I’ve gotten some requests to compare/contrast the Year Zero and Genlab Alpha iterations of the Mutant game. So here are some thoughts:
The Year Zero campaign is what I have experience with, and I assume most folks who picked the game up would play it as well. A lot of the game’s underpinnings feed into the campaign: the artifact deck is seeded with necessary keys/clues, the book’s “special zone” entries are all hooked into aspects of the campaign, and the Threats to the Ark deck pull in campaign-necessary NPCs. As you generate the Zone and Ark Threats, odds are good that you’ll either eventually stumble into representatives of the campaign-necessary groups (i.e. various wandering gangs, cults, warbands) and/or extract important campaign artifacts from the encounters. Basically it’s a target-rich sandbox environment, where eventually you get the bits and bobs needed to work your way toward the finale.
Feels like it organically resolves in 12-15 sessions, doing nothing more than pulling from the Threat deck, which more often than not requires a trip to the Zone, which you generate on the spot. It’s absolutely the best perpetual motion machine I’ve ever seen.
Beyond the campaign, I think you just keep doing more of the same. It’s arbitrarily lethal enough that even your really, really awesome mutants will fall victim to dumb shit like falling off a building or getting shanked by some kid with a sharpened screwdriver. But to my eye at least, the best/highest use of the game is to keep the baked-in campaign percolating the whole time. 12-15 sessions is, to me, A Long Game, so it’s a good form factor.
Okay so ostensibly it’s a standalone game. And it is but it’s also obviously an on-ramp to Year Zero. It also runs on a built-in campaign, and it also times out, I think, to about 12 sessions. But the entire thing runs on a different engine: Rather than threats and random encounters organically feeding you clues toward the grand finale, the players engage in a purposeful strategy wargame, tribes versus the Watchers. There are five Key Events that get triggered at certain specific points in the strategy wargame (i.e. when the Watchers’ capacity is degraded to 50%, 20%, 10%, etc.).
You don’t generate locations in the habitat, but you do still generate threats as you move around the map. It’s less exploratory and more of a hexcrawl grind: getting through the forest and under the fence and into the Lodge will cost you, you know, healing and food and possible lasting injuries and possibly going feral. But it’s not organically growing the setting or revealing clues. Not directly. It’s more abstract but also feels like you’ve got more control. Contra Year Zero, where it’s organic but also feels a little random.
I think you need to bring more drama to Genlab Alpha than you do to Year Zero. I feel like the tight constraint of the Ark setting, matched to the Ark Threats and the ongoing Ark Projects, constantly generates great dramatic tension between PCs and the PC/NPC triangles of the relationship map. Meanwhile, the default Genlab Alpha setup is that reps from different tribes have come together to form the command cell of the insurgency. You have connections to your own tribe, but the GM has to make it good. In both my Genlab Alpha setups, I ended up with a pretty good selection of NPCs to start, but they’re scattered across the map, mostly waiting either for a visit to their habitats or for a failed roll, and maybe one of your “hates” shows up to make your life miserable.
A pure Genlab Alpha game after the end of the campaign seems like it would be either less rich, or less easy, than the same in Year Zero. The Genlab Alpha campaign is obviously, purposefully greasing the skids to pull animals and the new playbooks into Year Zero. In fact it would not surprise me at all if there are players who just skip the Genlab Alpha campaign and straight dump the tribes and playbooks into Year Zero. Going the other way — mutants invading Paradise Valley — seems like you have to give up a lot of the hot Zone-generating tech, and everything that grows out of that.
Useful? Need something different? I know I went on long here but I am such a fan of the series. And the zany-seeming material I think is a turnoff to the more serious-minded players out there. I don’t know what to say to that other than it works so, so well when you play it absolutely straight. Genlab Alpha, to its credit, does a really good job of explaining that it’s a fable and not a comedy, and I think anyone who’s read Watership Down or played Marshall Miller’s The Warren will know exactly what this means.