Designed by: Raphael Guiton, Jean-Batpise Lullien and Nicolas Raoult
Published by: Gullotine Games
Review copy provided free of charge by Esdevium Games.
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Since I began reviewing board games I’ve been told numerous times that I need to check out Zombicide, but since zombies aren’t really my thing I was no rush to request it or buy it. That is until I learned of Zombicide: Black Plague, which takes the standard Zombicide template and sticks it into a fantasy world full of swords and magic, which is much, much more up my metaphorical alley. So here we are with my review of Black Plague, a standalone entry to the series. Being an absolute noob to the Zombicide games I’m not here to discuss what rules have been changed, I’m here to talk about whether it’s fun to hack zombies to pieces, fling fireballs and feel awesome.
Speaking of awesome, that’s an awesome price-tag. Black Plague is not cheap and doesn’t help the stigma surrounding how expensive it is to get into board games, but when you open the box you begin to understand why – this may just be the quality package I’ve opened while reviewing board games. Taking off the beautiful lid reveals a secondary box containing a wealth of loot, including the main star of the zombie invasion, the zombies themselves. There are rows and rows of miniatures here, and they all look wonderfully detailed. Of those minis six of them are the survivors who somehow look even more awesome than their foes, packing plenty of detail and a reasonable weight. For anyone with a talent for painting there’s plenty to work with here, and I can only imagine how good the game would look with a fully decorated zombie army roving the board. Moving on the board itself is actually made up of a series of modular tiles that can be put together to form different maps. For the sake of their modularity the board’s don’t pack in much in the way of character, so one layout does look a bit like another purely in terms of visuals, but the quality is again impressive as they and are made of very, very thick card, potentially making them useful a shields against any sword-wielding psycho. The rest of the tokens are made of thick stock, too, and thus the entire game feels as durable as the Juggernaut’s skull.
But the truly impressive additions are the player dashboards, plastic trays designed to house everything you need to play. On the right and left are spaces for equipped weapons, with another zone next to the character card for armor. A row of slots is used to store the five cards you can fit in your backpack, while pegs let you keep track of wounds and earned skills. Finally an experience slider makes keeping track of XP a breeze. Quite simply I adore these little dashboards and firmly wish that more games included something like them, although I suppose that would ramp up production costs.
I’ve also got to give special credit to the artists who have a truly awe-inspiring style that just clicks with me. The survivors that you play as have no background, but they imbue them with a surprisingly strong sense of personality purely through visual design. My favorite is Clovis, his mane of hair and dual swords lending him the air of a true badass who was born for one job; zombie killin’.
It doesn’t take too long to get everything set up and rolling. The first page of the rulebook gives you a vague explanation as to the backstory, explaining that one day zombies simply emerged from the misty forests, led by dread Necromancers who had raised them from the dead. Toward the back you’ll find the quests with each page detailing any special rules you need to know about and providing a bit a snippet of narrative to provide some context for what you’re doing.. Really the most time-consuming aspect is grabbing the right boards to put together and then seeding them with the various doors, objective markers and spawn areas. There are nine double-sided tiles that can be used to make up the playing area, bringing a bit of variety to the game. There’s just two decks of cards to shuffle up and only a few tokens to worry about as well. Putting everything, though, is a big tougher since a typical game will usually end up using all the zombies, so you have to put ’em all back in their little holes in the plastic trays. To aid this, though, there’s markers on the inside of the box to show which zombie type goes in which hole. Sweet.
For a solo game you take control of six survivors (Clovis, Silas, Ann, Samson, Baldrick and Nelly) across ten quests, seeking to complete objectives and destroy the undead hordes that get in the way. The sixty page rulebook looks daunting, a formidable barrier designed to bar entry to all but the most dedicated, but as it turns out Black Plague is actually very easy to understand; the rules are relatively easy and intuititive, and the beautiful rulebook lays them all out neatly. As for its gameplay, that’s easy to grasp, too; there are some tactical decisions to be made, but above all else this is a game where dice rolling determines victory or defeat. Think of it as the popcorn movie of the board game world, filled full of exciting action and very little in the way of anything that could potentially make your head hurt.
At the start of the game each survivor can take up to three actions, with the most basic examples being to move one zone on the board or to attempt to open a door. As they move around, grab objectives and kill zombies the survivors will gain XP, slowly acquiring new skills to complement their starting ability. Clovis, for example, gets an extra dice in combat, while Baldrick gets one free action per turn provided he uses it to cast a spell, and Silas gets +1 added to all ranged dice rolls. Once leveled up most survivor’s will be able to take far more than just three actions per turn, and keeping track of all their abilities can be a little confusing at first, but the peg system on the dashboard makes it easy to glance at them and get refamilarised with their skills. Surprisingly XP and equipment don’t carry over between quests, instead you start from square one for every quest.
