Zombicide: Black Plague Review

I recently attended a Gaming Festival in the South East of England which gave me the opportunity to speak with hundreds of fellow gamers about pretty much all aspects of our hobby. Throughout the eight hours one game was mentioned over and over again.  This game was Cool Mini or Not’s 2015 Kickstarter phenomenon raising over $4million, thereby making it one of the most successful campaigns of its type. Upon release, this game came with a pedigree of three years of tried and tested success from its opening foray onto the market with various seasons and expansions following.

That game was Zombicide, more specifically Zombicide: Black Plague which differs from the usual end of the world zombie apocalypse and transports you all the way back to medieval times to face an, errrr, end of the world zombie apocalypse. Well, that’s a given I suppose, so let’s find out if Zombicide will be a ‘Black Plague’ across the genre or a cure for what some think is an overused theme.

Set in a medieval fantasy world, the premise of Zombicide: Black Plague is that evil Necromancers have amassed a great army of zombies who swarm out of the forests killing and destroying all in their path. With most of the nobility dead, or undead as it were, it is up to the peasantry to take control of their own destiny and bring the fight to the Necromancers. These Survivors must use their wits, courage and magic as well as scavenge for food, armour and weapons in a desperate bid to hold back the zombie wave. So how will this be achieved?

Zombicide is a 1 – 6 player, fully cooperative game with players taking control of at least one Survivor and must battle against the game itself which includes a ton of different mechanics, such as dice rolling, drafting and character movement as well as a few nice hidden features that allow the game to spring some gruesome surprises. We’ll talk about gameplay shortly, but let’s look at the components first of all.

Components

Looking at the box players will be left with no doubt to what the theme or general idea of Zombicide is all about. Surrounded by the undead, sword, staff and hammer wielding Survivors are cutting their way through the horde with a backdrop of a medieval village on fire. The art style is cartoon-like, but it’s definitely got that gruesome edge to it; I particularly like the zombie in the left hand corner who, instead of concentrating on the survivors, has actually found time to turn and stare right back at you with his yellow piercing eyes.

Inside the main box is a smaller one that houses all of the minis in their own plastic trays, along with the player dash boards, dice and cards. Under that are the game tiles and a load of different tokens which in general are all of good quality. I would have, however, liked the base game to come with a set of six custom dice as opposed to standard D6s which need to be purchased separately.

Cool Mini or Not have an excellent pedigree when it comes to producing miniatures, so it should come as no surprise that they have kept this trend up with Black Plague. Within the game there are three main types of zombies; you have the most common, slow & steady plodding Walkers, the dangerously fast moving Runners and the aptly named Fatties. It would have been really easy for CMoN to create three generic minis and make each type of zombie from that one design. To their credit, CMoN decided against this and mixed things up by offering five variants of the Walkers and two for each of the Runners and Fatties. Touches like this should not be overlooked, and hats off to CMoN for this.

The main antagonists in Black Plague are the before mentioned Necromancers, who are also represented by miniatures as well as their ultimate weapon, the Abomination. Both minis look great and have a shed load of detail on each; these two in particular will look awesome when painted.

The base game comes with six Survivors, each of which have their own miniatures, and again, are of high quality and detail. One note worth mentioning was that the mini for Baldric shows him holding a staff in one hand, and the staff actually snapped really easily on only the second occasion of which the game was played.

Despite this, all seventy one miniatures are extremely durable and have none of the usual bending or leaning issues that some minis have when a softer plastic is used. Each Survivor is also provided with a coloured base to easily distinguish one from another when in an unpainted state and corresponds with that Survivor’s dashboard; this proves most useful during games and is a welcomed addition.

Black Plague is played on game tiles that depict various different village scenes.  Most will be made up of some outside paved area as well as buildings, some showing several rooms. The artwork on the tiles really helps set the tone of a quest and fit the theme by showing a pretty dirty and bleak setting. The game comes with nine double sided tiles giving Black Plague a modular playing surface, meaning it changes from game to game. This is always good for replay value and allows players to create their own quests should they tire of the ten provided.  The only issue with the tiles are that within hours of the wrapping being removed, they began to warp and bend upwards. This can be fixed with a few flexes of the tiles, but when you are in the middle of the game, especially one of the longer quests, it becomes hugely noticeable that the tiles don’t quite sit alongside one another as they did at the start.

