June 24, 2024

Mutated gaming with Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars

RockyMountainNavy, 31 May 2024

Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars (hereafter simply “Zone Wars”) from Free League Publishing is a very enjoyable and easy-to-learn tabletop miniatures skirmish game. Zone Wars succeeds where other miniatures games occasionally fail in that it brings together stunning components married to an easy-to-learn combat system with just enough thematic distinction to create a super fast, super fun, super expandable game with an interesting lore powering play. 

Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars falls into a category of gaming I call “Adventure Wargames.” I define adventure wargames as games that contain elements of both wargaming and roleplaying games (RPGs). In Zone Wars, two to four players control their team of mutants (with each mutant being a single model) in a fast-playing battle that leverages the combat rules from the Mutant Year Zero RPG. All too often, tabletop skirmish combat games based on an RPG game system are clunky and not very fun to play because RPG combat often bogs down due to a hyper-focus on characters. Other times one finds a fairly competent combat game with a theme only loosely pasted on or which has no narrative impact on combat. Zone Wars avoids those pitfalls by leveraging a streamlined combat game mechanism that can be ported back and forth from a popular, well defined RPG or simply played separately outside any sort of tabletop RPG session or campaign.

Zone Wars hails from RPG publisher Free League Publishing. The Zone Wars core set includes everything for two players to start playing including ten detailed 32 mm miniatures (five each for the Ark Mutant and the Genlab Tribe), cards, tokens, dice, a game mat, cardboard terrain, a ruler, and a rulebook including five full scenarios, campaign rules, character generation, and solo rules. An expansion set, Mutant Zone Wars: Robots & Psionics, adds two more factions allowing up to four players to play with ten more miniatures (five each for the Mechatron Hive and the Nova Cult) as well as more cards, tokens, dice, a game mat, cardboard terrain, a ruler, and a scenario booklet including five full scenarios. The lead designer for Zone Wars is Andy Chambers, known for other miniatures games such as Necromunda, Battlefleet Gothic, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and Dropfleet Commander.

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Zone Wars Core Set (photo by RMN

click images to enlarge


Roleplaying end zone

Of course the world ends. It happens quickly, faster than anyone could predict. The Red Plague hits a world already in the brink of collapse. Extreme climate change, global economic crisis, increasing conflict between old and new superpowers. When the pandemic comes, the last thin veneer of stability crumbles….

Yet life remains. Slivers of humanity survive the Apocalypse. In the Ark, a small settlement at the edge of a dead city, the People live. You are the spawn of humanity, but not quite human. You are twisted funhouse images, mutated freaks. Your bodies and minds have incredible powers, but you are unstable. Fragile. None of the People are over 30 years old….

It’s time to venture out. To explore the Zone. to search for artifacts and knowledge….

Mutant Year Zero: Core Rule Book (2021, 4th printing)

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Mutant Year Zero RPG (Free League Publishing, 2021)


That is part of the long version of the setting taken from the RPG; the short version found on the back of the Zone Wars box is more direct and to the point:

Lead a band of mutant Stalkers into the Zone and fight others to scavenge artifacts from the Ancients. Stake out your claim in the postapocalyptic wasteland – or die trying.

Back of the box, Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars Core Set

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Mutant Year Zero Core Set, back of the box (photo by RMN)


To be honest, the short version is really all that a player needs to understand Zone Wars. This is foremost a combat game; the lore of the world setting is there—in just the right ways and amount—to make combat more interesting.


My, my, you is beautifully U.G.L.Y.

Player immersion in Zone Wars comes not from the setting background but from the physical components. The 32mm miniatures come with a sundrop paint finish that is simple yet beautiful—as I am not a miniatures painter I am always hesitant to paint miniatures but in Zone Wars I do not see any need. The balance of the components, especially the self-assembly (and break down) terrain and game mat means players can get the game to the table immediately. 

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First game set up in under 5 min (photo by RMN)


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Looks good straight out of the box (photo by RMN)


Each of the four factions in Zone Wars are visually distinctive and have game mechanisms behind them that bring out the differences. The four factions come with five models each along with a character card that shows the models base attributes, starring gear, and mutations/modules.

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Zone Wars core set and expansion (photo by RMN)


Ark Mutants: “A closely knit group of human mutants, searching for their origin in the mythical Eden somewhere in the Zone.”

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Ark Mutants (photo by RMN)


Genlab Tribe: “A tribe of intelligent animal mutants, recently haven won their freedom from the horrors of Genlab Alpha.”

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Drux (not Howard) with others of Genlab Tribe (photo by RMN)


Nova Cult: “A secretive cult of human mutants with powerful psionic mutations and unknown ambitions.”

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Nova Cult looks so…thoughtful (photo by RMN)


Mechatron Hive: “A collective of robots having recently awoken to become self-aware, seeking their place in the post-apocalyptic world.”

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Mechatron Hive mechs mugging (photo by RMN)


Zone wargaming

The combat rules for Zone Wars are based on the Mutant Year Zero roleplaying game which themselves derive from the combat rules in the Free Tabletop License (FTL) that powers most Free League Publishing RPGs of today. Frankly, I expected Zone Wars to be powered by a loosely-associated derivative of the FTL with little semblance of the original. I instead found a combat system that is virtually identical.

