing them back into the building to lure zombies away from a critical point can be the difference between success and failure – if a little heartless! Equally, deliberately taking ‘danger’ cards to try and set fires – then luring zombies into them – is a big part of the game and can be far more effective than a shotgun or pistol attack. I went into this with low expectations, but ended up having a surprising amount of fun.
- The trasher: I love the smell of zombies in the morning! What’s better than luring a 14 zombies into an inferno as you grab a shotgun and head to the next floor to blow a few more away? The game’s theme works well and is normally tense and close at the finish, giving it the kind of movie feel they were clearly going for. Sure, in a way it is multi-player solitaire – but there is so much communication between players as you explain your situation/needs it never feels like it – but even I didn’t think the game needed its ‘true winner’ rules (see key observations).
- The dabbler: Zombie Tower 3D does a really clever thing in negating the ‘alpha player’ issue common in many other co-operative games. As only you can see your situation you have to rely on each player to do their own thing and fight their own fires (quite literally!), while co-operation comes in the sharing of items and ideas on who should be collecting what. Each player also has an individual player card/standee which adds a bit of personality, as well as a unique special ability that will likely change how you play and helps with replayability. And even better – it plays in about an hour, which feels just about perfect.
Zombie Tower 3D’s components are solid, but there is one problem. There is very little depth in the cut where you place the roof, meaning stability is pretty poor – especially when you consider they expect you to put the card stacks on it.
This is made worse by the fact there are no grooves in the base, adding to stability issues. We kept the card stacks on the board, not the roof; and were all sure to be careful when adding zombies, trading cards, moving characters etc. But if you’re playing with younger children who may get a little fidgety, or clumsy adults, it could be a problem.
The game has also felt it necessary to use the concept, made famous by Dead of Winter, of having a ‘true winner’. If players manage to escape, you then show your secret objective cards (basically item collection) and add on points for each survivor you managed to save. I have no idea what they thought this added to the game and it has made the conclusion of each game we played into a damp squib as people needlessly add up points – we survived, who cares who got the most arbitrary points?
I didn’t think it added anything to Dead of Winter, but it’s even more pointless here as you pick up so few items – and the amount of survivors you get (and can consequently afford to keep) is almost entirely down to luck. Thankfully you can simply ignore this and the game loses nothing at all.
A bigger concern is longevity, largely due to the difficulty range available. I’ve player with lots of groups but won every time on ‘normal’ difficulty (the middle of three levels). This is set by how many zombies start the game in each player’s area – three (easy), nine or 18 – but they start in just three different rooms.
Zombies tend to quickly cluster and as players have only 3/4 heath and each zombie does one damage, ramping up from three per room to six makes little difference – that room is still out of bounds. While it makes it harder to clear rooms with weapons, many players won’t use weapons at all – and fire will still clear a room, or a barricade or collapse block it.
I guess you could house rule this, putting zombies into more rooms instead of adding more per room, but I expect they tried this and found that in reality the game is probably a bit fragile. However even though we’ve keep winning that has usually been on round 11 or 12 so it has largely been tight and exciting. Even after successive wins I still want to play the game more, as a satisfying puzzle isn’t made that much less so by always getting the better of it (just look at the Rubik’s Cube).
Finally, some may baulk at a game that only caters for three to four players. I really don’t think this is a game worth soloing, and it won’t go more than four, but I do think playing two-player is possible with each person playing two characters on the four-player board. I haven’t been able to try this as yet, but if I do I’ll post a comment here (or let me know if you’ve done it).
When Zombie Tower 3D was brought to my attention I couldn’t help but agree to give it a review. Having been brought up on old 3D games such as Mouse Trap and Haunted House, this looked like a fantastic concept.
At the same time I feared it would be a train wreck, as did many people I put it in front of. But in actual fact everyone I’ve played with – most of whom are experienced gamers, and many of a brown euro persuasion – have thoroughly enjoyed it. The game lets the mechanics take a back seat to the puzzley aspects, which results in a co-operative gaming experience that’s a real breath of fresh air.
I should also point out this review is based solely on the version currently available for the Japanese market. I have no idea what will change for the Kickstarter edition.
* I would like to thank Cosaic LLC for providing a copy of the game for review.