Review/AAR- Last Days: Zombie Apocalypse

Osprey was kind enough to send us a review copy of Ash Barker's new zombie game, Last Days: Zombie Apocalypse. We got to spend some time at Adepticon, chatting with Ash about the game, and I was very excited to read the book and try it out.

The game is sort of a love letter to classic zombie films. The book is a typical Osprey quality hard cover filled with fantastic kitschy art. Upon my initial read through of the rules, they seemed simple enough. I had a few concerns about how the book was organized. Character skills and weapon attributes are listed in their own section, nowhere near the character creation section, which makes it harder to reference. There are some tables spread out in the book that led to a lot of flipping back and forth during our playthrough. I think a reference section at the end with all the tables in one place would be a big help here.

Character creation is a simple affair. You pick a group leader from a handful of choices. The leader has a philosophy (selfless, selfish, trained), that will affect the group dynamic and build. You pick a refuge, which is where the group will hide out in between games. These are as much a part of your group as any of the characters. There are a number of choices, and each one has pros and cons. Then you pick your other characters and starting gear. Choices are fairly limited in the starting gear, but there are more options available during campaign play.

For our demo game, I created 2 100 point groups. One was a "selfless" group with an everyday hero, firefighter, police sergeant, dog, and a tough guy. These guys took refuge in a church. The other was a "selfish" group consisting of a merciless thug, gang member, survivalist, soldier, and tough guy, hiding in a prison. It was easy and fun to create flavorful groups.

We chose to play the recommended starting scenario: Scavengers. There were 5 supply tokens hidden around our residential neighborhood map. The game ended once all tokens were carried off the map by survivors, or if one or both of the groups reached their breaking point. Tim and Jon took control of the 2 gangs, and I acted as GM, flipping through the rulebook. What follows are our thoughts on the game:

Tim's thoughts:

I enjoyed our session of Last Days.  The basic of the game and most of the conflict between the humans is pretty familiar statistics and mechanics similar to lots of other miniatures and role playing games with detailed combat.  Then the zombies come in.  Everything with them works just a little different in a way that is not too complicated to remember and makes sense.

The campaign system repeats the same pattern.  The development of your crew and base are fun and well thought out adaptations of familiar styles.  If you have played Necromunda, Mordheim, and base building video games, you will recognize some influences.  Then the zombies come in.  This causes a lot of character and plot development to take place off the table in the theater of the mind.  It is a good system and one I'd like to explore fully.  I especially appreciate how well the campaign integrates with the on table play.  At least from what I have seen so far, they two really rely on each other.

Jon's thoughts:

Overall I very much enjoyed the game.  What initially felt like a somewhat complex system with lots of dice or markers for tracking for noise and ammo stats quickly evolved into faster effective gameplay as our familiarity with the system increased.

I was initially a little perturbed by the lack of zombies on the table (the game starts with only 3) but by game end the effectiveness of the noise spawning mechanic was evident and it was clear that depending on character placement it was quite easy to become mobbed or trapped and forced to fight your way passed zombies to get clear.

The ammunition mechanic which initially felt burdensome proved to be one of my favorite points of the game offering a very realistic method for accounting for used ammo and requiring reloads across multiple turns of gameplay.

Finally while rulebook organization was at times non-intuitive, the game campaign/rpg style warband building and even the 'external to the scenario' zombie attacks were really well thought out and quite fun to work through. Thoroughly enjoyed and looking forward to another play through.

Josh's thoughts:

This was a fun game. We picked it up fairly quickly, and even though there was a little more flipping through the book than I like, we got the hang of it. The players managed to tell a nice story during the conflict, which is the whole reason I like to play games. There is a little bit of book keeping with noise and ammo tokens, and I wish there was a better way to track these besides dice on the table next to the model. The actual noise and ammo mechanic is really neat. Running and shooting create noise. At the start of each round, you make a test roll, adding your noise tokens in. If the result is higher than 7, another zombie spawns. The zombie move phase happens after this, so the new zombies get to move right away. The zombies in this game are slow and ever present. They are not tough alone, but can get scary in groups.

Ammo works in a similar way. Each time a round leaves your weapon, you get an ammo token. At the start of the round, you make a test, and if you fail, your gun is out of ammo. You will need to expend precious action points to reload. You can always choose to reload at any time before failing this test.

A big part of the game is weighing the risk and reward, and gambling with the token mechanics. This helped to give the game a different feel than some other zombie games.

The post game campaign section was really fun. The players spent time on their choices, and really fleshed out the stories of their groups. Characters earn XP for surviving, killing zombies, and collecting resources. They can spend these to level up. Each time a character levels up, they can choose to either upgrade a stat, or add a skill. To upgrade a stat you roll on a table, and upgrade the resulting stat. Skills are also random, but they do allow you a bit of control, as you can choose one of a few different skill groups to try for. For example, Jon's sargeant rolled on the shooting skills table, and learned the double-tap skill. I am looking forward to playing again, soon.

Chris also picked up the book, and read it, but has not played a game yet:

First off, I'm a fan of Ash Barker. When he showed up on Miniwargaming videos one day, I was hooked. He seemed like the first, honest to goodness hobbying fan that I found to be relateable. Not tied up to one system or IP. Not a raving fanboy of any particular system. Just a cool dude passionate about models, trying games, injecting story flavor, and spouting off pop culture references. When he left, I followed him as he created his own channel and regularly watch his content. He does a lot for this community, puts a ton of effort in to it, and has built up quite a fanbase. So, go watch his channel!

