Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Industry talk: Rob Butler Ill Gotten Games (Z War One)


A few weeks back now I was treated to a one on one intro game of Z War One, a new zombie game, by the games creator Rob Butler. I first stumbled across this product at the UK Games Expo 2012 in Birmingham. There I had a brief chat with Rob about the game and what it was, he showed me some mock up board tiles and spoke about character progression and a narrative driven game, with the plot delivered by comics. I'll be honest I was interested at the premise and a bit wary given the fact that it is yet another zombie game. Since then of course we've had Zpocalypse and Zombicide to add to my current zombie stalwart's of Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth. Once more the marketplace is looking rather crowded again, so I arranged for Rob to pop down from his Sheffield based fortified zombie resistant bunker, to visit me at Zmbie Defence HQ in Birmingham... trust me we're well prepared for Z-day round these parts.

Two of Rob's demo mini's. I'm sure he won't mind me saying they're not quite up to Golem Studio standards.

The first game I played was the common all garden this is how the game works and this is how you shoot zombies. It worked pretty well as an introduction to the Z War One universe and how the game plays. Honestly, there wasn't anything really remarkable about the mission, it's simply get to point A and them explore points B and C and get the hell out of there. It did though allow me to see exactly what the games primary influence was, and that's survival horror games. Primarily the Resident Evil games, with an emphasis placed on limited ammo and medpacks. Every turn you spawn more and more zombies as you go, and it's a question of avoiding them if you can, and shooting them if you can't. It's a tidy resource mechanic at the heart of the game, which is subtly different to many recent zombie games out there that place the emphasis on butchering vast swathes of the undead. The game still feels like it needs some more refinement and polish, but I'm glad to report that Rob confirmed he felt the same and was still working on perfecting his formula, but more importantly despite this the game was still fun to play and the underlying mechanics seem sound.

Z War One mid game.

We decided to give a later mission a go, and to use some of the perks you gain while getting experience points to see if that shifted the feel of the game. I personally feel Rob's on the right track in wanting to offer an RPG element to his game. It will give a group of friends something to play for over repeated sessions, and I felt the extra skills were a neat touch to a certain degree, as they did help with the sterner mission we were playing... but I didn't feel they change the dynamic of the game enough. There is also at this early stage a sparsity of skills available, and some look more useful than others, and I think there might be a danger of the characters all homogenizing into the same person as the game moves on, whereas at the start of the story they all work slightly differently due to the equipment they have. Again after talking with Rob this is something he is aware of and is looking into, including possibly having different sets of skills to give all the different characters so they perform different functions in the group, and maintain a good dynamic. However, given the game is still in the development stages, and Rob has more to add to the mix I think it shows some promise.

A game set up and ready to play.

There are some good things about Z War One that mean I'll be keeping an eye out for it in the future, as I know there will be an inevitable Kickstarter soon after Christmas, and I'd like to p;aytest the game again and help Rob refine it into the product I know he wants it to be, and the product I can see it being. Any way, I had a more in-depth chat with Rob about the game and what Z War One was all about.

FLG:  Hi Rob, firstly thanks for agreeing to do this interview for me.

RB:  No problem Jody, it’s a pleasure.

FLG:  Right I have to ask you this as my first question… zombies? Again! We all love zombie games for sure, but there’s no question you are launching a product into a pretty crowded marketplace right now. Why did you go with zombies?

RB:  I’m a firm believer that you can NEVER have enough zombie games, or films/comics/TV shows for that matter. When the apocalypse comes people are going to need to be as prepared as possible and the best way to do that is through as much zombie related media as they can get their hands on. When Z-Day comes you really don’t want to be that guy who’s all; “oh crap, I only played two zombie games & took a passing interest in the first season of Walking Dead… where do I aim again?” That guy’s in serious trouble.

Z War One's cast of zombies.

Frontline Gamer:  Fair enough, I do have my own zombie survival plan, you can never be too prepared. I’m even thinking of taking up archery again, you know just incase. I guess though the thing, which first made me sit up and take notice of your product, at the UK Game Expo (apart from the queue of people waiting to play it) was the inclusion of comic books in your game. How integral to Z War One are these comic books? What extra will they provide gamers with?

