Dead Panic on the Dance Floor! A Review of Dead Panic

2-6 survivors all aged 13+ stumble across a dilapidated cabin in the woods. Exhausted, one survivor gapes at it. “I don’t think it will hold up against those…those…things! Did you see what they did to Billy?” The leader of the group turns and says “Don’t panic. That cabin may be our only chance. If we are lucky, it will have food, weapons and supplies.” You hear noises in the woods behind you. Shambling out of the night, framed by the moon, you see one of those things. Is it Billy? Oh god….don’t panic…Billy is dead, it couldn’t possibly be him. The dead can’t walk. Nonetheless, you find yourself in a mad dash for the cabin, not stopping until the door is firmly secured and the windows barricaded. You turn to your group…“What now?


  • Designer: Justin De Witt
  • Year Released: 2013
  • Category: Zombies, More Zombies, I say! By Jove! MORE ZOMBIES!!!
  • Game Mechanic: Action Point Allowance System, Co-operative Play, Dice Rolling, Horde Management, Variable Player Powers, Basic Chainsaw Maintenance.
  • Number of Players: 2-6
  • Number of Undead: Endless
  • Playing Time: 90 minutes

How do I play?

Notice the abbreviated rules on the corners of the board. I love this!
Notice the abbreviated rules on the corners of the board. I love this!

As with Fireside Games’ previous release, Castle Panic, the core of the game is tower defense with concentric circles surrounding your home-base – in this case, an abandoned hunting lodge. Starting with furthest out you have the Woods (where zombies and survivors will appear), the Clearing (where nothing interesting ever happens), the Yard (where zombies will start bashing into your cabin) and finally the center of the board, the Cabin. Within the cabin each room forms one of six slices in a pie-shaped wedge of death, disaster and panic.

As the zombies surge, the walls of the cabin(and the players) are going to need to hold out long enough for three survivors toting radio components to emerge from the woods and run to the cabin. Once these elements are gathered up from (hopefully) breathing survivors, a rescue van can be called. The players will need to jump into the van and ride off to (relative) safety. In order to do this though, players will need to plan, work together, fight and run.

In Dead Panic, you shamble along in five slightly stuttering steps:

Play Order:

  1. Perform Actions: Each player will take turns performing 2 actions.
  2. Draw Event Card: The group will draw and resolve one event card.
  3. Move Survivors and Zombies: If survivors are on the board, move them first. Then move zombies.
  4. Fight Zombies: Resolve battles in spaces both occupied by players and zombies.
  5. Pass Bait Token: Pass it to person on your left. Everyone gets to be bait…just you wait.

Perform Actions:

Special abilities while alive and a choice of static abilities for when you die...just like religion.
Special abilities while alive and a choice of static abilities for when you die…just like religion.

Draw/Use Cabin Cards: Cabin cards will supply you with most of your equipment and also a few surprises. Players may use one cabin card for an action. Maybe use a ranged weapon or chug an energy drink, perhaps? Ranged weapons include handguns, crossbows, rifles, AK-47s, a flare-gun, the ephemeral shotgun and an elephant gun. I don’t know what this “hunting cabin” was originally used for but I would expect to find some interesting “literature” on the night-stand. Either way, each weapon has a range and a limited number of shots before it becomes a useless club. [Friction Point: No ammo? Really? It is a hunting cabin with an elephant gun but no ammo? Just one clip? Please?].

There are two rounds of glorious combat in this game (which you should probably expect with the amount of undead feasting for your flesh). First is during the “Performs Action” step where players can use ranged or melee attacks and the second is during the “Fight Zombies” step where melee attacks can be made (clubs, axes, hammers, crowbars, etc.) or ranged weapons can be used one zombies within the players’ occupied spaces. [Friction Point: There was some confusion during our first play-through whether you could engage in melee combat when you shared a space with a zombie during the “Perform Actions” step. You can (it is on page 3 of the rule-book)]. Bottom line – most of your ranged attacks will occur in the “Performs Action” step and most of your melee in the “Fight Zombie” step. But when the pudding hits the road, you will be doing whatever you can to survive.

