INSPIRATION AND FIRST IDEA
In the spring of 2011, after spending a night killing zombies in a videogame, the idea naturally sprang up to recreate the same feelings in a boardgame. For me, there are two ingredients that make up the strength of the video game in question: the cooperative mode (making it impossible to win the game alone), and above all, the randomness of encounters (horde and special infected). We’re familiar with the cooperative mode in boardgames. However, I wished to avoid the “Leader” effect that happens too often in this type of game and makes it so one player makes the decisions for the whole group. To my knowledge, the game that best avoids this pitfall is Space Alert, thanks to its soundtrack and limited playtime. The idea was then to have a soundtrack that imposes a limited length of time to the game. For the regular, but still random, addition of zombies, we had to combine the chance of drawing from a deck of cards with a timed delay. By adding this idea to the soundtrack, this allowed us to add zombie growls at regular intervals.
When I presented my first ideas to Nicolas (who became my co-designer), he immediately joined the project and brought his own ideas (loud weapons and the Horde). In less than two hours of work, we already had the base ideas:
- The soundtrack with zombie growls
- The idea of loud weapons that attract the Horde (the opposite of melee weapons)
- An urban setting, with movement along streets and the possibility to search in buildings
- The necessity to search regularly
- A system of Health Points and fending off zombies
At the same time, Nicolas quickly put together a soundtrack based on the original soundtrack of a John Carpenter film that immediately immersed you into the atmosphere of the zombie apocalypse.
The first games were difficult (for players) and allowed us to rapidly solve certain problems in the rules. For example, the board was not set up at the beginning. The Heroes started on a single tile, and when they advanced, players drew tiles that they added to the board. Next, they drew a Zombie card to know how many to place in the street of this new tile. Finally, they added three Search cards next to the tile that would be available if a Hero searched in the building. This required a lot of manipulation of parts. And we had made the zombie growls every 20 seconds. Suffice it to say that during the first playtests, the Heroes didn’t get very far! We first changed the frequency of the growls, making them every 40 seconds. Then, we quickly decided on a single Search card deck to reduce the manipulation of cards. Finally, to reduce the fiddly aspect even more, it was necessary to set up the tiles before beginning the scenario, by placing a fixed number of zombies (4 then 3) in the street of each tile. The result is that setup for each scenario is a bit longer, but it provides a better rhythm to the game.
SIMPLIFICATION OF THE RULES
In the beginning, we had lots of ideas that we wanted to put in the game: the notion of projection for weapons (shooting across other tiles), the possibility of safety by getting in cars, etc. But since the game had to have simple rules to be playable under the stress of time, those ideas were quickly ruled out. We had a lot of difficulty in simplifying other rules. In retrospect, these rules were too complicated, but in the moment, the choice didn’t seem as clear.
For example, this is the case with the management of the Heroes’ health. Because we were inspired too much by video games, we had a system of health in three stages. In the beginning, the Heroes had 6 Health Points (HP) distributed among three lines (3-2-1). The fending-off rule already existed, but the Hero lost HP equal to the difference between the number of zombies in their zone and their Fend Off strength (limited by their current HP line). If they lost all of the HP in a line, they fell to the ground and another Hero had to come help them up. In the end, we realized that too often a player lost too many HP from the addition of a Horde. We kept this system too long before we simplified it by removing the concept of HP lines, providing the Heroes with only 3 HP, and limiting losses to 1 HP at a time.
Fallen Heroes During a game with testers, a Hero fell to the ground and no one came back to help (since the Hero was lagging behind, and at the time, the pressure of the clock was too strong). We then decided that it would be simpler to have Heroes help themselves up, at the price of an action. Like in other playtests, certain players left behind struggling Heroes, so we added the victory condition that all Heroes must be on the exit tile. This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a key element that gives the game the strong sense of cooperation among players. To make this possible, we imagined the possibility of carrying unconscious players, creating serious restrictions for the players (so it’s impossible for a Hero carrying another Hero to fight zombies). Where in other cooperative games, the death of a player signifies defeat for everyone, we preferred to make a rule that reinforces cooperation, on one hand to avoid this situation at all costs, and on the other hand to give a chance at victory despite everything that happens. Melee Weapons Another aspect that shocks players when we show them the game is the fragility of melee weapons. In the beginning, we imagined guns as powerful but loud and requiring ammunition, and Melee weapons would be weaker, but silent, with no need to be reloaded. We didn’t need many playthroughs to realize that two Heroes equipped with Melee weapons could empty the board without losing a single health point. It became necessary to increase the strength of Melee weapons and make them breakable. Noise Management The way the Horde filled up was also simplified over the course of playtesting. Initially, the player added to the Horde the difference between the strength of his weapon and the number of zombies he killed in his zone. For example, if a Hero killed two zombies in his zone with a weapon of strength 4, he added 2 zombies to the Horde (though when he killed 4, no zombies were added). These little mental gymnastics, though simple, slowed down gameplay. During a work session with IELLO and Origames, the idea came to instead define the number of zombies that a weapon attracted to the Horde with each use. In this way, the game became more fluid. However, this required several adjustments before guaranteeing a balanced game. If players paid attention, they could use guns without attracting too many zombies to the Horde! But with the new rules, players no longer have control over this. We also tried starting the game four shotguns, all loud. The result: The first Horde could quickly become insurmountable if it arrived too late in the game. The solutions we found were of two kinds: begin the game with silent Melee weapons, and equally distribute Horde cards between the two halves of the deck to assure consistency in the size of the Horde.
