05th Nov2021

‘Deadzone: Third Edition’ Board Game Review

by Chris Thomas

Cards on the table. Since writing my last glowing review for something by Mantic Games I have signed up as a volunteer “Pathfinder” which is their super user program that gets people that love their games to rub them in the faces of as many people as possible. So, before I go on, I do get small perks from Mantic Games for promoting the game. Having said that, the only reason I am in the Pathfinders is I love Mantic Games, I spend almost all my hobby time and hobby money on them now, so everything I have said, or will say about Mantic is my honest opinion, and if something sucks, I will say it sucks (it doesn’t though).

It seems like good things come in threes. I jumped into Kings of War at the launch of their third edition, and I am now doing the same with their sci-fi skirmish game, Deadzone.

Deadzone and Kings of War are completely different games, with completely different design decisions and mechanics (quite aside from one being a fantasy world and the other being a sci fi universe). However, both are equally brilliant, and share the fact that the rules are made by the players, rather than by Mantic themselves. This simple fact ensures that Mantic games start from a hugely advanced position to their rivals. Their games are designed to be fun and balanced first, not to sell the latest models by making them overpowered. I love Kings of War so much that last month I travelled from my home in Germany to Cardiff (via Heathrow, getting into my Cardiff hotel at 2.30am the morning before the tournament started at 8am).

When Kings of War started out, a decade ago it found itself with a strong, albeit relatively small niche to expand into, like some wonderful gas when Games Workshop decided to troll their own players by blowing up their fantasy world and move from a rank and flank game to Age of Sigmar. A game I enjoyed for a year or so before the power creep of new stuff, and the janky rules ended up killing it for me. Starting a game, knowing you literally have no chance of winning it isn’t fun, especially when you realise that that Mantic are making games that aren’t built like this. Age of Sigmar has inevitably paid off for the shareholders of games workshop, their revenues were highly dependent on their all-conquering sci-fi property, 40k and it is against this pop culture behemoth that Mantic are now trying to carve out a big enough of a niche to make financial sense to keep investing in. Never tell me the odds, kid. The pattern of relentless 40k releases is grim(dark)ly predictable. New rule set for 40k comes out, their players give very faint praise (e.g., in 9th edition, apparently you can always activate your stuff once, even if it is blown up before it activates, no, I don’t understand, either, but this constitutes a big step forward, apparently). GW then shows off what their new models look like, and people buy a tonne of them (very expensive they are too) because they are gorgeous. Sure, the rules are broken and playing it is at best conditionally fun, but the models are nice enough to run a bypass on a gamers brain, again and again). This is the reason I now buy GW shares but Mantic Games games.

Bringing it back to Deadzone. Deadzone is a sci fi skirmish game set in their “Warpath” IP universe, which is very cool. Human society is now run by competing corporations, the biggest of which (Tesla, Amazon, Google and Wimpey Burger not among them) form the council of 7, who hold the real (and really sinister) power. Humans have pushed out from earth and have expanded out in all directions. The worlds in the centre of the human galactic empire are sleek and modern and futuristic, and utopian- albeit fascistic. But the trains do run on time. As you get further out, things get slowly less nice and more dangerous. Lots of aliens have been discovered but few (Asterians, Forge Fathers) can stand up to the awesome power of the humans superior customer service and logistics capabilities. There are however a few blips on the way to human supremacy, including space rats, Cthulhu space monsters and a mysterious space virus that comes out of really old artefacts we keep finding that is a bit like the T virus from resident evil. It turns you into a zombie, or something worse. When this happens, the planet gets covertly locked down, becoming a “deadzone” but the super secret space police (the enforcers) turn up, and proceed to murder everyone to keep the secret of this plague, and hopefully stop it from spreading, albeit they are not doing a bang-up job. As the plague is finding its way deeper and deeper into the human domain, and now suddenly, respectable people are being turned into zombies and murdered, so. Work to do there.

Once a deadzone is created, the ten playable factions all jump on the chance to run the blockade of the planet, space station or whatever as open season is declared. The plucky rebels might be looking for weapons, or intel, the orc like Marauders might be looking to rob the place blind and the Umbrella corporation, like Mazon labs might be trying to try out their latest terrible secret bioweapons, if they didn’t cause the deadzone, in the first place.

To play you need about 10 or 12 models, and no tape measure, as the game is split into 3d cubes to measure shooting or movement. This doesn’t make tactical positioning any less important than in Kings of War, like in Kings, movement and positioning are what makes you a good player (or in my case, a mediocre one) but that is what I find the most interesting thing in gaming.

At the start of the turn, both players will roll several special dice that can give powerful extra actions to their models in their turn. A leader might get to use their special ability, by spending one of these dice, a sniper might get to fire their rifle for a second time. What is apparently new for this edition, is that these dice can also be “spent” to reroll other dice later, which is a brilliant way of ensuring that everything the player is given is useful, but that meaningful and efficient choices must be made, by both players, to tip the balance of the game in their favour. Each turn, players are making meaningful decisions.

Beyond this, games are quick and bloody (an hour should be plenty). Most in game events (e.g., the sniper firing their rifle) are decided by opposed roles of 8 sided dice. To start with, the shooting player and the defending player get to both roll 3 D8s to define the outcome, but here we see why positioning is so important. Does the sniper have a clear shot? They get to roll 2 etra dice. Are they elevated to the target? That is another 1 dice. By clever positioning, by both the attacker and the defender, what should be a very even dice roll will heavily swing one way or the other. The game also has an “exploding 8s mechanic”, where natural roles of an 8 count as a success, but also get to be rerolled, as many times as you keep rolling 8s. This means that your sniper up in the tower is far more likely to get 8s, rolling his 6 dice, than that hapless defender, walking across open ground with the sniper way above him. However, dice are dice, and sometimes the horribly disadvantaged underdog gets on “an 8 train” themselves and somehow survives the incredibly mathematically unlikely (never tell me the odds, kid).

To keep in the fight, Mantic have to keep producing brilliant games, at reasonable prices and offer their customers something Games Workshop (GW) would never dream of, good value. The price of global shipping and the raw materials has gone up in the last 12 months, but Mantic Games’ games are, for me, very fairly priced. I picked up the new starter set, with a lovely neoprene gaming mat, nice tokens, and proper model objective markers, along with 2 rival forces to give me a decent game, for 155 euros. Me being me, I then went out and spent several hundred extra Euros getting different army boxes but the buy in to Deadzone (especially if you split it with a friend) is very reasonable.

The hobby and painting commitment is also far lower than a rank and flank game like Kings of War. If you are not an experienced painter, there are factions that paint up very easily (space rats, spray black, dry brush brown, dry brush their armour and weapons silver, wash, done). There are also no wrong answers with Cthulhu like monsters, just remember to thin your paints, kids. There are lots of great quality of life decisions here. You buy the rulebook and the army lists book together (for all factions, no having to buy a separate book for each army you have the audacity to want to know the rules for, like in 40k). Having the two books, rather than one, means you don’t have to keep flicking between pages, trust me, this is a huge help for new players. You can also pay 30 USD for an annual subscription to the official Mantic Easy Army force builder tool, and it is excellent, since yesterday they have added Deadzone.

In my mind, there is no reasonable disagreement. Deadzone is the best sci fi miniatures game in the universe* – it is parsecs ahead of 40k or Killteam. Mantic Games are currently making wonderous little boxes that make my galaxy a brighter and more fun place (while turning everyone into space zombies). If you are interested to learn more, this is a great place to start:

*I know people will make a case for Infinity, but the rules seem too complicated and janky to me – write angrily in the comments below.

For those that are interested, here’s my first army list:


Comments are closed.