Move: You will do plenty of it. Players can move out of the confines of the hunting cabin during their turn. Unlike Castle Panic where you control the abstracted forces of the castle bastion, in Dead Panic you are a person. A person that can move, run, flee, fight and, unfortunately for them, die. When players leave the cabin, they can distract zombies from beating on the cabin walls, open up areas of escape for other players and introduce an extended range of fire for ranged weapons. This provides for a broader decision space, more cooperative play, additional planning and an increased element of tenseness compared to Castle Panic. It also makes it more than just a clone or re-theme. It makes it a deeper and better game.

Trade, Give or Get 1 Card/Item: When players are within the same or an adjacent space from each other, they can trade, give or take one card or item. Unless you are Maria, who can trade, give or take a card over a longer distance. She has one helluva arm!

Repair 1 Crack: The walls will eventually fall with the hordes beating up against them. Take an action and repair a crack. Unless you are playing Al, the construction worker, who can repair a cracked wall as a free action.

Draw Event Card:

ZOMG! I couldn't be that bad....could it?
ZOMG! I couldn’t be that bad….could it?
It could.

Unlike Castle Panic, where you drew the same (usually) amount of beasties every turn, in Dead Panic players pull an Event Card and together resolve it. Event Cards will usually (always) provide a number of zombies to be pulled from the bag and then placed in the woods. The amount can be indicated by

  • A specific number of zombies to add (4 or 5).
  • A “#” which indicates you pull as many zombies as there are players.
  • A “#” plus/minus a specific number which would indicate you pull as many zombies as there are players modified by the plus/minus.
  • A dice which means you roll for the number of zombies to be placed.
  • Or an “*” asterisk which indicates a special amount determined by the text of the card.

In addition to the amount and placement of the zombies, many of the cards have direct effects upon the players which always makes your survival more of a challenge. Nothing good ever happens during an event. No peaceful nights for our survivors especially when the ZOMG! event card is drawn.

This element of drawing event cards pleases me. It pleases me greatly. There is more of a thematic tension created when you don’t know what event is going to be pulled from the deck rather than just pulling the prescribed amount of beasties from a sack.

Move Survivors/Zombies:

Father Michael is a holy terror with an AK-47 and a candlestick.
Father Michael is a holy terror with an AK-47 and a candlestick.

If any survivors were drawn during the event card step then they get to move first. Then the zombies move. How do they move? Oh. Don’t worry. There is a chart…[Friction Point: The standard zombie movement rules coupled with the special zombie movement rules three-somed with the zombie sight-line/hearing swinging with the Bait Token equals a whole sexy mess. It also leads to a whole writhing mass of confusion deep in the game with a veritable heap of undead outside the cabin. Some of the otherwise amazing flow of this game is hampered by this step. Lots of referencing the rules, figuring out whether the bait player is within the line of sight of this/that/those zombies…]

While I didn’t like this particular mechanism of the game (It frustrated me. It confused my players. It was an OWLBEAR to explain and teach.). That being said, Fireside Games does an amazing job making a wide set of conditions reference-able both in the rule-book and on the actual board. I’ve stated in my review of Tammany Hall that I love a good explanatory game board and kudos to Fireside for designing one. They even have an index included. The librarian in me smiled a great toothy smile.

Fighting Zombies:

george_clooney6 (1)
Please to include these three in the next expansion.

When players find themselves in a tight spot, combat occurs. Combat can utilize ranged attacks with firearms, melee weapons, or hand-to-hand combat – as long as the zombie and player occupy the same space. Ranged attacks constitute an automatic hit with damage taken off accordingly. Melee attacks are resolved via dice rolls. Players roll two dice, apply any modifiers and if the result is higher than the zombie’s fight value (6-9) a hit is scored and damage taken accordingly. Ties result in no damage to the zombie or injury to the player (with the exception of the Brawler zombies which wins all ties). Rolling less than the zombie’s fight value results in either the player taking an injury (three injuries and the player comes dies and comes back as a zombie) or can choose to discard the melee weapon they currently are using. In the case of fighting hand-to-hand without a melee weapon, the players “push back” the zombie one space on successful rolls.

