My fellow fanatics, welcome to the first of a new set of columns here at The Game Fanatics. While we do our best to give our honest thoughts and opinions on the latest big thing in the game industry, Fanatic Spotlight will be about looking at smaller experiences. Games with some novelty or charm that don’t have the same cache as the likes of Mario or Munchkin, along with some light questions and commentary between us and the game’s creators. The subject here is District Z: The Cult by Laughing Rogue Games.
Many long-time readers might be familiar with that name because this isn’t the first time we’ve highlighted their work. Back when I attended Save Against Fear in 2017, I gave a special look at another project by them, Slaughterville, and had a chance to talk with creator Christopher Brown.
But while Slaughterville is a highly flexible party game with multiple customizable parts, District Z: The Cult feels like the exact opposite. A single-player only zombie survival game that feels like a mix between playing a tabletop RPG module and going through a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Starting a game was simple. After selecting one of several starting character sheets, breaking out the dice, and shuffling the three decks – items, companions, and the dreaded cult deck respectively, you simply crack open the game’s book and get started. You read a page describing a scenario with multiple options on how to proceed. Choose one, roll the dice when that decision asks for a certain skill test, then go to whatever page it tells you to when you pass or fail. Rinse and repeat until you either die, turn into a shambling eater of brains, or you reach one of the book’s multiple endings.
According to Chris, this change of design from the party-friendly Slaughterville was entirely according to plan.
TC: District Z feels like a counterpoint to Slaughterville. Was that intentional or did it just turn out that way during the creative process?
CB: This was intentional. When I was asked to design this, George had wanted a micro game. One that could fit in a small case and be taken anywhere. I wanted to give the solo player a truly solo game.
It seems basic, but there are several key elements that make it stand out. First of all, the book itself is a solid exercise in atmosphere. Not only is the prose descriptive and foreboding with the kind of evocative imagery that can only be pulled off on the page, the book itself is designed to look like a survivor’s journal. Yellowed pages speckled with the occasional brown and red, illustrations are done in rough, hurried scribbles, small touches that go that extra mile for immersion.
But the biggest addition can be found right in the title. In addition to having the usual zombie apocalypse scenarios play out like searching for supplies and tense stand-offs with other survivors, there is also a dangerous cult that has been growing in power. A nebulous organization that abducts people, subjects them to torture, and seems to have tapped into unnatural power with the intent to control the walking dead. Whenever this group pops up throughout the adventure, they are a force to be reckoned with. Not just in terms of how badly you can be screwed over by failing an encounter with them, like getting badly hurt and having all of your supplies taken, but in how an encounter with them usually involves playing a card from the cult deck. Each card in the deck is nasty and can range between severely crippling your skills, making future encounters more difficult, or forcing you to battle horrendous nightmare creatures created by the cult.
It’s a twist in the formula that gives the whole experience new life. Moving back and forth between survival horror scenarios with zombies to paranoid chase thriller whenever the guys in the dark robes show up.
In fact, The Cult’s true origins is surprisingly personal.
TC: The Cult is a novel twist on the otherwise generic premise of zombies. Any particular inspirations you want to cite to the group’s creation?
CB: Honestly? My main inspirations were chase films and one odd source. See, I had a recurring dream for years where I would be chased by some shadowy group and end up in a barn trapped with a couple of other survivors. They would send a gaggle of undead across the yard towards us and we had to choose: fight and probably die, run and risk some of us dying, or sacrifice someone so the rest could get away. And I would always wake up right before the choice was made. I love the idea of giving the player multiple paths and actual decisions that can impact a story.
There is also more notable structure and pacing to the whole thing. While it can be possible to get stuck in loops during certain early parts of the adventure, IE. You fail rolling perception in the woods, gain 1 XP and get lost, encounter a zombie, pass or fail you gain 1 XP, go back to start of forest to try again, there are measures taken to avoid this frustration. In addition to spending earned experience on improving your stats or getting abilities like being allowed to re-roll skill tests multiple times, you can also spend experience to either heal yourself or automatically turn a failed roll into a success. It seems like a small comfort, but it let’s you experience more of the story even when the dice seem determined to put you in the ground.
A balancing act that was notoriously tricky to get right.
TC: How extensive are you with playtesting difficulty? With horror-themed gameplay, there’s a tendency to make stuff tougher, have the odds stacked against the player. How do you go about making it feel like the player barely makes it?
