Good Hunting Stalker! Q&A With Zona Alfa Creator Patrick Todoroff

January 14, 2020 by brennon

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Osprey Games are currently taking pre-orders for a new miniatures game called Zona Alfa which has you taking on the role of bandits, mercenaries and survivors in a post-apocalyptic Eastern European setting.

Zona Alfa Main Cover

Seeing the potential for this and the narratives it could help develop on the tabletop we thought we'd learn more about the game from the creator, Patrick Todoroff.

Ben: Hi Patrick, first off could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in games and game design?

Patrick: I was introduced to wargaming at age thirteen through the book, ‘The War Game’ by Peter Young. It’s an overview of famous historical battles that uses photographs of toy soldiers and war games to recreate various scenes. I was so fascinated by those pictures, my step-father took me to the MiniFigsUSA factory in Pine Plains, NY soon after.

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I recall row after row of bins filled with freshly cast toy soldiers, a scratch-built pirate ship, and then the gentleman there described how he and his friends had rented out a school gym during the summer and re-fought the Battle of Waterloo in 25mm. I was hooked after that and left that day with several packs of AWI British Grenadiers. Four-plus decades on, those miniatures are lost but I still have that book.

Game design is simply an outcome of my love for the hobby. I gamed with my kids, taught tabletop gaming in after-school enrichment programs in multiple schools for years when they were in school, and now run games with my grandkids. I’ve always used, modified, or written simple sets of rules with the goal of getting players into the game as fast so they can enjoy the experience. It’s all about fun and coolness-quotient.

B: Could you give us an overview of what Zona Alfa is?

P: Zona Alfa: Salvage and Survival in the Exclusion Zone (ZA) leans heavily into the fictional STALKER/METRO 2033 settings. (the games, the Metro books, the novel, ‘Roadside Picnic’, and the Tarkovsky/Strugatsky film.)

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If you're not familiar, think Post-Apocalypse Soviet-style, in and around Chernobyl, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. There’s a dark, brooding feel with contemporary tech and a hint of unnatural menace.

B: Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind what got you to bring Zona Alfa to the tabletop?

P: ZA was an extension of my interest in the computer game, ‘STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl’. That was the first real ‘open-world’ game I ever played on PC and I thought it was remarkable. Yes, it was buggy and quirky, but it was also very different from the frantic, run-n-gun games I had previously encountered - the landscape, the pace, the mood, the enemies, the missions…all of it.

The wargamer in me immediately set about trying to recreate it on the tabletop, converting some of The Assault Group’s modern Russian figs with gasmask heads from Pig Iron Productions. Soon, I had painted up squads from every major faction and started running skirmish games with them.

B: Could you explore more of the experience of building a crew and how you go about it?

P: It’s simple, really. Crews are formed on the basis of Actions/Turn. Green/raw recruit-level troops can only perform one action per turn, more experienced Line troops (Hardened) can manage two, Veterans can do three. The value of these Actions is termed ‘khrabrost’, (Russian for courage or mettle) and this K-Value can be ‘spent’ anyway the player prefers. Each quality level of soldier comes pre-loaded with gear and ability options, so the process is simplified.

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Starting crews are 12K and everyone begins with a 3K Veteran leader. That leaves 9K. (Actions) Want a Noob Mob of 9 Green 1K recruits? Go for it. Or a four-man squad of elite 3 K Veterans? You can do that too. Our gaming group has found a mix of Vets, Hardened, and Greenies to be the best balance between Actions and numbers.

If you play a ZA campaign, your troopers can be promoted, gain new skills and gear, you can hire new members, and the like, which means you may surpass 12K eventually, but that’s the starting point.

B: When it comes to a typical game of Zona Alfa, how does it play out?

P: That really depends on the K-Value of the crews and the Threat Level of the area you and your opponent choose to operate in, but an average game runs for about 1-2 hours. Most players learn pretty quickly that you need to plan ahead, stick to cover, and that being sneaky and devious can really pay off. Each mission has a turn limit, so it’s important to prioritize, fight hard, and keep moving.

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Each mission has a main objective plus a number of secondary ‘Hot Spots’ that contain valuable salvage, special gear, and sometimes dangerous anomalies and mysterious, valuable artefacts. These locations also spawn Zone Hostiles – local inhabitants that attack anyone that disturbs their area – so players will find themselves facing an ‘equal opportunity enemy’ that only cares about defending their territory and the loot it contains.

One helpful trick in the game is the ‘Bolt Toss’, where one player can trigger a Hot Spot and make the Zone Hostiles spawn near their opponent, so they have to deal with them while you ready your crew to swoop in and snag the salvage.