Rob Butler:  Around my early twenties I pretty much lost interest in video games. When I eventually did get around to picking up a control pad years later I was amazed at how something which was previously almost entirely centered on game play had evolved into this epic, story driven and incredibly cinematic experience. This, in essence, is the inspiration for Z War, we’re using the comic books in conjunction with the board game as a unique means of storytelling, which will hopefully provide a deeper and more emotionally engaging experience for gamers.

FLG:  You’ve said to me that the plan is to release comic books to expand Z War One at regular intervals. So over a 12 month period how many of these comic books can we expect to see? What’s the plan with them?

RB:  The first season is 6 issues long, we’re actually launching with issue 2 finished as we felt it was important to really get across to people from the get-go the way this is going to work. Subsequent issues will be released every 3-4 months.

FLG:  The comic books are supposed to set the scene and tell us the back story for Z War One aren’t they? Who is responsible for drawing and indeed writing the comic books? Plus do you have any page layouts you’d be willing to share with us so we can see what to expect from them?

RB:  All the Z War artwork is done by Ben Milnes, a super talented guy that we really got lucky getting onboard at such an early stage. The stories themselves are written by yours truly. I actually have a full preview of one of the chapters along with a sample battle report which you’re welcome to have the exclusive reveal of!

FLG: Exclusive reveals are always good Rob! I'll definitely post it up when it is ready. The plan is that these comic books will then introduce new miniatures, both on the zombie side of things and the heroes, as well as new missions to play isn’t it? How will this work? Could you talk us through it?

RB: Basically, each issue of the comic book will expand the co-operative campaign. Each issue has a different kind of flavor to it, kind of like the 80’s style TV shows where, whilst there was an over-riding story arc, each episode was still a self contained story.

The stuff we’re working on at the moment for issue 3 has a very Terminator kind of vibe to it, you’re out and about doing missions but throughout the whole issue you have this hulking, unrelenting “meat tank” hunting you down. It’s playing really great at the moment and gives the game a very different feel from the previous issues.

That’s the great thing about the comic book format; we can change up the game play continuously and keep it fresh. It also allows us to add loads of really cool game mechanics in small; easy to digest chunks, so nobody feels overwhelmed by it, but by the time we’re a few issues into the season we have a really deep, ever expanding rule set.

FLG: You say terminator vibe, but I bet you mean 'Nemesis', but that's cool. If you were describing to somebody what Z War One plays like, a sales pitch if you will, what would you say about the game?

RB:  It feels a lot like a video game, you have the comic books acting as a cut scene introducing the missions, and then the pacing of the missions is dictated by several scripted or “timed” events to push the action in a more cinematic manner. In terms of game play I think we have a good balance, you can have a blast with friends and a few beers but it’s definitely still a thinking man’s game.

FLG: Having played the two missions I did with you, and also having seen the comic I think the video game analogy is a fair one. Currently what’s your thinking with regards to what you are likely to get in the base product and what sort of cost are we looking at?

RB: The starter set (Issue 1) comes with the first comic/rule book, the boards & doors, counters, cards, ammo/award tracking sheets & of course the 22 metal figures. We’re looking at a retail price around the £50 mark.

FLG: How long would a game of Z War One normally take? When designing the game what was your target time? Is Z War One designed to be an in-depth tactical thoughtful zombie game, or is it a pick up and play quick romp, where you can get a couple of games in during a gaming session? Where does it sit on that spectrum?

RB: I’d say that we’re a pick up and play game but with tactical game mechanics. Game times vary between 1-2 hours depending on the chapter & how familiar the gamers are with the rules. When we’re developing missions we always work to what we call “the two P’s” Pacing & Peril. If it doesn’t feel like you’re in constant danger & on the verge of catastrophe then the mission needs a re-think. The difficulty for us is that as players gain XP and start beefing up their characters using the perk system it gets harder and harder to make them feel vulnerable, so this is when we have to start introducing other factors to really ramp up the anxiety! I was watching “Deep Blue Sea” and there’s a sequence in that movie where the heroes are crawling across a ladder that’s breaking, the roof above them is on fire and large chunks of it are raining down on them, the pipe below them is filling up with water & on top of that, the water is full of genetically modified super sharks. That’s the level of peril we’re aiming for.

