Zombie Dice

Cheeky Kokako reviews Zombie Dice by Steve Jackson Games

Full disclaimer before I begin: I have a long history with Steve Jackson Games. Back in the early 1980’s I fell in love with Car Wars. Since then I have continued to purchase and enjoy Steve Jackson Games. I currently own a handful of other board games by their fine company, including several of the requisite Munchkin sets. Steve Jackson Games typically does things right; so much so that in 1990 the US Secret Service confiscated their computers & data storage. Why? Because they were convinced that a game about hacking which they were designing was real. But I digress. I typically like Steve Jackson Games products, some more than others. Zombie Dice however is in a league of its own.

Zombie Dice
Zombie Dice

How to play Zombie Dice

The premise of the game is simple. You are a zombie. You want to eat brains. You don’t want to be shot. First person to eat 13 brains wins (well, kind of- more on that later). There are 13 six-sided dice included in the game. Each die has one of 3 symbols on each of its different faces: brains, shotgun blasts, or footprints. You pull 3 dice randomly out of the container and roll them. Any brains and shotgun blasts are set aside until your turn is over. If you collect 3 or more shotgun blasts in a turn, your turn is over, you don’t get to keep any brains, and play moves to the next person. Should you decide that you are happy with the number of brains which you have collected, jot down how many brains you grabbed on that round and add them to your running total, and then play moves on to the next person. If you decide to roll again, grab all the dice with footprints on them (these are potential victims which escaped your clutches on the last roll) and draw enough dice randomly out of the container to add to your footprint dice until you are rolling 3 dice again. Roll those 3 dice, and any brains or shotgun blasts are set aside along with your earlier ones. Now it’s time to either end your turn because you have a total of 3 shotgun blasts, end your turn because you want to “bank” the brains which you have collected, or grab more dice and roll again. Rinse and repeat until your turn ends. At that point all of the dice are returned to the container. If you chose to stop before you rolled 3 shotgun blasts then you can add your new collection of brains to any collected in previous turns, and play moves on to the next player. Zombie Dice is very much a push your luck game, but the subtleties of it are what make it so good, and so addictive.

So, here’s the cool thing about this game: there are three different colours of dice. All of the dice have 2 faces with footprints regardless of colour. The red dice have 1 face with a brain and 3 faces with shotgun blasts. Red dice are obviously bad for you, but there are only 3 red dice in the game. What’s the probability you will grab one? Pretty low, right? Yellow dice have 2 brains and 2 shotgun blasts. OK, not great, but still only a 1 in 3 chance of it being really bad for you. Also, there are only 4 of these mediocre yellow dice. Green dice, on the other hand, have 3 brains and only 1 shotgun blast. Why, the chance that these dice will be bad is negligible! And there are 6 of these delightful green dice. The likelihood that you will get the other colours is so small. How could taking a risk to roll again possibly go wrong? Zombie Dice is all about calculating odds on top of odds. What is the likelihood of grabbing each colour from what remains in the container, and then what is the likelihood of each colour die rolling the way that you need versus the way that you fear.

But wait, that’s not all there is to this game. In addition, who went first is VERY important. When someone reaches 13+ brains, the game is not technically over. The game continues until the current round is finished. If a player later in the round manages to score more brains than the person who reached 13 or more, then that player wins. Unless a player after them manages to get even higher; then they win. Since the players who go after you now have nothing to lose and everything to gain, they will be playing much more recklessly than normal in order to win. As a result, when you score 13 if you are one of the first players in a round, you usually still want to keep pushing your luck to get even more brains so that the people after you won’t be able to beat you. This element adds another complication into the statistical soup that is Zombie Dice. When do you decide to stop at 12 brains, so that you can try to score much higher next round and hope to win with a comfortable margin? Your position in the player order vastly changes how you play the game. The first player holds a serious disadvantage and the last player has a strong advantage. Then when someone wins, they then become the first player for the next game, and everyone else’s position changes along with that. 

That covers all of the official rules for Zombie Dice, as set down by Steve Jackson Games. Actually, that is far more explanation than they include. Their sheet of rules is a tiny scrap of paper that fits easily in the small container along with the dice. The rules are so stunningly simple that I can teach someone how to play it fully in well under half of a minute.

The unofficial rules are the best rules

There are unofficial rules, and those rules can be summarised in two words: talking smack. On a player’s turn, they are agonising over whether to quit and score their brains or whether to push their luck and roll again. This is where smack talking comes into play. Everyone else offers ‘advice’ to the active player. Some people try to goad them into quitting before they crash and burn. Others try to tease them into rolling again because only a quitter would stop when there is such a slim chance that they will roll three shotgun blasts at this point. I have played this game with so many different groups of people, and this unofficial rule seems to manifest itself of its own accord regardless of the group. To be fair, it’s also one of the best parts of the game, and is a major reason for its success, since everyone is active even when it’s not their turn. It’s always light teasing, as there is the ever-present knowledge that the person may well take you up on your suggestion and win the game as a result, because knowing the odds doesn’t ever mean that you know what will be rolled next. I have never seen, in any other board game, so many people so involved in everyone else’s turns. Laughing, moaning, cheering- the entire group becomes enthralled while you play out your turn.

My history with Zombie Dice

In 2011 I first saw Zombie Dice for sale. It wasn’t much, just a small container holding 13 dice. When I bought it, I assumed it would be a fun little game to play when we had a few minutes to kill once in a while. How very wrong I turned out to be. This game is easily the most played game which I have ever owned. I truly couldn’t begin to guess how many games of Zombie Dice I have played now, but it would certainly be in the high hundreds if it hasn’t passed the thousand mark by now.

My old, badly beaten, heavily loved, Zombie Dice container. Bolts not included.
My old, badly beaten, heavily loved, Zombie Dice container. Bolts not included.

Why do I love Zombie Dice so much?

One of the reasons that I have played so many games of Zombie Dice is that the games are so short. You can fit several games in during a break at work. Another reason is that it is terribly, terribly addictive. We can’t stop playing it when we have a spare few minutes. It’s  played at work during breaks. We play on board game nights between other games or while we are waiting for people to arrive. Zombie Dice has also been a staple for my wildlife fieldwork. Zombie Dice is a tiny game, so it easily fits in my pack and isn’t a problem when it needs to be carried deep into the wilderness. It also doesn’t need a large play area, making it perfect for playing in tiny cabins or tinier field huts. After a long day of often gruelling and exhausting fieldwork, it is a fun way to relax without requiring much brainpower. Since games are so short, you’re never particularly invested in a game. You always know that if you lose this game, you will likely win the next one. My copy of Zombie Dice has travelled into many different forests of several different countries now. Despite being dragged about, rained on, and having me fall on top of my pack with it inside more times than I can remember, the game is still in quite good shape. Sure, the bottom finally fell off and I had to reattach it with bolts, but it took several years before it got to that point. Now it works better than ever and is showing no signs of stopping. I honestly can’t imagine any other game holding up as well under the abuse that this game has received. Nor have I ever seen a game with the staying power that this game has. People are happy to play this for hours at a time, for weeks on end. Everyone enjoys playing it to some degree. Children understand the concept as quickly as adults. I tend to prefer more complex games rather than simple games personally. That doesn’t mean that Zombie Dice isn’t one of my absolute favourite games to play, though. It’s not my favourite game, but it is definitely my favourite quick game. For a short game, Zombie Dice will always be one of my top go-to games due to its universal appeal, small footprint, and low cost. Get this game if you don’t already have it- you won’t regret it.