Moving on to the rule book, it’s an A4, glossy, fifty-five page board gamer’s dream, and I am not exaggerating in the slightest. Until now I have always found the rule book for War of the Ring to be the best that I have ever read, but Black Plague’s is right up there. Not only does it look great with more fantastic art generously offered throughout, it also reads extremely easily giving players a very clear and concise understanding of the rules and phases of play. This is done through detailed diagrams which could not be any clearer if the designers were standing right there explaining them to you. A quick example of this is the line of sight explanation which uses one large diagram to give about ten ‘on this occasion’ examples on when a player would have line of sight. It literally uses blue lines and an eye icon for ‘yes’ and red lines with a crossed eye (you know what I mean) icon for ‘no.’

Also, everything is in the correct order as to what a player requires when either reading for the first time or thumbing through to check a rule. The first page gives a page by page quick guide of the book which is followed by the game contents, which is then followed by an introduction into Black Plague.

From there we go to basic set up and game overview, then basic rules and so on and on through game phases, I think you get my point.

Throughout the book there are little short stories or quotes from the Survivors and a background for each type of zombie which really helps add to the theme of the game.

As I have already mentioned, Black Plague comes with ten quests which range from easy to ‘you’re going to lose.’ Technically, there are actually eleven quests as players are eased in by a tutorial quest that gets players to go through the basics. This is something that pretty much every video game now has but is rarely seen in this manner within board games. I know some tabletop games have these, but I feel they could be used a lot more and are a massive help for players to understand the mechanisms of the game.

Lastly, at the back of the book, it lists every special skill that can be used during gameplay, has an A-Z index, and is finished up nicely with a Game Round Summary or player aide on the back cover. For budding game designers out there, when it comes to designing and writing a rule book, you won’t find much better than this one.

To finish off the component section of this review, we will discuss something that I believe to be brand new to the Zombicide series: the Survivor dashboards.  This is a plastic base about eight inches long which holds the Survivor character card in the centre, provides space for a left & right handed weapon, allows that Survivor to carry five item cards in their backpack and can also track that Survivor’s experience points with a nice sliding pointer. Before I played the first quest, I thought ‘over engineered and not really required.’ After playing several quests both alone and with others, we all agree that the dashboards are brilliant and so well designed, making playing the game a whole lot simpler.

Gameplay

After a quest has been chosen and set up, Survivors dished out and equipped, it is now time to start hunting some zombies. Each quest will give you a short intro, detail which area Survivors or zombies start from, and give a specific set of objectives which will lead to the victory conditions. These objectives range from killing Necromancers and Abominations to scavenging for food and escaping the village alive.

Gameplay comes in the form of three phases; the first is the players/Survivors phase which in turn order will give each Survivor three actions. These actions can be a combination of moving, searching rooms for equipment, attempt to bust open a door, trade equipment with another survivor, attack using a magic, melee or ranged weapon, activate an objective, make noise which we all know attracts zombies, or do nothing. Once a Survivor has used all of their actions, then the next Survivor takes their turn and so on until all Survivors have activated.

So starts the zombie phase which comes in two steps, with step one being attack or move. If a zombie shares a space with a Survivor, then they attack that person. That attack will always hit, meaning if that Survivor does not have equipped armour or a shield which gives them a chance to role dice to block the attack, that Survivor will automatically take a wound; three wounds and you’re dead.

If a zombie does not share a space with a Survivor, then they move towards the space with the most amount of noise which comes in the form of the Survivors themselves and noise tokens. Several Survivor actions can cause noise, such as killing with certain weapons, opening a door or deliberately attracting the horde. All zombie minis have only one action, meaning if they move then they can’t attack until the next round; spawn cards can alter this, but we will talk about them shortly. The exception to this rule are the Runners, who get two actions, meaning they can move two spaces, move one space and attack, or in the absolute worst case scenario, attack twice.

Step two is when things start getting nasty, as this is the Spawn step. Each quest will detail a number of spawn zones across the board, which is where zombies enter play. Accompanying the game are zombie cards, which is the game’s way of bringing reinforcements into play, and how I may add. In normal circumstances, one card will be drawn for each spawn zone and may instruct players to add four Walkers or two Fatties, for example. Some quests have three or four of these spawn zones that can actually increase in number during play; this results in things quickly hotting up and firmly puts Black Plague in the ‘horde game’ bracket. Zombie cards can also give zombies extra activations, meaning all of that type can now move or attack…….AGAIN!!!

