New Game Weekend: Zombicide Black Plague

Zombicide-Blck-Plague Box

Like any zombie apocalypse horde, the Zombicide series by Guillotine Games just won’t die. Through four enormously successful Kickstarter campaigns, the Zombicide games have raised nearly $10 million since 2012 and have made the games among the most popular board game projects launched from the platform.

As a fan from the start with the first Zombicide, I backed Zombicide: Black Plague last year along with nearly 21,000 other devoted fans. After skipping the third round in the series, the reinvented game with a medieval fantasy theme and updated rules brought me back to the fold. Buying in at the Knight’s Pledge level, I wound up with an enormous pile of gaming goodies, including the base game, the werewolf-themed Wulfsburg expansion box, 40 extra survivor characters, dozens of additional zombies and all sorts of extra playing aids. With the base game blessedly shipping ahead of the 2015 holiday season, I was able to get this re-launch of the zombie franchise on the table over the past week.

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Contents of Zombicide: Black Plague

I cut my teeth on gaming with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, so the theme of Black Plague and the basic dungeon-crawler play of the Zombicide series intersect nicely in this new game. Survivor player characters include a dwarf, warrior, wizard and archer which are right at home in the fantasy world of the game. As with the previous Zombicide games, the survivors work collaboratively to search the game’s map of heavy cardboard tiles for items such as weapons, shields, armor, spell scrolls, food and other special gear. After following turn actions of moving, searching, opening doors, rearranging gear and gathering objectives, zombie cards are pulled and the horde builds. As zombies are destroyed in combat actions, player experience builds which leads to more and more zombies swarming the board. From there, its a race for survival as each scenario’s objectives and win conditions are achieved.Zombicide Base

The new survivor’s dashboard introduced in Zombicide: Black Plague

One of the most welcomed innovations in the new game is the survivor dashboard. In a game with so many cards and experience, wound and skill tracks to manage for each player’s survivor character, having a tidy and intuitive plastic base is a huge boon to game play. A slot in the center holds the interchangeable character card, weapons and other items are held in  left and right ‘hand’ positions, five slots represent space for extra items in the character’s backpack and a sliding experience track traces along the bottom of the dashboard. An extra slot overlapping the character card allows for an extra quick-draw weapon like a dagger or a protective shield or armor.

Black Plague Zombies

New zombie figures include: Walkers (top), Fatty (bottom, left), Runners (bottom, center left), Necromancer (bottom, center right) and Abomination (bottom, right)

While regular zombie types of Walkers, Runners, Fatties and Abominations have carried over from the previous games, Black Plague introduces a new Necromancer zombie type with its own set of mechanics. When the Necromancer enters the board, an additional zombie card is drawn with zombies to accompany him. Additionally, a new spawn point is generated where the Necromancer appears and activates once the Necromancer escapes the board via the nearest exit. Destroying a Necromancer allows the players to eliminate a zombie spawn point. While a bit complicated at first, the Necromancer mechanic adds a new twist to the game in creating an additional moving target for the survivors to deal with while also completing their main objectives, avoiding being killed by other zombies and (hopefully) winning the game.

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Zombicide: Black Plague game in progress

Aside from the Necromancer, most rules have remained largely unchanged with some minor tweaks. Fatties are no longer accompanied by Walkers, making them slightly easier to kill but the Abomination is still a pretty tough foe with only a combination of a vial of dragon bile and torch able to eliminate them in a fiery combination. The jury is still out for me on the double-spawn zombie cards which can carry from one spawn point to the next in doubling and then re-doubling zombies coming on the board. This makes for a bit of a confusing mechanic which I wasn’t quite certain added much to the game.

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A lone survivor faces off with two walkers and two Fatties

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Survivors take out an Abomination with a dragon bile and torch combination

As with all the previous Zombicide games, the art and sculpting in Black Plague makes for a stunningly fun game to look at and play.The ten base scenarios included in the rules offer a progressive mini campaign of sorts, and additional scenarios are sure to come. With all the expansions and add-ons ready to ship this year, there’s going to be a ton of replay value with this game.

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A survivor leads a zombie horde through the medieval streets of Zombicide: Black Plague

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An enormous zombie horde from Zombicide: Black Plague

I had been feeling a bit played-out with the original Zombicide games based in more familiar contemporary environments of city streets, a prison and a mall. Black Plague’s reboot preserves the easily playable mechanics and engaging design in a refreshing medieval wrapper. Where the franchise goes from here either in additional fantasy expansions or in yet another thematic direction like a futuristic sci-fi realm remains to be seen. In the meantime, sword-slashing and spell-casting through the Black Plague zombie apocalypse will be a ton of fun.

