Brains, Brains everywhere and not a frontal lobe to eat! Thus is the plight of the hordes of Zombies which now inhabit nearly every genre of gaming from children’s games, to party games, card games, roleplaying games, and beyond. Zombies are everywhere! Even though their popularity is waning a bit from their shambling 2010 peak when you couldn’t go to a major city and NOT run into a Zombiewalk event – they still capture gamer’s imaginations and wallets. So, today I’m going to tackle the weird world of Zombicide Season 2 Prison Outbreak, which marks the second installment of the wildly popular, kickstarter project, from Cool Mini or Not and Guillotine Games.
In Zombicide Season 2, as in the first installment, you play as a plucky band of survivors just trying to cobble together weapons, food, supplies, and occasionally more tactical objective. This felt pretty generic in Season 1 and was probably my biggest complaint there. The scenarios where wholly dependent upon well worn zombie chestnuts and the strength of the scenarios largely rested upon how cool or novel the scenario based objectives were. Zombicide Season 2 seems to have caught onto this and, mimicking AMC’s The Walking Dead series, has a season dedicated to a prison setting. From this point forward, whenever I say Zombicide – please assume it to refer to Zombicide Season 2. Let’s dive in!
Zombicide Season 2 adds a new zombie type: The Beserker. Berserkers come in a puke brown plastic to differentiate them from the typical gray zombie miniatures. They are also a wholly new class of challenging for the survivors. Berserkers cannot be damaged by ranged weapons that don’t affect everything in the zone (like Molotovs). Berserker fatties spawn with Berserker walkers. Aside from these combat differences everything remains largely the same ruleswise. For example, car attacks still kill these bad zom-boys & zombie-girls. The one truly terrifying new presence is the Berserker Abomination which, in addition to requiring 3 damage to kill ALSO gets the Berserker limitations, AND can move two zones at once. To say that they’re a treat would be a sad understatement…
Zombicide Season 2 also adds some new special tiles: Cells, Barbwire Fences, Observation Towers, a Rotating Security Gate, and Security Zones. As you can see, these were added to support the Prison theme. That’s the surface level of what these tiles do thematically. Remember when I said the original Zombicide Season 1 felt pretty generic to me? These are the tiles that create puzzles in the TEN bundled scenarios (many more available online!) and make Season 2 stand out from Season 1. For example, cells are generally tied to triggers that open them releasing zombies, but unlike when you clear a normal room and get the payoff of a good search…prison cells have already been searched and there’s nothing in them. It makes the game just that much more desperate and overrun.
One of the recurring themes in AMC’s Walking Dead season 3 where they were stuck in the prison was that the building was large enough that little nooks and crannies often posed massive challenges. In addition, guards posed an increased threat. Each new area of the prison explored revealed a new challenge, puzzle, and even some more unlikely guests of the prison. So too does Prison Outbreak follow this same path. It’s a morbid companion piece that anyone who loved Season 3 of Walking Dead is sure to enjoy. The ten included scenarios reward players with a campaign rather than a loose series of connected stories as we saw in the first iteration of Zombicide. In fact, what I like here is that the theme is no so generic zombie.
Another new addition this go around are the Zombivors. Yeah … you heard me right Zombie + Survivor = Zombivor. This wasn’t actually something that was unique to Season 2 if I understand correctly. It’s something, however, that is featured officially in Season 2 though and I think it adds a neat dynamic to the game. Effectively, every survivor model has the ability to be both a survivor with their primary sculpt and a separate zombivor sculpt with different abilities. It adds a cool “wink wink” to the zombie genre in that you’re given the opportunity to go through and play either way…or both. Zombicide offers you a framework called Resurrection Mode in which you begin as the Survivor model and when you’re killed you get to come back as your Zombivor variant. This is a lot of fun for playing with first timers because you WILL DIE… I’ll get to that in a bit, but suffice it to say this is a neat way to extend scenarios, let the game difficulty scale with the player experience and interest and, quite selfishly…eek some cool new minis out of the game as well. The only bummer for me is that you don’t get the original Season 1 survivors in their zombivor variants. You can, however, buy them if you invest in the Toxic City Mall expansion though so Cool Mini or Not and Guillotine Games were good enough folks to let you get that upgrade path if you’re so interested.
I won’t go into the details of all the rules because many other Zombicide reviews ahead of mine have done a fantastic job. If you’re interested in a full rules rundown, then I’d suggest the fantastic Watch it Played YouTube video. I will, however, give everyone a bit of a refresher here. Effectively, you build maps from 9 double-sided tiles. The tiles in Prison Outbreak have a prison theme to them and you’ll find control rooms, prison yards, cellblocks, and even alleys and cities to give the tiles a sense of place and connect them with the Season 1 tiles. The sense of continuity between releases with color palette, design, aesthetic, and scales is remarkable. The scenarios typically feature a full 9 or, on occasion, 6 tile setup.
