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Review: Zeppelin Attack

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Command an astounding armada of airships against a cunning cohort of enemies!  Deploy daring, death-defying agents on maniacally marvelous missions!!  Work your weird, wondrous weaponry in amazing and audacious attacks!!!  And thrilling…and fantastic…and cunning!!!!  And even more exclamation points!!!!!  It’s (dramatic pause behind stirring music) Zeppelin Attack!

How it Plays

In Zeppelin Attack, players take on the persona of an evil mastermind from the publisher’s Spirit of the Century role-playing pulp universe.  Previous familiarity with its inspired material is not necessary to play this game.  Commanding and deploying a small fleet of standard dirigibles with basic operatives and weapons, your goal is to increase your armada’s overall strength by adding new ships, agents, and weaponry, employing them successfully in attacks against your enemies.

The design is a light deck-building game where cards represent each player’s armada, agents, and arsenal.  You begin with a weak, 13-card, mostly standard deck and a couple of fate cards.  Fate is the game’s currency, a nod to the RPG system on which Spirit of the Century is based, and comes in values between 2-5.  Your start deck consists of basic zeppelins, operatives, and attack and defense cards.  There are four different decks based on the evil mastermind you choose to play.  However, there’s not a lot of uniqueness between them until you’re able to purchase your faction’s super expensive, experimental zeppelin later in the game.

Each villain places his/her flagship in their play area (which will always remain there), sets their personal experimental zeppelin aside, shuffles their remaining cards, and draws 5 for a starting hand.  Then the mercenary decks are organized.  These represent 5 different decks varying between 6-8 cards apiece: attack zeppelins, operational zeppelins, operatives, attacks, and defenses.  Shuffle each deck separately and lay them face-up in their individual piles.  Then shuffle the fate deck and place it face-down.

The pool of mercenary decks with top cards available for purchase.
The pool of mercenary decks with top cards available for purchase.

Players then alternate conducting their turns in the following structure: action phase, buy cards, discard and draw.

The action phase is where the bulk of activity occurs as you play cards from your hand.  You may mobilize any and all zeppelins to your play area for free.  Airships allow you to play action cards, one per zeppelin in your armada.  Since your flagship always remains aloft, you will always have a minimum of one action.

Zeppelins are rated for two or more color-coded values, called payloads, allowing you to play an operative (yellow), attack card (red), or defense card (green).  Operatives gain you fate cards to go in your hand or discard pile.  Attack cards are exactly what they sound like.  Defense cards can be handy during your own turn, but may be better utilized to counter opponents’ assaults.

Attack and defense cards have two bits of important information.  First, each is classified in one or more types – either cold, psionic, electric, or explosive.  If you use a cold attack, your foe must counter with a similarly designated defense card.  The other significant element is that most cards have two abilities.  These are typically bonuses like drawing extra cards, getting discounts in the buy phase, or forcing an opponent to discard something, etc. etc.  The first ability is only triggered when the card is used specifically for its purpose, i.e., in a victorious assault or as a defensive counter-measure.  The other benefit applies automatically whenever you play that card, regardless of any results or other circumstances.

Assaults succeed simply when your opponent cannot defend against it.  When playing an attack card, choose a specific enemy airship.  If you hit it, it “retreats” and drifts away to its owner’s discard pile – so it’ll show up again soon.  Then as a reward, you draw one mercenary card from any of the 5 decks and place it face down under your flagship.  This counts as 1 battle point at the end of the game.  If your attack fails, you may still apply the card’s generic ability, but otherwise must bide your time until you’re able to avenge your damaged pride.

An armada in tight formation!
An armada in tight formation! Gorilla Khan’s starting and experimental zeppelins.

After playing as many actions as allowed or desired, you can use fate cards to buy as many mercenary cards as you’d like and can afford, assuming you want what’s on top of the decks.  You can combine all of your fate card values towards multiple purchases, but do not receive any change back.  Mercenary cards provide lots of neat upgraded abilities in the same categories.  The operatives, attacks, and defenses are more powerful.  The new zeppelins have bigger payloads.  You can even buy your personal faction’s experimental zeppelin which provides a unique power when deployed.

Purchased cards go into your hand.  But remember, the action phase is over, so you won’t be able to utilize any shiny new toys until your next turn.  Expended fate cards are sent to the general discard pile, not your personal one.

The final segment is the discard and draw phase.  Any action cards played this turn go to your discard pile.  Also, if that card exceeds the relevant payload capacity of the airship to which it was played, then that zeppelin must also retreat to your discard pile.  Otherwise, it may remain in the air.  Flagships never retreat – and as a matter of fact, you may never play an action card to your flagship which exceeds its payload capacity in the relevant type.  Lastly, you may discard as many cards from your hand as you wish and draw back to 5.

Despite its pulpy outlandish theme, victory is measured in more ordinary terms: points.  Besides the aforementioned battle points for successful attacks, purchased mercenary cards are also worth a variety of points.  Exhausting three mercenary decks triggers the end game.  Play continues until each mad villain has had an equal number of turns.  After that, everyone counts up their points from battle trophies and mercenary cards.  Whoever has the most points wins the game; plus an Olympic size pool full of his/her very own armored, laser-guided, mind-reading, nuclear-powered, alien sharks with which to use in plotting the demise of his/her arch nemesis.

