Zona: The Secret of Chernobyl

1-4 players, Competitive, Post Apocalypse Artifact Hunting

Designer: Maciej Drewing, Krzysztof Głośnicki

Artwork: Wojciech Bajor, Tomek Zarucki

Publisher: Rebel

Release Year: 2019

Origin Story

To be honest I literally just discovered this game by browsing one of the online retailers and noticed it was a new arrival. The title sounded ominous and I go wild for some good ominousity (I don’t think that’s a real word so I created it). Got to investigating it more and realized it’s got a nice post-apocalyptic theme AND it just so happens I’m currently going through a rather extreme post-apocalyptic theme obsession right now. Got it in a few days ago which was enough time to play it a few times and get a general idea of how it plays as well as some nice radiation spewing thoughts. Ew, that sounds kinda gross…but it is what it is.

Overview of Gameplay

In Zona you and up to four players will be traveling all around the area of Chernobyl, years after the nuclear reactor had its infamous meltdown. Of course, this is a fictional story so there are mutants and other random anomalies roaming the country side and scavengers galore. You are one of those scavengers, trying to build yourself up enough with gear to be able to delve deep into the power plant and uncover the secret artifact locked away in the sarcophagus.

During a typical round, players will each take 2 actions which consist of moving around the board, performing specific location actions, resting, encountering the beasts of the land or enter the secret locations to try and claim an artifact. After each player has taken their respective 2 actions, the event phase activates where each player in turn order draws up one of the tarot sized event cards based on their location and reads from it, resolving whatever lies in store for them. Once that is finished the active player will draw up a rumor card, which is a kind of overall event for the entire board. Usually these consist of placing a token in a space of the active players choosing to hinder the other players in some way. Also, on this card are icons dictating how many spaces the emission marker will move down. If this marker ever reaches the last space a wave of deadly radiation unleashes from the power plant and will damage any player caught out of a camp or secret location.

Once the rumor phase is over the round starts anew with the start player token passing to the next player. Players will continue this until either they are all defeated because of the rumor deck running out OR one player wins the game by making it to the sarcophagus in the power plant and completing the entire event. And let me tell you, it isn’t easy!

The general idea behind the gameplay is that you need to access two of the secret locations (of four) and acquire two artifacts from them. Then and only then are you allowed to access the powerplant by way of the two adjacent areas next to the power plant. Of course, these four secret locations are locked so players will need to unlocked them by performing specific tasks or paying specific items. Once unlocked players are allowed to enter, during the event phase they draw an event card from that location and try to complete it. This usually nets the player with an artifact card of their choice from that location. So, most of the beginning of the game players will be roaming around on the main board encountering creatures and activating locations to try and collect what they need to unlock some of these secret locations.

Components/ Game Board

I am pretty impressed with the components overall! The miniatures for each playable character are well done, cards all feel very nice with a good linen finish and I love the tarot style cards. Each of the tarot sized event cards has an abundance of writing on it for multiple locations and they are easy to read. The fatigue trackers work very well and are a nice addition to the gameplay. The dice, even though there are only three of them, have this very nice feel to them that I don’t usually encounter with dice. The player boards look great and are easy to read and understand with the setup for each character on the opposite side.

To be honest the only real complaint I have with the components are the tiny little minuscule damage counter pieces. I mean these little cardboard triangles are extremely small and hard to get a hold of, on top of that they are fiddly. There are specific spots to place these things on cards and your player board to track damage to not only your health, but to your gear as well. It’s rather challenging to manage a bunch of these on specific cards without knocking them around.

The game board is excellent with clearly labeled colors and areas and I love how it has spots for all the card decks. It is also double-sided depending on player count, solo and 2 player on one side and three/four player on the other. With the main changes being the amount of spaces open for players in the secret locations and some areas blocked off for movement on the 1-2 player side, I suspect to create more player interaction. There is also a side board market piece that holds all the cards that are for sale which is really nice.

Box/Storage

The box does come with a good plastic insert that has a removable insert for the miniatures that is really nice. Another removable insert piece holds all the encounter tokens and keeps them organized for ease of play which I just love. There is a dedicated space for the tarot sized cards are well and it holds them snugly in place. However, you will probably want to bag up the rest of the tokens, which there really aren’t that many. The only thing about the insert that could be improved upon is the space for the smaller cards. There are quite a few different decks of small cards but the space that is meant to hold them isn’t broken up to keep them separate so you will have to sort them every time you play. Luckily, they are easily discernible by their respective card backs. Overall, I am impressed!

Visual Appeal /Theme

The theme is what drew me to the game in the first place and it doesn’t disappoint! You really do get the feeling that you are a scavenger roaming the mutated wastes of this land trying to survive and gear up for your encounter into the depths of the radioactive power plant. This game is basically events with some player actions tossed in and I love that. I mean don’t get me wrong, there is an entire phase dedicated to performing player actions but the events are where the real meat of the game is at. You have two different event phases back to back and the final portion of the game is just completing a super hard event. So, in essence you are just spending the action phase trying to gear up to prepare you for these events.

