With Autumn closing in quickly, it's time for cold nights indoors with friends and family, enjoying all the ghoulish fun whether that be a steady stream of horror flicks, breezy walks among the dead leaves, or a good night of gaming. One of the newest tabletop titles for this years fright season is Hit Z Road published by Space Cowboys and designed by Martin Wallace.
In general I've made a point of avoiding most zombie themed board games. Nothing against the theme itself, I love a violent zombie massacre. No, I avoid such games as past experiences with them have usually proven to be messy, over complicated, and on some occasions too damn expensive.
So what was different about this one that suddenly peaked my interest and made me add it to my collection asap? Simple, the publisher. Within just a few years in the market, Space Cowboys has already gained a reputation for making beautiful, well-made, smart, but never too complicated games. Everything I've touched from the company has provided some seriously great gaming. You can imagine my excitement when I heard such a fine group was tackling a horror theme. Does the game live up to those high hopes? You really think I'm gonna give that away within the first few paragraphs?
First up we've got to talk about the production on this thing. The whole idea is that this game was made by lil Marty, a kid who survived the zombie apocalypse and decided to make a game about his experience. With that in mind, everything is meant to look like something he salvaged from the rubble of civilization. The box is from some nonexistent family game the kid wrote on. There's fake company logos and even pictures and rules for Hit the Road on the back of the box. This is already genius and we haven't even opened it up.
Inside revealed something a little shocking for me. Space Cowboys is known for making outstanding inserts that perfectly store every piece of the game but there is no insert here, once again aiming for presentation. Marty wouldn't have the resources to make plastic inserts, all his stuff is in Ziploc bags in an oversized box complete with fake mystery stains.
The rest of the components follow suite. The tokens resemble bottle caps very similar to popular brands like Coke and Gatorade. My favorite are the Colt Beer bullet tokens, a clear placeholder for Coors, silver bullet! The cards are supposed to be cobbled together from different sets and games with pictures and stickers pasted on top.
The rest of the pieces like zombies and dice are all wooden as if little Marty carved them in his spare time. Every piece of this title adds to the overall atmosphere. Even the turn order markers are made to look like old credit cards and name tags. It almost feels like something that fell into our world from another time and place.
Setting up the game is fairly simple, the most difficult task is removing certain cards from the deck depending on the player count. Each player starts with the same number of survivors, gas, bullets, and adrenaline.
With everyone one even footing, each round starts with people betting those resources for the right to pick one of the multiple routes. A route is two cards that you resolve from left to right. Each card has four potential features, first is supplies you pick up, second is events, third is zombies to fight, and lastly are potential points for completing the card. Those cards illustrate the journey cross country, increasing in difficulty as the game progresses. Early on there's plenty of supplies and few zombies, later players are scrambling for bullets and facing massive hordes of the undead.
Speaking of zombies, combat can be avoided by spending two gas tokens to flee, though you lose out on any points that card has to offer. If however you chose to engage the undead, battles are handled by dice occasionally augmented by using bullets to take them down from afar. If you use a bullet token, roll two dice and only pay attention to hit results. When engaged in close combat players roll one die for each survivor in their group. There's a good chance of wiping out a decent amount of ghouls with little trouble but once in a while your survivors get nibbled on and require adrenaline or else they succumb to their wounds. Using adrenaline is a tricky balancing act as you need it to survive from bites yet it can also be used to kill off more zombies given the right circumstances. Knowing the correct time to use your supplies is key to survival.
After going through the entire stack of route cards, any players still alive compare points and gain bonuses for how many supplies and survives they have. Whoever has the most points naturally wins the game. No tiebreakers either. If players are tied, they all win.
That's really how easy the game flows. You bet for first place, take some goodies, maybe gain or lose some fellow survivors while fighting off hordes of flesheaters. It stands the risk of getting repetitive yet there's enough variation to keep things fresh. One turn you're bidding too many supplies in the hopes of not getting stuck with a zombie packed path, the next you're fighting for your life with just two survivors and zero bullets. Add in the interplay between certain cards that make for unique events like upgrading a bus into a massive battle wagon and each session takes on its own narrative.
As far as anything negative, well, that's not the right question. There's nothing wrong with it so much as it isn't an absolute knockout. Every element of the game is well done but some heavy gamers may find it too simple for their liking. Also the game is at it's absolute best with four players. Any less than that and it's still decent, just not as good.
If anything the game could use a healthy dose of more. I'm talking alternate route cards, maybe the potential for a higher player count. What's here is all nice but it feels like there's only enough here to keep the game interesting for a little while.
Still, even with those few issues, Hit Z Road has proved to be a big hit around here. I've played it with siblings, nieces and nephews and all but one have have fallen for it's charms. The one who didn't is pretty much ant-board gaming so it'd take a miracle to win him over. Folks enjoyed starting bidding wars to dodge dangerous routes or watching as someone fights through a group of six zombies with only one survivor and very little adrenaline. The game is simple enough to teach to almost anyone and it makes for quick, bloody stories of survival. It's a perfect activity for sipping beers with friends by the light of the Jack-o-Lantern. If that sounds like your kind of thing, definitely check it out.