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Zombicide: Black Plague Review

Craig

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Posted by Craig on Feb 10, 2016

Kickstarter gods Cool Mini or Not have made a killing with their Zombicide line of games, and their latest edition transports players from modern-day shopping malls and prisons to a medieval fantasy world with Zombicide: Black Plague. The danger’s the same, but the new setting, gear and survivors deliver a different experience than past iterations of the rolling dead, breathing fresh, or at least freshly killed, life into the series and delivering a zombie survival experience that’s light, fun, and more Michael Bay than George Romero.

Zombicide games have never asked the big questions others in the genre propose, trying to get players to make tough moral decisions. Instead, the big question here is who’s got the hammer, or where do we lure the horde to create the best killing zone, and this is fine by me. Give me a weapon and a target, and turn me loose. Black Plague does force players to look before they leap, however, thanks to a few interesting twists not common to dungeon crawlers.

Weapons have a maximum damage, and tougher zombies can only be killed by certain armaments. This creates teamwork and tension early in the game, when the survivors are lightly equipped and the narrow hallways typical to most game scenarios require careful navigation to stay alive and accomplish the party’s objectives. So the tried-and-true survivor fear is there at the start of the scenario, but it lessens as the survivors find more and better gear, allowing the hunted to become the hunter and the players to indulge their bloodlust.

Survivor management is made easy due to an excellent injection-molded tray termed the dashboard, which provides insets for equipped cards and slots for items stored in the survivor’s backpack. Additionally, plastic pegs clearly mark the survivor’s health, experience and acquired skills. Take heed, mini-makers: this is the new gold standard in character management. No longer does an errant brush of the table scatter your hero’s abilities to the wind or are a pen and paper required to track ever-growing stats. It would’ve been helpful if the survivors’ special abilities could’ve been spelled out on their cards, too, eliminating frequent consulting of the rulebook, but overall, well done, CMoN.

The way survivors progress through the scenarios in the game is also different from many dungeon crawlers, and is certainly a matter of taste. Those seeking persistent characters will be left cold; each survivor’s stats reset after every scenario, which can be a bit odd when viewing the game as a linked series of events, but also makes it easier to pick up and play a random scenario in the game, or even invent your own. And progressing your survivors becomes an exercise in strategy, since cards controlling the spawning of new zombies take their cue from the highest experience level achieved by a survivor. So you’d better make sure that all of your survivors share in the searching and killing, or one tough character will cause the zombie floodgates to open on your entire party. Speaking of spawning floodgates, the difficulty system in Black Plague is also somewhat different than other games, with good and bad results.

The zombie spawn deck never changes, regardless of a scenario’s difficulty, and the game controls the challenge via map size, objective placement and number of spawn points on the board. However, the luck of the draw can brutally hammer a party, even in the supposedly-easy scenarios, and games can end in minutes due to a perfect storm of hard-to-kill enemies. Combined with the fickleness of die rolls for survivor combat resolution (zombies in the same square as a survivor automatically score a hit, but players must roll for their own successes), the random, pick up and go nature of the game giveth, and can taketh away.

Another game feature that takes getting used to is the weaponry. While each survivor in the game is predisposed toward a particular style of combat and gains bonuses for playing a certain way, any one of the heroes can swing a sword, shoot an arrow or cast a magic spell. This may rub medieval fantasy traditionalists the wrong way, but it allows for a streamlined play experience and even gives the “survival horror” feeling common to its boardgame brethren, enabling fleeing humans to use whatever tools they find to fight the undead and live through the night.

When the arrows are flying and the cards fall as intended, Zombicide: Black Plague delivers an entertaining session of hacking, searching, planning and firebombing that’s tough to beat. Excellent character, zombie and mapboard artwork create a chilling medieval atmosphere while the progression of survivors from timidity to badassery allows players to carefully craft a survival strategy for the scenario’s beginning, then throw it out the murder hole and start carving corpses later in the game. If you’re not concerned about moral conflict among scattered, cowering groups of survivors and are simply looking to make the walking dead a bit more dead, Zombicide: Black Plague is the game for you.


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