Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Review - The Walking Dead: All Out War

Published by Mantic Games
Designed by Mark Latham
For 1 or 2 players, aged 14 to adult

The Walking Dead: All Out War


So, I work from home (if what I do all day really counts as work). I have a little nook all my own, which is actually an extension on the front of my kitchen. It's quiet for most of the day, it's nice and bright, and most importantly of all, I'm incredibly close to my kettle. Because tea is basically the thing that makes me function on a level that closely approximates the way I have determined other humans are supposed to act.

But I'm not precious about my tea. I don't use loose leaves, I don't use a teapot, and I don't think I even own a cup and saucer.

No, I brew my tea in the mug I'm going to drink it from. I squeeze the teabag, and tannic acid be damned. I even add the milk before I take out the teabag. It's not like anybody else is here to see me do it.

Part of the reason for my complete disregard for any kind of etiquette.... drunkiquette?*... is because I'm always in a hurry. And being in a hurry comes with it's own tea-related problems. For example, quite often I'll put the teabag and the water in a mug, and then I think, "I'll just leave that to brew for a minute." And then I'll go off and do something else.

Eventually I'll come back to my tea to discover it's completely stewed. It'll have that gross film over the top that breaks up and sticks to the sides when you stir it, and it'll be just the wrong side of drinking temperature. And I'll make a sort of half-hearted attempt to sip at it, but really I've left it just a bit too long, and my hearts not in it, and the idea of tea isn't quite as appealing as it was 20 minutes ago.

Then I'm a bit sad.

And this, if you hadn't figured it out, is an incredibly laboured metaphor for my review for The Walking Dead: All Out War. And by "my review," I mean this review. The one you're reading. The slightly lukewarm one that my hearts not really in.

I was going to write this review last year, but I decided I needed just a little bit more time with the game before I could formulate my opinions into a written review. Then I thought I needed some expansions to really get a feel for the system. Then I played it a bit more and didn't like it, and I lost my interest in buying expansions or even reviewing the base game. And then I left it just a bit too long, and now here we are...

Drinking stewed tea as I write a stewed review.

But I've got to do it. I've got a lot of reviews I want to write, and I'm not letting myself write them until I've got this one out of the way. So here goes...

I don't like The Walking Dead: All Out War.

But I should.

I mean, it's got all the makings of a game I should like. It has nice miniatures (sort of), and a cool IP (sort of), and some interesting rules (sort of).

Let me explain...

The box for The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game from Mantic Games


The Walking Dead: All Out War is a skirmish game, pitting two groups of survivors against each other in an uncomfortably claustrophobic arena crawling... er, walking... with zombies. It's a pretty tantalizing pitch, and as I'm always on the lookout for "that" zombie game (you know the one; the one that doesn't exist other than in your head), I felt it was worth paying £30 plus change for the starter set.

Now before I go any further, I need to briefly mention the theme, and admit that I haven't read The Walking Dead graphic novels (other than the first volume, which I didn't really care for all that much). I'm one of those horrible, unwashed heathens who's never read the source material but loves the television show. Normally, that wouldn't really matter; after all, whether you're talking about the show or the books, you're talking about shambling undead folk trying to munch on shambling un-undead folk. But I mention it because Mantic Games has done a really terrific job of capturing the style of the books. The artwork is from the books, the characters are from the books, and perhaps most significantly for a tabletop skirmish game, the look of the miniatures is from the books. If, like me, you're not a fan of the art, it's unlikely you're going to find this game particularly attractive. You may even think the slightly squat, slightly cartoonish, slightly out of proportion miniatures are slightly silly.

I was prepared to look past that, though. I was prepared to accept I didn't enjoy the aesthetics of the game, because there was a chance that this was "that" zombie game.

And I suppose we should address the ever-present issue with zombie games: There's a heck of a lot of them. Mainly because there are a heck of a lot of people who like zombies. It's a craze that doesn't seem to want to die; and everybody wants to cash in, even if they aren't entirely sure what they're cashing in on. I remember many years ago, I was commissioned to ghost white (zombie write?) a book about the dead rising from their graves. I put together the first draft and sent it across, and then waited for the feedback, which basically comprised of, "I love it, but you keep using the word undead and I don't know what that means." Even back then, it was obvious the person writing my cheque was trying to ride a wave; he just didn't have a surfboard.

