As The Walking Dead continues to break ratings records it seems like everyone is fighting for a taste of their success. There are zombie novels, games, movies, and shows by the dozens. Fans of the genre are starting to experience a serious bout of Zombie Fatigue. Or as Wil Wheaton put it, we may have reached Peak Zombie. But before anyone swears off zombies for this and perhaps all future Halloweens, they need to try Zombicide.
Guillotine Games’ Zombicide, as the title suggests, is a game about mercilessly slaughtering zombies. It was a successful kickstarter project, and even though it has been around for a couple years now, the higher price tag and the intimidating horde of add-on packs kept me from trying it out. This was a mistake. Since adding it to my collection it has been the most frequently played game by my regular gaming groups. There are lots of zombie games out there, so it is easy to overlook the game as another zombie knock off; a shambling corpse version of better games, re-skinned for the genre. But Zombicide takes a bite out of the competition by giving players a meatier gameplay experience. (Okay, no more zombie puns, I promise)
Zombicide is a co-op game (games where players are all “on the same side” trying to defeat the game itself); here, the players control a squad of survivors fighting off hordes of the undead in a number of different possible scenarios. The zombies are spawned by a deck of cards, from which players draw cards at the end of every player round and whenever survivors open doors into new areas. This means that zombie spawning is often unpredictable. Zombie movement is controlled by rules that make the zombies move towards players that stay out in the open, or towards the noisiest areas which is measured by noise tokens. Noise tokens are added to the board when players fire guns, or sometimes when doors are opened depending on the tools used. Players can also choose to spend actions making noise in order to lure zombies in certain directions. Some zombie games rely on one player to control the zombies, with rules that seek after a player balance between the humans and zombies. Zombicide disregards player balance, throwing wave after wave of the undead at the players, and it can often feel overwhelming. However, this is when co-op games are at their best, when players are forced to work together and find creative solutions to stave off almost certain doom.
As the survivors kill zombies, they gain experience, which allows them to take more actions on a turn or gain new skills. Zombie spawn cards also have different instruction depending on player levels, which prevents players from being swarmed too quickly. But, as the players level the zombies begin to spawn in greater numbers and more devastating forms. This means that letting one player level too quickly can spell doom for the whole team.
There are also a number of different types of zombies, each of which require different strategies to take down. There are faster moving zombies that can chase and attack the players, bigger zombies that take more damage to kill, and occasionally Abominations that can only be taken down by a few select weapons, and must be avoided otherwise.
Each of these can also come in multiple types, depending on which expansions players include. There are toxic zombies that spray toxic blood on survivors who use melee attacks, and there are berserker zombies with hardened plates that can’t be killed with ranged weapons.
There’s also a real variety of miniatures: there are several different sculpts for each type of zombie in the game, which helps the piles of zombies look more like a shambling horde of undead instead of a crowd of homogenous monochromatic miniatures.
An interesting element of the game is its focus on squad mechanics. In the first few games I played we would divide up tasks and move in separate directions. This almost invariably ends with one group of players getting swarmed and needing the others to rescue them. But survivors can’t take much of a beating and it only takes a couple hits from zombies to permanently take down a player, so without quick intervention, players will start dropping like the fragile sacks of meat they are. In later games we mostly stuck together as a group, rarely straying more than a few spaces from one another. While a few survivors would focus on searching and meeting objectives, others would defend them from pursuing zombies. Even with a coordinated team assault the game can give players quite the thrashing. There are even a few scenarios which require the party to split up that I haven’t been brave enough to try yet, that will force us to find interesting ways to control the movement of zombies to successfully complete.
One of the great things about the game is how modular it is. For collectors who feel the need to buy every expansion the number of expansions can be discouraging. But unless you are a dedicated collector there is very little reason to buy them all. Instead the various types of expansions allow to players to customize the game exactly how they want. There are expansion that just give players new survivors, some that add more of certain zombie types, board tile packs for players who want to make their own maps and scenarios, and even dog and zombie dog packs to add canine companions to the world. These are all in addition to the various themed big box expansions that offer new zombies, new characters, and new rules and the tokens that go with them. I started by buying the Season Two, Prison Outbreak base set, and then buying the small toxic zombies expansion which allowed me to have a high level of zombie variation without buying all the big box expansions. I have continued to buy new expansions though, and am especially looking forward to the Season Three expansions which include a new zombie type and the possibility for multiple teams of survivors to compete with each other to complete objectives on zombie infested maps. It’s an interesting twist on what has been a purely cooperative game so far. I can’t wait for the chance to deal with my enemies by luring a pack of the undead into taking care of them for me.
The components of the game are great. The city tiles are appropriately gory, and the zombie and survivor models are detailed and well made. The one exception to this is a few of the character sculpts from the Toxic City Mall expansion, in which the women look like they were designed by someone who had never seen a woman in real life, and was forced to rely on descriptions from horny adolescent teens.
Fortunately, these types of sculpts are the exception not the rule, as most of the characters are interesting and believable. Or as believable as it gets when it comes to zombie fiction. The rule book is, for the most part, well laid out and easy to follow, with a glossary of important terms and frequently looked-up rules and stats at the back. Only once did I have trouble finding an answer to a question that arose during a game, and it was something that probably would have been obvious to me if I had played the original game first instead of starting with the Season Two expansions.
There are only two real criticisms I have of the game, both of which are fairly minor. The first has to do with the search mechanic. The rules for searching feel simplistic in comparison to the well thought rules on experience, zombie movement, and noise. It is just a single deck that players can draw from when searching a room or vehicle. This rule usually works fine, but occasionally causes problems. Considering how few of the weapons can take down Abominations, it would be nice if there were a way to increase your odds of finding certain items by searching specific areas. While they do include a rule that says you can keep drawing until you find a weapon when searching police cars, considering the number of weapons in the deck, this barely increases your chance of finding one of the rare weapons that can be used to take down the largest enemies. This problem gets worse in some scenarios when players must gain specific items without being offered scenario specific way of finding them. This ends up meaning that players may have to continue searching through a deck bloated by a number of expansions until they find a card that might only have two or three copies in the whole deck. While thematically, this can work to create a sense of panicked desperation, it can at times be frustrating. My group has considered implanting a mechanic from The Last Night on Earth to fix this, so that certain locations can allow you to search the deck for certain items if you get a good enough die roll.
My second criticism is that, for a game with so many RPG elements, including a leveling mechanic, there is no simple way to play the game as a campaign, a play style that my group has really enjoyed ever since they were exposed to Descent. The scenarios do progress in a loose narrative, which holds continuity throughout the various expansions. But this sense of a developing story doesn’t apply to the gameplay, since characters start at the lowest level, with starting equipment at the beginning of each new scenario. However, my group has put together some campaign rules which we are play testing now. Keep checking back here because once we are satisfied with them I will post them online for anyone who is interested.
All things considered, Zombicide is an excellent game which mimics the desperation, group mechanics, and overwhelming hordes of undead standard to the zombie genre. It is a must own for any zombie fan, and quite possibly the cure for zombie fatigue.
Excellent automated zombie turn mechanics
Interesting leveling rules, unique in the zombie genre
Very modular, allowing players to easily customize the game
Occasionally components look like they were designed exclusively for teenaged boys
Does not include rules for campaign play
Some scenarios are hindered by simplistic search mechanic