Our fellow passengers fell like leaves from the autumn trees, and before we knew it we were packing the game away and licking our wounds.
What’s It All About?
A zombie infused road trip across the crumbling remains of American society, that’s what! Hit Z Road pitches itself as a game created by a kid who, when an actual undead outbreak hit, was piled into a car with his family as they set out to travel from Chicago all the way to the west coast, and L.A. He survived the ordeal, and then made a game based upon his adventure. The game we now hold in our hands. That’s the backstory.
What we actually get is a game all about getting your own vehicle out to the west coast, whilst keeping your survivors breathing, and the gnashing zombie teeth at bay. Players bid resources to get first pick of the available routes, then tackle the events depicted on the route cards. It’s chock full of zombie hordes, brilliant components, and interesting ideas, but, it is also home to an evil even greater than that of the undead threat, one borne of confusing mechanic decisions, and player disconnect.
Let us grab a boomstick, and hit the gas…
Hit Z Road does have a number of solid features going for it. I wouldn’t normally begin by talking about the looks and components, but, with this one, I’ll make an exception. You see it’s blatantly obvious that a lot of love, and attention to detail, has gone into creating the physical game that sits before us on the table. It uses some brilliantly clever ideas that I absolutely adore! The designers have gone for something that sticks to the original story of a kid crossing America on this perilous journey, and then using whatever they could lay hands on to make their own game. So, we get resource icons depicted by bottlecaps, we get cards that look like they came from an old pack of playing cards, or some other game such as Dixit, we have a rulebook written in an old journal that holds all the crossing out and errors the kid made when dreaming this thing up, and we see some tokens depicted on old credit or ID cards. And then everything is given a dirty, worn look that just elevates the whole feel of the game. It really is stunning! Even the game box itself is created as though Hit Z Road is packaged in the home of a different game called Hit The Road that the kid had taken on the journey. Genuinely brilliant creative thinking all around.
Elsewhere the game brings some actual wooden zombie meeple to the table, another very cool little idea that makes it stand out, and some nice unique dice sets in fetching black and red. In terms of components, and build quality, Hit Z Road is an absolute dream.
But how about actually putting all these cool components to use in playing? Well, there are some definite high points.
The game is built in such a way that the difficulty increases as the journey across America plays out. And this ramping struggle did materialise during play in such a way that I was left quite impressed…I was also dead…but, I was dead impressed too. Let me elaborate briefly. The way the game raises the challenge is in using tougher decks of cards as play moves. Initially the routes available to travel come from deck one, when this deck is exhausted we move onto deck two, and finally, the dreaded deck three. It was a three player game, and we had cruised through the opening card set without much trouble. The second set was a little more hair-raising, but nothing that was going to see us shedding survivors to the grasping hands of the undead. Then came deck three, and we were just obliterated! Our fellow passengers fell like leaves from the autumn trees, and before we knew it we were packing the game away and licking our wounds.
It was a pretty intense and brutal end to the game, but I actually really liked the fact that, much like the classic zombie movie script, the increased threat and rising numbers of shuffling flesh munchers saw us facing an almighty struggle to taste the glorious sunshine victory of Los Angeles. Up to that point it had been a little bit Walking Dead at the farm, then suddenly we were in World War Z! Some will probably find it too much of a shift, but I found it pleasantly refreshing.
Unfortunately though, beyond this there isn’t really a lot to get excited about with Hit Z Road.
What’s Not So Good?
Sadly this is a game where the cons outweigh the pros. I want to address the issues from the most damning, down to the less problematic, and the first point that has to be raised is based upon the method used to determine which player travels down which route. I don’t know exactly what the thought process was here, but in a genre so rich in history both in film and book, why a decision was made to use an auction style bidding war as a mechanic baffles me.
What takes place is, at the beginning of each round, pairs of cards are drawn from the corresponding difficulty deck depending on player numbers. As an example, if there are three players, six cards will be drawn and placed in pairs side-by-side. These pairs depict possible routes that players can travel this round, and each will vary in difficulty based upon the details on the card. Now, where I have a problem is that to decide who gets to choose a route first, players take place in a bidding war where resources are bid against a position in the queue to pick routes. The highest bidder goes first and so on. And, it just completely kills the game as anything to become immersed in. The disconnect during the bidding round simply slaps you in the face, it feels out of place, it kills any illusion of spanning a zombie riddled country, and in action it is a really boring addition. The options for determining routes seem abundant and interesting, so the choice of a bidding war only stings that little bit sharper.
