Zone Wars is a "party skirmish game" that's basically XCOM meets Fallout

A closeup shot of a Zone Wars miniature near a broken shop, partially obscured by trees
(Image credit: Free League)

I didn't understand Mutant Year Zero spin-off Zone Wars until I blew up a dragonfly man with my robot's grenade launcher. "Ah," I thought. "So that's what it's all about." 

You see, this tabletop skirmish game isn't a self-serious take on the apocalypse; instead, it's all about having a laugh. And funnily enough, that's its ace in the hole. There's no shortage of wargames out there right now, so how does Zone Wars cut through all that noise? Simple - by upping the carnage. 

Much like its endearingly bizarre take on the genre with duck-men and sentient murder-bots, this helps Zone Wars stand out. Considering developer Free League's other projects (including Alien: The Roleplaying Game and Vaesen), that shouldn't have come as a surprise. Despite being a relative newcomer, the studio has shot straight to the top of the pile since it was founded in 2011. Its unique approach allows this game - which you can see on Kickstarter - to shine.

I sat down with Free League co-founder Nils Karlén and game developer Martin Takaichi earlier this month, and their description of Zone Wars as a "party skirmish game" is the perfect way to describe how this tabletop battlefield stands out.

(Post) Supermarket sweep

Zone Wars tabletop battle scene, with all factions locked in combat on a post-apocalyptic board

Zone Wars games result in total carnage as everyone clashes over scrap (Image credit: Free League)

Because it takes place in the same world as Mutant Year Zero (and the 1984 Mutant RPG, by extension), Zone Wars thrusts us into a post-apocalyptic hellscape where our cities are rubble and humanity has been replaced by all-new lifeforms. Mutants, humanoid animals, and robots now squabble over the remnants of civilization in battles that share a lot of DNA with both XCOM and Fallout.

If you've not made the most of terrain during deployment, rivals will punish your lack of foresight

However, it's more anarchic than either of those. As per Star Wars Legion, fights occur on smaller 3ft by 3ft boards and involve up to four players controlling squads of three warriors aside. You'll lead these troops through a variety of scenario types and narrative missions, but because the play-area is so compact, carnage will ensue regardless.

That was definitely the case in our preview. It was essentially supermarket sweep; I had to grab as much scrap (represented by tokens scattered across the board) as I could, but a combination of long-range weapons and the more compact board meant instant pandemonium. There's no lull in which you creep toward your enemy on the other side of the map, ducking from cover to cover; if you've not made the most of terrain during deployment, rivals will punish your lack of foresight with a sniper shot to the noggin.

Take cover

A shot of a Zone Wars miniature with butterfly wings and a sniper rifle in the open

(Image credit: Free League)

Along with a 60cm by 60cm battlemat to play on, Zone Wars includes cardboard terrain to litter the area. Using these buildings is crucial to survival - being out in the open is a good way to lose your troops.

What's more, everyone scrambles toward those objective tokens from the off. It's not hard to see why; you'll draw a random scrap card upon collecting them, and although each one nets you sweet, sweet victory points, some are worth far more than others. Plus, a few are genuinely useful weapons that you can wield for the duration of the game. This results in a literal arms race as you all rush to secure the most valuable items. For example, Karlén uncovered a Maser Pistol worth five points that also set its targets on fire, so everyone dropped what they were doing to bully it off him. What followed was a far more violent take on pass the parcel as we kept stealing it from each other.

Happy chaos

Overview of two miniatures fighting in Zone Wars

Each faction in Zone Wars is distinct and memorable (Image credit: Free League)

Skipping ahead to 'good parts' like this is crucial so far as Karlén and Takaichi are concerned. They told me that their goal with Zone Wars was to make it accessible and immediate enough that even those who aren't familiar with skirmish games can have a good time. And from my all-too-brief session, it seems like they've succeeded. This is one of the more accessible wargames I've tried, standing shoulder to shoulder with Godtear

A lot of that is down to clear rules revolving around your warrior's ability cards. As with Warhammer Underworlds: Gnarlwood, everything you need to know is printed on there with a clear indication of how many dice you should roll for different kinds of attack. (As per usual, some characters are better at melee while others excel when sniping.) Yet rather than worrying about conversions based on your target's defense score vs your proficiency, success is determined by the heavyweight of many Free League products - rolling sixes on d6 dice. These represent successes, and you roll as many dice as your cards (and items) dictate. The target then rolls the amount of dice indicated by their armor, with d6s removing a hit. It's simple, elegant, and easy to understand. 

The result? Undistilled anarchy

The process is also spiced up by an opportunity to 'push' those rolls. This allows you to re-roll anything that isn't a 1 or 6, and while doing so might earn you successes or 'M-points' that power certain abilities, it could cause damage to your weapon as well.

When combined with your turn being determined at random by pulling tokens from a bag, what follows is best described as happy chaos. You're always kept on your toes.

Choose your fighter

Zone Wars closeup shot of the Mecha King miniature

(Image credit: Free League)

There are four factions available for Zone Wars at the time of writing; Ark Mutants with strange powers, Genlab Tribe (a result of horrific animal experimentation), the Mechatron Hive of now-sentient robots, and the psionic Nova Cult. The former two are featured in the basic box, while the latter come with a Robots and Psionics expansion. I played as - and loved - the Mechatron Hive during our session thanks to their leader's ability to give allies a bonus turn.

Don't think it's lawless, though. Despite Zone Wars being the more happy-go-lucky cousin of games like Warcry: Sundered Fate or The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms, it still has depth to its name. Specifically, firing from elevated positions or hitting someone from behind increases the dice you can use during an attack. What's more, XCOM favorites such as the 'overwatch' ability (where you instantly attack if a miniature crosses your model's line of sight) keep it from being too pedestrian.

Zone effects, drawn at random during the game, have a similar impact. These fundamentally change the battlefield with the likes of acid rain damaging your models unless they can get into cover.

The result? Undistilled anarchy… and I loved it. In fact, I was sad not to be playing more when my preview ended. That's Zone Wars in a tidy nutshell; it's good old-fashioned fun. 

This is exactly what Karlén, Takaichi, and the Free League team were going for when developing the game. As they said during our match, laughter is important. With so many of the best board games requiring hours of homework as you dig into a massive rulebook, that approach is a breath of fresh air.

You'll be able to take a look for yourself when the game launches toward the end of 2023. Until then, check out the best tabletop RPGs, essential board games for adults, and must-have board games for 2 players.

Benjamin Abbott
Tabletop & Merch Editor

As the site's Tabletop & Merch Editor, you'll find my grubby paws on everything from board game reviews to the latest Lego news. I've been writing about games in one form or another since 2012, and can normally be found cackling over some evil plan I've cooked up for my group's next Dungeons & Dragons campaign.