Heroes’ Wounds An idea close to our hearts was to inflict negative consequences from one scenario to another to Heroes that became unconscious. For example, the risk of infection, to turn into a zombie, or to only have 3 actions instead of 4 during the next scenario. Ultimately, for reasons of simplification, this concept was not supported. But maybe it will reappear in a future campaign…
Finally, we ended up with some distinct situations where Heroes had no more ammo, and could only fend off zombies without searching or advancing. To limit these frozen situations, we gave Heroes the possibility to find bare-handed (at the price of a precious HP).
ELEMENT OF INDIVIDUALISM
Though Zombie 15’ is a strong cooperative game, we wanted to leave an element of individualism to allow some friction around the table. This began with equipment, which is unique to each Hero and cannot be changed. Strangely, under pressure and on their turn, players have the tendency to forget that they are in a group and make personal choices: taking a weapon at all costs during a search (while it’s maybe wiser to place it in the discard for another player to get a better use out of later), or to play a turn quickly so that the zombie growl happens on the next player’s turn. Yet, by getting past this behavior, the players make progress and even win the last scenarios of the game!
When we showed the game to Gabriel at IELLO, he immediately liked the immersive aspect of the game. But at the time, we had only defined a few routes that all resembled each other (go from point A to point B). Before enriching the game and improving its replayability, we developed three campaigns and five scenarios. And because it seemed clear that players would progressively master the game, we tried to introduce new elements to each scenario to enrich the game and complicate goals. In the same way, we created introductory scenarios to facilitate learning the game: a first scenario with few zombies, without loud weapons or soundtrack, then a progressive introduction to other elements of the game. In the beginning, the learning of the base rules was spread out over five scenarios. After some tests, we reduced this training period to two scenarios that took place on the same map so that during their first game, players would already have that sense of urgency and stress. To bring diversity, we also had to propose different objectives. We therefore drew our ideas from zombie culture (movies, video games, literature…): refuel an escape car, hideout in a shopping mall, escort another character, defend a place from a massive swarm of zombies, etc.
In the beginning, all of the characters were identical, but IELLO insisted that we make characters with special abilities so that players could identify themselves to the heroes and say “We won since I used my ability at such-and-such moment!” It’s true that the majority of cooperative games offer characters with abilities, and it has been this way since the beginning (Shadows over Camelot, Lord of the Rings, etc.). These abilities can even play a central role in the action-planning of players (Pandemic), something we really didn’t want. We wanted these abilities to be secondary to the game. To the point that in the beginning, we didn’t offer different characters, but rather a principle of special equipment that could be collected during scenarios to use later. But IELLO stood strong and so we nevertheless had to make these characters… Because we still didn’t want to give them abilities that were too important, and maybe also because of our pasts as role-players, we imagined each character with an advantage, but also a disadvantage. For certain characters, the disadvantage is evident (2 HP instead of 3, impossible to be healed…), but for others it’s much less. For example, Trevor can only use guns, i.e. loud weapons that will increase the Horde faster. Initially, these characters were archetypes (the Cheerleader, the Guard, the Healer, etc.), but IELLO and Biboun did astonishing work on the illustrations to transform them into believable teenagers. Fine-tuning these abilities demanded many playtests, notably for Trevor (the Guard, at the time). In the beginning, his advantage was to be able to carry two heavy weapons, but this was too powerful. Then, we thought to increase the damage of all of his weapons by 1. His advantage was then again too powerful. The conclusion of these tests was that we shouldn’t touch the balance of the weapons. So then, because this character was a big tough guy, we allowed him to carry a heavy item (gas can, unconscious hero…) all while using a weapon, heavy or light. It’s a relative advantage, since it’s not an action used very often, and it’s well balanced by the ban of Melee weapons.
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT AND CAMPAIGN MODE
Once the characters were created, we asked ourselves if we should keep the special equipment that we previously imagined. Insofar as they already existed and we liked the idea of giving players the temptation to go out of their way to retrieve them (at the risk of losing the scenario by doing so…), we chose to continue to integrate them. The idea was then to propose a campaign mode in which the players would receive experience points (XP) in each scenario that they could exchange, if they succeeded, for special equipment useable in the next scenario. It was also possible to keep one’s XP to use them later on, at the risk of losing them if the next scenario failed. At this point it was a little complex, so this system was advantageously replaced with the Backpacks, to exchange directly with a piece of equipment between scenarios, or to keep at the price of filling up a Search slot on their Hero sheet. To go even further in the spirit of a campaign mode (already well underway by the synopsis and the increasing difficulty of the scenarios), we added a system of quantification of success for certain scenarios, with a direct impact on the following scenario (most often during setup). For example, depending on how many gas cans brought to the car, players will start the following scenario more or less ahead of the Horde that follows them, etc.
REPRODUCING THE AMBIANCE OF FILMS AND VIDEO GAMES
During our many playtests, we wondered about the difficulty of the game. We wanted to avoid a game that was too difficult, like Ghost Stories, at all costs. To do so, it required the pressure on the players to be permanent (and growing). This pressure was applied in many ways: by the time that passed unrelentingly, by the random addition of the Horde (which depends on players’ use of loud weapons), and finally by health points, especially when you only start with three! The balancing phase consisted essentially of preserving this pressure in all of the scenarios. The objective is that every game should be very immersive (a bit like movies or certain video games), and that the Heroes win most often with only seconds from the end of the soundtrack and everyone with little more than only one HP, or even having to carry a Hero to the final objective… Even we, during our tests, won (or lost) games on the edge, with two unconscious Heroes, or reached the second-to-last tile at the very last second… we’ll remember these moments for a very long time! And it’s exactly this that is important to us, the people who thought up this game with all of our passion (for games, but also for zombies): that Zombie 15’ gives you many hours of fun and of cold sweats…