It’s 2018 and there is no shortage of deck building games in the tabletop hobby. There also exists little scarcity of zombie-themed games. So new titles wading into the shambling masses of either category risk derivative styling unless they bring something new to the table. In regards to the former, can the design rise above the monotony of “play cards, pick a card, shuffle?” And with respect to the latter, will its mechanics capture the narrative struggle of heroic sacrifice and survival amidst inexorable hopelessness…yet still prove playable? It’s a tall order.
How To Play
That desperate plight is front and center in After the Virus. The mysterious and ravenous plague (that we all know is coming one day) has begun, turning the living into the walking dead. Not only must you survive, but you need to save as many others as possible, fighting off hordes of the ghastly stricken while gathering weapons and equipment to supply a base from which to organize civilization’s rebirth.
All through cards! Whether fending off the apocalypse with one to three players, each individual survivor interacts with their own deck, which is the same as the others. However, you take on the role of a unique character who begins with a particular set of cards from those decks. Then through play, you’ll add increasingly deadly zombie cards, while utilizing your limited starting deck to scout for and retrieve other material in order to build up more powerful hands.
A round begins by drawing five cards from your deck. Zombie cards are immediately placed to the table. Then you play out the rest of your hand via several options, making sure to deal with any and all zombies in play to avoid injury or death.
Most cards represent weapons, people, equipment or traps. Any of these can be played to the table at any time, typically placed sideways. That’s because most have a preparation cost noted in the lower left. To prepare a card you discard a number of other cards from your hand according to its cost requirement and orient it normally. Then that item or person is available for use. Abilities run a wide spectrum from killing or discarding zombies, to saving survivors, to healing or preventing wounds. But mostly they kill zombies!
In most cases these items and people are discarded or destroyed to activate their abilities. There are a few that remain static to provide ongoing effects. Generally speaking you can have any number of unprepared and prepared cards in play. There are some important restrictions, such as you may only have two weapons at the ready (unless your arm is wounded, in which case you can only use one). Also, you may only have one prepared vehicle, and most ranged weapons are only prepared by using cards as ammunition when played, which are slipped underneath. In that case the ammo is discarded in order to kill zombies.
While you can theoretically play out any number of cards, you’ll need to budget them towards other purposes in order to survive – namely scouting and retrieving. This is the game’s special twist on the deck building genre. To scout, you simply discard a card from your hand and reveal the top card of the area deck, adding it to the line of previously scouted gear. Once scouted, all cards have a retrieval cost, which can be different than its preparation cost. To retrieve a card, simply discard a number of cards from your hand to pay for it, immediately adding it to your play area (unless it’s an action card, in which case it goes first to your discard pile). Any time you save a survivor you also have the option of immediately retrieving the top card of the area deck, sight unseen. The push-and-pull balance of using cards for their abilities or as currency to scout, retrieve and prepare other cards is one of the game’s more tense elements.
After playing out your entire hand and activating all of the prepared cards that you wish, any zombies remaining in play attack. Hopefully that’s not too many, because once you take your third wound, you die! The trick is that the further your progress the more powerful the zombie cards get. At first, they’re only a 1 strength, but eventually end up at 4. But a 4-strength card counts as four zombies. So if you can only kill or discard three, the fourth one still gets through with its deadly bite, regardless.
There are also two states of disposing of zombies. If you kill them, they return to the zombie pile. Fear not…or do! They will keep returning – zombies, remember? However, if you can only discard them, they go to your discard pile. So while you avoid the wound, they’ll clog up your deck and increase the numbers you’ll have to face in the succeeding round.
When you’ve depleted your draw deck, it’s time to reshuffle your discard pile to create a new one, as is typical with games of this nature. However, you must increase your zombie wave track by one and shuffle a number of new zombie cards into your deck equal to your current wave’s level. So the more times you work through that deck, the greater number of undead scramble after you!
So how do you survive, you might ask? Or is the whole affair an exercise in brave, yet ultimately futile, resistance? Well, After the Virus is so challenging that it often seems that way. But it is winnable. And victory depends upon which scenario you play. The design offers fifteen different missions divided into five capsule stories, each with their own narrative, objectives and even special rules. Still, the base rules, structure and mechanics apply from mission to mission. Sometimes you need to save Survivors by preparing them and playing the action card Safe House. Sometimes you have to set up a certain number of items or last a number of rounds or kill a number of zombies. Or maybe a combination of any of those goals!