For those familiar with the FTL, Zone Wars uses the combat rules from the “d6 pool” fork of the FTL. What that means in combat is built around a very simple core game mechanism; a d6 dice pool based usually on an attribute or skill (base dice) and modified by gear (gear dice). Combat, ranged or melee, uses the same nine steps:

  1. Indicate target model and attacking model, stating which weapon or mutation will be used.
  2. Check range and line of sight to the target model if attacking at range (for melee attacks the model bases must be touching).
  3. Take a number of base dice (yellow) equal to the attacker’s Ranged stat if at range or Melee stat if base to base.
  4. Add gear dice (black) for the weapon used.
  5. Roll base and gear dice; any [6] is a hit.
  6. Count up number of hits to determine potential damage.
  7. If you want to improve your result you can push the roll, re-rolling any dice not showing a [6] or [1] but potentially risking damage to your weapon.
  8. Roll a number of gear dice (black) for the armor and cover of the target; every [6] rolled reduces one hit from the attacker.
  9. Place damage tokens injured characters; if total damage equals or exceeds Health, turn the model on its side to indicate it is Broken.

…and that’s it. Quick rules that are easy to remember; so easy in fact that a player aid of actions and combat steps is not really required (nor is one provided).

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Example Melee Combat – Ark Mutant Hugust swings a chainsaw against Genlab Tribe member Bormin. Rolling 5 yellow base dice for strength plus 3 black gear dice for the chainsaw Hugust…whiffs with no hits [6s]. Time to push that roll which may yet score a hit but risks damaging the chainsaw… (photo by RMN)
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Example Ranged Combat – Genlab Tribe mutant Farrow uses their scrap rifle to shoot at Ark Mutant Krin peeking around a crumbling wall. Farrow rolls 5 yellow base die for ranged combat with three black gear die for the rifle scoring a single hit [6]. Krin rolls two black gear die for cover but the wall fails to protent them. (photo by RMN)

Adventure into the Zone

Not only does this illustrate just how clean the combat rules from the FTL can be, but also it makes taking characters back and forth between the RPG and Zone Wars very simple. I’m not saying Zone Wars should replace combat in a Mutant Year Zero RPG campaign but if you wanted to…

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Genlab Tribe team less Mutant Power cards (photo by RMN)


…you could because each model/character in Zone Wars comes with a character card that captures the essential information needed for combat. Character cards is also where the special aspects of the setting are bought out; the mutant powers.


Mutant zone madness

Mutant powers are what sets Zone Wars apart from just another tabletop miniatures skirmish combat game. Call it the “gimmick” if you want, but the mutant powers inspired by the RPG setting creates individual narratives that change every game. Every model/character in Zone Wars comes with an assigned mutant power and then draws one random other mutation during game set up.

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Howard Drux can call out warning to other teammates but can also…sprint? That’s one darn interesting mutated duck! (photo by RMN)


Each team in Zone Wars has a pool of Mutant Points (“M-points”) that are used to activate mutant powers. For instance, in the image above Drux has the starting mutant power “Warning Call” which gives them the ability to spend a M-point to warn another model and reduce any damage scored against them. In this game the random mutant power drawn for Drux was “Sprinter” which allows the model to move a single long-range increment (10”) and then perform a normal action. That’s one fast quacker of a duck!

Other thematic elements of Zone Wars include Zone Cards (random events) and artifacts. Every turn, a number of Zone Tokens are added to the draw cup that determines the random order of model activation. When a Zone token is drawn a Zone Card is flipped up to show an event. Sometimes the Zone Card freely triggers a mutation; more often it calls for a random event—a peril or opportunity—in the Zone. In most cases the character/model will need to make a very RPG-like survival roll against the Zone Card event using their Survival attribute.

As directed in the scenario, artifacts also litter every Zone in Zone Wars. Artifacts are valuable items that can be used or stripped down for parts. In most scenarios artifacts score victory points that help determine the winner.

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The Zone is an interesting place with unexploded ordnance and…teddy bears? (photo by RMN)


Zoning out by yourself

Zone Wars also includes simple rules for solo play. The “AI” or “bot” is not very complex, dividing the different models into types (or archetypes in RPG terms) and then giving general rules on how they act on the battlefield. The low rules overhead of the solo game makes game play go just as fast (if maybe not even a bit faster) than normal play in large part because executing the AI actions are straight-forward.

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Dare to enter the Zone by yourself? (photo by RMN)


Adventure into the wars of the Zone

Mutant Year Zero: Zone Wars is a welcome addition to the pantheon of miniatures tabletop games. It is also already popular with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who, after seeing my sample game set up on the table and noting that it can play up to four players, insist that it be added to the RMN Summer Family Game Night rotation. As an “Adventure Wargame,” Zone Wars strikes an excellent balance between fast combat play and linkages to the Mutant Year Zero RPG. As such, the game should appeal to both wargamers and RPG players. The setting may be a bit darker than some others in pop media culture, but Zone Wars is nonetheless just as fun…


(Base feature image courtesy Free League Publishing. My sincerest thanks goes out to Free League Publishing who provided review copies via Armchair Dragoons.)

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Image courtesy Free League Publishing


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