Most of what you’ll be doing is hacking up the approaching zombie hordes that are intent on cracking open your skull and munching on some brains, although to be entirely fair to them it’s never actually explicitly stated anywhere that Black Plague’s shambling undead are interested in grey matter so I could just be totally stereotyping them. Combat is handled entirely through the fine art of dice chucking with no chance for the player to do very much about the outcome except to ensure that they don’t run into unwinnable fights and that they have some reasonable gear. First you declare which weapon you’re intending on using unless you’re dual wielding, which can be done by equipping two weapons of the same type (provided they have the appropriate symbol) and then consult the small chart at the bottom of it which states how many dice you can roll when using it. This number also determines how many zombies you can potentially hit in a single melee action. The next icon on the card shows the weapon’s accuracy, or more specifically what number you need to roll for a successful hit to occur. The final number dictates how much damage is done per hit, with Walkers, Runners and Necromancers needing just a single point of damage to be killed, meaning every weapon in the game is capable of vanquishing them.
There are two exceptions to this; Fattys and the dreaded Abomination. As their name so subtly implies Fattys are lumbering tubs of decomposing lard capable of grossing you the hell out and also absorbing 2 points worth of damage at a time. This means it simply can’t be killed with a weapon that only delivers 1 point of damage per hit, regardless of how many attacks you throw at it. At the start of the game when everybody is given starting equipment only the hammer is capable of taking down a Fatty, and thus whoever is given the honor of wielding it must spend while legging it from one part of the board to the other killing dead fat people. This game really nails its theme.
As for the Abomination it can take a 3 point battering, and can only be killed one of two ways; the first is to get Samson up to his maximum level and opt to take the skill which grants +1 damage, meaning that with a weapon which deals 2 damage you can smack the Abomination in the face and live to tell the tale. The other option is to create Dragon Fire and burn the hulking bastard into oblivion, but to do this you need to get lucky enough to find a jar of Dragon Bile and a torch to light it with when searching. On the plus side while Dragon Fire immediately kills everything on a single tile, making it very powerful, although you must be careful as it’ll kill survivors, too. Fire does not discriminate, people.
This brings us round to searching the environment for new gear to help you out in the fight against the undead hordes. Once per turn a survivor can spend an action to search any building zone to draw a card from the equipment deck, potentially granting new swords, crossbows, bows, axes, chainmail armor, plate armor and much more. At any given time a survivor can have two weapons actively equipped, plus five cards in their backpack. Armor is always helpful since it lets you roll to negate any damage you might take, potentially saving your bacon as a survivor can only ever take 3 points of damage before dying.
As for the fine art of standing far away from the deadly crowds of zombies and firing arrows into them, like a wuss, it’s handled much the same way as melee combat, but with a few key differences. First and foremost the first stat on a ranged card dictates its rage, so a short bow, for instance, can be used either in the same zone as zombies or up to a square away, while a long bow can be used anywhere up to three zones away, but cannot be used in the same area as the enemy for close-quarters warfare. The next thing to consider is that if you fire into a zone that has other survivor’s in it then any misses rolled will hit them instead, thus if you decide to wade in with some arrows or fireballs (magic is regarded as a ranged attack, too) then you need to make damn sure your team can take a few hits or that it’s a truly dire situation. This can produce some amazing moments, be it accidentally killing Clovis as he makes a valiant stand against the hordes, or wiping out a massive group that were threatening Samson with a barrage of fireballs. The final thing that must be considered is when using a ranged action you don’t get to select your target, rather the zombies you hit are selected using a targeting priority system so that lowly Walkers get taken out first, with Fattys and Runners second and so on.
Speaking of the zombies we need to talk about how those work, because once all survivor’s have taken their actions the zombie hordes begin their rise to power, with four out of five of them being granted a single action to either move or attack, but not both in the same turn. The exception to the rule, because there’s always an exception, are Runners, who get two actions per activation and can thus move two zones, move and attack or even attack twice. No matter the zombie, though, each one will only ever attack for a single point of damage, and if there’s more than one survivor in the zone then you can distribute the damage as you want.
When it comes to moving the shambling undead things get a touch more complex as zombies slowly move around the map based on the noise system. Essentially each survivor is also a source of noise, while certain actions, like busting open a door, also generate noise. The zombies will always head toward the largest source of sound they can visibly see, or if they can’t see any survivor’s then they still make their way toward the noisiest portion of the board, choosing the shortest possible route to do so, unless there is multiple choices that have the same distance, in which case they will split up.