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New Game Weekend: The Grizzled

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In June 1914, a member of a group of fringe Bosnian Serbs assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in an effort to split some of  Austria-Hungary’s territory into a freed Yugoslavia. Through a series of cascading and intertwined alliances, the act of terrorism begat World War I and led to the death of millions.

Over a hundred years later in January 2015, two brothers self-identifying as Islamic terrorists associated with a Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda forced their way into the Paris offices of the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The men shot more than 20 people, killing 11 and setting off a nationwide manhunt lasting for two days until the men were found and gunned down.

A month after the 2015 Paris shootings, a WWI-themed card game called Les Poulis was released by Sweet November, a French company which largely produces colorful games geared toward children. Carrying the line “L’amitié plus forte que la guerre?” or “Can friendship be stronger than war?,” the game prominently features the artwork of Bernard Verlhac who drew under the name Tignous and was one of those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo the month before. A century apart, the war which nearly destroyed early 20th-century Europe and the modern threat of international terrorism intersected in this curious little game.

Les Poilus is French slang for “infantry” roughly meaning “the hairy,” an appropriate title for a game which focuses on the experience of French soldiers in the trenches of WWI. The game’s designers wrote a manifesto of sorts for the game, here presented in the American printing under the translated title The Grizzled:

At the same level as literature and cinema, games are a cultural media which is undeniably participative.
There are no subjects it can’t broach, though some are more delicate than others. That of the life of the Grizzled is one of those.
Guided by the deepest respect that the suffering endured by these men has inspired in us, we’ve designed and tweaked this game with this constant concern.
In this earnest endeavor we’ve chosen to focus on the individual, with his preoccupations and his daily fears.
The only escape for the men we’ve portrayed is to use their solidarity, their brotherhood, and mutual assistance to save one another.
Without ever touching on the warlike aspect, “The Grizzled” offers each player the chance to feel some of the difficulties suffered by the soldiers of the trenches. Thus the emotions around the table will often be intense.
The path to victory may seem difficult, but don’t get discouraged – persist and survive the Great War!
IMG_7357A player’s set-up from The Grizzled with the Mission Leader marker, Speech and Support tokens and Hard Knock cards

Rather than attempt a grand take on the war, The Grizzled brings the war down to the level of six French friends who mobilize to action in the early August 1914 days when the war still seemed something heroic and noble. The cooperative game presents the soldiers fulfilling a series of missions in an attempt to deplete all the Trial cards covering a winning Peace card before the Morale Reserve cards covering a losing Monument card are used up.

IMG_7358The six Threats from The Grizzled – Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow

In each round, the mission’s leader chooses to deal 1-3 Trial cards to each soldier. Trial cards feature Threats of six types — Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow — or Hard Knock cards featuring various negative battle effects. In turn, players have a choice of actions. Threat cards may be played in the center of the table’s No Man’s land for the current mission, avoiding playing three of the same type and failing the mission. Hard Knock cards are assigned to the active player with immediate effect, and four Hard Knocks on the same player also causes a loss of the mission. Players can also choose to make a Speech, removing one type of Threat card from all player hands or use their Good Luck Charm to clear a card already played in the current mission.  Finally, players may withdraw from the current mission and assign a Support tile to another player.

IMG_7359The Peace and Monument cards from The Grizzled

Once all players have withdrawn from the mission, support tiles are passed to other players. Players with the majority of the support for that round may clear Hard Knock cards or refresh their Good Luck Charm. Cards are then moved from the Morale Reserve to the Trials pile according to the number of cards players still hold in their hands from the previous mission. With that the new mission leader deals cards and the next round begins.

The Grizzled is a powerful game in a tiny package and one of the most challenging games I’ve played in some time. The collaborating players need to tightly manage their own hands and plays while keeping an eye on all other the other players. As Hard Knocks mount up, effects on one player wind up rippling through the entire group, hindering the collective effectiveness in missions. Clearing Hard Knocks with Support becomes key late in the game but getting Support to the players needing it most also becomes a challenge.