Basic cards from a starter deck: Defense (left), Attack (center), and Operative (right).
Basic cards from the Walking Mind starter deck: Defense (left), Attack (center), and Operative (right).

Pulpy Goodness or Full of Hot Air?

One theme/area/genre not yet fully tapped by board games is the sensationalist library of old “penny dreadfuls,” dime novels, and pulp magazines.  Of course, these cheap and, at the time, disposable adventure yarns covered a wide range of themes which have been covered by board games: western, science fiction, supernatural, crime fighting, horror, exploration, aerial dog-fighting, international espionage, and general action-adventure.  But few have done so in the spirit of those tales, with their often lurid and seedy underpinnings, wildly outrageous plots, over-the-top characters, and single-minded, gritty exploitative writing which pandered to the lower classes and others of less discerning literary sensibilities.  In other words, just my kind of book!  Zeppelin Attack harkens back to those stories, born from a role-playing game which unapologetically embraces their heart and soul.

This deck-builder is decidedly stripped down, I think part of a new minimalist trend within the genre as exemplified by other titles like Star Realms and World of Tanks.  The game’s structure and action are more restrictive.  But what it sacrifices in engine-building depth, it makes up for in overall speed, accessibility, and straight-up fun.

Despite its streamlined mechanics, Zeppelin Attack introduces several tweaks to the genre which are decided improvements, in my opinion.  For example, a purchased card goes straight into your hand.  Even though you cannot use it immediately, you know it’ll be available next turn, rather than guessing at which unknown point it shows up later.  Additionally, the end-of-turn “clean up” phase is more flexible.  You are not required to discard your unused hand, but may retain any or all cards into the next round.

A second twist that veteran deck-builders will need to adjust for is the cycling currency.  When expending fate to purchase mercenaries, those return to the general deck, not into your personal discard pile.  Therefore, the same amount of money isn’t circulating routinely through your deck.  Instead, you’ll need to play – and buy additional – operatives in which to acquire fate cards routinely.  Unlike most deck-builders, there isn’t really a point in which you stop acquiring currency.  Here it’s an ongoing element, because you never get to keep it.

Fate cards - named for the RPG's FATE system - is the game's currency.
Fate cards – named for the RPG’s FATE system – is the game’s currency.

Third, most of the attack and defense cards may trigger two abilities.  That in itself is not completely new to the genre.  What is different, however, is that one power only activates if successfully using the card for its intended purpose.  Therefore, you need to watch what defenses might have been played so you can deploy an attack category with a higher chance of success.  And you need to resist the urge to play defense cards on your own turn, saving them for actual defensive measures and hoping to trigger their second function.

A fourth tweak is that the number of actions you may play in a given turn depends on the zeppelins in your armada, which is pretty fluid, not dependent upon cards which grant extra actions.  With a hand of 5 cards and average armadas of between 1-4 airships, this limitation creates a tight structure.  It also again highlights the importance of holding on to defense cards in hopes of keeping those ships in the air.  You also must carefully weigh the balance of buying extra ships versus other mercenary options.  Lots of action cards are worthless with no zeppelins to play them.  And a huge armada is punchless without powerful operatives and attacks to deploy.  Not only that, you need to make sure the action cards you purchase line up somewhat with your armada’s payload capacities.

Finally, Zeppelin Attack has an interesting trash mechanism, a common element to deck-builders.  Taking mercenaries as battle points after successful attacks introduces a new strategy in using cards.  On one hand, it may seem like a waste.  After all, you could be reducing a potential 3+ point mercenary into a 1 point battle trophy.  However, it can be a fun and spiteful tactic of denying powerful cards to opponents – namely if it’s too expensive for you.  And again, it accentuates the significance of a good defense to prevent such successful attacks, which depletes the mercenary decks faster and may bring the game to an end before you’d like.  Also, the game has a purge mechanic.  Whenever you buy an operative, attack card, or defense card, you may purge a card from your hand by placing it under your flagship like a battle point.  If you can remember this option (which we routinely forget!), it is a great way of both pruning your deck of weaker cards and turning what is essentially worthless at the end of the game into a victory point.  You may never purge a zeppelin, nor may you purge a card after buying one.

If an action cards exceeds its zeppelin's payload capacity as blank does here, it must be discarded at the end of your turn.
If an action cards exceeds its zeppelin’s payload capacity as the iceferno rockets do here on the Baboon, the ship is discarded at the end of your turn.

Direct interaction is becoming more common in deck-builders.  In Zeppelin Attack, it plays a central role.  However, I feel it strikes a really good balance between noticeably hindering your opponent while not outright crippling him/her.  Knocking out an enemy airship reduces your foe’s available actions on his/her next turn.  Yet it’s only temporary as the zeppelin cycles through the deck.  And it will likely show up again soon as decks tend to remain relatively small in this design.  Plus, you always have a random chance of beating off the assault.  Also, the interaction is not all that spiteful in nature, because attacks are rewarded with victory points – so there is a logical purpose in the pursuit.  Unless, of course, two or more players gang up on another; but that’s not the game’s fault.

