This is the first article in the Cave of Wonders series. Check the introductory article to find out what this is all about…

 

“Survival is in the Betrayal”, screams the game’s tagline. Last time we played this, “Survival is in no way linked to enjoyment” seemed a bit more appropriate; our memories of the one time we played Mall of Horror are anything but fond. The five of us spent an hour or so voting, wondering if we were reading the rules right, laughing at how ridiculous the game was and wondering why you’d play it when you’ve got other options.

That said, it’s got to have something going for it. Most times I’ve seen in mentioned online it’s been in a more-or-less positive light, and it’s got a fairly respectable 6.77 on BoardGameGeek. In an genre that’s packed to the gunnels – the “zombie board game” is hardly a revolutionary concept – I can see why Asmodee Editions have tried to do something a bit different.

With that in mind, I sat down to Mall of Horror with an open mind. Due to a slight slip-up on my part we had one too many players, so I sat out, took notes and organised proceedings. (I made sure there was plenty of tea, in other words!) As it happened, none of the other players had been involved when we played it before, so it was a fresh experience for all six people around the table. My hope was that I’d get some fresh opinions and find out whether we’d judged it far too harshly. We kicked things off with a bit of hearty grub – around here, gaming and good food go hand in hand! – then cracked the game out and got playing.

Lamb stew that sort of looks like brains? Awesome.
Lamb stew with dumplings that sort of look like brains? Awesome.

I won’t go into detail about how the game works; there are plenty of resources for that sort of thing (like the game’s BGG page). Instead, I want to talk about our impressions of the game. The first thing that received a few comments was the look of the game. The artwork’s pretty cool, with the board art based around a planning table. It’s evocative stuff – a map of the mall with photos of the game’s locations stuck in place with push-pins and annotated with post-it notes. It’s nicely done, and helps you get immersed – you’re huddled around this map just like your characters would be, arguing over the best way to get through this in one piece. The action deck carries on with this theme, with each card designed to look like a Polaroid that’s been named in marker pen. It was only when people started looking at the details that the cracks began to show.

The box art features a fairly iconic hoodie-wearing zombie, turning away from the mall in the background to show his blood-flecked face to the camera. It’s a cool image, and one that’s repeated on the cover of the rulebook. The zombie then appears on the first page of the rules. And the third. And…

…ah.

Yeah, it looks like they’ve been stretching the artwork budget a bit. That guy shows up everywhere. I understand the importance of keeping a tight hold on the purse strings, but for a company like Asmodee (who aren’t exactly unsuccessful) it’s a bit of a weird move. That one zombie is used an astonishing thirty times across the box, rules and components. It wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t so immediately recognisable. Unfortunately, the expression on his face – which I’m sure looked fairly menacing at first – soon caused a few chuckles around the table. Especially on the “Restroom Closed” card.

We soon christened him "Sheer Outrage Zombie".
He’s highly unimpressed with the state of the loos, apparently. We soon christened him “Sheer Outrage Zombie”.

The character artwork’s similarly lazy. Each of the character archetypes are the same base artwork with some alterations depending on which faction you’re playing. As a result, they all look like they were made using HeroMachine (remember it? It was awesome) with the exception that they’re even carrying the same weapons. So, while I can see the sense in the Rednecks wielding a baseball bat and a fire axe…

Awesome Freddie Mercury 'tache here.
Awesome Freddie Mercury ‘tache.

…it seems a bit weird when the Men in Black are carrying the same things.

In these times of austerity, shadowy government agencies are first to feel the pinch.
In these times of austerity, shadowy government agencies are first to feel the pinch.

But then, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised by this, because the characters are such cookie cutter B-Movie archetypes that this costume-change-characterisation fits rather well. That’s actually something that sits a little bit uneasily; there’s a real vein of 80s splatter movie typecasting running through the design. Each group is made up up three characters – a “tough guy”, a “gunman”, and a (yeesh) “gorgeous pin-up”, whose in-game effect is even more wince-inducing than her description; when zombies start turning up on the board, “the location with the most pin-ups is the noisiest and will also attract an extra zombie”. Jesus. The character artwork might as well be holding a feather duster and a lovingly-presented sandwich. Also, with the character scoring the most points for being alive at the end, you’re encouraged to throw your manly men into harm’s way to protect the fairly useless screaming woman. Just typing the last part of that sentence made me want to have a shower. B-Movies have moved on from this sort of thing – why haven’t the designers of Mall of Horror?

