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You’ve heard of Last Night on Earth.

ICv2 tells us that it’s the #3 board, card, or family game, if an unqualified statement like that can have any meaning at all.

Two heroes down! The game goes to Jeff!
Actual play, Last Night on Earth style. A ring of zombies closes in and takes down the last hero they needed to kill in order to win.

The game is a scenario-based contest between 1–2 zombie players on one hand and 1–4 hero players on the other. In a given scenario, the heroes might have to kill some quantity of zombies, dynamite their spawning pits, find the keys to the pickup truck and make good their escape, or whatever. There are always four hero characters (at the beginning, anyway), chosen from among eight. All scenarios apply time pressure with a turn countdown that moves toward either dusk or dawn.

As the game plays, zombies spawn and shamble toward the heroes. They can move through walls (that is, up through the floorboards and in through the windows), but advance slowly. They aren’t very good at fighting, but have the strength of numbers on their side.

Meanwhile, the heroes frantically ransack the buildings around the edges of the board looking for cards — items and events — that can help them. Depending on the scenario, once advantageously equipped (or when the zombies press them too grievously), they turn to the game-winning task at hand and sprint for the finish line.

Last Night on Earth is absolutely fantastic. There’s no question that it’s near the state of the art where stories and board games collide.

As a board game, Last Night on Earth makes almost all of its design decisions just right. The basic combat system is quick and elegant, and the spectrum of results it generates look just like you’d expect them to, given what you know about the genre. Part of the trick is that it applies almost all of its combat modifiers after the dice are rolled, rather than beforehand. If the straight-up roll results indicate a rout in either direction, the players can save their calculations and move on, because no quantity of minor buffs are going to help.

The story goes that Hitchcock described the difference between surprise and suspense like this: Two men are sitting at a table, talking. This is boring. If the audience sees that, unbeknownst to the men, there’s a bomb under the table, that’s suspense. On the other hand, if the bomb just blows up before anyone (characters or viewers) knows about it, that’s surprise. Obviously, suspense is the much more interesting version.

On the other hand, a proliferation of re-roll effects means that even a rout can be reversed with a lucky follow-on roll. These effects can elevate moments of play to the level of legitimate suspense, and make player decisions about when to spend their cards a critical part of gameplay, to boot.

The game’s design cleverly minimizes the boring in favor of the interesting. For example, the spaces at the center of the board are four times larger than the spaces around the edge, but a space is a space is a space, for the purposes of movement, so traveling across the center is much more efficient than it would otherwise be. That gets the heroes to the interesting locales — around the edges — much more quickly and minimizes the boring parts where they traverse vast plains of windswept nothing.

Last Night on Earth tags cards and characters with relevant traits very cleverly, using just the right universe of contents for its genre, and size of universe for its gameplay. Male, female, holy, strange, animal, explosive, first aid…you get the idea. All these make great handles, individually and in groups, for game effects. (More on this and how it also works to evoke genre in a minute.)

The mechanic by which the heroes search buildings for cards is a brilliant combination of the alluring “never know what you’re gonna get” alongside a known alternative that makes sense for each building. A regular search calls for a hero to draw a card at random. But as a nod to the fact that heroes are more likely to find a pitchfork in the barn, most locations have a particular “pick up” card. If the card in question exists in the discard pile, it can simply be taken, rather than a random card drawn. Also welcome is the fact that hero cards always actually help the heroes. So many other games do both of these elements the wrong way: exploration arbitrarily hoses the heroes, and only fiddly mechanics match items to the locations where it makes sense to find them.

The Last Night on Earth sun trackThe sun track sits next to the board and lets you know how many turns until dawn or dusk, and the end of the game.

The scenarios in Last Night on Earth have programmed turn-lengths that are either diabolically mathematically engineered or playtested to death, because every time I play victory comes down to the wire. Before the last or second-to-last turn, it could still be anybody’s game. The game I played last night, for example, went until the last turn, and at the very last moment, a make-or-break roll decided the game. That said about the pacing, though, I wonder if more could be done to give each scenario concrete beginning, middle, and end segments. Drama turns on those three acts, baby, and don’t let anybody tell you they don’t apply to games.

Last Night on Earth is also fantastically successful at invoking its genre. Especially noteworthy is the fact that it does so with such a simple set of rules. (Although perhaps that’s due to a lack of sophistication in zombie film and fiction. I’ll leave the proof or counter to some enterprising student of pop culture.) In any case, the decks smartly shuffle gasoline, horny teenagers, blown-out lights, and the whole nine yards on and off center stage at a merry clip.

Even relatively narrow genre-based interactions are successfully modeled by the card decks. “Haunted by the past” gives a non-Student character the trait Strange; “I Don’t Trust ‘Em” prevents a Strange hero from exchanging items with other heroes. “Unnecessary Self Sacrifice” lets one hero take an automatic wound instead of his companion having to risk a fight. “Bickering” forces multiple heroes in the same space to waste their turns. You’ve seen all these in zombie movies; you’d kill yourself (saving the zombies the trouble) if there was a rulebook passage dedicated to modeling each.

The fact that all of these cards speak so strongly to the source material means that players have even less to learn than they otherwise might. Think about it: As long as new players control their heroes in ways that make sense within genre, the game responds appropriately. Although a player might not be aware of the potential for the specifics of the “Bickering” card, he can hardly object when clumped heroes succumb to it. Even without having known the rule, he should have known.

This highlights a strength of Last Night on Earth and similar high-theme games compared with Euro-style board games: they make sense outside their own rulesets. There’s a logic to moving inside when “Heavy Rain” begins to fall in Last Night on Earth, but there’s much less real-world background knowledge you can fall back upon when choosing whether to build a settlement near mountains, forests, or rivers when your mid-term goal is to build cities in The Settlers of Catan.

Even past the logical connections your average player of Last Night on Earth brings to the table, there’s also a host of emotional connections the game can draw on, both in the player’s personal experience (do zombie movies scare him? amuse him?) and his empathic relationships to the stories’ protagonists (does he think they’re stupid? amusing? sexy?). Last Night on Earth mines all of this, on purpose or not, and the game is stronger for it. Invoking the trigger — the high school sweetheart, the can of gasoline, the angst of teenagers — invokes the connection. The game doesn’t do the heavy lifting, the player’s experience does.

But all of that is why Last Night on Earth is a good board game.

Where I think it transcends other good board games — Ticket to Ride, say, or Risk 2210, which are both games I love dearly — is that it facilitates moments of awesomeness, a term I only use for lack of a better one.

A moment of awesomeness happens when all the players of the game are forced to agree that something momentous and cool has occurred. Even players whose chances of winning have been harmed by what’s happened can’t help but agreee. Everyone at the table looks around, and grins, and nods. Someone laughs out loud, and someone else says, “Right on.”

In last night’s game, one such moment occurred very late in the game when I, playing the zombies and having the surviving heroes completely surrounding, played “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth,” a card that causes a male and female character in the same space to lose their turns, for obvious reasons. It was perfectly in genre, perfectly timed for maximum drama, and was basically going to win me the game. What I had forgotten was that one of the priest character’s special abilities is immunity to that particular card. Since he was the last male in play, it didn’t work; I was out of luck. It was a huge moment. The fact the priest had resisted the forces of temptation even though cards played earlier had caused him to lose his faith was icing on the cake.

The key point is this: Moments of awesomeness transcend a player’s interest in winning or losing. They’re the key moments a serious story board game — a serious story game, period — must generate well and often. Sure, it may be easier to get all the players of an RPG on the same page (no winners and losers, blah blah blah) — but Last Night on Earth proves that it’s possible for a board game, too.