Massive Equipment

 

I recently published an article summarising my thoughts on CMON’s new Dungeon Crawler, Massive Darkness. It ended up being a LONG article, and there were still a fair few things I didn’t get the chance to go into properly, so I’ve decided to pull out a few chunks, and give them a more detailed look at in their own right. This is the first of those articles, and it’s concerned with the issue of Loot.

Starting Equipment At the start of a game of Massive Darkness, each hero gets a starter weapon (which won’t be very good), and some starter armour (similarly poor quality). Luckily, there are plenty of ways for you to find new pieces of gear for your heroes:

  • Every time you open the door to a new room, you will spawn some loot chests.
  • Every time a “Guardian” (any monster except a minion) spawns, it comes with a piece of equipment
  • At the end of every round, an event happens, and a few of these will spawn more loot chests.

Ongoing access to loot in the game is necessary. At any given point in time in Massive Darkness, the game will be at a particular “level” somewhere between 1 and 5. Barring other factors, you will start on tile 1, drawing level 1 loot, and fighting level 1 monsters. When you advance to tile 2, the game’s level will increase, so you’d better find some level 2 weapons to keep the fight on an even footing.

How much loot?

TreasureChestsThere is A LOT of loot: When you open a door, you reveal a door card which will determine the number of enemies and the amount of loot present – typically, each room-space will have 2 or 3 chests of loot (at the level of the current tile), or a single chest of the next level up. Most tiles probably have about 2 sets of 2 or 3 rooms – maybe 12 items per tile.

One of the issues that people have pointed out with loot, is that it doesn’t scale with the player-count. So, if you have the maximum of six heroes, you’re probably only getting 1 or 2 new things per tile, and it’ll probably take a fair bit of horse-trading just to get something vaguely suitable for your character. By contrast, a solo hero will get all of that gear to themselves, allowing them to pick exactly what they want to equip.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with lots of loot: it’s cool to have lots of stuff. Various people have drawn parallels with Diablo, the computer game which lets you smash your way through a multitude of monsters and rewards you with a cornucopia of goodies for doing so. The last thing I’d want to happen with Massive Darkness would be for it to somehow get turned into a Mage Knight-style grind, where getting a single weapon upgrade takes 45 minutes.

 

What do I need?

NoMagic Bow
That bow might look good, but it’s not going to help the Wizard trigger any abilities

It’s also worth pointing out that a new loot card, however powerful it might be, won’t necessarily be any good for your character.

Most characters – or at least their chosen class – will lean towards Melee, Magic or Ranged for combat, and will need to equip a matching weapon to benefit from many of their skills. You can give the battle Wizard a longbow, but none of his “Magic:…” skills will activate.

Magic Staff
Even with the reduced dice, the Staff might be a better option

I think that the need for a specific type of weapon goes some way towards ironing out the scaling issues – with 6 heroes, there’s a pretty good chance that at least one character will want whichever item has just been found, whereas a primarily Ranged/Magic party of 2 Heroes (the campaign my wife and I are playing) won’t want 90% of the melee weapons they pick up, meaning that the “excess” isn’t quite as big as it might seem.

WoundOrHeal
To wound or to heal?

It’s also worth pointing out that when you do have multiple weapons that suit you, it’s still not always an easy decision which to take: 1 sword has better attack dice, but another gives a defence boost. One deals wounds (i.e. unblockable damage) on special symbols, whilst another heals the wielder with the same symbols. Sometimes you’ll be able to make a decision and stick with it, based on the party composition (I’m the tank, I’ll take the defensive boosts, and not care about my low damage output because others are taking care of that), but sometimes you’ll need to switch between the healing weapon and the wounding weapon in the face of an enemy that’s turned up rolling 5 defence dice. Whilst you can keep hold of as much stuff as you like, your character only has 2 hand-slots, meaning a maximum of 2 weapons equipped at a time (often just the 1 in practice as many of the good weapons are 2-handed), and it takes a full action to swap out one weapon for another in your bag.

 

Not all weapons are created equal

BetterBow
There might be times when you’d want it, but it’s hard to say that the level 3 is objectively better

It’s also worth noting that even if you ignore the divisions into Melee/Ranged/Magic weapons, some are simply better than others: a Sword which offers 1 Yellow Dice is not as good as a sword which offers 1 Red (assuming they have no additional benefits, and both use a single hand-slot). The overall trend as you move up the levels will be towards increased power, but a strong Level 1 weapon can (at least situationally) be the equal or even the better of a weak Level 2 weapon. This helps retain a bit of interest in searching for loot, as there is no guarantee of getting something much better than you currently have equipped, and with this chance to ‘fail’ to upgrade, it’s important to have repeat opportunities, in order to avoid a negative experience.

 

Where it Goes – Transmutation

Transmute In low player-count games, even with 2 or 3 weapons you want to keep on hand for emergencies, there’s still going to be some stuff nobody wants, and with no backpack limit [cf Zombicide Black Plague where each survivor is limited to 2x Hand-slot, 1x Body-Slot and 5x Backpack space], you can keep hold of it all. More fun though, is to transmute it!

When you transmute you discard 3 items to draw a new item. The new item comes from the deck with a number 1 higher than the lowest level item you discarded. Assuming you can discard 3 of the same level (generally your current level), that means you can get an item that’s a level ahead of where you and the monsters currently are.

Transmuting is a fun idea, and I think it’s a strength of the game that it’s included. However, the execution is a bit wonky.

As I mentioned above, normally it takes one of your 3 actions this turn to re-organise your inventory (i.e. put away the sword and replace it with the longbow) or to trade equipment with another hero in your space. Transmuting however not only doesn’t cost an action, but it also gives you a free reorganising action!

It’s not the only time you’ll come across this in Massive Darkness, but the idea of adding a bonus to something that’s already really good just feels slightly out-of-whack to me. I think it’s understandable why Transmuting is at the top of a lot of House-Rulers’ hit lists.

Fixes

As I’ve talked about elsewhere, I think that people have been getting very carried away with trying to change too much too quickly in this game, and I certainly can’t claim to have any properly tested house rules. However, I do want to at least touch on the issues around loot

Fix 1: Too Much Loot

1Man Much Loot
Lots of loot for Owen!

There are a lot of suggestions out there around the various different things that people think should be done with loot. Some people suggest reducing the amount of loot spawned, based on player-counts, whilst others think you should draw the required number but then be forced to choose one/some, and discard the rest.

If you want to get really far into it, there are even some fairly involved schemes out there where the chests count as “points” towards getting things, but you need points equal to the current level to get an item – so 3 chests on tile 1 gets you 3 things. 3 Chests on tile 3 gets you 1 thing, and 3 chests on tile 5 leave you still needing to find something else in order to actually get a weapon.

AllPeopleLoot
Doesn’t look quite so impressive now he has to share

Personally I don’t see much appeal to most of these suggestions – I’d certainly be quiet happy to see CMON produce a more involved, more appropriately scaled set of door cards for a future iteration of the game, but beyond that, I don’t want to bring in a level of fiddly bookkeeping where I have to keep swapping things around.

As I’ve already mentioned, a lot of people are drawing the parallels between Massive Darkness and Diablo, and I think that having bucketloads of loot is a good thing. If I really wanted to cut down the piles and piles of cards we were dealing with, then I think I’d just impose a Zombicide-style Backpack limit: Characters may carry a maximum of 5 non-equipped cards at any time, rather than getting too much more complicated (Story mode already does this to an extent, but that’s another story…)

Fix 2: Transmuting

Tweaking Transmute does seem like one of the most obvious places in this game to add a house-rule. Any situation where an activity costs you an action by itself but can be done for free whilst doing something else that doesn’t cost an action is clearly a bit skewed.