Winning a game of The Grizzled feels like a real accomplishment. In the first week I had the game, I played about 15 games and my group of experienced gamers only won twice. Fortunately, a typical game runs about 30 minutes, so multiple games can be run in a sitting. It’s interesting the original French publisher states the game is for ages 10 and up while the American version from Cool Mini Or Not suggest ages 14 and up. The game’s play is intense but that’s the point, no matter the age of the group.

We’re still in the midst of the centennial commemoration of World War I, an enormously complicated war still argued over to this day. While fully understanding the war’s big picture may be a nearly impossible exercise, getting a view from the trenches in The Grizzled shows how the trauma of violence on individuals or small groups of friends or colleagues is an unfortunate timeless human reality.

New Game Weekend: Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

ZPrisonboxIt’s hard to escape zombies.

The Walking Dead TV series just wrapped its fifth season this past week, and my entire family huddled around the television to see where the story would leave us until our favorite survivors of the zombie apocalypse were back again. Until then, there’s a spin-off series called Fear The Walking Dead premiering this summer which tell the tale of the beginnings of the zombie outbreak from the perspective of a different group of survivors in Los Angeles. There’s also the original monthly Image Comics series (currently at 139 issues) I’ve been reading for more than ten years now for a story that both parallels and differs from the story the TV show portrays. There’s certainly plenty of zombie stuff out there to keep me going.

zombiboxAbout two years ago I also got hooked on Zombicide. Lots of people caught the bug, judging by the continued success of the game. The first game launched based on a nearly $800,000 Kickstarter funding campaign in late 2012. The following year, Zombicide Season 2 brought in over $2.25 million on the funding site. This past summer, Zombicide Season 3 topped that number with nearly $2.9 million raised. The maker of the game, Guillotine Games, has also maintained a steady flow of additional special edition products, a companion app, free customizable game resources and dozens of scenarios available online. With the new Zombicide Season 3 just being shipped to players worldwide this month, there’s even been hints at a Season 4 which throws back to a Medieval-themed zombie outbreak.

ZprisonminisSurvivors, berserker zombies and zombies miniatures from Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

The base game has been a big favorite at my house for a couple years, and this past week we added Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak to our home collection. As with the original base game, Prison Outbreak is big heavy box of zombie gaming goodness. Nine game two-sided game board tiles, about 150 cards, over 100 tokens, dice, Survivor player cards and 90 miniatures pack the box with components oozing in great design.

IMG_5680 “The Break-In” tutorial scenario from Prison Outbreak

This time around, the game adds a bunch of new aspects to play. Firstly, the miniatures come with some differences for both the zombies and survivors. Berserker zombies, cast in a muddy brown, bring a new aspect to the undead horde with Walkers, Runners, Fatties and an Abomination which must be attacked at close quarters in melee combat. This means more risk for players having to get right into a messy scrum with Berserkers using baseball bats, nightsticks, hatchets, hammers or saws, leaving ranged firearms for the original zombies molded in grey plastic like the base game.

IMG_5710The zombie horde in the “Find The Keys” scenario from Prison Outbreak

With the game amped up with more danger, the players too have received an upgrade with the possibility of coming back as Zombivors. Yeah, that’s an undead player which comes with an extra model and reverse side to the Survivor identity card. After a player is hit twice and killed by a zombie, the Zombivor comes on the table and the player fights on and may take five more wounds before truly being dead.

IMG_5708Grindlock goes toe-to-toe with a Berserker Abomination in “Find The Keys”

Things happen a lot faster in Prison Break as players are forced to quickly rack up zombie kills, pushing the experience level up in the game and spawning more and badder zombies onto the board each turn. To help out, a lot of new special skills have been added to the Survivors, allowing players to draw zombies toward them with “Taunt,” rescue other survivors from neighboring spaces with “Lifesaver” and a bunch of other new abilities once a player turns into a Zombivor.

IMG_5711The Survivors poised to make their escape in Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

The combination of new weapons and skills balances nicely with the new threats from Berserkers in Prison Outbreak. Playing through the first few of the ten scenarios supplied in a storyline campaign, we’ve quickly found a good combination of using skills to draw zombies into close combat with characters armed with hefty melee weapons like the concrete saw while defending with nightsticks and riot shields. In a pinch, a molotov cocktail can still take out a mass of undead in one throw, but the game only amps up with so many points scored with one huge kill. Balancing skills, finding the right weapons, getting them into the best Survivor’s hands, timing when to kill and when to elude zombies, and making the decision to allow a character to die and resurrect as a Zombivor all makes Zombicide Season 2 an enormous amount of high-stakes fun over and over again.