But how does these staggering corpses actually make it onto the board? Spawn points, dear reader. Each quest in the rulebook will show you where to lay red spawn markers, and at the very end of each turn you’ll draw a card from the spawn deck for each of those tokens that tell you which zombies enter the fray. Some other cards also tell you to perform a double spawn at the next marker, while others give zombies already on the board an extra action on the next turn, which can seriously mess up your day if one of your survivor’s is already surrounded. In a very smart design choice the type and amount of zombies that spawn is dictated by your survivor’s XP levels, thus as survivor’s become more powerful the board steadily gets swarmed by more and more enemies intent on showing you the meaning of the black plague. It creates a nice sense of progression to each quest, slowly building up to the point where you’re barely keeping abreast of the situation as hordes of zombies pour onto the board. The downside is that it almost encourages you to avoid levelling up as much as possible, something which the game attempts to counter by granting a survivor 5xp for every objective taken and ensuring that in most cases you’ll have taken quite a few of them. The other downside is that as you level up the threat levels up with you, lessening the sense of growing power.
Zombies also spawn whenever you kick down the door to a building, with one card drawn for every connected room. As you progress through the quests you’ll find many of them contain large complexes, so battering your way through a door could reveal a small army of undead just waiting to tear your survivors to pieces before feasting on them. It also means you can’t seek shelter inside a building to get away from the threat on the streets. Indeed, the streets are usually safer because you at least have some space to move. Still, eventually you’ll probably find your survivors forced into some buildings. This is mostly where the game’s limited strategy comes from; keeping your survivors from getting penned in by analysing the map.
The last thing you need to worry about when it comes to spawning mindless minions is the Necromancer. When this guy’s special card is drawn from the spawn deck he enters play, and brings a new spawn zone with him which is immediately activated and must have a card drawn for it, thus the Necromancer can bring a small retinue with him. He also behaves different from the other zombies; instead of gunning for the survivors he attempts to escape the board by making his way to the closest spawn point, beside the one he came in at. Now, should he successfully escape AND if there’s six spawn points on the board then you automatically lose the game. However, should you kill him before he escapes then you get to remove one spawn point from the board. It’s an intriguing idea, if one that never actually affected me. Through my playthrough of all ten quests in the game I never once lost due to this, or even came remotely close. A house rule that stops you from removing a spawn point as a reward for defeating the Necromancer would solve this, and make the game more challenging.
And that pretty much covers everything in the game. Despite the sizable, initially scary looking rulebook Black Plague is an easy game to begin playing, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of brain-power, either. Strategy is limited to making sure you don’t get cornered by the incoming hordes, picking your battles and choosing which skills you’d like when levelling up. It’s hardly for deep stuff. But the game makes up for that just being plain fun; there are lots of cool little moments as survivors make impressive last stands or somehow tackle massive groups by themselves. There’s big moments when you use Dragon Fire to wipe out a small army or barely win the game, claiming the last thing needed just before a few dozen zombies burst through the door and wreck the place. It’s popcorn gaming, requiring minimal thought and plenty of yelling as the dice decide your fate in combat.
That’s perfectly okay, as it turns out, because sometimes that’s exactly what you want. Still, the game does have some flaws to talk about, with my main gripe being the quests. While most of them are fine there’s quite a few that drag on too long because they rely on certain things appearing in the decks, and thus through pure luck a single quest can really become elongated for its own good. For example in the first quest you need to defeat an Abomination before you can succeed, which means patiently waiting for one to appear in the zombie spawn deck which can take quite a while if you get unlucky, not to mention you also have to get lucky with Dragon Bile and a torch in order to kill the damn thing unless the game has gone on so long that Samson is capable of taking it out. Another quest later revolves around having to acquire supplies, a good idea in theory that leans on these things popping up from the equipment deck. Of course the opposite can happen and sometimes these quests don’t take very long because you just get lucky.
repetition is the other enemy of Black Plague, a strange criticism of any board game, really, since you’re almost always doing the same thing over and over again, but here it’s quite noticeable, the endless stream of zombies becoming a slog to get through at times.
And what about as a solo game? Does Black Plague work well if you’re playing alone? Yes and no. There’s certainly fun to be hand when playing solo, but personally I’ve always found that when playing alone I prefer more skill orientated games as luck can become a frustrating thing. Those epic dice rolls are something better shared with a group of other players who can delight in your dramatic save, or horrible death. Having said that I still drew a lot of pleasure from tackling the quests alone.
I’m a little conflicted about this, because it’s a lot of fun and I’ve found myself gravitating toward it numerous times while doing something else, even going so far as it just leave it setup and playing a quick round as I pass. That alone might earn itself the coveted recommendation sticker, but on the other hand it’s also a fairly straightforward and basic game, heavily reliant on a simple combat system. None of the mechanics left me particularly amazed at their design. Ultimately that’s why it’s so enjoyable, though; it doesn’t mess about with complex systems or demand that its player wrack their brains to develop cunning strategies, it just asks that you charge headfirst into some zombies and get killing. And that’s just fine by me.
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