3Not4
Sorry, we’ve decided you can’t use that equipment until you reach the next tile…

I think that something as straightforward as “Transmuting costs an action (after transmuting, you may reorganise your inventory for free)” would probably quell the worst abuses without making the game too complex, or requiring additional book-keeping. Equally, for those who want to be more hard-core, adding a limit once per turn, or a limit to the level to which things can be Transmuted (“players cannot transmute above the scenario’s current level” / “Heroes cannot equip items above the scenario’s current level” could be workable. However, with each additional step you’re introducing more complexity into the game, which is potentially a drawback, along with creating a greater workload in terms of play-testing.

 

Final Thoughts

As I say, lots of people have identified the tides of loot with which Massive Darkness is awash as a real point of failure for the game. I certainly don’t see it that way. This game is light and fun, and the gear you have fits that theme. It’s not supposed to be a grind like Mage Knight where you spend 3 hours trying to get enough together for a sword.

I’ve mentioned a few things that could be done, for personal preference, simply because I thought it might be interesting to do so, but I don’t think that any of them are “needed.” Aside from the Transmute adjustment, I highly doubt I’ll try (m)any of them out.

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Kickback: Massive Darkness

 

MassiveAs I’ve mentioned a fair few times on here now, I’ve had a number of big Kickstarter projects that I’ve been waiting on – some of them for a very long time now.

August was when the first of them finally arrived, and having had a bit of time to play it and reflect on it, I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about it today. This has ended up being a fairly big one, so my plan is to gradually extract sections and replace with links to more in-depth discussions as I get the time. If you’re subscribed to the blog you won’t miss anything, but anyone coming to this article late might find it a bit shorter than when it was first published!

Massive DarkNed
The two largest and most expensive things ordered in 2016 and received in 2017…

I backed Massive Darkness in April 2016 – it was the last of the big KS projects that I backed without the knowledge that there would be a baby in the house by the time things arrived. Whether I would still have backed if the KS had come along a couple of months later is a question I’ll never really be able to answer.

2017 was the year of Zombicide: Black Plague in our house – Massive Darkness came from the same designers and publishers and promised the same dice-chucking, monster-killing action, but with more complex combat, and skills that stayed with you from one game to the next.

The campaign was launched to a lot of noise, and smashed its funding targets in a matter of minutes, but there were concerns. The gameplay video on Kickstarter was a bit bland, and the “campaign mode” looked like it had a lot of holes in it. A hasty fix was offered, more and more stretch-goals were unlocked, and in the end, like a lot of people, I backed it.

Massive Darkness offered a “basic” pledge (still over $100), plus any number of add-ons: I only added an extra set of the custom dice, and the $8 “crossover kit” which made Zombicide Survivors and Zombies playable in Massive Darkness, and Massive Darkness Heroes playable in Zombicide – if worst came to worst, I could call this a really expensive expansion for Zombicide!

Hellephant
Hellephant. Because Hellephant

Everything else I passed on. Some things – like a box of 4 extra Roaming Monsters (for context, the base game has 6, and KS backers were already getting an extra 20) for $40, or a duplicate set of board tiles were easy to pass up, others – were rather more tempting (mostly the Hellephant), but I wasn’t prepared to spend more until I’d had the chance to actually play the game.

Once the campaign was over, things went relatively quiet –the pledge manager opened in the autumn, and there were updates every month or two – inevitably the project got delayed, but this seemed normal by now, and barely registered – in July there was a sudden flurry of activity as CMON provided the details of the container ships bringing the games from China, and one kind gamer on BGG started posting regular updates of where in the world everything was. Finally, on the first Saturday in August, the game arrived.

Crunching the Numbers

Massive Darkness was bought with birthday money, so in a sense, the numbers don’t matter – it was cash I had at the time, and that was how I chose to spend it. That said, I love to number-crunch, and where would the fun be if I stopped now?

MassiveBoxesI paid CMON a grand total of $168 for the whole package, including the add-ons and shipping. By the time I run that through various historic exchange-rates, and add on some notional interest for having paid a year or more in advance, that looks like somewhere around £130 all-told.

The game was originally due around April 2017, but arrived in August, 4 months late. In the world of Kickstarter, and the shadow of a game currently 15 months late and counting, that really doesn’t look like much.

Using my standard “£5 per hour,” I’d need to play about 25-26 hours of Massive Darkness for it to count as ‘value for money’ – with a session averaging 1.5 hours that’s 17 sessions to break even. I’ve managed 15 so far, and am barely half-way through the base game content, essentially having not touched the expansions or KS exclusives.

The KS also looks like good value vs retail. Most UK shops aren’t showing prices for this yet, but based on a US retailer, I’d be looking at roughly £150 for the base game along with the 2 Hero-and-Monster boxes, 1 enemies box and Tile Set that were included as stretch goals – that puts me about £20 up even without accounting for the dice set, and literally dozens of KS-exclusive miniatures and cards. As I learned with Zombicide Black Plague, trying to pick up even a limited selection of KS exclusives after-market can get expensive, so these are significant, even if hard to quantify.

If I wanted to sell-up en masse, I’ve seen pledges going for £160-170 – even allowing for it being a big box to ship, I’m confident that I could cover my costs if I wanted to.

 

Well-Costed – Well-Made?

Dashboard The component quality in Massive Darkness is good – the dashboard isn’t as nice as Black Plague, but it’s ok: you have places for equipment in each hand, along with a body/armour slot, and trackers for health and XP. Skills are tracked on paper sheets which sit nicely next to the dashboard, and with only minimal trimming, can be sleeved, then re-used with a wipe-off marker. Handling equipment felt less smooth than in Black Plague: rather than a defined backpack area, players in Massive Darkness can carry as much extra stuff as they can find – charms which do not need to be equipped to a hand slot, or unwanted weapons that are waiting to be traded or transmuted – there is no marked area for them, you just arrange them near the dashboard in a vague pile, which was quite disappointing for us.

Pointy Hats
All very pointy

For me, the miniatures in Massive Darkness are a step down compared with Black Plague – the enemies are often quite hard to distinguish, and have a lot of excessively pointy hats. The over-jagged aesthetic continues to the Heroes, although the Wandering Monsters were generally fine, and the detail/plastic quality was good. I don’t want to over-state the case though: I’m down to my last 10 Zombicide: Black Plague figures to paint, and once Massive Darkness follows, I still think the look will be good.

Overprint
I already have my replacements – I literally only need these for this photograph.

The board tiles and dice were good quality and nice looking too. There were some issues with mis-printed card-symbols, but CMON have sent replacement cards to backers, and the retail game will be fixed before going on sale. Overall, I’m satisfied with the components.

 

The Play’s the Thing!

Whilst it’s comforting to know that I could cover my costs if I needed to, and reassuring that the components don’t look like they’ll break if I glare at them too hard, ultimately I buy board games to play, not as an investment. Whilst I don’t want to buy games at a bad price, I don’t care how good the price is if the game is rubbish.

Descent
Massive Darkness is not Descent. Some people seem to have a problem with that.

The early reports from the internet on Massive Darkness as a gameplay experience were mixed, with lots of people criticising the game for being big on miniatures, small on game balance.

Massive Darkness was only ever going to be a medium-to-light-weight dice-chucking dungeon crawler – people expecting lots of in-depth strategy probably needed to look elsewhere (Sword & Sorcery, Gloomhaven, Descent etc) rather than criticising Massive Darkness.

Personally, I think that Massive Darkness is plenty of fun. I won’t do a full “review” here, but I do want to give a brief overview and highlight a few stand-out features.