Now, for fans of all things zombie (the genre, not the game), having all of these different tabletop experiences to choose from is fantastic; and I would say that All Out War is a worthwhile addition to the corpse pile. But if you're the kind of person who rolls their eyes when someone mentions the undead, it's probably best to just move on. Loose eyeballs and hungry zombies is a bad combination.

But let's assume you like the theme. Are you going to be pleased with your purchase of the starter set for All Out War?

The answer is, somewhat predictably, "sort of."

Let's do this as a compliment sandwich. Everybody likes sandwiches...

At the price point, you get a pretty decent introduction to the game system, with enough components to run small skirmishes between rival gangs, with plenty of zombies thrown into the mix. You get unit cards for all the characters, a selection of item cards that make it possible to tailor your gang to suit your play style or mission objectives, a fistful of very nice custom dice, and a paper mat with a selection of 2D cardboard terrain to help you set up your first game quickly without having to worry about where you're going to get a miniature Winnebago.

Obviously, in any miniatures game the spotlight is always on the little plastic dudes, and All Out War is no exception (Mantic even packaged the game with a window on the front of the box to show off a selection of the best the game has to offer). There are 18 miniatures in total, and every one is unique. This is a refreshing touch for a zombie game, where you're normally facing hordes of identikit coffin dodgers; but I can't help feeling the expense in sculpting and tooling all those different zombies might have been put to better use elsewhere. I mean, do you really need 12 different zombie sculpts? Zombies all still zombies, even if they're in different hats, and they all still look a bit similar. Besides, while the zombies are important, they're not really the main attraction. Everybody's more interested in the real walking dead: The humans. And here... Well... I have to say the starter set fails to live up to its potential.

It wasn't so very long ago Fantasy Flight Games released an expansion for Star Wars: Imperial Assault that featured Boba Fett on the front cover. Boba Fett was indeed a character in the expansion, but there was only a token to represent him in-game. You had to buy the pretty miniature separately. Mantic Games has gone one better than that. It's put a load of characters on the front of the box that aren't inside the box at all. In fact, of the eight heroes prominently displayed on the cover, only two are included (Rick and Coral). Of course, Michonne is on the cover (or, Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Game, as I like to call her), and I'm pretty sure that at the time the game launched, she wasn't even available in expansions.

But if you don't get Glenn, and you don't get Andrea, and you don't get Michonne, and you don't get Dale, and you don't get Lori... Who do you get?

Well, turns out Rick and Coral are man and boy enough to take on all-comers, because they're the only heroes you do get. The remaining four characters are villains for the opposing team, called the Scavengers. This being All Out War, Negan is obviously... Not present. But it's okay, because you get to create a warband from some of the best of the bad in the books: Derek, Patrick, Liam, and Sandra.

A selection of character cards from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


You may need to fish out Walking Dead: Volume One and take a close look to find these characters. Calling them bit players is an insult to bits.

Okay, the characters aren't from the A-list. That's not the end of the world (not like a zombie apocalypse is the end of the world). At least, it wouldn't be the end of the world if you had the tools to use those characters to make some interesting survivor groups. But the starter set is woefully lacking in gang-building options.

Building your survivor group works on the tried and tested method of using points. You simply decide what points level your game is going to be, and then select characters and starting equipment until you reach that point level, with around 100 points being the smallest points value that still gives you a halfway decent gaming experience (and incidentally, the maximum points level you can realistically make using a single starter set with no expansions).

But here's the thing... Rick is worth 50 points and Coral is worth 12 points. That puts you at 62 points with 38 points left over for equipment (hooray for maths!). For the Scavenger gang, you get four characters totalling 85 points, leaving you 15 points for equipment unless you decide to drop one or more characters (pro tip: drop Liam). So far so good; and then you look at the equipment cards. All eight of them.

Yeah. The game includes exactly eight pieces of starting equipment.

And there are no duplicates.

