Review: Zona Alfa

Occasionally I get a bug up my butt to try out odd skirmish genres. I was interested in painting up some modern military figures but wanted to steer away from historical/modern conflicts and Osprey’s Publishing, Zona Alfa popped up on my radar. It’s heavily laden with sci-fi trappings but wrapped up in primarily modern weaponry and technology. Taking some inspiration from the Stalker PC game (and in turn, the movie), it truly draws its theme from the sci-fi book, Roadside Picnic. 

A classic russian sci-fi story, Roadside Picnic has an unusual premise. Aliens arrived on earth, poked around, and then left, leaving behind remnants of their technology. Humans can’t deduce their actual purpose with most items breaking the laws of physics and beyond human comprehension. To draw from the book title, we are like ants crawling over the leftovers from aliens that happen to stop by earth for a short “picnic.”

The site of the alien landing becomes a secluded area, heavily guarded by the military. Only select personnel and researchers can enter it. Even more odd, the Zone is littered with physical anomalies that twist time and space. Segmented off from the public, individuals (Stalkers) sneak into the Zone, seeking strange tech to snatch up and sell on the black market. Throw in the PC game theme, you also have the Zone hit with radiation and horrible mutants. It becomes a fun setting to game in. 

The skirmish rules are for 2 players that draft up a squad of mercs and fight against each other within the Zone. Crews are commanded by one leader type and typically have 3 to 6 other figures. Each figure represents a single man of varying tactical experience. Troops are defined by a simple stat line to represent movement, combat ability, defense, and Will, a catch-all trait used for both morale and task resolution. A nice departure from most systems is that varying levels of troop quality are also reflected in the number of actions they can take during their turn. It’s not just simply a change in stat profiles. So that lowly rookie can only do one action during their turn, while a hardened veteran can undertake 3 actions at the same time.

Players roll off initiative and alternate activating figures of their choice. All actions can be repeated multiple times, making veterans able to maneuver and fire effectively, while that rookie (limited to just one action) needing more turns to do similar tasks on the battlefield. Actions cover a range of abilities, from movement, shooting, melee, aiming (to improve a following attack), and rally, to interacting with the environment (like filling gas into a vehicle, or opening a secured door). There is also a special action that allows models to go into overwatch/ambush. But this requires 2 actions meaning only more trained troops are able to hold off and interrupt the opponent’s turn if desired.

Gear and abilities are also reflected in troop quality. Every unit will be able to wield one ranged, one melee weapon, and at least one peice of gear. However, more trained units will be able to carry more gear (up to 3 items) and have abilities that can help with other specialized tasks or particular combat actions. Gear and weapons are based on WYSIWYG (what you see, is what you get) of the model.

Shooting is a pretty easy affair. A unit must be in range and LOS, with intervening cover affecting how easy they can be hit. Pistols top off at roughly a foot, while rifles reach up to 36” and given that most tables are 3 to 4 feet square, you can easily throw out a lot of effective fire. Rolls are made against the attacker’s combat ability, trying to roll equal to or under their value. This target number is adjusted due to cover, with each piece of intervening terrain lowering it. Successful hits then have the defender roll for saves, trying to roll equal to or less than their armor stat (which is adjusted by any weapon modifiers). The number of attacks are based on weapon profiles, with your typical rifle throwing out 3 shots. So expect a lot of dice for those automatic weapons.

Unsuccessful saves result in wounds which will drop your typical trooper. If saves are successful, the target makes a Will check (again trying to roll equal to or less than their stat). If successful, they are fine, otherwise they take a pin. Pins penalize initiative rolls for the following turn and lower the melee combat ability of the figure. Removing them is automatic, but requires expending an action per pin. 

Melee combat is simultaneous and each figure can use their weapon of choice, even ranged weapons. The catch is that an attacker can use any additional successful hits to cancel strikes from a defending model. So it certainly pays to be the aggressor and initiate that assault, rather than be the defender in melee.

Additionally the game has critical hits and failures. Regardless of the target number and modifiers, a 1 is always successful while a 10 is an automatic failure. There’s a simple rule implemented that rolling simultaneous 1s and 10s for a particular action cancel out this effect, just using the die results as normal. This can throw a wrench into the game as that 1 will also allow a figure to take one additional free action. Conversely rolling that 10 adds a pin to the model.