The rulebook for Massive Darkness is fairly hefty, but the rules can be broken down fairly simply: your hero does 3 actions, then any monsters you attacked will try to hit you back (unless they’re all dead). Once all heroes have had their turn, the enemies get a phase of their own, followed by a random event (which could be good or bad), and the start of the next round.

DoorsMD has some nice innovative features compared with Zombicide – opening a new room draws a Door Card – spawning both enemies and loot in linked ratios.

Another feature of the game is the Levels – you start on level 1 with rubbish weapons against fairly weak enemies and as you progress through the dungeon, each new tile brings stronger enemies and access to better gear – this prevents the Z:BP situation where if you stumble upon the powerful weapons in the first few turns, you never need to search again.

Enemies in Massive Darkness can also use weapons against you! – this makes for quite a nice thematic reward when you kill them (take their weapon), but can also make for some very swingy situations – one enemy gets a weapon with no stat synergy, whilst another doubles their defence.

ClassSheets Lastly, the straightforward character levelling of Zombicide (fixed skill, fixed skill, pick 1 of 2, pick 1 of 3) is replaced by a tech-tree of class skills. These come on a roughly A5 sheet of paper, and you can pick and choose particular strands to develop – rather than simply accruing XP, you spend it in a targeted way, paying to unlock individual skills, with more options available as the game-level increases.

Last, but not least is the Darkness. Each space on the game board is either dark or light, and characters get bonuses for being in “Shadow Mode” (i.e. in a dark space) this was a lot more complex when the campaign launched, but the final version is nice and simple, whilst still adding some strategy to map positioning.

 

Problems

All of these features are broadly positive – improvements or fun variations on the Zombicide model. That said, there are definitely issues – here are a few headlines

Loot

There is A LOT of loot: so much loot in fact, that I decided to give it an article all to itself.

When you start a game of Massive Darkness life can be very difficult, as you battle with starter equipment, but as soon as you’ve cleared the first room, and got yourself a bit more kitted out, things get better – so much better in fact that players lamented a lack of challenge as they blitzed their way through the dungeon with powerful gear.

Unpredictability

DiceBamsDiamondsIn a lot of ways, Massive Darkness can be very swingy – some people criticise some aspects as too easy, others point to things that are too hard. A lot of it is the luck of the draw. The dice can also be a major factor: they have an extremely high degree of variance, which can lead to some attacks which do nothing, whilst another wipes a character out in a single blow.

The more dice you get, the more powerful you feel, and the more you will roll Bams and Dimaonds – the symbols you need to trigger even more powerful effects.

Most skills costing 5 or 10 XP, and each time the party takes down a monster there’s some XP on offer for everyone. As a result, it’s quite possible that by the time you reach tile 3, you’ll have ticked off nearly all of your level 1-3 skills, especially if you take your time clearing every room. Combine that with some good armour and a few level 4 weapons thanks to transmuting, and a lot of people felt that this game quickly ended up being too easy –essentially, by the time you made it to level 3, you’d more-or-less won. Even then though, a bad roll can still 1-shot you, so it’s never completely a formality.

 

Scaling

Massive Darkness also has issues around scaling. Taking the above Loot example, in a small party, you’ll very soon have more equipment than you can use, and be able to regularly transmute into weapons that are a tile or 2 ahead of the game’s current level – usually meaning that you can deal with any monsters quite comfortably. We’ve already talked about how scaling affects loot, but it also has an impact on how you deal with enemies.

Guard OverviewSmall parties are also well-positioned in terms of enemies – “Mobs” (enemy groups) are generally made up of a boss and some minions, typically 1x or 2x as many as there are Heroes.

In a 2-player game, the odds of a single hero killing both minions and the boss in a single turn are pretty good – meaning that he doesn’t have to face a counter-attack. In a 4-player game, those extra minions will probably still be dealt with before the end of the round, but it’s quite likely that they’ll get a shot away at one or two heroes first.

Whilst going true solo might cause difficulties with a lack of options or adaptability (or anyone else to tank damage), it seems quite clear that a 2-player game is going to find a lot of things a lot easier than a 4-6 player game. Overall, I think that 4 is probably the sweet spot for this game.

Campaign Play

“Story Mode” is something that was added to Massive Darkness midway through the Kickstarter campaign. It’s attracted a lot of criticism on the BGG forums, and it’s something I’m going to want to talk about separately later, once I’ve had more of a chance to play. For now I want to say that I can see why people have issues, but I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as the forums might suggest.

 

Ready to Play

Overall, that probably sounds a lot worse than it is – for all its faults (and I think that there are plenty), Massive Darkness isn’t a bad game, and I wouldn’t want people to think that it was simply an over-complicated, unscalable luck-fest.

I think that when we play this with groups of friends, then “as is” will fit the bill – standalone scenarios for groups of around 4 are probably the optimum way to play this game anyway.

VariantsRight now, the forums on Board Game Geek are drowning in suggested variants: tougher mobs, less loot, and a million and one other things that range from the simple and sensible to the bizarre and arcane. Overall, it feels a bit premature – especially as a lot of the ideas came from people who hadn’t actually received the game yet.

I intend to play all through the core scenarios using only base-game content (aside from extra dice), in standalone mode, and have a good run at campaign mode, before I make changes. Beyond that point, I might make 1 or 2 minor tweaks for when we’re playing at home, but not much. Overall though, I come back to the starting-point: Massive Darkness is meant to be a simple Dungeon Crawl – kill lots of monsters, get loads of stuff. However I end up playing it ought to retain that.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to say how I would feel if I’d decided to wait until Massive Darkness hit retail – it’s still showing an average rating of 7.8 from nearly 1000 reviews, and as far as I can tell, there aren’t too many “I’m so excited I’ll give it a 10 before it arrives” ratings in there. I don’t think I’d have been scared off on that count. Obviously, we don’t yet have it available in the UK, so it’s hard to know exactly what it will cost, but I’d imagine it’ll be in a similar bracket to other large CMON games – not something to pick up on a whim, but plausible for Christmas etc.

As you can probably gather, I’m fairly happy with this Kickstarter project overall. It’s not the best game ever made, and this is far from being the “only” way to get it, or being a retail product that’s “incomplete,” but it’s given me some fun gaming at good value, with some added engagement from tracking the campaign thrown in.

Pecunia populi vox dei

(based on very rusty GCSE Latin, “The Money of the People is the Voice of God”)

Monopoly is a rubbish game. It often makes me sad that a lot of people think that’s what Board Gaming is.

Rising SunLots of other games aren’t rubbish, but they’re not for me. Rising Sun, a recent CMON Kickstarter, is a Diplomacy-style game of shifting alliances and careful negotiation for 3-5. Not playable with 2 (or 1), not cooperative, it was never going to be something for us.

That’s a shame – the Samurai + fantastical elements theme really caught my attention, and I monitored this one for a while, in the hope that they would announce some kind of variant / option that would bring it into scope. But they didn’t and I moved on.

l5r(I will rely instead on a brief obsession with Legend of the Five Rings this summer autumn, poring over gorgeous artwork and lamenting the fact that I will never be able to afford to visit rural Japan, before that too gets abandoned like every other competitive LCG because I can’t get to down to the FLGS reliably enough to play regularly…) [/tangent]

 

Increasingly though, it seems like my approach to the campaign – watching hopefully, then resigning and moving on – is an unusual thing to do. More-and-more, the approach is to request, demand, or simply berate until a designer changes their mind to suit your tastes – or until you run out of energy and give up.

That process – which at best could be considered constructive feedback and collaboration, and at worst descends into entitled sulking and name-calling, is what I want to look at today. How does the creative process for a game on Kickstarter differ from any other game?

 

Finished?

The thing about making a game through Kickstarter (or any other form of crowd-funding), is that you’re not just presenting people with a finished product, you’re asking them to invest in a concept.

