The phenomenal success of the X-Wing game has made it an irresistible model to follow. Grab a hot media franchise and slap a miniatures game on the top of it. The latest member of this herd is The Walking Dead: All Out War. The game art makes clear that it's based on the eponymous comics rather than the TV series. But it's all related enough to catch the eye of anyone with a passing interest in either.
Picking up and flicking through the accessible quick start rules shows this to be typical miniatures fare. There is a cardboard ruler in the box, which measures things in inches. Figures can take two different actions like move or search unless they're in melee, in which case they do nothing but fight. Combat gets resolved by custom coloured dice, with more successes than your enemy translating into damage.
There's an impressive amount of plastic in the box for the money, eighteen miniatures in total. Twelve are zombies and the other six are human characters, including Rick Grimes and his son Carl. They're good sculpts, full of life and detail although the plastic could be better quality. It's bendy enough that I'd be a little nervous of painting them.
Playing with the little guys, however, reveals that All Out War uses typical miniatures rules to make something quite unusual. It's presented as a two-player game of tactical combat where each side fights to secure the most resources on the map. The tasty filling in this plain sandwich is the walkers themselves. Each player gets to pick a roster of characters and equipment up to an agreed points value. Then, for each 15 points or part thereof, a zombie gets added to the map.
Zombies have a simple AI routine to follow. If anyone on the map makes noise, by running or firing a gun, they're likely to move toward the noise. If anyone gets in their "kill zone", a circular cardboard template, the zombie will attack them. Individual zombies are no real threat but two or more on a single human escalates their combat pool with terrifying speed. Also, they're hard to kill permanently. You need special "headshot" results on your combat dice or take an extra turn attacking a prone one to finish them off. Otherwise they're likely to stand up again.
Right away, that presents players with an series of awful conundrums. You need to get to supply counters on the map before your opponent. But if you run, you'll bring zombies. If you fire weapons, you'll bring zombies. Sure, you could spend some time finishing them off but that's a waste of actions. Especially given those walkers are just as dangerous to your enemy as they are to you. Victory is often as much about making best use of the zombies as it is moving and fighting with your own pieces.
Furthermore each turn sees a random event card flipped over. Many of these cause new walkers to appear or the ones already on the map to act. Sometimes the active player will get the chance to move one or move zombies themselves. These have the potential to totally derail existing plans and make you reassess the situation and form new strategies. The dice and cards do a great job of keeping decisions in the hands of the players while also keeping them on their tactical toes.
Cards also tend to increase the threat dial. This is a rubbish plastic spinner which is far too easy to knock off track, and is better replaced with pen and paper. The mechanics, though, are gravy. As threat increases, the effects of event cards on the walkers get more and more dangerous and characters get less and less reliable. It's effectively a timer: the longer you spend creeping about and not securing those supplied, the more riled the walkers get. Not only does this fit the theme well and keep a lid on the play time, but it turns the game into a pressure cooker. You're not only racing against the other player but against the walkers too. Every choice you make cuts multiple ways.
Threat also works to transform All Out War into a serviceable solo or co-operative experience. In the solitaire rules, it increases automatically every turn as well as by event cards, and all zombie movement is toward the nearest human. This wouldn't be the way I'd choose to play most games with a multi-player option but it works well here. Not least because it's a very unusual option to have in a miniatures title.
Before you dream of using the franchise hook to pull in some non-gaming fanboys, you should be aware it's not a simple game. Wherever there's a range ruler and scenery there's bound to be ambiguities and edge cases which need rules to cover them. It is, however, quick to play and easy to get stuck in and learn piecemeal. And the six game characters with special abilities plus a roster of equipment gives you plenty of options to try out at first. It's tense and addictive.
After a few games, though, it becomes clear that this starter set is exactly what it says on the box. There's only one "scenario" which you can mix up with different rosters and scenery. The event deck is small and you'll see most of it in most games. That first flush of variety in the characters and items starts to look samey. Given this is an expandable miniatures game this shouldn't come as a surprise. But it's hard to not to feel a little disappointed that there isn't more mileage in the starter box.
So, anyone investing in this need to prepare themselves to invest in an expansion or two. It's par for the course with games like this, I guess. And while there's nothing entirely novel on offer here, the game does a great job or arranging familiar blocks into something fresh. It's exciting, challenging and evocative of the source material. I gave up on the TV series long ago, but this game is good enough to give a zombie resurrection to my interest in the franchise as a whole.