Oct 272010

About a month ago I got a request to do a review for a new game, Zombie Cataclysm. I thought, “Sweet! Someone values my opinion, finally!” Then I thought, “Oh crap, what if I don’t like it? Can I do a negative review?” Then I said, “Sweet! Someone values my opinion, finally!” In the end, I just said to myself that I didn’t know the owners of this game, I don’t owe them anything, and that I could do this. Now, I don’t know the “correct” way to do a game review (or if there is correct way), so I’m just going to tell you:

  • My initial thoughts.
  • What the game offers.
  • How the game played.
  • My final thoughts.
  • Would I play it again?

So let’s get started…

This game is about killing zombies.  No, this game is about YOU killing zombies.  What would you do if your neighbors began turning into flesh eating walking dead?  Well, now you get to find out.

  • By Lance Meyer and Joe Bozlinski
  • Paperback, 76 pages
  • Color Photographs
  • PDF $15, Paperback + PDF Bundle $23
  • No ISBN


I’ve recently gotten into a lot of zombie movies, and I’ve actually wanted to try out a game of some zombie killing.  So when I got the request I was immediately stoked.  Then I was sent the PDF and was immediately disappointed.  No art.  It’s all photographs.  It looks like the writer got a few gaming buddies together, gave some of them weapons, and others some zombie make-up, and then started taking pictures.  Where’s my art, damn it?

The game was written and printed in Word, double-column, Times New Roman, left-aligned, on plain white paper.  Aside from the various photographs, there’s no other graphics.  The pages look like they were written and printed right off a home printer.  If there is ever to be a second printing, I’d like to see the text justified, and each page to have some background graphic, like a little bit of blood (or something) – plain white paper just does not look professional.

Once you start reading, you quickly see that the writer is speaking directly to you.  Most role-playing games read like a professional manual; this reads as if the writer is sitting right next to you, telling you about the game and its rules.  At first, I was a little put off by this, but my opinion eventually changed, and I’ll explain why later.

You’ll immediately realize that this is a game written by a gamer, and published on a budget.  Because of that, I felt that my play-testing of the game was going to be a bust.  To be honest, I was not looking forward to it.

  • My initial thoughts: Disappointed.


I’ve said it already, and I’ll say it again.  Zombie Cataclysm is about YOU killing zombies.  Or, it’s about you getting your brains eaten.  Whichever.

I was happy to see that they have their own reason for the cataclysm, and even material for a long-term campaign.  The book goes into detail about things your characters should be doing, and gives some options for survival.

Something that I found useful were the various encounter tables.  For instance, the player characters are going to need supplies.  They are going to need to raid some stores.  There are easy-to-use (seemingly realistic) tables for determining how much a particular store has already been raided.  So, nobody knows if a raiding run will be successful.  Nice.  There are also tables for hazards and roadblocks, random zombies roaming around – that kind of thing.  It’s great because in most games, when the GM sets up an encounter, you usually expect to get through the “level appropriate” encounter with a “somewhat loss of resources.”  Not necessarily so here.  Letting the dice dictate the encounter really adds tension and drama.  Again, nice.

When making your character, you’re expected to play yourself.  Basically, when putting yourself down on paper, you’re given a lot of leeway when plugging in the numbers.  The game has ways of determining your stat and skill ratings, but it all boils down to how you view yourself.  If you think you’re smart enough to have an 18 Intelligence, based on the guidelines in the book, put it on your sheet.  And no, the GM does not police your character.

Lots and lots of weapons.  Hey, when you’re fighting zombies, you need to know how much damage a tire iron does.

Lots and lots of skills.  Way too many skills.  I don’t think in my zombie games, anyone is ever going to need to know how well they sing, or how skilled they are at crafting jewelry, or how proficient they are in 60 other skills.

The character sheet is not so much a character sheet as it is a giant list of skills.  A designated place for weapons and gear would have been nice (and professional).

The game mechanic is so very “rules lite.”  When reading the rules of the game, I was again disappointed.  But, I have to remember that I’m definitely a “rules medium” kind of gamer, and this was nowhere near that.  Actually, I’d have to call it “rules very lite.”  For success-based skills, you roll a d20 and try to get under your skill rating.  For difficult tasks, your skill rating is cut in half, and then cut in half again, etc.  Opposed skills (like melee combat skills) are just the opposite – roll a d20 and add your skill rating – high roll wins.


So, we sit down at the table and the players start making their characters (themselves).  I had already printed out the sheets, and highlighted about 12 skills on each sheet.  We didn’t have all night to make characters, and I thought these 12 skills were the most relevant to the game.

