29 Dec 2013
December 2013 - d4dead

At the end of 2013, with only one project remaining to complete a full year of 1GAM, I was still looking for topics I hadn't learned much about so I could finish out the year on another learning project. My local tabletop gaming group has been enjoying some co-operative (Pandemic, Forbidden Island) and semi-kinda-co-operative (Resistance, City of Horror) games, so I was thinking I might try my hand at another tabletop game, this time a co-op game, which would also be much more easily worked into the holiday travel schedule in terms of development and testing time.

So I'm thinking about co-operative mechanics, and the thought idly crossed my mind one day... I bet the teamwork mechanics in Left 4 Dead could work in a tabletop game.

So, roughly a month later, here we are.

Zombies? Really?

I know, I know. I'm the first to agree that zombies are overdone at best these days. They're the bacon of games - just sprinkle some zombie bits over whatever you've baked up and people love it, that is until everything they eat just tastes like bacon. But the more I thought about how to make the mechanics of Left 4 Dead work in a tabletop game, the more I thought it might actually work, and while I debated changing the theme for a while, it never felt right. The game was obviously Left 4 Dead with cards and dice, and anything else just felt forced and silly. The zombies stay.

That said, I should also say for the record just in case anyone ever cares or wonders that d4dead is obviously inspired by Left 4 Dead but is in no way developed, produced, endorsed or otherwise supported by Valve Software. I've made specific efforts not to infringe on any protected materials (no characters, locations, or artwork from Left 4 Dead are used in d4dead), but there are some clear similarities. No one should be under any delusion that this is anything but a hobbyist experiment. If you have any interest in games like this, just go buy Left 4 Dead.

But I've Never Played Left 4 Dead

No problem - knowledge of Left 4 Dead isn't required, but if you're interested, here's the idea:

It's the zombie apocalypse. Four survivors are trying to reach safety. Guns, Molotovs, Pipe Bombs, Med Kits, Pain Pills, and so forth ensue. The survivors must stay alive, clear specific challenges, and reach safe locations. Standard co-op shooter concepts apply, with the added challenge that most of the enemies are populated semi-randomly throughout each level based on your group's behavior and how well you're doing.

The twist comes from the teamwork. If a survivor loses their health, they fall down but don't immediately die. If another survivor can reach them and get them back up, they can keep moving. More importantly, there are "special infected" opponents with abilities that can require teamwork to get past. For a simple example, one special infected is called the Hunter. It will attempt to pounce on one of your survivors. If a survivor is successfully pounced, they are pinned down and helpless. The only way to escape a Hunter once pounced is for another survivor to kill the Hunter or knock it off of you. There are many examples of the need to work together in Left 4 Dead, and it's well worth checking out.

So How Does d4dead Work?

In d4dead, four survivors attempt to make their way through a randomly-arranged series of locations and challenges to reach safety. Aside from pistols, ammunition and a random distribution of resources at the start, all resources must be scavenged along the way. Each living survivor takes a turn, then the group (under some conditions) decides whether to stay where they are, scavenge for supplies, or continue their journey forward. After this, the Dead have their turn, in which zombies may advance on the party if they've been spotted, and new zombies or powerful horrors may appear.

All random elements are determined by rolling a 4-sided die, or d4, thus d4dead. Attacking zombies at various ranges requires increasingly higher attack rolls, and the swarming of zombies to survivors is determined by die roll as well.

The central mechanic of d4dead comes from the range track and a special group condition called Spotted.

There are three ranges: Distant, Approaching, and Close. Zombies must move through these ranges to reach the group, and as they come closer they are easier targets. When a zombie advances past Close range, they swarm - a random survivor is chosen by die roll, and the zombie is moved to that survivor. That survivor is now considered to be swarmed. Survivors are injured if they are swarmed at the start of the Dead Turn, and the group can't move forward as long as any survivor is swarmed.

The group can either be Spotted, or Safe. When the group is safe, the zombies in the area haven't noticed them yet, so there's no immediate danger. Zombies aren't terribly observant, so it's possible to kill zombies at a distance without being spotted. However, if a zombie appears in Close range or swarming a survivor, or if a horror appears at any distance, the group is now Spotted. When the group is spotted, all zombies will move closer during the Dead Turn, and the group can't become safe again until all horrors and all zombies closer than Distant range have been killed. The group's odds of success will likely depend on their ability to stay Safe whenever possible, and to recover quickly from being Spotted.

