I've been a massive Stalker video game fan since day 1. The first game was a bit of a mess but it brought players in to a world that hasn't been seen before and hasn't really been captured since. (The Metro series is the only one that has come close.)
The video game (and sequels), with it's base in The Roadside Picnic novel and the Stalker movie, is a bleak dangerous open world visit in to the Cherynobyl exclusion zone. Except in the game the nuclear disaster and fallout didn't just create radiation it also created anomalies, mutants, and other strange goings on. Depending on the game you are playing, your objective is typically to reach the centre of the zone and the Sarcophagus which contains a great secret.
Those of us who play the game like to say that every once in a while we hear the call of the zone and we'll spend another month or so playing through one of the various games or mods out there.
So when I heard there was a board game strongly connected to the video game I couldn't say no. In order to create this review I thought I could tell you a story of Lidya Gavrilov, aka "sharp", a scientist investigating the Zone during a solo game.
The game setup is relatively straight forward. Mutants and Anomalies are setup on the board based on the characters played. The characters starting space, health, and wealth are shown on their player board and each character gets a unique set of items to start with.
Here you see the 1 - 2 player side of the board. There are 4 secret locations shown by the purple cards and entrances. Yyou must complete 2 of them to get enough knowledge approach the Sarcophagus which is to the far left of the board. If no one does this before the emissions deck runs out then everyone loses.
Here's the marketplace where various items can be purchased. The top row contains higher quality items the bottom row contains junk but it can still be used well by a clever stalker
Here you can see that Lidya has reasonable observation and fighting skills, excellent intellect, but below average will power. Observation is always a good skill to have, fighting is great against mutants and intellect helps with anomalies. Will power comes in to play at various points.
Lidya's starting equipment is pretty good. There are a variety of situations covered by it and she has some protection with her NBC suit. The symbols on the cards explain when the items can be used and how they impact the test. Some remove negative rolls, some add positive amounts, some protect from damage. You can use any number of items once for each test and can use them to react to damage and encounters when it's not your turn.
Some items can be used multiple times until they are useless. Many can be repaired at a camp. Some are one use items and others can be used once per turn and are refreshed after the emission check.
Lydia starts on White Lake. The special action on White lake is to take a radiation damage (which her NBC suit can protect her from) to gain an equipment item by using intellect. Right up her alley! I have noticed that most stalkers (and there are quite a few you can play as) start in a space that is partial to their skills. (Note: The miniatures don't come painted. I painted my own.)
As part of the setup an anomaly was setup on White Lake. What luck! She can kill two birds with one stone.
Uh oh. The dice had a different idea. At this point I need to note that, like a lot of games of this nature, while you have many ways to mitigate it, luck is going to have a big factor in this game. You can do everything right and get completely screwed. If you can play a game and enjoy the story (especially if you enjoy the stalker genre) then you are going to have a good time with this game.
So off to a poor start but Lydia isn't out of it. Looking around she sees that to get in to the Botanical Lab she needs a green or yellow artifact and a trophy from a mutant. Since the green areas of the map have easier encounters she travels through that area and is able to fight a mutant and solve an anomaly to get what she needs.
The first player to open up a secret lab opens it up for all players but also gets a free secret. Some of these secrets can be super useful and others not so much depending on your situation.
During the next event phase she has a special encounter in the botanical lab
Note: Some of these cards and images are definitely gross and/or violent compared to your typical euro.
Lydia has to takes tests going down the card. If she hits an X she typically will take some damage and has to stop the encounter. If she gets the double down arrow she successfully moves to the next section. As you can see on this card if she succeeds on the first test she gets this secret (one of two she needs) and a secret item but she has to do a second test on her way out which may still damage her.
Lydia lucks out and succeeds with flying colours!
