Thursday, September 6, 2012

Board Game Review: Last Night on Earth: Timber Peak

While attending PAX, I had the opportunity to stop by the Flying Frog Productions booth in the Expo Hall. Among there upcoming releases was the new expand-alone (stand-alone expansion) for Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. This new title is called Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game: Timber Peak. Although it is an expansion to Last Night on Earth (LNOE) and integrates with the content from the base game and previous expansions, it is fully playable on its own. I picked up a copy and decided to take a look at this new addition to the LNOE line.

What could be better than escaping the zombie invasion
only to find yourself in a logging town in the mountains?
Inside the Box: What Horrors Await

The contents of the box feel very similar to the original. There are character cards, scenario cards, zombie and hero decks, and a grip of tokens that need punching out. The game comes with six characters and four scenario cards. Like the original, it has a center board piece and six L-shaped pieces for constructing the game board. There are plastic miniatures and a bag full of little six-sided dice. Strangely, there are only three turn reference cards instead of six, which means that players will have to share until they are comfortable enough with the turn order.

This insides of the box. Notice the absence of a CD.
One notable difference between Timber Peak and the original LNOE is the absence of a soundtrack album. I asked Jason Hill and Mary Beth Magallanes about it and I was told that since this was not a new game but only an expansion, it did not warrant a new album. I am glad that they have a legitimate sounding excuse for not putting an album in the box; although I have always liked the idea of including a soundtrack to the game, I have never been especially impressed with the content of the soundtrack albums that they do include.

Six survivors! Fourteen zombies! Total chaos!
(Actually, I left a brown zombie out of the photo...)
The game comes with twenty plastic figures: six grey heroes, seven green zombies, and seven brown zombies. The zombies are the same sculpt used in previous LNOE products while the heroes are all new sculpts, including new variants of three characters from the original LNOE. Although not apparent in the photos, the zombies figures have more forest colors (darker green and brown) than the original LNOE zombies. Overall, the figures are of the level of quality one would expect from a Flying Frog game. The sculpts are good but nothing mind-blowing. Although not especially fancy they do capture the feel of the game well enough. My only complaint, a complaint I have had with every Flying Frog game, is that the character miniatures do not have the name of the character on them; if there is any uncertainty, you have to break out the rulebook to match figures with names.

Playing the Game: How this Quiet Logging Town Fought off the Zombie Apocalypse

Timber Peak follows the same basic turn structure of the other LNOE engine games. The game starts with the zombie player taking a turn. This involves drawing zombie cards, checking to potentially spawn new zombies, moving zombies, and fighting any survivors. The zombie player also keeps track of the turn using the "Sun marker." Each scenario has its own starting position on the turn track, making some scenarios longer and some shorter. Generally, the survivors lose if the sun track ever makes it to morning. A nice difference from the original is the absence of any pre-printed scenarios on the tracker, a feature that probably made a lot of sense in the base set but quickly lost function as additional scenarios were released.

The hero phase comes after the zombie turn. Each survivor takes a turn in whatever order the players decide. A survivor's turn involves moving (or searching), exchanging items, using a ranged weapon, and fighting zombies in the space. Although it is a relatively simple turn, the different Hero cards in the game (items, weapons, and event cards) provide many opportunities for a survivor to combat zombies or take other interesting actions. Once every survivor has acted, play continues with the next zombie turn.

The bowling alley, a location where survivors found at least
three guns and a multitude of hand weapons. Makes you
wonder about the people that bowl here.
The goal of the game is determined by the scenario. The "starter scenario" is called Learn to Survive and requires the survivors to earn enough upgrade cards before time runs out or the zombies earn enough of their upgrade cards (see below). Other scenarios have different goals. Mountain of the Dead requires that the survivors defend four generator tokens on the board until morning. Thus, the scenarios provided share common themes as scenarios in the original LNOE but they are implemented in new ways using new rules mechanics.