How is [x] Represented in d4dead?

The idea here was to portray the themes and co-op mechanics of Left 4 Dead in tabletop form, so I tried to get as many of Left 4 Dead's gameplay mechanics as possible into d4dead in some way:

Basic Weapons
As in L4D, all survivors start with a pistol and unlimited ammunition. Unlike L4D, a single hit kills all basic zombies, to avoid the need for extensive hit tracking. Survivors may find an extra pistol, which is represented in d4dead by a static +1 bonus to pistol attacks.
Advanced Weapons
The same three advanced weapon types are available in both games: SMG, shotgun, and hunting rifle. Their functions in d4dead represent their uses in L4D: the SMG attacks twice per action, the shotgun can hit multiple targets in one location but isn't effective at long range, and the hunting rifle allows survivors to attack distant targets accurately but can't be used effectively when swarmed. Ammunition, however, is totally ignored in d4dead.
As in L4D, survivors can attempt to push their swarmers away, buying themselves time and allowing others to potentially come to their aid. In L4D, pushing was sometimes a little too useful, and a fatigue mechanic was eventually added to multiplayer to prevent abuse of the ability. In d4dead, the risk is that you roll your d4 and can then push that number of foes away from you and back to Close range. It's possible to roll a 1 or 2 and find that you would have been better off attacking, or you could roll a 4 and push a large group away, preventing you from taking a hit in the ensuing Dead Turn. Pushing in d4dead is a gamble, but it could save a survivor in a pinch.
Health and Assisting
Rather than numeric health values, health in d4d is tracked through hits. However, the "down" condition from L4D is still present. In d4dead, when a survivor takes 1 or 2 hits, they behave normally, but if they take a third hit, they're "down" and can't take any action other than pistol attacks. If another survivor assists that survivor, they remove 1 hit and return to normal. The "bleed out" effect from L4D is only represented in the fact that a player with 2 hits will be down again as soon as they take a hit. Players will normally need to expend items to restore a survivor to fewer than 2 hits, and a player who receives 4 hits is immediately killed.
Med Kits in d4dead restore survivors to full health as they do in L4D. The temporary health boost of pain pills seemed to me an unnecessary tracking nuisance, so they simply remove a single hit from a survivor. The Molotov can be used to attack multiple enemies at a single location, but the pipe bomb is currently not included. To represent the scarcity of items, most resources in d4dead must be acquired by scavenging in certain locations. Scavenging requires the group to spend another round in that location, which delays their advancement and may give dangerous numbers of zombies a chance to accumulate or allow horrors to appear.
Teamwork and Specials
The teamwork of L4D is represented here by the necessity to remove zombies from play quickly enough to avoid being overwhelmed. A group without four survivors is unlikely to last long. The special infected of L4D weren't very satisfying when converted, so the horrors of d4dead are somewhat different (more on this below), but one of them retains L4D's Hunter and Smoker's ability to remove a survivor from the fight until another survivor comes to their aid.
Death is handled essentially the same way in both games - if a survivor dies, they're lost, but the group may find another survivor later on to take their place. This allows players who are killed to rejoin the game later if the group manages to reach a hideout and adds a new survivor to their group.
"Crescendo" Events
In L4D, certain obstacles must be cleared which create a large amount of noise, which in turn attracts hordes of zombies. Since summoning even more zombies is less exciting at tabletop pace, in d4dead certain locations are Challenge locations, which have special requirements that must be satisfied before the group can move forward.
The group's progression through d4dead's locations is random, as are the spawning of zombies and horrors and the availability of various resources.


Unlike an action video game like Left 4 Dead, there's less flexibility and improvisation in a game like this, so I also made a few outright additions to the game to add a little depth and variety.

