|Zombicide: Tactics and Shotguns (2019)
|iOS & Android
A review code for Zombicide: Tactics and Shotguns was provided by Asdmodee Digital in exchange for a fair and honest review.
This review represents something of a test balloon for the site. App implementations of board games don’t really fall within our stated remit, as you probably know. On the other hand, if ‘opportunity to play’ is an accessibility barrier, and I believe that it is, then apps are a tremendous solution to that problem. In fact, I play board game apps more often than I play actual board-games for that very reason. It’s just so much more convenient.
Do you like the idea of app coverage on the site? Would you like to see reviews like this more regularly? Or do you think we should focus only on physical games? Happy with app reviews on occasion provided they don’t interfere with the core business of the site? Let me know!
Independent of any of that, let’s talk about Zombicide: Tactics and Shotguns.
I’m not sure we’ve ever covered a zombie game on Meeple Like Us before, and part of that is because I am Totally Burnt Out on zombies. I don’t talk about it an awful lot, but one of my passion projects is a multiplayer text game called Epitaph. It’s fallen by the way-side as Meeple Like Us has taken up more and more of my time, but it’s set in the grim darkness of the zombie apocalypse and if you have ever tried a MUD before you might like to check it out. Warning though – it’s still buggy and unbalanced and occasionally punishingly difficult. I spent a good six years working on it with all the diligence and obsession of someone making their own personal ship in a bottle. When I started, zombies weren’t quite so played out. When I ‘opened’ it, everyone was already a bit tired of the walking dead. Nine years after beginning that work, I find it hard to look a zombie in the face. ‘Not now love, got a headache’. As such, every time Zombicide was floated as a potential game to play for the site – either as a purchase or a more transient opportunity – I usually turned away.
Not a great place to start when approaching a game review in a charitable frame of mind, but what do you know – Zombicide won me over somewhat. It’s a game of exploring a dead city, killing zombies, scavenging for ever more impressive equipment and leveling up your crew with the hard-won experience of survival. It’s actually a lot of straightforward and unsophisticated fun.
The first main point of the review is that I can’t really speak to the accuracy of the implementation – given that character leveling and upgrades seems considerably more granular than could be expected from a tabletop game I suspect significant liberties have been taken with some of the underlying mechanisms. The dice rolling in particular feels like it’s driven considerably more by percentages than die faces and as a result occasionally feels weirdly unintuitive. Rolling four dice has a randomness graph that doesn’t feel natural and this is occasionally somewhat jarring. Zombie health values are also more precise than I would expect from a tabletop game, and if that’s how it works on the boardgame there must be a hell of a lot of really awkward math in the middle of every turn. I suspect them that the digital app takes advantage of being able to offload arithmetic onto the CPU and gives you a modified version of the board game.
The second thing here is that this is a game that comes with a microtransactional model (boo) but it’s not at all necessary to enjoy Zombicide (hooray). The DLC that’s in the game makes new characters available, and while that may not be appealing to those that may already have a favourite it has thus far had zero impact on my ability to make my way through the scenarios. I haven’t reached the end of the game yet because there are forty missions in the app, but I’ve worked my way through about half of them and it’s all been fine. The in-game currency you acquire is provided liberally through play, and to be honest I think I’d be wary about having too many characters anyway since that currency is used to pay for level upgrades. You don’t want to spread it too thinly across your troops. I would imagine future scenarios and campaign modes will be introduced to Zombicide and I’d also expect that these would be things you’d need to buy. Additional characters are expensive – £1.39 each, with a bundle of two that gets you them for £2.99. Yeah, that seems weird to me too when you can buy the bundle elements individually for £2.78. I suspect that might change when someone realises the math doesn’t quite work out.
I’m not at all a fan of the model of game monetization where you pay for the base game and yet still have microtransactions but I will say that I think you get a perfectly acceptable amount of baseline content for your £3.69. I’ve seen games charge more for less, and I’ve also seen games that are far more aggressive about pushing the DLC in your face. The best I can say here is that this is the most unobtrusive implementation you could realistically hope for with regards to a bad business model.