Now for a good Kickstarter, that concept will be very well thought-out, extensively play-tested and soforth: having good gameplay videos, or a review copy in the hands of a well-known games-blogger are both major elements in ensuring the success of a Kickstarter. Still, the fact remains that you haven’t actually made it yet, and that gives people the impression that things are still up for grabs.

NotAStoreIt’s also worth saying that (officially) people on Kickstarter aren’t just buying a game, they are investing in your idea – and that will give a lot of them the sense that they now have a right to tell you how to make your game.

Going back through the Rising Sun threads [On Board Game Geek – I lack the sanity to wade through 34k+ KS comments], I was actually surprised at how few there were clamouring for a co-op version, but there were still plenty of threads demanding 2-player options, less “racist” language and iconography (some in the game itself, but mostly in the marketing) more properly-dressed female figures, more mostly-undressed female figures and so on.

Obviously, looking at it from the outside, with a little bit of cold detachment, you can see how ridiculous it is for one person to cancel their $100 pledge as a protest at the way a $4.5 million project is being run – my personal favourite thread was this one.

I think there’s certainly a lot more chatter these days about any not-yet-released game, and how the fans think the designers should make it better, than there used to be. Still, it feels like Kickstarting a game gives people a sense that they have more of a right to tell you how to make your game to suit them.

Add-onsDone right, the interaction between designer and backer can be a good channel for market research, and have some sensible benefits. For example the Aeon’s End: War Eternal campaign offered an add-on pack with dice to use as life-counters, and it seems to have largely been down to Kickstarter comments that these will now be spin-down dice (adjacent numbers next to each other). However, when you start to believe that $100 gives you the right to tell a company that their entire business model is wrong, it may be time to stop and think for a moment.

 

Investment or Pre-order?

Notionally, Kickstarter is still about investing in an idea – Creators pitch that idea to backers, and offer them bonuses for investing now and making that project happen, rather than waiting for retail.

GreenHordeForumsIn reality, the scope of what a project is, is a lot broader than that. At one end of the scale, Cool Mini Or Not are one of the biggest Kickstarter producers, and a lot of people have commented on the fact that a CMON Kickstarter can feel a lot more like a simple pre-order than like a proper project to back an otherwise infeasible project. You expect delays, but it would be a major shock if a CMON Kickstarter failed to deliver altogether.

If I pre-order a game from the FLGS, I don’t expect to be able to influence how that game comes packaged, or how it plays and, if that’s the case, I shouldn’t have any more expectation that I can do so when pre-ordering online.

But, however much it might look, or feel like that, a Kickstarter project is still (officially) not just a pre-order, even when it’s a $4 million project with a projected delivery time-frame of only 3 months (looking at you Gloomhaven). In that context, people are always going to ask for additional things they want.

Behind the Scenes?

Most big Kickstarter projects these days will have a fairly complex marketing strategy, designed to ensure a strong start, retain interest over the course of the campaign, and hopefully generate a last-minute surge. This will lead to a broad sprinkling of updates and stretch goals, with information being held back and released at strategic moments.

One issue with this limited flow of information, is that it makes it very difficult to say with certainty what was prepared before the campaign began, and what was only added late in the day, as a response to ongoing feedback – was stretch goal #10 really a response to what people were clamouring for? Or just a happy opportunity for the creator to add a bit of spin, when announcing something that they had had planned all along.

HedgesZombicide: Green Horde had a mammoth campaign, which finished recently in dramatic fashion, breaking the $5 million barrier with 2 minutes left!! Unlike previous editions of Zombicide, Green Horde features hedges and barricades – some hedges printed on the terrain boards, and a handful more represented by cardboard tokens that can be added as a scenario requires. The offer of a hedge-and-barrier pack to make these 3D was clearly planned all along. When people then clamoured for the opportunity to buy more hedges (without extra barriers), so that they could replace all the hedges, (not just the token ones) with 3D models, I’m prepared to believe that CMON genuinely did re-think their plans, and offer more of the same components in a slightly different arrangement.

Massive By contrast, from very early on, there were lots of people who wanted a crossover pack to use their Green Horde figures in Massive Darkness – sure enough it was unveiled in the final week of the campaign, prompting a little surge in pledges. That doesn’t mean for a moment that I think CMON didn’t have it planned all along, just a lot of experience in how to manage people’s interest in a KS campaign.

The point where I start to suspect that they may actually be making things up as they go along is when they announce new figures and don’t have sculpts ready for them – the 3D renders of the Ultimate Survivors in the Green Horde campaign hint at that for me, and ”Reptisaurians” (Lizard-men) from Massive Darkness came as concept art only – now they really look like something put together at the last moment. 

 

“Your chance to get involved!”

flavour textOne area where it does seem easier to prove that the community are influencing the final product is when campaigns contain backer competitions: to take another recent example, the Aeon’s End: War Eternal campaign featured Board Game Geek competitions to name one card, and to write the flavour text for another. Now, obviously these are fairly minor (and crucially non-mechanical) tweaks to the game, but they do serve to foster a greater sense of involvement among backers.

Inviting comment is a double-edged sword though: for one thing, a lot of people were fairly disappointed with the outcome of some of these contests, especially as the creators seemed to simply pick their favourite from amongst the various suggestions, rather than allowing a public vote, or even basing their decision on the number of Likes and positive comments. At this point the cynic starts to wonder: was that a real member of the public who posted the winning suggestion? Or a fake account from the creators to ensure that they didn’t have to change anything as a result of their own competition (just to clarify, I don’t think that’s what happened here).

Backlash

Garak_(Star_Trek) Ultimately, the more Creators try to engage backers in the project, the more they open themselves up to criticism when they don’t change their game to suit the whims of the public. For every clever little fix the backers suggest, they can expect a whole handful of crackpot suggestions to re-design the game to do something completely different, to replace the components with Obsidian, or translate it into Klingon (not the same game – if they were replacing the components with Obsidian, then you would translate into Cardassian. Obviously.)

I think it’s also worth remembering that in all of these types of forums, it tends to be a vocal minority who do most of the commenting – this can lead to situations, where a dozen or so people clamour for something, and generate the impression of an irresistible tide of feeling, when 95% of people are happy with things as they are, and are just keeping quiet about it. Green Horde had over 100,000 comments by the time the campaign was over, but it wouldn’t surprise me for a moment to learn that at least half of those comments came from a dozen or so people. This is certainly my sense of what happened with Aeon’s End: the graphic design on the first edition was fine, but the people who liked it didn’t feel the need to post endless threads on BGG and the like demanding it be kept the same (why would you?) in this context, those who pressed for change would have sounded like an overwhelming majority.

Comments
Strangely, I couldn’t find the comment I was looking for amongst 105 thousand others!!

I think that listening to backers has the potential to be a great resource for Game Designers and Creators. However, mob rule is only going to get you an incoherent or perennially delayed game, and there must come a point where they know their own mind, and know when to stick with their decisions.

Like most backers, whilst I recognise that KS projects are not there to suit my every whim, I generally wish that communication was more frequent, and clearer. Even there though, Creators have better things to do than report on design and development events in minute detail, and sometimes a silence is just a silence.

 

That’s about all I wanted to touch on today, and it brings me to the end of this little mini-series on Kickstarter. I’m sure it’s an area I’ll touch on again, probably around the autumn, by which time (hopefully) I’ll actually have my hands on some of the various games I’ve backed.

Kickstarter: Now with Rounder Corners!

KSAs part of my ongoing not-all-that-regular series on Kickstarter, today I want to take a look at the wide world of Stretch Goals.