Whatever the scenario, they all have one thing in common: Good luck…you’re gonna need it!
World War Z or World Bore Zzzzzz?
So does After the Virus address the concerns from my opening remarks? Indeed it does! The specifics of this deck building deviation not only offer unique twists on the genre, but a fundamental rethinking of how to play this style of game. And as for narrative, not only do its mechanisms create a thematic experience, but the design’s campaign premise wonderfully succeeds in delivering a story arc that is both practical and aesthetic. It fosters replayability by imbuing each session with a fresh goal, while at the same time pulling players in with scenarios that are as compelling and engaging at they are challenging.
Most deck building designs follow some derivative of Dominion’s classic Action, Buy, Cleanup formula. Sure, there are differences in how cards are available, where they go immediately after purchase, keeping leftovers from hand to hand, whether or not you can use individual cards for multiple uses and so on. But by and large, the genre is replete with the general ABC structure.
By contrast, After the Virus exudes a more sandbox feel. There are a number of actions to perform which include play a card, prepare a card, activate a card, scout, retrieve and trigger zombies. Additionally you must deplete your hand with legitimate actions and deal with or resolve all zombie cards before moving on to the next round. While all of that essentially encompasses the core ABC concepts from Dominion of old, you can do anything you like in any order you wish. You could even trigger a zombie attack before otherwise dealing with it through a card’s action because you have some other way to ignore the wound – or maybe you just want to absorb the injury for another reason (which would resolve the card as attacking zombies leave play and go to the zombie pile).
So instead of analyzing your hand in terms of what do I want to do, then what do I want to buy, then tidily gather it all to the discard pile, you approach the entire turn differently. Because you can actually retrieve a card (aka buy it), prepare it and use it in the same turn – as long as you can afford to discard the necessary number of cards from your hand to meet all the costs. While you won’t be able to pull that off very much, there are some cards inexpensive enough to do so from time to time. In any event, the order in which you scout, retrieve, play, prep and activate are quite critical. Not only for survival on to the next round, but in gathering and allocating resources to withstand each successive onslaught.
The tableau play is also quite different to the genre. And while I’ve played designs that mix deck building with other styles (Mythotopia, Hands in the Sea), those felt more like board games simply utilizing the deck building element. After the Virus does use tableau building and card activation, but it exudes a traditional deck building vibe that commands attention over its other aspects. It just happens to employ other secondary mechanisms. That said, those elements indeed separate this title from others in the category.
The tableau offers two benefits not seen in most deck builders: a “reserve” and a means to establish ongoing abilities. One quirk to most, or traditional, deck builders is unused cards are discarded at the end of a round, even if you’d rather save them for another. You still can’t do that with After the Virus, but you can add any card to your tableau, prepared or not, in order to conserve it for future use. A few of those even provide a static benefit that remain in play, rarely seen in this category. Of course, the drawback to stacking your tableau is that there are less cards in your deck. Now from what you know of deck builders, that doesn’t seem so bad, right? Thinning your deck is central to fast, powerful play, correct? Not so fast!
Beyond co-opting the ABC structure and adding tableau play, After the Virus possesses one characteristic that fundamentally alters how you approach the genre. You don’t want to thin your deck. This single element will likely undo many deck building veterans until they’re familiar with its distinctive play. Because in other designs of this nature, the goal is to cull your deck and trash weak cards, especially from your starting hand, in order to quickly access the more powerful ones that you acquire through the game. However, After the Virus requires a bloated deck!
The thinner your deck the faster you’ll go through it. And each time you reshuffle the discard pile, the threat ramps up. First, you’ll advance your zombie wave level, which increases the number of zombie cards entering the next round. Then you have to add an accordingly fresh horde of undead to your new deck. Furthermore, the less cards you have in there the sooner you’ll face those renewed waves! All of that writes a dangerous equation!
Thematically it makes sense. It’s common knowledge that there are two ways to survive the zombie apocalypse. Either run faster than everyone else or gather a pot load of explosive gear! Therefore the more items you have (aka cards), the larger your deck will potentially be. That gives you a lot more resources to kill zombies and save survivors or prepare in other ways. Mechanically, larger decks mean you’re squeezing extra turns out of each round. The zombie masses don’t come quite as quickly, which lets you spend cards on scouting and retrieving and getting others to safety. Otherwise you spend all of your efforts simply beating back wave after wave, seemingly barely treading water until the inevitable end.
