Review: Mutant: Year Zero (Board Games)
When I previewed the video game Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden on PC, I was sold on its plot with its twist on the post-apocalypse trope. Rather than deliver yet another all too common post-apocalyptic scenario with zombies and what not, the game added mutants as playable characters from the get-go. While the game offers a set number of playable characters, makes you face off other types of mutants and explore vast derelict areas, the tabletop RPG from which it is based allows you to do much more. As much as your imagination allows. As such, even if the board game isn't particularly new, it is still getting expansions and when I got in contact with Free League Publishing, I was happy to dive into the world of Mutant Year Zero and explore its universe.
While the core book provides all the necessary information and a couple of scenarios, what goes on and how, the description of locations and events is really done while you play. However, this might feel daunting for newcomers to the genre or to tabletop games as a whole. For such an audience, a game with more strict instructions might be better. There are some pre-made scenarios but these come into play only after progressing for a bit. Moreover, the Game Master (GM) will have the tough task of getting acquainted with all of his/her roles, that of the Player Characters (PC) and with the specifics of the game and read through the whole book before beginning the first session. Reading though 272 pages might not sound particularly a lot but when you consider all of the rules that the GM has to memorize, at least be familiar with, then it becomes quite a considerable task. PCs have an easier time by having a quick recap of how to create their character. Nevertheless, by playing through a few sessions (and lots of trials and errors and even more of flipping back and forth through the book), even beginners will get the hang of Mutant: Year Zero, as did my players and I.
The world of Mutant: Year Zero is divided into two equally important areas. Firstly you have The Ark, a safe haven with fellow mutants and the surrounding perilous and mostly unexplored area, the Zone, infested with the lethal Rot. However, with dwindling resources within The Ark and rising tensions among groups, you, the players, will be forced to venture into the Zone to ensure your survival but also to try and find other groups of mutants and possibly learn more about the fabled Eden. The stories, which might well be bedtime stories, mention that Eden is “where salvation and truth await”. It might be worth a shot, you need to venture forth anyway.
Sessions start with setting up new threats against The Ark and projects within it. The latter will determine how the last stronghold of mankind will thrive. Will its inhabitants prosper with a flourishing agriculture and safe water sources or will it secure its defenses to protect itself from future threats at the cost of proper nutrition? Not to forget to address conflicts within The Ark itself which vary from petty thefts to outright coups. All of these have to be discussed by the PCs at the start of each session during Assemblies, getting them engaged in the wellbeing of their neighbors as well as their own.
Adventuring through the Zone for food, supplies and seeking out potential other groups of mutants is done in a grid fashion through the provided maps (or your can create your own). The book details rules for randomly generating new sections with the findings and encounters within but it often felt unattractive for its unforgiving challenges in particular if players are still at a low level. Being in a post-apocalyptic world with limited resources, you will have to heed to not only your ammo but also your food and water reserves as you will need to feed your character. If not, death is inevitable and you will have to create a new character from scratch.
Plotwise, Mutant: Year Zero is quite intriguing. It can get really gripping and the unravelings as sessions progress really kept my players and I coming back to the Zone, more so because it was mostly done by the players which got us all engaged. Also, as GM, I had a sneak peek at plot twists and secrets that await PCs down the road but they often felt predictable and underwhelming. And to get there will require a lot of dedication and play sessions, players need to be willing to invest a considerable amount of time as one session can easily take at least 1.5 hours.
Of course, venturing forth in the perilous Zone for hours on will require some skills and unique abilities. Before beginning Players will have the option to choose from 8 roles (Enforcer, Gearhead, Stalker, Fixer, Dog Handler, Chronicler, Boss and Slave) and distribute 14 points across 4 attributes (Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy) according to their liking to their character. Furthermore, there are minor abilities called talents that can be bought by PCs. Obviously, bearing the word Mutant in the title, there are mutations in this game. These can be as unpredictable as they can be useful and/or dangerous, for mutations are assigned to players randomly and they are not all equal. Some are very useful while others aren’t at all and will barely be used. Using mutations can give players an edge but can also come at a considerable cost. Will you take the risk?
Being an RPG, there are XPs to be gained. PCs can be rewarded with XPs according to their actions, like helping with projects in the Ark or exploring new sectors in the Zone. Accumulating enough XPs will enable players to improve their skills or gain new talents.
To further immerse themselves in their roles, they will have to give physical description (made up by themselves or borrowed from the predefined ones) of their characters, define their relationship to other PCs and NPCs (who they want to protect and who they hate) and confide their big dream (the latter 3 can be chosen from predefined options in the corebook). All of these details can have implications in the game that the GM can exploit and craft specific plotlines for specific PCs. Therein lies the intrigue of the game where it can evolve in unexpected, creative and unique ways by allowing the players to really tap on their imagination.
In true tabletop RPG fashion, virtually all actions are performed via die rolls but no miniatures are used and your mind will do all of the visualization. Three d6 dice will be needed, one for each of Attribute, Ability, and Equipment, to determine your fate through the Ark and the Zone. Keeping tabs of three dice can be cumbersome but having differently colored ones can get in handy. Regular ones will do and a six will mean a success while a one will result in something rather undesirable. It’s the combinations of the rolls that will determine the course of action but if you don’t roll any sixes/come across any success, you can still push your roll but at the cost of inflicting a damage to the attribute in question.
As you can imagine, the game's mechanic is quite intricate and takes some time to get a hang of but it does work. However, at the beginning it does feel unforgiving and a little rough.
The core book is a $ 43.50 full color hardcover book adorned with beautiful and original artwork that vividly transmit the vibe of Mutant: Year Zero. It comprises of two main sections: one for PCs and one for the GM. However you will flip a lot through the whole book, especially during your first sessions, to clarify and confirm rules and what not.
There are also optional dedicated dice and card decks that can be bought to help ease out your play sessions but really all you need is in the core book and regular dice do work in the game, as explained in the book. Other items that you will require are maps and character sheets which are included, but bonded, in the book but these are available to download for free on the publisher’s website.
+ Engaging elements
+ Focus on survival mechanic
+ Freedom to allow play sessions to evolve
- Can feel daunting to beginners (especially as GM)
- Lots to read
- Unforgiving mechanics
- Predictable plot
out of 10
Mutant Year Zero is an engaging and rather fun game that requires some time to sink in and appreciate it to its fullest.