Twilight Creations, Inc., since 2002, Zombies!!! combines dice rolling, hand management, and take-that mechanics with the themes of exploration, combat, and bloody zombie horror!
Open up Zombies!!! and you find a lot of components—thirty map tiles, a fifty-card Event deck, Life and Bullet tokens, six human Survivor miniatures, and a hundred zombie miniatures! Yes, really. A hundred zombie miniatures! The miniatures are simple. The humans all wield shotguns, whilst the zombies are all reaching out for their next victim whilst moaning , “Brainssss…” The map tiles are each four inches square and marked with a three-by-three grid of squares. They depict the streets and buildings of the town where Zombies!!! takes place. Some have named buildings like the Toy Store, Police Station, and Hospital. Each named building indicates the number of zombies found in the building and the number of Life and Bullet tokens which can be scavenged from the building. One map tile is marked with a helicopter. This is the Helipad, the destination which is one of the ways of winning a game of Zombies!!!. The map tiles are done in grey and muted tones, reflecting that this is a town at night.
What stands out though about the production values of Zombies!!! are its Event cards. Painted by Dave Aikins these are superb slices of horror, each depicting a Survivor dealing with the zombies swarming the town. Perhaps sneaking past as in ‘Alternate Food Source’, which stop all zombies from attacking that Survivor until his next turn; confronting them like throwing a ‘Grenade’ in the Army Surplus Store, killing all zombies inside, but inflicting damage on the Survivor too; or healing from their attacks, such as applying a ‘First Aid Kit’, which prevents the Survivor from taking damage when in the Hospital or Drug Store. Many of the cards are designed to complicate the lives of other Survivors. For example, ‘Butter Fingers’ forces a target Survivor to discard a weapon or two Bullets; ‘Your Shoe’s Untied’ halves the target Survivor’s movement roll; and ‘Slight Miscalculation’ fills a target building up with zombies, up to double the amount given on the named map tile. Many of the Event cards work only specific buildings, for example, the aforementioned ‘First Aid Kit’ and ‘Grenade’. Lastly, the rules are done in simple black and white and easy enough to read and understand. The rules run to three pages, the other page devoted to a piece of fiction and a nice little foreword by George Vasilakos, publisher of the zombie roleplaying game, All Flesh Must Be Eaten.
Set-up for Zombies!!! is easy. Each player receives a Survivor miniature, three Life tokens, three Bullet tokens, and three Event cards. The Town Square map tile is placed in the centre of the table, the other map tiles are shuffled and the Helipad tile placed at the bottom. Then on each turn, a player draws a new map tile and places it anywhere on the map as long as any of its roads connect to the adjacent tiles. Zombie miniatures are added to the new tile and building on a name tile as indicated. The player refreshes his hand of Event cards back up to three, rolls a die to determine how far his Survivor can move, fighting any zombies encountered square by square. To defeat a zombie, a player rolls a die and hopes to get a four, five, or six. If he does, the zombie is defeated and added to the player’s collection. If he rolls a one, two, or three, he loses a Life token. If he loses all of his Life tokens, his Survivor miniature is moved back to the Town Square map tile to start again, and he loses any weapons he has from Event cards and half of his accumulated Zombie miniatures. Alternatively, if the player has any Bullet tokens, he can spend them on a one-for-one basis and hopefully increase the value of the roll to survive the combat and continue moving. Lastly, the player rolls a die and moves that number of zombies in any direction he likes. Typically, this will be either away from his Survivor miniature to ease his path on his next turn or towards the Survivor miniature of another player to make his next turn just that bit more difficult, or a mixture of both. During the turn, a player can also play a single Event card and also discard one.
Play continues like this until the Helipad map tile is drawn. This is always placed by the player with the least number of zombies currently in front of him. This will typically be nearer that player’s Survivor miniature than those of his rivals, but at that point, Zombies!!! becomes a race game to get to the Helipad first. The player whose Survivor gets there first wins the game. The other way to win is by defeating and accumulating a total of twenty-five zombies in front of you.
Physically, Zombies!!! is a decently produced game—at least for 2001. The rule book is a bit plain, but the zombie miniatures are fun and the tiles decent, if a little thin. The Event cards are to reiterate, fantastic. They really capture the grim, bloody nature of the situation that the Survivors find themselves in, and they are the exact reason why Zombies!!! would go on to win the 2001 Origins Awards Best Graphic Presentation of a Board Game. They are also the same reason why later editions of Zombies!!! would raise the suggested minimum playing age from twelve to fifteen.
Zombies!!! manages to be both a great game and a terrible game at the same time. It is a great game because it is pure Ameritrash. It is high on luck, it involves lots of deadly combat, has a high take that aspect as everyone plays Event cards against each other, and it does not so much ooze theme, as bash it against the nearest wall and splatter it across the room. It is also easy to learn, easy to teach, and it can be fun to play. It can also be tense because each player is desperately trying to husband both Life and Bullet tokens against the need to search for more, entering the dark confines of buildings to do so. It is a terrible game because it is pure Ameritrash. It involves too much luck and the take that value is high; many of the weapon Event cards only work in specific buildings, which whilst thematic, limits their use; there is too much combat without any real significance, which slows game play—Zombies!!! does feel as if it should be a shorter game; and ultimately, the Survivors are just waiting for the Helipad map tile to be drawn and the race for the endgame to begin, because trying to get the twenty-five zombies necessary to win is really challenging.
In 2021 Zombies!!! is twenty years old. Not only did it win an Origins award, but would receive sixteen expansions, which in turn added a military base, a mall, a school, and more, including new themed map tiles, Event cards, and zombie miniatures. As much as these added theme and further showcased Dave Aikins’ art, they did have the side effect of increasing the space and time needed to play Zombies!!!. Plus, the game received spin-off titles enabled players to play as the zombies hunting humans, deal with an alien invasion, and even have the players face skeletons rather than zombies back in medieval times. Which all serve to highlight how successful Zombies!!! was. Indeed, it would ride the wave of popularity that hit board games in the noughties all the way up to the release of The Walking Dead television series, and beyond… Notably, it would make the jump from specialist shops that supported the hobby into mainstream shops, especially ones that sold CDs, DVDs, and the like. With its eye-catching, action-packed cover, this ensured that Zombies!!! reached a wider audience that it would not have done otherwise.
It is easy to dismiss Zombies!!!, but it has been highly popular and despite its flaws, it is still playable, it is very easy to bring to the table, and it can be fun to play, even after twenty years. Zombies!!! is a still a classic ‘beer ‘n’ pretzels’ treatment of a classic horror situation.
Twilight Games is currently running a campaign for the Zombies!!! 20th Anniversary Edition on Kickstarter. (With thanks to Niamh for her loan of her copy of Zombies!!!, which she can definitely have back.)