Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

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Updating my favorite game part II – interview with the playtesters of Dawn of the Zeds 3

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Playtesters are the unsung heroes of the board gaming business. Without the immense amount of unpaid time spent by playtesters we wouldn’t have all the nice games that we have today and it’s one of the great injustices of the business that they rarely get to share the spotlight . So, when VPG head honcho Alan Emrich suggested that I took a playtesting perspective when doing an interview about the third edition of Dawn of the Zeds I decided to reach out to the playtest team for a group interview, and four of them chimed in.

Before we get to the interview, though, I’ll point out that the new third edition is currently being funded on Kickstarter (with a bunch of stretch goals unlocked already) and while I generally try not to gush like a fanboi on my blog, then I must say that the first and second editions of the game has given me the best moments of my solitaire gamer life, so I strongly recommend at least checking out the game.

Morten: Could each of you briefly introduce yourself, tell us how you got involved with the project and what it is that draws you to Dawn of the Zeds?

Lines J. Hutter
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Lines: Hi, I´m Lines. I'm 44 and live in Germany. Actually it was Morten who introduced me to Zeds. I'm not one of those guys who needs every Zombie game out there. And I tended to think that Stage of Siege / Tower defense games might be pretty boring. I mean… what do you do? You sit there and shoot at everything that's approaching you, right? Boy, was I wrong! Zeds quickly turned to be one of my favourite solo games in my collection!

I quickly became the guys that could answer a lot of questions on the BGG forum, had two or three PMs with the designer and also posted some long video playthroughs, which he and the guys at VPG seemed to enjoy.
Also I was the first one to point out some mistakes in the Director's Cut rulebook.

I guess it was the sum of all that that lead to Hermann (the designer) suggesting me as a playtester for the third edition.

And of course I responded with a huge YES!

David Kennedy
United States
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David Kennedy: I am VPG’s States of Siege guy. SoS games are my game system of choice now. I love the elegance of the game engine. I picked up the 2nd edition “Dawn of the Zeds” when it came out. But, I never played it to any level of competence. I did find the level of detail off-putting. I’m not a zombie guy. When VPG asked me to help make a cleaner version, I found the opportunity very exciting.

Ryan Mayes
United States
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Ryan Mayes: Hello, my name is Ryan. I am 35 and I live in Arizona. I have always been a fan of Victory Point Games, but I have stayed away from Dawn of the Zeds. As a rule, I avoid anything with zombies in it. They terrify me, and I often have zombie nightmares! It was Lines who got me into this. He suggested I put aside any fears and help playtest the third edition. So, he got me in contact with the people at VPG and, the next thing I knew, I was on the playtest team. I'm very happy I listened to Lines because this game is well worth a few nightmares.

Wes Erni
United States
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Wes Erni: An old friend that had introduced me to wargaming 43 years ago, called out-of- the-blue to “catch-up”. He was always a huge zombie fan (I wasn’t) -- when hearing I was heavily involved with State of Siege games, he asked if would “crunch” the only SoS game he owned, Dawn of the Zeds (one of the few SoS games I didn’t own). I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth of the game, and was even taken by the theme (Marteuse and the Tunnel were masterstroke additions). Unfortunately, like nearly all other highly complex solitaire games, there were “holes”. Unexpected combinations (some outrageous) could turn the Zeds into “bleating sheep”. What has always been a pleasant surprise, is how quickly Alan Emrich reacts to the news of gamebreaks (which is why I design and playtest for VPG) -- my other experiences have been more along the lines of: “If you don’t say anything, maybe no one will find out”. With Zeds, (like other SoS games) I was communicating with designer Hermann Luttmann in no time. Unfortunately, “real life” intruded, and my participation in this 3rd Edition of Zeds has been limited to a frenetic couple of weeks at the end, “breaking” and “fixing” just before release.

Morten: Could you tell us about the part of the playtesting process, that you’ve been involved in and how it was it?

Lines: I´m a Beta tester on Zeds 3. All Alpha testing was done mostly in-house at VPG and now it was time to get some copies out to external testers. I was sent a so called Beta-kit. Except for the rules I didn't have to print / assemble anything by myself. It already had most of the new artwork on most of the parts, new counters in various different shapes in the mind-blowing VPG quality we all know and appreciate. It didn't feel like a prototype at all! It already looked awesome and I really had to force myself to write directly on those beautiful cards when the first changes were made.