Forty missions may not sound like an awful lot, but these missions are beefy – maybe not in the first zone which behaves more like a tutorial than anything else, but I’ve had single scenarios that lasted a good thirty or forty minutes. When you have those to consider you can see it’s going to take you quite some time to chew through the provided content. The missions however aren’t often particularly exciting or intricate, and mostly break down into ‘kill these zombies’, ‘clear this area’, ‘go to this place and use an action’. To begin with, merely surviving an encounter is a logistical puzzle making use of position, timing, conservation of action and the occupancy limits of rooms. After a while though the threat recedes considerably because your characters just end up being so damn powerful.
Look at Doug. He’s so reminiscent of D-FENS in Falling Down that it can’t possibly be an accident. He starts off with a submachine gun he can barely use and a few slivers of health that mean the first time he ends his turn in a swarm of zombies he’ll be ripped apart. As you level up, he’ll acquire an additional combat action, re-rolls, an extra damage die and the ability to shrug off some of the damage he takes. Now that I have him at the relatively modest height of level 10 he’s capable of clearing entire rooms of zombies by himself from a distance and then bludgeoning the ones that survive with a hammer that hits like a bulldozer. The availability of advanced character skills in a mission is on a timer. They’re unlocked gradually as the ‘threat level’ of a scenario increases but they’ll be ready to use before they’re actually needed.
Then look at my favourite character – Amy. Yeah, you’ll notice that the outfits worn by the women characters in Zombicide are considerably less situationally appropriate than those of men. Doug is wearing a neat but disheveled suit and tie. Phil has a mostly pristine short-sleeved cop uniform. Amy is in torn fishnets revealing her vulnerable midriff and Wanda is in a short-skirt and roller skates. It didn’t escape my attention.
Anyway, my Amy is wielding a baseball bat she found in a rubbish bin after she abandoned the Gordon Freeman style crowbar that she had started with. She moves quickly, rolls four dice per attack, and that baseball bat hits about 85% of the time. I use Doug to clear out massive swarms from the safety of an adjacent room andn the send in Amy to wait for the ones too far away to wander in and then she just wallops the snot out of them.
Phil, a cop, has a shotgun and a pistol and the ability to heal the scant damage that comes through. And Wanda… is also a character you have available.
There’s a character called Josh you get for free by creating an Asmodee account but he was so useless in his first trip out that I basically leave him sitting in the car in every mission that doesn’t require him. That’s all you get without shelling out some additional cash.
And yeah, when I say I throw Amy into ‘swarms’ I’m not kidding. One thing Zombicide never has in short supply is things for you to kill. In the mission shown in the image below, Phil, Doug and Amy are in a small room inside a house behind a locked door. Outside are some zombies. They stand between our heroes and the exit, and there’s no way to go around them. Looks terrifying, right? Well, right behind them in the house are other zombies – fast runners, bullet-sponge fatties and the more conventional walkers. They’re being squeezed between two parts of a vice, and new zombies, tough ones, are constantly being spawned outside the door and in the roads outside.
That should be a disheartening scenario. Sheer mass of numbers should mean that our heroes are doomed – and indeed if all those zombies get into the room with our characters they would indeed be ripped apart. The runners (blue, at the top of the horde) move or attack twice per turn. The others attack once per turn and they never miss. Enough zombies in a room will spell an end for everyone.
But the thing is – that room is a choke point. Only six or seven characters are allowed there at a time, which means that the zombies obediently queue up and wander into the room in easily manageable clumps. Amy thumps the bejeezus out of them while Doug and Phil continue to mow down hordes of their comrades in the street outside. This potentially exciting and stressful situation is manageable to the point of it not even really mattering. On the one hand, this kind of strategic placement is vital to ensuring Zombicide is winnable. On the other, it can massively downplay the threat of the zombie hordes when characters get just a little bit more effective. It looks terrifying. It should play similarly. It gets to the point in some missions where you try to herd zombies as effectively as possible into large enough herds just to save yourself the clicks on the occasionally recalcitrant interface.
One of the problems with this kind of horde mechanism is that it exposes the dodgy touch controls of the app. Some characters permit you to call your shots, selecting which zombies are the resting place for your bullets and blades. That can be massively important in some encounters – you don’t want runners all up in your business. Since those zombies can move and attack in a single turn they’re the only real things to worry about in a horde. However, because you can target some shots you can direct your more precision assaults their way… provided the targeting lets you.
