Like any horror franchise worth its salt, Zombicide is back with another installment. Just like most horror sequels this one has a twist! Wizards and Warriors are the new flavor du jour. Chainsaws have become broadswords and uzis are now crossbows. So besides a stylistic face-lift does this new version improve upon the game in any meaningful way?
I’ll be upfront with you; I despised the original Zombicide. It was a frustrating experience that was littered with inexplicably inane rules that made you want to take a chainsaw to your own hand. The bland and uninspired post apocalyptic city setting didn't help much either. Black Plague is CMON’s attempt at breathing new life into the desiccated corpse of vanilla Zombicide. When they announced this fantasy redux and promised to iron out the rules, I was skeptical, but intrigued. I mean, how could I not be? It was looking like Army of Darkness meets Night of the Living Dead.
OK, that’s enough about Zombicide, let’s unearth Black Plague. Each game round is divided into Survivor turns and then all the zombies make like MJ and get thrillin’. During each Survivor’s turn they get three actions that can be used for numerous different things. Moving a single space costs an action, and fighting a group of zombies does as well. Smashing open doors will eat up an action point and so will searching for items. Once all six Survivors have used up all their actions play proceeds to the zombie’s scripted actions. It's fairly rudimentary stuff.
Afterwards, zombies currently on the board will perform an action which means they either attack if they share a space with a survivor or they move. The zombies will always lumber towards either the nearest person in sight, or wherever the loudest noise came from. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that many survivor actions make noise, and the space with most noise tokens will be the de facto square that zombies without any line of sight will shamble towards. After attacks/movements occur the player’s will place new zombie minis at every spawn token on the board. This boils down to drawing a “Zombie Spawn” card and checking each survivor’s Experience Track. You see, killing any zombie will results in experience points that allow the Survivors to level up. Leveling up means getting new abilities and more actions points, but it also means that the zombie threat level rises. Survivors start in a blue threat level and that has the easiest zombie spawns. As it escalated to yellow, orange and red, the amount of zombies spawned each round gets more out of control. Again, this is all painlessly simple and clean.
There are two wrinkles to zombie spawns. First are the dreaded "double spawn" cards (new to Black Plague). If you draw a double spawn card, you don’t put any zombies in the space where you drew it. Instead you move to the next spawn point and draw TWO SPAWN cards instead of one. In case you’re wondering…yes if you draw another double spawn card then the next spawn location gets FOUR SPAWN cards. “Why are there so many zombies spawning?” I hear you muttering to your inanimate computer, tablet, or phone. Well, it’s because of the damn necromancers! Sometimes instead of spawning undead maids or fat zombies, you’ll spawn a necromancer. These charming gentlemen of the occult have one goal; run as fast as they can to the nearest spawn token and exit the board. If they exit they will permanently add a new spawn point to the game. If a necromancer escapes while there are six spawn tokens, the Survivors lose the game. Luckily they’re easy to kill. However, since this is a zombie game, they also don’t stay dead very long. Besides, what halfway respectable necromancer doesn’t know the self resurrection cantrip of Bojangles Slorrhaven? Hell, they teach you that in Necro-nomics 101.
That’s pretty much it. You walk around, hack stuff, slash things, avoid getting chomped, run from zombies, and accomplish goals. Fights are resolved by rolling D6s and rolling higher than the weapon’s number value. You smash open doors the same way. Black Plague isn’t a game bogged down with seventeen phases per round, or tiny rules that pop up once every thirty five games. Nope, instead it’s easy to consume and you will gestate the rules after half a game goes by.
Black Plague’s simplicity is its biggest strength. There is a level of restraint in the design that I find very compelling. Everything that could be complex, overwrought, or bloated is instead intuitive, simple, and satisfying. I appreciate how approachable the entire game is. The setup is quick, probably ten minutes or less, and teaching the game is remarkably easy. Typically, these big boxes filled with plastic tend to be convoluted affairs, like trying to decipher a technical document about how to play with plastic army men. That couldn’t be further from the truth with Black Plague. The game gets straight to the point and you’re hacking and slashing reanimated scum almost immediately. This is almost mass market style Ameritrash. It feels like a long lost Games Workshop and Milton Bradley collaboration that never was. I mean that as the HIGHEST compliment possible.
Another thing I love is how basic the Survivors are. When you get dealt a Survivor you will immediately notice the lack of “stats” or other superfluous numbers. Instead, each Survivor is identical in terms of movement, health, and items they can wield. What makes them different are the keyword special abilities that they can level up, and the weapons that they bring into battle. You’d think it would cause a sensation were no character’s “pop” or feel unique. Yet, somehow they all feel like special little snowflakes. This is a great system and makes other fantasy dungeon crawler characters feel overdeveloped by comparison.
