In the Zone

*the following is an edited version of my recent interview in Miniature Wargames magazine. It offers an overview on ZONA ALFA development and game play.

Can you introduce Zone Alfa?

Zona Alfa: Salvage and Survival in the Exclusion Zone leans heavily into the fictional STALKER/METRO 2033 settings. If you’re not familiar, think Post-Apocalypse Soviet-style, in and around Chernobyl, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. There’s a dark, brooding feel with contemporary tech, and a hint of unnatural menace.

How did the game first come about? [what’s your background in miniatures, how did you conceive of the game, how did Osprey get involved?]

Several questions there. My love of miniature wargaming began in my early teens with a visit to MiniFigs USA. I recall the gentleman there excitedly describing how me he and his friends had rented out a local school gymnasium over the summer and refought the battle of Waterloo in 25mm. That was about the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I left that day with several packs of AWI British Grenadiers. That was over 40 years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Zona Alfa was an extension of my interest in the computer game, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl. That was the first ‘open world’ game I ever played and it was fascinating. It was so different from the frantic, run-n-gun games I had previously encountered – the landscape, the pace, the mood, the enemies, the missions… all of it. I immediately set about trying to recreate it on the table top, converting some of The Assault Group’s modern Russian figs with gasmask heads from Pig Iron Productions.  I painted up squads from every major faction and started running skirmish games with them.  

It was late 2017 when Phil Smith from Osprey contacted me. He is a fan of the genre and apparently some Battle Reports on my STALKER7 blog and posts at TMP and LAF caught his attention. He asked to see the rules I’d been using for my games and here we are.

How does the game play? Can you talk about some of the mechanics?

Zona Alfa is the latest iteration of my fast-play house rules that were titled ‘Cleared to Engage’. I’d been using them for years here to introduce people to miniature war gaming. It’s a skirmish game that uses D10s and was made with 28mm miniatures in mind, but 15mm or 20mm will work just as well. A fairly simple system, it’s played in a 3’ x 3’ or 4’ x4’ area with a set turn limit, so games typically run one to two hours. 

In Zona Alfa, players start by forming crews of 4 -12 miniatures, each with special gear, weapons, and abilities, with the intention of salvaging valuable items and artifacts in the dangerous and eerie quarantined area known as the ‘Exclusion Zone’.  Game play rests on three pillars: Streamlined Game Stats, Alternating Activation, and Troop Quality Levels.

There are two types of Game Stats: Model and Weapon.  Individual models have four basic stats: Combat Ability, which covers both Ranged and Melee. Armor Rating to deflect or reduce the effects of combat. This is linked to the particular type of body armor the character is equipped with. Movement which is the distance in inches the model can move for one Action. And Will, their mental acumen and resolve under fire. It’s used when testing for Morale and performing specific, in game, mission or plot-oriented tasks.

The Weapon Stats refer to the general class of weapon the character is armed with. Each weapon has three values: Fire power, Effective Range, and Damage. Firepower is the number if dice rolled for each attack. Effective Range is a table top abstraction to represent frantic, stressful combat conditions. Damage is simply a weapon’s stopping power or penetration.    

Because Zona Alfa is miniatures-agnostic, these are intentionally broad and abstracted so players can generate values for the wide range of models in their collection, then select categories of body armor and personal weapons.

Why Alternating Activation? Simply because I’m not a fan of IGO-UGO turn sequences. My goal is to keep all players on both sides involved as much as possible, acting and reacting to events as they unfold in the course of a game turn. IGO-UGO doesn’t do that for me.

Troop Quality is the final support. To reflect varying expertise and experience, there are three kinds of soldier in the Zone: Rookie, Hardened, or Veteran. Each has corresponding ability to act in battle.

Rookies have one action per activation, no special abilities and a limited amount of gear. Hardened soldiers have two actions per activation, have learned a skill, and can use more equipment. Veterans can perform three actions per activation, have two vital skills, and can equip themselves with useful items for themselves and their weapons.

Those three elements form the core of Zona Alfa game play and should allow anyone to form a crew and start exploring the Zone.     

I expanded the basic rules for Zona Alfa to include a simple campaign and progression system so a player’s individual models can be rewarded, promoted, and improved over the course of several games. After all, the Zone is an excellent teacher – if you live long enough to learn her lessons.

What were some of your main influences (both for the lore/setting and the gameplay)

I’ve mentioned the setting inspiration. Regarding game play, my introduction to war games way back in the day wasn’t D&D or Chainmail, but rather the old Avalon Hill board games: Gettysburg, Panzer Blitz, Panzer Leader, and Squad Leader.  As I recall, the cardboard chits had four basic stats: Attack, Defense, Range, and Movement, and I tried to stick with that kind of simplicity.  D10s provide a decent spread of possibilities and I vastly prefer Alternating Activation over the IGO-UGO turn sequence.  

What was the biggest challenge in designing Zone Alfa? Were there any scrapped features you’d have wished could have been included?

The biggest challenge was translating two dozen pages of notes and lists into a coherent and complete game for the general war game public. Christopher Cooke at Osprey has been invaluable in getting everything in order and presentable. Zona Alfa would still be scribbled, loose-leaf mess if it wasn’t for him and the team at Osprey.  I’m grateful for all their hard work and the opportunity to bring Zona Alfa to market. .

As far as anything left out, no. Zona Alfa is meant to be a simple, reliable system. Over four decades playing table top wargames, board games, and RPGS, I never ceased to be amazed at the imagination and creativity of the gaming community. I felt the best thing I could offer would be a set of tools for people to stat out their miniatures, form salvage crews, and undertake their own missions in the Exclusion Zone. 

What are your plans for the future of the game?

Well I’m obviously going to keep playing, making crews and terrain, and posting Battle Reports. I’m fortunate to be part of a great local gaming group and Zona Alfa is definitely in the rotation.  

Two items are on the docket for 2020: the first is a short supplement on converting Zona Alfa for Solo play. There are loads of solo gamers, or even friends who want to cooperate rather than compete, and ZA’s simple campaign system and A.I –controlled Zone Hostiles make it relatively easy to adapt. The second is a five mission narrative campaign where the players uncover a conspiracy to destroy the Zone with a nuclear device. The crews have to decide whether they work to stop the incident or help make it happen. I’m very much looking forward to the play test games early next year.

My hope is war gamers that are fans of the STALKER and Metro 2033 settings would find Zona Alfa well worth their time and use it to bring their own missions to the table top. If it does well for Osprey, perhaps there will be expansions or a campaign book in the future. Who knows? Until then, Udachi ta harnoho polyuvannya, Stalker. (Good luck and good hunting, STALKER)

You can pre-order ZONA ALFA here.

Here are a couple short stories to get you in the mood.

A Prayer to St. Strelok

and

Strange Treasure

Thanks and good hunting, STALKER.

2 thoughts on “In the Zone

    1. Thanks.
      I hope it does well too. And that people continue to play ZA after the novelty wears off in a couple months. Longevity, fun, reliability… that’s what I’d like to see.
      It’s been a good experience dealing with Osprey so far and I’d like to develop more games.

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