This is fine in small groups, but in large groups you will in many cases swear you picked the right one only to see a seemingly random zombie selected instead. In the app’s defense I will say that this does accurately mirror what it would be like to try and shoot a particular target in a roiling mass of zombies. However, it feels like it’s an artefact of a clumsy interface as opposed to a conscious design choice and as a result it’s frustrating. If it’s intentional it’s badly presented to the player. If it’s accidental… maybe make it intentional? With larger hordes it would be nice to be able to give an approximate targeting radius that is both explicit from a UI perspective and also something that adds a little peril to letting large groups amass. Large hordes are inconvenient from an interface perspective, and that’s about all you can really say with regards to the amount of peril they present to the player.
I think this is where Zombicide has its largest problem as an mobile game – it doesn’t handle escalation well. I have no problem with a seasoned, veteran group of survivors being able to make their way safely through the scattering of zombies that make up the early phases of a map. However, when the threat level ascends to its highest and everyone gets all their final abilities unlocked it should feel like a crescendo – with the roar of terrifying battle filling your ears as you launch your characters into a pitiless charnel house that you only barely survive. If anything though it feels like the opposite – it feels like the zombies should be scared of you. They shuffle into your attack radius and you just mow them down with the same distracted attention you’d normally reserve for signing acceptance of an unexpected parcel.
I don’t know if this is a problem with the tabletop game or not, but it feels like there are some easy solutions here. Positional advantage is key to a lot of the levels and you get plenty of time to pick off stragglers as you arrange for an optimal setup to deal with emerging situations. Locked doors stay locked against the horde, which is weird because formal barricades exist in the game and they have a health value that gets gradually knocked down as zombies assault. Those fortifications are fragile and yet I can hide behind a flimsy wooden door with no risk or danger. If that door would break – if I had to weigh up perfect position versus the risk of that door opening when I wasn’t ready… well, that would add a lot to play. I know that’s the case because a few missions do have doors that open unexpectedly and every time it happens I audibly swear because it has just made my job much harder… and correspondingly more interesting and fun.
Weirdly too, doors are the only point of ingress – what about other routes? Why not have locked buildings that still permit a zombie per turn to get in via the broken glass of a window? As it stands you can easily achieve a perfect point of defence in a building where you are never seriously taxed by even the largest and most brutal hordes the game can throw at you. It’s this more than anything else that keeps Zombicide from being a great game – while I enjoy playing I never feel challenged by the apocalypse. I think that’s fixable, but I don’t know if fixing the issues identified are within the scope of the developer’s implementation brief. That’s because I don’t know how closely the app cleaves to the original in the first place.
The final thing to talk about here in the review is accessibility, and that’s always going to be difficult when dealing with a digital artefact. So much of it depends on device, third-party and first-party accessibility tools and even posture when playing. I don’t really feel, if app reviews are to be a (ir)regular part of the blog, that we can sensibly do an accessibility teardown in the same way we do for physical games. Instead, I will speak of the settings the game provides so readers can see if it will offer the necessary configurability to permit easy play. Generally though, as a consequence of development tools, games are rarely as accessible as they could or should be. Investigating it in any depth is far outside the time I have available because of the sheer variability of the solution space.
In the case of Zombicide, they are very few settings. They let you switch music off (which you will probably want to do) and similarly for sound effects. You can reset progress in the game, but that’s not likely to be a major accessibility feature. It lets you zoom in and out on the action but it will continually recenter your view when anything happens. Targets you need to click are small and it’s very easy to misclick or send one of your characters merrily wandering into a horde of zombies when you meant to fire into their midst. That gets less likely the more you play, but there’s still a fair amount of fine-grained motor control needed to execute on your plans.
Zombicide then is a good game held back from greatness by its own unwillingness to actually challenge the player, at least in the twenty or so missions I’ve played so far. It’s definitely a safe house for your money though if you were looking for some easy-going zombie carnage on the go.
A review code for Zombicide: Tactics and Shotguns was provided by Asdmodee Digital in exchange for a fair and honest review.