Review – The Road to Ruin – a Zombie Card Game

The Road to Ruin banner image from DriveThruCards

With my study table still cleared off, last night Jennifer sat down with me to play The Road to Ruin, a 1-4 player cooperative scavenger hunt across a zombie-infested cityscape. It’s published by Hero Forge Games.

This little review follows my usual practice of “What’s it about? What’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What’s your recommendation?” learned from Space Gamer magazine in the 80’s.

Overview

We have the DriveThruCards version, which comes as a deck of 122 cards; you supply a pawn or other token for each player, and “dice cards” are included. The Hero Forge website lists that version and a Game Crafter one with tokens and dice.

Game prep consists of laying out the 25 location cards facedown in a grid, with a different layout in each of five scenarios. One location card, the “Safe House,” your starting point, is left face up. Then 18 zombie encounter cards and 6 “Supply Items” are shuffled together, with 1 each dealt to the facedown locations. Each player selects one of the Survivors, a few weapons and items are shared among them, and play begins.

Your goal is to find those Supply Items and return them to the Safe House—the Radio Call scenario being an exception, in which you must find the “Lookout” and “Airport” locations, then find and take the “Radio Transceiver” to the first 5 Supply Items to the second. The rest of the zombies go to a facedown encounter deck.

Play time is listed as 30 minutes, though I think Jenny and I took about twice that.

The Good

The game marvelously captures the theme of things like, “The Walking Dead”: the desperate search for supplies from locale to locale, encountering zombies, while you’re wounded and low on ammunition. This isn’t a game of heroically killing zombies left and right; it’s about desperate survival.

In part, that ambiance is conveyed by the graphic design and mood text, but the mechanics are what seal the deal.

Items are scarce, and when used, many go out of the game permanently. Hand size is limited. The survivors are fragile. And the zombies don’t go away when defeated. Battle at a locale doesn’t discard the zombie card even if you win, it just means you escaped the fight alive. Losing means you escape wounded. Five wounds and you’re dead.

Moving to a locale takes a turn, battling any zombies there. Scavenging the locale takes another turn, battling those zombies again. And the zombie combat levels range from frightening on some cards to truly brutal on others. There are no easy encounters. Combat is a matter of rolling 2d6 and hoping to match the zombie value, with weapons (if you have one) allowing a die to be rerolled. Sometimes weapons break and go out of the game; some weapons require ammunition. Medical supplies are fleeting.

The rules for all of this are simple enough to fit on 7 playing cards, with 4 of those 14 faces devoted to scenario layouts and conditions.

And to top things off, 2 of the cards are deck organizers, making it easy to keep track of which draw and discard decks are which.

The Bad

There’s very little to complain about.

I do wish the rules cards were numbered, to keep them organized and easier to reference.

More importantly, I wish the rules were more careful to use capitalized game terms instead of less specific, lowercase one. The most troublesome example being that the term “supply cards” actually refers to “Supply Item” cards. It wasn’t until after playing a scenario and feeling “That was too easy” that I realized the items even had an identifier in the upper right corner, with most of those being merely descriptive, like the game’s flavor text.

And though the two organizer cards are handy, even handier would have been to label the card backs of each deck with its category.

One weirdness about the game is that while it includes a “dice” deck so you don’t need actual dice, it doesn’t seem aware of the strategic way that can change play, if mostly high numbers have been used so far, making it obvious that combat is about to become deadly, or vice versa. A direction to shuffle those cards after each battle would help.

Finally (though it’s hardly worth noting and has no discernable effect), the threat deck actually consists of 26 cards instead of 25.

The Augury

If you’ve read through this review, it probably means you like zombie games, in which case I predict you’ll enjoy this one a lot.

It’s one of the best I’ve encountered in the genre, fun solo, and even more fun with others.

Highly recommended!

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
How many times in your life have you heard the words, “Dante’s Inferno”? How many times “Dante’s Paradiso”? I’m guessing the ratio leans heavily toward Inferno.

How familiar with those two works are you? This isn’t a Literature test. I’m just guessing that if you’re familiar with either, it’s probably the Nine Circles of Hell. And I’m willing to bet the Nine Circles of Heaven are a complete mystery.

It’s not just you, Inferno has been the subject of plays, movies, even a video game. By comparison, Paradiso is shunned.

And it’s not just Dante. William Blake said of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

It doesn’t take a poet to realize that writing about hell is easy, “at liberty,” and writing about heaven is difficult, “in fetters.”

I believe there’s a key to human nature and human history in that dichotomy. Our race’s origins are in savagery, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Civilization is something we build despite it. Nobility is something we strive for. We work to be better individuals, we labor at it, because selfishness, fear, and hatred are so easy. We strive to transcend our animal nature.

I’m vegan. I’m not asking you to be. But I’m weary of hearing the line, “It’s only natural for humans to eat meat.” Of course. I know as well as you that for our race, killing and eating other animals is natural. No argument there.

It’s natural.

But is it necessary?

The Death of Dobie


The night before, he staggered to the back of the house, the back bathroom, to lie down on a towel to die. I spent the night on a sleeping bag next to him, dozing, waking to feel if he was still breathing, my hand on his side or in front of his nose.

At daybreak he woke, and I carried him to my recliner, held him in my arms while we slept a few hours. Then he got up, heaved, and staggered back to the towel.

