Dead Meat: Quarantine Zone America is a skirmish game that pits human factions against each other, fighting to meet their own goals while the board fills with mindless undead. Innovative rules and world-building make it stand out in the crowded zombie genre.
Anyone can take some bog standard miniature battle rules and throw in some zombies. Dead Meat goes way beyond that. Creator Ryan Miller (he's worked for Wizards of the Coast, Games Workshop, and more) has crafted a set of rules that keep the action moving, using the zombies as an element that escalates every battle without making it into a zombie headshot slog.
The key is that the players play human factions battling each other. The zombies show up automatically and simply move to the nearest target — no player controls them. And while your opponent can bring out some serious firepower to use against you, the more noise they make, the more zombies you get to deploy against them. The use of noise as a resource is absolutely brilliant.
One of the biggest pitfalls of a skirmish game is the deadly boring deathmatch. A battle where both sides are simply trying to wipe each other out invariably results in bogged down battles where someone takes up a defensive position, or you end up chasing that last unit around the board. It also bears no resemblance to any kind of actual combat situation, since there's virtually no strategy involved. Dead Meat avoids that trap with several clever rules.
For one thing, those zombies just keep coming. Stay in one place too long and you'll be surrounded, so your units have to stay on the move. That makes it hard to hunker down behind cover for more than a few turns. Even better, each faction has a specific goal to accomplish, selected at random when the game begins. You might be making a supply run, trying to get back to your base, or rescuing a friend. You just happen to blunder into another faction, which has their own mission. Having an actual purpose on the battlefield forces you to make lots of interesting decisions.
Also cool: initiative rolls determine how many actions your units get each turn, which means there's a level of uncertainty. Will you be able to fire enough shots to provide effective covering fire? Can you make it to cover before the other faction opens fire? Can you run through that gap in the zombie horde? I love that kind of tension in a game.
Miller has put a great deal of effort into Dead Meat's backstory and world building. The factions have distinct characteristics tied into the history of the world the game takes place in.
Here's an excerpt from Miller's introduction, that describes how zombies function in this world, and just how long we've known about them:
World Building in the Zombie Apocalypse
Apocalyptic fiction has been around since the Bible – so how can another story set after society breaks down be different? I've been working on the backstory for my apocalyptic miniatures game Dead Meat for years now, so what follows are some of my thoughts on the genre, as well as how I used them to design a world for a tabletop game.
It's not about the Zombies
Regardless of what causes your apocalypse – zombies, plague, massive superintelligent squirrels – the core of the story is how people react to the threat, and the lengths they are willing to go to survive it. This is the common thread that binds the genre together. So while you may be tempted to focus on the actual threat itself, you will find much more pay dirt in your world's characters and their different ways of dealing with the end of the world. This is why the genre strikes such a chord. The walking dead are certainly scary, but not very realistic. Everyone can (and does) fear losing everything they have, and the ones they hold dear.
As scary as that prospect is, there's something else just underneath the surface that attracts people to the genre. We live within an intricate web of rules – you've gotta pay rent, eat food, stay healthy, etc. While many of these rules might tie us to a life we're not totally happy with, their existence provides us with no small amount of comfort. The apocalypse represents all of those rules, both good and bad, being torn away. This concept both excites us and terrifies us. What are we capable of when there're no more rules? No more consequences? When life is cheap?
In Dead Meat, I chose to make it a game of survivor vs. survivor. There are several games in the thriving zombie genre, but most of them focus on humans vs. zombies. While I've got nothing against a good zombie-bashing, I feel like it misses the point of the genre. Humans are far more horrific than the undead.
Suspension of Disbelief
No matter what your apocalyptic fiction is based on, it has to feel real. Yes, there may be undead roaming the streets, but in order for your audience to connect with the story, they have to feel like the world is a real place that is lived in. In Dead Meat, I made several decisions based on this idea.
"How do you kill these things?"
One of the things that always felt strange to me in other zombie stories is how zombie fiction almost never exists in those worlds. They might have cell phones, the internet, and all sorts of other modern ideas – but "shoot them in the head" always ends up being some sort of revelation, rather than an accepted norm.
Instead of pretending zombie fiction didn't exist, I made it part of the backstory. Did you every wonder why Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain? The accepted version is that due to a "mistake" by the movie's distributor, the film shipped without a copyright notice on it, and was therefore put into the public domain.
The Dead Meat version explains it a bit differently. The US government had known about the virus since WWII, but kept it a secret fearing massive hysteria and the resulting instability it would cause.
While successful at first, as more outbreaks occurred it became clear that soon the public might need to deal with the undead. This came with its own problem: how can you tell the public about the existence of zombies without inducing mass panic? The answer was surprisingly simple. Pay a little-known director to make a series of horror films outlining the threat, and how to deal with it. Put it into the public domain so it can be shown and copied without any legal issues. As a result, "shoot them in the head" became common knowledge.
The Beginning of the End
Chaos, uncertainty, random acts of violence. People running through the streets, cars filling up the highways, stores being looted. The images of a society suddenly crumbling apart are compelling, and frightening. It's also a well-worn pathway within the genre, which is why I chose to set the game 4 years past that point.
Personally, I find the idea of a new society risen from the ashes of the old to be a more interesting setting. To see how people have adapted to a new, savage world, frightens and excites me more than the night of collapse.
In Dead Meat my favorite example of this is the cult. This religious movement sprang out of a network of support groups for infected people, and eventually became a cult that worships the virus as the gateway to everlasting life and the next step in human evolution. They believe that someday a person will turn into a zombie but retain their sentience, and that person will usher in a new era of immortal beings. To this end, they wish to infect as many people as possible.
In Max Brook's excellent book World War Z, his basic premise is that the zombie threat almost forces humanity to extinction but is not enough to snuff us out. Likewise, Jonathan Maberry's Zombie CSU pushes the point even further, positing that a zombie outbreak wouldn't be any worse than avian flu or a rubella outbreak. So why do so many zombie stories start with a perfect world that goes to hell in 24 hours once the dead get back up?
This has always struck me as odd. Our world is structured to maintain the status quo, in everything from politics to gas prices. It would take much more than the walking dead to suddenly strike down all that we've built. Several systems would have to crumble, which when you think about it is fairly comforting.
The apocalypse outlined in Dead Meat starts with a massive government cover up, but those efforts prove futile when a huge outbreak ravages Mumbai in 2015. Suddenly, images of the undead are everywhere, and a cover up turns into a huge quarantine operation. After a few months, the virus is contained and the threat eradicated. But the knowledge – and fear – cannot be.
In an effort to keep the virus from taking hold on US soil, the government begins cracking down on several of our civil liberties, mostly related to travel. The state borders are sealed up, and local law enforcement is federalized. Within a few years, Americans find themselves living in a police state.
This leads to a gradual buildup of resistance groups, eventually boiling over into Civil War 2. The government, already spread thin trying to keep the virus at bay, soon crumbles. However ham-fisted the government's safety measures may have been, they were also effective. Once they were removed by the well-meaning rebels, the virus was suddenly unopposed. Soon, the country was crawling with the undead. The apocalypse had arrived.