Social deduction yesterday, legacy games today. Vikings one year, pirates the next. Board game trends and themes come and go, but zombies are the one thing that will never die.
Get it? Zombies will never … yes, Dear Reader, I see you shaking your head. Let’s move on, shall we?
There are hordes of zombie games available to gamers, so will this latest foray into the post-apocalyptic world rival the best zombie-themed games? Or will Hit Z Road end up in the trash with the other contenders to the undead crown?
How It Plays
Hit Z Road is a 1-4 player game of resource and risk management set in a zombie-filled America. Each player is trying to guide their group of survivors to the relative safety of California. Along the way you’ll accumulate Victory Points by killing zombies, collecting valuable resources, and ensuring members of your party are still alive to enjoy that zombie-free West Coast weather. There’s also a strong possibility that one or more will succumb to the walking dead so whoever is still alive at the end and has the most VPs is the winner.
Each player begins with a group of five survivor meeples, along with three types of resource tokens (fuel, ammo, and adrenaline). These resources serve two purposes: first, they’ll be used during the Auction Phase to bid on the paths that players take on their journey and, second, they’ll be used during the Encounter Phase to fight or flee from the zombies on their chosen paths.
At the start of each round, paths are made up of cards randomly placed into two columns, with each row of two cards representing a path that will be bid on during the Auction Phase. There are three difficulty levels of cards, and the deck starts with the easiest cards on top. In other words, enjoy the ease of collecting resources in the first round or two before the zombies start to overwhelm you and your opponents.
Next, players bid up to 10 resources for the right to choose their path first. Each player must pass or bid. Unlike other bidding games where you are attempting to outbid the highest player, here you can bid higher than any other player. For example, if the highest bid is 6 and there is another player at 4, you may bid 5 or 7. Note that no players can bid on the same number; you’re either one or more higher than another player. The auction ends when all players have passed consecutively. All players will pay their auction bids using any of their resources, then the winner of the auction will choose their path. Most likely they’ll pick the path that offers the most resources and Victory Points while encountering the fewest number of zombies.
After everyone has paid for their paths, they resolve each card in their chosen path during the Encounter Phase. First, players take any resources indicated on the card. Next, they resolve any text on the card; some will affect the ensuing battle while other cards require players to take/discard resources or survivors. Finally, they fight any zombies on the card.
To fight zombies, players take the required amount of zombie meeples and place them in front of their group of survivor meeples. They may first spend ammo tokens to perform a Ranged Roll. During the Ranged Roll, each Kill icon (a target) rolled kills one zombie. Players ignore any other results on the dice.
If there are any zombies left after the Ranged Roll (or if the player decided to skip the Ranged Roll), then the player now has two options: Flee or perform a Melee Roll. A player can spend fuel tokens to Flee from zombies. This ensures players avoid losing any survivors, but it also prevents them from earning any Victory Points. If the player chooses not to flee, then they will perform a Melee Roll. This is close-quarters, Rick-Grimes-style hack-and-slash fighting so there’s a risk of dying. Each survivor meeple will earn one six-sided die, so the more survivors a player has, the more dice they’ll roll to improve their chances of surviving the zombie encounter. Depending on their roll, players will either get bitten, kill zombies, or miss entirely. If a player is bitten, they will lose one survivor unless they spend an Adrenaline token.
The game ends after eight rounds of Auctions and Encounters. If there is ever only one player remaining at any point in the game, then they win immediately. However, if two or more players survive all of their encounters, then they’ll receive bonus points based most resources and most remaining survivors. Players then add the VPs from their encounter cards and the most points among the living wins the game.
A Slice of Fried Gold or Brainless Distraction?
At this year’s Gen Con another Martin Wallace game, Via Nebula, received a lot of praise and hype. Although Hit Z Road bears no resemblance to Via Nebula, the two games share one similarity: they both begin to shine as the game enters its later rounds. Decisions become more interesting and the tension is ratcheted up a notch or two as the end game nears. Via Nebula is all about connecting the right paths to deliver goods while Hit Z Road is concerned with having enough resources to fight off or run away from those last hordes of zombies.
