These days, repackaging anything moderately successful with zombies is almost expected. The pop culture power of the shambling undead seems to have no end as more and more zombies invade television, movies, books, and games. At first glance, Dead Panic might seem like yet another simple zombie-flavored cash-in of an existing property, this time the 2009 cooperative board game Castle Panic. Once you dive into the game though, it quickly becomes apparent that the commonalities end there, revealing a much different and frantic, yet surprisingly more personal experience than before.
The objective of Dead Panic is fairly obvious for the zombie genre. You are a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, holed up inside an old cabin in the woods. Survival is simply not enough–You must find a way to call for help and escape from the approaching horde. As with most zombie films, the fear of the undead comes from their seemingly endless numbers. While it’s predecessor Castle Panic was all about survival and holding out against waves of enemies, Dead Panic feels like you are right in the middle of the climax of classic zombie films like Night of the Living Dead. It’s impossible to fortify one location forever as eventually, they will break through. Dead Panic captures this feeling of hopelessness better than most other horror games on the market, as the odds continue to grow against you the longer the group lingers until victory is nigh impossible.
Amidst the zombie hordes are a handful of survivors trying to seek shelter in your cabin. These NPCs hold the key to your survival, as each carries a piece of a CB radio. Once all three pieces are collected and assembled, the call can be placed for a rescue van to meet at your location. However, if a survivor is eaten before making it to the cabin, he drops his radio piece outside, requiring players to venture out of the confines of the cabin to secure their freedom.
The layout of the game board looks incredibly similar to Castle Panic. There are three distinct rings surrounding the cabin, from farthest to closest–Woods, Clearing, and Yard. Each round, new zombies appear in the Woods while the current undead move forward closer to the house. Walls protect the exterior, preventing the dead from marching right in, but each time a zombie attempts to push into a wall, a crack forms. The cabin’s walls can only sustain two hits before they fall, leaving the players exposed to the undead. Cracks can be repaired, but unless someone is commandeering the construction worker character, walls are forever lost once destroyed.
The most significant difference to Castle Panic is Dead Panic’s introduction of actual characters. Instead of simply sharing control of the defenses with other players, each person chooses a unique individual to take control of with their own special abilities. There are eight characters total, ranging from the before-mentioned construction worker to your typical zombie film tropes like the local priest, personal trainer and cop. Players are forced to work together to survive, moving around the cabin to fight back zombies, repair cracks in the wall or share items with each other. Each player gets a small number of actions per turn and practically everything in the game requires an action to utilize, rendering each decision critical. Do you spend your actions moving to get into a better location next round? Do you hand over your melee weapon or first aid kit to an ally in your square, helping them out but making yourself less effective for the turn? It can feel limiting at times, but that is integral to the game’s tension-building.
Player’s have a couple of options when combatting the hordes, but not as many as you may like. While inside the cabin, players can spend an action to search the house for weapons or other useful items, which are represented by cards in the Cabin Deck. By acquiring a ranged weapon, such as a pistol or shotgun, players can spend actions to shoot zombies at a distance, determined by the range listed on the firearm. These attacks automatically hit and wound zombies, dropping their health by the damage of the weapon. Melee weapons also exist, though engaging zombies in this fashion provides a far greater risk. Melee combat occurs through dice rolls; two six-sided dice are rolled by the player currently in combat. Each zombie possesses a number on their token, indicating the target number required to defeat them. Exceeding this number results in an injury to the zombie, inflicting the corresponding damage listed on the mêlée weapon. Failure unfortunately means the undead have won the fight, and a decision must occur: Either take one wound (three wounds signals death for the player), or drop the weapon you were wielding for that fight. Sometimes taking the hit is worthwhile, allowing you to hang out to that chainsaw a bit longer. And finally, a tie on the combat roll means exactly that. Both sides escape unscathed, for now.
In addition to unique characters, there are also different varieties of undead on the offensive. You have your by-the-books Shambler, the slow-moving Creeper that can bypass your walls entirely by crawling under them, the savage Brawler that wins combat on a tied dice result, and the terrifying Brute that doesn’t crack walls, as he merely destroys them in a single blow. Having multiple types of monsters means you never know exactly what is going to appear next each round, which also piles on the suspense and fright. Witnessing four Brutes appear in the woods adjacent to you can make even a grown man cry. The key to good horror is the feeling of hopelessness, and Dead Panic certainly hammers it in early and often.
A good challenge is certainly an important part to an engaging cooperative experience and thankfully, Dead Panic succeeds in this area. The game scales well with any number of players, throwing more zombies in to the mix with each additional person at the table. However, if your preferred strategy in survival-based games is “turtling”, where you hole up and attempt to accumulate as many resources as possible, you may find that a more proactive approach is required to win. Unlike other zombie games like Last Night on Earth, there’s rarely a lull in the action, meaning you always need to be planning and moving if you want to survive. Though, if you die, you get to come back as a badass variation of a zombie to wreak havoc on your friends, which can also be a lot of fun.
Dead Panic’s art is nothing notably special, but it captures the flavor of the zombie apocalypse as intended. Characters are haggard and covered in blood-stains, the woods surrounding the cabin on the board look creepy, and the different zombies all have a distinct look that adequately represents their special abilities. The pieces are all printed on high quality cardboard, resulting in clean and durable components. My only complaint about the game’s parts are the stands for the walls and characters. Instead of the plastic clips that Castle Panic used, Dead Panic uses cardboard stands that are always falling off. After my first time with the game, I immediately went out and bought plastic bases to replace the stock ones, which function remarkably better.
Even though the zombie theme has been played out to… death, Dead Panic stands out by successfully capturing the spirit of the horror genre that zombies belong to. The game would still be a blast with a different coat of paint other than the undead, though it makes sense to capitalize on the current pop culture trend. The tired theme unfortunately lessens some of the impact of the game’s release, as often the initial reaction I receive when introducing it to new players is, “More zombies?” Thankfully, the gameplay proves the game’s value and provides a distinct cooperative experience that can coexist peacefully with other zombie games, or even its own predecessor.