Review: Dead Reckoning

…tonight all the dead are here, so bring on your wrecking ball…

I was ordering a game from Tiny Battle Publishing, and wanted to throw another item in to save shipping. After some hemming and hawing, I settled on Hermann Luttmann’s Dead Reckoning. I didn’t know what to expect, but the promise of a diceless, narrative combat system swayed me. I figured if it turned out to be any good, it would be a bonus. At least it would be different.

Dead Reckoning is a two-player, light wargame covering three days of a zombie outbreak in small town Colorado. One player wrangles the zombies while the other controls the humans. It comes in a Ziploc bag with 88 counters, a thin 11×17 paper map, rulebook and player aids, and 54 cards. The components are adequate, the same as you’d get in a magazine or folio game. Tim Allen’s graphic work on this one is really nice, probably my favorite he’s done. It runs about $30 for the printed version, and $9-15 for the print and play (watch for sales). Get some snacks, because it’s going to take a few hours to play.

The human player’s main goal is to evacuate refugees out of the Hoozenfirst Forest and off the far end of the map. Refugees are worth secret amounts of victory points, based on classification: VIP, Regular, or zombie chow sacrificial decoys Riff Raff. The humans also gain points by holding buildings at the game’s end, and lose points when their units are killed. Earn enough points and humanity is saved, lose too many and the Zompocalyse is upon us. The zombies are trying to eat everybody.

Dead Reckoning has the trappings of a wargame, but this is a game about theme. Yes, there are hexes, counters, and lines of sight (oh my!), but no facings, rally checks, or number crunching. The selling point is the narrative.

Luttmann finds plenty of ways to work this in: hungry zombies are forced to attack adjacent humans, the sides have different advantages in day or night, and some combat rounds trigger thematic Chaos! events. Oh, and the most powerful human unit is a lone Hero, strapped with heavy weapons, who tools around town on a motorcycle. Yup, it’s going to be that kind of game.

The theme is hammered home on the unit counters. Instead of numbers for statistics, they contain cryptic information like “V I Z” or “P L W.” It takes a little bit to remember that means a Vicious combatant as hard as Iron who travels at a quick Zombie Trot.

These stats drive the combat system. Instead of calculating firepower by range, modified by cover, divided by the absolute value of the unit’s defense times engagement status, rounding to the nearest eighth, and raising it to the third power, you simply say, “my SWAT team is shooting the zombie mob in the trees” and flip a pair of combat cards. If the attacker’s card says to do two damage if armed with Heavy weapons, that’s what happens. If the defender’s card says -1 damage at night, you modify accordingly. That’s it. The math is all built in.

The drawback is that the first few games you can’t get a good grasp of what your units’ capabilities, especially the zombies. Is Vicious better than Dangerous? What about Tough versus Crusty? Are we talking undead or baguettes?While learning, you sort of throw anything handy at the humans, and they return fire at whatever’s closest, biggest, or fastest. You can’t calculate your odds of succeeding; you just do what makes sense. I’d love to see the math Luttmann used to determine how it all goes together.Once you’ve been through the deck a bit, you’ll notice trends. Rifles are demonstrably better than Personal weapons. Dangerous is a tea party compared to Vicious, but Berserk zombies are far more likely to tear you apart. It’s all on the player aids, but it feels as if you’re translating from a language in which you’re only semi-fluid. It would be easier to just use A>B>C to keep the stats straight, but where’s the fun in that? I’d rather fight a Tough zombie than a Zom-B.The combat cards also let you know if Chaos! is about to ensue. About 40% of them say Chaos! on them. If both combat cards are Chaos! ones, you pause everything and look up what happens. This is where the fun really kicks in. Chaos! results can cause things like free fire actions, massive zombie scrambles, your wife turning your National Guard HQ unit into zombies, your wife turning your VIP refugee and his Special Ops escort unit into zombies, and you air striking all the units your wife has zombified.

The game mostly follows an IGO-UGO format, though there are ways around a strict back-and-forth action system. One method is that each unit type has its own version of the zombie “Brains!” ability. This limited-use ability allows clumps of adjacent units to activate as a formation, letting you push the game’s tempo when needed. It’s a good way to ease non-grognards into the idea of formations, and everyone likes moaning “braaaaaaainnnsss…”

The other way to control the ebb and flow of the game is the initiative bidding system, which adds another layer of decision making. At the start of each action round, players secretly select initiative cards from their hands, indicating the number of actions they’re planning to perform. Whichever side’s card is the highest goes first, and that player continues taking actions until both sides have the same amount remaining. After that, players alternate until all actions are spent.

Dead Reckoning fits into an odd gaming niche. It’s not as thematic a zombie game as most zombie games, and it’s not as wargamey as most wargames. It’s trying to do two things that pull in opposite directions, and it sort of falls short on both.

Casual gamers might grok LOS and be able to handle the large number of activation and damage counters, but they still need to remember that “F” means fast, which is four hexes, unless slowed by difficult terrain or increased by road movement. It’s not the fast-paced, zombie dice-chucker they’re used to playing.

Grogs might balk at the amount of mechanisms the game handles behind the curtains. You still need to consider putting your units in cover, but what does that really mean? Is it a -1 DRM or -2? Am I over committing my heavy weapons by firing into that mob, or can my rifle guys handle it? There are no dice, but how come you lucked into two airstrikes, and I got no events that helped me? What are the odds?

The biggest hurdle is that games have been taking my group three hours. This is a lot of time for a non-wargamer to sit for, and a long time for theme to carry a game. Without the challenge of crunching numbers or worrying about some of the standard wargame concerns (stacking, elevation, flanking, etc.), things can feel repetitive and “samey” in the last third of the game.

I’ve been working on a shorter scenario that gets you to the action more quickly and simplifies scoring. I feel it will help the game fit better for the novice wargamer or casual crowd, especially, but it should be nice for everyone seeing a quicker session. I’ll post it on BGG after a few more run throughs.

Luttmann plans to use this system in other games, including Race to the Sea 1914, a World War One version that came out in issue eight of Yaah! I haven’t tried it, but it takes away the quirky descriptive stats and replaces them with more traditional strength numbers. It also layers in more complexity, and I’m curious to see how this works in a historical situation.

That same issue of Yaah! includes a new scenario for Dead Reckoning and an article about the game from developer Fred Manzo. If you’re interested in the either game in the system, it’s worth checking out.

Dead Reckoning takes chances. It wants to be something new, which is refreshing. It’s a hybrid that succeeds in some ways and stumbles in others. At the end of the day, you’ll have laughed a bunch, agonized about some tense moments, and gained new stories to share with your friends over a few fresh brains cold beers.

zombie Braaaaiiiinnnnnnssss… zombie

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