The rules were already written very solid and shared on which made it pretty comfortable to edit and give comments.

Zeds 3 is based on two very solid predecessors, so fortunately there were no major gameplay “bugs”. I could concentrate mainly on the changes that have been made. The streamlined and altered rules, the new teaching process the rules introduce and the different play modes.

The last months I spent hours and hours playing, taking notes, commenting, writing mails, discussing, updating, reading rules, etc. etc. Since I love this game anyway, most part of it was fun. Some other parts were straight out work I had to push me through sometimes. Going through a new set of cards one by one, re-reading, cross-referencing, reporting. This can be exhausting, but it's part of the process and definitely worth it. Although I´m neither the designer nor the publisher I want this game to be the best-most experience to everyone spending his money on it. This resulted in me commenting not only on big parts of the game but also on the smallest nit-picky things, be it a comma, text alignment or the order the hero abilities are presented on their character cards. This can pile up pretty fast! More on this in the last question.

David Kennedy: Given the overwhelming love other members of the team brought to the project, I wondered what my role would be. In short order, I came to embrace the versus game as the Zeds. Cooperative play wasn’t my style. When I learn a game, I tend to try everything. With experienced players here at VPG, I found myself the loose cannon on the team.

When given the opportunity to play as the Zeds, I jumped in and immediately found my home. The simplicity of playing the Zeds is alluring. There is a Zen flow to the decision process -- advance or reinforce? The versus game isn’t a cakewalk for the Zed player. There are clear constraints of time and resources. Like a good SoS game, you must choose. The dynamic is you must prepare for when opportunities present themselves. But, you can’t leave the humans untouched. In short order, I realized raiding parties were necessary to keep the humans off-balance. But, too much early effort will weaken your big blitzes. It is a delicate balance.

Ryan: Like Lines, I was a beta tester for the game. Also like Lines, I was blown away by the production quality of my playtest kit. I expected that I would have to print the game myself, but no, I was sent a copy made with the same quality components as any other game by VPG. Not only that, but I'd say the new artwork was 80% done. That showed me right away how much love has gone into this new version.

Since I never played either version of Dawn of the Zeds, I came into this with completely new eyes, and I tried to focus on things that would affect a brand new player. The initial experience is often the most important one, and I wanted to aid in making it the best experience possible. Like the others, I care about what happens to this game and it matters to me that players get as much enjoyment as they possibly can. This has been a great experience because I really like Dawn of the Zeds. It's no wonder this game gets all the praise it does.

Wes: My role was very small chronologically. Everyone else spent months working out the kinks of Zeds 3 (I have hundreds of e-mails, most unread, still stored) -- I merely offered my services at last minute to Alan. He responded with a special “care package” -- “We think this game is great -- now destroy it”. My entire purpose in Zeds (and seemingly in life) is balance -- balance so that players never have a “Systemic” way to win too easily, internal balance so that the competing options (and Heroes) all have their “raison d’être”, balance maintained despite the radically different optimal styles the solitaire and Co-op games possess. styles the solitaire and Co-op games possess. The toughest job, balancing the Versus game (which seemed vulnerable to imbalance at first glance), might very well be technically impossible given the severe asymmetry -- but I think the end product is a surprisingly successful at producing a competitive game. The bad news has been that, yes indeed, there were several gamebreaks to be found (again, some of them outrageous) -- but good news, they all seem very “fixable”, the basic structure of the ambitious marriage of Solo, Co-op, and Versus is very strong.

Morten: Before going on I need to make it clear that the versus mode that David and Wes talks about is a mode where a human player controls the zombies and plays against one or more players controlling the humans. It’s important to make clear the this mode has not been finalized yet, it’s still in playtesting, and it’s a stretch goal in the Kickstarter campaign, so it might not get included this time around.

Board Game: Dawn of the Zeds (Third Edition)

Lines is not doing well (please note that this is a prototype, not final components). Image credit: Lines J. Hutter

Morten: Do you think that the attempt to make the game more approachable has succeeded?