To be sure, there are many sessions in which you’ll never shake that feeling anyway, despite your best efforts. While building up your deck is critical, it also helps to have good cards with lots of firepower or other nifty benefits. For example, one action card is called Raid, which allows you to retrieve any scouted card for free. Since many have a retrieval cost of two or three cards, that action is a boon. Also, acquiring a powerful weapon early is often make-or-break for a mission’s success. Then again, other cards might be specifically necessary to a particular scenario – like the V.I.P., who counts as three refugees when saved, is almost a must for the mission where you have to rescue a total of ten survivors. As a card game, the design is heavily influenced by the draw. That works with regards to both your hand each turn, and also in how quickly you can scout significant items from the area deck – one at a time.
In the end, unfortunately or not, that really does mean victory or defeat is often decided within the first three or four waves. If you can’t find what you want/need from the area deck or experience some unlucky run-ins dealing with zombies early on, you simply may not have the time to prepare for the growing hordes which will start inundating you beginning wave five or six. And if you can’t gather many other resources in that situation, it will only compound your problems. Your deck won’t be bloated enough to absorb and scatter the ever increasing number of zombie cards.
So early game randomness definitely exerts control on mid- to late-game progress. For example, some missions require you to play and prepare specific cards or a set number of items. If you can’t find those early on in the area deck, your session is fairly well sunk, no matter how well you deal with the zombie plague in the nascent stages. Some scenarios aid your efforts by allowing you to begin with a specific card or two already scouted. Still, the first few rounds are crucial.
While some may view that as a drawback, I’m not sure it’s entirely new to deck building. Plus that aspect certainly feels thematically appropriate for the setting. It cultivates a sense of urgency and desperation, creating an enormous challenge! That often encourages players to immediately restart failed missions, because they just know that “if I do this differently, or try things this way, I think I can get it this time!” And when you’ve finally survived one scenario, the next chapter in the story entices you to keep fighting on in the face of the next struggle! As they’re each unique scenarios with different starts and minor rules changes, the entire story arc is engrossingly compelling, enticing you back to each mission despite the tremendously long odds.
Indeed, I find myself returning to its punishment over and over, while normally solo designs are not my cup of tea. Not long ago I discussed that very point with The Lost Expedition. Yet I found that title engaging and worth revisiting because of its challenging difficulty and thematic integration. The same holds with After the Virus. Its campaign-like narrative arc only enhances the theme. You’re not exactly improving a character or leveling up, but the story builds and advances to provide a sense of progress that is satisfying in the same manner as an RPG or legacy style game.
Perhaps that engagement will wear off once you’ve completed the entire story? But until then, for sheer solo play, After the Virus trumps The Lost Expedition. However, the most pressing issue with the design is its strained multiplayer modes. While there are three identical decks to accommodate as many players, it’s extremely difficult to win with two. And I don’t believe it’s even possible with three, although we only tried twice, however ending nowhere even close to victory.
The reasons are that in a multiplayer session you start the game with one or two extra zombies in your starting decks, so the situation is already taxed more than usual right out of the gate. But more than that, in order win, all players must meet the mission’s goals independently to win…and any player who does achieve the scenario’s objectives must keep playing and living until the others do, as well. It’s difficult enough to get through that on your own. Having to wait for one or two others after you’ve already succeeded…essentially hanging around and putting out fires until they do…is really pushing those bounds. Now you are allowed to help your comrades by killing and discarding their zombies with your own weapons and gear. However, if you have a really big gun, it may only apply to one player’s area. You can’t divide up hits to take out scores of zombies across the whole table. So aid can be hampered or limited. You can at least use appropriate items to heal a companion. But those are the only two ways to interact with and help your fellow survivors.
As an unheralded small box game with quirky artwork from a small Swedish publisher, After the Virus has unfortunately missed a good number of mainstream radars. It’s too bad. This is a truly unique design with fresh twists on the deck building genre and an imminently enticing story that grabs you and won’t let go. Much of its anonymity might be attributed to its primarily solo focus. But if you’re into that category, unique deck builders, the zombie setting or even just plain old difficult games that really challenge you, this unassuming title will deliver surprises.
Lion Rampant Imports provided a copy of After the Virus for this review.