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Subject: Grave Business - a pre-GenCon, pre-release review rss

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Andy Van Zandt, creator of "Grave Business," told me this past weekend that there will hopefully be copies of the game available to play (and I would hope purchase as well) at the upcoming GenCon convention. If you're going and you have a chance, give the game a spin. I had a chance to play Andy's copy and came away impressed at the game's tight design, fairly quick gameplay, and strong player interaction mechanics.

What It's All About

Grave Business puts you in the role of a mad scientist/voodoo expert/other creepy necromantic individual with a business plan. You're going to send your small troupe of zombies to the graveyard to dig up buried treasures and artifacts for profit, and hopefully more body parts as well to assemble even more zombies to dig up more treasures, steal treasures and body parts from your rivals, and come out as the top zombie master!

Sound good so far? Let's move on to how the game is played.


Game Play

Each player has their own board on which they keep track of their zombies, store their treasures and store their spare body parts. All players begin with three zombies with varying numbers of "hit points" - each player starts with three zombies of 9, 11, and 13 points. Each zombie is represented both in your hand and on your board. In your hand, the zombie has a name (named after the brain used to make the zombie) and strength in both "brains" and "bones" - more on what that means later. On your board, your zombie has a stack of tiles, each tile having a number from 1 to 3, the stack totaling the zombie's hit points. These tiles will slowly be depleted during the game as zombies begin attacking each other. Important to note - when a zombie has taken half or more of its hit points in damage, it's destroyed... but you can collect body parts to reconstruct the zombie later on. Your board also has your "Lab" (where you store body parts) and "Vault" (where you store your treasures).

There is also a central board made of sixteen squares, and spaces along each row and column to place your zombies. A supply of tiles, representing treasures, useful items, and body parts are put beside this board. There are enough tiles to exactly fill the board six times, making for games that should last just six rounds. It is possible, if enough tiles are untaken and returned to the supply over those six rounds, that a seventh round will occur - but that's a rare case. To start off, you take 16 tiles from the supply and place them face-up randomly on the graveyard squares.

Lastly, there is a start player Candle card that gives certain benefits to the starting player of each round, and an "attack board" to keep track of which zombies are attacking other zombies.

In each round, each player in turn, starting with the player holding the "Start Player" candle, places one of their zombies, face down, in one of three (or four) places:

- On the graveyard board: You can place your zombie at one end of a column or row to "dig that row." Unopposed, this would mean you take all four tiles in that row. Of course, you're very unlikely to remain unopposed... other players can place zombies on intersecting columns, or at the other end of the same row, to fight for the right to those tiles. Zombies can also be played on one specific tile - this allows only for taking that tile, but it gives the zombie extra strength to fight for that tile. But more on that later because digging is resolve only after all zombies have been played for the round.

- On the attack board: You can place a zombie in an available attack slot to attack another already played zombie. Attacks are made to temporarily remove the opposing zombie from its space (for example, attack a zombie digging up a row on the graveyard to remove it and leave that slot open again), and also cause some damage. Attacks are resolved immediately.

- On another player's board, in their Vault or Lab: Zombies aren't just good for digging stuff up or attacking other zombies, they're also good thieves. Apparently. One zombie per round can steal from your Vault and one from your Lab - so at most you'll lose one tile from each during a round. Stealing is resolve first in the round after all zombies are played.

- And if you're the start player, on the Candle start player card. This has a few minor effects, the main one being that you get to determine who the next start player is. This can give you a small tactical edge, because in general it is better to go last in the round as opposed to first. (This makes sense if you think about it - you can play your zombies in reaction to everyone else's, and if you have more zombies than anyone else and you go last, that can make for a huge advantage.)

Once all zombies have been played, you resolve Steals and then Digging.

- Steals: If you still have a zombie in someone's Vault or Lab, you steal one randomly chosen tile from that location. Stealing from the Vault will get you treasures or useful items (and thereby depriving your opponent of victory points), and stealing from the Lab will get you much needed body parts to build more zombies (or take victory points - spare, unused body parts are worth points at the end of the game!). Thankfully, only one zombie can steal from your Vault each round, and only one from your lab - so there's no way to massively gang up on one player in a round.