Post-mission, players tally up their Kills, their Salvage, and any special gear recovered during the game, then they can sell or distribute the loot in order to kit up for the next mission. Crews that did well gain Advances that are ‘spent’ on improving their members’ abilities and equipment. It may sound complicated here, but it’s quite simple once you read through and get the hang of it.

B: What have been some of the cool moments you've had when creating your own campaigns and playtesting the game?

P: Too many to mention: lone soldiers fending off giant mutants. Green recruits refusing to die in the face of wave after wave of feral dogs. Impossible shots made in total desperation that actually hit and turn the tide of the game. Grenade fumbles that stun your own squad.

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Maybe even the panicked moments as a tech tries to shut down a nuclear launch while his comrades fend off ravenous ghouls…those are the moments that make for great gaming, in my opinion. It’s what I strive for in my games and rules: the opportunity for those kinds of stories.

B: You've included a pre-made series of linked scenarios to play through in the back of the book but could you expand on the development of those scenarios normally and the narrative element you've weaved into the book as a whole?

P: The Red Gypsy three missions are self-explanatory. They’re a simple way to ease players into the Exclusion Zone. I want to be careful describing the narrative element here because while I really enjoy the decayed, desolate Eastern European setting, other players want to explore other Zones. It’s your gameplay in your Zone. Four-plus decades in and around the hobby, I never ceased to be surprised and inspired by the community’s creativity. I mean that. People’s imaginations, their painting skills, terrain building, scenarios and world-building are all ridiculously cool. One of the better features of the internet, in my opinion. This is just light-years better than arguing over politics.

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That said, I’m all about narrative games. The stories, those cool moments that you and your friends talk about long after the game is over, the shared experiences and memories. That’s what works for me. I’m all for huge battles, gorgeous terrain, and hard-fought games, but Cut-Throat Competition and or Math with Toy Soldiers is not my thing.

A long time ago a fellow gamer said to me, “If after the (game) session, you talk about the battle, it’s a good game. If you talk about the rules, it isn’t.” That’s stuck with me and I try to stay on that side of the hobby spectrum.

B: For someone diving into Zona Alfa for the first time and wanting some inspiration in terms of miniatures to represent their crew, what would you recommend?

P: Lots of great options here… off the top of my head, for 28mm, there’s Lead Adventure Miniatures, (see the great photos in the rulebook) Pig Iron Productions, and Anvil Industries. All great.

Modern Military miniatures work too. I’m a big fan of The Assault Group. Love their miniatures. Then you’ve got Empress Miniatures, Spectre Miniatures, (I’d like to get some of their GRU Russians) Footsore USA, Tiny Terrain, Eureka...again, I’m going with the Eastern European flavor. But really, you can slot in and re-purpose any figs you have and make your own Zone. Zona Alfa is a toolbox, not a straitjacket.

I’m less familiar with smaller scales, but know that both Khurasan and Peter Pig have great 15mm Soviet-style figs and vehicles. I’m sure other companies will come to mind, plus ones I’ve forgotten to mention. So forgive me for not having that info on tap.

B: Where would you like to see Zona Alfa go next? Do you have ideas for expansion content which takes you to new places and introduces additional options for gameplay?

P: Right now, I’m content to get ZA into the hands of interested gamers and answer any and all of the inevitable questions that will arise. Down the road, however, I want to offer a Solo and Cooperative mode. That’s the one question, one comment that keeps popping up across social media and various hobby forums.

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It is do-able now in Zona Alfa - with a few adjustments - but I’d like to work up a separate expansion and offer it to those gamers who enjoy that experience and kind of game. I already have the outline for a five-part campaign designed specifically for Solo/Co-op play. It’s sitting on my computer, along with notes for new Gear and player options. Not sure when that’ll happen. All I can say is it’s on my To-Do List.

Hope that answers all your questions. Thanks for the opportunity. I appreciate it.

To the rest of you, I say, “Good Luck and Good hunting, Stalker.”

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It was fascinating to learn more about the world of Zona Alfa and it seems like a great prospect for those who want to set up a campaign game featuring a brutal and wartorn Eastern Europe. As mentioned at the start of the article, you can head over to Osprey Games right now and get your hands on the Zona Alfa Rulebook for yourself as it's still available for pre-order.

You can also head to the Stalker7 Website where they have been talking more in-depth about the game and more.

What do you think? Will you be giving Zona Alfa a go and taking your gang into the wasteland?

"Most players learn pretty quickly that you need to plan ahead, stick to cover, and that being sneaky and devious can really pay off..."

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"“If after the (game) session, you talk about the battle, it’s a good game. If you talk about the rules, it isn’t.” That’s stuck with me and I try to stay on that side of the hobby spectrum..."

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