Survival in the zone–Mutant: Year Zero review

As the apocalypse looms ever larger in America’s collective subconscious, it’s fitting that such a high quality RPG has come about to help us experience it at our gaming tables. Mutant: Year Zero sets the stage long after humanity has ceased to be. In its wake, rising out of an Ark that can no longer hold its struggling community, are the mutated remains of mankind, striking out to find hope amid the ruins of a bygone world. A single ancient, untouched by the mutations that have remade the species, watches over the Ark in his or her waning years. But now you and your party must find resources, build new structures, and balance your community’s goals against your own. Mutant: Year Zero is a rare treat, and exactly the kind of step up in complexity I was hoping for when I read Free League’s other recent game, Tales From the Loop.

Much like Fallout or Deadlands: Hell on Earth before it, this game has a mixture of wacky and dark that manages to be surprisingly effective. You can choose to play fast and loose with the stranger mutations, letting your players explore a playground of futuristic mysteries. Just as easily, they can struggle against starvation and radiation, their population and sanity dwindling as they make harsher and harsher choices. I usually find this dichotomy to create a tonal dissonance, but here it feels like a path towards choosing your own way forward. It’s effortless to choose a tone or swing it in the other direction, and that choice is but one of the many strengths of this game.

Mutant: Year Zero tasks you with more than personal goals, tasking you with caring for a community, at first to pull it from the brink of destruction, and then to ensure its long-term survival. The basic game loop sees you venturing out into the Zone (failing to make blatant Stalker references would be far more gauche than including them), where you seek artifacts and resources to improve the Ark. Each time you do so, different threats will appear to stymie your efforts, threatening you or the community itself.

It’s a devilishly simple setup, but gives you plenty of variety as you explore. The connection to the ark also separates this from usual D&D method of treasure hunting: you and your players are building something together. The Ark is more than a group of NPCs. It is a collection of personalities and projects. Managing the Ark contains its own politics, as the inhabitants vote on which improvements to spend resources on and the best way to counter Ark-wide threats. Will you build towards habitability or defense? Thanks to limited resources, these are hard choices, and the ability to make different ones grants this game a ton of replayability. The Ark needs you to find more than additional building materials, however. The mutated citizens are sterile, meaning they cannot grow on their own. The basic premise gives you an instant time limit, spurring you to venture outwards and save this last bastion of civilization, sometimes from itself.

Not only the Ark, but the Zone itself has personality and variety. The designers took the brilliant choice to add in elements of hexcrawl in, allowing you to create a procedurally generated Zone right there at the table. With a number of random options, you can make encounters, threats, and landscapes in the space of a few rolls of the dice. Unless, that is, you aren’t using dice…

One major feature of Mutant: Year Zero is completely optional: several decks of cards used to help randomize the experience. These decks contain gear, mutations, and threats that you will use during character generation and throughout gameplay. The contents of each deck are provided in the book as well, consisting of d66 rollable tables. This microtransaction-light may irk some of us as a matter of principle, but the ease of ignoring this option makes it no real problem. Additionally, the cards themselves are inexpensive, and make the hexcrawl feel move along with all the more efficiency. Instead of explaining the rules to a piece of gear to a player, they can loot it themselves and have all relevant information in front of them. It’s mainly a style choice, but not one that will seriously irk you. That said, the card decks contain fewer objects than the rollable tables, so in some ways you are incentivized not to use them. It’s a strange choice.

The basic dice mechanic is simple, but does veer into a territory where the microtransaction influence is more palpable. Much like in Tales From the Loop, you will combine your attribute and skill value in a pool of six-sided dice and roll them. Any six is a success, and more successes generate additional effects. You can also choose to Push a roll, rerolling all sixes and ones. However, you run an additional risk when doing so. Your mutations could go haywire and cause unintentional damage, and your gear could break in your hands. The one complication is that you are intended to use different colored dice, or separate your pools if you chose not to purchase them, for attributes, skills, and gear. You separate these because different effects can take place when you roll a one for each type, and you will want to keep track of what die fails of a given type. It’s a small annoyance to do this without the dice, and that annoyance feels designed into the system to push you into making that additional purchase. We as gamers are getting too used to these types of “choices” being pushed on us as a transparent means of grasping at a few more dollars, but I can at least say that separating your dice into different pools is an extra step you can learn to take with relative ease.

Character generation is simple, yet leaves you with a fleshed out mutant to explore with. You begin by choosing a role from a decently sized list (enforcer, gearhead, stalker, fixer, dog handler, chronicler, boss, slave). That list, you may notice, is not in alphabetical order, for no reason I can think. It’s going to make referencing the role more difficult down the line, and I don’t know why they would lay them out in this way.

