Today’s post not only celebrates the horror of Halloween but also one of the most successful horror TV shows ever: The Walking Dead, now in its final season. Horror has been quite a popular theme in co-op games, and it’s worked quite well in the field because it tends to make the games all about desperate survival.
The Walking Dead Board Game — The Best Defense by Matt Hyra
Author: Matt Hyra
Publisher: Cryptozoic Entertainment (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Resource Management
In The Walking Dead Board Game: The Best Defense, the zombie apocalypse has arrived! Players take the roles of survivors who must protect four locations from zombie infestation, lest they lose their last resources.
The challenge system of The Best Defense activates at the start of each player’s turn and triggers off a card draw — which is all pretty typical. However, the cards are selected in a rather unusual way: each player draws two cards at the start of a round of play, but most of the players only have to play one of them — and they play them at the end of their turn.
Getting to choose which trigger card to play is quite interesting because it creates a looming sense of dread because there’s an opportunity to hold back the darkness that the player may not be able to fulfill. Each player is forced to make hard choices, rather than simply be acted upon — but as often as not, both cards are bad.
Most cards summon walkers (zombies), which will fight with characters at the end of a round. Losing too many characters to the zombies is then one way to lose the game. However, there’s also a deck of cards associated with each location, and if there are no characters at a location, the walkers remove cards from there instead — and a deck being emptied is another way to lose. The system is quite organic, so that either a character loses one hit point or a deck loses one card; in other words, locations have hit points, which are a joint resource. These loss conditions again give a lot of control to the players: they must determine which decks to try and protect and which to ignore each round.
Overall, The Best Defense is a great example of how to place difficult choices within a game such that all the options seem like real possibilities, requiring the players to angst over what to do. (Angsting is great in cooperative games, especially horror-themed ones!)
Challenge Elements: Mixed Round & Turn Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Decay; Walking Hordes of Combat Threats.
In its base form, The Best Defense is a mainly a game of coordination: players have to figure out which characters should go to which places to deal with zombies and/or to resolve the event cards that they’ve drawn. This relatively standard coordination is modified by one interesting mechanic: the leader. This is a different player each round who actually gets to decide where everyone moves! Though this doesn’ t have much practical effect in the beginner’s game, it can help draw out quiet players, since they’ll be the ones taking the action. This sort of non-permissive movement of other players is pretty rare in cooperative games, and so something to consider.
The Best Defense has two game variants that change how cooperation works: the Ulterior Motive cards and the expert-level difficulty.
The Ulterior Motive cards are a classic anti-cooperative “quest” incentive. Each player has a special victory condition — like staying at 5 hit points, collecting food, or collecting different types of weaponry. But, there’s a catch: this quest only comes into play if the players lose; then, any player who met their Ulterior Motive goal gains a “partial victory”.
Anti-cooperative quest incentives have traditionally been a bit uneven in their impact on cooperation. This one seems to work better than most. Not only does each player now have a bit of independent direction, but they might find themselves paying more attention to their Ulterior Motives if the group is doing badly — leading to a delightful death spiral. Some balance problems might slightly spoil the use of the Ulterior Motives in The Best Defense, but that’s a pretty minor issue for an innovative idea. More games should think about what happens when players lose.
When players use the expert-level difficulty they cannot communicate with each other from the moment that they draw their Event cards (and thus learn of the round’s threats), through the bulk of each player’s move, up until just before combat with walkers begins. Not being able to talk is always a tough thing in a cooperative game, and as is often the case, it feels awkward here.
With that said, it dramatically improves two of the rule systems.
First, there’s now real weight behind where the leader moves people: he might take advice from people beforehand, but those priorities could change when the leader sees his own Event cards, and he must then make the final decisions on his own. This almost entirely resolves the problem of a controlling player and makes every player more important to the game.
Second, it gives cover for a traitor-ish player who is doing a subpar move to support his Ulterior Motive. He doesn’t have to discuss what he’s doing or why; “weird” moves then slide by.
We’re not certain that entirely disallowing communication is ever the right solution for a cooperative game, but The Best Defense shows how powerful limiting communication can be.
The characters of The Best Defense are pretty simple: they’re differentiated only by a single special ability that activates only when they’re the leader. Though these abilities are used a lot less often than in most co-ops with special powers, they’re also relatively powerful, which means that players tend to make strategic plans surrounding them.
These simple characters are complemented by a number of resources that can change over the course of the game: players can gain or lose hit points, food, and allies; they can also pick up equipment, including many weapons that require ammo (which is yet another resource). On a typical turn, a player will gain at least one resource and will lose at least one resource. This helps to off balance the simplicity of the characters themselves: players really feel like they’re watching their characters change, which can result in some strategic specialization as the game goes on.
The Walking Dead Board Game: The Best Defense is an interesting game for the new ideas it adds to the cooperative mechanic pool, particularly its Ulterior Motives, which suggest a new way to incentivize players against cooperation. Beyond that, it’s a relatively simplistic game, but one that’s appropriate for introductory cooperative play.
Californian-born designer Matt Hyra has worked for some of the top names in the American board game industry including Wizards of the Coast, Upper Deck Entertainment, and most recently Cryptozoic Entertainment. His games tend to be theme-heavy, and are often based on licensed properties. Nonetheless, Hyra has aopted the more elegant design theories of the eurogame field.
To date Hyra’s most successful design has probably been the DC Comics Deck-Building Game (2012) — one of several deck-builders that he’s produced. The Walking Dead Board Game: The Best Defense (2013) was a rare digression into the co-op field.