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The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - a bit of a shambles

Like the later seasons of the TV show it's based on, Free League Publishing’s The Walking Dead Universe RPG struggled to hold my attention.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of two humans wielding guns

Our Verdict

The Walking Dead Universe RPG feels underdeveloped. Its core system and setting are solid enough, but a lack of in-depth mechanics and narrative ideas make this feel like a shallow zombie bite that doesn't leave a dent.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG has a meat problem. Mainly that there’s not enough of it – like on a Walker that’s been rotting for too many days. Its bones and muscles (the core mechanics) are sturdy enough to keep it shambling, but a lot of its vital organs have gotten lost along the way.

Look out, tabletop RPG fans, my The Walking Dead Universe RPG review is moaning and groaning in your direction. Before we succumb to the horde, here are some housekeeping details. Free League Publishing kindly provided a copy of the Core Rules and Starter Set for this review, and my thoughts are based on a thorough reading of the books, plus some limited playtesting of the Starter Set adventure.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG Core Rules and Starter Set from Free League Publishing

What is The Walking Dead Universe RPG?

The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is a tabletop RPG based (primarily) on The Walking Dead TV series. Like many titles from Free League Publishing, it uses a version of the Year Zero dice system.

The name of the game here is throwing a fistful of d6s and hoping for at least one success roll. You can also take points of stress to increase your odds, with negative consequences for rolling badly on a stress die. In my experience, this is a mid-complexity system that keeps RPG math at a minimum to leave plenty of room for storytelling.

If the choice of system wasn’t enough of a hint, the Core Rules says so outright: “This game is not about attacking Walkers and rolling for damage”. The Walking Dead Universe RPG wants to be an atmospheric, narrative-driven tale – and one that you take seriously. So much so that the rules actively discourage the happy-go-lucky hack-and-slash behavior you might expect from a Zombieland or a Left 4 Dead.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of people exploring an abandoned highway

What’s in The Walking Dead Universe RPG?

The Core Rules gives you a brief overview of The Walking Dead universe in chapters one and two (though you don’t need to know much about it to understand how the game works – it’s a standard zombie apocalypse affair).

Chapters three and four introduce some rules-light classes to help create your character and establish the rules for relationships and anchors, as these are key to relieving a character’s stress and driving their stories forward. Playing your character revolves around using their stats and skills (whose scores you add together to create your dice pool of d6s), as well as unique talents that help you buff a skill roll or manage stress better.

Future chapters introduce rules for building and managing bases (‘Havens’), going on supply runs, and fighting both living and dead combatants. Free League also offers plenty of advice on structuring and running a game, as well as example adventures and a solo RPG mode. As you’d expect, the Starter Set features a summary of the rules and an extended adventure to explore.

While there are multiple ready-made encounters and a horde of examples throughout the books, I wouldn’t call these rulebooks beginner-friendly. Free League does an excellent job conveying the Walking Dead Universe RPG’s core concepts, but there’s very little hand-holding.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of a girl trying not to fall into a swarm of walkers

Is The Walking Dead Universe RPG good or bad?

The Year Zero system is a tried-and-tested set of RPG rules, and chances are if you liked it before, you’ll get on just fine with The Walking Dead Universe RPG. Free League has a reputation for creating beautiful, organized roleplaying books, and these things remain true, even if everything in The Walking Dead Universe RPG comes with a layer of grime and blood.

But this is far from the best iteration of the Year Zero system. And I’m not convinced it was the right choice for The Walking Dead Universe.

A zombie roleplaying game of this kind usually works best in one of two forms. It’s a stripped-back, rules-light game that focuses on its atmospheric narrative, or it’s a grueling crunch-fest that recreates the hardship of surviving an apocalyptic scenario. The Walking Dead Universe RPG tries to do a little of both, and it doesn’t fully succeed at either.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of three people surveying an empty urban landscape

First, let’s consider the storytelling side of things. One major thing is missing for a game of this genre – Free League hasn’t included any clear consent tools or advice to help players handle the countless horrible topics that could come up in this genre of game.

The rules acknowledge that these tools exist without clearly signposting to or sharing any. For a game that’s meant to explore the darkest subjects imaginable, this feels like an oversight.

There are some shining examples of fantastic writing in these books, with exciting prompts or delightfully gory descriptions to use. But there are just as many moments where the writing feels rushed.

This is particularly evident when it comes to the game’s classes. As in Tales from the Loop, these classes mostly exist for flavor – but they suffer from stereotyping and offer the player ideas that feel unoriginal.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of a woman about to attack a walker

Things get worse when you consider the Starter Set. It costs around $40 (£33), the standard amount for a Free League Starter Set. This gets you a rules booklet, a collection of character sheets (some original, some existing characters from The Walking Dead TV show), and a pre-written adventure – albeit one that’s half the length it should be.

For comparison, the Blade Runner RPG Starter Set offers a 50-plus adventure booklet, designed to run over several sessions. The One Ring Starter Set adventure is 30-ish pages and offers three adventures as part of a mini-campaign. The Walking Dead Universe starter adventure is 16 pages long, and an efficient group could probably finish it in a single session.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG’s rules also suffer from feeling shallow. The base-building feels less satisfying than in games like Vaesen, and the chase scenes aren’t as exciting as in the Blade Runner RPG – other Year Zero games have done a lot of these things better. Many of the game’s rules left me hungry – not for flesh, but for design that was more fleshed out.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of a man riding a horse up an empty highway

The only mechanics with depth were those surrounding zombie attacks, but these felt cumbersome rather than crunchy. Free League has attempted to streamline your zombie management (a good call, considering how big the hordes can get), but there are still too many plates to spin.

There are at least three different sets of combat rules you’ll need to learn – one for humans, one for a small group of zombies, and one for a swarm. Plus, there’s a ‘threat level’ the Game Master must constantly adjust to represent how close the undead are as your players move from place to place (and god forbid the party splits, as you’ll need to manage multiple threat levels at once).

In a way, it’s just like a real zombie apocalypse. In isolation, no one zombie (or RPG mechanic) is challenging. But when a horde of them come at you at once, you suddenly realize you’re in hot water.

The Walking Dead Universe RPG review - Free League art of a boy stood in front of a window that reflects a walker

The Walking Dead Universe RPG isn’t a bad product by any stretch of the imagination. Free League has proved time and time again that the Year Zero system is fun and functional. Plus, a zombie apocalypse is a near-universal setting that any player can understand – and the material is polished enough that the right Game Master can turn a Walking Dead game into a gem with relative ease.

I am disappointed, though. The Walking Dead Universe RPG is underwhelming in many ways. And thanks to games like Blade Runner, The One Ring, and Mörk Borg, I expect a lot more from a high-quality publisher like Free League.