There just aren't enough cards to feel like you're making meaningful decisions about how you're kitting out your team. I mean, the Lucky Hat is exclusively for Coral's use, so it seems silly not to take it, and then you've got just enough money left to give Rick and Coral a weapon each (probably a .38 revolver and a hatchet, because then your team total is 99 points). For the Scavengers, you've got just enough points for a hand weapon and some bandages, unless you drop Liam (pro tip: I'm serious, drop Liam). Without Liam, you'll probably end up with some bandages, a .22 revolver, and a baseball bat (because baseball bats give an advantage to "bruisers" and there are two "bruisers" in the Scavenger gang).

And that accounts for six of the eight equipment cards.

A selection of equipment cards from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


You see. The choices seem obvious, because there aren't really any choices at all. Several of the items clearly telegraph which character (or which class of character) should use them, and the rest just seem to fit snuggly in the 100 point limit.

I should mention that once you start playing a game, characters may find supply tokens which do mix things up a bit by allowing some additional customisation on the fly. When you reveal the tokens, you draw from a dedicated supplies deck. You might get a new weapon that wasn't initially available, or you might disturb a zombie. You might even get "nothing", one of the most exciting things to happen in any game.

But what does happen in a game?

As I mentioned previously, each game is a closely fought skirmish on a compact battlefield. In fact, the total playing field size for matches up to 300 points is just 20 inches square, which means you're virtually breathing down your opponent's neck from the first turn, and there's really nowhere to hide from the shambling zombies.

Games are scenario-driven, but Mantic has only included a basic supply run scenario in the base set, which involves two teams going head-to-head in a mad dash to recover some supply tokens scattered around the location.

And the basic rules are pretty simple and streamlined really. They're pretty much what you would expect from a tabletop game like this, and there are a few shadows of Mordor here and there, with a couple of rules (not many) that felt familiar to me as someone who has played the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game.

The turn structure uses alternating activations, with each character on the battlefield working as an independent unit. So, at the start of a turn, the player with initiative selects one character and takes two actions, then the player who doesn't have initiative actives a character. These actions cover all the usual suspects, such as moving, shooting, searching, performing character-specific skills, or making some noise to attract zombies.

This continues until all character have had their actions, at which point there's an event phase where the zombies get to act and you draw an event card to see if there are any environmental effects or arriving brain munchers to worry about.

A selection of event cards from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


Close combat isn't a specific action. Instead, it gets its own melee phase, where any characters in base combat with rival gang members or zombies have a bit of a scrap. And then there's an end phase where you do all the general bookkeeping, such as tracking infected bites, bringing dead characters back as zombies, and alternating initiative with your opponent.

Combat involves custom dice in three different colours, with each side of the dice showing combinations of hit symbols and exclamation marks. The colour of the dice determines your chances of success, with blue dice having more hits and exclamation marks than white dice, which in turn have more success icons than the red dice. There's also a black dice that you roll for activities that have a 50/50 chance of success, such as jumping walls, or bringing corpses back from the dead to feast on the living. You know, all the normal stuff.

Oh, and there's a yellow panic dice with six unique icons on it. We'll get to that in a minute.

The custom dice from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


So, overall, the basic framework of the game is simple. It's an I-Go-U-Go system with custom dice and single-character units duking it out for (in the basic game, at least) control of objective tokens in a confined space.

But that's just the beginning of the story; because over that basic framework Mantic Games has draped the bloody skin of a zombie game, creating an interesting way (a potentially groundbreaking way) to model the apocalypse.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, the reason most zombie games don't end up being "that" zombie game is because they never truly capture the elements that make a zombie apocalypse terrifying. They don't capture the heartpounding dread of a swarm of relentless monsters hounding your every step, following you mercilessly no matter how many shots you put into them, while you struggle to find food in a world where other humans are also a threat.

But The Walking Dead: All Out War does a bloody (ha!) good job of doing just that. It has a series of small rules and wrinkles that add depth and texture to the basic skirmish framework and help to accurately model an apocalyptic scenario. I would probably go as far as saying this game is the best interpretation of this theme to date, due to the interesting mechanisms in place that make zombies so much more than walking targets for your sharpshooters to deal with.