Each scenario, or mission, is set up with some flavor text that advances the story of your survivors and provides you with multiple objectives you’ll need to accomplish. The typical mission features going someplace, finding something, and then returning to escape. In two of the scenarios you’ll have to leave someone from your survivor group behind to operate security gates. Objectives are generally related to clearing out the prison and surrounding area, but there is the old fan-favorite of going out to snag some food and then returning alive with it against overwhelming odds. The prison cell mechanics make this pretty deadly because each time a cell door is opened it generates a spawn which can be particularly nasty.
Survivors are given three actions to perform during their turn which can include things like moving and combat, but also more advanced combinations like searching for items, trading items between survivors, and operating switches. You have quite a bit of freedom within the game and you’ll need to keep all those actions in mind as you progress. In the first mission, for example, you’ll have an opportunity to hop into a “Pimpmobile” (a proper noun not necessary to share with younger gamers!) and ride down zombies caught in the streets. It’s more fun than flinging Prince records at zombies in your shed.
Once your survivors have had a chance, then it’s time for the moaning masses of miserable zombies to stride forth. Zombies come in a variety of flavors including walkers, sprinters, abominations and fatties. These differentiate not only speed and lethality, but also how hard you must hit it to affect it and get a kill. You see, there’s no such thing as “hit points” or health for the zombies. You MUST lay the killing stroke on them with your scrounged weapons. A great example is the fattie which requires you have a weapon, like the fire ax of inflicting two damage in order to kill it. The abomination requires three and those weapons are pretty darn rare indeed being reserved to sniper rifles and molotovs for example.
Zombies appear from spawn points which are generally well situated in order to help you suspend disbelief. You’ll see them, generally, at the ends of alleyways, hallways, and at the edges of the board. Zombies move toward the survivor who is making the most noise. Some weapons like meat cleavers are deadly and silent. Other weapons like…say and Uzi … make some noise. Your survivor’s presence is also inherently noisy. So each time you do something noisy whether that’s combat with a noisy weapon or opening a door with a noisy tool – you attract zombies. I’ll say more about the strategy of the game a bit later, but suffice it to say – noise is one of the ways you can lure zombies to try to buy yourself some time.
Zombies who find themselves starting in the same area as a survivor get to attack. And they ALWAYS hit. Survivors can sustain up to two wounds before being eliminated. Wounds are cards that survivors carry in their five-slot inventory. So, when you’re wounded you lose the ability to carry something if you’re fully loaded. Likewise, wounds remain a tangible part of the character sheet. It’s a fantastic system that doesn’t require you add clutter to the already busy gameboard. As I’ve previously mentioned, this was no fly-by-night production. Zombicide has become one of the top zombie games for more than just the attractive components and fair price-point.
As survivors kill zombies they gain experience points which are used to gain more actions and special abilities. This is all managed via a little black skull clip that slides along the top of each survivor tracking card. This is a nice upgrade from Season 1 which featured a generic black clip. I am continually impressed with the incremental upgrades throughout Prison Outbreak and respect the design decisions made in Season 1 as I see how they play out across multiple expansions for the game. As your survivors kill more zombies and earn those new abilities and actions, the speed and deadliness of the zombies rushing into the mission area increases as well. What starts with a slow trickle grows into a steady drip and within about 30 minutes of gameplay becomes something you’re merely managing. If you don’t roll well – kiss your zombie hunters goodbye and wish them well in eternity. In the games I played, I failed about 50% of the time. I suspect that has a lot to do with most of the kill probabilities. I never felt like I was without a sufficient weapon when I needed one. I actually had a harder time with the Season 1 scenarios, but still found these new ones much more enjoyable for a variety of reasons.
With this, I mean that you have some pretty bulletproof rules that are reasonably extended without breaking the core feel of the game. A great example of this would be the way new prison specific tiles operate and how the beserker zombies fit into the game. They extend rather than redefine. Had the designers built a brittle game system that really only worked for the urban environment of Season 1, I think I’d have taken a much harsher view of the game. Add to this, the Toxic zombies introduced in the Toxic City Mall expansion and the zombie/companion dogs added in other expansion packs and you have an incredible array of units to play with, fight, and expand the game. None of these additions, however, require you to learn a bunch of exceptions. Rather, they ask you to consider one key mechanical change in the instance they come up in the game.
