Raxxon

Set in the dead of winter universe, Raxxon offers some compelling and fast gameplay

In Raxxon, the aim of the game is to get the survivors of a zombie outbreak to safety, and prevent the outbreak reaching a critical stage. You’re going to be trying to manage an ever-changing crowd of people, some innocent families desperately seeking a way out of the city, others are hostile angry mobs who can cause trouble in large groups, and of course, LOTS of zombies.

You win the game when you rescue a set number of civilians from the chaotic mess. At its heart, Raxxon is a cooperative puzzle game whereby you’ll be saving humans and killing or avoiding zombies. However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an environmentally rich gaming experience whereby each round of the game represents a day.

The start of a long day

At the start of each day, you’ll take a selected number of infected character cards out of the infection deck. You’ll then merge these infected character cards into a deck of ‘healthy’ characters, resulting in a deck mixed with both dangers and relative safety. The left-over infection cards are then placed to the side of the board as an infection draw pile, and the mixed deck is placed as a population draw pile.

From that population draw pile you then build a grid of face down cards – these form the ‘crowd’ where you’ll be performing the main meat of your actions within each day.

Every card group triggers reactions

During a turn, each player will perform a single action from their chosen character sheet. The actions available vary from character to character but usually involve some form of crowd control, such as flipping a card face-up to reveal a zombie or civilian, moving cards to different rows or ‘killing’ or ‘evacuating’ cards.

When you flip a card face up, it will have an event that is triggered depending on certain circumstances. For example, if upon flipping a card you find a ‘Volatile Zombie’, you’ll need to increase the zombie infection rate if there is already another one of those cards in the crowd.

Most of the time you are in control of the odds; but there is always an underlying element of random chance to what card you will uncover which results in times where you’ll feel absolutely screwed by the randomness. However, underlying that bitterness of how the world hates you, there is also the knowledge that it was your failure to deal with the zombies in previous rounds is to blame.

Triggers

The triggers on these cards helps to build a huge sense of suspense every time someone goes to flip one, with your heart racing and your plan resting on a such a simple action. You’re constantly making decisions based on calculated risks and the pay off when things go your way has lead to literal cheers or triumph in our group. Likewise, failure really hurts; although it rarely feels like you can’t claw back a victory.

While your job is to save humanity, evacuating and killing isn’t always simple – many characters can only use their actions on entire rows of the crowd. There are triggers which only occur if you kill a healthy citizen, which brings in having to weigh up what collateral damage you’re willing to accept. In our plays of the game on multiple occasions we had to weigh up the risk of nuking a row which potentially could have contained families or innocent civillians.

The games mechanics manage to keep the game at a constant state of uncertainty on how exactly you’re doing. This apprehension is something you genuinely feel until the last few moves before defeat or success. Until the game is over you’re not winding down with a smug sense of satisfaction or begrudgingly playing the last few rounds in a sense of defeatist pride. Sure you can count how many civilians you’ve saved, or keep an eye how many cards in the infection draw pile are left, but you’re normally too in the moment to pay that much attention to numbers - every action you make in Raxxon has consequences.

Players will also need to be placing action token on their character sheet in the respective slot on their board. This a simple mechanic but a major part of the balancing act that Raxxon represents. As you play actions in any given day, you’ll be triggering consequences for your next turn in that same day. You might to evacuate some healthy citizens from the survivor crowd, but by doing so every turn thereafter will mean you might need to increase the zombie count in the population discard pile. The more powerful your actions, the more intense the repercussions.

These consequences reinforce the fragility of your situation and force the players to really work together to stand any chance of evacuating the population. The game can and will present times where you really need to think ahead about how this impacts your future turns; evacuating a small group too soon will jeopardise the crowd for the rest of the day but waiting for it to get too large might cause the infected to close in even more.

Planning Ahead

This sense of having to plan multiple moves ahead with everyone else causes a flurry of discussions about the best routes and actions to take and who best to perform what and when. Although the game offers turns for each player, trying to play your own strategies without cooperating with the others on your team can often lead to an untimely death for everyone – the only way you’ll beat the game even on the easiest of difficulty is by working together. It may leave the game open to power-gaming in some groups, though I’ve found it to be more fun as a group puzzle and never really felt I needed to ‘control’ my turn, even though I of course had the final say.

