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Zombicide: Black Plague Review

ES Updated January 30, 2019
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Zombicide: Black Plague Review
There Will Be Games

Like any horror franchise worth its salt, Zombicide is back with another installment. Just like most horror sequels this one has a twist!  Wizards and Warriors are the new flavor du jour.  Chainsaws have become broadswords and uzis are now crossbows.  So besides a stylistic face-lift does this new version improve upon the game in any meaningful way?

I’ll be upfront with you; I despised the original Zombicide.  It was a frustrating experience that was littered with inexplicably inane rules that made you want to take a chainsaw to your own hand.  The bland and uninspired post apocalyptic city setting didn't help much either. Black Plague is CMON’s attempt at breathing new life into the desiccated corpse of vanilla Zombicide.  When they announced this fantasy redux and promised to iron out the rules, I was skeptical, but intrigued.  I mean, how could I not be?  It was looking like Army of Darkness meets Night of the Living Dead. 

OK, that’s enough about Zombicide, let’s unearth Black Plague.  Each game round is divided into Survivor turns and then all the zombies make like MJ and get thrillin’.  During each Survivor’s turn they get three actions that can be used for numerous different things.  Moving a single space costs an action, and fighting a group of zombies does as well.  Smashing open doors will eat up an action point and so will searching for items.  Once all six Survivors have used up all their actions play proceeds to the zombie’s scripted actions.  It's fairly rudimentary stuff.

Afterwards, zombies currently on the board will perform an action which means they either attack if they share a space with a survivor or they move.  The zombies will always lumber towards either the nearest person in sight, or wherever the loudest noise came from.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that many survivor actions make noise, and the space with most noise tokens will be the de facto square that zombies without any line of sight will shamble towards.  After attacks/movements occur the player’s will place new zombie minis at every spawn token on the board.  This boils down to drawing a “Zombie Spawn” card and checking each survivor’s Experience Track.  You see, killing any zombie will results in experience points that allow the Survivors to level up.  Leveling up means getting new abilities and more actions points, but it also means that the zombie threat level rises.  Survivors start in a blue threat level and that has the easiest zombie spawns.  As it escalated to yellow, orange and red, the amount of zombies spawned each round gets more out of control.  Again, this is all painlessly simple and clean.

There are two wrinkles to zombie spawns.  First are the dreaded "double spawn" cards (new to Black Plague).  If you draw a double spawn card, you don’t put any zombies in the space where you drew it.  Instead you move to the next spawn point and draw TWO SPAWN cards instead of one.  In case you’re wondering…yes if you draw another double spawn card then the next spawn location gets FOUR SPAWN cards.  “Why are there so many zombies spawning?” I hear you muttering to your inanimate computer, tablet, or phone.  Well, it’s because of the damn necromancers!  Sometimes instead of spawning undead maids or fat zombies, you’ll spawn a necromancer.  These charming gentlemen of the occult have one goal; run as fast as they can to the nearest spawn token and exit the board.  If they exit they will permanently add a new spawn point to the game.  If a necromancer escapes while there are six spawn tokens, the Survivors lose the game.  Luckily they’re easy to kill.  However, since this is a zombie game, they also don’t stay dead very long.  Besides, what halfway respectable necromancer doesn’t know the self resurrection cantrip of Bojangles Slorrhaven? Hell, they teach you that in Necro-nomics 101.

That’s pretty much it. You walk around, hack stuff, slash things, avoid getting chomped, run from zombies, and accomplish goals.  Fights are resolved by rolling D6s and rolling higher than the weapon’s number value.  You smash open doors the same way.  Black Plague isn’t a game bogged down with seventeen phases per round, or tiny rules that pop up once every thirty five games.  Nope, instead it’s easy to consume and you will gestate the rules after half a game goes by.

