About three or four years ago now something very important happened to me. I was wandering through my local tabletop gaming shop with some friends. We perused the wears while we contemplated picking up some magic cards. We came across a board game called Zombicide. At the time we’d only played a handful of designer board games, and all of them had belonged to a friend. But something struck me about Zombicide, and my friends and I were convinced. We pooled our money and picked up a copy of the game.
We then spent the next couple months playing it to death.
I realized then and there that I absolutely loved board games. Designer board games, to be clear. The term refers to more niche, complicated games. Usually the have higher production values and more emphasis on precision crafted rules. This differentiates them from more commonly known board games like Sorry or Monopoly. Those games have their place, they can certainly be fun, but they’re a little random.
Except Monopoly. Monopoly I just don’t like at all.
Anywho! The point of this rambling entry is to say that Zombicide and its developers have a special place in my heart. CoolMiniOrNot (CMON) has a history of exciting games with great production value, and I’m generally very pleased with them. So when I had the opportunity to pick up their newest game I jumped at it.
That game was B-Sieged: Sons of the Abyss. The confusingly named board game takes a handful of principles from the successful Zombicide franchise and puts them in a new light. In B-Sieged players take on the role of valiant heroes in a fantasy setting. But they aren’t going out and adventuring. Instead, they’re defending a castle from a horde of abyssal monsters. The goal is to survive long enough for a messenger to flee the castle and return, signaling the arrival of much needed back up.
But the horde aren’t going to make that easy. One all four sides of the castle is a three-zoned field. At the beginning of each round a random assortment of enemies spawn at the end of all four fields. Depending on how poorly you roll, this could be anywhere from one to fourteen baddies for you to fight. At the end of the round any enemies still alive activate. Depending on what they are they’ll either walk closer or fire on the castle from a range.
The players aren’t just sitting idly by, however. Defenders on the wall of the castle can attack, with more distant enemies being harder to hit. The castle is also full of useful buildings. The armory, for example, can be visited to get weapons and armor that make it easier to fight the horde. The barn and palace give food and gold respectively. There are eight buildings, each with their own function. The center of the castle is also a catapult, useful for long range bombardments. These buildings are critical to castle defense. They must be protected, as long range enemies are capable of damaging or destroying them.
Play proceed in three-round seasons. Every season forces a handful of changes. Players have to pay food or risk starving. Shops replenish their supply. Enemy spawns shuffle slightly. The seasons represent important milestones in defense. Using each season’s resources appropriately can be tricky.
Every character has a set of starting abilities, and additional abilities can be gained by leveling up. Leveling up requires a character to head to the temple and spend some food. Then they pick a random token from the pile of the level they’re going to. They can either flip the token over and get a random ability or keep it face down and get extra strength. Strength is important as it allows you to kill tougher enemies.
The last critical component of the game is defending the messenger. On round one players will choose a direction for the messenger to run. Every round he’ll move out one zone. After he leaves the board there is a one round delay, then he returns from a random zone. Every round he’ll get one zone closer to the castle. When he makes it back the defenders will have to survive one more round.
Then they win!
So all of that sounds fairly simple. It even sounds intriguing! A cooperative game of tower defense? Exciting and varied abilities? Constant long odds, forcing you to make tricky decisions in a desperate attempt to survive? All leading up to one final, desperate push as you await the arrival of reinforcements?
Well calm down. It doesn’t hit all of those notes. Don’t get me wrong, it does hit a lot of them. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of fun playing this with my friends. But there are some glaring faults keeping this from becoming a true gem of a game.
The first issue, and frankly the most egregious one, is the bewildering level of randomness. When you fight enemies a die roll that’s hard to modify determines success. Your initial player abilities are based on your character, but after that they’re completely random. The items you draw from the item deck are totally random. Sure, you can pick which item deck to choose from. But the odds of getting a magical battle-axe and a magical bow are roughly equal, and very different characters want those. What enemies spawn are random. This doesn’t feel bad at first, but you quickly realize certain enemies can be far more dangerous than others. If you get an entire wave of the long range siege engine enemies your castle might be completely screwed.
It makes it hard to anticipate anything, and not in the fun way. The frustrating thing is that the solutions to many of these problems feel simple. Each shop only has so many cards for the season. Why force players to pick one at random? Just let them pick up the stack and choose one. Or if that feels too good, make them buy it. This way people are assured items they can actually use. And the abilities players gain by leveling up simply don’t need to be random at all. They’re should be a track each individual character follows, with a combination of abilities unique to them. It would feel and play better, and help cement players in their roles. What’s more, it would make the decision of choosing between your new ability and bonus strength far more meaningful.
The other complaints I had with the game are varied and mostly mild. A handful of mechanics don’t feel thematically consistent. Some just feel like strange options. Why add a random chance for the catapult to break down when it turns? The difficulty of the game also fluctuates wildly. I’ve played games where we were absolutely never in danger, and I’ve played games where we died almost immediately.
Credit has to be given to the production value, however. The game is stunning to look at, and all of the components are very high quality. Not the least of these is the dozens(!) of miniatures the game includes. It takes up a ton of table space, but seeing this game set up has to make you smile.
I went into this game expecting tight gameplay and fun, varied content. What I got was incredibly loose gameplay and fun, varied content. The game has strengths that certainly can’t be ignored. It is enjoyable to play, even if it is practically impossible to predict. The weakness exist and you can’t deny them. I wouldn’t recommend this game to new players by a long shot. And honestly, there are a lot of games I would recommend before it even to seasoned players. But at the end of the day I had a lot of fun playing it. And that’s the important part.