What started out as a simple introductory game quickly swelled to a two-on-two team slugfest, as players signed on with their scrappy crews, lured by the promise of illicit salvage in the eponymous Exclusion Zone. I rode herd on this motley assemblage as impartial (some would say sinister) gamemaster. I was pleased to get such a robust turnout for this game. Here’s a goofy photo as we prepared to brave the dangers of the Zone.
Zona Alfa draws inspiration from the crumbling, abandoned Cold War industrial heaps that you might find in the hinterlands of Eastern Europe. Players muster crews of stalkers, scavengers, and mercenaries and pit them against similarly motivated bands on the battlefield. But the Zone itself plays a huge role in each game … Zone hostiles can appear at any moment, and the very environment itself can suddenly erupt in violent fashion.
Narrative gaming is the heart and soul of Zona Alfa. For our games, we decided that the crews had heard a rumor of an abandoned supply truck parked in the shadow of the Khimbruk Electrochemical Combine, located about a mile inside the perimeter of the Zone. Surrounded by the decaying detritus of the derelict factory, the cargo truck promised a payday of salvage, loot, and more. Here’s a look at the objective.
It’s just right there, for the taking. Yeah, right…
I created some basic starting crews for the players, and then we got started. We set up a 4×4 foot table, slightly larger than the 3×3 size recommended in the rulebook, due to our surplus of players. Each side alternated by activating one figure, performing actions, and then passing play to the opposing team. The first couple of turns were focused on learning the basic game system and moving out of our deployment areas. But before too long, the players got close enough to begin exchanging some ranging volleys of automatic rifle fire as they slipped through the ruins.
We placed three hot spots on the battlefield, in addition to the main mission objective, for a total of four focal points for game action. Hot spots (and the mission objective) trigger Zone hostiles when figures get close enough (typically within 6 inches), but Zona Alfa includes a mechanic to allow players to toss bolts or rocks to trigger hot spots from up to 18 inches away. This is a mechanic that come straight out of the Stalker video game, and it gives players the chance to exploit hot spots from afar and then watch gleefully as their opponent dealt with the ensuing bad guys.
The first hot spot yielded a pack of wild dogs that had spent a little too much time digging through the radioactive slag pile behind the electrochemical plant. They were a ghastly bunch, snarling and covered in bleeding sores. Dan’s troopers paused in their advance and expertly gunned them down.
From there, the game developed into a series of running gun battles as the players lobbed grenades and laid down overlapping fire to cover their advance. John’s crew triggered the next hot spot and was able to take cover in a ruined building as a mob of giant rats scampered toward them.
Here’s another look at the battlefield a couple turns into the game.
Lawrence found himself pinned down by accurate fire from Mark’s band of mostly rookie snipers. He kept his guys in cover and advanced slowly, but Mark was able to toss a bolt and trigger a hot spot, which sent a mob of horrifying zombies shambling down the street towards Lawrence’s dangerously exposed leader.
We found that the rules for Zone hostiles were satisfying but not overly oppressive. This was probably because we were playing at Zone Threat Level 1, the “easiest” setting in the game. As you get closer to the Zone’s enigmatic center, the threats become much more dangerous. Near the perimeter, the Zone hostiles were just a nuisance. But those zombies definitely tied up Lawrence’s leader for a good portion of the game!
Elsewhere on the battlefield, savvy players were using the distraction provided by the Zone hostiles to move forward and secure other objectives. When a figure searches a hot spot, the player rolls randomly to see what has been uncovered. Often it’s salvage worth cold, hard cash outside the Zone, but occasionally you’ll run across equipment or other gear.
Here’s John’s hardened scavenger moving in to search a decommissioned air compressor next to a derelict pumping station.
Likewise, Dan wisely looted this rusted generator, stripping off any useable parts and bagging them up to be hauled back to civilization. His exploration roll resulted in an anomaly — a strange electromagnetic (or was it supernatural?) disturbance that, in this case, disintegrated his hapless trooper. Better luck next time, comrade.
The final clash of the game came when Dan’s crew approached the supply truck during a lull in the fighting. As his poor (doomed) trooper crept closer, the bandits that had been hiding in the rear of the truck sprang their trap, dropping the tailgate and coming out with AK-74s blazing. This was the result of a particularly potent roll on the Zone hostiles table. The bandits took out the trooper, then began blasting in all directions as the other crews closed in.
As the players began to strategize a way to neutralize the scavengers, Dan took it upon himself to deliver the coup de grace. His leader climbed onto the catwalk of the nearby electrochemical factory and tossed a grenade right into the midst of the bandits. Problem solved, comrade.
After that, we tallied up our loot totals and performed the after-action stuff for crew members who had been knocked out during the game. Zona Alfa has a nicely developed campaign system where players can track the acquisition of loot as well as the inevitable degradation of your crew, as repeated forays into the Zone start to take their toll on even the hardest soldier. Best to dismiss such unfortunate souls from your crew and bring on fresh recruits, if you want my advice.
The gameplay of Zona Alfa was easy to pick up after a couple turns. We loved the simplicity of the activation system, and how the Zone hostiles system scales with the overall Threat Level of the game. Basically, those same zombies will be a lot more menacing when you encounter them at Threat Level 3, instead of Threat Level 1. Overall, the mechanics were best described by one of the players as a “toolkit approach,” where the author provides a solid core rules engine with the implicit idea that players will tack on house rules and put their own spin on the game as time goes on. Despite being a casual playgroup, we were still able to punch a few holes in the rules as written and find some loopholes that could be exploited. Again, that’s easy enough handle, but groups should discuss their expectations and approach at the outset, to ensure a fun experience for everyone.
We all agreed that Zona Alfa is a superb catalyst for building terrain, painting up some fun, tacti-cool squads of Cold War antiheroes, and playing out some pitch-perfect adventures in the Zone. We’ll play this one again soon!