With that slight disclosure, I should also mention that Osprey kindly donated a copy of Last Days to the club, (which is an awesome, much appreciated, gesture for getting the word out there :))..but I already had my own copy preordered out of pocket back in April after seeing Ash's giddiness for it in person at Adepticon. He deserves the support for what he does in this luxury hobby.

Now that the book was finally released, I'm starting to see rave reviews of "excellence" and "greatness."
Critical, they were not; which is unfortunate. I like critical reviews, because if someone can show me some flaws, and I ~still~ find the product compelling, I have a good feeling it's the product for me.

So, my overview: it's..."okay."

In my first flip through, the content seemed a little sparse. It's about a hundred or so pages, some of those taken up by full artwork, bound in hardcover. The spacing and game structure make it a fairly easy read, but a strange game to actually learn. Gameplay diagrams are minimal. Some more visual examples would help new hobbyists in the learning process.

It's touted several times as more of a narrative game, meant to tell a generative story...but I'm unsure of the variety of storytelling elements that would actually occur in-game. Maybe a gun fails a reload check at an inopportune time, and the player gets covered in sticky zombies? It reads as slightly limited. Most of the interesting events are consequential. There are lots of post-game campaign related rolls that tell you how you've leveled, what happens to your refuge, etc. It feels borrowed from something like Warhammer Quest, where it's almost out of your control due to the dice.

Character creation is a simple affair, which I really like. Character stat lines don't break the mould from most other mini skirmishers. It's quick to pick some archetypes based on a few keyword rules, and throw some weapons on them. There's nothing out of the ordinary there. There also isn't a huge variety of characters. It's not as deep as something like Rogue Stars...but I'm guessing an expansion of some sort will be in the works.

Let's talk about some of the game mechanisms. It's an action point, alternating model activation system, like Wreck Age or Relicblade. It's up to you to decide how you want to spend them and get stuff done. It's easy, and it works. Each of the activations occur during separate phases, so the players run through a movement phase with models, then a shooting phase, then close combat once the dust settles. Personally, I was never much of a fan of separate phases like that, I would rather have one model get all of it's actions out of the way at a time. I do, however,  like that winning initiative let's the player choose to be an aggressor or defender, respectively getting to move/close-quarters first, or shoot first. This does add some thought as to what you should choose.

How do the zombies work? Well, they shamble along with their AP. They're more of the "sticky" zombies that will tend to cluster around a noisy model. Models generate noise tokens from certain actions which make intuitive  sense. It's a roll of the dice to determine if any new zombies are attracted to the ruckus, and spawn at the table edge.
It's thematic and makes sense...however, I'm not feeling the threat of the zombies. There's a chance many will appear on the board during a drawn out, longer game...but their presence doesn't feel as looming as it does in The Walking Dead: All Out War. I love the fact that TWD uses zombies as an actual gaming element. You have some manipulation of what they do, be it trapping them with clever maneuvering or sending them towards an opponent. Swarms of them are deadly in TWD, and they move pretty far...sometimes multiple times! In that game, I felt a consistent state of worry as the threat meter rose and I had to figure out a way through large clusters of them.
Last Days presents us with shambling, slow zombies. There's some decoherency there when the game is dubbed "Zombie Apocalypse," but you wonder how these zombies posed an actual threat to human civilization. In a sense, because of failing horror checks if they come in contact with a model, one could almost think of them as "lose most of your turn" terrain elements. More agonizing than fear inducing.

A possible downside of keeping track of character and zombie status in terms of noise/ammo/knockback are the piles of tokens that may accumulate over time. Granted, as the turns refresh, many of these are cleared, but you do need them on the board which is a distraction for some. (I'm personally ok with this, but felt it should be mentioned.)

The book has quite a many charts for character progression, refuge building rules, and campaign rules to flesh out your little survival party over time, but I find myself wondering about longevity of the campaign or how fresh it will be. The charts are not overly extensive...for better or worse. After 6 or 7 games, I wonder if it will feel too 'samey'. The included play scenarios are strictly word blocks describing them. There are no layout pictures or special objective options. They feel somewhat static.

Overall, it's a decent, attractive book, written by a passionate individual...but I find myself questioning why this is a $30 hardcover and not one of their smaller blue books. It doesn't quite have the random generation breadth or episodic depth of Rogue Stars, Frostgrave or Wreck Age. In fact, in retrospect it gives me a newfound appreciation for exactly ~how much content~ for the price was in that Wreck Age 2e book when I reviewed it a while back. But those guys also have years of writing experience, and I feel Ash is still a bit of a rookie in that particular arena.

So, should you buy this book? - I don't regret purchasing mine, because I'm proud to see Ash take some of his geeky passions and turn it in to a physical product to share with other enthusiasts. That's a dream come true for some. If you're an Osprey collector, like I seem to be, it fills a niche thematically. It's relatively simple to grasp and is probably a good demo game for casual gatherings. You don't need special dice or templates like The Walking Dead requires. But does it do anything special, particularly since that aforementioned game exists? It might work as a game to entice people in to the hobby, but perhaps not one to get them to stay.

If reading these critiques doesn't turn you off, I would suggest checking it out.
If they do, check out Ash's youtube channel where he does a playthrough and explanation of some of the game concepts to give it another chance. He's an expert at batreps.
Then subscribe and be slowly coerced, charismatically, to try/buy every random game he plays.

One of us. One of us. ;D

BTW, Jon won our game with 4 of the 5 supply tokens collected. I am sure we will be playing this again, so stay tuned for additional coverage!

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