The problem is, perhaps surprisingly, I don't actually like any of those rules. Which goes to show how difficult it is to find "that" zombie game. Because sometimes even "that" game isn't "that" game. And that's that.

A section from the rules book for The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


Let's run through some of the cool ways the designers help to breathe life into the undead:

The first thing to note is that the zombies aren't there as part of your objective. You don't go into the game with the aim of killing them. They're just moving environmental hazards. Your focus (at least in the base game scenario), is finding supplies and beating up the opposing gang. It just so happens there's a bunch of zombies milling around getting in your way. And they really do get in your way, because the battlefield is so flipping small. It feels like you can't ever move without some zombie chancing its arm to take a bite out of your hand, and it doesn't ever feel like your safe. The main concern you're going to have is that a lot of the things you do in the game create noise or mayhem. For example, if you run, you create noise. When that happens, the closest eligible zombie within 10 inches lurches towards you.

Where mayhem is involved, which usually involves firing a gun, things get even worse. You have to increase the threat level (I'll get to that in a minute) and then every eligible zombie takes notice and comes towards you.

But this is where it gets really clever... or really dumb, I guess... Zombies are mindless. They walk in a straight line, and will stumble into walls and cars, or happily start munching on any characters unlucky enough to be in the way. This creates a fascinating positional puzzle to unravel. You end up with situations where you quickly run past enemy characters, so that a nearby zombie staggers into them and starts chomping; or you'll fire a gun from behind a parked vehicle to lure the zombies away from your allies on the other side of the battlefield.

You're in a constantly shifting arena of death, using the zombies as mobile attack units and road blocks to hamper your opponents and aid your own schemes.

It really is a very interesting concept, and figuring out how best to rearrange the battlefield to your advantage is rather satisfying. Unfortunately, it's also a bit of a pain. For a start, the battlefield is really small, and the game uses an alternating activation system. That combination means you never really feel like you can take full advantage of manipulating the zombie menace. You might make a move that positions things in your favour, but often the very next move in the game will undo your carefully constructed scheme. But the biggest issue for me is it just creates so much extra busy work to deal with. Every time a character moves or attacks, you have to check for noise, check for eligible zombies, check which zombies are closest, and then move one or more following the zombie movement rules. This problem is compounded because zombies also get their own activation phase, where you measure to see if characters are within a zombie's kill zone, move any zombies in attack range, then draw an event card and possibly spawn and move additional zombies.

It feels a little bit like you're spending more time fiddling about with zombies than anything else, and it really breaks up the flow of the game and starts to become a bit tiresome. If you've ever played Zombicide and got a bit cheesed off towards the end of the game when you're moving a hundred miniatures around the board, you're probably going to find All Out War an exercise in frustration and tedium.

Unfortunately, this isn't the only example of the game introducing a degree of micromanagement to each turn to better simulate the nature of a zombie apocalypse. There's this little threat tracker thing, and at certain points, it goes up. It goes up when someone creates some mayhem, and it goes up when people panic, and it goes up when someone goes berserk, and it goes up if anybody is involved in a bit of fisticuffs. But it sometimes goes down. Characters have the option to try to calm the situation, and certain characters such as Rick Grimes are particularly good at this. So, over the course of the game you put the threat up a bit, down a bit, shake it all about a bit.

And it's a clever little mechanism; don't get me wrong. But dammit if I didn't feel like I was trying to tune a radio rather than play a game.

The threat tracker dial from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


Threat determines the severity of certain event cards drawn in the event phase, but one of the most important things it does is induce panic in the characters. Whenever you choose to activate a character you have to check his or her nerve value. If the nerve value is less than the current threat level, you have to take a panic test. You roll the special panic dice to decide what you do, with results ranging from fleeing uncontrollably and taking no further actions to going into a berserk rage and gaining a combat bonus.

