Recently my friends and I met up to play a new game that one of them had just acquired, Zombicide. I’ve seen people playing this game at store and conventions, but I didn’t know much about it myself. It’s easy to tell from the title and cover that it’s another zombie game. I’ve been over zombie themed things for a while now. So while it wasn’t something I’d go out of my way to try, I’m always down to try a new game.
Because I only played this game once, this post should be considered a first impression, rather than a full review. That said, the play through I got gave me a lot to think about in regards to the way board games allow us to interact with their systems.
Zombicide is a board game where you and your friends work together to survive the zombie apocalypse. It comes in a big-ole box filled with a few survivor minis, and a whole bunch of zombie minis. This game takes place in a city, which is represented through large, colorful and detailed boards. The boards are arranged according to a scenario booklet that also details locations of doors, zombie spawn points, and the player’s goals. For the scenario we played, the goal was simply to get every survivor to the exit at the far end of the board.
Each round you are given three actions points, which can be spent on movement, item scrounging, door busting, re-arranging your inventory, and zombie smashing. Players each take their turns going clockwise from a start player, using all their actions. Once each player has taken their turn, the zombies move individually, either towards the closest player in line of sight, or towards the noisiest area. We didn’t really get to fully explore this noise rule during our play through, but it seems like it has some interesting potential. After zombies move, more get spawned in, determined by a deck of cards.
Zombicide’s premise most closely resembles the computer game Left 4 Dead. Both games revolve around maneuvering through a city, searching for items, and fighting past hordes of zombies to reach a specific location. Both also feature special zombies that periodically show up and require more effort to defeat. But the L4D connection wasn’t the first video game connection I made to Zombicide, that would be the original Resident Evil game.
This makes sense, when talking about zombies and games, the first thing I always think of is the Resident Evil series. But the original Resident Evil is a solo experience with a smaller scale; taking place in a house, usually facing a single zombie at a time. Another infamous feature of early RE games were their “tank” control schemes. In most third person video games, pushing forward, left, right, or back on the controller will make the character move in the appropriate direction relative to the camera, the perspective of the player. Early Resident Evil games utilized a character centric control scheme: pushing forward caused the character to move forward relative to their facing, left and right made them turn their facing*. This control scheme leads to some awkward gameplay. Running into a zombie your choices are to either run away or fight. To run away you would have to slowly back up, slowly turn your character away, then book it. Fighting involved holding your gun up and firing shots, no way to manually aim, it basically came down to chance.
OK so what does this have to do with Zombicide? Most actions in Zombicide carry additional rules baggage and caveats. These are things like: moving into a square with zombies ends your movement and requires an additional action to leave, if you shoot a gun into a tile that an ally is in you will always hit the ally, killing zombies requiring die rolls. Using these actions are not as intuitive as they could be.
Worst of all is the basic action of rearranging your inventory. Your inventory can hold 5 cards, 2 of which are considered “in hand”. To use an item it must be in hand, otherwise you must spend an entire action just swapping the position of cards. Tying inventory management to your limited action pool results in the game slowing down. To be fair, it makes sense from a thematic standpoint, representing your character spending time to rummage around in their backpack.
While annoying, these inconveniences don’t totally ruin the experience. They add some challenge to the game, and force you to plan ahead. But, I feel like the game becomes just as much about wrestling with these inconveniences, as it is about fighting zombies. Similarly, part of Resident Evil’s challenge was wrapping your head around its unusual control scheme in addition to fighting zombies.
Contrast this with another game I’ve been playing recently, Forbidden Desert. Its gameplay is very similar, a team of people working together towards a goal. Each turn you are given a few action points, and several different actions to spend them on. But in this game each action works the way you expect it to, without any small inconveniences. Plus, each character gets a unique super powered version of one of these actions, with no limit on uses (besides action points).
When I first read the rules to Forbidden Desert and realized how capable characters are in this game, I thought to myself, this is gonna be easy. But it wasn’t. Storms kicked up sand across the board constantly, and the sun beating down forced us to consume more water. It wasn’t a difficult game because the characters were awkward to control, it was difficult because its mechanics made it that way.
My main point is this: Zombicide, like Resident Evil**, has bad controls; doing things in the game requires more work and uncertainty than is necessary. Forbidden Desert shows that a co-operative game doesn’t need to be awkward to be challenging.
But do bad controls made the game bad? Well not necessarily, the original Resident Evil is still a great game. It still makes a good game for big dumb fun. The boards and minis look great, and the gameplay is pretty straight forward once you get used to its idiosyncrasies. While not that engaging in and of itself, it makes for a good get together and hang out game. It’s also the most straight forward zombie game***, more closely resembling the look and feel of zombie movies and video games. It’s nothing I’d personally want to buy, but I’d be willing to play it again.
*This control scheme serves another purpose for early RE games. One of the unique features of the games was their use of the camera. Each room in the game would have a unique viewing angle. This was done to simulate horror movie shots. While my character runs from room to room, the camera keeps changing the angle at which I see her. By having the controls mapped to her perspective, I can continue to hold forward as the camera shifts around. When the controls are mapped to the perspective of the camera, I must adjust the direction I am holding to get her to continue running forward in certain areas. This is most obvious in the Resident Evil HD Remaster on PS4, which allows for switching between both control schemes.
**Going back to the Resident Evil series, later games ditched that awkward control scheme. For a while they also stopped being scary. But the most recent game, Resident Evil 7, looks like the scariest one yet. It also doesn’t enfeeble the player by making the character difficult to control.
*** While I’m personally very tired of the zombie game, if I had to recommend a board game with that theme it would be Dead of Winter. It’s primarily a co-operative game of survival, but there is an undercurrent of competitiveness because each player has a secret goal they must accomplish to win. While most goals just cause players to do weird things, like hoard food, they could be straight up traitors. This causes a great sense of paranoia amongst players, because there is always a chance a traitor could be in the game. In that way Dead of Winter may do a better job of simulating great zombie media: where zombies aren’t the real threat, its other people.