Prison Outbreak’s strategy is very similar in feel to Season 1, but newcomers to the system shouldn’t feel like they can’t access these scenarios without Season 1. The success of Season 1 rest largely upon the strength of the components rather than the strength of the game itself unfortunately. Prison Outbreak, however, has developed a great sense of self-awareness to the point where missions are fun, tactical, and you need to strategize in order to win. One thing that’s remained the same throughout all the games is the tension related to finding effective weapons to deal with the horde fast enough. Getting those combo weapons built like the nail bat and sniper rifle are important. It’s probably even more important in the tighter spaces of the prison to get the molotov if possible. One molotov can be a game changer in many cases.
I mentioned that you have a number of different actions that you can take that give you plenty of tactical choice in the game. That’s true, to a point. Where you can do a lot of things, there’s typically one one or two best ways to handle any mission. What stands out is that the game retains much of the repetitive nature of the first season. Players who were turned off in the first season can rest assured in their decision not to buy the second season. The repetitive killing nature of the game, to me, is inherent within the theme. After all, if the pattern of action is kill, move, search, kill, move search with maybe some equipment trading going on in there well I think that reasonably sums up what I’d expect in a zombie game. It’s not like I’m going to see a lot of dialog between the heroes and their zombie adversaries short of “BRAAAAIIINNNSSSS” and the heroes just replying… “No.”
Prison Outbreak’s new twist on zombie defense puzzles works, in small part, like the popular tower defense games on smartphones and tablets. There are a steady stream of zombies coming through generally well fed tunnels along which you need to destroy them. There’s no killing the source of the zombies (though in some missions you can close off a spawn that might only be open during certain conditions) and it’s all about survival. The slower you are to kill and manage the horde, the tougher it gets. The better your characters get, the more dangerous the horde becomes. If any part of this equation doesn’t grow at the proper rate, the threat is too low or too high and the game is less attractive. Prison Outbreak, like it’s predecessor, walks that line with aplomb. You’re always in for a challenge.
I’ve held off until now with regards to the components. You’ve likely seen them if you’ve been alive for the past few years because they’ve been plastered all over Boardgamegeek and beyond.
Remember how I gushed about the attention to detail? It’s no more apparent than in the sculpts which are stunning. I don’t have a good hand for painting, but for miniature painters the miniatures are reason enough to buy this game right now. In fact, the little details throughout the models is sometimes too much to handle! My wife has pointed out funny little things to me like the zombies ripping at their own chests or how the tattered clothing falls just so. You really get the sense of weight with the fatties and each of the models looks like it has its own background. There are businessmen, athletes, housewives, and vagrants all mixed together. When it’s all laid out, and the end is near, you get that sense of impending doom just from the tortured poses and unnatural posture. It’s hard to make miniatures look active when they’re just sitting there forever frozen outside of the realm of imagination. The sculptors who tackled this game are definitely at the top of their game.
The game tiles are just as beautifully painted with little details like blood splats, consistent shadows for lighting, and in a setting where it might be easy to overdo it on the grunge and decay there’s a level of restraint. The world is certainly post-apocalyptic, but it’s not so run down that you can’t imagine any life being left to defend humanity. You’re setting minis into a 2D world so it needs depth that’s pulled off with a reasonable style so you don’t feel strange about the juxtaposition of 3D and 2D elements. Again, the artists have won a major victory. The chits, cards, and and everything else is designed for utility and durability. My only complaint would be that the survivor cards get a lot of handling. The plastic clips tracking experiences get slid around a fair amount. I’d love to see laminated plastic-y survivor cards so I’m not worried about the edges of the glossy cardstock either rubbing off, fraying, or wearing in some way before I’m done having fun with the game!
The rulebook is also a treat. It’s full color, glossy, and includes the scenarios along with a comprehensive index and handy player aid on the back. The rules are laid out in a narrative style with an eye toward whitespace and readability for both the rules and the book as a whole. I love the structure and presentation order of the game. This is a game you can read through the rules, throw the game on the table, and start playing. That’s becoming something that’s, all too often, not as easily done any more. Prison Outbreak knows what it is and has matured beyond what the first iteration was a few years back. I am excited for where this will head in Season 3.
I can’t recommend this game enough. It’s a lot of fun, but you need to keep in mind that it’s a Zombie game and it’s not going to scratch every itch. I loved the pacing and presentation of the game. It’s easy enough to get out on game night and knock out a scenario in 2 – 3 hours with plenty of chatter in between. It’s a game you can throw on the table while you watch Dawn of the Dead or AMC’s Walking Dead. It’s a game that can be campy, funny, and tense all at the same time. Throw in exclusive models like the one called “Dave” which is a take-off on Sheldon from CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and you have even more to root for in the game. The scenarios are well designed and walk you through the clearing of this prison which is full of puzzles and prison-centric themes…minus the toilet wine. You will definitely have a great time with the game and there’s nothing better than sitting around throwing dice while the hordes of zombies slowly moan their way across the board to gnaw on your brains. Happy Hunting!