Next up is the overall feel of the game itself. I spoke of the brilliance of the components and the lovely ideas at play within, but sadly when it comes to actually playing, Hit Z Road falls quite flat. If there’s one thing a zombie soaked game really needs to succeed, it’s tension, but disappointingly, the only tension that arises here is entirely unintentional and is formed on the back of the dreadful bidding round.
The early routes are pretty mundane, the middle section ups the ante, but even when the climatic deck of cards is in play, and survivors begin falling, it all just passes by with minimal emotional effect. This might be down to combat being determined by a roll of the dice, where players roll and roll until either they emerge victorious or die trying, or it might simply be due to the actual act of playing being very, very shallow. Players place cards, bid, and then resolve the cards they are given, which by and large means either collecting an item or fighting zombies with dice. It just comes over as quite uninspiring and dull. For any game this is a problem, but for a game touting excitement and the massed undead, it’s potentially fatal.
Hit Z Road also lacks soul when it comes to characters. Players have a small collection of grey meeple, and one coloured meeple as the leader. What this brings is a game that never really gets the player caring about the fate of their crew, and that’s another miss. I feel if the designer had just thrown in a little cast of survivors something like, Dead of Winter, a few individual strengths and weaknesses, a little mugshot, it could have offered some new found levels of immersion. As it stands though, we have a game that simply oozes character and detail in its art and components, but loses it as soon as play gets underway. A similar situation applies to the route cards too. They are nicely decorated in true zombie apocalypse fashion, and show a little glimpse into the journey, but they don’t ever get the player involved other than snagging a few resources and rolling some dice to kill dead people again. And again.
And as I was talking combat, well, it does become a little bit old quite quickly. Players roll the same number of dice as survivors they have, and then the symbols rolled determine how many zombies die, how many can be killed with a little extra nudge from an adrenaline token, and how many get teeth sunk into the crew. Two special red dice are brought into play whenever a horde is encountered to make life more difficult, but even then, the process is based upon the fall of the dice and there’s little players can do to influence things. The resource tokens come in to play slightly, with gas being used if players want to run away before the fight commences, adrenaline used to save bitten survivors, and ammo allowing a ranged shot before it all goes toe to toe, but that is the extent of the player influence.
Where’s The Appeal?
Look, despite going in for the kill somewhat with my own issues with the game, Hit Z Road is not a lost cause. The key to enjoying this game is in lowering expectations. Forget how great the box looks, ignore the wonderfully imaginative cards and tokens, and simply accept the game for what it is, a simple, luck based, throwaway zombie adventure. A B-movie in board game form.
If you can do this, the game is decent. We’ve played a number of times and had some fun with it, never has it proved amazing, and never has it felt like a tense zombie game, but we had a laugh, and sometimes that’s all we ask of our games.
Hit Z Road is the sort of game you can pull from the shelf every few months, have a quick run through, and then forget about again an hour later. The zombie theme still holds obvious appeal for many, but even this is waning as every medium of media is awash with hungry corpses these days.
I would say if you want a game that is simple to play, offers some zombie infused action and friendly competition, then give it a look, but if you are after an engrossing adventure through the heart of darkness with layers of strategy and lashings of character, keep looking, this one isn’t for you.
One For The Kids?
Although it brings a backstory of being designed by a child, it isn’t really one for the family table. The artwork adopts a more realistic approach that means some route cards are pretty gruesome and definitely not for younger eyes. The game suggests and age range of 12+ and I’d say that is a good bet.
The biggest problem for Hit Z Road in my opinion is that there are so many better options out there. If the aim is zombies, or simply adventure, the better alternatives are plentiful. It’s a shame because I really feel like a lot of love has been given to the design of this game, it just falls flat on its delivery.
This is not a bad game, everything in place here does actually work as it should. The dice combat might become a little tedious, but it works, the bidding is out of place, but again it does a job, and the cards depicting routes might not be all that exciting, but they do carry out their role as expected. It just unfortunately isn’t particularly exciting to experience all these elements in action.
I almost think this would be a better game played in a co-operative style with a few tweaks, but lets stick with what we have, and that is a game that looks brilliant, but plays just okay, and in a world ever more drenched in board game goodness, that is just not enough for me to recommend it.
Hit Z Road
Designer – Martin Wallace
Players – 1 to 4
Playtime – 40 minutes to 1 hour