It's a bit like the old animosity rules from Warhammer Fantasy Battle. A dice roll that determines whether you get to play the game or whether the game gets to play you. It's a neat idea; there's certainly something fun about one of your characters going into a screaming fit and unintentionally attracting nearby zombies, or refusing to do anything noisy in an attempt to stay hidden; but at the same time you're creating extra bookkeeping as you constantly fiddle with the threat level and check it against your nerve level. Worst of all, it makes characters with a low nerve value almost useless (looking at Liam again, a character so utterly worthless the flavour text on his character card is his death rattle). Threat has the potential to increase so quickly, anyone with a low nerve value ends up acting randomly very early on, making it difficult to use them effectively.

Liam from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game comes under attack from zombies


With all these zombies hanging around, sooner or later you're going to have to fight them, and they're pleasingly robust, making them a genuine threat to life and limb (and brain). You aren't going to be mowing down armies of the undead. More often than not you're going to end up knocking them over or slowing them down just long enough for you to focus on your primary objective. If you want to ensure the dead stay dead, you need to roll an exclamation symbol on your attack dice, which signifies a head shot and removes the zombie from play permanently. Of course, getting a head shot against your living rivals is also worthwhile, because otherwise they come back as zombies when you defeat them.

The final rule that helps to complete the zombie experience involves the risk of infection. When zombies attack, the same exclamation mark symbol that spells their doom is also the symbol that signifies if a survivor becomes infected. From then on, at the end of each round you have a 50/50 chance of taking damage before eventually succumbing to the disease and becoming one of the undead. It's all simple enough, but layers a bit more dice rolling and admin' onto a game that really does start to have just a bit more bookkeeping than absolutely necessary.

And I feel I need to reiterate that I'm not saying these are bad rules. They're actually very effective rules for modelling a zombie outbreak. But for me, they break up the flow of the gameplay a bit too much, a bit too often, making the whole thing slightly disjointed and a bit of an ordeal.

In that regard, I guess the game is a thematic triumph. Nobody said the zombie apocalypse was going to be fun.

Carl and Rick Grime fight off the zombie horde in The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


So, this seems like a good place to wrap things up... hold on, that's a mummy joke.

Er...

So, let's put a nail in this review's coffin... er... that's probably better for a vampire game.

Screw it.

Let's summarise...

Overall, this is a pretty solid skirmish game, with some good miniatures, a good IP, and some interesting new ways to transfer the zombie threat into a tabletop experience. On paper, I love it. In reality... not so much. But despite it not being my cup of (slightly stewed) tea, I do think a lot of people will really get a kick out of it. If you've read this far and think my complaints are unfounded then you're probably one of those people and shouldn't waste any time giving All Out War a try.

Just be advised, your base game purchase isn't going to be the only purchase you make. If you don't buy more stuff your games are going to involve the same two gangs, with the same items, fighting in the same location, doing the same thing. It's almost the definition of madness.

But let's be fair. This is a starter set. It's not supposed to be all you buy, and it's not supposed to give you everything the game has to offer. It's supposed to showcase the experience, and encourage you to buy more. Viewed solely through that lens, you have to admit the box does what it sets out to do. You get to play a full game, using all of the rules (including the advanced rules for terrain, thanks to the inclusion of cardboard terrain tiles), and there's even a fudgy way to play the game solo, although if you do that it's one group of survivors against the zombies, which really doesn't feel like the way the game was intended to play. If that's enough to scratch your zombie itch (I'd get that checked out if I were you) then you'll probably be in the market for some expansions.

Which seems a suitable point to segue into talking about expansions.

For me, expansions fall into two main categories: Expansions you feel you want to buy because the base game is so good, and expansions you feel you need to buy, because without them the base game seems lacking.

In my opinion, All Out War expansions fall into the latter category; so after playing a few games with the starter set, I briefly looked into what expansions you might need to round out the experience. Then I stopped looking.

At first blush, the expansions seem pretty reasonable. Most of them are character boosters that retail for around £12 and usually comprise a main character, a secondary character, a unique zombie (really, more?), and a handful of equipment cards.The rest of the expansions are larger scenario packs that include more characters and zombies, more equipment, and some additional locations, terrain, and scenarios.

