Sunday, February 08, 2009

Zombie Cinema

Last weekend, some friends came over to try out the newest addition to my gaming shelf: Zombie Cinema. Zombie Cinema is a cooperative storytelling game that is part board game and part roleplaying game. The board game aspect sets the pace of the story, but the action and fun are all in the roleplaying.

The premise is simple: each player plays the role of a character in a zombie movie. The objective is to survive and not get eaten by the advancing zombie hoard. I know, your first question is: Which kind of zombies are we fighting? Traditional Romero zombies that are slow and mindless, or modern, over-caffeinated zombies that are fast, intelligent predators? Well, that's part of the fun. It's up to the group playing the game.

The group decides on setting, type of zombies, and everything else about the game. Since this was our first time playing, our group decided to go very traditional. I was pushing for something different, like setting the game in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. Maybe next time. As it turns out, we brought in a good amount of campiness without having to resort to scifi geekiness.

Characters are created by drawing a few cards to help derive vocation, motivation, and personality. Card drawing is optional, but none of us could resist the randomness factor, so we pulled cards until we each got an assortment we could work with. Once we had characters and setting in mind, the story fell right into place.

The game started in a hospital in the middle of downtown Chicago-type city in the 1920's. The characters are described below and now that the game is over, I realize that we were all playing very iconic roles that lend themselves to celebrity photos:
  • a mad scientist who had been experimenting on recently dead and nearly dead patients in the hospital basement. Naturally these experiments reanimated and thus kicked off our game.

  • an ethnic minority who's wife had recently died at the hospital. He was sure there was foul play involved and had just arrived to take names and kick ass.

  • a dock hand who was delivering mis-labeled supplies to the hospital. This player revealed that his foreman had been changing labels to smuggle mysterious chemicals to the hospital...the very chemicals being used by the mad scientist.

  • an angry teen who was currently locked up in the hospital's mental ward. He was waiting for any opportunity to get out of the locked ward. He didn't really want to cause trouble, he's just misunderstood.

  • and a macho, ne'er-do-well guy who had recently taken a job as a hospital orderly. Given all of the stereotypes present, it was clear to me that this character was going to be the hero of the movie (the fact that it happened to be MY character had absolutely nothing to do with it).
The game started like any good movie should, as a slow-boiling pot on the verge of bubbling over. On each player's turn, he or she is the narrator of the story and describes the current scene. The other players then decide if and how their characters fit into the scene and describe what they are doing. Then the narrator closes the scene and control passes to the next player.

This was also the first time we've played a free-form storytelling RPG, so we got off to a slow start, all of us doing our best to contribute. It didn't take us long to find our rhythm. As the story unfolded, we learned a lot about our zombies. The only thing we decided at the outset was that these were slow-moving, unintelligent zombies. Next we learned that the chemicals used in their initial creation were highly flammable, which contributed to the burning down of the hospital and zombies walking around on fire.

In their attempt to escape the burning building, the characters got tense and the ethnic minority saw his wife, now a zombie, shambling around in the alley below, got angry and pushed the scientist off of the third story fire escape. Luckily he didn't land amidst the flaming zombies on the ground, but was able to grab the second story fire escape. That was our first instance of one character trying to kill another. Sure, there had been lots of minor, impersonal acts of violence prior to this. In fact, the scientist had already been knocked unconscious twice.

When the story moved to the docks and onto a yacht, we learned that the zombies also combusted in the water, so now they were on fire while underwater.

Only one of our characters actually survived the zombie horde: The dock worker who just got involved in the story because he needed a signature on a delivery invoice. He ended up somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. In a last-ditch attempt to kill him, I tried to have him attacked by the polar bear from Lost, but I got voted down.

Zombie Cinema is a fun game and I'm eager to play it again. The mechanics and board elements serve to keep the story moving forward without getting in the way of the storytelling. The zombies could easily be replaced by aliens, vampires, or even furry little gremlins...whatever your group wants to have invade their home town.

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