The Game Design Forum

First Impressions: Plants vs Zombies

by Ben Medler

"Plants vs Zombies" Pop Cap Games, July 20, 2010.

Like gardening? Don’t like zombies eating your brains? Well, then Plants vs. Zombies is the game for you. A cross between old-school Tower Defense games and the addictive game Insaniquarium, Plants vs. Zombies is an easy game to get into but hard to put down. The game has easy mechanics to follow, variety in the plant and zombie types, tons of strategy and lots of mini-games. Gameplay is a little ambiguous at times without health bars and everything in the game must be unlocked. These faults matter little after you have played ten hours of the game and still want to play some more.

ESSENTIAL GAME CONCEPT: Short Currency / Long Currency

The economy in PvZ is based on two currencies, sunshine and money. Sunshine is used to buy plants while playing a round. Powerful plants cost much more than normal ones but players can place sunflowers to collect more sun while the round is underway, making purchasing better plants possible. This is another bit of strategy, the player needs to learn to build enough sun-flowers to acquire more sun but at the same time defend those sunflowers from the zombies (since sunflowers are defenseless). Zombies sometimes drop money, which is also given as a reward for completing a round. Money is used to buy upgrades or other items that work outside of the rounds of play. But it’s worth mentioning that instead of sunshine and money automatically being given to the player, the player must individually click on drops of these currencies to collect them. The player is always engaged in the action for this reason, continually looking for new sunshine and money icons to collect during the round, while placing plants to defend their lawn.

ESSENTIAL GAME CONCEPT: Constrained Combat Roster

Another excellent mechanic in PvZ is the fact that a player can only choose a certain number of plants to take into any round of play. While there are over 40 different types of plants the player can only have up to 10 plants available at a time (players start with six slots, but can purchase more). The player does not make this decision blind: each round shows which zombies the player will be facing next making it easier to decide which plants they will need.


Zombies will eat any plant that they come into contact with so each row must have some sort of protection. Plants usually function work along their horizontal row, any turret or blocking plant used will only affect the zombies in that row. Each row only has nine or so grid spaces and only one plant can occupy one grid square at a time. The strategy of the game is a balancing act between which types of plants you put into each row and how to counter each zombies unique abilities. For instance, the ‘Cactus’ plant shoots spikes which can take out the zombies floating on balloons.

There are five different lawn-scapes for the player to defend. There are the player’s front and back lawns, which are played during the day and night, and the roof. Those zombies may not be quick but they understand what it means to flank a position. Each area offers something different. During the day the front yard consists of five rows to defend; at night gravestone popup on the lawn making it impossible to place plants in those squares. Also nighttime makes it harder to collect sunlight but certain nighttime plants become available. In the backyard a pool is added, where the player must learn to use aquatic tactics since regular plants cannot be placed in the water by themselves. At night the fog rolls into the backyard making it hard to see the first few columns of squares on the board. Finally, the roof area is vaulted, so the player has to learn to use the plants that fire on a ballistics trajectory, instead of straight shots. Having such a variety of play areas makes this game much more enjoyable than other tower defense games that are played on a single area or map.

The Bottom Line

Perhaps the only questionable design choice is that zombies are given ambiguous statistics. Zombies do not have visible health points and it is not clear how much damage any plant does to a zombie. The player learns rough estimates, a simple zombie with “low” health takes ten shoots from a “normal” damage plant. From a casual perspective having vague terms describing the stats of each unit is fine but I feel not having the accurate numbers represented somewhere takes away some of the strategy that min-maxers may enjoy.

Plants vs Zombies has a lot to offer any player and considering that it can be played in small chunks is great as a side game. The variety not only in the unit types and play areas but in the different modes as well add plenty of playable hours to the game. And while this is not your traditional tower defense game, that fact can make it more appealing.

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