After reading the book, I felt the game was designed to move quickly.  Action and zombie-eating combats seemed to be a torrid gorefest of in-your-face violence.  So, that’s how character creation went.  I did not want to spend an hour letting everyone figure out if they had a 10 in Strength, or an 11.  So, as we sped through character creation, I was actually pleased at how everyone at the table really got into statting themselves out.  Does Colin really have an 18 Intelligence?  Well, he is pretty smart, and according to the book, he does.  Does Stacey really have a 16 Strength?  Well, he is the strongest in our group, and according the book, he does.  To be honest, I almost cared that some stats may have been… exaggerated.  To be even more honest, I actually liked that they were.  Character creation was just a fun 15 minutes for us, and I think it set the tone for the game.

Most of us in the group have children.  So, right off the bat, I had to write them out of the game.  They were all either on vacation somewhere or at a friend’s house (children really have no place in a zombie game).

I was a little peeved at the very start of the game due to Colin not paying attention…

I started the game by saying that everyone had just sat down to play Deathwatch (but that I couldn’t make it).  I mentioned a loud noise, like a low-flying jetliner, and then later there was an odd snowfall, which they could see was actually some kind of ash.  So, Colin is actually standing at his front door looking out and I’m thinking, “Dude, are you gonna play, or what?  This is my first time running for this group and you’re not even interested.” No, he was actually in-character, “looking” at the ash outside, pseudo-larping his role in my game.


And that’s how the night went.  Immediately, people were bringing (physically bringing) baseball bats and flashlights to the table, they were closing blinds, talking about an access way into the attic, saying what parts of the house to avoid for fear of zombies seeing movement, and so on.  I just about flipped over when Melissa brought the whole damn set of kitchen knives to the table.  And, it was pure gold when people started discussing what they knew, or thought they knew about zombies (you know, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc.).  Of course, Stacey brought his big truck to gaming that night, so traversing over the hills was no problem (I did make sure to sideswipe his shiny new truck, though).  On a side note, having a bunch of matchbox cars and trucks to put on your battle map is just cool, especially when some of them are flipped on their side.

I don’t know if it was the genre, or the fact that everyone was playing themselves, but the night just flowed.  I kept the pace fast and furious, which brought everyone that much further into the game.  In the end, lots of zombies were killed, three players had been bitten by zombies, and the players aren’t sure if any of those three are going to end up zombiefied.  We’ll have to see next time…

I had a probelm with one part of the game, and that was movement.  For a game that involves a lot of deadly combat with zombies, I think movement should be pretty clear, and not abstract, especially when it is very easy to get killed.

So, I made a quick and very effective house-rule.  Cut your Speed rating in half, and that’s how many inches you can move in one action.  It worked very well on the battle map, and no one ever had any problems.


At the end of the night, I thanked everyone for playing.  I reminded them that we played this game so that I could do a review, and I wanted some honest opinions.

Everyone agreed that this game was not professionally done, but that it was done well enough.  With the exception of our one house-rule, we didn’t have any problems with the very rules-lite mechanics.  I actually found that the rules-lite mechanics made it very easy to hand out bonuses and penalties on the spot. “You made your First Aid check?  Cool, now he gets a… +2 bonus to stave off the zombie disease.” It was actually kind of refreshing.

None of us thought we could play it as a weekly campaign.  We did, however, feel that we could play it as a filler game once every month or two, when we couldn’t play our regular game.  We felt it was perfect for some good old-fashioned zombie kick-assery.

So, I flat-out asked them, “Really, on a scale of 1-10, how much fun did you have?” Immediately, everyone said they were at either a 9 or a 10 on the fun scale.  They said this was a very fun night, and would definitely play it again.  That made me happy, because that is exactly how I felt.  I was really glad that the first time I ran a game for this group – it ended up being a win.

To be fair, I think you have to approach this kind of game a certain way.  It needs to be fast, dangerous, and hilarious.  The fact that you get to play yourself just adds to the mix.  Sure, if you die, there are rules for making a normal character, but a lot of the fun is trying to stay alive simply because you have a lot more invested in your character (after all, he’s you).

Something else that grew on me.  Earlier I said that the book is written as if the writer is talking directly to you.  I also said that there was no art; just photos.  Hell, I was actually concerned when I saw revolvers and bolt action rifles pressed up against the foreheads of some of these zombies.