Zombie cards are also used when a Survivor breaks down a door to a building which will release all of the undead that were safely trapped inside. Not only do players draw cards for that one room but also for every room that runs off it, meaning you could spawn three or four times at once. I love this mechanism, and it’s probably one of my favourite aspects of the game.

A zombie card may also bring in a Necromancer or an Abomination which  brings extra challenges.

Once both steps are over, there is a quick clean up or end phase where noise tokens are removed and the first player counter is moved clockwise before it all starts again, until all Survivors are dead or the objectives are met.

Before going into my summary, I would like to talk about a few aspects of Black Plague, starting with the way the game progresses. Survivors will gain experience by killing zombies, using some equipment cards or claiming objective tokens. There are four levels of experience starting with the lowest, blue, then yellow, orange and finally the ‘super deadly zombie hunter’ red. These colours directly correlate with two other mechanisms in the game, the first being a Survivor’s skills which will always start with their basic blue skill. As their experience grows, so too does their skill level which may offer them an extra action or reduce the dice number required to score a hit, etc., basically it makes them better.

The second mechanic that these colours relate to are the zombie cards. Whilst Survivors are in the blue, a card might bring two Walkers into the game, yellow brings four, orange six and red eight, for example. The colour used always relates to the Survivor with the highest experience level, so don’t find yourselves lagging behind others because you will suffer for it, hence the term Survivor, I suppose.

This simple but clever combining of mechanisms means that as players get stronger, the game gets harder and more intense whilst maintaining its balance beautifully.

In keeping with what I’ve just mentioned, I would have liked the Survivors to be a bit less generic and have more individual personalities about them. This isn’t a big deal, but for all the times we played Black Plague, there was never an argument as to who used which Survivor, as there isn’t a huge difference between what each offers at the start, middle or end of a quest. I know that extra Survivor packs are available to buy which may make a difference, but it’s definitely something that stood out for me.

Black Plague offers Survivors numerous weapons to either start the quest with or that they will find by way of searching buildings and taking a card from the equipment deck. These include swords, axes, long bows and crossbows, or a player could draw a magical item such as a lightning bolt or mana blast. Each card offers players all of the relevant information such as that weapon’s range, number of dice rolled, what roll is needed to score a hit and how much damage that weapon can deal. All the cards are really well designed with nice, clear art and icons making them easy to understand.

Leading on from that last comment, I will finish with a quick note on the Abomination who, being the beast that he is, requires three hits to be killed. The only issue with this is that there are no weapons that can score three hits, and given the fact that hits don’t roll over for the next attack, it makes him a fairly daunting enemy to face. Don’t worry though, there is a way to destroy him, but I won’t give that secret away

There is no getting away from the fact that the zombie theme is massively overused throughout our hobby, but Zombicide: Black Plague certainly doesn’t feel like it’s unnecessarily adding to the pile. Not surprisingly, component-wise, it’s great with the Survivor dashboards making it really easy for users to sort items and keep track of what’s going on in game. The game tiles warping are more annoying than damaging, but it’s certainly something that players will notice very early on. Although I’ve not mentioned them, I love the whole idea of secret vaults that will lead Survivors from one side of the board to another and have literally proved a life saver on more than one occasion. Also a great place to find valuable artefacts, I may add.

The various mechanics come together with ease which makes gameplay run both smoothly and at a fast pace, with transitions between phases having little effect on progress. Zombicide: Black Plague is not easy, not by a long stretch, which is something I look for in a game. Even better, however, is that it’s challenging whilst being incredibly balanced. The way zombies are spawned is very cool and proves to keep Survivors on their toes throughout whilst constantly making them change tact; it’s not unusual to be halfway through a quest and say ‘we’ve got this people’, then BOOM, two rounds later you’re all dead.

Buy Zombicide: Black Plague HERE or find your nearest Esdevium Games Store HERE

Designers: Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, Nicolas Raoult

Artists: Nicolas Fructus, Jérémy Masson

Publishers: Esdevium Games

Release Date: 2015

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