Good Dog, Bad Zombie is a cooperative game for three to five players. It can be described as Homeward Bound meets The Walking Dead. It’s a game about doing everything you can to build a place to call home. It’s a game about dogs rescuing humans. It’s a game about sticking together, through thick and thin. It’s a game about dogs fighting zombies. It’s adorable and horrifying, all at once.
As I develop the game, I’ll be making periodic updates about the game design process to share. I feel comfortable starting this effort now, as the core mechanics of the game have stabilized (hopefully, fingers crossed), though there will still be plenty of small and medium sized changes to make.
In Good Dog, Bad Zombie (GDBZ), players are chasing away zombies in twelve different locations (ranging from “the Kennel” to “the Spooky Swamp”) in order to save humans, and then bring them back to their home territory. (Kind of like Lassie, but with zombies instead of wells.) Each player is playing as one dog in the pack, and if the dogs bring home ten humans, the humans are able to build a new home – and the players win! However, if too many dogs and humans die (or “go to the farm,” as it’s called in GDBZ) and if there are too many zombie outbreaks, then the feral tracker will reach 10. Once this happens, the pack of dogs becomes feral and wild, and they no longer care about rescuing humans – and so the players lose.
In addition, players must interact with events. Some are good, like “SQUIRREL!”, while others are bad, like “A really, really loud thunderstorm.” These either have immediate effects or present decisions players must make as a team or individual. (There are some occasional longer story-prompt events as well that tell the overall story of the zombie apocalypse.)
Recently, I play tested the sixth iteration of Good Dog, Bad Zombie. Overall, it went really well. (The playtesters even asked to play another round after we finished the first one, which I feel is pretty much the best game design compliment possible.) At the same time, there was still room for considerable improvement. Here’s what I learned about what worked and what needed work.
- The flavor. People really seemed to enjoy the cards in the game, and the temporary “art” that is being used until custom art is produced. There’s a lot of humor in the game. The juxtaposition of adorableness and horror also played off each other nicely. There was a lot of laughter, awwws, and groans. People were pretty frequently shouting “YES!”, which felt good
- Dogs getting adopted. There’s a mechanic in the game where after your dog rescues a human, the human adopts your dog. You discard your current dog and take a new one. People thought this was cute and also allowed them to see more dogs. (Seeing more dogs had been a request from a previous playtester.) But because most dogs have different abilities, it also made sure the game didn’t become stagnate.
- Call of the pack. This is a mechanic that I came up with to try to emphasize participation even if it’s not your turn, while also de-emphasizing quarterbacking (one person telling everyone else what they should do). That’s a general thing that many cooperative games struggle with, and so I wanted GDBZ to address it head on. With call of the pack, if a player plays a card with a dog symbol on it that matches a card with a dog symbol you have, you can play that card with the matching symbol even if it’s not your turn. So basically the current player starts a call of the pack when they play a card, and any player with a matching symbol may respond to the call if they have a card with the matching symbol. This also allows for some fun combos. In previous playtests, I had players say this was an aspect that really kept them attentive and focused the whole game, and they liked being able to contribute on other player’s turns.
- Helping each other. In GDBZ, there are some features that don’t give you the choice between helping yourself and helping everyone – you just have to help everyone. For example, there’s a mechanic called “Sniff” – it allows not only you to draw a new card, but all players to draw a new card. This emphasizes interactivity even when it’s not your turn.
- Core System. Even though there were plenty of rough patches and things to fix, people commented that the gameplay was fairly smooth and easy enough to pick up, and that the core system of the game is solid. That’s a relief.
- Chasing Away Zombies. In order to chase away zombies, you roll a custom “dog die.” Four sides have a paw. If you successfully roll a paw, you remove a zombie token from your area. However, one side of the die has a HIT, and another side has a DOUBLE HIT. If you roll a hit, your dog takes one wound and you don’t remove the zombie. If you roll a double hit, it’s the same but your dog takes two wounds. This means that the attempt to chase off a zombie is likely to go your way, but there’s the possibility that a zombie could harm you instead and you’ve lost one of the precious actions you get on your turn (measured by “sleepy tokens”). This can ruin the best laid plans. This balance seemed to go well and was fun.
What Needed Work and Possible Solutions To Try Out
- Problem – too many dice. There were too many dice in this version of the game. The primary culprit was the fact that at the end of your turn, you had to roll two dice: one was to determine if you were drawing an event card or adding zombies to the board, and the other was determining what places you were adding zombies to if you were adding zombies. Two sides of this die said E (draw an event), three sides said Z1 (add one zombie to each place you’re adding zombies to), and one said Z2 (add two zombies to the places). Besides having too many dice to roll and pass around, that’s just a clunky and un-intuitive and confusing way of doing things. Solution to try out: Eliminate the zombie/event die, and just roll the number die at the end of your turn, and always just add one zombie to each Place that has the corresponding number. This means drawing event cards needs to be triggered by something else. (More on that below.)