It was Sunday. We tried to keep him going with subcutaneous fluids every two hours, hoping to get him to the vet Monday morning for appetite enhancers to regain his strength. The fluids perked him up each time, but by afternoon I knew it was cruel to bring him back for two hours at a time.

So I held him, weeping, while convincing the family we had to let him go.

The vet had an hour to drive to his office. We were only half that distance away, so we had to wait a half hour before leaving home.

It was a miserable 30 minutes. As his kidneys shut down, he heaved again and again, and I cleaned him up each time. I gave him an injection of muscle relaxer, and then Jennifer drove, while I held him in that towel, and Kate cried in the back seat.

An IV injection. He was gone instantly.

Jen drove back, and I carried him to my study, to prepare for burial. But I could not put him down. The feel of his fur. The softness of his ears. The familiar scent when I buried my nose in the scruff between his shoulders.

Christine brought over a wooden box with hinges, a latch, and bright colors all over. I laid him in, fur wet with tears, on the towel with his favorite stuffed toy, ragged from years of play, and covered him with the tattered Spider-Man blanket he always lay on in my lap. His collar went atop, with one each of the two treats he loved.

Then I went out to dig a hole in the front yard.

I’m 63. The temperature was 89. Christopher allowed me to dig the first foot of hard, dry Nebraska clay, then he let me help him finish it. I lowered the box in, Jen & Kate said their goodbyes and crumbled a clod each, then I shoveled the rest and reset the sod.

Next month we’ll plant a red maple nearby.

Today I went out to sit by the grave with a shot of tequila and tell him thanks for unflaggingly caring for this family, for choosing me as a four-week-old puppy (another story), for having a few annoying habits so I wouldn’t feel like I couldn’t measure up, and for trusting me so utterly.

My grief has shifted a bit, from what I’ve lost, to the grace of letting him go as my final act of love.

That’s the best I can do for now.

Thanks for listening.

Capsule Review: Deck Box Dungeons

Caveat: I’m a designer and publisher reviewing other people’s games that I admire.

Deck Box Dungeons is a dungeon crawler board game in a card box (about the size of two Bicycle deck boxes back to back). Inside are 44 cards, 5 standard dice, 13 specialty dice representing monsters, 5 small fantasy themed meeples, and a 14-page rules book. A separate app serves as a random dungeon generator. It’s a 1-2 player game (2 characters total); 3-4 players by combining 2 copies.

The Good …

Designing characters is engaging: lay an item card, a character card, and an ability card side by side, with matching edges determining combat and skill scores. Treasure points, health, and ability energy are tracked with cards sliding beneath those.

The combat rules are nicely done, balancing hero choices and special powers against more limited actions for monsters but stronger dice ratings.

Small fantasy meeples represent the heroes, while the specialty dice represent the monsters, some faces identifying a ranged attacker and others a melee attacker, as well as their health. These dice are rolled at the start of each new encounter, to randomize their type and health. Dice color and attack type is keyed to individual monster cards, to determine that monster’s combat abilities.

Combat itself uses standard dice, with each representing a chance to hit, and to defend when hit in turn. The more dice you roll and the higher your combat modifier, the more chances one or more hit.

Like an arcade game, as you hit, your power rises, allowing you to activate special powers on your chosen ability card. Likewise as you kill a monster, you receive its random treasure score immediately, allowing you to buy magic items and potions even in the middle of combat.

The dungeon map tile cards are identified by number and letter, so the app can indicate which to place next for a random dungeon layout. Given the limited number of map cards, and that there’s an encounter or event each card, the map doesn’t wander beyond manageable size.

The app itself is easy to grasp yet flavorful, randomizing the dungeon and encounters, but actual movement and combat remain on the table. And the game is expandable with user-generated missions available online.

The Bad …

The rule book is unclear in places, with wasted space that could have been used for examples. One of the oddest issues is monster dice placement, with no instruction for which die is placed first, but a very specific staggered diagram for which space they go in. On many map tiles that diagram simply doesn’t fit, calling for tedious adjustment.

A few non-combat encounters (traps) allow no roll to avoid, which can kill a wounded character anticlimactically, especially given the overall scarcity of healing options during play. Character skills other than combat abilities seem seldom used.

The fantasy meeples are nearly indecipherable silhouettes, unlike like those pictured on the Kickstarter page.

The deck box itself thin material, easily crushable, not in keeping with the quality of the game components.

& the Augury

I’ve had considerable fun with Deck Box Dungeons, both solo and with my spouse, and I predict it’ll see more play here in the future.

Players coming to it as a dungeon crawl adventure should be aware, however, that it has a solo game’s difficulty. The wrong pair of characters, equipment, and abilities guarantees fatality, and even the best mix has a good chance of death. Strategy is critical: which character spawns the next tile, who follows up, and when to use powered abilities.

(As for monster dice placement, online FAQ says choice of which comes next is left to the player, which makes that detailed diagram for placement even odder. I’d suggest ignoring it. Just put the toughest monster on the center space, place the rest adjacent to it with archers toward the back and melee units up front—which is in keeping with their actions during combat.)

Some people think the game slightly too pricey, though that perception likely involves the box. I think the components and game play well worth the price.