In the game of Zoneplex, players take on the role of monks exploring the Zoneplex, which is some sort of spaceship that is apparently made up of zones. It may or may not be from Earth, because apparently nobody knows where that is any more, but apparently humans might have come from there and also built a Zoneplex.
There’s something about a cataclysm of some sort, and facing Fears–oh, and something about a Zoneplex.
How It Plays
Zoneplex has pretty straightforward rules, and a mix of flavors from Carcassonne, Munchkin, and its own uniqueness.
Each turn the current player draws an action card which dictates what they can do; generally, place tiles on the Zoneplex and move, or combat a fear.
Placing tiles is how the Zoneplex–a triangular structure made of triangle tiles–is built. The tiles feature either “spirit chambers,” “sacred spirit chambers,” walls, teleporters, or reliquaries.
When a player moves, they can do something depending on the tile they land on–either place one of their spirit stones (in spirit chambers), which can earn them points, or draw a relic card (from a reliquary), which offers useful bonuses.
Points are kept secret for the first half of the game, as each player has a secret “sacred symbol” card which gives them extra points if they put their spirit stones in the right place. However, once the Zoneplex structure is complete, points are revealed.
When fighting a fear, players have a monk level and an attack roll with a four-sided die. They can invite allies and sacrifice spirit stones they have previously placed in order to roll additional dice, and the highest total wins. Fears grant rewards in relic cards, monk levels, and trophies, which can be negotiated when attempting to form alliances.
The game ends in two possible ways: either one player, who has at least one of each of the three types of trophies, and the most points, enters the eye of the Zoneplex at its peak, instantly ending and winning the game. (Entering the eye grants points as well, which can be the deciding points for victory). In addition, if the action deck runs out, there is something called the “Cataclysm of the Zoneplex,” which may kill players and even result in all players losing; otherwise, the player with the most points at that time is the winner.
Cataclysm or Victory?
This little game is one of the strangest I’ve ever played, not necessarily for mechanisms, but for theme.
I’ll be honest. While the concept sounded interesting from outside the box, when I started reading the rulebook, my hopes for this game dropped like a man in a space suit from lower Earth orbit. It’s a bit of a mess. While it is possible to glean the rules, the mix of tones and styles–running the gamut from straightforward explanation to peculiar and out-of-place attempts at humor and/or stage directions–makes it a tedious read. I think the rulebook could be 1/3 of the length with some good editing, and be much clearer. I think I got everything I needed to out of it, but it definitely left me with a distinct feeling that I was missing something.
The theme of the game is… weird. I’m not sure if the cheese factor is intentional, but there are a whole heck of a lot of made-up words and overdramatic declarations. It’s the board game equivalent of overacting. I’m still not really sure what’s supposed to be going on–something about ancient spaceships from an ancient place called Earth, which is rumored to be the origin of humanity, oh, and the Zoneplex!
Okay, so I got past the rulebook. The game itself turned out to be more fun than I expected, and although it is not a great game, it certainly is a decent one. You might even call it “good,” although to me it falls short in a few areas.
A few sections of this game just aren’t all that fun. The early stages of the game, in which players are building the Zoneplex, just don’t carry much interest. There is very little strategy in where you place tiles. There are so many teleporters and so few walls that movement around the thing is never a problem, except for the arbitrary dictaction of action cards. There isn’t even much strategy in placing spirit stones–sure, placing them in the wrong place will net you negative points, but you only have four stones, and you’ll be sacrificing them to fight monsters, so early placement isn’t going to hurt you in the long run. In fact, you might as well place wherever you can, just so you can be more valuable in combat.
The Zoneplex construction also tends to stall a bit, as each player has a hand of tiles they keep, and when all the tile draw piles run out (every tile is used in every game), the Zoneplex wont be complete until the last remaining player with the last remaining tiles draws the right action card.
