Apologies to the faithful, but I don’t hold the Zombicide series in high regard. I’ve played several iterations on this system, and it’s never done much beyond stir the bacteria in my gut. Despite my adoration for several of their titles, including the exceptional Ankh, I am also critical of publisher CMON Games. Specifically, I’m displeased with their crowdfunding practices which rely on exclusivity and emotional manipulation. However, like most humans, I’m a flawed hypocrite. I still support some of their crowdfunding campaigns and I still find meaning and joy hiding under all of that plastic.
What drew me to Undead or Alive was the setting. My favorite films include The Wild Bunch and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There are simply not enough games exploring the mythic west. So I was desperate, ya see. And they got me.
This is one instance where I’m glad to have gotten got.
Zombicide: Undead or Alive is a flashy bowl of empty calories, but it’s comforting and tasty. One surprise is that the western tassels are more evocative than I expected.
There’s this neat class system layered atop the typical asymmetric character abilities. Gunslingers can fan their revolvers, priests can hold back the dead, and so on. Some scenarios feature a gatling gun you can mount atop a wagon and let ‘er rip like the finale of Young Guns. Dynamite is plentiful and blows up everything in a space. I once saw 13 zombies and a massive abomination explode like a pinata the size of the Trojan Horse. It was majestic in its violence.
The scenarios and environment are also interesting. Buildings feature balconies you can occupy to fire down multiple streets. Every time you enter a building – a necessity to search for equipment and mount those balconies – a new spawn point is created as a corpse pile in the structure is alerted to your presence. Most maps feature a train that dynamically arrives on the map by flipping train track tiles and watching it appear in faux motion. You often have to hop aboard and repel the increasing number of zombies in an emergent tower defense dynamic that is splendid.
The whole game feels dynamic, really. The pace of play has been severely tightened up. I remember my experience with the OG Zombicide as well as Green Horde taking multiple hours to finish a single scenario. Much like with Invader, it seems the design team has moved to a shorter, more expedited Zombicide experience. This fits the strategic demands and style of play much more comfortably.
But that’s not really enough. What elevates Undead or Alive is primarily its high level of difficulty. Zombicide may be tabletop popcorn, but this iteration is buttered chunks of glass. It’s brutal, in every sense of the word.
The zombies themselves are relentless. The situation can spiral out of control at the drop of a Stetson. Unique to this edition, the spawn deck contains double activation cards for the swift runner zeds. This means occasionally a group of runners will spawn and immediately be on your throat. Every time a foe activates in your space they deal damage. There’s no roll, you’re just shredded. Additionally, most survivors only have two wounds so a protagonist can go from spry to plucked expeditiously. And when a character dies, the whole group loses. Game over, man.
Then there’s the bevy of abomination cards scattered in the deck. This spawns the boss who can only be felled by dynamite. You can even have one of these bigguns at your throat in the very first round. This will have the group scattered, desperately scrounging for dynamite to deal with the emergent threat.
The tension can be enormous. The tempo undulates between a calm floor where you’re able to easily mow down legions of gimped walkers, and a breakneck ceiling where dozens of minis clog the map and an abomination is smashing its way towards you. The transition happens in a blink so you’re always walking on eggshells, ready for it all to go sideways.
This unstable environment defines Undead or Alive. It frames how I think about the game, both outside and inside the circle of play. Strategically, it’s paramount survivors stick together. There will be six protagonists running around, which is one of the Zombicide system’s biggest flaws as the game does not even attempt to scale, and you will need to pair up at a minimum in order to distribute hits and cover for each other.
The downside to all of this volatility is that there’s a great deal of component maintenance. This is primarily due to the shuffling of dozens of zombies, not just between spaces but also between box and board. Often, they will be removed just as quickly as they were placed. The work is partially alleviated by the existence of only a couple of zombie types, so there’s not a whole lot of differentiating between miniatures or confusion in that regard. Similarly, setup and tear-down require some patience, as is standard for this type of thing.
Beyond those physical details, there’s this wonderful quality that I’ve often used to describe miniatures skirmish game Warhammer Underworlds. That prolific Games Workshop title manages the feat of feeling very loose and open, while still retaining a tactical noose where one wrong move can send you over the edge. Undead or Alive possesses this facet, as the light system affords a degree of frivolity to the proceedings, yet you must take care not to overextend or miscalculate. It’s a punishing game, yet one full of sloppy unpredictability which can create openings or close them off faster than you can spit.
This also pairs well with the scenario writing. The offerings are more varied and textured than I expected. They’re constructed well and they utilize the various tools at their disposal to craft a variety of interesting situations. They’re given a farther jolt when utilizing expansion material such as the optional horses found in Running Wild. There’s really a lot to grab onto here, surprisingly.
It’s expected at this point, but the physical prowess is substantial. Beyond the wealth of miniatures, the plastic dashboards are as effective as ever, the wooden dice are aesthetically pleasing, and the stylish tiles are the best I’ve seen from this publisher. The cardboard itself is somewhat odd, however, as it’s more fragile and prone to separating into layers.
The new touches to this old system are all for the better. Noise is streamlined to a single token, survivors are more brittle, spawns are standardized and deadly, and the whole door system with building exploration has been gutted. Without that element and with the increased dynamic difficulty, it feels less a dungeon crawl and more of a tactical miniatures game against an AI opponent.
It’s unfortunate that l still find myself disgruntled with much of the accoutrements surrounding the release. The Kickstarter exclusive stretch goal box contains a wealth of material, including several new abominations which do wonders to twist gameplay. There is also an exclusive expansion that offers a new zombie type – Long Dead Walkers – which is frankly a shame. While there is additional content coming to retail, this whiff of exclusivity creates a cloud surrounding the game which is extremely noxious to those discovering it post-release. It begins the relationship on a sour note and serves as an excuse to ignore the title outright.
That’s a shame as there’s a quality game here. I don’t believe it stands up to the pinnacle of this CMON plastic-vomit dungeon crawl style design, which is assuredly the excellent Cthulhu: Death May Die, but this latest in the Zombicide series does offer a spark of creativity which is harnessed to produce a rather delightful tension-filled experience. I may feel a little gassy and undernourished afterwards as if I just stuffed my face with a Big Mac, but I can’t deny all that salt and fat goes down easy.