New Items
Flares give the entire group a bonus to all attack rolls in their current location, but betrays their position to the Dead and results in them being spotted if they aren't already. Riot shields can be found which allow a survivor to ignore hits but which have a chance of breaking each time they are used.
To fill the gap left by the absence of clever positioning and strategies on the part of the survivors, a class of resource cards called Initiatives was added. These cards represent your survivor finding a beneficial position, seeing an opportunity to take additional actions, or identifying a proactive response to a situation. Survivors can play these initiative cards without expending an action, so they can be combined with the survivor's normal turn action. Some common initiatives include gaining an extra action, automatically rolling a 4 on an attack roll, or moving swarmers from one survivor to another.
When the conversions of the L4D special infected didn't feel like they were working out well, I decided to replace them with original special enemies, called horrors, with mechanics that worked better in d4dead:
  • Jumper - The least significant change in special opponents, the Jumper is essentially the Hunter from L4D, swarming a survivor when it appears and making them incapable of taking actions. Unlike the hunter, it will switch targets randomly every Dead Turn.
  • Screamer - Based loosely on an abandoned special infected design in L4D, the Screamer attracts additional zombies as long as it lives.
  • Spaz - A small and fast-moving target, the Spaz is difficult to attack successfully regardless of its distance.
  • Golem - An amalgamation of zombie flesh acting as one entity, the Golem can absorb regular zombies, then discard one when attacked to negate the hit. Like L4D's Tank, the Golem requires the group's full attention or it will be their demise.

How Does it Play?

Not bad so far. The holiday travelling prevented any playtesting with others, so I've only been able to playtest it solo, but since it's a co-op game the solo playtests were actually extremely useful in identifying issues and tuning some things. I think there's definitely some interesting mechanics and situations to be had here, particularly when you have to start considering sacrificing someone to keep the group alive. The mechanics often boil down to hit allocation, as you have a certain number of shots that are guaranteed to hit and others with various chances of success, and you have to decide how best to distribute those attacks to keep as many zombies as possible from swarming, but that's actually very similar to the process of prioritizing targets in Left 4 Dead so I think that's probably a good thing. There's a lot of die rolling, particularly when you get a large group of zombies swarming in one turn and they each require a die roll to determine where they go, but if you have at least two players, having one roll quickly while another distributes zombies should keep that from being too much of a hassle.

One potential issue is that with luck playing such a large role, you may have a relatively easy playthrough once, then get totally slammed on another playthrough and have very little chance of success. I considered several options, from specific rules for building the Locations deck to changing how the zombie spawning process works, but then I decided that maybe some randomness isn't the worst thing to keep a co-op game interesting. Anyone who's played Left 4 Dead knows that sometimes a little bad luck on a spawn location or timing can mean disaster, so there's an argument to be made that some randomness in the difficulty is true to the source material. I did, however, include a rule like Pandemic's difficulty rule - you can include a variable number of Challenge locations in the Location deck for a game, which is likely to significantly change the overall difficulty of your journey.

The Verdict

d4dead is certainly playable, and I think it definitely captures the flavor of Left 4 Dead in a tabletop format. It's relatively simple, requiring only 3 decks of cards (sized differently for convenience - the location, range, spotted, and survivor cards are oversized, the Dead deck is standard poker size, and the Resources are mini-deck size), a few four-sided dice (minimum of 1 but more is better), two types of tokens (recommended 25 hit tokens and 50 zombie tokens) and minimal setup time. Once the three turns in a round are understood, play should proceed quickly, and players all have multiple options for actions and should rarely if ever feel like they have little choice in how to proceed. The co-op mechanics are strongly represented, as players will find they spend a lot of time trying to protect each other and figuring out how to distribute the risks to keep as many survivors alive as much as possible, and while it's possible to lose a survivor and thus potentially eliminate a player, the chance of finding a hideout and adding a new survivor will hopefully keep an eliminated player from getting bored and losing interest since there's always a chance for them to be added back into the game.

As always, more playtesting and tuning would be beneficial, and the presentation is currently entirely barebones with no artwork at all; the print materials for the cards are totally unoptimized and include a bunch of blanks at the end for the Resource deck. That said, I think it plays pretty well and I may run a prototype past my tabletop group at some point and see if this bears some further development. As a thought experiment and a learning project on co-op game mechanics, I'd say it's definitely a success.