Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Although I fully understand that it is roll and move schlock, I am a fan of the Last Night on Earth game and expansions and have reviewed them before. Also, I am a big fan of Twin Peaks and Walking Dead and I suppose in the back of my mind, was always mildly curious what would happen if the two crossed paths.


The Overview:


While, granted, a less cluttered cover recycling in-game art, it still really fails to evoke much other than schlock. 


Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak is a standalone expansion for the Last Night on Earth game which divides the players into teams to play out a survival story set in the vein of a zombie movie. One side controls the Heroes, some of which are "upgraded" survivors of the base game. The other side controls the mindless zombies out to eat and infect as much as they can. The game is played with scenarios, each one defining the victory conditions for each side in a particular game.

The game is for 2-6 players and plays in about 90 minutes, though a bit of luck and skill may cause one side to reach the victory conditions early, but most games will reach at least the 60 minute point. More players does not mean more turns, as the number of Heroes is static at four, but more players may mean that more time is taken strategizing and discussing plans of action.

The gameplay is essentially the same as the base game, which I described in my original review. If you want to see how the mechanics work, check out that review here. I'll just be describing the changes and additions to the series in this review.

The biggest change in the game is the addition of Experience and Upgrades for the Heroes and Zombies. Each time a Hero wounds a Zombie he or she gets an experience point that goes on the character who dealt the wound (they are not pulled between characters, no matter how many Heroes you are controlling). At any point, the Hero player may "buy" an upgrade card with their gained Experience. The cost is 3 Experience, +1 for every upgrade the character already has. So in most game, each player should probably be able to get one or two upgrades. The Zombie player also gets Experience for each wound they cause to a hero as well, though the Zombie player pools it rather than an individual Zombie.

The Hero Upgrades come in three types: Melee, Ranged and Special. And when an Upgrade is purchased, the Hero draws a card from the deck of his choice. Melee and Ranged Upgrades each help with that particular attack form, while Special Upgrades run a miscellaneous gambit of abilities. The Zombie Upgrades only consist of one deck and are essentially just powerful one-use cards.

Fires now affect a space on the board and can damage any figures that try to move through them. Also, they have a chance of spreading and going out on their own. This mechanic is new to Last Night on Earth, but was previously introduced in LNoE's sister game, Invasion from Outer Space.

Also, all of the scenarios now have the "Zombie Heroes" and "Heroes Replenish" tags on them, which really does make them more fun and interesting.


The Theme:

Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak is a schlocky game that by the simplistic mechanics, should not work. However, it is the theme that holds it all together. Roll and move and an artistic styling that, at its best, is nothing short of cheesy could very easily be the death knell for a game. However, the series has done a good job of embracing camp and taking on faux zombie-movie stereotypes and creating a fun game that tells a story. Timber Peak does not offer much new in the way of mechanics, but it does still satisfy in creating fun times.

It had been a while since my wife and I played LNoE and when Timber Peak arrived, we broke it open and played our first game of it vanilla, adding in nothing from the previous releases. We played the "Radio for Help" scenario, in which the Heroes must protect the generator at the Radio Station, while at the same time finding two parts in town to fix the Radio Station to transmit their distress call.

Through bad luck, my wife's Heroes had gone through six of the eight possible locations for the parts she needed to repair the station and time was running out. Two of the surviving veteran characters from the original game were protecting the generator in the center of town. With only a couple of turns left and the parts still not found, a horde of Zombies had just reached the station led by a converted Zombie Hero. A fire broke out and had spread to two of the squares adjacent to the generator they needed to keep running. The Heroes stood back to back on the generator with both fire and Zombies threatening the square that they were in.

I stopped the game for a moment to admire it. It was a beautiful moment that just the board itself told the story. Schlock, cheese and luck of the die aside, this was exactly the reason why I game sitting tangibly on the board in front of me.



This is "Big" Ed Hurley Baker. He's a mechanic lumberjack.



