Review: Zombicide

Likely one of the bigger splashes in the zombie board game craze came out the latter part of 2012, Zombicide, from Guillotine Games. It’s a 1-6 cooperative player game (yes, you can play it solo), where folks are survivors trying to keep alive in a zombie apocalypse.

The game itself revolves around 10 different scenarios (not including a simple tutorial) using different layouts and some variety in victory conditions. For the most part winning a scenario typically involves gaining specific objective tokens and/or getting to a specific location. However there are a few that mix it up, such as just getting one player to survive an escalated zombie danger level. Players can pick one of the 6 different survivors, that each have various starting abilities, and get access to different ones as they gain experience killing zombies.

The play is divided in turns. All players get a specified number of actions for their survivor. Then the zombies take their actions with more spawning at the end of the turn. A neat little part of the turn order is that a first player token continually passes to the left at the end of each full turn, meaning the person that went first will go last on the next turn (and could take a while before being able to act first again in a 6 player game). This structured turn order can hamper the player’s plans, as you might want to move a player out of an area first before another player can shoot up zombies. However with the locked turn order, this might not be possible making some hard choices.

Combat against zombies is a simple affair. Roll a certain number of dice trying to roll over a particular value. Players are dependent on finding weapons and can’t attack with their fists. So typically each turn, they will be searching areas for better gear. Different gear can modify some weapons, and particular weapons can be dual-wielded (allowing for more attacks in a single action). There is also a smattering of non-weapon gear to help (like a handy flashlight). Players can always opt to move out of an area with zombies, but each zombie present requires an additional action. Too many zombies means the player is stuck huddled among the walking dead.

Another factor to consider when using a weapon is the noise it makes, with some being silent. Smash open a door with a fireaxe instead of a stealthy crowbar and you produce excessive noise. These noise tokens can have a huge impact on the game during the zombie turn causing them to migrate to areas with a lot of noise. As such, players can even spend actions making excess noise if needed.

Lastly, the game is very unforgiving with ranged attacks. If using a firearm in an area that has both survivors and zombies, hits are always taken against the survivors first. While it might be tempting to unload those dual submachine guns into a pack of zombies surrounding your buddy, you can pretty much guarantee wiping that survivor out (along with the zombies). Players also have access to cars that are fantastic zombie-killing machines, but are also very indiscriminate with taking out fellow players. This severe limitation on ranged combat means you either position yourself carefully, or just accept friendly fire is part of the natural order in a zombie apocalypse.

When the zombie turn rolls around, everything is done as a list of steps. Zombies attack players in their current area. If there are no players to attack, they shuffle off towards players they can see. If no players are present, they move towards the areas with the most noise. At the end of the turn, more zombies spawn and all the current noise tokens are picked up.

Zombie attacks are particularly vicious. Each attack will automatically cause a wound and force a player to lose a piece of equipment. Suffer 2 wounds and it’s zombie chow time with the unfortunate player being eliminated. That means if a player is stuck in an area with at least 2 zombies, they are toast. Compound that with particular runner zombies that take 2 actions instead of one (move and attack, move twice, or attack twice), and you’ve got some situations that are very deadly for survivors.

As zombies shuffle towards survivors, different paths may be possible of equal distance. When these situations arise, if the group can split evenly they do so. If not, more zombies are added to the mix to evenly divide the groups. This constant spawning of additional zombies means survivors are trying to prioritize a single route for the zombie horde.

Spawning of additional zombies are also done randomly using a deck of cards. If there are not enough zombies to bring on the board, each zombie of that type takes an additional action. This can create absolute havoc in the game. A player that might have had enough actions next turn to slip away from a group, could suddenly be zombie lunch due to that extra action, or switch from being a safe distance from a horde of walking dead, to being surrounded with no clear way out.

A cool aspect of the game is the various levels of danger for spawning zombies. As players kill zombies and complete objectives, they gain more experience. On the plus side, they gain more abilities and actions to take during their turn. The huge minus is that the danger level increases, adding more zombies to spawn areas. An important rule to this is that zombie danger levels are totally dependent on the player with the highest experience. Say the group has been cautious and trying to use stealth keeping everything in the blue level. It just takes that one crazed player with a submachine gun, quickly dispatching a horde of zombies, to suddenly ramp up the difficulty.

This creates a very powerful draw to the game. You can only hide and be stealthy for so long. As there is a limit to the different number of zombies, when there are not enough to put on the board that extra zombie action can rear its head. This can suddenly snowball with a survivor being overwhelmed, to players being forced to wipe out a horde. Have 2 players cut through a group, they’ve bumped up the danger level. While those 2 might be zombie-killing machines, the other survivors without many kills (and less experience) will be less able to handle the increased zombie spawns. Things build, and build, until it becomes this chaotic mess of crawling undead with players frantically trying to figure out what to do on their turn.

