Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Student Bodies by Smirk & Dagger Games

I can hear you out there.

"Another zombie game?"

"ANOTHER zombie game?"


I don't blame you for reacting that way.  I really don't.  But give me just a chance, and I'll tell you exactly why Student Bodies is not just another zombie game.

So, yes. as you might surmise from the box art, Student Bodies is a game about zombies.  However, unlike Zombicide, Dead of Winter, or Last Night on Earth, Student Bodies doesn't present an entire town to the players.  Instead, Student Bodies restricts itself to a single high school hallway spanning the Science Lab to the Exit Doors.  It's this tightness of theme that marks the first crucial difference that sets Student Bodies apart within the zombie genre.  Everything in the game is related in some way to the theme of being in a highschool, and nothing feels out of place or "board game-y" (like finding a shotgun in a highschool locker, which I really did in Last Night on Earth).

The second difference is that Student Bodies is only cooperative up to a point, then competitive. In Student Bodies, each player is trying to make their way to the Science Lab to find a cure for the zombie virus that infects all of them, and then be the first to make it to the Exit and close the doors behind them.  If the players don't at least somewhat work together to begin with, then none of them survive.  But if the players don't work against each other, then none of them win either.  As the box says, "I just have to outrun you!"

Thirdly, in Student Bodies the zombies are not mindless.  In fact, the zombies are your tools with which to win the game.  On each player's turn, the zombies take their turn.  The zombies have a priority to the actions they take (get back up if knocked down, attack a player if one is nearby, move towards the nearest player if none are nearby), but the player chooses the finer aspects of how the zombies act.  A given zombie might have two choices of players close enough to attack, and the player on that turn gets to choose which player to attack!  This adds an extra fun layer of strategy that differentiates Student Bodies from games that rely on either random zombie behavior, or for one (or more) players to ONLY play as the zombies.

Another difference of note is that, though there is player elimination, the game handles it in a fun and interesting way.  If a player that loses all their health, but had not yet found an antidote, that player rises once more as a Smart Zombie, and have a brand new win condition: kill all the humans!  This, of course, leads to the question: Could you die right away if you want to win as a Smart Zombie?  The answer is yes, and the game is in fact designed to incorporate this as an option.

The art in Student Bodies is top notch and feeds into the narrative of the game, all of the components are excellent.  Once all players are fluent in how the game works and how a turn operates, there ends up being very little downtime, due to the Zombie Turn and how zombies can attack anyone (that they are close enough to) at any time.  The actions and items are all appropriate to the theme and add real flavor (when was the last time you got to use a bag of Dungeons and Dragons dice as a weapon), so far through my playthroughs nothing has felt overpowered.

This leads me to my final point.  As good as the art and the flavor text and the cards and all of that is, you could strip it from the game.  You could reduce Student Bodies down to abstract meeples moving across a hexagonal board, attempting to make it to one end to pick up an Item, then move to the other end of the board to win the game, all while playing Action cards that knock down, slow down, or reduce the "health" of the other players.  You could do all of this and yet the theme of "I just have to outrun you" would remain because the theme of the game is inherent in the mechanics, something I think is it's biggest strength.

So, if you like games with a "screw your neighbor" mentality, and you aren't completely over the "zombie genre", give Student Bodies a try.  This is a game that was made with great care in every detail.

John H. C. Staton is a software developer and Ph.D. candidate.  He was at GenCon!  You might have seen him.  He also tweets occasionally at @johnhcstaton and is tweeting more often these days.