• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

Play To Lose Yourself In The Zone

You won't survive this tragedy of doomed heroes!


One of the long standing pearls of wisdom about role-playing games is that there is not a winner. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey in these games we love. The point is to tell memorable stories of heroes, villains, triumphs and tragedies. Designer Raph D’Amico’s The Zone focuses on a tragedy of doomed heroes hoping to survive an experience that several others have not returned from. It’s also an entry into the beginner RPG genre that’s focused on getting players into the game without worrying about building characters, developing a campaign or putting the creative burden on one player in the center as the Game Master. D’Amico sent a review copy of the game that bills itself as “play to lose” and revels in a story where nobody gets out clean. Does a fate worse than death make for a fun time? Let’s play to find out.

The Zone casts the players as members of an expedition heading into the titular zone. The zone is a place of high strangeness that remains as yet unexplained in its origins. The only thing known is that the players are the 14th expedition into the area with all previous ones having been lost. Narration duties pass from player to player as they pass through locations and draw scene cards to illustrate the weird happenings on their way. As the players get past the halfway point, the zone starts to claim victims until only one remains to make it to the center. There, the survivor gets to make a wish; the one thing it hopes the anomaly will provide. The players whose characters died decide if that wish is granted, plus any sort of twists, turns and unexpected costs if it does.

The game is entirely card based with characters built from cards, locations mapped out in a tarot-like spiral thread and scenes dictated by a deck of cards. There’s still a little bit of uncertainty baked into the design. Players don’t know when their characters are due to die so they can sacrifice themselves in the hopes of getting one character to that final scene. When characters encounter trouble, they draw from a Not So Easy deck that offers resolutions like Yes, But or No, And and so on. There’s a risk reward system built into these draws, as the player with the most of these cards in front of them that didn’t make it to the center of the zone ultimately determines the fate of the one who does. It’s a neat way to get players to take risks by putting the ultimate success or failure of the expedition in the hands of the person most willing to take risks and engage in fatal behavior throughout the game. Often these consequences come in the form of mutations. Should your friends not be able to dole out body horror like David Cronenberg, the game comes with a book of mutation charts to inspire.

The most direct influence on The Zone is the 2018 film Annihilation. Everything from the mission structure to the surreal body horror aesthetic of the core game fits this framing. But the truths of the zone are left to discover during play. It could be aliens, it could be Cthulhu, it could be a simulation breakdown, it could be a faerie gateway or whatever the group decides makes the most sense during play. The base game features multiple locations that change up the basic story as well as different character types that frame the quest for the center in different ways. Beyond that, the game comes with a book of twists that recast the game in other genres with adjustments to the core gameplay. Want the game to be set in a weird western mining town? Explore a lost space station in orbit around a strange planet? A shadowed adult film studio that transcends the flesh? There are a dozen variations like this, each worth multiple playthroughs.

I recommend The Zone for anyone who wants to have a great storytelling experience without a GM. The book is set up to be used as the game is played, making it great for first time players. The options and variations allow for great replayability making it an excellent choice for veteran gamers. As someone who runs a lot of horror, it was fun to be grossed out by my players as much as I was creeping them out. (Don’t worry, the game comes with an X card and rules for setting how gnarly you want things to get)

The Zone is available in both a print and online version. Players can use the online version for free, but I recommend the boxed set to truly appreciate the art and craftsmanship that went into this game.

log in or register to remove this ad

Rob Wieland

Rob Wieland

I'm kinda kicking myself for not backing this, but I figured I only really play anything online, and the online version of the game is incredibly cool. It's a fantastic game though.

Remove ads

Remove ads