- Digging: Now you resolve the graveyard digging. Everyone flips over the zombies they've played to show the "brain" strength they have on each row or column of tiles. On any one tile, you must have more "brain" strength than any other player has, and if there's no opposition for a particular tile, you take it automatically. If your strengths tie in brain power, the tie-breaker goes to the most "bone" strength between the zombies. Still a tie? The tile goes back to supply, untaken.

Here's an example of how this works. Here's a sample portion of the board:


Blue Zombie Red Zombie
2 Br 1 Bo 2 Br 2 Bo
Red Zombie | Body | Body | Orange Zombie
2 Br, 2 Bo | Part | Part | 3 Br 1 Bo
--------------------------------------------
No Zombie | Treasure | Body | Blue Zombie
| | Part | 1 Br 0 Bo
--------------------------------------------
Blue Zombie| Treasure | Body | Orange Zombie
1 Br, 3 Bo | | Part | 3 Br 2 Bo


At the top row, in the first space, Blue and Red each have 2 Brain strength, so they are tied; but Orange has 3 brains, and takes that Body Part. The next tile has two Red Zombies digging, and their total brain strength is 4. That's enough to beat Orange's 3 brain strength, so Red gets that body part.

At the bottom, Blue has two zombies digging up a treasure, and a total strength of 3 brains. Orange also has 3 brains on that row, so the tie is broken by bone strength. Blue has the advantage here - 4 bones to Orange's two. Blue gets that treasure. But Orange easily wins the neighboring body part, overpowering the brains of both Red and Blue.

After all tiles are either taken or returned to the supply, the round ends. Players can now build new zombies if they wish, or keep body parts in stock for later or for points at the end of the game. This is an important choice, because zombies themselves are worth no points at the end of the game!

Attacking

If you put a zombie on the Attack board, you immediately resolve that attack by choosing another zombie already in play and attacking it. That player then flips over the top tile of that zombie's stack. This will reveal either 1, 2, or 3 points of damage done to that zombie. Normally, the zombie in play is removed from its space (the graveyard or someone's vault or lab) and placed next to the attacker on the attack board - effectively nullifying that zombie for the round.

BUT... if the tile revealed says "Zombie Fights Back," then the zombie fights back! The defending zombie stays in place for the round (bonus one) and deals damage in return to the attacker (bonus two). The attacker has to flip over a tile as well to reveal damage taken. (Theoretically, that could also reveal a "fights back" tile, dealing more damage to the original victim, etc. etc.)

Note that because zombies are played face down, when you declare an attack you don't really know which opposing zombie you're attacking. You may be attacking a weak and insignificant zombie... or one that has a ton of hit points and a sword on top of it all. (See below for how that can happen.)

Special Items

As noted above, some of the items you get from the graveyard are just plain treasures worth points, and others are valuable and useful items. They're also worth points if you leave them in your vault, but you can instead stack one on top of a built zombie. Then, when that zombie is attacked, instead of taking damage the zombie's item gets used. For example, one item (that I can recall) puts a sword in the zombie's hand. This automatically lets the zombie "fight back" as above - but with the advantage that, because the sword was flipped, your own zombie ends up taking no damage at all!

Building New Zombies

When the round is over, and if you have body parts in your lab, you can build one or more new zombies. All you have to do is assemble enough tiles with hit points equal to the number of hit points of the zombie you want. So, if you want to build a six point zombie, you need tiles totaling six points. That could be six 1 point tiles, a 2 point and four 1 points, two 3 points, etc. Generally it's better to use more, smaller tiles than fewer large point tiles - because each attack flips one tile. So if your zombie is built out of six 1 point tiles, that zombie can survive three attacks before dying, whereas the same zombie made of two 3 point tiles will die after suffering just one attack!

More zombies means more actions - you can dig more stuff up, steal more, and attack more often. This is a tempting route to take - if you have a large horde of zombies, other players will run out of zombie in a round before you do, and then you can use your remaining hordes to pick off opponents' zombies with ease and without retribution.

But important to note is that tiles used to build zombies no longer score points for you. Every body part that goes unused at the end of the game is worth points for you, along with your collected treasures and other items. So that massive zombie army you constructed had better be put to good use, fast, in accumulating stuff that's actually worth points, or all that zombie building will be for naught!

Game End

After six rounds, the game normally ends. However, if enough ties have occurred and at least sixteen tiles are still in supply after six rounds, you get a seventh round using the remaining tiles. But once those are gone the game definitely ends. Count up your treasures, your body parts, and figure out who's gotten the highest score!