Black Plague’s simplicity is its biggest strength.  There is a level of restraint in the design that I find very compelling.  Everything that could be complex, overwrought, or bloated is instead intuitive, simple, and satisfying.  I appreciate how approachable the entire game is.  The setup is quick, probably ten minutes or less, and teaching the game is remarkably easy.  Typically, these big boxes filled with plastic tend to be convoluted affairs, like trying to decipher a technical document about how to play with plastic army men.  That couldn’t be further from the truth with Black Plague.  The game gets straight to the point and you’re hacking and slashing reanimated scum almost immediately.  This is almost mass market style Ameritrash.  It feels like a long lost Games Workshop and Milton Bradley collaboration that never was.  I mean that as the HIGHEST compliment possible. 

Another thing I love is how basic the Survivors are.  When you get dealt a Survivor you will immediately notice the lack of “stats” or other superfluous numbers.  Instead, each Survivor is identical in terms of movement, health, and items they can wield.  What makes them different are the keyword special abilities that they can level up, and the weapons that they bring into battle.  You’d think it would cause a sensation were no character’s “pop” or feel unique.  Yet, somehow they all feel like special little snowflakes.   This is a great system and makes other fantasy dungeon crawler characters feel overdeveloped by comparison.

So if the game’s simplicity is its greatest strength then what is its biggest weakness?  Sadly, its simplicity will, for many players, be the game’s biggest perceived problem.  For every dice chucker who likes no-nonsense ACTION there are those that will be expecting MUCH more gameplay for their $100.  They will inevitably feel that they simply paid for minis and the creators mailed in the rest of the design.  Surely this box filled with plastic dashboards (which are awesome by the way), zombie minis and Survivors must have depth, strategy, and unrivaled thematic elements!  If you’re the type of person who plays a simple Ameritrash style game and groans, “That’s it?” when it’s done, then you should stay far away from Black Plague. 

At it's best, Z:BP will provide bursts of narrative, punctuated by silly, over the top, violence via very little rules overhead.  These colorful vignettes of madcap carnage provide plenty of guffaws and giggles around the table.  However, those not enamored by the simplistic game play won't see past pushing around grey miniatures, rolling dice for EVERYTHING, and sometimes flipping over objective tokens.  Anyone that needs excessive flavor text or events to weave a story will be underwhelmed by the Black Plague experience.  This is one of those games where the players need to fill in the blanks.

While I was sort of shocked at how much I enjoyed the fine tuned gameplay there were still a few things that bugged me about the game.  First, there is a strict turn order that must be followed by the survivors each round.  A first player marker is passed to the left after each round and this sometimes leads to situations where a wizard or archer who can’t smash open doors is left WASTING their entire turn.  I fail to see any reason why the heroes can't act in any order they wish.  It’s a dumb rule.  I’m also not fond of how you always have to use six survivors no matter what.  Oh you can use fewer survivors if you want, but the game offers no way to scale for this.  I wish some quests were designed specifically for two, three or four heroes.  Controlling multiple characters is sometimes a drag.

Another thing that can be irritating is when the game is chugging towards its gory crescendo the zombie turns tend to get more fiddly than a rabid woodchuck.  Towards the end there are so many zombies to move, spawn, and double or quadruple spawn.  It gets just a hair too hectic for my liking. 

This isn’t a knock on the game, but I personally dislike how it’s an entirely co-op experience.  I fall into the George Romero camp of thinking that once the zombie apocalypse strikes humans won’t get along and will generally be cantankerous wanker-twits to one another.  The high fantasy tropes kind of make it a moot point since your characters aren’t typical helpless citizens.  Still, I can’t shake the sensation that Black Plague, with all its dramatic component blustering, doesn’t really feel like a zombie game.  Rather, it feels like a hack n’ slash dungeon crawler where all the enemies HAPPEN TO BE ZOMBIES.  To its credit, it does do the shambly horde of undead thing REALLY well as the decomposing mob just relentlessly chases after you turn after turn.  It feels just zombie enough to not elicit too many harrumphs, but just barely.

I’ve mentioned the price point in this review and I can say without question, you’re getting plenty of value in regards to the miniatures and excellent gameplay.  However, the overall amount of variability leans more on the lighter side than I’m comfortable with.  The search deck isn't big or unique enough, the base game only comes with two vault/artifact cards, and after a few missions I was ready to add in expansion/Kickstarter content.  That’s a bummer. 