As I explained in the Kickstarter Basics article, every KS project comes with a Funding Target – The Funding Target of a pledge would generally be (more-or-less) the minimum amount that designers have worked out they need in order to actually make the game – the costs of making the bits and pieces, and getting them out to the buyers: you don’t want to pitch it too high, because if you set the bar at $100,000 and people pledge $99,999, then you don’t get a penny, the whole thing fails.

Funded On other hand, if you hit $100,000 on day 15 of 30 (or 5 minutes into day 1 for some projects…), what happens then? Whether you’re a designer who believes they have a great game that people deserve to know about, or simply a business looking to make more cash, chances are that you aren’t just going to think “job done” – you want more people to keep coming along and backing the project for the rest of the funding period. To make that happen, a lot of people turn to stretch goals.

A stretch goal is a sort of unofficial extra target for a KS project- they’ve already hit the funding target, so the project is going to happen, but this is a way to keep people engaged, and hopefully make it all bigger and better.

Making it Better

Maybe you launch a project for a game, and set a target of $20,000 – as soon as you pass $20,000 you know you can make your game. Maybe if you got $25,000 you could use a higher-quality card-stock, so you add that as a stretch goal. If you get to $30,000, the dice included could be custom dice rather than generic ones. At $40,000 maybe you have enough cash to make 20 different cards for each deck in the game, instead of 15.

In an attempt to keep driving traffic to the Kickstarter page, many projects will drip-feed the stretch-goals: announce 1 or 2 to begin with and, as the targets are met, those goals are “unlocked” and you can announce the next one – this keeps people coming back to check in on things, and generates a buzz around the game.

More cynically, it allows designers time to re-balance if funding goes a lot better (or worse) than anticipated, but however you look at it, it helps generate a sense of progression. Lots of projects will have late stretch goals that the designers always planned to include, but they announce them just before the end, in order to provoke a late surge in funding.

 

Money for nothing

(NB: All the numbers quoted in this section are hypothetical)

There are always issues with stretch goals, and one major issue is cost.

Imagine you launch a project where the game costs $40, and you have a funding target of $20,000. Assuming no optional purchases/wonky international shipping charges etc, that’s 500 backers you need to get funded. Imagine if, instead, you get 1000 backers. That’s $20,000 more than you were expecting. However, you now need to produce 1000 copies of the game, not just 500.

This is where it gets complicated. It probably doesn’t cost twice as much to produce twice as many copies of the game – you still only need the same number of pieces of art, the same number of designers, and the factory still has the same amount of set-up work to do. Equally, it doesn’t cost the same to produce 1000 copies as 500 – you need twice as many raw materials, you have twice as many boxes to ship etc.

On this basis, you probably have some money to offer extras as stretch goals. Let’s say that the original $20,000 was $10,000 of art, design, set-up costs, and $10,000 of raw materials and shipping. Your 1000 backers have increased your revenue by $20,000 dollars, but only increased your costs by $10,000 – that’s $10,000 spare.

StretchQualityBut what do you do with that $10,000? – say you decide to have extra art, or commission nicer art from your favourite artist – $5,000 more spent on art probably has no real impact on your ongoing production costs. However, if you decide to upgrade that card-stock, it’s a different matter: if you improve materials, you impact the whole of the project – instead of $20 per copy on materials, you’re now spending $25 – that’s not just $2500 on components for the first 500 copies, but $5 for every extra copy you sell. This means that for all future stretch goals, you’re working with a reduced margin, as each new pledge of $40 now only brings you $15 to play with, not $20.

A lot of this has to do with economies of scale, particularly with Miniatures games. Broadly speaking, to make a miniature for a game, you need to spend a fair amount of money paying an artist to sculpt it. Then you need to spend a fair amount more on getting a mould made to cast it in plastic. Once you’ve done that, actually squirting plastic into the mould probably costs a fairly trivial sum

SculptStretch
Aside from the sculpting cost, this is no more miniatures than you were making anyway.

Using hypothetical numbers, you might need to spend $250 to get the sculpt crafted, another $245 on a mould, but be able to produce copies of that new figure for $0.50 a time. If your campaigns raise figures somewhere in the millions of dollars, you can offer a stretch goal like “extra sculpt for miniature x” with a fairly static cost: you hit your sculpting and moulding cost as a 1-off, but then have no additional materials cost for making 3 figures each in 2 poses as you previously had for 6 figures all in the same pose.

OgreExtra
Once you hit $635k, that’s an extra Ogre – for ALL backers.

If you’re adding figures, rather than simply adding variety, the costs are still small – up until they aren’t. Even if it only costs you $0.50 for a single miniature, Rising Sun, CMON’s most recent Kickstarter received over 30,000 backers – that’s $15,000 to give each backer 1 extra miniature, using our hypothetical figures. By the time you reach a certain level, even if the per-unit cost is very low compared to the static set-up cost, you have a very limited amount of slack in the budget. That’s why most Kickstarter projects will see the stretch-goals spaced further and further apart as the pledge total gets higher.

 

Numbers?

As I mentioned above, all of the numbers I’ve used here are hypothetical. I don’t know how much it costs to commission a sculpt, or to move from sculpt to cast to mould, or to make a figure once you have all your moulds ready to go. I’m pretty confident that the start-up costs are much higher than the ongoing ones, but I don’t know the numbers. I’m not claiming to be an industry insider, nor an expert, and I hope that no-one goes away from this (or any of my other) article(s) having been mislead in any way.

– since writing this, I’ve found This Interesting Article, which isn’t really looking at the same thing, but is still interesting in terms of money, numbers and board-games. 

The problem though with the internet in general, and Kickstarter comment sections and forum discussions in particular, is that everyone’s an expert. You can confidently expect dozens of folks with no experience of miniatures casting to come along and announce to all that making X “only cost Y,” or “definitely cost at least Z” – maybe some of them are right, but a lot of them won’t be, and this can lead to a lot of bad-feeling as backers feel that the creators of the project are simply profiteering, rather than ploughing the money back into the game. This is particularly problematic, because there’s a chance it might be true – some Kickstarter creators are small, independent start-ups, desperate to get their game to market, and incredibly grateful to anyone who has helped realise that dream. Others are multi-million-dollar companies for whom the goodwill of the buying public is just a resource like any other, to be judiciously managed on the road to maximum profit – they’ll give stretch goals where it will help drive sales, but never so that it’s going to cost more than it generates.

 

Great Expectations

Big Board Game Kickstarters have been a thing for several years now, and people have expectations. They expect stretch goals, and if it’s an established company like CMON, they will have expectations for what those stretch goals should be, and how often they should come. With the sense of entitlement common to most millennials, as soon as those expectations fail to be met, you can expect them to start baying for blood.

Azrael In the Massive Darkness campaign, there was a fair amount of anger when the $675k stretch goal was the Miniature for a new player-character, Azrael the High Elf, and the 710k stretch goal was the class-sheet pad for the Noble Warrior. As Azrael is a Noble Warrior, a lot of people cried foul play at this point- this was one stretch goal, they argued, disguised as 2, to give the false impression of smaller gaps between goals.

Now, CMON are big enough that they didn’t care – they knew the project was going to break a million dollars, so both goals were happening anyway. It’s also technically true that Azrael could be played as a different class, so it was technically an extra thing, even if people didn’t like it.

Aeon’s End is a marketplace game (think Dominion), so the Stretch Goals in their KS campaigns generally take the form of new cards for the marketplace, increasing the variety. Each time a few thousand more dollars were notched up, another card was added for backers, a spell here, a gem here. Some of these cards are now simply part of the game, whereas others are either Kickstarter exclusives (backers get them, others don’t), or “Promo” (backers get them at no extra cost, others may have the chance to buy them at a later point).

