Possibly affected by the current pandemic, I was having a post-apocalyptic gaming itch lately, and told JW. It proved to be contagious. We therefore decided to devote some time on this theme and write about any post-apocalyptic games we can get our hands on. For the sake of alliteration, these articles will be posted on Wednesdays.
I have not played the STALKER video game, but have seen the film by Tarkovsky. Does Zona: The Secret of Chernobyl share Stalker's poetic gloominess? I was inclined to say no at first, but on second thought, I'd say it does. It has the poetic gloominess of endless skill checks. Like a good wasteland scavenger, it's best to be prepared before you head into it, and not have expectations that this game won't meet. If you are fine with a lightweight adventure, with lots of dice rolling and some resource management, then it may be a game for you.
I played the solo mode a few times, then switched to the co-op variant I found on BGG, and never looked back. Even though solo is perfectly functional, it doesn't provide the richness of experience that running two characters does. This is obviously because you will be reading twice as many event cards, but also because it's more amusing to weave stories out of unlikely pairings. It's easy to imagine the Mercenary giving the Drunkard Professor frustrated looks when they rest together at the Roadhouse.
The portraits of the characters are full of personality but none of these heroes has been given a backstory. You can provide that yourself, of course, but I was a little disappointed not to find any flavour text on their boards. When you select your character(s), you equip them with their starting items and money, and place their mini on the main board. I am not a miniatures expert, but I find the ones that come with the game perfectly fine, especially considering the retail price (55 euro). Components are of very good quality in general, and the illustrations top notch.
The goal of the game is to uncover two secrets from specific buildings (four in co-op), and then rush to open the Sarcophagus before the final emission turns everything into radioactive ash. As characters move from location to location, they will often have to face threats: mutated animals (meat-hogs, feral dogs, 'gargantuans') and paranormal phenomena with cryptic names ('mist', 'spoiler', 'phlegm'). These encounters are resolved by rolling three custom dice and modifying the result according to the heroes' stats and the items they carry. On each turn, an event will take place too: you draw a card from the event deck, and once again roll the dice to perform the required test. The turn ends with the emission tracker moving forward. When it reaches the final spot, an emission occurs, and the tracker resets. If you happen to be in an outdoor location during an emission, you receive a crazy amount of radiation damage which may hinder your progress quite a bit or even kill you.
Given the lightness of the gameplay, I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend Zona but I must say I have enjoyed all my sessions. It may be mostly governed by randomness but it tells good stories and even becomes suspenseful when your character runs out of items and radiation is damaging their vital organs. A significant part of the game revolves around managing your inventory: deciding which items are worth keeping and which are better to sell. Usually you don't have the luxury of keeping a full backpack. You reluctantly sell artifacts, trophies and even useful equipment to have your wounds healed and survive the next rounds.
Even though the events are written in a generic manner so as to apply to all the characters, they still succeed in creating atmosphere. There is a good amount of event cards with different entries to read each time, so the game won't feel stale soon. When you manage to beat the final challenge of the Sarcophagus, its own event cards provide you with a different ending each time. Some endings sound a bit lame or disjointed from the rest of the game, but it's not a big deal.
All in all, I'm quite pleased with it. I feel that Zona has potential that the creators could explore more in the future, if they are willing to. Perhaps it would benefit from a campaign expansion that would carry the heroes through a succession of scenarios and make the game a more cinematic experience. That said, I'm grateful that this is not another storybook game. I may have wanted to see the characters a bit more fleshed out, but I am eager to use my imagination too. The wasteland of Zona is a rather fertile ground for that.