Despite the tendency for 3-player games of any nature to morph into a 2-on-1 mismatch, I still recommend that compliment for Zeppelin Attack.  Indeed, I believe this one really hits a sweet spot as a 3-player deck-builder.  The 2-player count is quick and can be fun, but doesn’t highlight the interaction as deliciously.  Four player games open up the field, offer deeper tactics, and will be a good option for veteran gamers.  However, it can negatively increase downtime between turns, which the design tends to suffer from in later rounds.  A 3-player session minimizes downtime while still providing interesting and impactful interaction.

Upgraded defense (left) and attack (right) cards from the mercenary decks.
Upgraded defense (left) and attack (right) cards from the mercenary decks. The attack/defense type is denoted by icons on the left side, beneath the color-coded payload requirements.

The main two aspects that experienced deck-building players will struggle with are the sluggish build up and the limited card variety.  Zeppelin Attack develops slower than the average deck-builder.  There are only 5 cards available for purchase at any one time, which come up randomly.  And you begin with a mere 7 fate points in two cards.  If the mercenaries up for sale are too rich for your blood, you won’t be expanding your evil schemes this turn.  Now, the option to keep cards in hands for use next turn helps to alleviate this problem.  You can save fate cards to combine with later draws.  However, as soon as you spend those fate points, they return to the general supply and you’re likely right back at square 1.  As a result, it takes a bit longer than gamers may be accustomed to build up that powerful deck.

There is also the limited card variety.  This is the base game, so that is to be expected.  There is an expansion which adds a new mercenary zeppelin deck (science zeppelins), plus a unique experimental attack card for each faction (similar to the singular experimental zeppelins), and some new attack and defense mercenary cards in a new category (atomic).  Aside from that, however, the base game is admittedly sparse in its mixture of inaugural offerings.  There are duplicates within the already low number of mercenary cards.  Perhaps more glaringly, the starting faction decks are pretty much identical, despite different names, missing out on an opportunity to give each mastermind variability and the game more diversity.

A handful of fate cards trigger special events when drawn.
A handful of fate cards trigger special events when drawn.

Both of these issues are by design, though.  Essentially, Zeppelin Attack is built to focus on action, rather than sophisticated deck construction or manipulation.  While that might hamper its strategic reach, it’s also tighter and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  What it might lack in refinement, it more than makes up for with a hard hitting, fun story.

The game consists solely of 112 cards, so there’s not much to discuss with respect to production value.  Except to say that it is excellent.  The cards are an extremely thick, heavy, and durable stock that will withstand wear significantly longer than its counterparts in the hobby.

Advanced operatives available for purchase in the mercenary deck.
Advanced operatives available for purchase in the mercenary deck.

The artwork is superb and really evokes the design’s pulp story theme.  It’s inventive, colorful, vibrant, over-the-top, and not a bit outlandish.  Indeed, a true successor to old pulp magazines from the 20s and 30s – and an off-shoot of the artistry in Spirit of the Century.  However, here it gets to shine front-and-center; whereas great artwork in role-playing games is often underappreciated, a second thought, or wasted altogether.

Along with the illustrations, the card types and names immerse you in its peculiar world as much as any card game can.  With majestic airships employing monkey samurais and treasure hunters while deploying terrible weapons such as iceferno rockets and insanity rays against mystifying defenses like blithium armor and phantom cloaks, you’ll feel just a bit like those classic, larger-than-life characters Doc Savage, G-8, the Spider, or John Carter.  However, in reality you’re actually a master super villain in the vein of Wu Fang, the Voodoo Master, Herr Doktor Krueger, and the Living Pharaoh – with tremendous power and wanton destruction at your finger tips!

Deadly beasts of the skies! Operations zeppelin (top) and attack zeppelin (bottom).
Deadly beasts of the skies! Operations zeppelin (top) and attack zeppelin (bottom).

Zeppelin Attack is a simplified, introductory deck-building game.  Despite its simplicity, there are some interesting twists that those new to the genre must soon disregard when moving on to heavyweights like Dominion, Ascension, or Thunderstone.  This is unfortunate, because those tweaks are an improvement!  The design has a stream-lined rules set and action sequence, just like any other deck-builder.  Alas, it’s not as grand and mechanically sophisticated.  So its narrower scope and minimal card chaining may seem like a step down to veteran deck-builders.  But if you can over-look those designed limitations, you’re in for a treat.  Zeppelin Attack is accessible, packed with action, and exudes a quirky, adventurous theme that players can really get into – dare I say – even role-play a bit with.  You’ll fly fast, shoot from them hip, and just may let loose with a maniacal laugh or two.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Evil Hat Productions for providing a review copy of Zeppelin Attack.

Summary

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Streamlined, introductory deck-builder
  • Nice twists to the genre
  • Generates story-telling and role-playing
  • Ideal for 3-players
  • High aesthetic and production value

Cons:

  • Can suffer from downtime
  • Lacks a great deal of variety
7.5 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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