Harvey O’Brien, Playing with Dead Things II
Link to Part One.
To go back to Risk Walking Dead, it’s your classic game of Risk, which is a venerable title designed by Albert Lamorisse and Michael Levin simulating global warfare since 1959 in which you are building and deploying armies and attempting to take possession of enough countries for your faction to ‘win’ through a series of contested dice rolls. Risk Walking Dead features a smaller ‘world’ map depicting the South Eastern United States where the graphic novels were set. The factions are not countries, but Rick’s Group, the Greene Family, The Governor, and the Prisoners, which tells you it was published comparatively early in the Walking Dead universe’s evolution (the game also features art inspired by the original comic book rather than the TV iteration, which is a plus). The twist comes with the optional (and preferable) ‘survival mode’ where the zombie faction are controlled by the game, and their goals are simply to move to where humans are massed in sufficient numbers to make it worth their while. The fun part is that no matter what faction you play, if your people die in combat with zombies, they become zombies themselves. The zombies don’t worry too much about the cost of building their army, they just get more numerous the more destruction humans wreak. This forces limited co-operation between the factions, or at least enough trickery to ensure your people survive and the zombies don’t overrun the map. It’s actually a very apt application of the core themes of The Walking Dead to an existing game system, which shows it can be done.
There are original games out there that work similarly on the global stage, including the independently published Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead (2010) designed by John Werner, again played on a world map where the players take the role of national leaders. It has no formal relationship with the classic branded game Diplomacy (1959) designed by Allan B. Calhamer, known for its capacity to end friendships because breaking agreements and backstabbing your allies are core activities, but in Zombie State diplomacy is driven by necessity and international co-operation, although in the end only one human superpower can control the world. Negotiating with other countries to help defend your borders as you try to develop technological solutions is vital. Weaponizing the undead by actively driving zombies into other player’s territories is also an option, as is dropping nukes… In the end, the balance of power between nations is always put into relief by the constant threat of a mutual enemy, and yet competition continues. Not much hope for humanity, then.
Another existing game system adapted for zombies (there’s loads), Axis & Allies Zombies (2018), based on the 1981 WWII game by Larry Harris Jr., again takes the macro view of the global zombie outbreak but relocates the action historically. As with Risk: The Walking Dead there is in this a kind of thematic reminder of the consequences of mass destruction. A final global-level game and latterly game system, Pandemic (2008), designed by Matt Leacock, currently published by Z-Man games and actually widely available in general retail, deals with your attempt to contain viral contagion by players as experts with different skillsets in medicine, logistics, and epidemiology. It doesn’t have an official zombie mode, but in the popular campaign-based spin off Pandemic Legacy (2015) ‘the infected’ are an additional problem represented by small zombie-like plastic figures who can spread from city to city and cause mayhem. ‘Legacy’ gaming, pioneered by designer Rob Daviau working with Hasbro, in fact, is another recent trend defined by the fact that you play the game multiple times on map that changes based on your actions. For example, a city that has fallen to the infected can never be saved but remains in play and may trigger complications if your character needs to move through it to get to areas where there is still hope. Legacy games mild in a mild roleplay element where your character’s experiences across multiple games affect their abilities, usually negatively, all of which are recorded by permanently altering character sheets that come with the them, and you also create interconnected story relationships with other characters.
The implacable zombie horde and the prospect of global collapse is always a very handy structuring feature of games like this, representing evident stakes for your choices and a very clear condition for failure. But there are games that work on the micro level too, personal, situational and intense, more akin to Night of the Living Dead. In fact, in 2019 a company called CMON (Cool Mini or Not) offered a variant on their popular Zombicide (2012), designed by Raphael Guitonm, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, and Nicolas Raoult, based on the original 1968 Romero film. Zombicide has several different iterations, from the baseline version with a contemporary setting (basic game versions are called ‘vanilla’ in gaming lingo), Zombicide Black Plague (2015) which gives you access to medieval settings and heroes, and Zombicide Invader (2019) set in outer space (there are also a few tabletop games based on the video game Doom in which the basic enemies are zombified space marines). In Zombicide, again the zombies are a mass enemy, although they have different classes offering different levels of threat, from the ordinary shambling walker to the fast-moving runners and the abominations, who absorb more damage. These are all controlled by the game (via a deck of cards that instructs the players on how to move the zombies), whereas the players get to take control of a strong and skilled individual character whose abilities, weapons, and armour can be upgraded throughout the game, making them more efficient at dispatching the dead. Only problem is that as the humans skill up, so does the intensity of the zombie attacks.