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March 21, 2020

Harvey O’Brien, Playing with Dead Things IV

by Conor Heffernan


A key element of many of these kinds of games is the sense of discovery that comes with the joy of postapocalyptic looting, and there are many classic calculations of risk versus reward in how you choose to expend energy and resources in other to gather more of both through food and supplies. Tiny Epic Zombies (2018), designed by Scott Almes, is a kind of summative game in this mould, as are all the entries in the ‘Tiny Epic’ line by Gamelyn Games, which present popular themes and game systems in small boxes at a comparatively low price, designed to be portable and accessible. Part of the fun in Tiny Epic Zombies is the plastic ‘meeples’ (a gaming term for playing pieces that are roughly people shaped – mini-people, you see), which you can actually equip with weapons (tiny plastic ones) or even mount on a motorbike as you zoom around the mall pinging zeds and collecting items. A considerably more exotic setting is found is the independently published Carnival Zombie (2013), designed by Matteo Santus, set in Venice during the titular event, which adds a piquancy of a Bakhtinian society turned upside down and players embody kinky medieval archetypes including a Harlequin or a masked Plague Doctor.

There is a comparatively lo-fi mass market game called Zombies!!!! (2001), designed by Todd and Kerry Breitenstein, that has numerous expansions and is accessible in ordinary retail outlets which simulates the loot and scoot environment. Zombies!!!! is a simpler and much less interesting game than many of these others we’re looking it, that features action across a variety of locations, described by a modular map in which buildings can be reused to build different maps from scenario to scenario. The resource gathering is random in this one, though, with the tokens scattered around the map with no thematic logic, and your characters are generic, making for what gamers call a ‘beer ‘n’ pretzels’ experience that you can happily forget about half way through. Slightly more intricacy is to be found in Last Night on Earth (2007), designed by Jason C. Hill, which is a scenario-based game with variable player powers and the potential for campaign play. The notable aesthetic decision here was to use photographic art featuring actors, run through a graphic filter to blur the images slightly, and also notable was the inclusion of a CD soundtrack by Mary Beth Magallanes, not for timing purposes like Escape: Zombie City, but purely for atmosphere.


Again, there’s a lot to talk about in terms of gamer habits and rituals, but sometimes playing thematically appropriate music is part of the experience. There are Spotify playlists to go with certain games, and there are always film soundtracks you can use to create the appropriate ambiance, particularly when playing games from licenced properties and franchises. Last Night on Earth was followed not only by expansions opening up its world to new locations and new scenarios, but again a range of alternative thematic spin offs dealing with alien invasion and classic ‘horror movie monsters’. The publisher, Flying Frog, also introduced an ambitious expandable scenario-based game system called Shadows of Brimstone, which drifts more towards a Cthulhu mythos in depicting the quest by 19th century American westerners to handle monstrous incursions into this here frontier town where good folks try to live good lives.

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