Card Game Review: Chaos Isle
A lot of apocalypse in a small game deck. Find out why.
Designers: John J. Perry and Josh Pinciaro
Publisher: Realms Master Game Forge
Author: Jim Zabek
Zombies Are The New Black
Faithful readers of The Wargamer will find no surprise when I mention that zombies are my secret indulgence. I love wargames and everything about them, but a good zombie game can turn my head in a hurry. The explanations for this are something of a mystery even to me. I could give a dozen reasons why I have increasingly grown to enjoy games about zombie apocalypses but the end result is really what matters Ė I like them.
None of that is to say that Iíll roll over for any game with zombies in it. I have played some dogs that I have no interest in returning to. But good games with zombies in them, well, thatís another story. Not too long ago some discussion popped up on the forums about Chaos Isle. A strong recommendation accompanied it, and it was created by a new company. Intriguingly it offers both solo and multiplayer aspects, which is always welcome with tabletop games. I decided to bite. I wrote the publisher, requested a review copy, and got it.
John Perry, one of the creators requested one caveat Ė while the game is playable solo, he asked that I give it a try with at least three people, indicating that itís more fun that way and that many reviewers hadnít showcased this side. I agreed.
So recently I had the chance to do some gaming back home with my best friend and his son. They brought a few games along, but I requested we pull out Chaos Isle at some point. After some other gaming we turned to it, and were pleasantly surprised.
Chaos Isle is a card game that places the players on an imaginary island that has been overrun by zombis (the designers have deliberately spelt the name this way; itís not a typo). I have found card games shouldnít be judged by the size of their deck. Some games can be played in 20 minutes and are best suited as transitional games between larger games. Other card games are major games in themselves. Chaos Isle falls closer into this second category.
First let me address the items not included that are needed: two six sided dice are required. Tokens of some kind are also needed to track life points for each player. We used coins in our pockets, but even paper and pencil can be used. The lack of these components is clearly stated on the back of the box, and I donít know of a gamer who canít produce a couple of dice on command. Easy enough.
The game box holds four card decks with a total of 102 cards. Realms Master Game Forge included three expansions came when they sent me the base game, each of which added 10 cards. We decided to mix in the expansion decks and have fun with the whole thing. The cards are first separated into four decks. These represent missions, characters, equipment, and enemies. Mission cards determine a playerís victory conditions, character cards represent the role the player takes on. Equipment and enemies are fairly obvious but Iíll get into more detail on them below.
Chaos Isle offers surprisingly robust gameplay considering its compact size. Players can choose to play a single mission where the first player to complete his mission is the winner. Solo play allows the player to attempt to complete his mission and win, or lose if he is turned into a zombi. Survivor is a multiplayer game where the game goes on until itís the last player standing. Campaign games are actually a series of Mission games; each mission is worth a number of points called Campaign Value. The player to accumulate the most value over several games then is declared the winner.
Gameplay begins by agreeing which type of game will be played. They then sort each of the decks and shuffle them. Players then draw a mission card, a character card, and two equipment cards, which can grant the player attack or defensive bonuses. Each character and enemy in the game has four stats: speed, life, protection, and fate. Speed determines the initiative in battle, and a player with a higher speed may choose to simply outrun slower enemies instead of battling them. Life represents hit points that can be suffered before the player dies and becomes a zombi (dead players donít leave the game, they just become another enemy to be fought by the remaining living players). Protection represents a defensive value that must be overcome in order to be hit. Fate is a special stat that is sometimes used to determine if a particular task is accomplished by rolling dice and comparing it to the value of the fate. Rolling under their fate indicates success.
Mission success is typically defined by collecting a number of resources from defeated zombis (such as blood, fuel, or other items).
The enemy deck in the base game consists of 70 cards. Six cards are events, eight are tasks, and the remaining 56 are zombis. Event cards act as interrupts, and the instructions are applied immediately upon drawing them. Events might include medical assistance, which heals each player or a mission change where two players swap mission cards with each other. Tasks are optional courses of action against which the player tries to succeed on a fate roll. Success may bring additional resources which could help him complete his mission, failure may or may not cost the player depending on the task. Zombis are just plain old critters to be fought.
