Number of players: 2-6
Ages: 13 and up
Time to play: 90 minutes
Published by Fireside Games
Fireside Games is comprised of a husband and wife team from Austin, Texas: Justin and Anne-Marie De Witt. They’re most famous for Castle Panic, a wonderful game that’s been featured on Wil Wheaton’s show “Tabletop.” Castle Panic places players in a castle at the center of the board while all sorts of fantasy baddies rush from the woods and try to break in.
With Dead Panic, Justin takes that basic concept and applies the zombie apocalypse. Instead of a castle, we have a cabin in the woods. The players are trying to keep the cabin intact while fending off wave after wave of undead attackers. Their final goal: reassemble a radio so they can call for rescue, then escape in the van that arrives to take them to safety.
Castle Panic is elegant in its simplicity. It can even be played alone, in a solitaire mode. Dead Panic sacrifices that simplicity for deeper game play. As in Castle Panic, the game is purely co-op. The monsters appear and move according to a set of rules and do not have a player driving them. (Although alternate rules allowing for a “zombie overlord” player are included for those who can’t play nice with other people.) However, where Dead Panic diverges greatly is with those player roles.
Players have identities in Dead Panic. Each of these characters has a unique ability that will assist them in their fight for survival. One of the keys to success in Dead Panic is knowing your role and acting accordingly. When the Police Officer has a firearm, she can fire it twice in one round instead of once. Putting her on defense is smart. The Delivery Driver can draw two cards on her turn instead of one, keeping one and giving the other to another player. Protecting her is smart.
Keeping things lively are the Event cards. Drawn once per round, these cards are best defined as “BAD THINGS HAPPEN.” They generate more zombies to attack the cabin (which are drawn at random from a small bag included in the game) as well as cause special effects for the turn. These effects are never, ever good. Cards like “ZOMG!” and “Surge” cause hordes of zombies to appear. Others, such as “How Do You Kill the Dead?” and “Back from the Grave,” make zombies stronger or return them to the board after they’ve been killed.
Survivors are mixed in with the zombies in the bag. There are three of them, and they each carry a piece of the radio. They will move for the cabin as fast as they can go, but the horde is out there, and those Survivors look tasty. You’ll have to help them reach the cabin alive or go put down their zombified corpses and take the critical radio piece back to the cabin.
In the midst of all this, you also have to search for items to use against the zombies, shore up the walls of the cabin as they fall to zombie attacks, and eventually flee the cabin for the rescue van. If your character makes it into the van after the radio has been completed, you win! If you fall, you become a zombie, but you get to choose two special abilities that player-zombies can use against your former comrades!
Dead Panic is a very solid and well designed game that has two things working against it: complexity and difficulty.
The complexity of the game is ironic, considering how simple Castle Panic is. By the time the game has been going for a while, quite a bit of effort is spent on moving all of the zombies according to the rules and handling fights. The zombie movement rules make sense but aren’t easy to sort out once the horde gains numbers and you’re shuffling around 10 or more zombies. Fights are very straightforward with one or even two zombies, but when you have a stack of seven zombie tokens moving into a single space with a player, it can be tricky to sort out who is attacking, who has already attacked, etc.
It’s certainly not a dealbreaker, but it knocks Dead Panic out of the list of games to break out when your buddies who don’t do tabletop stop by. Having at least one experienced tabletop gamer to manage zombies and kind of play “leader” to help hash out combat scores is highly recommended.
Difficulty is a bit of an issue, but the design of the game is elegant enough to work around it. Playing by the stock rules with two players, each playing one character, winning was almost impossible for me. The cabin walls drop fast, and the game becomes a chase with tall stacks of zombie tokens pursuing fleeing players who are waiting out the appearance of the radio-carrying survivors.
The instructions contain “Less Panic” tips for making variations on the stock rules and easing the burden for players, but I also recommend doing what I do in many tabletop games and simply assign each player in a two-player game more than one character. It’s a bit more of a challenge to keep things straight, but by having four characters instead of two fighting off the undead, your chances for survival literally double.
Those two issues aside, Dead Panic is a wonderful co-op game. It captures the mood of the classic Night of the Living Dead setup. The claustrophobia, the paranoia, the sheer, well, panic. The mood of Dead Panic is dramatically more intense than similar zombie games. You have less time to focus on strategy because the horde is coming very quickly. Games such as Last Night on Earth seem downright leisurely in comparison. Doctor Hannah wouldn’t have time to browse ancient issues of People if he was in Dead Panic. (Watch the epic Last Night on Earth episode of “Tabletop” to learn the tale of Doctor Hannah.)
Expect your table of players to start sweating fairly early on as plans and strategies get busted by a lack of resources or a particularly fast zombie that breaches the cabin before you can shore up the wall. Bickering might break out as you have to quickly decide which player has to leave the cabin to grab a radio part dropped by a survivor. Worse, if you allow a fellow player to die, expect them to trash talk after they choose the special ways their zombified corpse will turn on them and attack.
As with all Fireside games, the artwork is good quality, hand-drawn comic style. Most game components are cardboard but high quality. The bag to choose zombie tokens from is cloth and drawstring, a nice touch. It’s a nice package.
Despite the high learning curve and tough standard difficulty, Dead Panic is highly recommended. It’s another strong effort from Fireside. Put on some tense horror tunes, invite a few friends over, and get ready for zombie action!
4 out of 5