Regardless, the roles will do a few simple things for you: they allow you to raise one attribute a point beyond the maximum (if you so choose), give you a starting gear package, and grant you access to a specialist skill not available to any other role. These skills make the role all the more important a choice, given that your party is limited. A Stalker will help you explore more quickly and efficiently, but what if you choose that above a Fixer, who is skilled in medicine? Much like the glory days of Oregon Trail, this early decision could prove one of the most impactful as the game progresses.

From there you distribute 14 points among four attributes: Strength, Wits, Empathy, and Agility. You are locked into values ranging from 2 to 4, but the roles allow you to raise one of them to a 5 if you so choose. You then distribute 10 points among the various skills and choose a special Talent to help prepare you for the Zone, and differentiate you from other characters.

You will get your starting mutation randomly, either by drawing a mutation card or rolling on the mutation table. To those who would rather choose than leave their character in the hands of chance, the book has a terse and off-putting response: “Mutations are random. Deal with it.” This is actively disrespectful to the players, as well as being a wasted opportunity to explain the tone of the game. In something with hexcrawl and horror elements, a great deal of verisimilitude comes along with losing control of something like a mutation. Rather than explaining this design choice and encouraging the players to try to step out of their comfort zones, this two sentence attack only makes commentary on the antagonistic outlook of the writer. For shame.

That being done, you will round your character out by describing a few traits, such as their relationship to other characters and personal goals. Doing so both gives you a greater connection to your mutant but functions as a way to generate XP during the final phase of every session, where you and the party will evaluate your decisions.

The breakup of the session is an interesting method to guide new GMs, and one that you are free to ignore if you so choose. As designed, you begin each session by holding a vote on which new features to add to the Ark. The GM will then draw a Threat card, which will affect the game in various ways, and the players will decide how to deal with that threat as they explore the Zone and gather additional resources. Afterwards you will conduct a debriefing, wherein you will go over the spoils of the day, aftermath of the threats, and award experience. Not everyone will want to hold to this structure, but just as many people will appreciate the help with pacing an adventure. A major skill that goes ignored in teaching new GMs how to run games is how to keep the game moving at a reasonable rate, and I like that Mutant: Year Zero makes it a major design choice to give you that option.

Whenever you use one of your mutations, you run a risk. You first spend a Mutation point, a precious resource you only gather once at the beginning of each session. Hoarding them would be a prudent choice, but one you will not always be able to afford. For every Mutation point you spend, you roll a die. For every one, you roll on the Misfire table, which has a number of effects. You are never in complete control of your powers; they could go off as planned, with a greater than expected effect, or run wild, harming your allies or yourself and leaving you in a dire state.

Combat is simple, consisting of a few contested rolls that move quickly but contain lethal consequences. Your wounds are no simple damage points; rather you will one again refer to a d66 table to find your character’s fate. A similar system allows you to engage in social conflicts, which takes on a special importance in a game with so much management of the personalities on the Ark. Beyond that, your health and ammunition are limited, so you will need to prepare yourself to think creatively when encountering the denizens of the Zone.

I like to thinking something tragic and terrifying lurks behind these wild eyes, but you could just as easily find a quirky comedic relief character. Either would fit naturally into this game

Apart from radiation poisoning and roving bands of cannibals, the one great danger of this game is the book’s layout. It’s not horrific, but the organization leaves something to be desired. Some things are referenced early on, but you find that that initial reference has rules you need to understand the complete explanation. You will find that you understand most of something but need to refer to a later section of the book to get a complete picture. This makes character generation, an otherwise simple set of decisions, a somewhat messy endeavor as you flip back and forth between various sections for basic information. Your first readthrough of the rules will be similarly messy and confusing, and for rules this simple (really, they are very approachable) the organization creates problems. Once you understand the rules, they are some of the easiest to use that I have come across, making this game an exemplary entry point for new players. It’s only a shame that you have to dig to uncover them at certain moments.

Otherwise, the book sets its own tone very well. The full color book makes great use of shadows to evoke a mood, reminding you of the early run of The Walking Dead by Tony Moore. The features are clear, but under constant threat. It works well to ride that line between gonzo and horror where the game chooses to live.



Mutant: Year Zero

Review Guidelines

Mutant: Year Zero exposes you to the freedom and desolation of a procedurally generated world. Taking beats from Fallout and hexcrawls, it melds a simplistic system with respect for your skills to provide an experience that will leave you deeply connected to your struggling community.

John Farrell is a legal aid attorney specializing in domestic violence, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at:
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