ZONA ALFA, the new skirmish wargame written by Patrick Todoroff and published by Osprey’s beloved “blue book” imprint, is a peculiar and delicious take on post-apocalyptic tabletop gaming. Inspired by the crumbling visuals and moody storytelling in video games like STALKER and Metro 2033, ZONA ALFA provides a toolkit for players who want to recruit a crew of men and women forged in the crucible of the Cold War, equip them to explore the enigmatic Exclusion Zone — braving the otherworldly anomalies and inhuman adversaries therein — and hopefully see them return to their favorite watering hole with riches and stories to tell.
Osprey has kindly provided Comrade’s Wargames with an advance copy of ZONA ALFA, which will be published in late January 2020. This review will touch on what you can expect in terms of tone, setting, and gameplay. I’ll also sprinkle in some photos of games I’ve played in the Zone over the years.
On a personal level, I’ve been enamored with STALKER-inspired wargaming for more than a decade. I’ve followed Todoroff’s blog, the aptly-named Stalker7, for most of that time. The unique aesthetic of this style of gaming is inspired by the decaying urban and industrial landscape you can find in real-life places like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where detritus from half-remembered Eastern Bloc facilities and bunkers lies abandoned, often reclaimed by vegetation and punctuated by supply caches and cast-off military equipment. Tabletop games set in the Zone are heavy on exploration and risk-taking, and you can be assured that the places you choose to send your crew will certainly be populated by horrific things that need to be dispatched with terrible prejudice. The rulebook is peppered with short, two-sentence lore snippets, dripping with Soviet fatalism, that hint at the dangers and wonders of the Zone.
Truly, the milieu that Todoroff has captured in ZONA ALFA fires the imagination in a way that few other post-apoc settings do.
It’s also a hobbyists’ dream. I’ve spent the last decade gleefully collecting any 28mm figure wearing a gas mask, reasoning that it will be only a matter of time before they, too, get tapped to go on a Zone run. ZONA ALFA doesn’t have a dedicated miniatures line, and Todoroff encourages you to use whatever figures you wish in your games. Personally, I’m enamored with the pitch-perfect offerings from Lead Adventure Miniatures’ The Last Project line of post-apoc scavengers, as well as the gritty near-future troopers available from Pig Iron Productions. Likewise, the Zone offers an opportunity to tackle all manner of terrain projects, from crashed helicopters to ruined buildings to rusted machinery.
From a gameplay perspective, ZONA ALFA offers a toolkit approach best suited to friendly, narrative-style skirmish games on a 3×3 foot table (or 4×4 for larger games). Players build “crews” composed of scavengers, trespassers, adventurers, loners, killers, explorers, and robbers and then send them on daring runs into the Zone. They’re nominally opposed by one or more competing players, but more often than not the players will find themselves squaring off against “zone hostiles” — NPC enemies spawned at various points on the battlefield and controlled by a basic AI system. Avoiding, defeating, or exploiting these roving packs of horrors create some of the more innovative gameplay elements in ZONA ALFA.
For your crew, individual models are rated based on their experience level: rookie, hardened, or veteran. Obviously you’ll pay more to recruit a crew member with more skill, but in general players should expect to field between 5 and 10 figures in a typical crew. ZONA ALFA is meant to be played WYSIWYG (“what you see if what you get”), and the wargear rules are streamlined to support this — no fiddly point costs for red dot sights or climbing ropes. Just choose your figure, note his experience level, and fill out your (initially limited) slots for weapons, gear, and skills.
On the battlefield, players are encouraged to develop scenarios that challenge their crews to accomplish specific goals on the tabletop, rather than simply doing the default “kill ’em all” scenario that plague so many wargames. Example scenarios might include crossing the map to reach a crippled truck, going door-to-door in an abandoned village searching for survivors, or fueling up a generator so your crew can activate a pressure hatch and descend into a subterranean bunker.
While ZONA ALFA probably qualifies as “rules lite” (and thus, by default, wins endorsement from Comrade’s Wargames), this ruleset definitely features some crunch. With a relatively low number of figures and a fairly dangerous tabletop environment to explore, ZONA ALFA goes all in on the tactical options. Most figures have just a handful of stats, but the tabletop itself adds quite a few options to the mix. For example, there are four different levels of cover provided by terrain, plus another modifier for being elevated, plus (usually) a modifier if the model has some basic camouflage. That’s quite a bit to keep in your head, and it’s a good reminder that terrain matters in this game — a lot!
Likewise, ZONA ALFA provides rules for things that I would otherwise handwave away in a typical skirmish game. Things like climbing and jumping rarely matter much in my games, but they’re described in detail in the rulebook.
Lastly, the gear list tends toward the “tacticool,” with more than a few options that are straight out of popular video games. Again, this is understandable given the subject matter that Todoroff is exploring.
Combat is d10-based and features familiar mechanics like attacks rolls and armor saves. But ZONA ALFA takes this one step farther by adding a tier of outcomes for attacks that wound but don’t kill. The “pin” mechanic is simple but dangerous…pump a few rounds into that low concrete wall, and even if you don’t hit the guy behind it, he’s liable to hunker down for a turn or two and try to crawl into his helmet.
Taken together, you’re left with a rules lite game that nonetheless packs a lot of options into the nooks and crannies. Players who want to try out real-world tactics like moving through cover and blind-tossing grenades through doorways will find a lot to chew on. I’m looking forward to exploring the game system in more detail in our first play-through.
So far, we’ve discussed the basics of a solid near-future skirmish wargame. Where ZONA ALFA really shines, however, is how it models the Zone and its savage inhabitants. Before each game, the players jointly describe the overall Mission Objective and the Zone Threat Level, then they place one or more “hot spots” on the battlefield. These are locations outside of the scenario’s Mission Objective that provide additional opportunities for exploration and salvage. As an example: in our game, we decide that we’re going to see who can retrieve the crate of grenades from the abandoned military outpot. The crate of grenades is the Mission Objective, but we put down two additional “hot spots” which represent additional areas to explore, if the players are feeling brave.
Exploring both Mission Objectives and hot spots always triggers “zone hostiles” — everything from rabid dogs to howling mutants. To see what you get, you’ll need to roll on the table that corresponds to the Zone Threat Level of your battlefield. Once spawned, zone hostiles are controlled using a basic AI system to direct their movement and attacks. Savvy players will find ways to steer these baddies toward their opponent, leaving them free to ransack the battlefield while their opponents are blasting away at zombies and radioactive centipedes.
After a few Zone runs, you may find your guys acquiring loot and improving their equipment. The game has a well developed campaign system … with an actual victory condition for your crew! Accumulate the equivalent of 10,000 bucks, and your guys can retire to a dacha in the countryside. How about that?! Of course, a grisly demise in a forgotten patch of forest is a much more likely outcome…
In conclusion, this game is a really remarkable example of one author’s singular creative vision and his ability to bring that vision to a wider audience. I shouldn’t be surprised, really, because Todoroff is also a speculative fiction author, so he’s well versed in both creating content and hitting deadlines. Just reading the rulebook has got me fired up to build terrain (good thing, because there’s a terrain-making competition running this month over on the ZONA ALFA Facebook group).
Well, that’s my report. It’s getting late and I can hear thunder in the distance. Lean in close while the fire’s still warm, comrade. I’ll take first watch tonight.