Recycled artwork and rampant misogyny aside, what about the game itself? Did we find a decent engine hiding under the so-far-unimpressive bodywork?

In short, well, no. No, we didn’t. We kicked the tyres on this already strained metaphor, and our collective foot went right through.

It’s hard to put a finger on what, exactly, makes the game fall flat. I can see what it’s trying to do, and I really admire it for trying to do it. It wants to make a game about zombies that understands what makes great zombie movies great – in other words, it wants to make a game that’s about human interaction rather than about undead monsters. It wants to encourage debating, pleading, last-minute bargaining. It wants people to work together until there’s no choice, then throw their trusted allies to the zombies and make a sprint for the rescue helicopter… all of which is awesome theory. I love games that look past literal mechanics and evoke the feel of whatever they’re based on, but there’s too much stuff getting in the way here.

For starters, there’s the much-touted voting mechanic. At several times during a turn, players will need to vote on certain things – basically, who gets to pull supplies out of a crashed truck in the Parking Lot, or who gets thrown to the zombies that are swarming over the barricades at one of the mall’s other five locations. (Incidentally, when did three shops, a restroom and a security office start counting as a mall? “Over-supported row of shops” seems more fitting, although that makes for a less catchy title for the game.) Generally, players get one vote for each character they’ve got in that location, but there are a couple of exceptions. The Gunman character grants two votes, and players can use cards to alter the outcome in other ways. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy for one player to get into a position where they dominate any vote they’re part of. Lydia (who was playing as the whitest Homeboyz anyone’s ever seen) pointed out that the game’s got some unusually socialist overtones – yes, you can vote, as can everyone else, but only the votes cast by the most powerful players actually count for anything. Everyone is equal and has the same amount of power… except that the person in power has more power. She was fairly well-placed to make that observation; early on she set herself up in the Parking Lot, and was able to use her influence there to churn through the Action Card deck in a way that meant she always had a trick up her sleeve, and was the most powerful player in the game. In theory, this should have been scuppered when zombies started turning up, but due to the limited spaces in the other locations, there were always other characters she could shove in front of the undead hordes – she won almost every vote she was involved in.

On the other end of the scale, Zak (controlling the Cops) lost two of his characters at the very start of the game, for no reason other than a bit of bad luck. It’s really brutal that you don’t get any chance to save your characters once the votes are cast. I understand that the Zompocalypse is a harsh place, but when it means that one player can have very little chance of winning from the start, it doesn’t make for a particularly fun experience. I can imagine this game causing some serious Monopoly-at-Christmas level arguments in groups that aren’t as chilled out as we are.

The game ended without any real sense of build-up or excitement. The last few turns were a slog, with the more powerful players looking sheepish and apologetic as they pushed yet more characters out of the safe areas. When it was over, there was a collective feeling of… well, nothing, really. We’d just come to the end of the game. Huh.

The amount of positive feedback this game’s received over the internet still makes me wonder if we’re missing something. Maybe you need to be a bit more familiar with it? In any case, I can’t see it coming out of the cupboard again for a while. This has also made me a bit cagey about picking up City of Horror, which is basically an updated version; I’ve seen it referred to as an “Evil Dead 2” style sequel – same basic content, but delivered in a more stylish way. Maybe a more fleshed-out version of the game, with more to do in a turn and more interactivity on the board, might prove to be the missing ingredient.

For now, though, Mall of Horror hasn’t done enough to convince us that it’s worth putting back into the regular rotation. We’ve got so many other games we’d rather be playing. Just to take the taste away, we ended up playing Last Night on Earth, which never fails to disappoint…

Someone wasn't happy.
…and guess who wasn’t happy about it.

If you’ve played Mall of Horror and you think we’ve missed the point completely, or you’ve got some opinions of your own, get commenting below! Also, let us know what you think about this series so far. Anything you think we should do differently? 

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