Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Updating my favorite game – interview with VPG about Dawn of the Zeds 3

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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It’s no secret that I like the States of Siege series of games from Victory Point Games and it’s even more not a secret that I love the game Dawn of the Zeds from the series, so when VPG founder Alan Emrich contacted me about being a playtester on a project that aimed to make a more streamlined third edition of the game I was both thrilled and sad.

Thrilled because more Dawn of the Zeds would be coming and sad because I didn’t really have the time to participate in the playtesting process, since I had already committed myself to work on other gaming projects.

Needless to say, that even if I didn’t have the time to get the game to the table during the playtesting phase I still wanted to learn more about the game and therefore I got an interview set up.

For those of you who don’t know Dawn of the Zeds, let me do a brief recap: Dawn of the Zeds is a tower defense game where you defend a town from hordes of zombies marching towards it via five linear lanes. You do so using groups of civilians and a number of hero units. The zombies and events in the game is being controlled by a deck of cards of which you draw one each turn.

Morten: Before we get started on the questions, I’d like you to spend a sentence or two to tell us what your role has been in the Dawn of the Zeds 3 project.

David Spangler: I was a playtester for the original edition of Dawn of the Zeds. I enjoyed the game so much and was so inspired by it, I wrote Hermann and Alan a short piece of fiction about it. One thing led to another, and I became the “story person” for all the Zed projects. My job has been to invent some of the characters (I created Dr. Marteuse), to write all the bios for all of them, the end-game epilogues, and to supply little fictional anecdotes to go with the game. I have also contributed to some of the game mechanics and have generally been a kind of ad hoc consultant.

Alan Emrich: I’ve been the developer and publisher for all three editions of Dawn of the Zeds. I’m also the principle “re-designer” for the third edition, Hermann Luttmann, bless his heart, has trusted us to take care of his “baby” while he was busy on so many other projects!

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Morten: While the States of Siege engine was originally created for the game Israeli Independence about the Arab-Israeli war in 1948-9, then to me that it looks as if it was actually created for the zombie genre . It’s very well suited for simulating overwhelming but uncoordinated hordes marching mindlessly towards you and it has constant and barely controlled chaos, where hanging on by the skin of your nails is a best case scenario. And no, I’m not calling Arabs mindless uncoordinated hordes .

Was Dawn of the Zeds originally created because someone made the same observation as me or was it more a lucky coincidence?

Alan Emrich: Designer Hermann Luttmann saw the same thing that you did; this would be a natural Zombie game! The rest is history!

Interestingly, at first, I rejected Hermann’s game. The initial draft of the first edition game was submitted in Microsoft Excel (that’s “Hermann’s medium”) and was really more of a hard-core wargame than a light States of SiegeTM Zombie Apocalypse game. I sent it back to him to reduce and simplify. Well, the resubmission was still more of a wargame than I had envisioned, but much less so than before, and that worked out as such games were more than acceptable for our audience back then.

Everyone loved Dawn of the Zeds right from the outset, so we knew as soon as our production capabilities improved that we wanted to do a better looking second edition. We did, and it’s been our #2 best-seller (behind DARKEST NIGHT) and very well reviewed ever since. But those reviews all touched on the same nerve -- the rules were a lot of work to plow though! Trying to re-edit the rules into a friendlier guise was what started the ball rolling on what has now become a third edition of the game. Once I started simplifying the rules, then why not simplify some systems and mechanics that were a bit over-engineered? And then why not go for the broadest possible market with the best of everything that VPG can do these days? And so here we are...

Morten: Dawn of the Zeds is probably the most thematic game I’ve ever played, it really captures the feel of a zombie movie and generates cinematic moments like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t think that it’s a few clever mechanics that achieves this, it’s how the totality of the rules make the theme come alive in a way I haven’t experienced in any other game. So, if I were to tinker with the rules and streamline them I would be afraid of unwittingly killing off the magic that makes it all come together.
Do you agree with this assessment? If yes, then how did you work to ensure that the soul of the game was kept intact? If no, then I’d love to hear your thoughts on what part of the game is the pixie dust that make the theme come alive so well?

David Spangler: A lot of elements contribute to this, not least being Hermann Luttmann’s genius as a designer and Alan and Petra’s dedication and genius as developers. Personally, it think the pixie dust lies in the States of Siege structure--desperate heroes fighting off wave after wave of unrelenting hordes of the undead--coupled with the narrative elements.

A lot of work went into making sure the Heroes weren’t just cardboard figures but were distinct and interesting personalities with specific, unique skills. The idea was to immerse the player in the world of the game by generating a bond between player and Heroes, but also by forcing the player to make choices about the skills and personalities he or she wants in the game, since you can’t have all the Heroes. The whole narrative arc is so classically that of the dashing and self-sacrificing Hero putting it all on the line against a seemingly unstoppable menace to protect the community at large. How can a player not feel involved and excited?!