Female Bush Pilot? Shouldn't this character be saved for the expansion set in the small, zombie-plagued, rural Alaskan town? 



Learning the Game:

The game is easy to learn, and takes no time at all to adjust to the small variations if you are at all familiar with the LNoE series. In fact, the rules this time around clarify a few things, such as actually defining the "Start of the Turn", so that there is no confusion as to when certain cards could be played.

The Experience system is pretty clean and intuitive and only gets clunky once you start adding all of the other things from the previous expansions to the mix.


The Components:

Good mini sculpts.




More bits to try to wedge into a box.  



You know, I used to once believe that the only people who had stockpiles of sandwich and snack baggies were drug dealers and boardgamers. Now that I've been gaming for a few more years and matured as a collector and hobbyist, I need to amend that. Now I believe that the only people who have stockpiles of Plano boxes are fly fishermen with tons of lures and boardgamers.

Basically, what I am saying is that you get a lot of pieces in this game.

The components of the game are, like most Flying Frog games, well-produced and sturdy. They are the same quality as Last Night on Earth's components. The Scenario and Hero Character sheets are printed on thick cardboard with a glossy finish. It uses the same modified photographic art style that has become a staple of Flying Frog Games, which seems to divide the community on its stylistic choice. I happen to not mind it, but many people are rather vocal about not liking it.

The figures are beautiful sculpts and flexible, which means sometimes you have leaners, but rarely will you have weapons or such randomly break off.

The game's cards have the same problem as LNoE's cards; they are too thick of a stock with too much gloss on them. It is like trying to shuffle roof shingles that stick together. But still, consistency of quality is important for an expansion and, for that reason, I'm glad that they have kept up the quality in cards.

And, finally, the board themselves match the base game's boards well enough. At least for me. But then again, I didn't really care and wasn't a part of the great "my grass is slightly greener than the old grass" color-matching OCD controversy from back in the day with expansion and replacement boards.



Seriously, Mädchen Amick isn't doing much these days. She probably would have posed for this card. 


Playing the Game:

Game play is simple and the game is easily picked up and learned, especially if you are familiar with any of the other LNoE's games in the past. It is the same game. Strategies are dictated by the specific scenario being played, but it isn't an issue to figure out what the most obvious choices are.

We played one game with my six-year old daughter controlling two Heroes, with her mom helping a bit, but mostly in the form of reading card effects for her. My daughter had no problem understanding the structure of the game. Granted, she's been raised on a healthy diet of games since she was two, but she's only just moving into the "grown-up games" as she calls them. It wasn't difficult for her to figure out how to play or what to do for the scenario at hand (search buildings and find Explosives). Fortunately I didn't have any "This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth" cards in my hand to play during our game because it would have been an awkward time and place to have that discussion.

Randomness (or luck, for players who think that their own personal being directly affects die-rolls and card draws) is a big factor in the game. Personally, I don't mind it, but if that kind of things turns you off from a game, then that is something to consider here.



With 177 cards in the Hero deck with everything combined, I only need to play this 23 times to deplete their deck. 


The only carry-over from the original games I would have liked to see addressed was one of the always present Zombie win conditions, where the Zombies win if the Heroes discard the last Hero Card from the deck. While in a vanilla game this is very unlikely, it becomes an impossibility once you add in all of the cards from the expansions. While not a huge problem in and of itself, there are Zombie cards that force the Heroes to discard cards from their deck which, in theory, could push this as a viable win for the Zombies. But add one expansion and it just isn't the case. Add all of the expansions and it just isn't happening. At least this time the Zombie card allows the Zombie to remove one card discarded in this manner from the game completely, but still, since Heroes can pick up cards from the discard pile with Location and Character abilities, these cards ultimately aid the Heroes since there is no real chance to win by forcing the Heroes out of cards.

