We recently sent a few questions to Scott van Essen, the designer Axis & Allies & Zombies. Scott provided a ton of details giving some great insight into how this game was created. He enjoyed the questions so much that he couldn’t stop writing! Thus, we have divided his answers into two parts. Part 2 will be available at a later date.

Dave Jensen: How did Axis & Allies & Zombies come to be? What’s the origin story?

Scott Van Essen: At his first all-hands meeting, our (then new) president Chris Cocks (who is a huge fan of Axis & Allies) said (paraphrasing) “we should try new things and push the envelope, like what if we did Axis & Allies … and ZOMBIES?” As it turns out, we had been bouncing that idea around the office for years, so that little nudge was all we needed to put together a team to do some exploratory design. As it turns out, it didn’t take us long to figure out that we were onto something really fun.

DJ: Tell us a little bit about the play testing process.

SVE: The system design team was me and a designer named Ryan Miller. Ryan and I first worked to establish the structure of the game and the core tenets we would be designing to. Some of these included:

    1. This was an Axis & Allies game first and foremost. The zombies should be integrated into the game at a core rules level, but we weren’t going to make any old zombie game and then slap the Axis & Allies brand onto it.
    2. The zombies should be an elemental force, not controlled by any player. We briefly considered having a third side in the game controlling the zombies, but zombies would be unlikely to have the same depth of play as the living factionsAlso, having a human controller would make zombies not actually feel like zombies—they’re supposed to be mindless after all.
    3. The zombie threat should be real and escalating, but the zombies should only be frightening in packs. Individual zombies should be merely an inconvenience, but one that can grow out of control if not managed.
    4. Humanity should feel like they’re being pushed to the brink. Long term survival should always be possible but the dam should always be on the verge of breaking.
    5. The zombies should constantly force the players to improvise and change their plans.
    6. The zombies should encourage you to fight in new areas of the board.

Initial design went for several months. We would try new mechanics for a couple games or even just a few turns. We very quickly got to the core three mechanics (destroyed units turn into zombies, cards drop zombies all over the map, and the zombie attack dice). The first two went through several iterations I’ll discuss in more detail later. The dice were almost unchanged from Ryan’s brain to the box. At first, the zombie dice had two ‘A’ sides, two ‘D’ sides, and two blank sides. That was a bit too lethal, and we strongly considered going to 8- or 12-sided dice to adjust. We realized that having a bias against the attacker brought the lethality level down to the right spot and set us up for my favorite dichotomy—that zombies are helpful to the defender in the short term, but harmful in the long term.

In this early phase of the game the zombies were different. They couldn’t occupy territory, and they could only hit your troops when you were fighting in the same territory with them. This felt good for the fighting, but was totally wrong elsewhere. There wasn’t nearly enough cost to having zombies everywhere. I wanted there to be a constant risk and drain on your resources when they were around and for players to need to clear them out. We added the zombie attack phase and put an IPC symbol on the dice. Now, when the zombies attacked, if they hit a D, they hit your troops, but if they hit an IPC, you lost the money, representing the economic damage that comes from zombies in your town. This was a fantastic concept but an awful execution. First, it was very fiddly. You’re constantly making change and taking IPCs away one at a time. The second was that it created weird situations where zombies could drain you for more than the value of the territory they were occupying. I wrestled with this problem for a while before I got to the idea of zombies capturing territories. This was one of those moments where the game crystalizes. Whole sections of rules evaporated as we realized that we could rely on the systems that the core game provided to us, and it independently solved other problems we were dealing with like how movement interacted with zombies. When that happens, you know you’re on the right path.

Once we’d gotten to this point, we were far from the final version but we had high confidence that we could get there. We switched to many months of final design and focused on balance and play patterns, making changes to the map, the setup, writing rules, and finding solutions to many of the problems described in the next couple questions.

DJ: This game has a great looking map. What was the inspiration?

SVE: I spoke with our Art Director Emi Tanji about this. She said that her goal was to make something that could be really clean and easy to read, while simultaneously being grungy and exciting and popping out at you like a zombie. “GRAH”. It was also important that the map (and all of the art and graphic design on this game) stand out with its own identity while still being true to Axis & Allies’ heritage. She and Creative Director Shauna Narciso looked to take the best elements from previous versions of the game, but they were particularly excited by the Revised Edition (2004) map with its bold colors, rich palate, and strong easy to read lines.

