Disclosure as others have done: I backed the kickstarter and have been following the game for years. I only withheld my name on the review by missing a blank and am not trying to be duplicitious. I post most places as "Ken R".
This is a monster of a book. It's become the largest book on my role-playing game shelf, weighing in at nearly 500 pages in hardcover. So this is a long review of a long book. (If you just want the take-home points, scroll down to "Overall:")
Some RPG books are so long because they are jam-packed with spells, feats, and equipment for players in addition to very complex rules. Red Markets isn't one of those books. There's plenty of options for making characters unique, but it's based on their connection to the world more than skill/feat packages. In fact, the base system for Red Markets is quite simple and many of the mechanics are modular - so the game can be as complex as your group wants.
It's not pages and pages of mechanics making the book long. Instead, Red Markets is huge because it's introducing a new genre - economic horror - and the world that brings the genre into focus.
Backstory and introduction:
The first sections of the book introduce the world through in-character writing. In very brief: the zombie apocalypse started five years ago, but it's not equally distributed. The US Government decided to cut its losses and barricade off the Mississippi. Everyone West of the Mississippi was left for dead - then legally declared dead. The Eastern half of the country is ruled by an increasingly authoritarian government and is commonly called the Recession. The Western half, "written of as a loss" is called the Loss.
The thing is - and one of my favorite aspects about Red Markets - is that it challenges many of the increasingly set "rules" of zombie apocalypse stories. If you picture a zombie apocalypse movie or show, you probably picture small bands of loners moving through empty cities. Red Markets has that, but it rejects the idea that all technology will fail immediately. It rejects the idea of one gruff survivor making it on their own because they're cold enough to do what needs to be done.
Instead, Red Markets has pockets of near-future technology still working. It has people in the Loss banding together into groups called enclaves against the rest of the world. And most importantly it has the player characters, called Takers. Takers are experts at getting the things that their Enclaves or clients in the Recession want. If they're successful enough, the Takers can even buy their way into the Recession - earning a retirement away from the zombie-infested Loss.
But the Takers aren't just trying to get themselves out. Each character has at least one dependent - a child, spouse, pet, or friend that they are providing for. The Taker has to keep the dependent fed and sheltered. But in return, spending time with a loved one helps keep Takers sane in their dangerous line of work. So Takers are saving to take care of their families as well.
The dependents aren't just notes on the character sheet - they provide tangible benefits by restoring damage to the Taker's psyche. They're also played out in vignette scenes at the table that do a lot to establish the characters' home lives and flesh out the enclave where they live. These can be the most moving scenes in a session as they remind the characters why they keep venturing out into a zombie-infested wasteland.
Dependents also make character death a little more meaningful than it is in other RPGs. In other games, when a player character dies, it can be a major moment. But it can also pull that player out of the game, as they make a new character or just disengage with the story. In Red Markets, if your Taker dies, their dependent is still there. The other players have to decide whether they take care of the dependent - taking on yet another mouth to feed or not. Otherwise, the dependent may have to become a Taker themselves. Now the dependent has to undertake the hard life that the Taker tried to protect them from. It provides an immediate (but potentially emotional) source for replacement characters to fit into the game's ongoing story.
So all of that is the basis for the economic horror. The game's tagline is that "the world has ended, but the rent's still due." Civilization is barely hanging on, but your characters still have to earn - often by doing unsavory and dangerous jobs.
There's more to it, but that should serve as an overview. The writing in the introductory chapters is excellent; the narrative characters have distinct and compelling voices. I don't want to spoil it, but the book presents a stark picture of economic horror even before the zombies show up. There's a lot of it, so if you aren't as interested in the setting material right off the bat, you might want to skip to...
The mechanics are the next major section of the book. As I mentioned, despite the book's size, the core mechanic is simple. You decide to do something, the GM (called the Market in this game) determines what skill applies, you decide how many charges to spend, and you roll two dice. You add the charges to the number on a black die, then see if the total is higher than a red die. If it's higher, you succeeded. If the total is lower or tied, you failed.
Of course, there's more wrinkles to it (like critical hits) but that's the core. The charges mentioned above reflect your resources - anything from bullets in a gun, to bandages in a first aid kit, to the calories from the food you've eaten. Rather than keeping track of every single bullet, band-aid, and can of beans, charges function as an abstraction.
And it works. I have played a lot of RPGs. Many of them consider extensive book-keeping necessary to evoke a sense of scarcity or planning. Red Markets collapses this resource management down to the simplest form that I've seen - and makes it more compelling in the process. Characters run out of the things they need and have to scrounge for more. They have to make due or - if they don't earn enough money - watch their precious equipment break.
It's not a power fantasy game. It's not pages of gun-porn. The more stuff you have, the more you have to pay to keep it working and the harder it becomes to ever escape the Loss. In the end your stuff owns you, too. This fits the economic theme perfectly.
It also means that every roll in the game becomes significant. At the very least, every roll puts charges on the line, and you only have so many.