FLG: Oh man you were doing so well, and you had to go mention Deep Blue Sea!!! I’ll let you off this once. You’ve commissioned a number of sculpts for the game so far. How many have you commissioned and who has been doing the sculpting work for you?

RB: Our sculptor is an incredibly talented guy called Iain Colwell, he’s taken on ten minis for us so far and I couldn’t be happier with them, when we were looking around for someone to do our sculpting Iain’s work really stood out from the crowd for the level of detail & emotion he can get into his figures. The stuff he’s just finished for Issue 2 is very cool indeed. He has his own site here: Tengu Models with some other great zombie/bio horror stuff on.

FLG: Thanks for the link I'm sure some of my readers will be happy to check them out. I also noticed on your Facebook page that you’ve been working on a short zombie film. So do you fancy yourself as a budding George A Romero?

RB:  God no! The amount of effort that’s had to go into making something a mere 3 minutes long has pretty much put to bed any delusions I had of being a filmmaker. My director Helene Michaelides has done a fantastic job with it though, I think it will enhance the overall Z War experience and possibly serve to pull in some interest from outside of the usual board gaming crowd.

FLG: So you aren't planning on doing a feature length film anytime soon then I guess. So when can we expect to see the film? Is it going to be part of your Kickstarter campaign?

RB: Yes, it will feature on the Kickstarter, the whole film thing was just one of those “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if” kind of moments that everyone was so excited about we just ended up running with. It’s ended up being a crazy amount of work but it’s been a fun experience. I still can’t get over how many people volunteered their services to get it made; folk really are mental for anything zombie related these days.

FLG: I’ve got to ask, given how much zombie source material there is out there right now, what zombie films, comic books, games and even TV series’ have influenced you while developing Z War One?

RB: Far too many to count! Not just zombie stuff either, we’re absolutely loaded with subtle and sometimes not so subtle nods to sci-fi/horror/geek stuff that’s close to our own hearts. I would say that probably the biggest influences in making this have been Spacehulk and Resident Evil 4. As a kid playing Spacehulk with my friends, there was genuine fear there, I remember watching the board being set up and feeling some real anxiety about what was coming. That’s the kind of vibe we’re going for, and in my honest opinion I think we’re getting it right. After literally hundreds of play tests there’s a certain chapter in the first issue that still well and truly puts the willies up me!

FLG: So what would you say the tone for Z War One is? I’ve personally noticed an awful lot of zombie boardgames and card game products go for the comedy element, things like Zombie Fluxx and Munchkin for example. Where have you pitched the Z War One universe?

RB: I know there’s a lot of it out there but I’m really not a fan of the 'campy' approach, Z War is DARK. Sure, there’s some humor in there, but it’s pretty dark humor.

FLG: You’ve already confirmed you guys will be doing a crowd funding / Kickstarter campaign. Are you any closer to knowing when that will go live, and what sort of things we can expect from the campaign?

RB: We’re launching the Kickstarter at the end of February now. We already have the various pledge options ready to go. We’re doing a special edition which ships with issues one & two plus there are some great potential bonuses on there, my personal favorite being a completely separate 1 on 1 “versus” game called “Agent Z” (which heavily features some of those not-so-subtle nods I mentioned.). We’re also offering a limited number of sets painted up by our friends over at Golum Paint Studio, which should be something pretty special.

FLG: Obviously I have to bring up the Zombicide Kickstarter from Cool Mini or Not and Guillotine Games. It was insanely successful wasn’t it? Does that give you hope that there are gamers out there willing to drop that sort of cash on good zombie based product, or does it make you concerned that maybe they’ve already exhausted that pool of potential customers? Especially with the likes of Zpocalypse also having had good recent runs on Kickstarter?