DJ: The blood on the money is great. Who came up with that?

SVE: That was also the work of our fantastic Art Director Emi Tanji, and she got instant agreement from everyone on the team the moment she pitched the idea. It was a real pleasure watching her find every single possible opportunity to “grunge up” the game.

DJ: The mechanic in the game that adds and moves zombies works really well. What were some ideas that didn’t work so will during play testing?

SVE: This is—perhaps unsurprisingly—the area where we explored the highest number of mechanical variations. It took a little time to figure out out goals for how the zombies were created. The first goal was that zombies would spawn in areas of conflict. This is a staple of the Zombie genre and we couldn’t imagine not using this mechanic. In fact, in my first meeting with co-initial-designer Ryan Miller our conversation went something like this:

One of us – “So, whenever a unit’s destroyed, it turns into a zombie, right?”

The other one – “Yup.”

This felt so obviously right that we initially tried to get by with only that mechanic. Unfortunately this led to way too many Zombies on the German-Russian Front and in East Asia, and far too few Zombies everywhere else.  So, we made zombies only come from Infantry units rather than all types, which got us to the correct generation rate, and we added card-based deployment of zombies to spread them all over the map and push players to fight everywhere.

The first version of the cards had the players to decide where to drop the zombies. A card might read. “An opponent puts 3 zombies in a territory with a value of 4 IPCs or more”, “An opponent puts one zombie in an empty territory and another zombie in an occupied territory”, or “Each power puts a zombie in a territory they control”. This was problematic for two reasons. The first was that it created a lot of processing at the beginning of every turn where players felt they needed to optimize zombie placement. The second was that it didn’t have that mindless zombie feel. It felt like they were following a plan, and it turns out that knowing your opponent will pick the worst spot to place them is actually less scary than random deployment.

Our creative direction on the game was that these were not “viral/infectious zombies”, but instead were “dark magic” zombies, so the second iteration of the cards had the concept of portals to the underworld that were popping up all over the world. Each of these portals had a 1-in-6 chance of spawning a zombie each turn, and the zombies could spill over into adjacent territories. This required additional pieces and a lot more rules, but more importantly the play was wrong. Instead of players rushing to portals to close them, they just wrote that territory off as forever lost.

The third iteration we called the outbreak model. It was much closer to the final version in that there was a card for each territory, but there was an added twist. We had by this point come up with the idea of zombie-controlled territories, and we wanted incentives for people to clean them up to keep them from getting out of control. In question #6 I’ll share how we got to the positive incentive you see in the final game, but we had identified the basic need early and initially thought that a negative incentive would be more flavorful and fun (that is to say, terrifying). In this version whenever a card dropped a zombie into a territory that was already zombie-controlled, it created an outbreak of zombies with an additional zombie in each adjacent territory. We liked that his version had occasional exciting moments, and that people who had played a few games were scared enough that we were shaping their behaviors in the right direction. Unfortunately, new players had to learn this the hard way, and it could quickly spiral out of control. Our most egregious example of this happened in a playtest I was watching. On Russia’s first move, they attacked West Russia but due to very good zombie rolls, both sides were eliminated, leaving a zombie-controlled territory with 4 or 5 zombies. In Germany’s zombie phase, the West Russia card came up and there was an outbreak, spreading zombies to all 7 adjacent territories, including Archangel, which Russia had vacated for its attack, then on UK’s turn the Archangel card came up and there was another outbreak. At the beginning of the third player turn of the game, there were already nearly 20 zombies on the German-Russian front turning it into an unrecoverable morass. The exciting moments of the mechanic were outweighed by the ridiculous swings it sometimes created.

We switched to a mechanic called Zombie Rage. Instead of creating a zombie, Zombie Rage had all zombies roll double dice on the turn it was revealed. Combat was extra dangerous, and trying to coexist with big stacks also went from risky to suicidal when this card came up. This was closer, but it was still too swingy, and there was no window to react before you started getting wrecked by large numbers of zombies in your territories. We moved on, but we liked the doubling, just looked to double something that was less swingy, which led us to the Escalation cards in the printed version of the game.