Dead Fellas [Review]

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Al Capone is supposed to have said “You get further with a gun and a kind word than you do with a kind word alone.” You’d probably get even further with a cadre of zombies fronting for your criminal syndicate, but in Dead Fellas everyone is undead so no one has the advantage. Two to six players go head-to-decaying-head for control of the city. They hire criminals called Mooks and equip them with Weapons, Disguises, and getaway cars so they’re ready to anticipate— or cause—trouble. These gangsters are rated for a hit strength and the added gear makes them even tougher. They’re sent out to grease opposing zombies with lower hit totals, assuming those targets don’t spring card surprises on them to cancel their Actions or steal equipment.

It’s not a deep game but Dead Fellas’ mechanics for drawing and playing cards are timed and designed to make for a cutthroat battle. It’s one of those games that make it easy to lose friends both in and out of the game as things get vicious. There’s little strategy but a lot of laughs (especially when it’s not your Mook getting waxed), and while it seems like winning might be a forgone conclusion at some point, the opportunities abound to keep another player from ending things too quickly. Everyone can pile on the point leader if they’re serious about extending the game, but too much of this may simply make another, more patient player the winner.

The object is to score 10 hits worth of opposing Mooks.

Players start the game with three Mooks in their employ and three Mafia cards in their hand— not an accident, since one’s hand size is equal to the number of Mooks he currently has on staff. More gang members means a bigger spread of cards. Mook cards show a parade of assassins for hire, each rated for a “hit strength” of one to three bullet symbols in the corner. They provide the muscle while Mafia cards offer pieces of equipment to make life as a killer easier, specifically getaway Vehicles, Disguises, and of course Weapons. The bits of kit available from the Mafia deck are also rated by bullets, so Roberto “Rocky” Rizotto may start with a hit strength of only one, but once he’s decked out in a Groucho mask while packing a chainsaw and tooling around in a golf cart, his strength becomes six.

A gangster must have one of each of the three kinds of equipment before that zombie can be sent to whack a mobster with fewer hits than he. That criminal is killed (again), stripped of any cool Mafia cards he’d amassed up to then, and placed in the attacker’s growing pile of victories (points gained are for the dead-again mobster, not his stuff). As the assassin makes good his escape, however, he has to get rid of the evidence . . . one of his three tools is discarded, making him unavailable for missions until you give him a replacement for the lost item.

The Mafia deck also holds Action cards that give the user the element of surprise. He might be able to steal gear from another zombie, cancel an Action, or snatch back equipment about to be discarded when some poor slob got re-killed. Sooner or later, though, someone makes a bloody show of taking out 10 points worth of the competition and proves himself the best of the undead, winning the game.

Dead Fellas is a simple game with simple rules and simple components. The cards feel thin to the touch but thick when you shuffle them, and their glossy finish makes riffling awkward, but they’re full-color and oh-so-pretty. The whole thing comes in an inexpensive plastic insert. If one does away with that and the tuck-box, little else is left save a deck and a very brief set of rules, so the whole thing fits in your pocket. The brevity of the instructions is both good and bad: Learning this game takes about as much time as it takes to sit down at the table, but the drawback is the unanswered questions about playing certain cards. Can you steal something as a Mook tries to kill you, rendering him ineligible? Or does the attack continue, then fail because the killer lacks sufficient hit strength? Action cards go directly to the discard pile, but the “Fugazzi” card serves as one of the three pieces of equipment you need for a hit; does it also count as the piece that’s discarded after assassination? Such small details are not dealt with.

The game could also have used more attention to editing; some names are misspelled, and the player range is 2–6 (as per the website), not 2–8 as the back of the box claims. The artwork is the deck’s best feature. Brian Snoddy, whose work can also be seen splattered all over co-designer James Ernest’s Give Me the Brain and Lord of the Fries, has returned to lend his not-so-stiff hand to the snigger-worthy caricatures of the various mobsters in the Mook deck. Each has personality, flair, and decaying skin, though through a printing error you get duplicates of Mook cards. A negligible effect in the long run, surely, but still it’s an error worth mentioning.

Nuances in strategy have been traded for the beauty of competition. Things get downright nasty in Dead Fellas. Most of one’s plans are a series of binary decisions that affect how the next turn plays out. One may wait to equip a series of Mooks, to make a run at several targets at once, or one might use assassins slowly but surely as they become ready. When the assassin is ready to go, he can take out the low-hanging fruit—those rivals with no cards for protection—or he can flex that muscle to go after bigger fish, which may help his less-powerful peers at the table. Pile up the weak hits quickly, or cripple the current point leader? That’s about as complicated as it gets.

There’s an element of king-making for those who like that sort of thing (and this is a mild warning to those who don’t), but interfering in the combats of others isn’t a guarantee the victory will be passed on to someone else. There seem to be a lot of “Fuhgeddaboutit” cards for canceling Actions, and players are going to get sick of those, but even these irritants don’t stop This Thing of Ours from playing in under 20 minutes. Dead Fellas may be light fare, and for some it will simply be too simple, but the brevity and comedic nature should make it so that only the most cynical gamers fail to . . . errr . . . rise to the occasion.

I want more!

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