So if the game’s simplicity is its greatest strength then what is its biggest weakness? Sadly, its simplicity will, for many players, be the game’s biggest perceived problem. For every dice chucker who likes no-nonsense ACTION there are those that will be expecting MUCH more gameplay for their $100. They will inevitably feel that they simply paid for minis and the creators mailed in the rest of the design. Surely this box filled with plastic dashboards (which are awesome by the way), zombie minis and Survivors must have depth, strategy, and unrivaled thematic elements! If you’re the type of person who plays a simple Ameritrash style game and groans, “That’s it?” when it’s done, then you should stay far away from Black Plague.
At it's best, Z:BP will provide bursts of narrative, punctuated by silly, over the top, violence via very little rules overhead. These colorful vignettes of madcap carnage provide plenty of guffaws and giggles around the table. However, those not enamored by the simplistic game play won't see past pushing around grey miniatures, rolling dice for EVERYTHING, and sometimes flipping over objective tokens. Anyone that needs excessive flavor text or events to weave a story will be underwhelmed by the Black Plague experience. This is one of those games where the players need to fill in the blanks.
While I was sort of shocked at how much I enjoyed the fine tuned gameplay there were still a few things that bugged me about the game. First, there is a strict turn order that must be followed by the survivors each round. A first player marker is passed to the left after each round and this sometimes leads to situations where a wizard or archer who can’t smash open doors is left WASTING their entire turn. I fail to see any reason why the heroes can't act in any order they wish. It’s a dumb rule. I’m also not fond of how you always have to use six survivors no matter what. Oh you can use fewer survivors if you want, but the game offers no way to scale for this. I wish some quests were designed specifically for two, three or four heroes. Controlling multiple characters is sometimes a drag.
Another thing that can be irritating is when the game is chugging towards its gory crescendo the zombie turns tend to get more fiddly than a rabid woodchuck. Towards the end there are so many zombies to move, spawn, and double or quadruple spawn. It gets just a hair too hectic for my liking.
This isn’t a knock on the game, but I personally dislike how it’s an entirely co-op experience. I fall into the George Romero camp of thinking that once the zombie apocalypse strikes humans won’t get along and will generally be cantankerous wanker-twits to one another. The high fantasy tropes kind of make it a moot point since your characters aren’t typical helpless citizens. Still, I can’t shake the sensation that Black Plague, with all its dramatic component blustering, doesn’t really feel like a zombie game. Rather, it feels like a hack n’ slash dungeon crawler where all the enemies HAPPEN TO BE ZOMBIES. To its credit, it does do the shambly horde of undead thing REALLY well as the decomposing mob just relentlessly chases after you turn after turn. It feels just zombie enough to not elicit too many harrumphs, but just barely.
I’ve mentioned the price point in this review and I can say without question, you’re getting plenty of value in regards to the miniatures and excellent gameplay. However, the overall amount of variability leans more on the lighter side than I’m comfortable with. The search deck isn't big or unique enough, the base game only comes with two vault/artifact cards, and after a few missions I was ready to add in expansion/Kickstarter content. That’s a bummer.
Still, I find it easy to give Zombidcide: Black Plague a recommendation IF YOU HAVE THE CORRECT EXPECTATIONS. This is closer to HeroQuest than Descent. In regards to zombie games it is on roughly the same complexity level as Last Night on Earth or Zombies!!! Black Plague is an effortless dice chucker who's necrotic core feels like something out of the 1980s or 1990s. Personally, I like these unsophisticated, thematic designs that feel like they’re aimed at the mass market audience instead of the hobby gamer market. This is about as PURE as it gets in terms of ‘Trash. For some that is going make this an automatic purchase. For others, I can see how they will be completely underwhelmed by the simplistic mechanics. I think Guillotine Games and CMON have done a commendable job at trimming out the gunk from Vanilla Zombidcide. For those that liked that little extra chrome they will likely be upset at the simplification and high fantasizing of the game. It’s not the ultimate zombie game, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more approachable and fun hack n' slash adventure. For me, CMON took a game I was utterly frustrated with and transmogrified it into something drastically more enjoyable. I can't say that I'm not more than a little impressed by that.
What does the Scale-o-matic 6500™ say?
On a scale of House of the Dead to Dawn of the Dead
Zombicide Black Plague rates as Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Designer: Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, Nicolas Raoult
Publisher: Guillotine Games / Cool Mini or Not
Year Published: 2015
Player Count: 1-6
Length: 60-180 minutes