The Walking Dead: Something to Fear

For many gamers, board games based on intellectual properties have historically had terrible reputations. Ten years ago, you could find IP games at almost any big box store, with clunky or tired mechanics and poor production value.

But then something happened. Companies started taking notice of the growing hobby board game market, finding plenty of gamers who longed for a connection to favorite characters, shows, and movies. The tide began to turn, and it seems like we’ve seen a wealth of good to great games come across our gaming tables with familiar faces or IPs on the cover.

I’ve got both family members and friends who are fans of one such IP: The Walking Dead from AMC. Unfortunately, I have only watched one episode — an apparently infamous one involving a popular character and a baseball bat — and swore I’d never watch another. But when Skybound Games sent us a complimentary review copy of The Walking Dead: Something to Fear, and I read the description, I knew I would have to give it a chance.

The Walking Dead: Something to Fear is a card game published in 2019 designed by the wife-and-husband team of Lizzie Funkhouser and Derek Funkhouser, with art by Justin Chan, You probably know the Funkhousers from their presence on social media, especially on the Facebook board game groups, and their infectious love of gaming. The Walking Dead: Something to Fear plays from 2-6 players in about thirty minutes.

In The Walking Dead: Something to Fear, players all play from identical nine card decks, with each card representing a different character from the IP. (Note: the art appears to be from the graphic novel, not from the TV show.) Score the most points after all nine cards are played, without taking on twenty or more damage points, and you win!

PRESENTATION:

Let’s talk about the art first. I love the art in the game, which is mainly found in the cards, although there are more examples of the same artwork in the rulebook. The card art has a cool graphic novel style that really captures the feel of what little I’ve read in the series. Each of the nine characters is easily distinguished by the art, even if you have no prior experience with the IP, and the cards have a nice quality feel in your hand.

There are two separate decks: the nine card decks for the players (six different ones, each with different colored backs), and a much larger deck of “encounter” cards, which are basically a mixture of zombies, points, wounds, and useful items. My only complaint is that I wish there were more representations of the artwork in the cards, as they do repeat themselves a lot.

The rulebook is fairly straightforward, and we had only a few timing questions come up during our games. That’s not surprising because of the type of game The Walking Dead: Something to Fear is, and we easily resolved them with glances back in the book or common sense interpretations. I wish we would have had a cheat sheet for every player of the type and number of encounter cards in each sized deck, for those players that like to math things out, but that’s a minor quibble and likely a design choice.

On the downside? For the life of me, I cannot fathom why there was such a big box used for this game. The game consists of only two decks, which could easily have fit into a box the size of Point Salad or maybe even Bohnanza. I get that the standard size of the box will fit better and look more aesthetically pleasing on someone’s shelf, but wow, what a waste to open up the box and see a giant white insert with a small channel in the middle holding two packs of cards. No tokens, no punch outs, no cardboard of any kind.

If I had to hazard a guess, the hope for Skybound would be that the game takes off and generates expansion content that could fit in the box? That’s all I have for an answer in that regard, because I’m still scratching my head to this day.

GAMEPLAY:

There are six separate, but identical, decks in the game, one for each player. There is also a large encounter deck that scales up and down for the various play counts.

Each player has the same nine character cards, ranked from the lowly one to the fastest nine card. Yes, the strength of the card *generally* will help the player who played that card go earlier in turn around, but there are caveats.  Each character has a different special power, and players will use these cards to earn points and avoid wounds — either individually or from the “mob.”

In each round, someone will deal a number of encounter cards from the deck face up to the middle of the table — one more than the number of players in the game. Then each player chooses one of the character cards in their hand and plays it face down. Once all cards are played, all cards are then revealed.  Immediate actions happen, well, immediately. (This could be things like changing the turn order).  Then, in turn order, players take their actions, which generally consist of choosing a card from the encounter market.  If there are any cards left in the center of the table once all cards are processed, those cards geaux to the “mob” area. If they have any “mob” damage, it will be added to all players at the end of the game.

Keeping a close eye on the mob damage, in addition to the damage you may have on your personal tableau cards, is something players will be doing every round. Knowing which players are close to twenty but have stacked up a big pile of points is paramount to winning.

Once everyone exhausts their decks,  the game ends, and players count up the points. As long as a player does not have twenty damage points, which come from wounds on their personal cards as well as all of the “group” damage associated with the “mob”, that player will win if they have the highest point score.

Character cards with different strength have unique abilities that can really mess with the gameplay and break the rules. And yes, according to the other gamers that tried the game with me, all your favorite characters are represented.  One card (“Carl”) flips the turn order upside down; others like “Jesus” will steal cards from players or cancel other player’s actions (“Maggie”). Knowing which cards to play at a certain time, and keeping an eye out for what other players’ still have in their hands, is the key to the game.

In the basic game, players shuffle the nine card deck, and draw three cards to their hand, always ensuring that they have three at the start of each round (until the last two rounds, of course, when there are not enough cards in the decks to fill out the hand.) In the advanced game, players start with all nine cards already in their hand. I’ve played it both ways, and not surprisingly, I liked the three card draw better with new gamers, but playing all cards out of your hand with more experienced gamers.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

This review is a little different, because I’m going to present two different perspectives.

