I’m a Mantic fan. Hellboy: The Board Game is a top shelf dungeon crawler. The Walking Dead: All Out War is one of the most clever skirmish miniatures games of the past decade. Among their sports titles, OverDrive recently impressed. Now I’m here to claim that Deadzone may be the pinnacle of their work.
Deadzone is now in its third edition. It’s been around for years despite my lack of intimacy with it. While the previous two editions were crowdfunded, this starter set has been pushed straight to retail with confidence. The most base description is that it’s Mantic Games’ take on the venerated Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team. That’s true, but it also takes shots at Necromunda, incorporating rag-tag forces and emphasizing verticality as that game did and does.
And this starter set is great.
You receive two full strike teams, one being a group of superbly trained corporate marines and the other a gutter-dwelling nest of rat scavengers. Yes, actual rats, as in space Skaven, but not really.
The miniatures here are of good quality and feature a solid range of poses and equipment options. They require assembly of course as this is a true miniatures game. But the real star of the product is the terrain.
The game’s killer feature is its cube system. The playing surface is broken down into 3″ squares which are the mechanism for adjudicating movement and conflict. The terrain crafted for the game is coupled to this unique structure and possesses features that frame these cubes along all three dimensions. So the length of walls, both laterally and vertically, was designed to facilitate the counting of cubes and quickly assessing game state.
This terrain is marvelous. It’s modular in that it arrives as separate wall and rubble pieces but can be connected with small plastic clips. It functions similarly to Core Space in that it allows you to adapt different pieces to the desired battlefield and completely re-work the environment between plays. You can stack most constructs and the amount provided in this set is actually quite generous. Additionally there are scatter pieces included such as trashcans and ATM machines, as well as flourishes which can be connected to the structures such as a spectacular awning. The variety on offer is impressive.
Just as I compared it to the flexibility of the Battle System’s terrain, it contains a similar cost. It takes a bloody long time to setup. This is a scenario based game but the setups themselves don’t dictate terrain placement. This allows for great creativity but it can also eat up your time. The obvious way around this problem is to glue several primary set-pieces together for easy re-use, but this undercuts the modularity and is not ideal.
Actually playing on these plastic stacks is bliss.
Deadzone is a very dynamic and intense game. This is because it moves so damn quickly, all thanks to that cube system.
As you and your opponent swap turns activating a single model, you simply pick a figure up and move a cube or two across the battlefield. You can position the miniature anywhere in the destination cube, carefully placing them behind cover or watching a specific angle. I cannot stress how damn wonderful this is.
It reminds me of the system in Corey Konieczka’s Gears of War board game. Although, where that system never formalized the exact position of a model – if you could target the space you could target the foe – Deadzone combines the fluidity of this movement system with the precision of actual line of sight common to miniatures games. So movement is quick and lithe but you still benefit from the immersion and specificity of the 3D environment.
I adore this. It actually feels as though that little plastic trooper is weaving across an environment and claiming ground.
Activations are swift. It’s like batting a ping pong ball back and forth. Shooting doesn’t slow things down as it’s an opposed roll. Each model gets access to a limited set of actions and your focus is on scenario objectives and maiming the other team.
It’s simple and sublime and reminds me of the basic parallels of two player competitive gaming with traditional sports, mostly because it cuts out all the bullshit. In doing so it reflects on the common metaphors associated with mainstream competition. Failure and persistence, self responsibility, and ownership of outcome all percolate on the surface. As an experience, it’s very clear and logical due to the superior flow.
Despite this competitive lucidity, it manages to remain even-keeled and light. It’s a quick game, one which takes an hour or less to play – although again, quite a bit of setup time – and it leaves you eager to return with a new strategic pursuit or tactical ploy. This ability to easily consume each session means it’s effortless to teach and assimilate. You don’t have to engage the game across multiple plays to feel competent, the rewards are as quick as the pace.
In fact, it’s almost too easy and too light. One of the most significant challenges of fast tempo skirmish games is the inability to establish rich narratives. Speed is accomplished by genericizing actions and abilities. Deadzone performs a riposte here.
This remains a resonant game despite its efforts in streamlining. This occurs primarily through a wealthy keyword system. Units are differentiated by stats, expectedly, but more significantly they are given identity through keywords. This allows for the rattish Veer-myn to frenzy, the stout
dwarves Forge Fathers to tinker, and the mobile GCPS Rangers to fly about the map. There are dozens and dozens of these attributes with units receiving one or two for the most part. It’s just enough essence to differentiate forces and sub-divisions within the same faction.
The second contributor to personality is the combination of scenario with momentary battle objectives. While the scenarios themselves dictate the overarching goals for each play, a sub-system of discrete secret objectives really ratchet up the compelling tactical decision sphere. Every single round you receive new private directives from a shared list, these remind me of the objective cards in Warhammer Underworlds and include items such as taking out an enemy leader or taking out two models. Despite a simple overall ruleset and a quick pace of play, the challenges presented each round intermingle with the dynamic systems and vibrant units to create a tessellation of cinematic action.
The final injection of dynamic flavor is exploding dice. Rolling a pool to attack is a joy, particularly when you hit a hard eight and keep a lengthy chain of bursts in motion. This widens the spectrum of results which interacts with the pace wonderfully to build momentum.
While Deadzone’s identifying feature is its velocity in play, the biggest challenges it faces are the qualities that undermine getting there. I’ve already discussed the lengthy setup requirement, but in truth that extends beyond the table. Building your force list is simpler than many games as there’s a solid balance between unit options and streamlined decision making, but it’s still a hassle flipping between pages and attempting to setup a quick skirmish, at least from scratch. This is rectified somewhat in the official EasyArmy list-builder app. It’s still not quite as simple as I’d like for an uninitiated friend to stop by and just bang out a quick game without any prior prep. I would have loved to see some kind of quick-build system like the cards found in X-Wing 2nd edition.
The game is also in dire need of a player aid detailing all of the keywords. I understand Mantic may have been hesitant to provide this due to expansion content extending the breadth down the line, but a living PDF would solve that concern.
To be fair, these afflictions are suffered by its competitors as well. This is an area where the miniatures game industry, particularly these smaller skirmish games, could learn from the board game community.
Another obstruction Deadzone fails to clear is in assembly. The miniatures are not difficult to construct but the instructions are weak and non-specific. This means simple things took far too long to puzzle out. This includes items such as realizing that two arms were paired by letters on the sprue or that a GCPS Ranger was identified as such by having an enclosed helmet and backpack.
Furthermore, there is no direction on how you should build each strike team. If you lean heavily into Veer-myn Stalkers with ray pistols and knives over rifle wielding Crawlers, will you be at a point deficit to a Veteran heavy GCPS strike team? Gleaning this type of information requires reading the entire ruleset and then heading to the force construction booklet. That’s not an onerous requirement, but most people want to get assembling and playing with their miniatures quickly. The design team even recognize this as a really sturdy tutorial is included, one which utilizes the backside of the paper mat to offer an easy introduction to the game.
The severity of these criticisms entirely relies on where you set the bar. As an overall product, I’ve found this two player starter attractive. As a game system and its begotten experience, I’ve found Deadzone astounding. It’s presented a moment of crisis as I internally joust over the need for yet another skirmish title. It certainly doesn’t unseat Core Space due to the campaign and narrative direction that game embodies, but it gives me pause over the mish-mash of exceptional titles I flirt with such as Gaslands, X-Wing, Marvel Crisis Protocol, et al.
Deadzone belongs in that tribe and is a heavyweight.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.