I recently had the opportunity to play Zombie Cinema. Before playing I had heard about the suggested house rule that the Zombies start off the board and there is a round of scenes where there can be no conflicts. The claim was this lead to a richer game. I took one look at the board and realized this house rule is completely unnecessary.
Here’s why: The zombies start five steps behind the players. In a four player game this means there are potentially up to sixteen scenes before anyone is in danger of getting eaten assuming there are no conflicts in those scenes. That’s more scenes than whole episodes of Primetime Adventures I’ve played. That’s plenty of time to have several setup scenes of the characters just interacting.
But this assumes that people are willing to walk, not run to conflict. It assumes that people are simply enjoying the character interactions and willing to *identify* rather than try to make or contrive a conflict (especially for the sake of trying to “get ahead.”). I would point out that the sacrifice rules and the audience sympathy mechanic pretty much destroy any notion that this game is about “winning.”
One of the games I played in was set as a western. I drew “Macho”, “Injured” and “Secret In My Past” as character cards. I decided that I must be the outlaw whose gang was just wiped out and I barely survived. Morgan played a wealthy rancher. Will played an angry kid bent on being his own outlaw. Laura played the school mistress of the town.
Early on Morgan established that his character’s son had been killed and I latched onto the idea that my character had been the one who killed him. Shortly thereafter it was established that Will’s character was his other son. Awesome, I decided that I needed to try and have Will’s character survive. This play priority is important. I didn’t care about my character’s own survival. I cared about his redemption and the possibility of Will’s character surviving is what motivated my play.
Well, Morgan’s rancher was the first to fall to the zombies and shortly there after my outlaw knocked out Laura’s school mistress when she refused to believe in the zombie threat and carried her off over his shoulder. I noticed at this point we were one of those lovely non-family families that tend to form in fiction where the father stand in, the mother stand in, and child stand in had better learn to operate like a family or they’re all going to die. Awesome. The stakes got higher. My play priority changed. We all have to make it. The family must survive. I said as much at the time.
Over the next few rounds I sacrificed my character numerous times to keep either the kid or the school mistress from getting eaten. There came a point where all three of us were on the same square. I pointed out that we could theoretically survive if we had no more conflicts. All we would have to do is narrate scenes without conflict until it was Morgan’s turn at which point we gang up on the zombies and advance. We live together or we all die together if we stop having conflicts. Fictionally the state of affairs would have accommodated this lull in the action quite nicely because we were locked in a second story room of the inn, a fairly secure position easily justifying a few scenes of just talking.
Well, no one listened to me and they jumped right back in with the conflicts. I would like to point out that according to the rules I had the right to “Back Down” but what was proposed my character was genuinely opposed to, so I stood against it… and won. This would have gotten both the kid and the school mistress eaten. Finally the point had come where my character had to choose. He saved the kid.
It was then pointed out to me that the zombies move on the next turn which meant that sacrificing myself to save the kid only meant that we died together. I was fine with that. The outlaw and the kid were partners at least… in death.
It was extremely satisfying. However, I think that satisfaction was due to some very lucky setup that established the characters very rapidly even with people jumping to conflict. The second game we played was not so fortunate.
We decided to play a game set in a Renaissance Faire. Will played one of the guests and said he had a nagging wife. I decided to play the nagging wife and we had two kids. Morgan played a woman swashbuckler and Laura played the Asian girl bitter she was never cast as Queen Elizabeth.
Early on there was a lot of potential for an interesting story about a man stuck between his family and two potentially younger more playful women. It didn’t happen. We jumped out of the gate over whether Will’s character was going to get his nagging wife lemonade or not and all that room for character development pretty much got squandered. The result was an interesting action-movie romp ending with Morgan’s character in a 300-esq standoff with horseback ridding zombies but it just didn’t carry the weight that first game did.