The endgame is a little anticlimactic as well; by the time one or two players have 3 trophies and enough points to win, it’s just a matter of getting the right action cards to move into the eye. Of course, this tends to stall as well, as you can keep drawing fears you don’t need to fight, which prevent you from moving. There isn’t a whole lot anyone can do to change the point situation either; there are very few cards that let you take points away from someone, and with few spirit stones and few other ways to score points, you’re pretty limited from trying to catch up on points. It devolves right at the end when it should be the most exciting.
Fortunately, the core of the game–fighting fears–is a lot of fun. The alliance system–vaguely reminiscent of Munchkin–is simple and well implemented and rewards all participating players without leaving the weakest in the dust permanently. Unlike the Munchkin problem where the lowest-level person can’t contribute much to a fight and thus will stay the lowest person, in Zoneplex a person with very little to offer can still get to join in, because every little point and die roll helps, and every ally gets to level up if the team is victorious. So even if the more powerful players are negotiating for cards or trophies, the weakest player can also offer to join in, simply because they need to level up a bit more to be valuable next time. Relics and trophies are valuable, but limited enough so that the game is not always decided by who has collected the most cards. The result is a fun and enjoyable negotiating system that keeps everyone involved.
The most fun of all with this game, though, was actively not taking the theme seriously. I don’t know if that would offend the designers or delight them, but the backstory we’re given is so over-the-top dramatic that I can’t help but laugh at it. I still don’t know what a Zoneplex is, other than something like an apartment complex of Zones, but it was rather silly fun to dramatically curse the Zoneplex as it once again dealt me a card I did not want, or when I rolled a 0 in combat.
There are a few areas that are just not quite refined enough. I think the elements I mentioned above that were lackluster could be fixed with a few tweaks. I really don’t understand why players have a hand of tiles but not have a hand of action cards. Even allowing each player to have one action card in their hand so they could draw a card and choose which to play would add a significant amount of strategy and planning. Dumping the hand of tiles would prevent Zoneplex construction from stalling and keep the game moving. Giving players more spirit stones and keeping points a secret until the end would make it significantly more strategic, risky, exciting, and important to place them, and could add a fun element of risk to entering the eye. But none of that is there, which suggests to me that this game had a limited playtesting circle. I hate to say it, but this game has all the marks of “Kickstarter game”–it’s just not quite there. It lacks a sense of complete playtesting and an editorial process that would have refined the rulebook and put more elements in the right place.
Still, even with that branding, it is one of the more enjoyable Kickstarter games I have played.
The components are somewhat hit and miss. The cardboard tiles are just fine, the cardstock is not bad, and the “monkles” work just fine and are easy to distinguish on the board. The shape and tactile nature of the glass beads used for the stones is classy, but the colors can be hard to distinguish once on the board, especially in certain lighting. Usually I have to remember where I put my stones, or hold them up to the light to tell what color they are. The art is okay, but just like the rulebook it lacks a consistent tone. Some of it is more “retro” sci-fi looking, some of it is like pixelated video game art (okay, both from the 80s, but still a different style), and some of it is…very pink.At least once you’ve played, the game can clip along at a nice pace. Each turn is pretty quick, and when fears show up, everybody is involved, or at least they should be, trying to convince the current player to allow them as an ally, or convincing other players to refuse to join.
As it is, Zoneplex is an enjoyable, decent game rather than an excellent one. It’s definitely fun to negotiate alliances to fight fears, but many of the other mechanisms don’t really add to the game. There’s nothing particularly new here–you’ve got the tile placement of Carcassonne and alliances of Munchkin. The spirit stone mechanism could be interesting, but it’s too limited to actually allow much choice.As far as Kickstarter games go, this is one of the better ones. It’s certainly not broken, and there is a lot of fun to be had. The over-the-top theme can be fun to play with. But it also showcases the importance of playtesting and rulebook editing. It functions well enough but could have been significantly improved by some more outside input and a few tweaks.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute for providing us with a review copy of Zoneplex.