Just as in The Walking Dead the comic book and The Walking Dead the TV series, when players die in The Walking Dead Board Game, they’re only dead for a moment—and then they rise, horrifically. In Cryptozoic’s board-game version of the popular zombie franchise, up to four players can compete as one of six characters from the series—Rick, Lori, Shane, Glenn, Andrea, or Dale—and as they move from space to space, they encounter undead “walkers,” whom they have to defeat in roll-offs, with the aid of special “scrounge” cards. If players lose the roll-off, they lose “ally” chips. If they lose all their ally chips, they die. One turn later, the player comes back as a zombie, with a new objective: Kill the remaining members of “Team Survivor.” That’s how the Cryptozoic game designers cleverly encode The Walking Dead’s qualities of moral slipperiness into what could’ve easily been an indifferent piece of brand-extension.
AMC’s Walking Dead series recently completed the first half of what’s been a phenomenally successful third season. The show has posted huge ratings each Sunday, higher most weeks than any non-NFL network show. The Walking Dead has also begun to deliver on a lot of its early promise, after two seasons of slow-drip storytelling, thin characters, and unexciting locations. (Zack Handlen’s weekly TV Club reviews have done a fine job of charting how far the series has come.) Season three has seen the main group of protagonists encamped at a zombie-infested prison which they’ve cleaned out and secured, while another of their party has discovered an entire zombie-free town under the control of a soft-spoken psychopath known as “The Governor.” The split between the two settings—one dark and terrifying, one relatively pleasant—has opened up The Walking Dead, adding visual variety and narrative scope.
In the process, the pacing problems have pretty well been resolved, too. In the “half-season finale” this week, a faction from the prison infiltrates The Governor’s town, prompting a shootout in the streets, a far more nerve-racking conflict than was common back in the days when a typical Walking Dead episode was mostly about the heroes brooding while contemplating the burden of leadership. Current Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara has previously worked on The Shield, and season three of The Walking Dead has shown some of The Shield’s willingness to turn the screws on the audience by accelerating the storytelling, putting the characters exactly where they shouldn’t be.
Those characters’ flatness is still The Walking Dead’s biggest weakness, though—albeit less of one than it used to be, thanks to the addition of The Governor and the cool-headed zombie-assassin Michonne, who have the colorful quality that the likes of Rick and Glenn have lacked. Critics often complain about the too-diffuse plotting of another of the big Sunday cable dramas, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, but that show certainly doesn’t lack memorable characters. (In fact, that’s what makes it feel so scattered at times; there are almost too many people to catch up with week-to-week.) By contrast, The Walking Dead is more about memorable situations: cool kills, narrow escapes, dark images, and life-or-death dilemmas. This week’s episode featured a few doozies on that score, including Glenn freeing himself from bondage by breaking a zombie’s bones and using them as a knife, and The Governor singing a song to his chained-up zombie daughter.
Most of the strengths and weaknesses of the TV Walking Dead come directly from Robert Kirkman’s original comic-book series. In expanding the familiar zombie mythology of George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead movies into an ongoing, long-form narrative, Kirkman rendered it all the bleaker. In story arc after story arc, his characters encounter a new group of people in a new location, and think their fortunes have improved, only to find that a lack of resources and constant zombie attacks cost them dearly, forcing them back on the road to face more of the same problems. The comic book Walking Dead is relentlessly (and admirably) depressing.
But it also suffers from characters that aren’t exactly paragons of depth or wit. The comic, like the TV series, is more interested in what these people do than in who they are, or in what they have to say. (This aspect of The Walking Dead is reflected in the board game as well, in that each character has one special advantage to bring to bear at key strategic moments.) Plus the open-endedness of the Walking Dead comic has dulled some of its impact over time. Though major characters die all the time in the comic and on the TV show, there’s little sense that Kirkman’s story is pushing toward some kind of grand resolution. It’s more self-sustaining, existing mainly to consume the audience’s time as long as it possibly can.
Here’s where The Walking Dead Board Game has an edge on the comic book and the TV series: It has an endpoint. The goal of the game is to gather supplies at four locations and make it all the way back to camp without getting killed. Or, for those players who get “turned,” the goal is to kill the remaining survivors. Either way, somebody will win. Either everybody dies, or at least one player will arrive at camp, down some allies, but still breathing.
The game makes its finiteness more of an element in the overall experience, too. Though the comic and the TV show both emphasize that this post-apocalyptic world has been picked pretty clean, their lack of an ending means that both keep coming up with ways for the heroes to find more weaponry and food. In the board game, on the other hand, whatever cards players deploy from the “scrounge” deck go into a discard pile, and are gone from the game for the duration. (“Supplies in a zombie apocalypse have a way of getting used up quickly,” the instructions warn.) The scrounge cards don’t always get used up in battles, either. The first time I played The Walking Dead Board Game, on my first turn, I drew an encounter card that instructed me to discard four of my five scrounge cards. The loss felt devastating.
This is the real brilliance of the Walking Dead franchise: It presents a world where so little of value remains that each death, each destructive move, each blown opportunity seems like the end of the world all over again. That’s what makes it so poignant in this week’s episode when The Governor cradles his zombie daughter, after Michonne puts a sword through the little beast’s brain. The Governor is nuts, and his daughter was a creature of rampaging malevolence, but damn it, he liked having her around, and now she’s gone for good. The board game creates the same experience, by giving each player very little to begin with, and then taking it away capriciously.
The Walking Dead isn’t the craziest TV series to be transformed into a game. Milton Bradley manufactured an All In The Family-branded Archie Bunker card game back in the ’70s, and there have been games for shows as diverse as Mork And Mindy, M*A*S*H, and WKRP In Cincinnati. But many of these just added familiar characters to existing board- and card-game concepts. The Walking Dead Board Game is aiming to be more than just a “roll your dice and move your mice” time-killer. It means to work on the players’ emotions.
Which brings us back to the Team Survivor vs. Team Zombie wrinkle. Throughout The Walking Dead comic and show, one recurring theme is that the humans are their own worst enemies, due to the dumb mistakes they make and the ways they fight with each other, but also in the literal sense that humans die and become zombies. Since the heyday of Romero’s classic Dead movies, the “turn” has always been one of the most tragic scenes in zombie lore, with people forced to watch their friends and loved ones die a second time. In The Walking Dead Board Game, players get to be those dead loved ones, except that in the game, Team Zombie is unkillable. The dead Walkers perpetually respawn. Their deck of cards keeps getting replenished and reshuffled. Having died myself in the board game, I can attest that rampaging against the survivors is sickeningly fun. Prior to playing, I would’ve guessed that I would want mankind to survive after I was gone. But no, I felt compelled to be a proper zombie.
Like a lot of post-apocalyptic stories, The Walking Dead can be read as a metaphor for a world in transition between one way of life and another, exploring how people cling desperately to what they valued from the old way. This matters less for what it says about life in 2012 than for what it says about human nature. Since The Walking Dead has given no indication that the humans are ever going to win back their world, each extension of Kirkman’s original concept has expressed the same idea—adapt or die, or die, then adapt.