Saturday, March 16, 2013

Zombie Dice Review

Rule Summary

The game comes with a cup full of dice.  On your turn you will draw three of them and roll them.  You keep the brains, which are points.  You also keep the shotgun blasts.  The footprints, which are "runners" you reroll once you've drawn back up to three dice from the cup.  If you ever have three shotgun blasts, your turn is over and you lose the points you earned this turn.  You can choose to stop whenever you want and bank your points.  Once a player gets 13 brains, every other player gets an equal number of turns, and then the game ends.  The player with the most brains wins.  That was easy.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

This is the game for new players.  The rules are simple.  It is heavily luck based which new players always appreciate.  The only thing I've seen players mess up is drawing new dice.  A lot will put the runners back in the cup before they draw more.  I don't know why this is a thing they want to do.  It just is.

Why do they always do this?

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

Generally speaking experienced players will have only a few advantages in this game.  The first is perhaps a greater appreciation for the different types of dice in this game.  The red dice are especially lethal, greens are the easiest, and yellow lies in between.  So an experienced player might assess the dice which turned up runners and take a look in the cup before he rolls.  Seeing nothing but red and a little yellow, they could wisely decide to call it quits.  They may also luck out, and roll all the red dice as brains early on, and just go for broke.  However, this being a game of luck, you never know what could happen.

What could have been done better?

I think a reference card, listing the amounts of dice, and the various sides of them would be incredibly helpful for new players.  It's a case of things which at first seem equal but which really aren't.  Generally I don't appreciate that in games.  If the dice in the game are different, there should be some reference material for the players to refer to.  Even if it is something as simple, and as common sense (to gamers at least) as red dice being bad, and green dice being good.

All six sides of the dice

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

The game is entirely push your luck.  So there is a great deal of tension.  Tension when you reach into the cup, hoping for green dice.  More tension when you pull out red dice instead, and pray for at least runners when you roll them.  Lots of tension when you've racked up a respectable bounty of 7 brains on a single turn without a single shotgun to spoil it, and you are debating about whether to push further.  After all, how likely is it to roll 3 shotguns in a single turn?  The answer is extremely likely when it's the last thing you expect.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

The game has no way to track score.  Which is sort of a buzz kill.  Having to use a pen and paper is obnoxious.  I've also used 20 sided die before as well, which isn't bad.  I've also seen various people use little plastic or foam brains they've purchased or made.  I think anything at all would have been preferable to nothing.  Using brain tokens especially would have enhanced the theme, which is important because the theme is a huge part of what this game has going for it.

Having to use alternate scoring aids really pulls you out of the theme

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Broadly speaking, you tend to end up with only two strategies.  People who usually go for at least 5 or more brains on a single turn, and people who are content to bank just 1 or 2 if it looks too risky to continue.  We frequently taunt people by saying "One is as good as none!"  But that really is the only strategy to this game, setting your risk tolerance.  Tactically there is a little more in evaluating what your current dice pool is.  But it still all comes down to risk tolerance.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

As I've been droning on about it again and again, there is only one dilemma.  Keep going, or stay?  I suppose to spice things up, other players will be taunting you, goading you into playing further than you should.  You might desperately need to catch up to a player that got lucky.  I think the most exciting part of the game is the end, when everyone is forced to catch up to the high score on their final turn.  But mostly, that is it.  Stay or go?

What could have improved the dilemmas?

This game lacks several things.  It lacks is any way to mitigate your risk.  There are no special abilities.  You don't get to pick the dice you roll, or choose a level of risk with the corresponding level of reward.  The expansion adds more to worry about, but the decision still comes down to a simple stop or go.

But forget what other games have for a moment.  I think the expansion is a good sign of the simplicity they were seeking.  I think it is by design that your only decision is to stop or go.  Especially since the expansion revolved around making this decision more varied and interesting.

Another sign of this is that most push your luck dice games tend to have uniform dice.  The decision to stay or go is based entirely on the faces of the dice that were rolled, and often which ones you choose to keep and which ones you want to roll again.  This was the first push your luck game I played which had a dice pool full of different dice, with different odds.  However in exchange for a more varied dice pool, I lost any ability to influence the outcome.  It is likely up to personal preference which a player prefers.  You have more to think about in Zombie Dice, but less to actually do than other push your luck games.

All in all, it's an interesting case study into how you can make a decision more interesting, when you only give the players a single decision to make, and you only have two options.  Although within the confines of that design space, I think it explored the material entirely, and quickly.  Especially when you consider the expansion.

Physical component design and limitations?

Think of us poor colorblind gamers please
As I touched on before, the lack of any sort of scoring components in this game is obnoxious.  I also have my usual color blind complaint, where the red and green dice tend to blend together.  Especially when they are in the cup, and I'm peering inside in order to determine whether it's smart to roll or stay.

What could have been better?

Red, Yellow and Blue.  Also black, white and grey.  There are so many colors that can be gone through before you have to put red and green together in the dark.

Long term prospects?

Zombie Dice is probably the bare minimum required to have a decent push your luck game.  It's extremely minimalist, even eschewing scoring aids.  It's also a game that always sees the table between larger games, with people who've never played a serious board game before, or at family events.  It was one of the first games I could get my non gaming girlfriend to play, and she still request it regularly.  That said, there have been ample games which have done it better, including the wonderful King of Tokyo, and likely the upcoming Dungeon Roll.  But the strengths of this game are it's theme, simplicity and speed, and there are certain circumstances where that is more important than depth.


  1. Hi Kyle

    I like your time lapse of play videos. Nice touch.

    Agree with you that no way to keep score is a buzz kill. Something about keeping score with pen and paper brings me out of the theme.

    1. I was looking all over for "Brain Tokens" to use as score counters and ended up making these!

      Nothing like playing with a pile of brains in front of you. All 50 tokens fit inside the game tube along with the dice and instructions.

  2. Great review!

    I enjoy using Zombie Dice as a nice introduction to a gaming section, or as you say, to introduce non-gamers. It's a remarkable ice-breaker and it's great to try and coax your friends into pushing their luck too far!

    Steve Jackson Games have responded to some of the criticisms of the game, namely with Zombie Dice Deluxe (a sturdier carrying case) and also a score pad. That said, I haven't yet seen these in my local game shop. (Link:

  3. We just keep a few 20-sided dice in the cup for score keeping. I don't think you're really ever supposed to be looking in the cup. You can keep track of what is left in the cup based on what is on the table, but I think examining the contents of the cup before you roll goes against the spirit of the game, and the rules do say to "take the dice without looking". The expansion does add a little more variety, unfortunately the inconsistency between the Santa die and the hunk die (two brains on Santa is a "gift" and can't be saved, two brains on the hunk die represents the hunk which can be saved) adds a little confusion for newcomers. Generally an enjoyable quick game and very portable so great for at a bar, the airport etc... I have an idea for another expansion that would add a bit more decision making, but unfortunately SJG aren't taking submissions. They are releasing a "school bus" expansion soon from what I gather, which adds a 12-sided die with combos of multiple brains and shotguns, and brain chits for score-keeping. Having score-keepers as an add-on seems par for the course for SJG, they did the same with Munchkin.

    Any games you would compare it to that might be better or at least different?

    1. For push your luck dice games, I'm actually a huge fan of Sutakku which I also reviewed. It's one of the few games where the rewards felt beefy enough to warrant the risk involved.