The Good – It’s a very fun zombie game where players find a decent balance of trying to be stealthy and hacking into zombies when needed. There is a fair number of scenarios in the book to give the game some replay. The rulebook explains the nuts and bolts of the game pretty well with lots of diagrams, examples, and there is a great, single sheet, quick overview of the rules included. I particularly like that everyone is working together and the zombies are handled without needing a player.

I’ll take a moment to also talk about the components. They are fantastic. The boards are double sided and, like the tokens, made of nice, thick cardstock. The cards are just the right size and seem thick enough to be handled without worrying about nicks and marks. The artwork in the rules, cards, and board pieces are very well done and evoke that feeling of being thrown into a zombie horror game, without being overly gory and avoids being too cartoony at the same time.

The game pieces are also amazing. Nice single plastic pieces with great detail and variety. Each of the survivor pieces are a different color, which is a nice touch (I’m looking at you Descent). The figures are also packed in plastic eggshell trays, meaning if you take the time to paint them up, you don’t have to fret about figuring out how to store them in the box. The sculptures of the figures are great and really capture the zombie theme with the survivor minis having a lot of character.

The Bad – Sadly, there are a fair amount of flaws with the game. It can be brutally unforgiving with how zombie combat, and player ranged combat, resolves. I think of the two, the ranged combat and friendly fire is particularly aggravating. The game also does not scale well with different number of players. Granted some scenarios state that they are best with a certain number, most still seem very difficult with less than 6 players

While the zombie turn is pretty well explained, as it is a step-wise automated turn, some odd situations can arise. This is compounded with the players having different abilities and gear. This can lead to some head scratching while flipping through the rules (expect to also print out the FAQ on the game). Not to mention one scenario being completely broke to the point of allowing survivors to cruise to an easy win (again, a revised version of the scenario is available online).

This last point sticks in my craw a bit, likely because some of the funding for the game was so public. Zombicide was an enormously successful Kickstarter project. You figure with all that money there was enough playtesting to make sure all the scenarios worked well. Or how about another 4 printed pages to further explain the rules and provide a few more explanations?

Player elimination can also be an issue. It’s possible with a bad draw and positioning to get a player eliminated early in the game. Some of the games can get a bit longish, especially if several objectives are to be picked up and survivors need to reach an exit. While the game can handle 6 players, I’ve found having less more ideal (with players handling multiple survivors), as that extra survivor can be shuffled off to a different player if needed.

The Verdict – I cannot recommend buying this game. There are many pluses, tremendous pluses, to this game. It is fun. It does capture that feeling of things slipping into absolute chaos being overwhelmed by zombies. There are meaningful choices and strategies players need to tackle in the game. The components and figures are fantastic. However out of the box, along with the $70+ price tag, I would hesitate recommending it. There are a limited number of survivors to play and with a set number of scenarios. I think a feeling of sameness can creep into the game.

The game has rule quirks, forcing players to slip into set tactics and strategies. You have to try and level everyone up equally. When a door is opened to a building, you have to resolve spawns of further zones first and work towards the doorway (otherwise if forced to take extra actions due to not having enough zombies, you can be overwhelmed instantly). The friendly fire from guns is particularly damning (we’ve opted to ignore it, instead all misses are rolled and a 1-2 hits a friendly).

Granted, Guillotine Games has done a lot to address these negatives. They have additional scenarios online. Not to mention a decent FAQ and reprinting of some rulebook scenarios fixing the broken victory conditions. There are additional survivors that can be printed out, allowing for some variation in player choices.

At the heart of it though, I think Zombicide slips into the same problems as Super Dungeon Explore. There is a great game at the core which is saddled down having too much of the price tag going towards the components, rather than the rules. The minis in Zombicide are great. They absolutely scream to be painted up. But I keep wondering if most of the zombies were cardboard tokens instead. If the price was dropped down to about $40 and a tad more tweaking with the rules (say an ‘easier’ variant regarding gun combat, and a ‘hardcore’ option as per the rules). Maybe another 2-3 more scenarios or survivor cards to boot. Would that bump this game from being a decent board game to being a must have? I think it would.

Zombicide is a fun board game. If you have a group that loves the idea of fighting off hordes of zombies, it is very much worth getting to the table. However if you are a group of players that want a game out of the box that doesn’t require a bit of house ruling, and are not particularly endeared to the walking dead, I would pass on this one. I am a miniature fanatic. I love to paint minis. However as a strict board games fan, Zombicide is a tad lacking, and likely the miniature components bump up the price to just nudge it into that category of a no buy.

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