Hit Z Road, though, could be the Wallace game that flies under the radar. Besides the uninspiring name, gamers might take one look at the zombie theme and immediately pass. At first glance the bidding mechanism seems out of place in a zombie-themed game, but it drives the tension in Hit Z Road. All of the paths are laid out in front of the players, so you’ll know which path offers the most reward for the least amount of risk. For example, a card may have 3 ammo tokens as its resource reward and it may offer 1 VP, but you must fight 3 zombies to gain that VP. Since each ammo token is worth 2 dice, you could spend two of your newly gained ammo tokens on 4 dice to blast through the 3 zombies during your Ranged Roll. However, if you roll miserably, then you’ve wasted your ammo and you’re looking at a Melee Roll with multiple zombies. If you’re low on adrenaline tokens, you may lose a survivor if you suffer another bad roll. Of course, you could spend your fuel tokens to flee, but then you’d lose the VP.
This open knowledge of the risk vs reward, combined with the bidding mechanism, leads to the game’s most tense moments as players must decide how many of their resources they’re willing to spend. During the auction how much do you spend to take the path of your choice? Are you going you spend to prevent opponents from gaining precious VPs or resources?
During my first few games I jumped right into the fray, hacking and slashing zombies with pure aplomb. I quickly learned, though, that my love of battle depleted my resources and I was forced to use my Fuel tokens later in the game, thus losing out on possible VPs. It’s best to acquire and save resources during the early stages; these resources will come in handy when you see bigger VP cards show up that require you to fight bigger groups and hordes of zombies.
However, bad dice rolls can ruin your plans of saving those resources for late-round battle. There have been games where I’ve had to spend more resources than I wanted to in order to save my survivors or kill extra zombies. The luck element, though, wasn’t a game-breaker for me; just like in other zombie entertainment you can equip yourself to the hilt and still get taken down by a biter.
The Encounter Phase is more straightforward since the combat system is easy to understand and by using resources wisely, players can mitigate unlucky dice rolls. The dice don’t have the brutal Dead of Winter “insta-death” roll until the later rounds featuring the hordes. You’re also not leveling up like in Zombicide, improving your character’s chances during combat. Again, the decisions made here are primarily on your use of resources: do you spend more ammo to defeat the zombies in this round or save them for later rounds? Remember, with each resource you spend, you lower your chances at winning the end-of-game bonuses for most resources of each type. It’s not the most thrilling recreation of combat, but it serves its purpose.
The game plays in less than an hour for four players, which is the right amount of time for this type of action. Although the two- and three-player games play faster, Hit Z Road is at its best when four players are duking it out during the Auction Phase.
Hit Z Road won’t replace Zombicide: Black Plague or Dead of Winter, but it’s not meant to. While Zombicide focuses on dungeon crawling and slaughtering the undead and Dead of Winter is all about survival in the bleakest of environments (with a possible traitor sabotaging your group’s plans), Hit Z Road is a light journey of tactical decisions with a healthy dose of risk and resource management. The excellent components (zombie meeples!) and stellar artwork pair nicely with the meta-gaming that’s most apparent on the backs of the bonus cards being “repurposed” Dixit and Ticket to Ride cards.
If you’re not a fan of zombies, Hit Z Road won’t make you one. But if you are a fan of the genre, then it can be a nice filler for seasoned gamers who want a lighter undead experience of dice-rolling zombie kills. It can also be used to introduce new players to the hobby or as a step-up from Zombie Dice. The unique combination of auction mechanism and zombie theme makes Hit Z Road a worthy, if not essential, addition to your collection.
Final Note: All By Myself
I enjoy solo variants of board games so it was nice having an official solo game included in the rule book. Although the solo version doesn’t capture the tension of the Auction Phase, it does retain the flavor of the Encounter phase as you make your way through the game before ranking your performance based on a scoring chart. It’s a good way to get your zombie on when your time and available opponents are limited.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thanks Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Hit Z Road.