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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: A Zombified Ticket to Ride

by Ken Newquist / March 29, 2008

Our group has a long history of playing board games, and an equally long history of saying we need to play more of them. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, our Board Game Night seems to fall through the crack after a few months of Risk 2210, Settlers of Catan or some new game. This Friday we aimed to get things back on schedule with two new games, the zombie survival game Mall of Horror and transcontinental railroad-traveling Ticket to Ride.

The Dead Shall Shop

Mall of Horror is essentially a game of musical chairs ... except the loser gets eaten by the undead. Designed for three to six players, the game takes place at a Dawn of the Dead-style shopping mall. Each player takes control of 3-4 survivors who have taken refuge in the mall. Unfortunately for them, there's only so much room in the stores. At the start of each turn four dice are secretly rolled to see where that turn's zombies will appear (with the numbers on the dice corresponding to the numbers on the stores). Only one person -- the surveillance camera-controlling security chief -- gets to peek at the zombie dice. The chief announces where he or she is going, and then everyone else moves their characters accordingly, trying to get to the stores where the zombies won't be. If there's not enough room in the store, they get bumped to the parking lot, where zombies may be lurking.

After everyone's moved, the zombie hordes arrive. First two zombies are placed independently of what as rolled on the dice, attracted stores with the most survivors and the most beautiful pin-up models (it is, of course, based on horror movies). Then the dice are revealed. If zombies equal or outnumber the people inside a store, they attack, killing one victim. Who lives and who dies is determined by a vote of those in the store.

There's a supplemental deck of equipment -- looted from a truck in the parking lot that lets people chainsaw and hand grenade the occasional zombie, hide from the inevitable zombie overrun of one of the stores, or give a survivor an extra vote.

We played it once before at GenCon 2007, and enjoyed it despite being exhausted from a day of gaming, and half-screwing up the rules. This time around we re-read everything, and found the game to still be a lot of fun. It is essentially musical chairs with zombies, with a little bit of Survivor-style voting mixed in to figure out exactly who gets the chair pulled out from underneath them. It offers just enough mix of strategy, social manuevering, and blind luck to keep things interesting.

Ticket to Ride

I've heard a lot about Ticket to Ride over the last few years; it's won a bunch of awards, and been talked about ad nauseum on the board game and geek podcasts I listen to. Playable by 2-5 people, the game features a map of the continental United States marked up with a number of different potential rail routes connecting two dozen-odd cities. Players attempt to connect cities to score points, while at the same time striving toward the longer-term goal of completing randomly drawn cross-country routes. The routes are worth major points, but are much more difficult to complete then simple connections between cities.

Like most European-style board games, Ticket to Ride nicely balances short-term greed against long-term need as players have to weigh trying to complete quick routes for fast points vs. the much longer -- but ultimately far more critical -- routes.

Our first game was entirely civil; all of us were trying to figure out what the best strategy was and as such didn't spend a lot of time trying to block other people's routes, or steal resources others were trying to gather. It played surprisingly fast at about two hours, which is longer then the box's 45 minute suggested play time, but a) we started at 11:30 p.m. and b) it was our first game. Everyone was able to pick up the rules quickly, and it didn't take long to begin grokking the initial strategies. Of course, the challenge lies in figuring out exactly which of those strategies you should use ... and how zealously you should pursue them.

I'm looking forward to playing it again, and even thinking of picking up my own copy. The reason for that is simple -- like Carcassone, this is the sort of game that you can play with non-geeks. The core game mechanic -- which revolves around completing sets of cards, and then turning them into complete a route -- is something regular folks will recognize from a variety of card games, while the railroad-building theme is something folks can easily relate to.

The Pain of Cooties

And finally ... Cooties. My daughter got this for her birthday -- it's an exceedingly simple construction game designed for kids ages 3-6. The goal is to build a Cootie -- a six legged bug -- using a bunch of wild and crazy plastic pieces, such as roller-skating legs and goggly eyes. Players roll a six side die; the result tells them which part of their Cootie they can build.

To start, players need need to roll a 1 to get the Cootie body, then a 2 to get a head. After that, they roll a 3-6 to get other body parts. It's ok, even good, for three year olds, who are working on their numbers and will undoubtedly get a kick out of creating a wacky bug. Older kids will probably enjoy playing it as well, though I suspect many will skip the die rolling and just go to building the bug.

The reason why? The game's boring. The 1d6 game mechanic means each round you have a 1 in 6 chance of getting whatever piece you need to build your Cootie. it's total luck -- there's no skill involved -- and as a result it's all too easy to spend turn after turn doing nothing but rolling the read die. There's no strategy involved, and I've got to think (or maybe just hope) that kids over five will get pored with it pretty quickly.

That said, my newly-five-year-old daughter liked it both times she played it with family, and got it as a present because one of her friends had it, and they had fun playing it earlier. There is something to be said for a game that five-year-olds can easily play together, without adult supervision or needing to read the rules, but again, I think most kids can only take so much betrayal by the dice.