Jacob Fryxelius is back. Yes, Jacob “Terraforming Mars” Fryxelius is back. Talk about raising expectations. I rated Terraforming Mars as a 9 out of 10 when I reviewed it. It is not perfect, and it borrows ideas from other games, but there is something deep and meaningful to it, and those lovely shiny cubes are a joy to behold. It also plays fulfillingly as a solo game, as well as holding its head high in competitive form. However, presumably something nasty has come back in that board game box from Mars, because a virus has wiped out 90% of the population (it says here) and you and up to two other players need to cooperate to keep the resultant zombie hordes at chainsaw’s length, at least until a cure can be found.
Just the four characters against the zombie hordes.
Tense, nervous headache? Maybe it’s a zombie attack!
After The Virus arrives in a small box, similar in size to something like 7 Wonders: Duel and contains not much at all, really. Three decks of cards, a few tokens and four player boards. The component quality is ok, but the insert is a puzzle, just too narrow to accommodate the player boards laid sideways, which seems strange. Also the rulebook, sad to say, leaves a bit to be desired. In fact, I would go further and say that the entire production has the feeling of something pushed out as a side project, as a joyous but slightly indulgent whim. There are three player decks in the box, but it is up to you and perhaps two other players to work out which cards belong in which. although you will eventually discover all by yourself that they need to be identical. Sadly this is mentioned precisely nowhere in the rules, and the complete lack of baggies in the box means that the cards will intermingle and disperse with happy abandon between games, leaving prospective zombie killers with the tedious task of sorting them out once more before heading undeadwards with a chainsaw.
The art is also quirky. It is not bad, but it is certainly quirky. Big heads, small bodies, bold strokes of the pen, it has the feel of the last stage but one before publication. Thankfully it has enough humour to work, but it probably has the potential to generate strong emotions, let’s say. Also, let me quickly mention the markers for zombie waves and saved survivors – there is nothing to say which colour is which, although it does not really matter, because there are only three of each in the box, but still… So that’s the components more or less covered, apart from the fact that weapon cards do not have “weapon” written on them and a player needs to intuit that they are grey, and the same goes for vehicle cards (yellow).
Weapons are clearly weapons, but it’s not specified on the card…
How are the rules? Good in (body) parts…
What about the rules? Well, After The Virus gets you up and playing quickly, especially for those who have experience with deck builders, but playing correctly takes a little more time. For example, killed zombies go back to the zombie pile, discarded zombies go to a player’s discard pile, but what about the zombies that attack a player and die? Technically these zombies have not been killed, and I know that the difference between dying and being killed in a card game is an archetypical first world problem, but gamers learn fast that “may” and “must”, and “discard” and “destroy” mean entirely different things. So what happens to zombies who die of unnatural but non-violent causes? Hang on, it’s probably in here somewhere…ah, no it’s not.
The section about ammunition and weapons is also a little nebulous, and the fact that used ammo is discarded is only mentioned as the caption on an illustration rather than in the rules text itself. Rather than go on, let me just mention that I have popped over to After The Virus’s page on Board Game Geek and over half of the forum threads are questions about the rules. Take a deep breath, because that is a bigger proportion even than First Martians, and that gives some indication of how much more care could have been taken with the rule book.
Choose your character. They all play differently.
How does it play? With the constant sound of shuffling!
What is so galling about this slightly blurry approach to the niceties of detail is that once you get down to playing After The Virus it is actually really good, as in “likely to stay in the collection”. It begins, as most deckbuilders do, with players drawing five cards into hand and then playing them, but it contains several neat twists and turns that keep the fun going and the challenge high. Each time a player shuffles their deck the wave marker is advanced and zombie cards are added to their pile, and these need to be dealt with every time they appear in hand, else terrible consequences ensue, but the difficulty of the game lies in the neat dichotomy that cards need to be played to be table to be useful, but that in doing so the next deck shuffle comes along that little bit sooner.