Survivors tokens get to resolve their combat first by taking damage equal to the zombie’s health and giving damage equal to the survivor’s health. So a survivor with two health points left will deliver two points of damage to the zombie occupying his same area. Likely wise, if that zombie has one health then that is how much damage is dealt to the survivor.

As in Castle Panic the tokens are rotated clockwise with the current health points pointed towards the cabin. One of my favorite mechanics is that when the survivor dies, he turns into a zombie and joins the shambling hordes but not until after he drops the radio component he was carrying!

How do I win?

  • Don’t die. Dead players turn into zombies and zombies never win.
  • Collect the radio components. Three survivors will be running to the cabin, each with a radio component. Get all three and put the radio together.
  • Assemble the radio. Fun fact: After the rescuers are called, the radio can be used as a club…Hey Zombie! It is for you!
  • Call the rescuers. A van will enter the woods. It contains a group of pesky stoner kids and a weird dog…
  • Get the fig on the van.

Unlike Castle Panic, where the end of the game was determined when all the monsters were killed, in Dead Panic the dead are relentless and the draw bag is never empty. As an added bonus, any characters who succumb to injuries turn into zombies – slightly intelligent zombies! You flip your player board to the zombie side, take the zombie player token and place it on the board and start shambling. You get to move your zombie-character and attempt to eat your friends. Of course, before you turn, they may decide to give you a mercy-shot to the head…

What did you [dis]like?


  • More depth and a larger decision space.
  • Less abstract, more thematic.
  • You can be a zombie!
  • Characters have specific abilities.
  • Potential for good narrative arcs early in the game.


  • With added depth comes complexity.
  • Movement and fights get fidgety with large hordes.
  • Not as family-friendly as its predecessor.

Differences from Castle Panic

It could be assumed that Dead Panic is little more than a clone or re-theme of Castle Panic. Happily, it is not. While the set-up and design have certain elements in common; the game-play is largely different and more difficult. Movement across the board, trading actions with other players and two rounds of combat lead to more strategy, planning and cooperation. Here. I made a list:

  1. You play specific characters rather than organizing the forces of a kingdom.
  2. The hordes of zombies never end, unlike the beasties from Castle Panic.
  3. Success is defined more by escape than survival. You can’t just hold out.
  4. More potential actions to take each turn with two rounds of combat.
  5. Players can venture from behind the safety of their walls into the open.
  6. More complex action and combat rules.

We all know there are two camps of zombie-fanatics – those that prefer their zombies slow and lumbering and those that love a nice, speedy zombie. Both are represented in this game along with Brawlers, Bruisers and Creepers – each with their own specific atributes.

One delightful aspect of the game I noticed right away was the ability of the zombies to run into a wall without incurring any damage. I found this to be a strange component of Castle Panic with beasties running head first into castle walls with little thought about future brain function. Granted, trolls are not particularly rocket scientists but still, I expect enough common sense to avoid face-to-wall impact.

Would you rather?

OK, OK, OK…I know what is coming. Would I rather play Dead Panic or Castle Panic? Does it stand on its own?

The answer is “Yes.” Yes, the games are similar but not so similar that you don’t get a different experience from each. For a good, fun, slightly tense family game I recommend the base set of Castle Panic. For a challenge among the more experienced crowd I recommend the Wizard’s Tower expansion and revel in the impossibility of it all. For a thematic, co-op with a nice little narrative arc, pick up Dead Panic. It is less abstracted, more personal and more engaging than Castle Panic. I am happy with all three of these games in my collection.

If you are experienced with Castle Panic then the switch to Dead Panic will not be panic-inducing at all. The changes in game-play and mechanics will provide for a different experience with more player interaction. Differing player abilities will provide some replayability to the game and a healthy dose of variants at the end of rule-book will keep the game from getting stale.

This is another good addition to the Fireside Games line-up which will see plenty of play at my table.

Closing Verse:

Our priest ran out
armed with an AK-47
and his faith.

Four zombies down,
he ran towards the horde
fended off 2 sprinters,
a brute and a brawler
with a candlestick.

Our paramedic
tossed him some trail mix.
He earned it.

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