Visually the game hits all the right notes with different sectors colored based on their difficulty. On top of that the colors used for the board just look really nice and eye catching. All the artwork done for the characters is extremely well done and the items also look awesome. Oh man the items! One of the coolest aspects was not only the plethora of different items that can be obtained but how they work. Each item actually makes sense thematically based on what it is within the limits of the gameplay. For example, there are these spectral googles that improve your alertness but only for anomalies, which makes sense thematically as those things are hard to see! On the flip side you might find a handgun but it only improves your abilities when battling mutants since anomalies are not technically organic. Let’s just say they did an excellent job weaving the theme into the gameplay!

Rulebook

I was a little disappointed with the rulebook unfortunately. 25 pages of small type, paragraph form writing. There are some examples scattered about which are super helpful but the way the book is ordered is confusing. Also, there is a lack of an index so trying to find something specific is a nightmare although the table of contents does alleviate that to some degree. It’s one of those rule books where you start reading it from the beginning but then reach a part that makes zero sense unless you flip ahead a number of pages to read another section first, then flip back and continue on where you were. The saving grace are the included player reference cards! These things are excellent and very helpful in learning the game.

Player Interaction/Fun Factor

The player interaction is pretty low here however it isn’t non-existent. Each player will be doing their own thing running around gathering what they need to unlock the secret locations with little regard for the other players. BUT, during the rumor event phase whoever holds the first player token has the say on how that event usually pans out and this goes a long way to hindering the plans of the other players. For example, you could impose a strict border guard on a particular zone that a couple other players are close to which would cause them to have to pay more money to move through. Basically, you do whatever you can to slow down your opponents so you can be the first one to reach the sarcophagus and win.  This also goes for the market items. The market does get refilled but those items can be super juicy and it’s always first come, first served. So even though you cannot directly attack other players there are ways to try and hinder them from completing their task.

I had a great time playing the game, upgrading my gear and exploring the wasteland. Of course, the most fun was had during the events, drawing up a card and reading the VERY intriguing story bits of the location and then performing the tests to see what would happen. It’s stuff like that I just love in games and this one does it wonderfully. That said, I already plan on implementing a small house rule surrounding the damage and health to your character. You see, they way the game is setup once a player has reached their maximum on damage on their player board, they start taking “weaknesses”. Now these pesky things basically make it harder for you to pass tests and if a player ever receives their fourth weakness, they die. In that case they can pick another unplayed character and basically start over….which depending on how far in the game they were, may be futile to winning.

That exact thing happened to me actually. I was playing a two-player game, had acquire a single artifact and took some damage that caused me to receive my 3rd weakness token. Now, the damage doesn’t fall off after you receive a weakness token so you are at super risk to getting more weakness tokens if at full damage. Needless to say, in the event phase I took even more damage which of course added my last weakness token which killed me. Based on how far in the game we were, (the other player already had both artifacts needed to access the power plant) it was pointless for me to even continue playing as there was zero chance to catch back up. At that point I just sat back and watched the solo player finish the game (they ended up dying during the very last event AND the next round was the last rumor card drawn). Since the game is pretty much a race game, if you die you might as well call it quit if the game has been going on for a while.

Optimal Player Count/Replay Value

I probably wouldn’t want to play this one with more than three players due to the lower player interaction and downtime. Even though each player only gets two actions per turn the time can really start to take its toll when a player has encounters with enemies. The encounters are super fun for the player resolving them as it involves rolling the three dice and then utilizing your collected gear to mitigate the results or using your fatigue to do rerolls. However, watching another player do all this just wasn’t that exciting especially when you already know on your turn you plan on just moving twice to get closer to where you want to be. On top of that this game runs LONG! Heck at two-players it took us about 3 hours to complete so I can only imagine what a 4-player game would look like.

The replay value is very high here due to the large selection of event cards and the fact that each one has multiple sections on it for different areas/reputation levels. On top of that you only use about half of the lock tokens and items cards for the secret areas so that can change up with every new game. Also, there are 10 completely different characters to play as, each with different stats and unique ability. This is a game that can be played many, many times and you won’t experience the same thing twice.

Positive Final Thoughts

This is a super highly thematic game with incredible detail put into the gameplay/theme integration. I love the events and the crazy number of different events that you can pull will always keep the game interesting. The abundance of items and the way they can be damaged adds even more theme to this already theme-rich game.

Negative Final Thoughts

Not a huge fan of the way the damage is so overbearing. I don’t want to spend the precious time I have utilizing all my resources that I worked so hard to get, just to heal myself. The game runs very long so if you die towards the end, you might as well call it quits rather than trying to catch back up.

The Bottom Line

It’s great! I enjoyed the story elements and the gameplay/theme integration so much that I already developed a house rule to fix the damage issue that was bothering me. Aside from that and the mediocre rulebook, this is a game that I will happily keep in my collection.

The Fuzzy Llama Silver Seal of Distinction

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