Last summer I had the opportunity to try out Zombie Cinema, a storytelling game released by Arkenstone Publishing. Nestled in a VHS-shaped box splattered with blood red letters, the game immediately caught my attention. The blurb on the back of the box appropriately reads like a B-movie poster:
Nobody knew when it started, or why. Perhaps the lonely death of a spinster was one too much for angels to bear, or a chemical leak in the ground-water had unexpected consequences. Only one thing is certain: now the dead walk.
It’s common knowledge among my peers that I’m a zombie buff. I gush over films like Zombieland, the Left 4 Dead video game series, and the early issues of The Walking Dead. If a zombie apocalypse were to happen today, I have a foolproof 12-step contingency plan in place to ensure my own survival. Needless to say, I’m precisely the demographic the creators of Zombie Cinema is catering too. The premise of the game is straightforward. Each player enacts the role of a random civilian during a zombie outbreak. The goal is to survive the play session, whether it be by fleeing or fighting the zombies. Each player begins by drawing a handful of cards. These cards define your character’s personality, strengths, and weaknesses. In my session, I was dealt a volatile hand: a simple weapon, a position of authority, and a hair-trigger temper. These traits were clear enough to ease me into play quickly but broad enough to allow for creative embellishment. Gordon, the shell-shocked military officer who just wanted to get home to his kids, was born. Structured play occurs on a small game board. A piece representing the zombies begins on the first square, and the players begin a few squares ahead. If a player’s pawn reaches the top of the board, their character safely escapes disaster; if the pawn is ever bumped into the same square as the zombies, their character becomes kibble for the undead. The flow of Zombie Cinema is simple. Each player takes turns framing a scene of the story. This player lays out the time, location, and predicament of the players in cinematic fashion. Each player then narrates how his or her character reacts to the situation. After all characters are accounted for, the scene ends. When each player has framed a scene, the round is complete. What makes the game compelling is how the game board interacts with the story. After every round, the zombie piece advances a single square. The new square the zombies occupy represents not only a closer physical proximity to the players but a heightened level of danger in the narrative. Early squares indicate that the presence of zombies is only implied. Later squares enforce that a full infestation has occurred. This subtle molding of the narrative helps to maintain momentum and dissuade overly conservative play. Player dynamics similarly play to the game board. If there is a dispute between two characters during any of these scenes – whether it be a physical altercation or a quarrel for leadership – a conflict of interest is declared. Each of the involved players roll a die. The player with the higher number is moved ahead one square on the board and gets to decide the outcome of the dispute. The losing player is moved back one square. Any peripheral player may choose to ally with one side of the dispute, granting that side an additional die roll. However, that player is subject to the same penalty should their side lose the conflict. Like a game of Risk, success in Zombie Cinema lies on your ability to pick your battles and forge alliances. Backstabbing and chicanery are rampant. The amount of fun you’ll have playing Zombie Cinema relies on who you play it with. Like charades or Dungeons and Dragons, strength of personality is the key variable. Although the group I played with was mostly amiable, the experience became agonizing at times because one player tried to wrestle too much control over the narrative. Zombie Cinema isn’t a game for big egos. More often than not, you’ll end up dead, and you have to set your expectations accordingly. Playing with close friends or a regular gaming group is advised. Zombie Cinema is a fascinating game, but it isn’t for everyone. It definitely isn’t something you’ll play with the folks or pull out casually at a party. But if you’re a zombie film buff and a gamer, Zombie Cinema is an uncanny fit. It’s currently available online in North America through Indie Press Revolution. Photos courtesy of Boardgamegeek.com.