Mall of Horror
# 8 on my "Top 10 Negotiation Games" list
I had heard about Rette Sich Wer Kann, also known as the "Lifeboat" game, on the 'net - often listed as an example of "mean and nasty" games. In the game, players voted to see who was thrown out of the lifeboats each turn. Because of this irreverent yet interesting idea, I was intrigued and sought to play or get a hold of a copy. I soon found this to be difficult, almost impossible, at least on a limited budget. Then, at the Origins conference, I was able to play a pre-release copy of Mall of Horror (Asmodee Editions, 2005 - Nicolas Normandon). After the tremendous success of Dungeon Twister - one of my top twenty games - I was expecting high things from Asmodee, and Mall of Horror delivered.
Mall of Horror was a fun game which simulated Rette Sich Wer Kann. Instead of voting about survival in a lifeboat, however, players vote who survives the atrocious attacks of Zombies on a mall. The theme is a horrific one, yet it's entirely fantastic; so it doesn't bother me too much. The artwork is a little dark, but the gameplay is a lot of fun. It's full of feisty negotiations, frenzied speeches, and just a lot of back-and-forth between players. There's little randomness, with the fate of your game being held in the hand of your opponents. Folks who are fans of smooth talking their way to victory will really enjoy this experience.
A board representing a small town shopping mall is placed on the table, with six numbered areas - each representing a store or area of the mall (# 1 - Restrooms, # 2 - Clothing Store, # 3 - Megatoys, # 4 - Parking Lot, # 5 - Security HQ, and # 6 - Supermarket). Each room has a number of thumbtacks pictured on it, representing the maximum occupancy of the room (from three to six) - except the Parking Lot, which has unlimited occupancy. Each player receives three characters - a Gunman (worth three points), a Tough Guy (worth five points), and a "pin-up" (worth seven points). Players also receive a voting wheel which can be spun to point at any of the six room numbers or any player's color. Four six-sided dice are placed in a special dice box, and a deck of twenty-one action cards is shuffled and placed next to a pile of plastic zombies. The oldest player is given the Chief of Security badge, and then setup occurs.
Each player, starting with the Chief, rolls two dice and places one of their characters in a location that matches either number. After all characters of all players have been placed, one player rolls the four dice and places one zombie outside of the room that matches each number rolled. The first round begins, made up of six phases.
First, the players who own characters that are at the parking lot location must decide who gets to search the vehicles in the lot. After negotiation, each player takes their voting wheel and votes for one player. When the votes are revealed, the player with the most votes wins with each character giving one vote and the Gunman giving two. In case of a tie, all players - even those who don't have a character in the room - vote. In case of another tie, no one wins. The winner draws the top three cards from the location, examines them, keeps one, gives one to another player of their choice, and then places the other at the bottom of the pile. This pile may and probably will run out during the game.
Then, there is an election between the players with characters in the Security HQ as to who will become Chief of Security. This election occurs the exact same way as the previous election, with the winner taking the badge as a reward. This player then rolls the four dice in the dice box and secretly looks at them if they won the Security vote this round. He can give out as little or as much information about this roll as he chooses. All players then choose, using their voting wheels, a destination room where they plan to move one of their characters.
Players reveal their wheels; but before they move, the dice are revealed, and one zombie is added to each room matching the numbers. Starting with the Chief, each player MUST move one of their characters to the destination room. If they can't, because it's full, they must move to the Parking lot. After all players have moved, an extra zombie is moved to the room that has the most people, and one more to the room that has the most "pin-ups". Then, the zombies attack.
Each room, starting with # 1, is checked. The number of zombies is compared to the number of people (tough guys count as two people). If the zombies equal or exceed the humans, then one person in that room must die. Voting for the sad victim is done like the previous votes. The person who unluckily receives the votes must kill their victim and remove that character along with all the zombies. The Parking lot is an exception - each zombie there will kill one character. The next round then begins. If at anytime a player has all their characters killed, they still participate in group votes and can also place one zombie (they come back) at the location of their choice in the next round.
The cards do a variety of things that greatly help a player.
- Weapons, such as a chainsaw or grenade, will kill one or two zombies at a location.
- Threat cards give a player an extra vote.
- Security Cameras will allow a player to look at the dice rolled, just like the Security Chief.
- Hardware adds one person to a room for when comparing the people's number to the zombies'.
- Sprint allows a player to move to a room of their choice during the movement phase.
- Hidden allows a player to not be thrown out in a zombie vote, but they can't vote either.
