Shelter is an indie-bred hybrid of the turn-based collectible card game and tower defense genres set in a zombie apocalypse. Try explaining that concept to your grandmother. The description might sound esoteric when summed up in a breath, but don’t let that fool you. Shelter is anything but difficult to pick up and endlessly playable once you do so. A better summation would be to just call it what it is: a robust and addictive helping of tactical card game genius.
It’s difficult to critique the game without detailing the rules, so bear with me. Gameplay is played out on a five by three grid. The bottommost portion of the grid is where you place your weapons. At the top, zombie cards are placed. Five pre-spawned barricades stand between you and the horde, each with its own health and armor rating. Damage to a barricade’s health is permanent, but its armor absorbs damage every attack. Once a barricade is eliminated, all that stands between you and a bloody end is your weapons, 50 health, and the turn it takes each zombie to get up in your space.
A round begins with the player being dealt a hand of six cards from a customizable deck full of useful items and weaponry. Using these cards in the game costs ability points, and the player must strategize according to the points they are allotted each turn. Readying a shotgun might cost you three points, but maybe you’d be better off drinking an energy drink for four (giving you an extra ability point every turn afterward). Though simple by design, the system doesn’t give a royal road to victory and effective tactics are entirely dependent on a careful mix of luck and the player’s whim.
Close-ranged melee weapons are single-use cards, disappearing after they are brought into play, while firearms must be readied with a set ammunition, rendering them useless once expended (but replenished by a handy reload card). Which gun to use is entirely dependent on the situation, as some might work best against armor-clad zombies, or can only hit zombies in melee range, or are weak but use less ability points. Further, there are weapon mod cards that adjust damage, add a stun ability or scope, and so on and so forth. The options can be overwhelming to the new player, but once you grasp the core game mechanics, using the cards you’re dealt actually allows for an impressively emergent experience, where adaptability and invention trump any by-the-numbers strategy.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the board, zombie cards are randomly placed according to a successful dice-roll. Tougher mutant zombies need a more difficult roll to spawn. These bigger zombies might have extra armor, or a ranged attack, or the ability to heal other zombies, or… you get the idea. The great variety of devious complications to your best-laid defenses leads to nuanced and progressively difficult gameplay, as new zombie types are added in each successive level. Maybe I’m belaboring the point, but it can’t be expressed enough. This game is never strategically simple, and every new ability granted to the player is challenged by a well-conceived zombie equivalent. The attention to balance is commendable.
While clearly derivative of the Walking Dead comic book series, the graphic novel look of the game was a clever choice in the end. What it lacks in originality is more than made up for in quality. Everything is professionally drawn and colored in accordance with the style, and none of it exceeds the artist’s abilities. The slick interface also sticks well to the theme, with comic book lettering and panels in the menus. Aside from an eerie looping drone that I shut off after ten minutes because it annoyed the hell out of me, the most salient thing I have to say about the sound is that it is unobtrusive.
Overall I’m highly impressed with Shelter, and even moreso in lieu of the fact that this is the work of just one developer. A true indie in every sense of the word, the one-man “team” behind Survivalist Games managed to fill every role of development without sacrificing the vision of the whole. Certainly, a zombie-themed, turn-based, single-player tower defense/collectible card game is a niche offering by default and won’t appeal to every gamer. To anyone receptive to these genres, however, this game is a must-have.