The Area Deck is also hugely important, for players can scout cards from here and then pay to add them to their play area, then usually paying some more to prepare them. Paying involves discarding cards, another balance between using them as an object or as currency, but the Area Deck will provide goodies such as traps, training, medical equipment and so on, and the best thing is that it all works in a thematic way, at least as thematic as an event that is never going to happen can ever be (sorry to burst your bubbles, zombie boys). The Medkit will heal wounds, but only without any zombies in play, presumably because you need time to use it, while Gasoline enables a player to prepare traps, vehicles and weapons – nice! The Guide allows a player to “remove” 2 zombies from their discard pile, which, according to the rules, “works exactly like killing…but..does not count as killing a zombie”. Eh? This makes sense eventually, but is another example of the kind of soft-at-the-edges language in the rules.
Zombies! Kill them or discard them or remove them!
Four characters in the box – and they actually feel different!
Each of the four characters in the box also comes with a distinct skill, in much the same way as games like Aeon’s End or Core Worlds, a touch I always enjoy, but best of all is that After The Virus provides its zombie killers with a narrative campaign to play through, each of which is divided into chapters with different victory conditions. These may all be attempted individually – so it is not a legacy design – but they are intended to be experienced in order, from the initial Outbreak to The Cure, and rest assured that these challenges will keep players involved for many, many plays, because while the opening skirmishes are tricky the game quickly becomes as hard as nails. Prepare to lose over and over and over again.
The campaign swiftly becomes as hard a nails.
Helpfully each mission indicates whether it is long or short, so the intensity of the pain can be managed, but there is no escaping the fact that After The Virus is really difficult, and presents a sustained challenge to even seasoned gamers. Add in the terrible randomness of the deck building model and the ever increasing waves of zombie hordes, and you may well feel after a while as if your own brain has been scooped out and replaced with sludge.
Fun as solo or coop! But those rules…
After The Virus is a treat as a solo game, quick to set up and play, fun, and offering decisions that are not only delicately balanced but also genuinely make a difference. Add in players and it gets tougher, not just because there are more zombie cards in each player’s starting deck, but also because victory is only achieved when each player achieves the win condition. Well, I assume that this is the case. The rules actually say “until all players fulfil the mission goal at the same time”, but there is a world of difference between all players together and each player individually, and the printed phrase could mean both, especially in a rule book that wears its ambiguities so openly. As it happens, the designer has specified that it is the latter win condition, but this is tucked away in a thread on BGG, as are other rules clarifications.
Armless, legless and about to be brainless.
After The Virus has left me decidedly conflicted. I enjoy the game very much indeed, far more than I expected to, find it fun and entertaining, and I really feel as if it is going to hang around in the collection for a bit before I grow tired of being overrun by zombies for the nth time, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the nagging feeling that this is a game that has been pushed into production without rigorous enough testing of its rules. Although it is not my normal modus operandi in general, I learn review games on the fly, to experience what it would be like to throw oneself straight in and play from the ground up, and After The Virus has certainly not covered itself in glory. What clarifications there are are scattered around the rule book, which admittedly is small, and while I expect a Portal game by Ignacy Trzewiczek to send me directly to the latest FAQ without passing Go or gaining £200, After The Virus is basically a deck of cards and some tokens, so to have so many grey areas is a nagging pain.
Rules understood, it’s time for a drink.
Flawed but good! And competitive after all!
The good news, though, is that After The Virus, once learned, is really good. The art is – I’ll have to use that word again – quirky, and may not be for everybody, but I have enjoyed the theme and gameplay, the sheer depth of the decisions that Fryxelius has managed to squeeze into thirty cards or so. It also provides chuckles and giggles along the way, the Trap card being a particular favourite of mine. Yes, I like it a good deal and it will travel with me for a while, sit alongside Hostage Negotiator as my solo game of choice and as an option for luring in other unsuspecting gamers.
All these positives and negatives make After The Virus a hard game to mark. Thankfully the difficulties with the rules can be resolved fairly easily, but really the days should be long gone when something like this hits the press, especially when its problems are obvious immediately. Up and running, though, the game is just flat out fun. Difficult and frustrating fun, but fun none the less, so I am awarding After The Virus…hang on, what’s this? An official competitive variant? Don’t mind if I do, even if again I have to wonder why this was not in the original box along with all those online rules clarifications. With the variant and with the proper rules, therefore, After The Virus gets 8 out of 10, but I strongly advise you to do your research first. If you know what you are getting into this is dead good fun.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.