But the more I looked at the expansions, the more I started to get that itchy feeling. You know the one... that creepy crawly feeling that you're on the brink and you need to turn back now. Because, as far as I'm concerned, those expansion packs aren't put together in a consumer-friendly way. Let's look at some reasons why:

1. At the time I was browsing, the only way to get a decent enemy for the game (Negan, who really should have been in the starter set) involved buying a £25 solo expansion. That expansion has no other characters, but it does have a bunch of elements that double up on what comes in the starter set, making it feel like it isn't a justifiable purchase. Besides, there are solo rules in the starter set, so I'm really not sure why there's a solo expansion at all.

2. The first major expansion at that time was called "Days Gone Bye." It comes with Dale, Jim, Allen, and Donna. Surely four of the characters at the top of everyone's "must have" list. Unfortunately, it doesn't contain any miniatures for the Scavenger gang, just a few unit cards that gave you the chance to take "veteran" (i.e., better) versions of the characters from the base game.

3. The "Days Gone Bye" expansion also includes a series of narrative scenarios. These are much needed, because the starter set only comes with a single scenario. The problem? The recommended survivor groups for the narrative scenarios contain characters from the individual character boosters, so even after buying an expansion to unlock new scenarios, you still have to make additional purchases to play them without subbing in alternative gangs.

4. Each booster comes with a few equipment cards (I think it's about four in each character booster, and slightly more in the scenario packs). As already stated, you really need those extra cards for your army-building options, because the base set doesn't have enough. But you don't get a lot of options with each new booster either, and it's incredibly inconvenient if you want a specific item and have to buy a character pack you don't want just to get it.

5. And on the subject of cards, character packs also include extra character cards for miniatures that aren't in that pack. For example, the Shane booster pack comes with a character card for Shane, but if you want his special leader variant that grants him special bonuses while he's leading your group (and seriously, who wouldn't want Shane leading their group?), you have to buy the booster pack that has Rick Grimes on his horse. That means, to get leader Shane, you need to buy two different, unrelated character packs.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Things may have changed with some of the newer expansions, but with the first wave at least, the expansions are carefully constructed products that have a relatively low buy-in, but which combine to encourage multiple purchases.

And for some people, that won't be a problem. Some fans are going to want every character, and every variant of every character; and they're going to be quite happy buying a few boosters a month to fill out their dream rosters.

And that's cool. If that's you, then you're all set.

But it's an issue for me.

The Scavengers gang from The Walking Dead: All Out War miniatures game


And I guess that really sums up my feelings on the game. I can see the game's been put together well; I can see how it quite accurately recreates the situation of being under constant threat from zombies; I can see why some people are going to really enjoy the collection aspect of getting all the miniatures and all the cards.

I can see it. I just don't feel it.

The name "The Walking Dead" is an oxymoron, so perhaps it's fitting that I see this game as oxymoronic. There are just so many contradictions woven into the very nature of the product:

It has a theme I like (The Walking Dead! Zombies!) but it's a theme I don't like (the graphic novels).

It's called "All Out War," a story line from the books that features an epic conflict involving all the main characters; but what you get is a knife fight in a phone box with a couple of Z-list characters you may not even recognise.

It has nicely made, varied miniatures that I think are ugly and look too similar.

It has interesting, clever rules that I find clunky and dull.

It offers a comprehensive introduction to the game system, which still somehow feels lacking.

The expansions are relatively cost-effective, and break up characters into smaller purchases so you can pick and choose what you want; yet the way the expansions are constructed it feels like missing out on certain characters you don't want denies you access to stuff you might need.

And I just can't bring myself to like it.

Unfortunately, after stewing on it for I while, I've decided this wasn't "that" zombie game. Not for me, at least.

But maybe it will be for you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I left a teabag in a mug somewhere.




*Warning: Wiltshire dialect joke. May not translate into the written word.


The Walking Dead: All Out War core set (and a wide range of expansions) is available from all good game stockists and online retailers.

2 comments:

  1. I have been waiting for you to review this after a comment you made to me about a year ago stating it made a weak impression. Good write up as always, please keep them coming.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Yeah, this one really slipped through the cracks of my schedule! I appreciate you reading and commenting.

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