CB: This was the hardest part. I had the story laid out initially and there were branches mapped out for each choice. When we tested (and it was tested and played for about 8 months easy), we would have times where it would never work. You could never reach certain parts or you might spend 45 minutes in a loop. Once, for those like myself who are programmers, I had an infinite loop where the player was captured, gets out, and ended up captured again. The progress was made simpler in the first chapter/section as I had them mapped out (Beginning, River, Farm, etc.). We have the initial loop of you walking in the woods and you get to build yourself up a little with extra experience. When balancing this, I had to make sure that you had just enough to continue, but not too much where it was easy. And then we looked at what happens when the person is just rolling horrid.
That was why we put in that spending 3 XP can turn a die to a success. Then I would make the one section hard but manageable and then move on to the next. I would have players test it up to those points only so that I knew it was in a spot.
I would then also take the game and do “Perfect Runs” where I never rolled a die and chose the success on everything just to see what happens. And where it was too easy, I adjusted difficulty and XP/item/companion distribution until a perfect run was still a challenge. If that meant adding more content, great!
In many ways, District Z: The Cult is the result of different media complementing each other. Choose Your Own Adventure books haven’t been in vogue ever since the ubiquity of Adventure games, and board games have always been billed as something strictly for parties. But here, it’s a combination that works better than expected, combining a scripted structure with the kind of emergent hijinx that happens with random dice rolls and decks of cards.
If there is a small issue that can be found with the game, it is in the minor ways the ambition had to give way to scope. District Z: The Cult and Slaughterville both share a lot. Not just in terms of various horror cliches and scenarios, but limitations as well. There’s a potential ending in the game that basically reads, “To Be Continued in an expansion that sadly won’t get made.” There is only one instance where this happens, but it puts into perspective just how much Chris is able to write and build before it becomes untenable. A limit that some might see as a turn-off compared to more complex fare.
TC: Were there any scenarios or branching paths you had to cut or shorten from the retail version of the game? In addition to keeping things simple for the player, you don’t want every scenario have five different options all the time.
CB: Oh this was my hardest part: being told, “that’s enough”. With Cult, we kept it smaller because of the micro feel that we wanted but I could have kept going for a long time. Initially, there was one branch and around 80 pages when we launched the campaign. I convinced George to let me tell the other half of my story and it bloomed from 2 endings to much more than that. Also, there is one path (page 79 I think) where it says “To Be Continued” and that was supposed to be an unlocked Walker’s Carnival expanded story with more endings and a different path. We decided to leave that and the 2 prequel stories as stretch goals but they weren’t hit.
In a way, Brown has slowly been building his own horror-game shared universe. There are multiple expansions for both of his games that allow certain characters to be mixed and matched. Certain survivors in Slaughterville become playable in The Cult. The ominous cult itself cameos in an expansion for the horror-themed party game. There are even recurring locations like the aforementioned Walker’s Carnival and Red River. This isn’t to imply that this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe of horror board games, but it is an entertaining portrayal of how interchangeable certain characters and concepts in the genre can get in its own cheesy way.
TC: We gonna see more of this as you add to these games? Maybe the foundation of your own horror-themed shared universe?
CB: I do want to have shared interactions with our Horror universes. Maybe even in the non-horror genres there might be a cameo or two, but for the most part, the horror line was meant to be the start of a shared universe where all of this is happening and you get to see multiple angles.
Finally, while Chris has been working diligently on adding new material to his games, including a sequel to his horror-themed party romp, there is another project on the horizon that is breaking from horror convention. A film noir detective thriller game where you and some friends work together to solve gruesome murder mysteries, The Scene of the Crime.
The game is aiming for release some time this year and Chris had admitted during our conversation just how ambitious in scale it is. The current script for all current cases and branching paths sitting at 250 pages.
CB: This game will rely heavily on decisions made by a group (and can be played solo of course) which will involve you choosing a case to solve. That case will give you a hint or two, but then you are left to go and find clues and suspects. Not only can you investigate the evidence that you find and interrogate the witnesses, but you can ask anyone of the suspects about any piece of evidence. In addition, where you found the evidence or suspect matters. See, every evidence and suspect’s placement is randomized. So if you find a note at someone’s apartment, it will not be the same note found at the gangster night club. What was the gun doing at the Park? What does the owner of the Warehouse, Darryl, know about it? Are they important at all to the case? You decide. And when you run out of Investigation points, you must make your accusations.
You will choose the evidence and suspect and that will build a custom ending to each case. As there are 7 Suspects, over 16 pieces of evidence, and 5 locations; you can see how these cases will really be built by you. Having the cases flow and having everything be possibly important is key to this. You have to look at what you found to determine the importance. You have to solve the case.
If the idea of handling a zombie apocalypse story while also contending with robed crazies from the comfort of your living room sounds like something that you’ll enjoy, I do heartily recommend District Z: The Cult.
You can order the game, its various expansions, and other games by Laughing Rogue at their store page here.