With 20+ stretch goals unlocked by the time the campaign ended, having raised more than 10x the original target figure, this one would have to be classed as a success.

Right?

ThickBreach Well, unfortunately, this campaign suffered a bit of a PR fail with one of the late-ish stretch goals.

Every game of Aeon’s End requires a set of cardboard “breaches” –the holes in reality through which player-characters fire their spells. In the original game, these were fairly thin and bendy, so people were fairly happy when the 80k stretch-goal upgraded them to thicker card-stock.

Some also commented that they would prefer their breaches with rounded corners. However, they seemed a bit puzzled when the $275,000 stretch-goal appeared, “round corners for breaches” – this seemed to put noses out-of-joint for a number of reasons: firstly they’d already “used up one stretch-goal on breaches,” secondly there was a perception that making the breach corners rounded shouldn’t cost any more than having them square [as far as I can tell, most people have now come over to the idea that it would cost more, which sounds plausible to me, although I really don’t know]. Thirdly this coincided with the gap between stretch-goals going up from $10,000 to $15,000, which most people felt warranted a more exciting reward.

Rounded There was a fair amount of grumbling and mockery in the Kickstarter comments and, aside from various jokes along the lines of “next goal: even rounder corners,” one comment in particular leapt out at me

“Ok I asked for round corners a while back but i dont think its SG material. Its something than you just do because its something that you do….. I dont think round corners justifies 15k really.”

Lack of apostrophes aside, it’s fairly clear what they mean – and clear that they’re not happy

I think a lot of this ties back in to that sense of entitlement I mentioned earlier. This guy has backed the project, and he now believes that this entitles him to more free stuff at regular intervals: at the time, the project was trending toward $300k, which would have meant 3 gems, 4 spells, and 2 relics (incidentally that’s the exact ratios for a standard marketplace), as well as 2 Nemesis and a Mage, all of which others would need to buy as a separate expansion (probably around $20), and a few extra dividers and basic Nemesis cards not available elsewhere. That’s on top of a base game that will now be slightly bigger and better quality for everyone than when the campaign launched.

Assuming they thought the game was worth the $65 tag when they backed it, it’s pretty hard to see how a backer could be unhappy with what they get here – the extra content and the value for money vs RRP are all fairly clear.

 

Too small unless stretched?

But of course, it is an assumption that they thought the original project was good value – I know that there have been KS campaigns in the past which I have looked at and decided that the basic pledge wasn’t worth my money.

Also, up until a Kickstarter project finishes, you can edit or cancel your pledge, without being committed to anything, so there are people who will jump in early, with a strong expectation of cancelling later on if the project doesn’t tick enough boxes for them along the way.

Numenera Stretch Goals

That seems a bit backwards to me, but as far as I can recall (it was a long time ago), I deliberated on the 9th World for a while, and backed it late on, having been swayed by the extra stuff they’d unlocked – if it had stayed in its pre-stretch goal state, I’d probably have kept my money.

Still there definitely are people who pledge early, do so without any real thought of backing out later, but who still bring their fairly subjective feelings about stretch-goals along, and demand to be heard.

 

I think that’s about enough on Stretch Goals for today. Next time in this KS mini-series, I want to continue the theme that we’re starting to touch on – the idea that being a Kickstarter backer somehow gives you “rights” that a mere buyer doesn’t have.

 

 

Zombicide Black Plague: Zombie Bosses Expansion Review

What’s that coming over the hill?

bossboxPreviously here on Fistful of Meeples, I’ve reviewed some additional assistance for the Survivors in Black Plague, through the extra Vault Weapons available via NPC box 1. Now it’s time to even things up by offering reinforcements for the forces of darkness through the Zombie Bosses box. This expansion comes with 3 new unique Abominations, and the cards and tokens needed to use them in a game of Zombicide: Black Plague.

Abominations: The Basics

Abominations are the largest and the toughest of the Zombies in the base game – whereas Walkers and Runners can be killed with any weapon, and Fatties need something that does 2 Damage, Abominations are damage 3 monsters: In the base game, there are no 3-damage weapons, meaning you have 2 possibilities.

  • Get Sampson, wielding a hammer (or some other 2-damage weapon) up to the Red Level where he can choose the “Melee: +1 Damage” skill.
  • Discard a “Dragon Bile” Equipment card and a “Torch” equipment card in the Abomination’s space, to start Dragon Fire.

The first retail expansion for Zombicide: Wulfsburg brought new options. The Vampire Crossbow, a weapon that any Survivor above Blue level can wield is a 3-damage weapon, and kills Abominations straight out. There are also various weapons (Chaos Longbow, Flaming Great-Sword, Dragon-Fire Blade) which make it easier to start a Dragon Fire, and the Earthquake Hammer, a 2-damage Weapon which goes up to 3 damage on a roll of 6.

In return for these extra ways to kill Abominations, Wulfsburg gave you the Wolfbomination. Like a normal abomination, but 3 times as fast.

Now, “Wave 2” has hit. Between the Kickstarter content (much of it available via eBay etc if you weren’t a backer), and the gradual release of retail expansions, there are now any number of ways to get to 3 damage, via character abilities, and new weapons.

That’s where the Zombie Bosses come in: with all these ways to kill their champions, the Zombies need more bosses, and more powerful ones at that. Let’s see what this box has to offer.

 

Unboxing

bosscontentsWhen you open the box, the first thing you see is the 3 Miniatures for the new bosses. Miniatures is a word I use loosely. The Ablobination is only about the height of a normal Abomination (although it does have a very long arm), but the Abominatroll and the Abominatour are both massive, towering over even the Wolfbomination.

My first impressions on the miniatures were fairly mixed: on the one hand, they are clearly good quality figures, the detail is good, the construction looks solid (it’s disappointing, but completely understandable that the Abominatroll needs a support pin), and there was slightly less in the way of excess casting/misalignment than on most of the other packs I’ve bought.

troll-blobThat said, neither the Abominatroll, nor the Ablobination particularly caught my imagination figure-wise. Abominations are supposed to be the results of crazed experiments on the part of evil Necromancers to create bigger and nastier foes, and that was something you could see easily in the standard Abomination and the Wolfbomination. Here by contrast, we’re lacking a frame of reference for what a ‘normal’ troll looks like before you abominate it, and the Ablobination is just plain weird.

minotaurNone of that particularly bothered me, because I think the third miniature in the box is just brilliant.

Whilst we don’t have a non-abomination version of a Minotaur, I think it’s an easy enough concept to imagine, that it’s easy to see what a great job they’ve done with the Abominatour. Where the Ablobination is just sort of sitting there, and the Abominatroll is lunging so wildly he needs propping up, the Abominatour is a perfect combination of a solid pose that still oozes dynamic energy. A definite winner for me.

 

Gameplay

Obviously, in a miniatures game like this, the sculpts are important, but as nice as the components may look, we wouldn’t still be getting bits for it the gameplay wasn’t fun, and the Zombie Bosses need to earn their keep in this regard too.

Abominatour

blackbook
We’re in!

As with the miniatures, so with the gameplay: the Abominatour was the one I was most excited to play. Unlike every other Zombie in the game, which needs to carefully navigate a path around buildings and through doors, the Abominatour works out where the noisiest square is, and he just goes there – destroying any walls which stand in his way (and meaning that any other zombie can now follow in his wake). The expansion comes with little cardboard tokens to mark the destruction he has wrought.

In practice, having an Abominatour on hand certainly changes the gameplay, sometimes dramatically. The fact that he can open up (and spawn) locked buildings, or smash through walls into places that would otherwise be inaccessible without specific objectives can really turn things on their heads. The most extreme example feels like it would be Welcome to Wulfsburg – where an Abominatour who spawns at the top of the map could change things very quickly (and make for a really short quest). We’ve also managed to break in to the central complex in The Black Book Without finding the required objective by using the Minotaur.