Still, I find it easy to give Zombidcide: Black Plague a recommendation IF YOU HAVE THE CORRECT EXPECTATIONS.  This is closer to HeroQuest than Descent.  In regards to zombie games it is on roughly the same complexity level as Last Night on Earth or Zombies!!!  Black Plague is an effortless dice chucker who's necrotic core feels like something out of the 1980s or 1990s.  Personally, I like these unsophisticated, thematic designs that feel like they’re aimed at the mass market audience instead of the hobby gamer market.  This is about as PURE as it gets in terms of ‘Trash.  For some that is going make this an automatic purchase.  For others, I can see how they will be completely underwhelmed by the simplistic mechanics.  I think Guillotine Games and CMON have done a commendable job at trimming out the gunk from Vanilla Zombidcide.  For those that liked that little extra chrome they will likely be upset at the simplification and high fantasizing of the game.  It’s not the ultimate zombie game, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more approachable and fun hack n' slash adventure.  For me, CMON took a game I was utterly frustrated with and transmogrified it into something drastically more enjoyable.  I can't say that I'm not more than a little impressed by that.


What does the Scale-o-matic 6500™ say?

On a scale of House of the Dead to Dawn of the Dead

Zombicide Black Plague rates as Night of the Living Dead (1990)


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Zombicide: Black Plague

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JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #234196 14 Sep 2016 07:00
Rue Morgue is better. It scales zombie spawns by player number, has a competitive teams mode and more interesting zombies. Combined with Toxic City Mall it brings way more variety and tactical challenge than Black Plague with Wulfsburg.
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234197 14 Sep 2016 07:35
Funny you mention that. Since CMON has won me over with Black Plague I started looking at all the extra stuff that wasn't Season 1 vanilla Zombicide. Of all the content I've looked at Rue Morgue looks to be the best...and I'll probably snatch up a copy. Though I'm hoping that they add some stuff from that game into Black Plague, like the competitive mode, scaling spawn locations, team tactics cards etc... It seems like they really went through the rules with a fine tooth comb for Black Plague and decided to deliver the most refined/streamlined version of the game. With that in place, I'm eager to see where they go from here.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #234201 14 Sep 2016 08:30
Great review!
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #234202 14 Sep 2016 08:45
I freaking love this game, it has been the big surprise of 2016. People I play with love it too, so it sees pretty regular play. It is dead simple, not much fancy business going on. Total hack and slash, but you get into tactical situations that sort of organically create depth. I'm sure some folks get ill about it, but I like that he game will drop a functionally unkillable monster on you. And then another one. So you have to run around to find one of the very few things that will kill it, while hiding from the abominations AND dealing with her other spawns AND working toward the objective.

The expansions add on some good stuff. Wulfsburg is essential. Murder of Crowz is well worth getting, those birds are a PITA because they ignore walls- it is totally like The Birds, you'll be holed up in a building and they come busting in. NPC-1 adds three new much-needed vault items, but two are bows (really?) and a new set collection thing- collect five of the unique zombies and get a vault item. It's fun. I also have the first non-artist hero pack, the heroes really do add a lot to the game without brining in a bunch of extra rules and so forth. Looking forward to the Deadeye Archers next month.

Versus the other Zombicide games...I have little interest in them. The medieval setting makes a big difference to me, I'm sick of the gritty, urban zombie thing.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #234205 14 Sep 2016 08:57
Vanilla Zombicide turned me off for years, and then I realized that the guy I played with never used sound tokens. I didn't know they existed until I played 6 months ago after buying it.

I found vanilla (real vanilla) to be OK but not shit hot. Then I played with the full Monty through S3 and fell in love because all the shit I hated went away. Like losing weapons...that's stupid.

So, Black Plague reskins it and now it's kind of like Zombies!!! fantasy edition. Good stuff. I like how simple and fast it is, makes it easy to get to the table. Love the variety of baddies and the NPC stuff makes the game a little more interesting.