But in the end, it all put me in the mood to play this slightly goofy game about killing zombies.  Zombie Cataclysm isn’t trying to be the next Dungeons & Dragons; it’s trying to be exactly what it is: a game about killing freaking zombies.  Sometimes I’m in the mood for watching a B-movie horror flick – and sometimes I’m in the mood for killing me some zombies.  I think the tone of the book is just right for getting you into the game – and the charm just grows on you.

The price for the PDF alone is $15.  I’m not really a PDF kind of guy, so for me, that’s a little on the steep side.  I think $9.95 is more reasonable.  If you have a few extra bucks and only want the PDF, then go ahead and get it here as an instant download.

However, for $23 you get both the paperback book and the PDF.  That, to me, is a great deal.  I would have bought that bundle, had I not gotten the PDF for free.  Now, after having played the game, I would recommend the bundle.  You can get the bundle at their homepage.


Hell yes.  Except that next time I want to kill me some zombies!  This is simply a great game to pull out for some good old-fashioned fun.

Oh, and the quote of the night was from Kayla, the seven year old who was watching us play.  John left an empty propane tank in the garage, and took the full propane tank as fuel they might need.  Kayla asks, “What, do zombies not like propane?”

No Kayla, no they don’t.  Rule # 23: Zombies don’t like propane.

Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  10 Responses to “Rule #23: Zombies Don’t Like Propane. A Zombie Cataclysm Review”

  1. Brains…

  2. I had no idea zombie RPGs were out there. Who wouldn’t love to kill some zombies?

    I wonder if there are any other games out there that tell you to play yourself?

  3. This sounds really interestig. I may just have to pick this up eventually. I love how your players were “psuedo-larping”. I guess when you are literally playing yourself it’s pretty easy to get into character. Oh and off topic, but Tourq, thanks for dropping by my site. Haven’t gotten to e-mail you yet as my vacation has turned into moving after recieving a job offer.

  4. If this was your first review, it was a good one. You say everything that needs to be said. And I especially like that you actually played the game before you reviewed it.

    I already have a zombie game, so I won’t be getting this one. But it seems like it would be a fun game. I think it’s important that everyone is on board, looking forward to “killing me some zombies” as you put it.

  5. At first I was turned off to the idea of playing yourselves. There was a trend a short while back in World of Darkness to create a campaign where you play yourself in five years or so. It ended poorly. I vowed to not do that again. However, this Zombie game seems pretty straight forward in its play, so perhaps it might be worth one more shot…

  6. I, too, played in a game where we played ourselves. It was a home-brew, and quickly became a total bust.

    It’s hard to explain, but if you play a game like Zombie Cataclysm, you have to put yourself in the correct mindset. This happened very easily for us, so I might be taking it for granted. I think a good contributing factor to a good session with this game is the immediate sense of danger for your characters. And really, this isn’t a supers game, heroic fantasy game, or sci-fi thriller. It’s a game about normal people killing zombies and trying not to die. What better person to play than yourself?

  7. Tourq, I may be wrong, but I think it’s the combination of several items:

    Playing yourself
    An easily accessible genre
    Setting (it’s in your town/city!)
    Why the cataclysm kicks off

    The backstory behind this last item is cool and easy to integrate into your setting – almost regardless of where you live.

    P.S. I did have a blast even though a zombie bit my shin and my future is now uncertain…

  8. @ Colin:

    Well, you are looking a little pale. And what is that? A lesion on you forehead?

  9. Congrats on having your opinion valued. I’m still waiting for someone to recognize my inestimable worth 🙂

    I completely agree about the layout. It does have a slightly cheap look about it, and you’re right, some blood splatter backgrounds would go far to making it feel like a game instead of a term paper.

    The “raiding run” random encounter mechanism sounds fascinating. As usual, I can imagine adapting this to a D&D environment. I’ve played in another game where we were ourselves, and we had to make the argument for our scores. I remember my best friend hemming and hawing about his Intelligence, as he had bombed his SATs and IQ tests. “But no, I’m really smart!” The DM wasn’t buying.

    Good on Colin (and everybody else) for jumping into the game like that. I love when players commit entirely, letting their bodies tell the collaborative stories even as their words do. I love the setting you established, and how immersive the game sounds. That’s a great job!

    And the reactions and ratings sound exactly right. This is the kind of game you should be able knock out with little notice and prep, and by playing yourself, you are immediately invested in the character’s survival. More so, I would guess, than the shadar-kai assassin from the Grey Realms I just rolled up, because I don’t know this guy yet.

    An EXCELLENT review. I’m looking forward to more.

  10. Dixon, sounds like your Shadar-kai needs an origin story…

    (Article coming soon…. mwuhahahah)

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