Let’s begin with a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of zombie games in general. I’ve played my fair share – Dead of Winter, Mall of Horror, Escape: Zombie City, Lord of the Fries, Axis & Allies & Zombies, Give Me the Brain, Dawn of the Dead, Eaten By Zombies, The Great Brain Robbery, and the somewhat on-the-nose named Zombies!!!. In fact, BoardGameGeek lists 1377 different zombie-themed games (though some number of those are expansions). And, despite its ubiquitous nature in the gaming community, I managed to avoid Zombicide.
It’s not that I hate zombies – I’m quite fond of the zombie horde in my Heroscape collection (you can make a really fun army with them and the vampire clan) – and I think that Martin Wallace’s Hit Z Road is both a great game and a fantastic use of theme. I just have a number of other themes I enjoy a lot more.
So, I was pleasantly surprised by Zombicide: Gear Up… which broke my streak of never playing a Zombicide game. This cooperative flip’n’write game does a great job of capturing the theme (wading through a horde of zombies to take out the zombie boss) with a relatively small table footprint and straightforward gameplay.
As Our Story Opens…
Each player chooses a Survivor card – which shows 4 different weapons with their damage patterns and various special powers, as well as tracks to indicate ammo, shields, and health. The Survivor cards are double-sided, with the opposing side having a solo version of that particular hero. The left side of the card also has three “Street Slots”, used to track the shambling progress of the zombies toward the character.
The lead player shuffles the turn cards and lays nine (of a possible ten) of them in a row… and then a row of 7 zombie spawn cards below turns 3-9.
The group chooses a difficulty level (there are four to pick from – more about that later) and a number of zombies are dealt to each player based on the player count and difficulty level.
With that, the onslaught begins…
The Battle is Joined…
The gameplay of Zombicide: Gear Up is simple – the game consists of two rounds of zombie fighting, each with nine turns. On a turn, the lead survivor (player) flips over the turn card and the various players attack the zombies headed towards them. Killing a zombie allows a player to upgrade one of their weapons. Then, the zombies shamble forward and, if they’re close enough, attack the survivors. Finally new zombies are spawned (during the first round) or the boss attacks (during the second round).
Kill the boss before the end of the second round? You emerge zombie-goo-splattered but victorious. Don’t destroy the boss by the end of the second round or one of your team of survivors dies? You lose.
Let’s walk through a turn in more detail – which will let me explain to you better how to kill zombies… and, because it’s a zombie game, how more of them just keep rumbling toward you.
A turn card is flipped and gives the players three pieces of information:
- Which weapon they’ll get to use this turn
- Which zombies will move and/or attack later in the turn
- If you’re playing solo, there’s a smiley face if you’re allowed to use one of your companions this turn
Using the provided dry-erase pens, players can cross off hit point spaces on the zombie cards in any of their Street Slots. They do so by drawing the hit shape of the weapon indicated on their Survivor card. While hit shapes can be rotated or mirrored, they can’t protrude outside the zombie hit point spaces, nor can a hit point space be crossed off twice. If a player doesn’t want to or cannot use the complete hit shape, they can simply cross off a single space.
When a player crosses off a shield hit point space, they outline a shield on their Survivor card. If they cross off an ammo hit point space, they outline a space on the ammo track on their Survivor card. Crossing off a hit point space with a red damage icon (star) reduces the ability of that zombie to hurt you.
Each weapon has a different pair of special powers that also affect how they are used (Long Range, Split, Explosive, etc.) or what happens after they are used (Knockback, Scavenge, Lock & Load, etc.). The summary of these powers on the card works well – and there are more specific instructions with examples in the rulebook.
Players can spend ammo after an attack – they can cross off ammo they’ve outlined and X out individual spaces on the zombies in their Street Slots.
If a player crosses off the last hit point box on a zombie, it’s dead. (In the words of The Princess Bride – all dead, not just mostly dead.) That player can unlock one upgrade on one of their weapons. Upgrades must be gained in order for each weapon.
At this point, all of the zombies with movement icons that match the icon(s) on the turn card lurch forward – either one more Street Slot towards each player or, if they’ve reached the final Street Slot, their lurching is an attack on that Survivor. For each damage icon on their card that is not marked off, the player must mark off one damage on their Survivor card. (They can use shields to absorb damage – and this is often the smartest choice in the fight for survival.)
In turns 3-9, a spawn card is turned over and more zombies appear. Players discuss how best to divide them up – any zombies taken by a player are put in their most distant Street Slot.
The Big Bad Appears…
Round two is similar to round one, but with the addition of the previously chosen Boss Zombie. The Boss starts the round in front of the lead player and moves one Survivor to the left each turn. Players with long-range weapon upgrades unlocked can fire at the Boss, as can the player the boss is in front of.
The boss activations begin with turn 3 of the second round – which can include more zombies in addition to the boss attacking all the players. It can be, in a word, brutal.
The players win by crossing off all the hit point squares of the boss before (a) getting to the end of round 2, or (b) one of them dying.
Silver & Gold & Zombies
It’s not much more complicated than that. Yes, I left out the various kinds of zombies (including Bombers & Stinkies) and didn’t go deeply into the myriad weapon upgrades, but the game itself is pretty straightforward.
For those who’ve played Phil Walker-Harding’s great little flip-n-write game, Silver & Gold, the most basic part of the game (crossing off boxes to complete cards) is going to feel pretty familiar. That said, I don’t think this is simply a zombie-fied clone of Phil’s design – by adding the variety of weapons & powers, as well as the move to cooperative play against hordes (and a Boss!), Gear Up is its own game.
The solo system uses alternate versions of the Survivors… along with a small deck of Companion cards. The solo player deals themselves three of them at the beginning of the game – and they can be activated when indicated by the turn cards to provide you with some extra firepower. It works very well solo.
Most of our games have been running 30 minutes with 1-3 players… with our one six player game lasting almost an hour. (This is one of those games that runs on the pace of the slowest player.) We haven’t tried any difficulty level but easy – which we’ve won 3 out of 6 plays. (Looks like it’s time to move up and increase the challenge.)
I know portability isn’t important to everyone, but that’s one of the virtues of the game design – lots of variety in a relatively small package. (As spring is my main travel time for work, I’m always looking for solid solo games that pack easily and play in relatively small spaces – and Gear Up fits that bill perfectly.)
MZCU (Marvel Zombie Cinematic Universe)
Although it’s not the point of this review, I need to close by saying some nice things about Marvel Zombies: Heroes Resistance, which is also a member of the Zombicide family. My younger son picked up a copy and has played it a good bit solo (it’s a cooperative game) and a couple of times with me. It does the whole “fight zombies” + “fight Marvel heroes who’ve turned into brain-eating zombies” things very well – it’s quick, there are flashes of luck and chances to make good decisions, and the production quality is very nice for a “starter” kit for the upcoming Marvel Zombies Kickstarter
A review copy was provided to the Opinionated Gamers.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!
I like it. Mark Jackson
Not for me…