- Problem – Scaling of the game was a bit off, it needed more zombies! Once the players got the upper hand on the zombies, the game was pretty much on lockdown. And while it was still fun to play, their wasn’t much tension. This even happened when we played a second time, at a harder level setting. Solutions to try out: I actually think the above solution with altering the dice will help out with this problem too, as it’ll ensure that zombies are added to the board every turn, no matter what, instead of there being a 1 in 3 chance that it’ll happen. But also, I think reducing the number of zombies there are allowed to be on a space from four to three will be a big factor. Once a place is maxed out with zombies, any human on that place gets eaten, and there’s a zombie stampede – which means zombies spread out to all adjacent places. Only a couple stampedes happened in the last version of the game. With this new model, I think we’re more likely to see the spread of zombies. In addition, I’m scaling back some of the power of some of the dog’s cards, which will make it harder to remove zombies.
- Problem – Ambushes, a boring and clunky mechanic/gameplay feature from an old version of the game. In the very first version of Good Dog, Bad Zombie, the whole game was based around ambushes. You went into a place, you found a human that needed to be rescued, then you were ambushed – maybe by zombies, maybe by evil humans, maybe by a colony of feral cats, a zombie with no legs, and so on. This was a completely different game. But this mechanic was so important that dogs even had special stats based around ambushes. Slowly, as the game adapted, ambushes became less important, and they were even folded into the events deck. But still, they were there, and the dogs stats based around them were still there. But eventually this feature got stripped down so much that the ambushes just became boring cards that made you roll the dice a whole bunch of extra times. The difficult thing about just deleting the ambushes, though, was that they did serve one important role: giving dogs extra wounds and making it so you had to occasionally discard rescued humans you had (and send them to the farm). Solutions to try out: Delete the ambushes entirely, and then increase the difficulty of the event cards themselves, thereby transferring the role the ambushes served into the events. Also delete the Dog Stats that had to do with ambushes, therefore making the dog cards simpler, too (another pro!)
- Problem – when to draw events. As mentioned above, drawing events was previously a part of rolling a zombie/event die at the end of the turn, which was way too clunky. It also turned out to be unreliable. Sometimes we were drawing way too many events and not adding enough zombies, sometimes we weren’t drawing enough events at all (and sometimes, too many of those events were ambushes, which wasn’t fun). Solutions to try out: Instead of rolling the die to see if you’re drawing an event, incorporate the events into the Places. A few places had “clearing this place of zombie” effects – namely, drawing a Reward card, healing all dogs (like at The Vet), and so on. So in dialogue with my playtesters, we determined that it’d be fun to actually make you draw event cards after you clear places of zombies. I did have to do some tweeking of the rules to make sure players couldn’t just avoid clearing spaces and therefore drawing events. But hopefully this will now turn into a strategic decision: do we unnecessarily leave zombies on the board, which is a risk, or do we draw an event, which is a different risk?
- Problem – Dog Stats. Certain dogs were overpowered or underpowered. Certain dogs had too many abilities or not enough. And if one dog had two abilities, and the same number of actions as every other dog, well that the player playing as that dog was just going to have a lot more to do. Solutions to try out: Diversify the dogs a bit more. If one dog has a lot of abilities, scale down how many wounds they can have and the number of sleepy tokens (actions per turn) they can have.
Problem – Too many humans: The inverse of the zombies problem was the humans. Once you rescued a human, you rolled the die and added two new humans to the board. And remember, you need to save 10 humans to win the game. While this had a multiplying effect, I figured it’d actually make the game harder, because there would be more humans to be eaten by zombies, which would cause the zombies to spread and the feral tracker to move up. But because the zombies weren’t totally working out, there were just a ton of humans and it was way too easy to win. Solutions to try out: Make the game have more zombies (see above), and limit the number of humans there can be on the board at a time to five. Also, only make a Place able to have one human at a time. This means if another human would be added to, say, The Old Downtown Now Covered in Wreckage, but there’s a human already there, you just don’t add the human to that Place.
- Problem – a lack of balance between abilities. There were way too many cards that allowed you to heal dogs (which made it so people never lost a dog), and not enough cards that allowed you to do some of the other game mechanics (like bark, bite, sniff, etc.). Some players ended up with just a huge amount of healing cards in their hands, which didn’t feel great. Solutions to try out: Pretty simple, just try to redistribute the number of abilities between the different cards and see if it feels any better gameplay wise.
- Problem – discarding didn’t feel very fun. Even though players didn’t mind it, I didn’t like Events that made players discard cards. It just felt non-interactive; I don’t like taking away players opportunities to do things. The game should be able to punish players, but just like the mechanic of “skipping turns” – which is probably one of my least favorite of all time – I don’t like making the game harder by making it less playable.
Well, those are the highlights of many of the things that went well, in addition to the problems and the solutions I’ve brainstormed. Hopefully these work out! Find out next time on… Good Dog, Bad Zombie progress report!