Shambles is what I’d call an interesting idea (and a terrible one, as the game’s cover notes).  Zombies are the stuff of campfire legends and blockbuster films, as well as many a roleplaying game.  Usually, though, the zombies are the bad guys (or at least NPCs).  You know, lumbering undead creatures who seek only to eat your brains (but not your eyes!).  Rarely are the players the zombies.  The following is my review sans playtest, and my copy of the game was provided gratis by the author and designer Duane O’Brien.

First off, the production values of Shambles are pretty good.  The art is simple but sufficient, and generally sets the right tone.  Other stuff, like typefaces and layout, are also perfectly adequate and nothing seems terribly out of place.  It’s a good start…

The game starts with a short introduction to the setting, which accomplishes pretty much what it set out to do.  You’re a zombie in a modern world, and people want to kill you.  Get the picture?  To summarize: “[L]et your players riff off the idea that you could take a live person from that setting, and drop in a zombie, and people wouldn’t notice until the smell got bad.”  Nice, simple, and different from my usual games in which elves, dwarves, and ripped humans inhabit a world of constant danger and darkness.

The system, called LAFFS, is also pretty straightforward.  I honestly can’t think of any other system I know of that would work as well for a game like this, though I’m sure one exists.  LAFFS uses a basic d6 system, where you vary the number of dice you roll depending on skill level and roll against a target number.  If you roll higher than the target number, you succeed.  Similar to Savage Worlds, there are degrees of success.  The more dice that beat the target number the better.

To give the GM and players some flexibility, LAFFS also allows the GM to hand out LAFF points for doing something funny, good roleplaying, or just kicking serious ass.  Each LAFF point adjusts a single roll up or down by 1, and players may enter into bidding wars if they want to screw around with someone else’s roll (and let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy beating their gaming buddies about the head with their own arm?).  It’s a solid concept that has plenty of tried-and-true variants.

Braaaaiiiinssss! Teenage hipster braaaaiiiinsss!

On to characters!  Each character has six attributes between 1 and 6 points.  The game suggests spreading 18 points between each of the attributes, rolling six d6’s and distributing the rolls, or just rolling six d6’s and taking them in order.  Each method has its pros and cons, and I think I’m probably a fan of option #2.  I like being able to distribute my dice as I please, but it doesn’t seem necessary for fun.  Option #3 seems most in keeping with the theme of the game to me, but feel free to disagree.

Of course, everyone knows that zombies lust for brains the way Dick Cheney lusts for his very own Death Star.  To drive characters towards those tasty brains (as if they needed motivation!), a player’s zombie deteriorates constantly, losing 1 of 36 initial hit points (6 per leg, arm, chest, and head) every 24 hours (more or less depending on the environment or other circumstances).  Every time the body deteriorates, some specific body part becomes compromised.  If any limb reaches 0, related abilities become penalized and no hit points may be restored to that limb.  To regenerate hit points, zombies must eat brains.  One brain, one hit point.

On a related note, there is the Gore Level.  Basically, it tracks how pretty (in zombie terms) your zombie is.  You start at 6 and lose one for every 6 hit points lost.  Your Gore Level determines how NPCs react to your walking hunk o’ corpsey goodness.  Lower Gore Level makes it more likely that they will try to blow your brains out, decapitate you, etc.

Combat is pretty simple.  You can hit stuff, grab stuff, or chuck stuff.  There are some lengthier rules that explain the effects of multiple successes, but it’s nothing that even a relatively inexperienced gamer can’t grasp in a few minutes.

The rest of the PDF is devoted to making Shambles simple and fun to run and play.  Some house rule suggestions are provided, as are sample characters, organizations, and ways to find victims to snack on.  There are rules for humans, those tasty two-legged delights, and the obligatory character sheet (which, by the way, has a very nice layout and great design).  The sample scenario is also a nice romp for your undead friends, and is a pretty good introduction to the game.

So, I’ve given you a brief overview of Shambles.  Now, I’ll review it.  In short, it’s great.  At $9.99 for PDF, I definitely give it a high value-for-your-money rating.  It’s familiar enough to experienced gamers that even diehard D&D addicts can enjoy it while being simple enough for non-gamers to enjoy.  I think the best part of the game is that it never loses sight of the mission: a good, undead time.  Many games try to keep things fun and simple, but few succeed the way Shambles does.  I’ve read through it a few times, and I never got the sense that it became a chore to write and never forgot that this was a game about zombies just trying to make their way in the world.

The PDF is well-done, and it presents the game in a way that any game designer could be proud of.  The only caution I offer you is that this sort of game takes a particular mindset and a definite desire for a straightforward good time.  If you or your players are looking for a dark setting in which you must fight every day for survival and moral quandaries abound, this game is not for you.  If you just want to have a good time and eat some brains, then by all means put on some Jonathon Coulton (especially “Re Your Brains”) and start rolling some dice.

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