The McMaster Files

Zombicide: Black Plague

A repository for games and ennui.

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This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #88. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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There are two major components to a board game – the mechanics and the theme. Theme is, most of the time, readily apparent. If you buy a game about tank battles in World War II, odds are that you know that you’ll be dealing with a war-torn battlefield, maneuvering your machines of death into place. What isn’t easy to tell from an initial look is how a game will play. This, my friends, is one of the reasons I believe great games sometimes don’t get their due. In this instance, I’m going to talk about Zombicide: Black Plague.

When zombies started pouring into the gaming scene, it was a welcome respite from Nazis. We had a Nazi fixation for a very long time. Zombies exploded and provided an even better target for constant abuse. It’s fun to see a horror concept explored so deeply. I’ve enjoyed many of the movies and games that have come about, but as we do with all things, we drove zombies into the ground. That’s why I almost missed one of my current favorite games.

Zombicide: Black Plague is the continuation of the rules mechanics of the original Zombicide. You play on a modular board, two-sided tiles that make up the streets and buildings you’ll be fighting through. The conceit is simple – you are in the dark ages and zombies have risen, so you gotta kill them good. You do that by playing six with special zombie killing powers. One of my friends told me he didn’t check it out because another friend (who didn’t play the game either) said it looked like just mindlessly killing zombies. With that set up, you’d think “sounds straight forward?” It’s not. There’s a much deeper meta to this game than people give it credit.

As we do with all things, we drove zombies into the ground. That’s why I almost missed one of my current favorite games.

Zombicide: Black Plague is about management. Obviously you want to kill zombies, but it becomes apparent very early in the game that you can’t possibly kill all the zombies. There’s special zombies with higher hit points that require special weapons to kill. You must have a weapon that does more than one damage, no matter how many attacks you get, to kill a Fatty, the aptly named fat zombies. It’s three damage to kill an Abomination and you can only get the tools to kill those by searching. When you search in a room, you draw a card from the mostly positive search deck that includes weapons and equipment as well as the occasional pop up zombie. Though those can be a pain in the ass, the real danger comes from the zombies spawning and moving.

In Black Plague, there are spawn areas set up in several parts of the map and each zombie turn, you flip a card from the spawn deck to see what happens. These range in difficulty based on the highest level character in your party. This phase can get chaotic because of the addition of double spawn cards. Whenever these cards are drawn, you skip to the next spawn area and draw two for it. If you draw another double, you skip again and draw three, and on and on. With the amount of zombies that can pile up in the usually cramped confines of a village, things can get out of hand in a hurry. That’s where the real game begins.

That’s the pleasure of Zombicide: Black Plague – the thin balance of slaughter and management.

When you move zombies, they are attracted to the most noise generated. Each character generates one noise per turn. The zombies are attracted to the space that has the most noise, so if several characters are in one space, they can easily attract the horde towards them. However, there’s a mechanic in the game that lets you generate noise (also you can do so involuntarily by breaking down doors) and draw the attention of the mass of undead flesh bent on your destruction. This is where the games meta truly shines. When picking characters you must take into account the characters with non-combat special abilities. For instance, one character can taunt an entire space of zombies to move toward her on the hero’s turn while another hero has the ability to shove an entire square of zombies away by one space. There are characters who have superior movement and others that search in non-standard places, allowing you to cycle through the item deck in a quicker fashion. Using these characters wisely creates opportunity for the fighting characters to go about their work of clearing buildings and completing goals.

That’s the pleasure of Zombicide: Black Plague – the thin balance of slaughter and management. The true heroes of the game are the ones that never get the glory. One of your teams sets up a situation that allows the other to succeed. This game manages to deliver the elusive combination of subtle, mature gameplay mechanics in a truly tongue-in-cheek setting and combat system. I’ll never overlook a Guillotine Games or Cool Mini or Not release again. Much like the zombies of the game, I’ve been converted into a fan.

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Jason McMaster is a writer and editor with a lifelong passion for games. When he isn’t working on Unwinnable, he’s either on his PC or playing a board game. Follow him on Twitter @mcmaster

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