However, as Lydia had to move outside the lab when she succeeded her test she was caught in an emission:
Every turn an emission card is turned over which does something bad on the board and moves the emission tracker down 0 - 2 spaces. Unfortunately Lydia gets caught in an emission due to the rare double movement. Even in the green zone Lydia will take 3 damage and a hit to her stamina. (Stamina is used to get rerolls.) Also in an emission, the existing anomalies and monsters are removed, new ones put out, and the market is refreshed.
Lydia decides to head to the Government Bunker next. She can pick up a yellow artifact on her way. She also stops at the research centre to camp, heal up a bit, and buy some items. She's weak to monsters so she grabs a gun.
Lydia successfully opens the Government Bunker and gets her second secret although she takes quite a bit of damage to do it.
Remember how I mentioned luck being a factor? She got the second secret and was put outside the bunker and the next card....started a new emission even though she should have had plenty of time!
The 4 damage she takes puts her well above her limit. She has to add a weakness token to her board. We'll put it on intellect since hers is pretty good to start with. This reduces that value by 1:
Lydia needs to heal up! Note: The damage doesn't get removed so any additional damage will add another weakness. Four weaknesses means that character dies and you have to restart with a new character. (Note: Good luck with that.)
Back to the research centre for some healing. On the way she has an event in Misty hill:
Luckily she succeeds on her test and makes it to the research lab.
The emission cards are getting low. Lydia sells a lot of her items and artifacts to heal up and regain some stamina but she has to try for the sarcophagus. If the final emission comes everyone in the zone dies!
To get to the zone you have to go to the red part of the map. These parts require the character to take some tough tests to get to the next phase which is the power plant. You can pick an anomaly or mutant encounter so you can play to your characters strengths. They must succeed at those encounters to move on.
From there you need to take a will power test to avoid getting damage on your way to the sarcophagus. Once you go in to the power plant there is NO RETURN so make sure you are ready.
Lydia manages to get through the tests but she is really hurt and low on items:
The Sarcophagus card indicates she must sneak past a military helicopter to get inside. She fails her first test and takes some damage (and another weakness). She can't continue this turn. On her next turn she encounters a strange anomaly succeeds on one test but takes damage (and her third weakness) and then fails on her last test and dies.
Another stalker claimed by the Zone.
My Take on the Game
I'm extremely biased as I love this genre but I can honestly say that this game is well done. The components are great. The characters are miniatures which makes them stand out and gives them flavour while the monsters and anomalies are card board to keep the cost down. The best way to handle miniatures in my opinion.
The artwork brings this world to life and will give anyone who is familiar with it the stalker vibe. The cards and cardboard are good quality. The player boards are excellent with little spots and slots for the various chits and cards that go on the board.
The different event and location cards are generally fun and should be read out loud in a multiplayer game. I've played quite a few games and haven't hit a duplicate yet (as far as I can remember at least). I'd say these are definitely a highlight of the game.
It comes with a good insert with a little holder for the monsters and anomalies that is super useful. (Note, the miniatures don't come painted.)
The other good thing is that the game designers haven't rested on their laurels. You can find various options for more player interaction (either co-operative or in your face) team games,, rules clarifications, and different modes on their facebook page or other places online.
The rulebook is actually quite good. It's not perfect as some questions had to be found online or the publishers facebook page but for the most part it was good. For games with this many components and options I was quite happy.
Should you buy this game?
If you like this genre and you like a good dice chucker it's a no brainer.
If you aren't familiar with the genre I still think this is a fun game if you like dice chuckers. In some ways it's one big fancy push your luck game. Should I confront the monster or anomaly after I have spotted it? Are you ready to go to the yellow zone where the rewards are higher but the tests tougher? Are you ready to head to the sarcophagus or wait another turn to get more gear and risk someone getting ahead of you?
The gameplay reminds me somewhat of the Arkham Horror style of game but with it's own take on it. The item and inventory system is definitely different and well done.
A stalker that can make it to the Sarcophagus and return can be rich beyond their wildest dreams. But even the best equipped can hit something unexpected and be lost.
But that's life in The Zone.