RB:  The way I see it the “zombie apocalypse” is like an unlicensed franchise, you have this huge zombie fan base out there, comparable to or maybe even bigger than something like Star Wars, but as a developer you’re free to play in this universe without ending up in court. For us, we’re trying to introduce this whole “comic book board game” concept to the market, we need a serious amount of exposure for that to work, and the massive existing zombie fan base provides us with just that. In short, we’re launching a totally fresh & unique product in an incredibly popular market place, which can only be a good thing…

FLG: Well thanks for having this chat with me and let us all know about Z War One. I look forward to seeing what the finished product looks like.

So there it is, the scoop on Z War One, the latest zombie game to enter the fray. there's no question that there is something enduring about zombie games, why else would there be so many? The question though will remain whether there are just too many.For me at this 28mm type scale of game there are two heavy weights vying for my attention, they are the venerable Last Night on Earth, a game that I love, and the new pretender to that crown Zombicide. Both offer simple, but challenging objectives and mass zombie slaying fun. Last Night though is adversarial with players taking the side of either the zombies or the survivors, this is what gives that game its tension. I won't wax too lyrically about it because it might preempt my review of that product tomorrow, suffice to say it has it's own unique place in the pantheon of good zombie games. Zombicide is different in feel and play, primarily because it's a co-operative affair, with players supposedly working together as they take on the mindless zombie hordes, there movements set and governed by predetermined rules. It's fun too, in a different way and has already become quite popular amongst my group of friends.

The heroes from issues 1.

So what of Z War One? Where does Z War One fit it? Well for starters there's the fact that it is narrative driven, far more so than these other two products. It also has the RPG element that will stick with gamers from mission to mission, unlike Zombicides almost arcadey hero progression that only existis for that specific mission. So Z War One with it's comics and more serious tone does differentiate itself from some of the other products on the market right now. However, it'll all come down to how it plays, and whether it has enough about it to convince people to pick it over many of the other zombie games out there, or indeed to pick it up as well as the likes of Zombicide or Last Night on Earth. Because, despite there being people like me who can't get enough of zombies, there are strange people out there who only need that 'one' zombie game to sate their appetite for slaying the undead horde. Ill Gotten Games have got a fight on their hands in what has recently become an even more crowded marketplace, but they've got some new ideas to throw into the mix and I'm sure they won't go down easily in fight. So yeah, it's another zombie game to keep your eye's out for. Peace out!


  1. Can’t believe you actually posted pictures of my horrible painting! In my defence i would just like to say that those figures were painted in a hotel bar at 2am during the UK Games Expo.

    Let them serve as a warning to anyone contemplating painting a set of miniatures after 5 pints of Peroni... :)

    Thanks for the article Jody, and thanks again for your help & advice.


    1. Excuses, excuses, excuses... but as they go it's a good one! :P

      I'm more than willing to play new games and give feedback Rob, so it was a pleasure. Now get back to work on making it awesome. Chop, chop! ;)

  2. I really like the concept here.

    The blending of a graphic novel to tell the story, RPG and character development, and a dark atmosphere, seems like the perfect zombie game.

    I think there is room in the market for a more RPG driven zombie game, especially with such rich source material (i.e. comics for each instalment). As was pointed out, most zombie games are either really lighthearted and lightweight, or are just a slaughter fest, akin to Left For Dead.

    Personally, I'm far more keen on a dark, gritty, RPG based game, where resources are limited and tough decisions need to be made. All out shoot 'em ups are cool, but really lack the depth and tension that I crave from the setting.

    I hope there is plenty of focus on the "campaign" aspects of the game, in terms of character development, skills, equipment, etc. If this can be achieved with good, balanced gameplay, then I think Rob will be onto a winner.

    I'll be keeping my eye out for Z War One.

    And as always, great interview.

    1. The concept is sound, and if they continue to refine the game and tweak the odd bits and bobs it'll no doubt be a sound game as well. The biggest problem they'll have is pushing their way into a crowded marketplace with some big heavy hitters. However, they're more than aware of the challenge and seem totally up for it, so I'm sure they'll be able to give it a damn good shot I really am. I'll be keeping an eye on what they get up to.