A round of the game is ended by all the players passing, or an event triggered by crowd cards. Then the game enter the night phase where it’s time to spread the infection. For each infected card left in the crowd and in the uncontained quarantine you’ll have to add yet more zombies from the infection draw pile into the population draw pile – increasing your risks of exposing zombies as you progress. If the infection draw pile runs down to zero, you will lose the game immediately.

Despite a relatively simple puzzle game mechanic, having to constantly keep an eye on what is in quarantine and spending an action to deal with it gives a sense of constantly fighting against a rising tide. With each day and night cycle, the game naturally ramps up in difficulty, so while at the start you may feel like it’s a breeze to play, towards the final rounds you’re fully engrossed in this idea your crowd and city is about to be overrun. It’s rare to feel like you’ve got everything under control and in those brief isolated moments you’re all too aware the calm is being held on by a knife edge. These mechanics make the pacing of a game absolutely perfect for the setting – you feel like things get worse quickly and you don’t have that lull followed by a whole bunch of terrible things happening at the draw of a card that you find in other co-operative games.

Throughout the game you will be drawing Raxxon cards, usually as a result of using up one of your actions. Raxxon cards will give story driven events which can ask the player to make a choice. A lot of these cards either force the player to accept something that will damage their abilities or move up a Raxxon track. The Raxxon track marks the influence of the pharmaceuticals company; if this track gets to the end then you’ll lose the game.

The Raxxon cards are where the flesh of the world building comes from, with flavour text detailing the ultimate cause and effects of the infection being explained. A lot of the Raxxon cards are triggered by having a character in play or a certain previous Raxxon card already having been played.

Because of the removed over the top setting of the Raxxon world you’re not feeling emotionally guilty for some of the ridiculous circumstances you’re put in.

In one of our games Jamie began to roleplay his character of the mayor through trying to constantly air strike everywhere in an attempt to clear out some of the zombie infestations – condemning any civillians in his way. On paper it doesn’t seem like a fun experience, but you’re never really too engrossed in the humanity of the situation – something that allows you to enjoy the game as a fun experience rather than an emotionally draining task.

When these triggers and characters are in play, these cards are great fun and offer some hilarious mini-role playing moments. However, this does have the unfortunate effect that you’ll often pick up one of these cards only for nothing to happen at all. It sucks when someone draws a card specifically for your character but you don’t get to play with it because they came out of the deck in the wrong order, which happens frequently. You might be able to revisit the card later, but it does feel anti-climatic.

There are multiple cards that expand upon the characters that are being played and you start to get a sense of who and where your characters fit into this zombie infested world, though at the start you may think ‘Oh hey Brian Lee is the mayor, that’s cool’, towards the end you might end up with a sense of self-loathing of this devious politician. Raxxon cards aren’t always terrible and few of them will sway a game outright, so using an action that might force you to take one doesn’t feel like something you want to avoid at all costs, but rather something that can be quite an enjoyable path to take.

Easy to learn, hard to master

Raxxon is an incredibly easy game to pick up and learn with the manual detailing a full turn example along with any questions that might arise. There isn’t any complexity in the mechanics but rather the difficulties arise from the gameplay itself; as the old phrase goes – it’s easy to learn hard to master.

Visually the the cards themselves are interesting with a good range of different characters, designed in a monotone inked look. Each card allows you to easily identify at a glance which is important in a large crowd, and the pictures offer a little bit more world building – it’s a lot easier to feel sorry for the family you just killed when you’re staring at a picture of their supposed innocence.

The box feels far less inspired though, with an attempt of some form of militaristic simplicity on show. Plain black with a dark grey slightly raised logo might thematically fit but on your shelf it’s going to look uninviting and a little bit dull. There is an attempt to present it with some aging effects but once again this fall flat with it looking more like you’ve been using it as a surface to write some notes on. If you’re at a shop looking at games to buy, Raxxon is absolutely not going to jump out at you, nor does it do a very good job of visually imparting the excitement and fun of the game itself.

There is a lot of iconography included in the game and while you do learn them quickly it would be being a nice addition to have a reference card for all players. Because of the lack of it you’ll be having to pass the manual around for the first few games, something which is always a little immersion breaking.