Is it fun?

I give it a solid thumbs up for fun. Although it's sometimes tough to "get" the fun in a game when learning it for the first time, I can see that, once you understand how the game plays, this will be a fairly fast, fun and lighthearted game (in spite of the name). The theme is presented comically - the artwork is reminiscent of Cracked or Mad magazine art, just barely gross enough to convey rotting-flesh zombies but not so macabre as to be disturbing and inappropriate for kids. There's plenty of player interaction here, too. You'll easily find it necessary to steal from a player grabbing too many treasures, or attack players that are opposing you for vital body parts in the graveyard. The game should play pretty quickly, a four player game can probably play in under an hour so long as you don't have anyone taking the game too seriously and getting into analysis paralysis.

Are the pieces good quality?

The same day we played this, I hosted a game of Founding Fathers, a game I really love and admire - but I still wish they'd not cheaped out on the quality of the cardstock.

So I was overall very pleased with the quality of the components that (should) ship with the finished copies of this game. Granted, I only got to see Andy's playtesting copy that's seen quite a bit of use. Even so, the components he did have were good stuff. The player boards and common boards were all solid, well designed and adequately laid out for functionality. The zombie pieces are small, as needed for a fairly compact game, and that's really the only quibble I had with the parts, since you have to hold those small pieces in your hand, like a hand of cards, during game play. A rack for your zombie pieces might be the only improvement on the components that I could wish for.

Overall?

As I said before, I was pretty impressed with what I saw. Gameplay is solid and well thought out, the theme works well with the mechanics and vice versa, the mechanics encourage and pretty much require you to go after your opponents during the game, and it plays quickly enough that you could squeeze two or three games into the time you'd need for a larger, deeper game. I predict this will be a hit at GenCon and, so long as it's priced well, should be a success for Mr. Van Zandt. Well done!
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Andy Van Zandt
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Glad you enjoyed it

(also glad you mentioned you were the one running Founding Fathers, because your user name didn't remind me of any of the names I learned that day, lol)
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Pete O'Carroll
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Good review, I was also there and got to play the game as well as watch others and I have to say I was impressed. On first glance there seem to be a few different paths to victory and much depends on how your opponents proceed.

The synopsis of gameplay above is good, although I will make one correction (I hope I am correct at least) regarding the First Player token/action.

There is a game piece shaped like a candle that indicates the first player, it also has an action space of it that a zombie can be placed on. Assuming no one uses the action space the marker will move clockwise one player each turn.

However, if someone uses a zombie by placing it on the candle action there are 3 benefits

a) They can immediately peek at one zombie on the board (useful for knowing if that zombie contesting your dig is a big 3 brainer or a lowly 1 brain).

b) During the Dig Phase if they tie brains/bones on a space rather than the piece being sent back to the pile the player who took the candle action wins ties.

c) At the end of the turn, instead of the first player marker being passed one space clockwise they hand the marker to anyone they wish.

You do *not* have to be the first player to use the action on the candle.

I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the game once it releases and getting some more games in.
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MK
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Kaptain O wrote:


You do *not* have to be the first player to use the action on the candle.

I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the game once it releases and getting some more games in.



Thanks Pete - that was one thing that I didn't really catch onto when we were playing!
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Jon Brady
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I cant wait for this game to come out.
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John Moller
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Awesome review. I had an opportunity to play the game at Origins (after meeting Andy and the game at the GAMA Trade Show.) I love it and can't wait for the game to come out to share it with my friends! Good stuff!
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Pete O'Carroll
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kimapesan wrote:
Kaptain O wrote:


You do *not* have to be the first player to use the action on the candle.

I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of the game once it releases and getting some more games in.



Thanks Pete - that was one thing that I didn't really catch onto when we were playing!


I think that might have been why that action wasnt used much (at all?). That and it's a much less obvious way of winning compared to stealing or digging.
 
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David Hawkins
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I enjoyed playing this game and would jump at the chance of playing it again. One important strategy I discovered in hindsight is to build additional zombies with parts that fight back! If they are not fighting back than they are useless for the remainder of that turn.

It is a very solid game where your decisions and your perceptions of other players' actions and strategies determine your success.
 
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