Sunday, May 6, 2012

Game Review: Grave Business

In ages long past, the Master taught you the dark secrets of undeath. You could no longer perish, and as long as you had fresh body parts available, neither could your loyal servants--who were coincidentally made somewhat more loyal by the zombification process. But now the Master has fallen...Again. And this time those vile heathens have taken the inconvenient extra precautions of separating and inhuming some integral pieces of his unliving remains.
In these dire times, one has to look after his own, and you're a necromancer who is more dangerous than most; you're a necromancer with a business plan. Your zombies will dig up graves and loot valuables, and while they're at it, they'll grab fresh body parts so you can make more zombies to dig up more graves. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, it's so good that other necromancers are after the same cemeteries you are!

Thus begins the rules to Grave Business, a zombie-themed game that has been a recent hit at our home.

At the start of the game (and at the beginning of each round) the graveyard is filled with 16 random tiles representing body parts, treasures, or parts of the Master. Each player begins the game with three zombies of varying strength (represented by brains and bones) which they will place brain-side down on various action spaces:
  • Dig Row! has the zombie digging up four graves in the graveyard.
  • Grave spaces has the zombie digging one particular grave, with a bonus.
  • Steal! has the zombie taking an item from either another player's vault (where treasures are stored) or lab (where body parts, including parts of the Master, are stored). A smart player won't steal his own stuff.
  • Attack! has the zombie fighting another player's zombie, hopefully removing it from play, either for the round or permanently.
  • Grab! has the zombie seizing control of who will be the first player in the next round, as well as taking a peek at a zombie already on an action space. Also, any ties will go to the player who controls this spot.

Various starting spots have ghostly blue auras to help identify them (except for the grave spaces)

As the players place their zombies, attacks are resolved immediately. The attacking zombie does damage to the other zombie. The defending zombie is usually removed from the playing board unless it fights back and does some damage to the attacking zombie.

Once all the zombies are in place, their actions are resolved. First, zombies who are plundering other mad scientists take one random tile from the vault or the lab. Then the digging zombies are turned brain-side up and digging power is evaluated space by space. The player whose zombies exert the most influence (measured by the brains on their tile) on a grave gets the treasure therein. If a zombie is placed on the grave space (instead of the Dig Row! space), that zombie gets one brain added to its total. The various body parts and treasures are put in the labs and vaults of the players.

Then each player can build new zombies from collected body parts or equip zombies with certain special treasures (the sword, the telescope, etc.) that they can use if they are attacked.

Finally, the Start Player board moves to the left unless someone has a zombie on it. If so, that player decides who will get the Start Player board.

The next round starts. If there are not enough treasures and body parts to fill the graveyard, the game ends and the scores are tallied. Treasures have various values as do unused body parts. If any player has all three parts of the Master, that player wins regardless of the scores.

Two player game setup

The game is fun but it requires a bit of thinking, remembering, and crafty strategy. Since the graveyard's contents are visible to everyone, the player must decide which rows to focus on. Two players might fight over a row full of valuable objects and leave another player free to claim more objects in other rows. It helps to remember which zombie you put down first (as well as which ones others put down first) and their value. It's not too hard to remember with three zombies, but as the players build more zombies it get more difficult to track. Attacking zombies also requires some strategy. The attacking player may open a spot on the board but may not get the chance to take the spot as other players take their turns first. It still could be helpful if a brainy zombie is taken out of the equation.

In the five or six times we've played the game, we've never put a zombie on the Start Player board. The advantage seems pretty minimal, though perhaps we haven't played enough to see its tactical importance. In one game I thought I could use it on the last round to make sure I had a chance to attack any zombies trying to steal a piece of the Master from my vault when I had all three pieces. The thought occurred to me after the game, alas. The game I didn't win!

The zombie theme fits well with the mechanics of the game. I had fun getting into the role of the mad scientist and trash talking or making commentary in character. The game is a little complicated but not too hard to teach. The instructions recommend playing without attacking or the Start Player action to make the first game easier. Going through the graveyard and assessing how much brain influence each player has space by space is a little bit tedious. Also, it is possible for players to get caught in "analysis paralysis" as they try to figure out the best move.

Overall, this is a fun game. We love that it allows two players and plays in under an hour (most of the time).

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: This game works well as a two-player game, though I don't think it would work well as a solitaire game. There is a variant of the game where players put their zombies brain-side up, though the rules say this doubles the playing time. Analysis paralysis could get pretty severe when playing against yourself. The game does fit well into a gallon-size ziplock bag to make it more transportable (which is how we brought it to Minnesota to play with the relatives). It certainly would be nice during a zombie apocalypse to fantasize about controlling the zombies. Just remember to keep a strict division of fantasy and reality.

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