 

Troll and Blob

XuxaThe other two bosses definitely felt more like they were just more-powerful versions of the abomination: the troll gets extra activations if he can see you which makes him in to essentially a Wolfbomination will a little bit more strategy involved, whilst the Ablobination can only be destroyed with Dragon-Fire, taking you back to the core-box only days without 3-damage weapons.

The dragon-fire only restriction is particularly relevant if you’re bringing in lots of powerful survivors – In a game with Xuxa, an Abomination is just another big zombie (once she has Quicksilver Sword and +1 to dice roll combat, it’s pretty hard for her to miss), and pegging things back to a point where you need dragon fire felt like a good counterbalance.

 

Overall Thoughts

I’m definitely glad I bought this box. I’m not generally one of these people who find games “too easy” and if you chuck in all 12 spawn cards for the monsters in this box, you could quickly find yourself in trouble (we did that once. We died horribly). Used in moderation though, they have great potential to add variety to the game, and they do allow you to use some of the extra content which benefits survivors, without losing all the tension from the game.

A few months ago, I backed Cool Mini Or Not’s latest big Kickstarter project, Massive Darkness, including a Zombicide Crossover kit which includes card to use various monsters, including these 3 in the new game. I’m sure they’ll have plenty to keep them busy over the intervening 9 or so months, but it’s nice to know that there are fresh victims out there waiting to be eaten…

Painting

I’m slowly painting all my Zombicide figures. A lot of the Walkers and almost all of the Wolves are still awaiting the technicolour treatment, but something as spectacular as these guys went straight to the front of the queue.

bosseswipThat said, they were a challenge. For one thing, I’d never painted anything as big as the Abominataur or the Abominatroll (not with any level of detail, I seem to recall there was an Airfix Lancaster bomber 20 years ago…) beyond that, the colour scheme isn’t immediately obvious. There are images of all 3 of these in the rulesheet, but it’s hard to tell where to draw the line between “natural” colours and the thoroughly outlandish.

paintedIn the end I decided to keep the flesh on the Blob and the Minotaur fairly ‘natural’ – these are sufficiently weirdly shaped that there’s no need to make them lime green or shocking pink to convey their otherness. For the troll a selection of greyish green (based German Fieldgray, highlighted with “Grey Green”) seemed more fitting. I used a brighter metallic colour than normal to pick out the armour on the Minotaur, just because there’s so much otherwise uninterrupted flesh, and used a thin wash of red over all the bits that look like boils/swellings, as well as a few green tints, just to add an unhealthy look.

paintotaur

Overall, I’m fairly pleased with how these turned out. As always, the flagstone effect on the bases really seems to set the miniatures off. I’m under no illusion that these are a particularly high standard, and they’re certainly not about to win any painting awards (I lack the patience/skill for the many-layered highlighting and blending) but they look great for our games, and overall these Zombie bosses are a fun addition to an already brilliant game.

Zombicide Black Plague: NPC Box 1 Review

 

The Good, The Bad, and the Notorious

I’ve talked a few times here and there about Zombicide, including the series of slightly dark photos I posted the other week, but I’ve not yet done a proper review of any of the components. As mentioned before, the base game was reviewed on the GamesQuest site, and you can read that here. I decided it was time to change that, so from now on, I’m going to be posting my thoughts on the various new expansions that I pick up.

The first of the retail expansions* (not technically at retail yet) to hit my gaming table were the NPCs – with an obvious nod to the Non-Player Characters of Fantasy RPGs, these are Notorious Plagued Characters – a slightly more glamorous brand of zombie, with some new twists to offer the game. Let’s dive in, and see what we get in the box.

Unboxing

NPC Box 1 contains 20 Zombie figures (4 each of 5 different sculpts), 3 Vault Weapons, and the spawn cards needed to get those Zombies in to play. (There are also lots of duplicate cards in other languages, which are probably of limited use.)

Cards

VaultsSlightly unusually, I’m going to start with the Vault Cards. I loved Zombicide: Black Plague when I got it, and we played it to death (25 games in the first month), but the one place where it really felt limited was with the Vault Weapons. There were 2 in the game, and many scenarios place “2 random vault weapons” in the vaults – it just meant that there was no variety, and that as soon as you picked up the first one, you knew exactly what the other one was. If you found the Crossbow, you knew to send the Wizard to the other vault to get the spell.

Heavy Crossbow
Limitations aside, the ability to kill Abominations is always a bonus

For that alone, just having 5 instead of 2 is a great addition. The new cards themselves are an interesting mix: a Longbow that works at range and in Melee, a 3-damage crossbow, and a shield that works against Abominations. All potentially very useful, although with noticeable drawbacks compared to the original weapons (the shield doesn’t kill things, the crossbow is no use at point-blank range, and the Longbow is only 1 damage). Overall though, these cards seem like a great addition to the game.

Miniatures

The Miniatures themselves are a bit of a mixed bag: there were 5 different sculpts: A dwarf(?) in armour, a dancing girl, a torturer/jailer, a nurse, and a Moor (to use the Dark Ages terminology). First up, I’ll say that my pack of NPCs had some of the worst casting problems of any Zombicide minis I’ve yet received. For most of them, I had to spend a lot of time trimming with a scalpel and file, then fill with plastic putty, undercoat, and THEN go through the whole filling and filing process again. As I was going to paint the figures anyway, this added a fair amount of work, but did at least mean that I could get them to a fairly decent state – if you weren’t going to paint your miniatures, then these are some of the first Zombicide figures I’ve had which were mis-cast badly enough to be noticeable/offputting whilst sat unpainted on the table.

Female ZombiesMoving from production (it could well have just been a suspect batch) to the sculpts themselves, the NPCs certainly offer something a bit different from the standard walkers. There are two female walkers in the base game, both wearing fairly generic full-length dresses. The NPC box has a Nurse, who is carrying a good amount of kit for a zombie, and a Dancing Girl who (as you might expect) is wearing very little indeed.

JailerOf the three male figures, the Jailer/Torturer character is the most interesting, with a slightly garish expression, it does a good job of suggesting that he may not have been entirely sane when he was alive.

The Moor and the Armoured figure round off the set – with the Lore of Zombicide: Black Plague being a little hazy, I can’t say with certainty whether the chap in armour is meant to be a dwarf, or just a bit short and stout.

Overall, these were a fun set to paint, and being character figures, a good chance to introduce a bit more colour into the Zombie populace.

Gameplay

The official way to use the NPCs is to add their spawn cards to the deck, and spawn them as their own separate kind of zombie. When spawning an NPC, you select a figure at random from the reserve and, instead of simply returning it once killed, your survivor can discard 5 different NPC zombies, to choose a Vault Weapon from the box.

Arm-MoorAside from the special rules on spawning and collecting, NPCs function like Walkers, and if you ever run out of NPCs, you simply use walkers instead (although your survivor can discard NPCs at any time, back to the supply).

Playing with NPCs as written definitely makes the game easier. For one thing, you can have 5 Vault Weapons amongst your party, rather than the maximum of 2 which you tend to get from scenarios. The addition of the extra spawn cards for what are, functionally, more walkers also reduces the frequency with which you run into the nastier beasts of the spawn deck.

Whether you regard this as a good or a bad change is, obviously, rather more subjective. With all the additional Zombies we now have access to – Wolfz, and Zombies bosses at least, Crowz and Deadeyes if you’re a Kickstarter backer [or reading this a few months in the future], I think that having something which can make the game easier is a good corrective, and brings some of the harder scenarios back to a sensible point where they are playable.

