Saturday, November 16, 2013

Deadzone (Mantic): Digital Rulebook Impressions

The Deadzone rulebook is in print!
As evidenced by Between the Bolter and Me’s first blog post, I really enjoyed Mantic’s fantasy sports game Dreadball, largely for its simple-to-pick-up rules and fast pace.  So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that Jake Thornton (creator of Dreadball) was working on a skirmish game called Deadzone. The game was designed to emulate smaller scale battles between individual squads, set in Mantic’s Warpath universe, which is their primary science fiction wargame.  Like Dreadball, Mantic used Kickstarter to raise money to produce the models, terrain, and other supplies for the game.  And while none of the models they previewed appealed to me too much, I still jumped at the opportunity to send some money their way to get the boxed game, primarily for the rules and the terrain that was to be included (after all, I figured I could use Warhammer 40k models to stand in for most of the Deadzone factions).  Fast-forward six months, and Mantic is getting very close to being ready to send out the boxed games and the different faction starter sets.  I must say that the speed at which Mantic was able to get everything produced surprised me a little and, admittedly, made me fear that perhaps things were a little rushed to meet the deadlines they placed on themselves with the Kickstarter. To help backers bide their time as they waited for their models to arrive, Mantic sent out digital copies of the finalized rulebook.  After spending a couple days reading through the book, I wanted to provide my initial impressions and comment on whether my fears about the game feeling rushed have any merit.

Anyone familiar with the rules of Dreadball will be immediately at home with the core of Deadzone.  Both are played on top of a grid to streamline movement and both use a simple dice-based system to determine whether each model successfully completes the task at hand.  Most of the time, each action requires rolling 3 dice and comparing the result on each to the model’s relevant statistic which tells the value you need to equal or exceed on the dice roll (Shoot for ranged attack, Fight for close combat, etc.) to see if any were successful (Simple tasks require only 1 success, while more difficult tests require 3 or more successes).  Often, however, many actions’ outcome depends on the opponent as well, and you need to roll more successes than your opponent in an Opposed Test (If an Enforcer is attempting to shoot a vile Plague mutant, he needs to roll more Shoot successes than the mutant rolls Survive successes to hit his target.).
The contents of the Deadzone boxed game.
Jack Thornton’s earlier game Dreadball is played on a board of hexagon-shaped tiles, each the size of a single model’s base.  Similarly, Deadzone is also played on grid, though it uses cubes instead of hexagons. Using cubes increases the number of adjacent spaces (8: 4 orthogonal and 4 diagonal), and by using cubes instead of just squares, vertical space is accounted for.  To complement the grid shapes, each game is based on dice with that many sides (Dreadball D6, Deadzone D8).  Unlike Dreadball, where each space on the board can only fit one model, Deadzone’s board is broken into 2” cubes that can fit up to 4 “regular” sized models.  This is one of the primary differences between the two games, one that makes elements of Deadzone much more abstract than its forebearer.
In a couple weeks, when they start shipping out the first copies of  the game, I hope to be snapping together some of this terrain and rolling out the tiled mat to play some hectic games of Deadzone!
To give an example of this, although the game primarily works with a “true line of sight” system (Point LOS) similar to Warhammer 40k, valuing the exact position of each model, when you move a model, it is simply placed in an adjacent 2” square, completely sans measuring.  The model can be placed anywhere within the 2” square (which could result in the model moving less than an inch [just across the line separating the squares], or up to almost 4.5” [if they transverse to opposite corners of the adjacent squares]).  Even more abstract is the cover system in the game.  It is simplified to a yes or no, either the entire cube has cover or it does not (decided before the game begins).  Any terrain in that square is just a cosmetic reminder that the square has cover.  Therefore, it does not matter if the model is actually behind the physical terrain piece; being anywhere within the square grants cover.  While some of these design elements might seem a little odd to someone accustomed to playing Warhammer 40k, I think they were implemented to make the game simpler and run more quickly.