Learning from the Past: What Woodinvale and the Carnival Taught Them

Timber Peak adapts a lot of lessons learned from LNOE expansions Growing Hunger, Survival of The Fittest, and even the related product Invasion from Outer Space: The Martian Game. Some of these lessons are small, like clearer text on game cards. A notable example of the progression is the starter scenario Learn to Survive, an enhancement over the original Die Zombies, Die! or the IFOS scenario Invasion. In the original LNOE scenario, which requires the survivors to kill fifteen zombies while the zombie player tries to kill survivors, the zombie player is readily tempted to hide his zombies and wait for time to run out as killing survivors is generally hard work. Learn to Survive allows a zombie player to win by wounding survivors (gaining experience points) while making it more difficult for a single, heavily armed survivor to end the game on her own as purchasing upgrades becomes more difficult the more a single character has. Overall, the scenario design feels a lot more experienced and sophisticated than it had back in the early days of LNOE.

Timber Peak includes fires, an element from IFOS. Fires are a danger that can potentially spread after each zombie turn. This can create dangerous situations for the survivors as the zombie deck contains several cards that start fires. On the other hand, the survivors can choose to start fires with a fire item, creating the potential tactic of throwing zombies into the blazing inferno. Either way, it was nice to see a worthwhile component of IFOS make its way into LNOE.
Some abilities mimic the
abilities of survivors.

The biggest addition to Timber Peak is the experience system. First introduced in the web-exclusive Advanced Abilities expansion, the experience system provides a method by which the survivors slowly improve as the game goes on. Every time a wound is inflicted by a survivor, that survivor gets an experience point. Survivors can trade in experience points to draw an upgrade card at a cost that increases for every upgrade a character has already. Upgrade cards come in three separate decks with different focuses: melee combat, ranged attacks, and other abilities. Upgrades grant various abilities such as the ability to win melee fights on ties, increase the range of a gun, or draw extra Hero cards when searching. It ends up being a neat system that makes it feel like the survivors really are getting better at what they do. Owners of the Advanced Abilities will be able to use those cards as character specific upgrades that otherwise blend seamlessly with the system.

The different upgrade decks. Notice that the hero upgrades
have additional "Boost" abilities that cost experience.
Every upgrade card in Timber Peak has a "Boost" ability at the bottom. These let the player further upgrade the ability, making it more powerful or more useful. Of course, boosting an upgrade costs a certain number of experience points so players will have to decide whether enhancing an existing ability is more important going for a new upgrade.

Zombies get experience as well. However, unlike the original Advanced Abilities expansion, the zombie upgrade deck is mostly filled with one-shot cards that have an immediate, negative effect for the survivors instead of a powerful, long-term effect. When I spoke to Jason C. Hill, he seemed to suggest that the original zombie upgrade cards would be somewhat overpowering if used in conjunction with the new upgrades and experience system. Perhaps those cards will be easily implemented using the "dot system" of difficulty.

Vacationing in Timber Peak: Wise Decision or Foolish Mistake?

For players looking to play out a terrible zombie movie as a board game, Timber Peak is an excellent choice. The game mechanics are simple but the different cards add a lot of interesting variety. I had a lot of fun playing Timber Peak, but like most Flying Frog games, you really have to be willing to get into the "bad horror movie" mood to really appreciate the game. The images on the cards adequately invoke the theme and the scenarios are challenging (for both sides) while providing the right narrative for the game. At no point in playing Timber Peak did I feel like it was not a fun yet very silly experience. For somebody who has never played LNOE, this is a good choice.

The survivors defend power generators from zombie attack.
The new features definitely add positive value to the LNOE experience. I would imagine it difficult to play LNOE without the Timber Peak elements. Is it enough to sway somebody who did not like LNOE to play it now? Probably not, as the game is still, at its core, Last Night on Earth. The new elements make an all around better game experience but somebody who dislikes the base game is not likely going to be swayed by a few novel features. I think what Timber Peak does is provide a new, better entry point for people looking to play LNOE. Comically, I would recommend Timber Peak as the new entry point and the original LNOE as a big-box content expansion.

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