Variants

It has been commented many times on places like Board Game Geek, that Zombicide feels a lot like a sandbox game: you can add, or choose not to add, any number of different expansion elements, and if those aren’t to your liking, you can make up your own rules. The simplest thing to do with NPCs, would be to use them as standard walkers (with or without the additional spawn cards), to add more visual variety, but the scope is almost endless, and I’ve seen suggestions for arming the NPCs with the Vault Weapon you would get from killing them, triggering all manner of additional effects, and no doubt a few more possibilities that I’ve just forgotten.

Bishops
I thought all-purple might get dull, so I promoted one to Cardinal

Whilst the rules for NPCs (official ones) are fixed, the distribution of zombies is rather more variable. NPC Box 1 contains 4 figures in each of 5 different poses. Personally, I also splashed out on 3 extra poses from a Kickstarter Backer, via Ebay, and there is another box out there, NPC 2, which adds a further 20 zombies in 5 more poses, and another 3 Vault cards.

I think the way we had things set up at the start, did make it too easy to get vault cards – I’d only painted 2 figures in each of the 8 poses, so the odds of getting duplicates were greatly lowered, and our survivors rapidly acquired the full set needed to cash in for a vault weapon. Moving back to 4 figures in each pose, normalises things slightly. There are still people who think that anywhere above the 5 poses you get in a single box makes it too easy to get a set, but it depends slightly on how you do the randomising: a fear of chipping painted miniatures seems to rule out “chuck them in a bag and grab one at random” so again, the suggested different ways of selecting seem to be endless. Personally, I just assigned a number from 1-8 to the different sculpts, then rolled a D8 to see which one I needed (re-rolling if all the miniatures of that number were already in play).

Snow WhiteThe Kickstarter NPCs certainly aren’t necessary from a gameplay perspective, but I think they are the best sculpts – the guy holding his own head is entertaining, the Bishop/Cardinal is a really characterful sculpt, and the woman who looks suspiciously like Disney’s Snow White is just plain hilarious (I have plans for that sculpt, leading mobs of dwarves when Massive Darkness arrives next year).

Verdict

At the moment, the only way to get your hands on NPC Box 1 (or 2) is to have been a Kickstarter backer, or to find someone else who was, and is selling. These will be on retail release at some point in the future, and as soon as they are, I think they are an essential purchase, probably the first one I’d get. The variety from extra vault cards alone adds so much replay-ability to the base game, and the option to ease the game’s difficulty allows you to really go to town with all those monster abominations.

All the colours of the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m aware that things have been a bit dry and cerebral here for the last little while: lots of numbers and musings, without too much shiny. I wanted to redress the balance a bit today, and I couldn’t think of a better game to focus on in doing that than Zombicide, a big, bold dice-chucking miniatures game.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I picked up Zombicide: Black Plague in March, as a review copy (check out the review here on the Games Quest blog). Cool Mini Or Not were a company I hadn’t really been familiar with before, but the fast, fun gameplay of Zombicide had me hooked, and as time passed, I was inspired to dust off my paints and paintbrushes (largely unused since I gave up Table-top Wargaming a couple of years ago) and paint some of the figures.

Survivors

In the game, you control a band of survivors, fighting of swarms of Zombies. The core game gives you 6 Survivors to start with:

Core Survivors

There was also a bix-box expansion call Wulfsburg (can you guess what type of enemies got added there?) which added another 4 Survivors, to give you some fresh options:

Wolfsburg Survivors

Around the same time, I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of B-Sieged (thanks again Games Quest – check out the review here), and the Ebay was able to supply me with promo cards to play the 6 B-Sieged Heroes as Zombicide Survivors as well.

B-Sieged Survivors

 

Zombies

NecroAbomHaving painted the Survivors, it seemed only fair to start adding some colour to the Zombies themselves, starting with the Necromancer (puny in and of himself, but summons extra zombies) and the Abomination (big nasty thing, very hard to kill with only Core Box survivors and equipment)

 

The Zombies themselves come in 3 basic types, Walkers (vanilla), Runners (move twice instead of once) and Fatties (need 2 damage to kill instead of 1).

Standard Zs
I decided to give the Fatties red rings, and the Runners yellow rings so I could easily idetify them at a distance

As these are basically just the peasantry of the Dark Ages, I tried to stick with a fairly plain colour pallet – lots of browns and beiges. I allowed myself a bit more colour on the fatties, as getting to that size in this (admittedly fictionalised) time period, probably suggest that they were slightly better off.

Wolfbom
He’s a Wolf (3 Actions) AND an Abomination (3 Damage)

I’ve already mentioned the Wulfsburg expansion, and it should come as no great surprise to know that this introduces Wolf zombies. I haven’t had chance to paint up the normal “Wolfz” yet, but did at least get to their leader, the Wolfbomination

One of the great things about Zombicide, is the way you can modify it so easily – there are bucket-loads of expansions out there, and they are all basically modular, meaning you can mix and match which ones you include. My next acquisition was the “NPC (Notorious Plagued Characters)” box – n gameplay terms, they are basically just special zombies which you can collect to trade in for additional rewards. Gameplay aside, it was a chance to get a bit more creative with the colour-schemes, as these are clearly drawn from other places besides the general peasant mass.

NPCs

 

Practicalities

Something you can be entirely oblivious to when playing a game with unpainted miniatures, but which becomes rapidly evident when you start painting, is the extent of the casting flaws: lines around where the two halves of the mould join are pretty-much inevitable, and bigger gaps or mis-alignments can be found on a lot of the figures.

Trimming this away with a scalpel is pretty much inescapable, and for some figures, further filing and filling is needed too: Vallejo plastic putty is probably the best for this, although I’ll admit to having cut a few corners, and just used standard DIY filler, applied with a small metal tool, or a cocktail stick.

Paint-wise, I’ve used mostly Vallejo Colours, with a few Citadel or Humbrol odds and ends I had lying around. I do the main blocks of colour, then cover the thing over with a wash of Windsor and Newton Ink, which mutes the colours, and really brings out the contrast in the figure (or makes it obvious if you’ve missed a bit when trimming away the extra flashing). Then I add highlights over the top: typically a paler version of the colour itself on exposed areas. Finally, I spray with Army Painter anti-shine matt varnish, just to stop things from looking too garish.

It’s a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way, and very reluctantly over the years, that no matter how good a job you do on painting a figure, the base has at least as much impact on how it looks when out on the board, and in play.

Bases
The figures are all finished, but only half have had their bases done

The basing approach I’ve used for Black Plague is nicked more-or-less directly from the YouTube videos of the very talented Sorastro (then modified for me own forgetfulness/lack of ability) – a neutral grey colour to represent the mortar/dirt, and generally create the outline, then a selection of pale shades for the flagstones themselves, followed by a wash or two to dirty things up and bring down the contrast. Overall, it takes a fair amount of time – almost as much as the mini itself in some cases, but it’s definitely worth it for the final effect.

Final Thoughts

It’s been good fun getting back into painting again. As you can see, I’m far from being a professional-standard painter, but so long as you prep them properly, these miniatures allow you to get a nice visual effect without too much competence being required.

As a final sneak preview, I picked up these rather terrifying folk this week: the Zombie bosses:

Zomboss

I’ve never actually painted a miniature as big as the Abominatroll or Abominatour before, so these will be an interesting challenge, and I’ll post some results in a few weeks, along with a review of that box generally. In the meantime, I’m going to need someone able to deal with all these extra Abominations. Courtesy of Ebay, I think I might have the answer with this character, who definitely isn’t Xena: Warrior Princess (honest)

Xuxa
Meet Xuxa! – I went a little bit too heavy with the spray varnish, hence the foggy effect on the hair – might need to re-touch this.