Also, something to be aware of: This is the Heroes' game. What that means is that the Hero players really get the majority of the interesting choices and interactions and do most of the strategic planning through a scenario. The Zombie player is really setting the mood and theme for the other players in a sense. Yes, you are playing to win. But ultimately, you are the Dungeon Master in the game and you are controlling the monsters in the dungeon. The Zombie player's role is much less strategic, with limited movement and little planning for future turns since Zombies die easy and it's a random roll to see if more arrive. It's still a fun role (and the one I prefer), but for some players it might not feel as meaty as you are really just setting the scene for the drama that the Heroes will face. Another analogy: The Heroes are the stars of the movie. And, like in the Walking Dead or any other Zombie movie, the Zombies are just scantly paid extras used to establish the theme and tension portrayed by the stars of the movie.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 6 players, but it definitely has its sweet spots in my opinion. I think the Zombies play better with a single player controlling all of them. I think then it breaks down to being best with 2, 3 or 5 players, since it just comes down to how to break up the Hero characters. While you can play with 6 players, it forces the Zombies to be played by two separate players. And, frankly, the Zombies are rather simplistic and basic to play. You are essentially just there to tell the Heroes story. And to break up your already minimal activities in half with half as many cards in hand, the role is rather bland.



As the Zombie, you learn to hate this shotgun. 


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She's a big fan of the LNoE series and over the last year or so, it's slipped out of our weekday night games rotation. So having Timber Peak was a welcome reason to bring the series back into our rotation. You see, she's a gamer, but she's also a roleplayer. So her character choice isn't based on ability and tactics, but rather the backstory of these characters that she has constructed in her head.

Seriously. I can tell which of her characters have secret crushes on the others because of the non-strategic way they might go to defend one another. Sometimes I wonder if playing "This Could Be Our Last Night On Earth" on the wrong male/female combination is creating long-term emotional repercussions between imagined relationships of make-believe characters. I mean, I might look at playing that card as a tactical means of occupying the sheriff because he has a shotgun and Amanda being in the same space as him would have given him extra Fight dice. However, sometimes I am left to wonder if all I am doing is creating a further rift between Billy and his father caused by a momentary lapse in judgment induced by intense fear. What of the awkward shame of betrayal it creates in Amanda will give her years of self-doubt and break her changes of being a strong woman as she begins to objectify herself? And what of Billy's loss of trust in women? And what of the Sheriff having to put aside the feelings of his son to do the right thing to try to save the town after his moment of indiscretion?

But usually I just think it's a good tactical move because he had a gun and leave the worrying like that to her.


The Pros:

*A light fun game that gives a good feel of faux zombie-movie stereotypes.
*Excellent components and figures.
*Good gateway game potential with a readily known (and overused) theme.
*Plays in 60-90 minutes.
*Fits the original LNoE games well with little adjustment.
*Experience and Upgrade system is intuitive and frankly, quite fun.
*Lots of fun Twin Peaks references hidden throughout (for those of you too young to know, "Twin Peaks" was a great, but short-lived series. Now get off my lawn!)
*It was refreshing to actually play this game "vanilla" without all of the expansions added. This release is a perfect excuse to do that again.
*No music CD to awkwardly listen to, then lose.


The Cons:

*Sweet spots are readily evident in the game. Four players means one player has two Heroes while everyone else has one and Six players means breaking up the Zombies into two groups which really diminishes the role's already limited options.
*Some people could easily be turned off by the seemingly more limited Zombie role.
*Lots of luck (movement dice, drawing random cards and dicey combat).
*Completely Silent Drape Runners are not in the game as an improvised weapon.


Overall:

Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak doesn't offer much in the way of new and exciting for the LNoE series, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Expansion after expansion has really cluttered the game and made it a fiddly nightmare for a beer and pretzels game, so it is actually kind of refreshing for fans of the game to actually delve a bit more into the base mechanics again. It stands well as its own game before cluttering it up and stands as a good entry point for new players. Old fans will see a repeat of a lot of old card mechanics and so forth, but if you are a fan of the series, it is a no-brainer to pick it up. Even if they did miss out an opportunity to have a quirky FBI agent and a lady wielding a log as a weapon for characters.


8/10

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