Zombie Dice Designer's Notes

by Steve Jackson

BRAAAAAINNS! And how this game ate MINE . . .

Zombie Dice was my second dice game. Like Cthulhu Dice, it started because someone set up us Le Boomb, as told in the designer's notes for Cthulhu Dice. The zombie game started with all the same goals, with the added constraint "And it can't be like Cthulhu Dice." In the end, it wound up as a bigger, longer game, with a completely different dynamic between the players. Cthulhu Dice is a VERY quick "shin-kicking" or "take that!" sort of game, but Zombie Dice uses a "push your luck" mechanic.

As usual, the first question I asked myself was, "What story am I telling?" There are at least three ways to tell the zombie story. You can be the Bad-Ass Zombie Hunters. You can be the Survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. Or you can be the Brain-Eating Zombies. I decided that I wanted the players to be zombies.

So the next question was: "If I'm a zombie, what happens when I go after the living?" Zombie movies agree: there are three options. The living can flee from me in terror, or they can hit me with something gruesome enough to kill the undead, or I can eat their yummy brains. That's pretty much it.

Lovely Prototypes

So I made three simple icons – a yummy brain, a shotgun blast, and running feet. I drew them, with incredible crudeness, on sticky paper, and put them on six-sided dice. (I am always impressed when I see the beautiful handcrafted games that designers bring to Protospiel. SJ Games can turn out lovely prototypes for display, but it's all the work of Richard Kerr and the art ninjas. My own playtest sets are always thrown together out of whatever stuff is around when I have the idea.)

At any rate: I stickered a bunch of dice. Some victims were easier than others. We played after a session of Can't Stop at Phil's house. And it didn't quite work. Victims were drawn from a pool, and all the easy victims got taken by the early players . . .

The Zombie Lives!

So I started over. My second try involved a double handful of regular six-siders, randomly rolled and set out in a grid. Each die represented a house. The number of pips showing represented the number of people in the house. The more people in the house, the riskier it was to attack, but the more yummy brains you got if you succeeded. Players could also move people from house to house to set up targets for themselves or make things harder for their rivals.

But this mechanic turned out to be a dead end. It felt like I was channeling James Ernest, except his games are fun and this wasn't. (If you don't know what I'm getting at, you haven't played enough Cheapass dice games, and you should go out immediately and get some, starting with Deadwood.)

So I ditched the regular d6 and went back to the first idea. Custom dice are neater anyway. The thing that fixed the brains/feet/shotgun system turned out to be simple: randomly drawing the victims that you attack, rather than selecting them.

Zombie Demo Head

So we messed with it, tweaking things like the number of dice of each color, and gradually it got to be more fun. We tried a lot of things, including games with (if I remember correctly) 11 people. Mechanically, Zombie Dice works for any number, but socially, the number should be small enough that your turn comes fairly often.

Another good thing that happened here was the art. There's not a lot of art in Zombie Dice: three icons, the cup, and the package. Alex Fernandez drew a GREAT zombie for the cup and the package. Check out the belt buckle.

The game went to the printer in an amazingly short time after its original conception . . . and then, like Cthulhu Dice, spent longer at the printer than it had taken to get it designed and tested. We got prototypes, and we actually played with them. We learned a lot. (That's what we always say after a frustrating experience. Sometimes we learn "Never do this again.") The lessons this time weren't as harsh. But we did learn, for instance, that if a dice cup is meant to be seriously shaken, the bottom should be glued in.

Howard's Zombie

After the game went off to print for real, we started working on a Flash demo. This was our first Flash demo. We have two online now, and we're working on a third. Flash demos are good. Justin De Witt storyboarded the demo using Alex's art, and added some great graphic touches. It came out so well that the demo became the storyboard for the iPhone game.

Because the games were made in China, there was a long delay between "finished" and "in the stores." But we got a few actual samples as soon as they were done. We took them to conventions and showed them off . . . and a few copies went to friends that we knew would enjoy them. One of those people was Howard Tayler, creator of Schlock Mercenary. It happened that I had tweeted about Zombie Dice as I was working on it, and Howard posted that he was looking forward to it. So I sent him an advance copy. It's FUN to be able to do things like that. And woot! He liked it! He blogged about it (yay advance publicity), and because he totally "got" the roleplaying, I asked him to write and illustrate an essay about the game. And he did, and here it is.

And now it's out, and the reviews are good, and I want to try some more simple dice games. Also: zombies are fun. What else can we do with zombies?

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