After a round, if all the characters are in the same room, or if there are four or less characters left alive, the game ends. At this point, each player totals the value of their people who are left alive. The player with the highest total is the winner. In case of ties, the player with the most cards wins!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The game gets a very high grade in quality - everything is top notch. The player characters are large round wooden tokens with sticker pictures of the characters on them. The voting wheels are rather clever, with a hole in them that rotates to show a room, and an arrow on the side that points to one of the six different "teams" in the game. Each "team" has a different color, and a different look; although each "pin-up", "tough guy", and "gunman" has the same basic template, they look like clones, in different outfits. For example, one team is the "Rednecks", one the "Cops", etc. This adds a light hearted feel to the game. However, the rest of the artwork, all over the cards, the board, the box, etc. is quite grim, evoking a zombie feel of the darkest depths. Blood is splattered over everything, and bloody fingerprints can be seen on many of the cards. I wish the artwork wasn't quite so dark, but some people might enjoy the dour look. The game includes some special cards that "Shut down" a location after it gets eight zombies at it. Everything, including the cool gray plastic zombies (that I'm sure many people will paint) fit in a nice plastic insert in the large square box.
2.) Rules: The eight pages of rules are written in a thematic formatting but include many illustrations and are quite easy to understand, even though white font on a dark background is slightly harder on the eyes. The rules for the game are quite easy, as long as players realize the importance and dangers of the Parking lot and the differences amongst their characters, they will do fine. The hardest rule to get through people's heads is the fact that the number they dial when moving is the number they are moving TO, not FROM. In the games I've played, that mistake has been made multiple times in every game. Other than that, the game has worked easily both with adults and teens (I wouldn't recommend it for young children; it's too gruesome).
3.) Theme: Finally, a good game that really has the evocative feel of a zombie "B-movie" horror flick! Even though I'm not overly fond of the darker artwork, I can't deny that it's easy to immerse oneself in the theme. Players talk about zombies, make shrieks as their characters get devoured, and mimic the noises when they use the shotgun weapon, etc. The zombies are relentless, and keep coming, and coming, and coming. It gives one the shivers.
4.) Negotiation: But theme alone does not a good game make. The heart of Mall of Horror is the fact that players must constantly negotiate with one another to come out on top. It's like a shorter, meaner version of Diplomacy. Yes, you can make an alliance with another player (I've seen it happen) to come out on top, but in all likelihood, the other players will gang up on the both of you and feed you to the walking dead. A player simply can't have everything; no sane group of players will allow a player to constantly get all the cards and be the Security Chief, so a player must constantly seek to just get what they can. Deals are made and broken - in fact, the tagline is "Survival is in the Betrayal". And boy oh boy, betrayal certainly happens in this game. I've seen yelling by teenagers, disbelief on adult's faces as their character is shoved out to the hungry hoards, and a husband complacently stab his wife in the back. This is all in good fun, of course - I make it clear before the game starts that nothing is to be taken seriously. Some of the most fun comes from the person who is the Chief of Security. They might announce something like "The bathroom looks interesting this turn." Does that mean don't go there? Does that mean that the Chief and his allies are going there? It's an interesting study in backstabbing and negotiation.
5.) Cards: The cards are powerful - especially since they break ties (this happens frequently). So a player needs to get into the parking lot to get these cards, but the parking lot is such a dangerous, awful place! And the fact that a player who gets the cards can give one to another player makes the negotiations that much richer. Players will bargain hard to get that extra card - especially as some of them, like the "Hide" card, can be game winners if played in the right situation.
6.) Characters and number of players: The "pinup" girl is a pain in the neck, as she has no special abilities except to draw in more zombies (thanks a lot!). However, since she is worth seven points, it's critical to try and keep her alive to the end. In very few games have I seen one make it to the end; it's usually mostly gunmen left alive. It's hard to keep ANY of your characters alive, and often it seems prudent to sacrifice the girl to get those cards you need, etc. A little girl character, worth one point and with no abilities, is added to each team in a three player game; but as I think the game shines with five or six and works merely okay with four, I won't find out too much how well she works. With six players, Mall of Horror is great!
7.) Fun Factor: Some people don't like games in which backstabbing, voting for someone else to take a fall, and hurt feelings occur. I normally tend to shy away from such games myself. Yet Mall of Horror's theme somehow seems to avoid this "Diplomacy" problem, and the shorter playing time (about forty-five minutes) is another positive factor. Whenever I play, I caution all players how the game works, and I have yet to see a meltdown or major argument happen. However, the game certainly has that potential; so if you have some sore losers or bad negotiators or people who simply take everything personally, you may want to avoid playing this game with them.
If you are looking for a game with a zombie theme, AND good mechanics, then Mall of Horror is the game you're looking for. It's short, has slightly mean tactics, yet its theme and fun time overcome them. Negotiation addicts will be in love with the game and will love how the fact of a player winning or losing comes down to one thing - their persuasive skills. It's an excellent group "test", a way to gauge the trustworthiness of your friends (in games, anyway), and simply a lot of fun. I've played it several times this year already and expect to play it many more. Or at least until my wife backstabs me once more!