I know what you’re thinking. “Dude, Aaron, didn’t you just have a zombie-packed month back in May? Surely you’re sick of those shambling dead by now”. First, saying I’ve had enough of the undead is like saying I’ve had enough air. Second…Ahem… Don’t call me Shirley! (Ha! I’ve been running GeekintheCity.com 2004 and I finally got to work in that joke. Life is good). Anyway, no, one can ever review, read, or play enough zombie games. Even more so when the game comes from a Portlander. As the title spoils, the game revolves around the undead and all the havoc they cause the living. However, Nathanael takes the typical darkness and dread found in most undead-themed RPGs and gives it an absurdest spin. This is survival horror with a side of humor. Imagine a delicious cocktail with 1 part George Romero, a splash of Red Dwarf, couple shots of Takashi Miike, finely chopped Lucio Fulci, and a twist of old school Peter Jackson. Yeah, that about sums up the chaotic glee that comes from playing a game of Cannibal Contagion.
Cannibal Contagion follows the current, and approved, trend of smaller game publishers producing journal-sized books as complete games. Everything you need, save some pencils and a deck of cards, are in that 208 page book or pdf. The type of game you want to play is truly up to you and the other players. Do you want a simple one-shot night of zombie fragging, getting knee-deep in the gore? The game can do that. Just as easily as the game allows for some serious role-playing and character interaction. Taking broad strokes to the term “infected”, Nathanael draws heavily upon the themes of paranoia and alienation found in the best horror films. The level of emotional commitment is up to you.
The system itself is rather simple and elegant. Remember those deck of cards I mentioned? Good, because you won’t need any dice for this game. What? A Role Playing Game without any dice? Not even the beloved D6? Heresy! Well no. When you think about it, the only real point to the various polyhedral dice is the random element. I’d say 1 out of 54, (count them Jokers) makes for some seriously random events. I mean, if a game can use a game of Jenga as the random element, a deck of playing cards feels positively sane. Character creation is fast and simple, with the option of custom or random. Again, it is completely up to the players how they want everything to go down. Characters stats are simple: Kill – the active skill you use to win Showdowns, actions, and general badassery. Savvy – the active skill to win mentally based Showdowns and other Big Brains events. Grit – A passive score that keeps you physically alive, the only way to resist Hurtin’ and Infection. Finally, Cool – a passive score that helps you maintain your sanity after the dead came a callin’. Be cool. Everyone, be cool. From there, you get some items that fit your character archetype, but not to exceed your Savvy points. Next, you determine triggering events that could cause madness, get some Survival Tokens to help you out of extra-nasty situations, and then the secret votes. Here is where the real fun begins. Unlike most survival horror RPGs, all the players ain’t the best of friends. Sure, it would be nice if everyone survived, but that isn’t gonna’ happen. Why not make some friendly bets? First to die. First to betray the others. First to become infected. And, the first to go bat shite nuts.
Showdowns are resolved through a series of cards and some creative improv (or, blatant B.S., which is also completely valid…not to mention a hoot). The CiC (Cannibal in Charge, aka, the games GM) plays cards for any adversary the characters face. Be they a rampaging horde of undead Lemures, a big zombie space-giant, or a rather thick door, he or she plays the cards. You want to play a higher card than the CiC if you wish to win the event. But, don’t think you can just throw down an Ace and be done with it. Sure, you’ll probably win (assuming they don’t play a Joker), but you won’t do much damage. Therein lies the little twist. The more cards in play, the more damage will be dealt once the “combat” resolves. Want to go for the easy win, or do you want to drag it on and hope the CiC isn’t holding a ringer to ruin your day? To make matter worse (or, better depending on your point of view) the other players might jump in with their cards. They might help you, or they might spoil all your fantastic plans. In addition to the cards, Cannibal Contagion encourages player interaction. You could simply explain your actions and play your cards in dull tones. But, a good CiC will look kindly upon creative and exuberant role-playing. Seriously, the more Grindhouse flair you can put into a scenario, the more fun everyone will have.
Cannibal Contagion is real joy to play. With hyper action and frantic role-playing, Cannibal Contagion is the perfect game for the player that just wants to have some balls out undead fun. Be you an old school dice-tosser or RPG newbie, Cannibal Contagion will have something for you. Just remember, just because humans are an endangered species don’t me we all friends now!