The book also has some great advice on when to call for a roll versus when not to. In short, the GM should only call for a roll when there's really something at stake and when failure would be interesting.
The game also has extensive advice on putting together jobs for your players. Red Markets' take on zombies (called the Blight) is interesting and compelling. It's a constant, high-stakes mystery that drives researchers insane trying to figure it out. In game terms, you get the shambling hordes (called casualties), terrifyingly fast fresh zombies (Vectors), and one in a million freak occurrences called Aberrants.
As a microbiologist, I love that the Blight acts a little bit more like a real disease than most zombie viruses. (Okay, sure, it violates several laws of physics but most zombie diseases do.) What makes the Blight interesting is that it is not transmitted 100% of the time and it's not actually fatal in all infections. This means that a casualty bite is a secret roll, providing a lot more uncertainty and tension than the "one bite means one bullet" approach.
And when it's not fatal? Some people are Latent - infected but not turned to zombies. (There's a drug that can artificially cause this state, too.) They become immune to further infection but remain contagious to others and immediately turn to vectors upon death. So they're often discriminated against and kept separate from the rest of an enclave. Others are entirely immune to the Blight, which sounds great. But immunes are incredibly valuable for research, so they have to keep their status a secret or risk being harvested for bone marrow for the rest of their lives.
The game is also built around the narrative structure of hitting milestones on the character's path towards retirement (or their demise). I like that the end of the game is in sight (even if distant) from the beginning. Many RPGs don't have a set end state and many campaigns don't actually finish, but Red Markets is always building towards that resolution. Like the rest of the system, it fits with the theme - as the Takers must decide how much to save towards getting out versus how much to spend on staying alive right now.
This all may sound like a lot. But you can get it to the table quickly - when I ran a playtest of the game, everyone was up to speed and ready to play after about 20 minutes using pregenerated characters.
There's even tables at the end of the book, providing you with ways to quickly roll up jobs for your players and example encounters. In fact, the d100 table of encounters is tremendously fun to read and tells you a lot about the Loss. There are a lot of resources available for the game to make it easier on GMs, especially if you venture over to the game's website at http://redmarketsrpg.com/resources/ .
Red Markets also encourages collaborative enclave generation, to make sure that your players care about the community they helped create. If you just want to jump in, there's several very interesting enclaves described in the setting section, too.
If you want examples of how the whole thing works in practice, there are two Actual Play campaigns involving the game's author at Role Playing Public Radio (RPPR). There's also an RPPR series called Game Designer's Workshop that chronicles how the book went from idea to 500 page juggernaut. I found both extremely useful and entertaining, but since they are not part of the book directly, they don't affect the review score. However, if you have any doubts about how compelling economic horror might be, they are excellent resources.
As an aside: if you are just done with zombies, you could reflavor the game to work in a different setting. I think you're missing out because of how rich the setting is and how well it complements the mechanics. But the Profit system that underlies the game is elegant enough that it could be adapted to any setting or campaign where scarcity and difficult choices are the main themes. I know that there are adaptation projects online, if that's your cup of tea.
This book is an amazing work of art. Many styles are used throughout but it feels like a unified whole. The full-color artwork ranges from propaganda posters to pictures of Takers (and casualties and aberrants) to conceptual splash pages. It's all excellent and it pulls you into the book.
The layout also deserves mention - the formatting makes it easy to find what you need. The font size is larger than many RPG books, while design and side bars are used to more clearly convey information.
The pages are heavy-weight and glossy. I have not seen better quality even from major publishers such as Wizards of the Coast or Paizo. The binding seems very solid - and it has to be, to hold the good-quality paper and thick cover.
I even love the simplicity of the spine on my shelf - like the rest of the book, no detail was overlooked and it comes together in a triumphant whole.
(Note: the above on the physical book refers to the copy that I got through the kickstarter. It can be purchased at Indie Press Revolution. Only the PDF is available here at DriveThruRPG.)
I've gone on at length about the book because it really excites me, both in terms of the story and the mechanics. It is one of my favorite RPGs, alongside Delta Green and Eclipse Phase.
When running the game, I've found that the enthusiasm is infectious. My players have wanted to plan enclaves, to know more about the Blight and aberrants, and told me how this was the first game where they really cared about their equipment. Different parts of the game click with different players, but I've had an extremely strong positive response.
That said, it's not for everyone. It's not a straightforward dungeon crawl and it's not a power fantasy. Like other horror games such as Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, characters are more likely to be battered and ground down by their adventures rather than grow stronger after each one. But they keep trying - because there's a chance that they can escape.
I'd recommend this book if you have any interest in a fresh take on zombies or if you've ever stared at bank statements with a sinking feeling in your gut, realizing the numbers aren't going your way. If you would like to abstract that feeling with a set of quick, lethal mechanics in a fascinating setting, I can't recommend Red Markets highly enough. I can't wait to take it off the shelf and run it again.