A copy of Zaberias was provided by the designer for review purposes
Zaberias is the kind of game I wished I had as a kid. It presents itself as a fairly light tactical skirmish game where you throw yourself against an opponent. Considering just how much Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones I was playing on my GameBoy Advance back in the day, I’m sure I would have loved to get my hands on this game.
How to play
In Zaberias, each player takes control of one of the four factions, and places their map adjacent to the other players, then erects a single wooden building in the far corner of their map. The map has slots that allow you to stand the towers in, creating a nice 3D effect. The maps are identical in layout, the asymmetry from the factions comes from the units you can deploy.
At the start of the game, you’ll have 5 coins available to you. You can take as many actions as you want, and spend as many coins as you want to deploy units and upgrade cities, but you’ll only recover gold at the start of your turn based on the cities and number of gold mines you collect.
On your turn you can summon units to cities, upgrade cities, and activate the units that are on the board. Each city can summon creatures up to their level (a wood city can only summon the first tier wood creatures, while a gold city can summon any creature). Pay the coin cost on the back of the unit and place it in the same square as the city. If you want to upgrade a city, pay the cost of the new tier of city and replace the old city with one of the higher level. Each unit can only be activated once per turn, and activating a unit means moving and attacking (or attacking and then moving). Each unit has a movement value that lets them move orthogonally throughout the map, or, diagonally if they’re following a road.
Attacking has you comparing each of the units base ‘muscle value’, then rolling a number of dice to modify that value. The unit with the lower value at the end of the combat loses, and is removed from the board. Units can attack together to gang up on a bigger unit, should multiple friendly units be in range, but each unit can still only attack once.
The goal of Zaberias is to be the last tribe standing. You do this by eliminating your opponent’s units and taking over their castles. Once a player has no more units or castles on the board, they’re out of the game.
Zaberias is a weird product. The current edition of the game is 4 triple layered cardboard squares, with a foam inset to hold the dice. It doesn’t come with a box or a paper rulebook, just, these four self-contained tribes in a bubble mailer. It might be a nitpick, but Zaberias stands out like a sore thumb amongst the boxes on my board game shelf. Each unit and tower is snuggly set in the cardboard, which can sometimes present a struggle for getting the pieces you want out. I do wonder what kind of longevity this product has, after only 3 times playing, a few of the cardboard piece were starting to bend at the point where you pry them out of their cardboard cage.
Learning how to play Zaberias is a struggle. The rulebook and FAQ do have all the answers to the questions that came up during game play, but finding those answers was surprisingly difficult. There are also a lot of edge case rules that make teaching the game to a newcomer, difficult. It’s the kind of game where if you’ve played it a lot, everything will feel second nature and obvious, but it’s hard to cover all the nuance in your first game. Rules like “units can only move orthogonally. Except on roads.” and “Ranged units can only attack orthogonally. Except on roads.” or “If you lose a combat, that unit is removed from the board. Except if you’re ranged, then nothing happens.” and “Units can only attack once per turn, but if you tie during an attack, you can choose to attack again, or, stand down.” Little exceptions to rules make the game harder to learn than it should be.
Most of the units have a special ability, that gives each of the races an asymmetric advantage, but their abilities are all listed on the back of the token. It’s really annoying to have to pick up each token and remind yourself of what each one can do. Again, if you’ve played Zaberias a lot, and you’re familiar with all the units, it’s not a problem. But for me, I got frustrated when I forgot to use a unit’s special ability, or when a unit could do something surprising, like keep defeated units under their token to get a +1 in their next combat, especially when I had plans to re-summon that unit in the next round.
I can’t recommend playing Zaberias at more than two players. It’s easy to get ganged up on, to have one player wipe out your defences, then another swoop in and take your castle. The player who waits until two others fight it out, then pick off the remaining units, is going to be in the best position. It feels like the game hinges on a few key battles, then when one player gets an advange over the other, it’s very hard to make a comeback, which in a 2 player game, is fine, as it’s over fairly quickly. But if you’ve been reduced to a single coin and a wooden tower in a 4 player game, you’re just waiting for someone to make the effort to come over to your corner of the board and finish you off. Not a fun experience. One nice thing about playing exclusively at 2 players is the ability to swap our races between each game.
Playing Zaberias was more fun than I expected it to be. Perhaps I’m jaded, but when I saw the emblems on the cover of each race stating “#1 best educational game for Kids 6+!”, and “Guaranteed fun!” I got a sinking feeling in my gut. You shouldn’t have to advertise that your game is going to be fun, that’s the point of the product! But overall, it’s a fairly good system. You move your units, control spaces on the board, and roll dice to resolve combats. This does seem like the kind of game that kids could get really into. A gateway into bigger skirmish games, like Warhammer and Battletech. I’m sure if I had Zaberias as a kid, I would have forced my mom to play with me a lot, it evokes the same feelings as the video games I was obsessed with at the time (the aforementioned Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem series).
Overall, I can tell that a lot of time, effort, thought, and love has gone into designing Zaberias. It seems like the kind of product that the designer has tinkered with over the years as his loved ones grew older. On the cover, it states that Zaberias was 15 years in the making. Looking at past iterations of the product, it looks like this 3rd edition has been scaled back, simplified and refined. I still think Zaberias could do with a bit more refining, sand off some of the rougher corner cases to make it easier for newcomers to approach, but doing so could sacrifice some of the depth, which begs the question, who is Zaberias for? I think Zaberias is a great gateway into bigger skirmish games and could do with a bit more refining. Kids will love it, and adults love playing with their kids. If you don’t have a kid in your life, I don’t think Zaberias will see much repeat play with adults, especially with those who are already inclined to explore bigger and more complex skirmish games that are already on the market.
Even if I have concerns about the production. I know 8-year-old me would have had a blast playing Zaberias. It might big a hit for you, or, it might just be the taste of tactical warfare that you needed to start looking at other skirmish games more seriously. On the other hand, if you don’t like direct combat and conquest games, Zaberias isn’t going to change your mind.