Before I get into a discussion of the game, a word on the documentation is in order. Printed on a 7.5 x 9.5 inch sheet of paper (front and back) the rules are short. There is one illustration clearly indicating the location of key information regarding enemy cards. The font is small but clear. We experienced two issues. First, the rules arenít organized in a way that is conducive to simply sitting down and playing out a turn. Instead of walking the players through the game, the rules are organized so that the cards and locations are discussed first, then the various types of cards. They are well-written, but I found that I needed to read through them a couple of times before we could get the game going. I know some gamers who are thoroughly organized and memorize the rules of a game before they introduce it to their friends. Unfortunately, Iím not one of those guys. I like to pull out a game, set it up, and start playingÖthen read the rules. OK, Iím not quite that bad, but I do prefer to have rules outlined in a way that allows me to learn as you go. For guys like me a word of caution is in order: read through the rules and prepare ahead of time.
During the course of game we did run across a few questions that we didnít think were adequately addressed in the documentation. None of them was insurmountable, but some clarification would be in order. In no particular order we summarized our questions after the game:
- Do you have to survive the turn to win? On the surface, this question might appear stupid, but the Chaos Isle is more of an RPG than it might appear at first glance. TPK, or Total Party Kill (where all players die) is actually a possibility. Especially relevant in a campaign game where Campaign Values are accumulated, clarification would be useful to indicate whether the game ends when only one player is left, or whether a player needs to survive his turn.
- What happens when a zombi player is killed? The rules are clear about what happens when a player dies in the game Ė he becomes a zombi and attacks on his round. But what happens if the zombi he is playing dies? Presumably he simply reincarnates back into a zombi, but the rules arenít clear.
- If the speeds of both zombi and the player are equal, is combat simultaneous? We treated it as such, but clarification would have been useful.
The beauty of tabletop games is that questions like those above can easily be resolved by mutual agreement among the players. None of the above critique is intended to be disparaging, for the most part the rules are perfectly clear and succinct. But some improvement could be made and the above comments are offered as constructive criticism.
Update: We've received feedback from the publisher regarding our questions:
We have addressed that issue on our website, which provides a link to our Survivor website (Organized Play) where rules clarifications are posted. Also, to answer the questions from your review directly:
Do you have to survive the turn to win? The answer is yes. In the rules we explain this under "End of Turn". Although I agree this is still quite unclear.
What happens when a Zombi Player is killed? A Zombi Player cannot be killed since he is never attacked. From the rules: "He is allowed to have 1 Battle Turn every time it is his turn..." etc. Again, I can see how this could be unclear.
If the speeds of both Zombi and the player are equal, is combat simultaneous? From the rules (The Card Stats: "Speed"): "If there is a tie, the character goes first"
Letís get to the meat: Chaos Isle is fun. As I already noted, it plays a bit like an RPG. Characters are pre-generated, but between the base game and the expansions there is plenty of variety. The addition of missions, equipment, the numerous enemies means that the game stays fresh and challenging.
The artwork for the game is interesting. The character, equipment, and mission cards have a slightly cartoonish look to them. The character cards additionally seem to hint at an anime style Ė one Iím not normally fond of but didnít mind here. All of that is sharply contrasted against the enemy cards, which are stylistically dark and menacing. The contrast is a bit ponderous, but gradually it dawned on me that this was a deliberate flourish: The characters, events, equipment et al are fun, but the zombis are meant to be menacing and real. Itís a good design choice and helps set the mood.
Gameplay itself is simple: on his turn a player draws three enemy cards and elects to evade them or fight them if his speed is greater. If he isnít faster than some or all, then he must fight. Slain enemies are accumulated and players gradually try to gather resources, events, or zombis to meet their victory conditions.
The game seems well balanced and there was always a bit of uncertainty about what the next cards might reveal. Some zombis are fairly easy to defeat, but others are quite difficult to overcome. Players have sufficient life points to typically survive a tough encounter, but the cumulative toll of facing a series of nasty beasts means that survival is far from certain.
We enjoyed Chaos Isle. It is a surprisingly robust game in a small package. There is a ton of replayability Ė the inclusion of a campaign game should make it clear that this game has legs. Fun and simple it makes for solid material in its own right, but is probably best played as filler between bigger games. I can easily see gaming groups keeping tabs on playersí progress over a series of weekends where Chaos Isle is broken out once or twice as filler during the day, with progress in the campaign tracked over weeks of play. It packs a lot of apocalypse in a small game deck. Simple enough to teach to casual gamers with enough replayability for serious gamers, itís worth having around for portability and replayability.
More information can be found at the Realms Masters Game Forge website.
Update: We have just learned that Realms Masters Game Forge is offered a discounted price on the game plus the three expansions. The "Tear My Limbs Off!" bundle deal offers the core game & all 3 expansions for $10 less than if purchased separately, which doesn't take into account the savings on shipping if purchased separately. In addition, they'll include a free pair of new Chessex Zombie Dice. The whole thing is only $25 (shipping is only $4.50 US & Canada and $9 overseas).