District-Z: The Cult is an "enhanced" game book-style game where you are a survivor of a zombie apocalypse tasked with finding resources for your group by exploring nearby abandonded towns. It isn't long before you encounter a mysterious cult full of horrors far worse than the zombies.
The Board Game
The board game portion of the game involves keeping track of items and companions you acquire, your stats as they increase, your XP, and your health and "infection" level. If you ever get down to zero health, or take five levels of infection the game is immediately over.
The Game Book
The game book portion is a generally well-written story that leads you in an extremely linear fashion through a series of encounters that will equip you with items, companions, and give you XP you can spend on upgrades. The story itself is bare bones. While you are tasked with gathering supplies, I never gathered any supplies through my adventure that could be brought back, they were all to be used for immediate survival. This disconnect between the story and the gameplay was a bit surprising.
Almost every section of the game book requires you to make a skill check in order to proceed. The game uses a unique system for this that is reminiscent of other games with skill checks like Eldritch Horror, but takes it one step further.
The game comes with a set of ten custom dice. The dice contain the symbols for the 4 skills in the game (Combat, Agility, Nerve, and Perception). One side has a Health symbol (which is basically a fail in a skill check) and there is also a "Fail" symbol which if rolled removes the die from play. When making a skill check, you add up all the skill points you have for each part of the check, and then roll the dice. If you get the Fail symbol, you must remove that die. You can then reroll up to two more times to try to pass the check.
The rules state that you must reroll your successes. This is a poor system that must not have been tested by the designer. There are checks that require 4 successes. The odds of rolling any "4 of a kind" with 5 dice is ridiculously low. Yes, you can increase your stat probably to 7 or 8, but that's also very unlikely and requires a series of successful checks; even then, the odds of just flat out rolling 4 (never mind the 4 you actually need) on any given roll is very, very low.
This problem can be house ruled away by allowing rerolls of only dice that have failed (and removing dice with fail results.) Getting a 4 of a kind is still very difficult, but the odds go way up into something you want to play.
The second problem with these skill checks is there's no "critical success" result, which means if you start a skill check with less skill than required by the check, you automatically fail. In the case above, you need at least 4 Combat to not automatically fail the check. It's quite possible to make it through the game with stats much lower than 4. This isn't much fun at all! At least give us a long shot chance of passing even a very hard mission. The game needs a mechanic to allow for success even when the skill is lower than the target. This seems like a fatal flaw when compared to something like Eldritch Horror which allows for 12% chance of success even in the worst situations. (Which, by the way, most people consider a very difficult game.)
The game's components are quite nice quality, and at a professional standard. The art design is excellent, and evokes the setting well. The only ding here is the art. The game book features fairly low-quality pen and ink black and white artwork. It looks like they were going for Edward Gorey, but it doesn't quite hit the mark. The cards feature photographs. The photographs are fine for the most part, but Kickstarter backers are featured on several of the character cards, and the photographs are low quality; ruining some of the hard work done by the game to create immersion.
The highlights here are the game book and the skill dice. Both are excellent quality and easily justify the game's $25 price tag.
Despite the hiccups described above, I had some fun playing the game. The story is immersive, and generally well-written. Unfortunately the tremendous amount of luck required to successfully navigate the game book means you will often be frustrated by a loss that's no fault of your own (even with the easier difficulty house-rule described above.)
Unfortunately, since the game is so linear, there isn't a lot of replay here. You will always end up in a town shortly after starting the adventure, the town's contents will always be the same, and the Cult will attempt to abduct you when you leave the town. This means that even fans of the game probably won't come back to it more than 4 or 5 times (you can only read the same blocks of text so many times.)
If you follow one particular path you find a Zombie-filled carnival which hints at a sequel. I think there's a lot of potential here, and would consider checking out the sequel if the game were made a less random and repetitive.
Original Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/rubiogames/district-z-the-cult
Backed at: $25 level.
Anticipated Delivery: Dec 2016, received March 27th, 2018.
6 - OK, will play if in the mood