Although the book contains the core rules, rules for items and special abilities, as well as rules for running campaigns, it is curiously lacking any form of army list, or even basic model profiles.  Similarly, it contains no rules for the different types of weapons used in Deadzone.  All of this information is provided on a set of cards that are specific to each faction. However, the first version of the digital rulebook did not contain them (it has just been updated to include the Enforcer and Plague faction cards, however).  After reading some posts on Jake’s blog, it sounds as if they intentionally did not want stat lines in the printed version of the book, mandating the use of the cards (it, however, was an oversight to not include them in the digital version of the book, as they intended for people to start playing the game). If you do a little digging around Jake’s blog, you can find printable versions of the other core faction cards, as well.  By not including even the most basic stat lines in the book, it prevents the book from being a stand alone reference and makes the game more difficult to learn. Even with the updated digital version with the cards at the back, constantly having to look to the back of the book and wade through all of the Mission and Battle cards to find the stats is not convenient. This would be easier in a printed form of the book, but navigating a pdf is more cumbersome (they could have lessened this burden by making a fully functional pdf with bookmarks, but the effort was not made to do this).  All of this is further exacerbated by the fact that there are virtually no examples present in the book (other than a few detailing movement) to show how a turn, or even a single action would play out.  I feel the omission of this material is all the more disappointing, considering that it was included in their earlier release, Dreadball.  I would much rather have the cards be a helpful supplement to what is in the rulebook, and not a replacement for it.
The Survivor, one of the Mercenaries in Deadzone and possibly my favorite model in the range. 
While the rules are clear and well written, the same time and care was clearly not put into writing the background information about the game’s setting. At its best, it comes across as an enthusatic teenager’s attempt to write a science fiction setting, and at its worst a laughable mess.  The following passage describing the Judwan assassin Wraith provides a good example of the writing (italics have been added for emphasis):

"Throughout their long and noble history, there has never been a Judwan warrior or a Judwan murderer, and certainly nothing like the psychotic assassin known as Wrath. At least, not until now. The following information has been pieced together from a variety of sources, and the truth of the matter will probably never be known for certain. The few that did know the truth of this code 8 secret operation are mostly dead. The handful that remain are running for their lives or hiding where they think he cannot find them."
"The problem is that he was trained too well."
Spelling and grammar errors, along with uninspired writing like the Wraith passage, populate the background material present in the book.  I imagine that the setting is developed further in the Warpath rulebook, although it is difficult to confirm, as the book is nowhere to be found on Mantic’s website (presumably because they are in the process of updating it?).  As the background is presented in Deadzone, it comes off as being bland and unimaginative.

The marauders capture some of the wonky and crazy energy of the Space Orks from the 2nd edition of Warhammer 40,000 (for better or worse). 
The weapons used in Deadzone are another element of the game that feels underdeveloped.  All of the weapons in the game (which again cannot be found in the book itself) are very generic, another reminder that the setting is secondary to the ruleset.  Most of the leader models are armed with: Pistol.  The other warriors tend to be armed with similarly generic weapons such as: Rifle and Big Knife.  I feel this lack of detail and care makes the game seem superficial and rushed.  I find this curious because in the brief background material contained in the book, it is clear that some of this has been fleshed out and developed further.  The Enforcers, for example, carry modified Genling 45 heavy laser assault rifles.  By simply including this in their profiles, rather then the generic Heavy Rifle, it would be a lot easier to buy into their world, but as it stands it is simply not very compelling.  I cannot help but wonder if a lot of this would have been expanded more if Mantic Games was not releasing so many games in such rapid succession.  What if they slowed down and tried to polish the games they already have, rather than continually starting new Kickstarters?  When their games are good (like Dreadball and I think Deadzone), a little extra time spent fine-tuning and polishing the games would make them that much stronger. In the long run, I think this extra care would bring more people to Mantic’s games, people who continually return whenever they release something new, rather than one-time buyers who got caught up in a Kickstarter craze and never see a reason to assemble all their models or look back.
Although the initial Enforcer models are going to be a resin plastic formula (which I have heard has improved since the initial Dreadball models thankfully) like Mantic's other models, they are working to switch them over to a hard plastic!
Despite my criticism of some aspects of the game, I still think that Deadzone looks like it will be incredibly fun game, based on a simple and intuitive rule system that supports fast brutal games, and one that also scales nicely for campaign play.  This simplicity is masked slightly by the rulebook not containing the basic faction stat lines and rules, but this is pretty minor in the long run (considering you can find them online).  It is only a shame that the same amount of care was not put into developing the universe that the game is based in. While one might argue that the universe is already established in Mantic’s Warpath, Deadzone has been marketed as a standalone game, so I feel there is no excuse.  While good writing could have breathed new life into the somewhat hackneyed science fiction upon which Deadzone is based, the poor writing instead belittles the universe and makes it seem childish.  I feel this is truly a shame, because I think it has the potential to turn a lot of people away from an otherwise incredibly promising game.  While my excitement to start using the ruleset and playing some games of Deadzone is still high (I recently supplemented my dice collection with many more D8s!), for the time being I will be using it to play games set in the 41st millennium, which I find to be a more compelling setting. Space Marines will make a fine replacement for Enforcers, and Orks an equivalent substitute for the Marauders.  I will report back when I have a few games under my belt.