Alan Emrich: David’s right; it’s the pixie dust. But in addition to switching from “processed” pixie dust to the “organic” kind in third edition, we never lost sight of the Golden Triangle: Character, Story, and Plot. For “Characters,” we sifted, sorted, and balanced a good many of them, added some new ones, removed others (the art of development is knowing what to cut, not what to add), rewrote their biographies to better integrate with a larger story about life around Farmingdale as well as improving “the overarching story.” The new characters included the Heroic Civilians (a completely new unit type in third edition) which help round out the community’s denizens.

“Story” is in the Event and Fate cards. These create game-generated “moments” where the AI (artificial intelligence) in the game keeps the pressure on and really makes you feel like the doomed hero of a zombie apocalypse. We kept a close eye on these story elements, again removing some cards, adding others, and creating a nice gameplay balance in the overall mix. We’ve also created new victory conditions and story epilogues that make the denouement for both yourself and Farmingdale very gripping and personal.

“Plot” is not the story, but how the story is revealed. To that end, we kept a tight control of the “scripting” of the story via the 4 “Acts” in the game, creating rising action and lots of dramatic tension in the obstacles the Heroes must overcome with dwindling resources. In addition, we have morphed the National Guard into the player’s biggest fighting unit, and created six different Zeds “Final Push” Finale cards, one of which will be the last card revealed in your game, to better ensure an exciting ending.

Morten: Now, I said that it’s not just a few clever mechanics that make the theme of the game come alive, nevertheless I’d like to hear what mechanic you think best supports the theme?

David Spangler: For me, the innovation here with regards to the States of SiegeTM games that had gone before was the introduction of the Heroes who could be moved about the map to fight the Zeds. This gave the game more a wargame feel and gave the player more interesting things to do than just play defense. Skilled and timely offense is possible here, too. Further, it made the game personal. The Heroes are people you can identify with or come to care about. They bring the story down to the scale of the individual as opposed to whole armies or countries fighting against other armies or countries.

Alan Emrich: David is on point: it’s the Heroes (and now Heroic Civilians), are the core player mechanic. They are your personal avatars in this swirling cesspool of Zeds plaguing Farmingdale. You must go, do, find, fight, heal, prepare, and above all, survive. All stories are told on the backs of their characters, and in Dawn of the Zeds third edition, that is you carrying and telling the story!

Morten: No matter how thematic a game Dawn of the Zeds is there must have been some moments in the design/development process where you had to compromise the theme to make the game work mechanically. Can you give an example of that?

David Spangler: Well, we thought of including a real Zeds virus with every game so as to make the theme even more immersive, but the local CDC representatives frowned on this… and besides, who would play the game if the gamers were out looking for brains to eat? Alan felt this might hurt VPG’s reputation. We’re here to serve gamers, not serve them up… and Zeds don’t buy games.

Seriously, I have an example to add to Alan’s, below, about the Research Track. Originally, there was also a Chaos track. This iterated through testing and careful evaluation to 12 Chaos markers. If ever a 13th Chaos marker is required to be placed on the board, the game is over and you lose. This is an elegant solution, removed one track and its associated markers and rules, and created a dramatic experience of watching the pile of Chaos markers dwindle as they are placed on the board.

Alan Emrich: No, I really don’t think the theme ever suffered for the mechanics; we made the mechanics work better to fit the theme! Case-in-point: Research. Originally, third edition used a Research Track similar to that used in the two previous editions. The mechanic worked, but the playtesters wanted more theme. So, one weekend Petra and I baked up the new Research deck, providing little carrots along the way even if you don’t reach the “end.” It mixed things up a little, and added another place to explain what the science and research was doing in the flavor text on the cards.

Even the new victory conditions and scoring are designed around better presentation of the theme in the most elegant possible manner. System after system in Dawn of the Zeds third edition was crafted for better gameplay and narrative support.

Morten: The second edition of Dawn of the Zeds has a lot of little rules and exceptions that you need to remember and stuff you need to keep track of. One of the goals of the third edition Dawn of the Zeds is to make it a bit more streamlined and mainstream-y. Now, I say a bit more mainstream-y, and that’s on purpose, since as I see it, we’re still a far cry from a mainstream game. Initially I feared that it might be dumbed down too much to cater to a mainstream audience, but what I’ve read so far in the many discussions brought on by the playtest has laid those fears to rest.

Could you tell us about the changes to the game that has been made to streamline the game?

Alan Emrich: Those are way too numerous to mention! We put everything, and I mean everything under the microscope to make it clearer, smoother, and better at telling the story. I will be writing articles between now and Z-Day (the day Dawn of the Zeds third edition is released), and many of them will focus on these mechanics. The first such mechanics-focused article will be on VPG’s web site on 15 May. Let me point your readers there -- it discusses the evolution of an Event card over the three editions and explains a lot of the mechanics that helped maked third edition play so smoothly.

David Spangler: Well, they took out my picture as a zombie. If that’s not streamlining, I don’t know what is!