Lines: We've been talking about that back and forth for a while during the playtesting phase. Zeds will never become a family game, that's for sure. It will stay a gamer's game. A lot of the small extra rules and exceptions have been cut or streamlined without doing any harm, and this definitely makes the game more approachable. The way the rules are introduced now will make the game much (!) easier to learn and teach to new players. And you can play the game with others now. That means that there will be more players on the table that know the rules and make sure you don't mess anything up.

David Kennedy: For sure. I found the original game had a lot of moving parts. For the Zeds fanatic, it was a kind of nirvana as so many ideas were incorporated. The core mechanics were not that complicated. But, there were a lot of special circumstances which deterred me. The new version of the game is much cleaner. Of great importance is the graphical treatment of the game. The 2nd edition was very gory and in-your-face, which obviously appealed to a certain subset of players. But, it could be a little off-putting to the casual gamer. The new look is awesome. I believe the art direction was to be “haunting”. In this, it succeeds brilliantly.

Ryan: Because I was new to Dawn of the Zeds, I have nothing to compare it to. However, I do feel that the game is very approachable. The levels split the game so the player can learn as they go. I really enjoyed adding in new game features and mechanisms as I progressed through the levels. Some people might want to jump right in and tackle the "hard" game head on, but for people who want to take it slow, this works very well.

Wes: Zeds will never be a “Gateway game” to the hobby. Those who loved the elegant simplicity of the State of Siege (as do I), but aren’t ready to stretch their horizons considerably, will not be happy. The theme is so attractive to large numbers of the gaming hobby, that many will give a try that shouldn’t. That downer viewpoint aside, the game is laid as best as can be done to be accessible to the newbie. I have never been a fan of “Programmed Instruction” personally (always wanting to jump into the “deep end of the pool”), but I do see its intrinsic value -- and the PI has been introduced in very clever fashion here. The greatest design challenge however, is based on the widely dissimilar levels of playing experience such a multi-dimensional game presents. It is very difficult to challenge a group of 4 “pros” (or one bossy Alpha player that knows every trick), while at the same giving a quartet of unruly newbies a chance. Does Zeds succeed in that? Personally, a qualified yes -- that may be lukewarm sounding praise, but really represents an outstanding effort to a near impossible problem for such a richly diverse and satisfying game.

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Event cards. Image Credit: Victory Point Games

Morten: A common reaction when a publisher says they’re trying to make a game more mainstream or streamlined is that fans of the original fears that it will be too dumbed down. Do you feel that the game has happened here or is the core experience still there?

Lines: Definitely not watered down! I realized that I adapted to rule changes pretty fast. And I never sat there missing anything from Zeds 2. Most changes just reduce the time you spent flipping through the rules to look up or verify a rule. And that´s a part I won´t miss at all!

It is Zeds as we love it. And more. There have been new characters added, new unit types, new play modes. A good bunch of the Director´s Cut expansion has been included. All this adds to the variety and experience we know from Zeds 2.

David Kennedy: I think that’s an unfounded concern. VPG took the opportunity to re-examine all the design assumptions to achieve elegance. In this regard, they have succeeded. It is still very much “Dawn of the Zeds”. Just cleaner and more elegant. I must say it looks fabulous. Kudos to the art direction team. It is world-class.

Wes: The core experience is completely intact -- actually, it has improved in “real” value. Yes, there are some things “removed”, but the real key to game decision making is the RIGHT number of QUALITY decisions, not the most number of decisions (the majority of which experienced players will simply ignore). Of course, now we are getting into “eye of the beholder” territory -- each person probably has their own “sweet spot”. Given the number of dimensions Zeds 3 possesses, it will be nearly impossible for Zeds to be “perfect”.

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Lines turned into a zombie by artist Clark Miller. Image credit: Victory Point Games.

Morten: Will the third edition, in your opinion, be worth buying if you already own one of the previous editions?

Lines: Definitely. If you're already a Zeds-Head ((C) VPG term) like me, you're already familiar with the rules. So streamlined rules might not be your main reason to spend more money. But the new artwork alone is worth it! And you can now play Zeds with your friends. There's a lot of new stuff and subtle changes to discover! After 6 games or so I still went: “Oh, my god there's still more! I still haven't seen everything.”