The first perspective is from my family and regular game night group plays. We’ve played every play count from three to five players with those groups. The reception was pretty lukewarm, to be honest, and unfortunately, I agreed with that assessment. I’ll get to some of the good things in the game first.

In all of the games that we played with family or with the Krewe de Gumbo, we played the advanced variant at the suggestion of the designer. I can see why they suggest the advanced variant to experienced gamers, as I did like the control that it gives you in playing your deck. I also really liked the mob points that we had to worry about each round, counting against our personal damage.

I have to admit, in every game we played, a story line emerged where one player seemed to take a big lead and then the rest of the players chipped away at that lead. Characters were played which really turned the scoring or the turn order upside down at unexpected moments, causing big laughs at the misfortune souls who played the wrong power card. I liked the breezy pace of play that has just enough quick player interaction to keep everyone engaged. I also enjoyed looking at the mob deck and the cards in my hand to see if I could combo a strategy to maximize the use of some of the power cards. Even with the advanced variant, the random draws from the encounter deck seemed to even out the obvious game information.

But, while I like chaos in games, there was just a little too much here for my taste, for the payoff that you get. Sure, it was fun keeping an eye on the mob, and try to combo all of the different cards together at the same time. Some encounter cards give you a ton of points, but only if you have one and only one copy. Some give you lots of points, but you need to have the most of that card. Other cards are just there for the actions they will give. The biggest problem is that there just seemed to be a repetition of the same cards over and over, with just not enough variety to keep my interest or the attention span of most of the gamers in the groups.  I totally recognize that the level of randomness and repetitiveness in the cards is totally subjective. All I can do is describe my experiences to see if that helps you in deciding whether to play.

So that’s why we should talk about the second perspective I’ve had. This time, let’s talk about the experiences we have had with Walking Dead: Something to Fear with high schoolers. Recently, my wife and some of her fellow teachers at a nearby high school started a Friday afternoon board game club. Naturally, they asked me to come in every so often and help introduce new games to these brand new gamers. I’m learning each time I geaux what types of games these high school kids want to play, but you can probably guess where this is going.

We played a six person game last week which included two teachers and four students. It took a few rounds for the students — who have almost no experience playing any kind of hobby board games prior to this school year starting — to grasp the fundamentals of the intricate dance between the character powers, dual nature of the encounter cards (wounds versus points/powers) and time effects. But by the middle of the third round, they had it pretty down pat.

Inevitably, one of the teachers (a very experienced gamer) raced out to a humongous stack of points and very little wounds, and so the kids ganged up on her, flipping the momentum. On the last round played, one of the young ladies pulled out the win when the rest of the students sunk the teacher with a ton of damage points, knocking out the teacher for consideration for the win. Was it king making? Would that turn off regular groups? Sure, but these gamers liked the ebb and flow that the game produced, and honestly, one of the kids that I thought was just “king making” against the teacher snuck into second place when I was not looking, so obviously he had a plan all along to look like the bad guy but collect just enough points to move up.

If I told you that most of their gaming experience prior to the club consisted of tons of games like Werewolf and Mafia, then you’d probably already have figured out whether The Walking Dead would be a big hit. My wife told me this week that it has been one of the most requested games each of the last three weeks since I introduced it. In fact, she said one of the members has already lined up some kids for another play next week. That’s a great sign for the staying power of the game in the high school group. Based on my conversations with them after the game play, they enjoyed the IP (most had seen the show) and really enjoyed the direct player interaction that the game produced.

SUMMARY:

Pros:

  • Has a theme that will appeal to fans of the IP
  • Art on the cards is fun
  • The tension in collecting some of the set collection cards out of the encounter deck is pretty tasty
  • Some of the character cards and encounter cards have clever combos
  • Perfect for groups that like a generous helping of chaos or take that

Cons:

  • Lots of chaos, take that, and king making opportunities — none of which really appeal to me
  • Some of the mechanics on the cards could have been smoother
  • Cheat sheets with the amount of encounter cards and types for each player count were requested by most of the new gamers
  • More fun with new gamers than with more experienced gaming groups, at least in our experience
  • Way too big of a box for two decks of cards

If your game group is a fan of direct player action card games, and there are a lot of fans of those, then The Walking Dead: Something to Fear might be right up your alley. For me, it is a game I’m happy the high school game group enjoys, but not one I’m going to pull out at our Wednesday game night. I think I’d rather play a game like Eggs & Empires or Libertalia where you feel like you have more control than you probably actually do. I’ll play it with the high schoolers, and I’ll probably get ganged up on if I make a move for the top dog spot, but I will know it will happen going in and geaux with the flow.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one more thing. I am impressed that the designers were able to match the IP to the game play pretty closely. And they found a way to incorporate a few unique twists (like the dual nature of the wounds that you always have to keep track) in what is a very crowded genre of games. Seeing their skill in tying the thematic elements to the game play, plus the unique spin on scoring, gets me curious to see what the designers have coming next down the road with a little more experience under their belts.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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