Nice write up!
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234209 14 Sep 2016 09:02
Yeah I need to get those Crowz and as well as the archers when the become available. I've got my eye on the Neil Adams guest artist hero pack because I like his style. Also, if/when they hit retail I kind of want to get the plastic doors.

Another thing I really love about the game that I totally failed to mention in the review is the lack of a million tokens. Unlike FFG or many other big box games with minis, there is a refreshing lack of tokens. Just a small handful used for practical things. You don't need a storage tray to organize them for ease of use or anything. Once the game actually starts I think the only tokens you use are the first player marker, the noise tokens, spawn tokens, and potentially the "rotten" token.

Also, for anyone concerned, I only reviewed the game with the base content. I have all the expansions and Kickstarter goodies, but I made sure to play the game a bunch of times with just the retail components.
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234212 14 Sep 2016 09:28

SuperflyTNT wrote: I found vanilla (real vanilla) to be OK but not shit hot. Then I played with the full Monty through S3 and fell in love because all the shit I hated went away. Like losing weapons...that's stupid.

Yeah the losing weapons rule and the way targeting of ranged weapons worked in regular Zombicide really just made my blood boil. Automatically hitting a friendly survivor when aiming/shooting zombies was silly. I can understand that they were going for more realism or things that might happen...but sometimes realism doesn't always equal fun. In a game where you're constantly mowing down zombies anything that detracts from the fun, should have been removed. Thankfully that seems to be the case with Black Plague.
JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #234215 14 Sep 2016 09:38
Well, in Black Plague, you're still going to hit survivors because you rarely hit with every die and misses will wound them. you can play the earlier games by the same rules anyway. Nobody is going to call the Rules Police.
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234219 14 Sep 2016 09:49
Oh I get that you still can hit survivors in Black Plague. Just the fact that its not an automatic hit makes all the difference. It actually adds something to think about when targeting a zombie in a space with a friendly survivor. If they are swarmed and might die anyways, you might try a hail mary and cast an inferno spell in hopes that you don't burn them too badly. Or maybe you have the elf archer with "plenty of arrows" who will only miss on the roll of a 1...but you'd have a reroll. So you could in theory pick off 2-3 zombies with little fear of wounding a friend.

And yeah, that is how I'll play it in the modern day settings too.
Almalik's Avatar
Almalik replied the topic: #234231 14 Sep 2016 11:54
Great review! Black Plague was a Kickstarter I was going back and forth on and eventually decided to back at the last minute because the amount of extra stuff was crazy. It's great fun, but I don't feel the need to pick up any of the other versions.I do like that the Massive Darkness kickstarter has a Black Plague crossover pack to use heroes/monsters from Z:BP with Massive Darkness, and heroes from Massive Darkness with Z:BP.

Also there are two bonus campaigns that were unlocked as part of the kickstarter if anyone didn't see them - pdf links below (I haven't tried them out yet):

Places of Interest for the base game, and

The Fire God for Wulfsburg.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #234243 14 Sep 2016 13:31
Excellent review. You told me everything that I need to know about this game. I'm still somewhat burned out on zombies in general, so I'm going to pass on Black Plague, but I would still play it if given a chance.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #234244 14 Sep 2016 13:51
I still have Season 1 and Season 2 Kickstarters of Zombicide (all the extra figures, etc.) -- shit ton of stuff -- that I am trying to unload. Would rather sell it here than anywhere else.

Any interest?

*seemed like the thread to put it in
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #234250 14 Sep 2016 14:43
I played Black Plague at Origins and thought it was pretty cool. I'm glad I pledged for Massive Darkness, which is the next evolution of the system.
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234266 14 Sep 2016 17:28

hotseatgames wrote: I played Black Plague at Origins and thought it was pretty cool. I'm glad I pledged for Massive Darkness, which is the next evolution of the system.

