Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars is the year’s goofiest tabletop skirmish game

A set of tabletop miniatures and accoutrements depict a duck-man, a moose-man, and a rabbit-man as they walk into a bar and begin fighting with a large man with sniper rifle and the wings of a fly.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

With rock-solid rules written by a veteran of the Necromundan hive wars

Skirmish wargaming — traditional miniatures wargaming with a smaller footprint and fewer minis — is having a moment. Used to be there were just a few flavors available, but a new crop of games is suddenly giving all kinds of different energies. Grimdark Necromunda, futuristic Infinity, and stalwart Malifaux are all still around, of course. Their action remains brutal, and their rulesets fairly complex. Meanwhile, newcomers Cyberpunk Red: Combat Zone and Fallout: Factions are becoming more established thanks to dynamic sculpts, bright colors, and most importantly, far more simplified rules. There’s also Star Wars: Shatterpoint and Halo: Flashpoint, more refined games clearly built for brisk, competitive play.

Now comes Free League Publishing’s Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars, launching today with a new Core Set. It feels like this one is bringing some much-needed comic relief.

First launched as Mutant in 1984, the Swedish tabletop role-playing universe has been many things over the years. Funcom’s Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden refocused the franchise on its goofiest characters, human-and-animal hybrids with bizarre special abilities. It also helped that one of the main characters looks like an up-armored Howard the Duck. All the while, Free League has been working diligently in the background to keep the modern version of the TTRPG in circulation around the world.

Zone Wars smartly puts our duck friend back on the cover, and this time he’s the linchpin of a powerful band of Stalkers, mutant soldiers who enter the dangerous, irradiated Zone to scavenge for artifacts. It’s a simple premise that opens the door to clever scenario-based gameplay and the potential for linked campaigns.

A set of miniatures of animal-human hybrids sitting on a tabletop, surrounded by a couple of stacks of colorful cards
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
All 10 miniatures come pre-painted with a high-contrast paint, but you’re going to need to put in some work to strip it off if you want to paint them up. The custom plastic pack-in included inside the box gives the whole package a polished feel.

The most surprising part is the completeness of this starter set, which includes a few short stacks of unit and ability cards, loads of cardboard terrain, bits and custom dice, but also pre-assembled and pre-shaded monochrome miniatures. Setup took me all of 20 minutes, and just about 30 minutes later I had already grokked most of the mechanics. That’s because the rules in the manual have been put together by Andy Chambers, co-designer of the original Necromunda (1995), and they are rock solid and easy to understand.

Gameplay is nuanced and engaging, but never tedious. Zone Wars has just enough complexity to keep you on your toes. You’ll need to keep track of where your miniatures are facing, for instance. Charging straight away into melee isn’t always the best move, even when your team has the advantage in numbers. Meanwhile, if you keep your distance it can be hard to level a kill shot. That’s because these little buggers are all pretty resilient!

Deal enough damage to a given character, and they’ll become broken. After tipping them on their side, the only available action you can take with them on their turn is recovery. But to recover, you’ll need a special item or a friend nearby to come to your aid. The recovery process involves rolling some dice, combining attributes of the rescuer and the rescued, then tallying up the results. If this succeeds, the broken character leaps to their feet with full health — only to become bloodied. If they go down again they’re absolutely out of action for that particular match, but unlike other more hardcore offerings true character death never happens.

The result is a lighthearted game of tactical Whac-a-Mole, filled with endearing critters with charming attributes taking devastating hits. But when they go down in a hail of bullets and feathers, they invariably leap heroically back to their webbed feet, makeshift guns blazing. I know of no other game where a moose-man can run antlers-first into an insect-man to score the winning point.

The best part is that even in a linked campaign with multiple missions — of the type offered in the game’s first expansion, Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars – Robots & Psionics — death isn’t really an issue. Even if your favorite character does go down for a second time in the heat of battle, they’ll absolutely be back for the next game. Because if there’s one thing funnier than doming Howard the Duck at range with a scavenged laser rifle, it’s doing it again… and again… and again over the course of a multi-session campaign.

Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars Core Set and Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars – Robots & Psionics are available now. The products were reviewed using a retail copy provided by Free League Publishing. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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