David Kennedy: Totally. It is a no-brainer, if you like the game.

Ryan: Again, I can't speak to this, but I can say I think the game is definitely worth the purchase!

Wes: Zeds 2 was broken, (hopefully) Zeds 3 will not be. Zeds 2 was really just a solitaire game, Zeds 3 has a well conceived Co-op option, and a satisfying “Adversarial” game. Zeds 2 requires a lot of “researching rules twists (or just guessing), Zeds 3 is more streamlined. Art and Components are very subjective, but Zeds 3 is getting raves. If you have digested Zeds 2, are only interested in solo play, aren’t terribly interested in exploring “killer strategies”, and like the components of Zeds 2 -- don’t bother getting Zeds 3. Otherwise, yeah, get the new game.

Morten: Do you have something you’d like to add about the game, the process or an episode from the playtesting?

Lines: I was pleasantly surprised by how much the team at VPG listens to their playtesters! As mentioned above, I'm one of those guys that pays as much attention to minor nit-picky things as to bigger concerns, like balancing or gameplay issues. I guess the first two weeks, VPG needed to get used to me “spamming” them with lists of comments. But each and every word I (and others) wrote was appreciated and discussed. And most of it was added / changed.

Even major stuff I criticised and received an opposed initial reaction, was mulled over the following days, taken into account and addressed.

VPG, the little game company that… listens.

I´m in for the next project, guys!

David Kennedy: I loved playing the Zeds. I like to get into character when I play. I found the original backstory for “Dawn of the Zeds” totally uninspiring. I still do. But, when I played as the Zeds, I found Dr. Marteuse came alive for me. I began to think like Marteuse. Talk like him. Act like him. Understand his motivations. I developed my own whole backstory to explain the Zeds epidemic. The events at Farmingdale are no “accident”, but part of a master plan. His master plan for a better tomorrow.

I was also surprised at how I came to hate the humans. Hate them because they are plucky and brave. Hate them because they are so disruptive of my diabolical plans. You really want to slaughter them. It is sort of scary.

Ryan: In all honesty, I was surprised by how fun the game is. I played it a ton, and I want to go back for more. I was afraid this was going to be a challenging experience where I had to slog through my plays. But no, I enjoyed every minute of it. This game is great! I was also excited to see some of my ideas incorporated. Just like Lines said, VPG really listens to their playtesters and takes feedback seriously. I felt like an important part of the playtest team and I was very happy to be a part of this.

Wes: Sadly, I really wasn’t part of this playtest team at all -- I have been on VPG playtest teams before, and have greatly enjoyed the process. My role was much more of a “special operative” reporting only to Alan and Petra. It was play a game, report, “Hey, you know I can kill off all the of the Super-Zeds in one turn”, etc. Once the clear gamebreaks were fixed, I remained worried that the 4 player co-op would be “near invincible” if the players chose the “perfect” complementary team, and cooperated fully. There was a distinct possibility that an “Alpha” player could “assign” menial roles to the other players in an “ideal” strategy, while having outrageous fun himself dominating the Zeds. I had a long string of great successes that (understandingly) started at the more basic levels, but then (more worrisomely) continued through the red level. Happily however, I had a few rules wrong (part my fault, part the rules), and my good fortune came to end with a shocking defeat (only designers and playtesters are ecstatic when they are crushed). I followed up with another game (with same superb Hero team), and played, personally, the most exciting Zeds game ever (any edition, playtest or “real”) -- a nail-biter, at the edge of defeat over half the game, not decided to the last Zeds phase. At this point, I feel very comfortable with quality gameplay, and the POTENTIAL for a riveting game. I say “potential”, because there are too many cards that will never be played to be an always “fair” game -- and “scaling-up” to lengthen the game changes the algorithm heavily in the player’s favor (IF, they know the game’s secrets). All you can do is enjoy the matchless drama that will unfold, and use every trick in the book to save humanity. For players willing to invest in Zeds 3 (easier than Zeds 2, but still not easy), the enjoyment will be more of a guarantee.
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