Actually, I've been so impressed by Black Plague that I started thinking...yeah I want to late pledge that Massive Darkness game. I like how Z:BP is just one shot adventures where you level up, finish, and start over again next time. My understanding is that Massive Darkness is designed the same way (until backers bitched about wanting a campaign mode added). Well, it looks like I waffled too long because you can't late pledge for the game any longer. I've sent emails to CMON support in hopes that they'll let me toss money at them.
Almalik's Avatar
Almalik replied the topic: #234272 14 Sep 2016 17:50
I'm sure there must be a local Fattie that can help you out with a Kickstarter MD pledge (I could as well, but I'm pretty sure you don't want to add the shipping costs from Canada).
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234304 15 Sep 2016 08:56
Thanks Almalik!

CMON actually got in touch with me and said I didn't miss the late pledge. They just took it down until the pledge manager goes up in a couple of weeks. Once the PM is up I can proceed to shower them with money. Hooray.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #234352 15 Sep 2016 18:23

Egg Shen wrote: This is almost mass market style Ameritrash. It feels like a long lost Games Workshop and Milton Bradley collaboration that never was. I mean that as the HIGHEST compliment possible.

I'm kinda, sorta in the market for Heroquest to play with the kids. Is this friendly for the younger gamer and how much would I be looking at dropping if I were to consider this instead?
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #234353 15 Sep 2016 18:38
Visuals are R-rated. Lots of blood and choppin' off heads. So there's that.

Better off with D&DAS for kids, I think.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #234357 15 Sep 2016 20:26

The medieval setting makes a big difference to me, I'm sick of the gritty, urban zombie thing.

I think this is the main reason I can't fork the money for Black Plague (in addition to its price). Without the contemporary setting, it's just another action rpg for me, but only with zombies, which is among my least favorite type of enemies in a fantasy setting.
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234376 16 Sep 2016 08:15

Mr. White wrote:

Egg Shen wrote: This is almost mass market style Ameritrash. It feels like a long lost Games Workshop and Milton Bradley collaboration that never was. I mean that as the HIGHEST compliment possible.

I'm kinda, sorta in the market for Heroquest to play with the kids. Is this friendly for the younger gamer and how much would I be looking at dropping if I were to consider this instead?

Good thing Barnes chimed in because I was ready to be all, "eh, it's not THAT bad...they'll probably be fine". Don't take my advice though, I don't have kids so I have no idea what they'd be OK with. I think the most violent stuff is on the box and in the rule book. I'd say the zombie spawn deck is probably PG-13 with cartoony, yet gruesome zombies. Also, in the the search deck there are "ambush cards" that feature a severed bloody zombie hand. So yeah, it's got some nasty content hiding within it for sure.

If I was 10-13 years old I think this game would resonate deeply. But I was a typical 80s "monster kid" who was always fascinated by creatures, monsters, and things that go bump in the night. Your mileage will certain vary.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #234978 26 Sep 2016 12:08
Alright, so I've not played Zombicide since vanilla, which I disliked greatly. After a Tyrants of the Underdark preorder than went south (and amidst a slew of "meh" impressions), I put that money into a copy of Rue Morgue. No idea what to expect. What else should I get if I like it?
JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #234984 26 Sep 2016 12:41
Toxic City Mall is all you need. You get an additional 4 new characters, plus "zombivor" figures for the original characters, which come with the character sheets, so effectively 10 more characters to play, you get UltraRed mode weapons, some other new weapons, the toxic zombies (which add a lot to the actual game aspect), new missions and map tiles etc.

If you want more variety after that, a box of the Berserker zombies (Really Angry something I think it's called) and maybe zombie dogz.
Egg Shen's Avatar
Egg Shen replied the topic: #234991 26 Sep 2016 13:15
Hey JEM, what's the good word on Angry Neighbors? Does that add anything worthwhile?
JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #234993 26 Sep 2016 13:52
I just bought the tile set (three measly tiles) for like $7. No way could I justify over $40 for it, so I don't know, really. I just wanted to be able to home-brew as many of the online missions as possible. I want to try the one where you have to herd fatties into a hole, but only fatties.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #235747 07 Oct 2016 10:00
JEM, does Toxic City Mall have new scenarios in it, and if so, do they require tiles from other sets? I'm really digging Rue Mogue and definitely want to dig deeper.