Friday, May 30, 2014

Dead Panic, by Justin De Witt

Dead Panic Board Game at Deck60 Online
You’re in a Cabin in the WoodsTM and the zombies are closing in. From your living room window you can see their slow, groping strides as they emerge from the forest that surrounds you. Somewhere out there, a rescue van provides relief for those souls lucky enough to have working radios… but all you have are wits, weapons, and a wish for survival. Can you hold back the horde long enough to piece your radio back together, and call for the ride that will SAVE YOUR LIFE?

Dead Panic puts you in that cabin, destined to live another day or die as dinner for the undead. Choose your role, act quickly, and try to outlast your neighbors – but make sure you work together well enough to survive.

I know what you’re thinking: “Dead Panic… it’s Castle Panic with zombies, right?”

No. It’s not. I thought it was, and I was wrong. Thanks to Justin De Witt and my free ticket to T.A.B.L.E., I was able to try out Dead Panic in the perfect atmosphere – late at night at a local convention in a game run by the designer himself. The only resemblance to Castle Panic is that the board is  built the same way and the tokens look the same, but in all other ways this is a unique game – and one that’s high-stress and puts lots of pressure on players to make good decisions.

Each player is working to survive constant Zombie attacks on the shared cabin until three pieces of the radio can be retrieved, combined, and used to call for a rescue van. Any players able to reach the van and drive away win the game, and any players that die before they can do so become zombies… and then can be completely eliminated if killed by other players.

Round by round players take turns moving around the cabin and the surrounding area, searching for weapons and items, running from zombies, and occasionally fighting them (usually only when required). That’s not to say you HAVE to avoid them… I spent my entire game with a simple desire – to punch zombies in the face until the succumbed to my muscular build and crushing blows. Predictably, I was the first of the group to die and become a zombie, and was the only one NOT to survive and win the game. I still call it a win – I punched a zombie’s head off!

grrr... arrrgh...
Each zombie has a specific “power” level, and combat happens as a result of dice rolls between the player and the zombie when they enter the same space with each other. If the player wins the dice roll (the player’s die + weapons/bonuses vs the zombie’s power) the zombie is injured or beaten, and if the player loses the dice roll they take a wound, unless they’re able to deflect the damage by dropping a weapon or item. Players only have a few available wounds before they become zombies permanently – this game is no joke. In Justin’s words, “Death in zombie games must be a threat”, and death is definitely a threat in Dead Panic. 

The game of Dead Panic I played was special, not just because Justin was running it, but because we saw something happen that Justin had been waiting for since he’d designed the game (his words) – Brian (noted author for The Nerds’ Table) decided that, as the convict, he’d rather nobody survive than allow other players to reach the rescue van first. In doing so he played to his character’s personality and demonstrated a deep need for survival and a total lack of compassion for the other survivors, something that’s perfectly understandable for a convicted felon suddenly trapped in a cabin beset by snarling, drooling former-people.

It was a brilliant strategy on Brian’s part and extended the game – ostensibly a co-op game – by an extra 3-4 turns while the other players tried to map out a way to get to the van while Brian was calling it away from them. It was absolutely unnecessary and didn’t provide him any additional “victory”, it was just his interpretation of how his character should be played. I, already zombie food, thought it was hilarious, and Justin said he’d been waiting for something like this to happen. 

After reaching the van first, Brian happily (though he didn’t have a choice because of turn order) allowed the other refugees to board the van and flee to safety.  It added a very nice twist to a game that was already enjoyable, and a nice story for us re-tell. Also, Brian’s a jerk (j/k, sort of).

Humans... or soon to be zombies!
Unlike just about every other cooperative game I’ve played, Dead Panic involved a real and present threat of player elimination. A player can die if zombies connect on too many attacks, then if players kill the then-zombified player. While it’s fun to be a zombie and suddenly get to “switch teams”, zombie players don’t have much in the way of advantages versus the human players, and often die quickly. What’s left is a bitter corpse, and a player left in the cold while the others are still locked in to a riveting game.

I traditionally am not a fan of player-elimination in games that last longer than half an hour, as nobody likes being the odd man/woman out of a game night. I had such a good time watching Brian run away with the van that I can’t really give an honest opinion as to how this affected my experience, but I’d guess that in less awesome circumstances it would have been a bummer. It’s not like Betrayal at House on the Hill - where it doesn’t really matter if you live or die, as long as you get to see the ending – in Dead Panic the fun is working out the solution for victory and feeling the drama of the game as your options slowly dwindle and death closes in.

Dead Panic is absolutely worth trying, especially if you a) love the zombie theme and/or b) really enjoy co-op games with twists and turns. If you’re a fan of games like Pandemic or Zombiecide, give Dead Panic a try!

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JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.