Cardboard Children - Zombicide: Black Plague
A popcorn boardgame
ZOMBICIDE has been hangin' around for some time. There's been ZOMBICIDE and ZOMBICIDE: Zombie Biscuits and ZOMBICIDE: Attack of the Zombies and probably one called ZOMBICIDE: Attack of the Biscuit Zombies Part 2. In this Kickstarter-fuelled era of boardgaming, ZOMBICIDE is the poster child. ZOMBICIDE is the one pulling in the big bucks. But where is ZOMBICIDE now? Well, it's in the Middle Ages, obviously, with the fun and, well, fun ZOMBICIDE: BLACK PLAGUE.
I promise I'll stop writing “ZOMBICIDE” now.
ZOMBICIDE: BLACK PLAGUE
Yeah, so Zombicide has had lots of expansions and editions, so what makes this one different? Well, while word on all the earlier games from friends of mine has always been sorta muted, the word was that Black Plague was the finest evolution of the game so far. And the setting – a zombie-infested middle-ages setting, during a plague and such – sounded a far more interesting proposition than the overused modern-day setting of the earlier releases.
But what is Zombicide: Black Plague, really? Well, it's a beautifully produced big PLAYTHING for 1-6 players, where a band of heroes plow through constantly-spawning zombies to gain experience and fulfil objectives. It's a premium product, very expensive, but the product looks its money. There are loads of little toys inside – walking zombies and running zombies, fat zombies and necromancers, monstrous mutant zombies and a whole load of heroes with swords and beards and hammers. (By the way, I think SWORDS, BEARDS & HAMMERS would be an amazing title for a board game.)
It's not just about the toys, though. The graphic design is sharp, the artwork is gorgeous throughout, and the quality leads right through into the practicalities of gameplay itself with the plastic player boards that come in the box. These player boards let you slide cards and pegs into them, allowing you to display everything you need to know about your character on your table like the physical manifestation of a character screen from a video game. They are beautiful things, these chunky dashboards.
I want to expand on these player boards a little bit, because nothing speaks more highly of the CARE and CASH that has been pumped into this game than these things. And it's the small stuff that most impresses – the little extra space in the indentation that lets you lift character cards in and out easily, the little plastic arrow that marks off your gained experience, the slope at the side of your equipment indentation that lets your regularly-switching equipment cards just slide off and away.
This is quality stuff. A high price, yes, sure. But this is a quality product.
But what of the game? Well, that's where things get a little tricky, because here's the truth about Zombicide: Black Plague – it's not a massively interesting bit of board game design. It's your standard move, attack, search, move, claim objective dungeon-crawl, dungeon-slash game. Heroes move first, then the zombies, and you work your way through scenarios in that fashion until the players either win or lose. Combat is simple – rolling dice to land hits, and very very much of it – almost all of it – is stuff you've seen many times before. Grab objectives (keys) to open doors. Go through trapdoors into hidden areas. Move, attack, move, search, change equipment, get stronger.
I'm not saying that there aren't any cool little wrinkles. The zombie spawning is fun, with the undead leaping unpredictably from cards drawn from a deck, and the spawning scales well too – as the heroes slaughter zombies and claim objectives to gain XP, the number and strength of the zombies pouring into battle rises to meet them. The noise mechanic is nice too. Some weapons make noise, and noise can be deliberately made as an action. All noise generates noise tokens that are piled into areas of the board, and these areas draw zombie attention – later scenarios demand that you make clever use of noise to create channels of attack for your heroes. It's a cool thing. I like it.
But again – there's nothing here that feels particularly dramatic from a design standpoint. This is a box full of stuff that works. And we know it works because we know it works because we've played it all before.
But wait. This sounds like a negative review – it really isn't. What you're buying when you buy Black Plague is a premium product, tried and tested, and polished to a sparkle. Zombicide's own fanbase has assisted with this, their feedback on earlier releases steering this game into a space that finds it instantly fun to play – a smooth, fun treat of a game that looks a million bucks on any table. (It's worth noting here that Black Plague lacks a rule from the earlier Zombicide games that drove people absolutely crazy – a rule that had player characters hitting fellow player characters first on any ranged attack into a crowded zone. That rule, if I'm remembering it correctly, is just silly. And it's gone.)
Games don't always have to innovate. This is why I called Zombicide: Black Plague a “plaything” earlier in this review. Sit down with this and you know what you're going to get – a little world to play in, a big budget production of a medieval zombie world, where all the bits just click together nicely. It's popcorn gaming, the kind of thing that won't massively challenge your brain cells but will still excite and thrill you in the right places. For the price of this game, you could probably buy two brilliantly clever or dramatic board games (maybe a Theseus or a Spartacus), but sometimes you want to go to the cinema to watch The Avengers, y'know? Sometimes you just want to fill your belly with sweet, sweet sugar and think nothing more of it.
It's sweet sugar, this. It's expensive sweet sugar, and it might be good for you.