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Morten: While I personally think that VPG’s rulebooks are some of the best in the industry, I’d also guess that more mainstream-y gamers could be put off by the wargame-style rulebooks, and the size of the rulebook could also scare some people off. Could you tell us about how you’re structuring the rulebook, to accommodate a less grognard audience?

Alan Emrich: Well, Petra really edited the rules, and Barry is laying them out, but I can share our philosophy for the Zeds 3 rules: Clarity, completeness, style, and organization. Unfortunately, all of those come as the cost of added rules weight, so there will be plenty of pages in there, but we are killing ourselves to make them a marvel of great game documentation. The rules will be “programmed,” so that you learn the Basic game first (move, shoot, hand-to-hand combat; it’s pretty substantive all by itself), and each level of the game adds a new color of cards to the universe and new mechanics to play. It’s brilliantly structured, and each level is fun and balanced (believe me, we’ve played them all a bunch of times and never got tired, even shifting up and down the difficulty levels between sessions!).

David Spangler: I haven’t seen the new rules laid out, but talking with Petra--rules maven extraordinaire--I gather there is much more use of illustrations and examples, which always helps.

Morten: Some of the really big news in the third edition is the fact that the game comes with multiplayer modes. A cooperative system is baked in and a versus mode is being worked on that’s a stretch goal. Now you might think that I’ll now be asking you about multiplayer gameplay, but then you’d be wrong . Since this is a blog focused on solo games I’ll instead ask whether you had to do any changes to the solo game in order to accommodate the multiplayer mode, and if so, which?

Alan Emrich: Not just “no,” but “hell, no!” The integrity of the solitaire game is intact and was sacrosanct during development of Zeds 3. In the early stages where all kinds of suggestions were coming in, my mantra regarding anything that might impact the solo game was to recite the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” We’ve got one of the finest damned solitaire games ever made in Dawn of the Zeds, and preserving that was our overarching concern.

Now, with that said, some of the data presentation was organized a bit different to better accommodate both solo and co-op gameplay, but you’ll find the same level of tension, pressure, and Actions to respond to the crisis that you’ve always had in solo play. There is no way we wanted to re-balance something that was so good already!

Morten: Is the third edition aimed at existing owners of the two previous editions, or is the goal rather to reach new players? And, as a follow-up to that, would you personally, if you had no relation to VPG or the game, buy the third edition if you owned one of the previous editions?

David Spangler: I own all the previous editions and I am eagerly awaiting this third iteration. For one thing, the new artwork is fantastic (even though they have left out the picture of me as a zombie about to chow down on an insurance agent), even more compelling and thematic than before.

For another, the game itself has become more interesting, which is no slight against Hermann’s outstanding work on the earlier editions, but a lot of little things have been done to make it easier for the player (solo or co-op) to keep track of everything. And there are a number of new Heroes and Heroic Civilians to liven things up (always good when you’re playing against the undead). Who can resist? I think this game will be a blast to play whether you’ve played (and own) an earlier edition or not!

Alan Emrich: The third edition is aimed to make the game more accessible to new players, both solo and those who learn by being taught co-op play from the game’s owner. I buy new editions and expansions for all my favorite games, and Zeds is one of my favorite games, so, yes, I would totally buy Zeds 3. There’s just so much improvement there -- like the difference between the previous editions of Twilight Imperium and that game’s third edition.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds (Third Edition)

Prototype cards from the game. Image credit Uffe Vind.

Morten: Since you’re reworking an existing game instead of starting from scratch, I would imagine that playtesting has been a much larger fraction of the process. Could you tell us about the playtesting process?

Alan Emrich: Step 1: hammer the game mercilessly in-house until we could improve no further on our own. Step 2: draft the leading “Zed Heads” on BGG as the “core testers” and then add as many n00bs as we can find to ensure everything is working optimally for the widest skill range of players. From that point on, it’s been old-fashioned communication, addressing player’s feedback and fine-tuning the game.

I will say that the beta testing feedback was mercifully detail-oriented. Everyone agreed that we got “the big things right” and so many discussions and matters focused on minutiae. Now, [i]Dawn of the Zeds 3
has a lot of minutiae to discuss, and we had the time to do so as all the new core system refinements just “worked” from start. Whew!

Morten: VPG has always been a print on demand company, and everyone who has played you games in the last 2-3 years know your nice thick, sooty, custom shaped laser cut components. Zeds 3, however, will be different. Could you tell us about that? What kind of components are you going to use?

Alan Emrich: We’re determined to manufacture this game out-of-house at a quality level to compete with larger game companies. No, this does not mean plastic minis, but short of that, look out...

Morten: Why was the decision made to go with traditional manufacture for this game?

Alan Emrich: It’s the next evolution for The Little Game Company. Some of our games, and many of our store and distributor orders, are getting bigger than our print-on-demand model can handle. We need to evolve to a more “hybrid” model of production for some of our bigger games, and that will help our customers and our company.
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