The game revolves around a larger campaign goal of accumulating 10,000 rubles, enough to have your leader retire from the stalker business. The concept of actual missions are pretty loose and the emphasis is to strive for a narrative experience. There are a few random tables, but sadly this part of the book is rather sparse. Each scenario however needs to have some specific objective and commonly you’ll find yourself settling for looting from a particular location on the tabletop. In addition to mission objectives will be Hot Spots which can spawn enemies. Once any hostiles from a Hot Spot or mission objective are cleared out, the location can be looted.

Post mission, crew members will gain experience that can be used to improve their stats and pick up new abilities. Loot gathered up can be sold and rubles can be spent to recruit new squad members and/or buy more gear. When creating your squad you also align yourself with one of 6 factions which can result in having allies, neutral parties, and enemies. Paired off on the table, you find your faction having an impact on how to approach the scenario. Allied squads work together to eliminate any hostiles and split the loot found (or try to make a Will test to break the alliance). Enemy factions will throw the scenario objective to the wayside and killing the enemy becomes the primary objective. While neutral parties can tackle the scenario and interact with the opposing crew as they see fit. Tagged with this faction system are discounts when purchasing types of equipment or free gear. It’s a nice wrinkle in these types of games.

The game can be ported to be a solo game pretty easily too. And there are optional rules out there to create co-op and solo games if desired. However it still revolves around a long campaign goal of hoarding enough rubles to make that 10,000 mark and retire. So while you can certainly play a one off game, it seems to offer a more full experience running an actual campaign to allow for advancement, getting loot, and more gear.

The Good – It’s a pretty fast and easy modern skirmish game revolving around light arms. The setting is certainly different and has room for more weirder hostiles if wanted. I like there is some gradation of troop abilities and equipment, but it’s not mired down in a long list of stat lines. The turn flow is fluid with alternating activations, and pins are a thing to think about. I also like that it’s based on d10 rolls, so you can get modifiers having an impact but it’s not as pronounced as you’d see with d6s.

The Bad – The rules are serviceable. But there are sparse areas that could use some tightening up. It seems to default back to that relaxed, reach a compromise with your opponent or roll a die, for determining odd situations quite heavily. It’s also unfortunate there are not more scenarios and detailed campaign rules. Even rules for implementing odd Zone anomalies seem tacked on and not fully developed.

The Verdict – Zona Alfa is a pretty fun set of rules. There are lots of bits I like in a skirmish wargame. You get a nice potential distribution of results using a d10 that allows for modifiers and slight tweaks from weapons and gear. There’s a good implementation of trained troops being able to do more on their activations. So what’s offered has some variety but not saddled down with extensive lists of gear, weapons, and units that just simply offer a different stat modifier. 

I also enjoy the critical hit and misses rule. I can see folks wanting a more structured range of outcomes, but for skirmish games I’ve grown to enjoy those occasional swings of fortune and disaster that lead to some memorable experiences. There is also room here to account for other actions models can take during their turn, opening up options for different scenarios. If you wanted to make the objective to retrieve a keycode, and in turn spend time trying to open a vault, while simultaneously disabling a bomb, the rules can account for this. That feels like what the designer was going for. To present a flexible ruleset that lets you play these fun scenarios while also offering a light arms skirmish engagement.

But this is also where the game falls flat. It’s a fun setting that strives for a narrative experience, but doesn’t have the meat in the rules to back up this design philosophy. I really wish there were another 6-8 pages for scenarios, expanded encounter tables, and/or hostile creature profiles. You have a slim number of pages with a few anemic tables, and most of the burden for creating scenarios is up to the player. I get having a simple campaign goal, but the lack of rules to offer diverse scenarios and a narrative campaign is glaringly absent. Especially as there are other games (5 Parsecs from Home) that have a wealth of tables to randomly make up a scenario that just feels like it’s telling a story and can lend itself to a longer, more engaging campaign.

What you get with Zona Alfa is a serviceable skirmish ruleset that’s a fun twist on modern combat settings. It is an interesting world that can provide a gritty, grounded merc experience, or lean more into fighting weird creatures, mutants, and radiation zombies. However it seems you’re expected to do all the heavy lifting to get into the world it describes. You get more of a framework of rules that will offer a few fun games, but not quite the breadth of material to build a string of missions and encounters for a fleshed out campaign, which seems a shame as the wargame parts are so enjoyable.