-Godwyn Fischig


  1. Normally when you read reviews on the internet of games you get a splurge of half thought through sentences and no real understanding of what the author thought. You're left bewildered and muddled over what exactly is wrong with the game.

    On reading this review, I'm rather pleased the impression is the exact opposite. I know the gameplay is solid, but the setting lacklustre. I know why - the card format, but not including them, the uninspiring fluff and that the game feels rushed to market.

    I imagine that was to meet a Christmas deadline and get the thing into shops. I'm fairly certain the generic terms were used to prevent people getting bogged down in complexity - at least initially. While I love the name "Irad phase cleanser" I've no idea what it does - I can understand that a pistol is weaker than a rifle, a heavy rifle better than a rifle.

    However, an excellent review.

    1. Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment! I was a little uncertain how to approach this review, because while overall I was happy with the game, I had some serious reservations about a few elements (primarily how they handled the background material), and wanted to convey that without being immediately written off by the Deadzone community.

      There was a noticeable drop in writing quality from the rules to the background material. It is not that what they talk about is inherently bad (I am first to admit that there are a lot of stupid elements in Warhammer 40k), just that how it is portrayed in the Deadzone book made it very hard for me to take seriously.

      You make a good point about keeping the nomenclature simple for the weapons, as too much might just clutter the intuitive system. I still would have liked to see a little more variety. What is a good science fiction setting without lots of guns?! :)

  2. It's pretty obvious that this game takes its queues from Necromunda. Having generic guns gives less cool things to level.

    That said, it is possible to create good variety with simple stats and a handful of special rules.

    As for the writing quality of the fluff I'm torn. Isn't the appeal of Mantic that they are a bunch of miniature wargame fans putting out the kind of games they want to play? Having fluff that reads like mediocre fan-fiction is going to happen.

    However it really bugs me to read bad prose.

    1. Thanks for reading the post! I too see parallels to Necromunda. Although, I suppose most futuristic urban skirmish games are going to, it was so iconic a game :)

      Yeah, it is neat that Mantic is open for fan written fiction, as it builds a stronger community. I recently learned that they are putting a compilation book that is to contain a lot of background material, some of which I am sure is written by fans.

      I still feel they would benefit greatly from a good editor, one that ensures everything that gets printed does not have needless spelling errors and maintains a similar tone. For the main rulebook, something everyone who wants to play will likely read, I think really strong writing would bring more people to the game, so I was surprised by the general lack of quality in the core rulebook.

  3. Another thanks for a good review!!! I am currently reading through the digital rules (although this version has the stat cards for each current faction) and I totally agree with your assessment.. a lot of other games I have looked at/read/or played like Vor, Void/Urban War, and of course Necromunda/40K style games have had better writing that draws you in.. although I do agree that it looks like Mantic was focused on simple rules and getting the game out to it's kickstarter supporters more than developing too much fluff. That said, I did find the layout and the impressive pictures of models and terrain from a variety of angles to be quite impressive and kind of at odds with the quality of the "fluff" and fiction...

    1. Yeah, a lot of the elements of the book were very high quality. Perhaps the best part was the inclusion of painted versions of the models. I feel this particularly stands out when games like Malifaux (which I just started to play!) have no images of their models. Which is a shame because more then most companies, their models are excellent.

      Regardless, I am excited to see how Deadzone progresses. And maybe I will even get the boxed game in a few weeks, and can give a more formal review!