Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review: Catacombs

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I'm a huge old school Dungeons & Dragons fan, so any dungeon crawl game starts out with a high interest in the theme from me. I'm also a fan of Pitch Car (which is currently my daughter's favorite game), so I enjoy flicking things around. However, like mixing peanut butter and Chocolate Skateboards, I had always assumed that never the twain shall meet.

The Overview:

The box is 10.5" x 10.5" and about 2" deep. 

The box contents. 

Catacombs is a dexterity based dungeon-crawl game, fitting that odd niche of game that has not been approached since Pitch Car: Road to Legend. It is a semi-cooperative game that one person plays the Overseer and controls all of the monsters and everyone else is on the same team playing the Heroes battling their way through the dungeon to the final boss.

The game is for 2-5 players and plays in about an hour. Skilled players who are less likely to miss and more likely to get additional hits through planned ricochets will likely cut that time down, however. Since the same number of characters move each turn regardless of the number of players, more players don't add to the length of play time, but just the skill level of the players.

The Hero players divide up the four Heroes between them. All four Heroes will be present even if it does not divide up evenly.

The Overseer gets one of four Catacomb Lords to control. This will also determine what the wandering monsters for the dungeon will be. The dungeon is then created by randomly laying out cards face down in ascending order. The cards show which room set up to use as well as what monsters inhabit it. The rooms are randomly drawn, but from piles of increasing difficulty, so the rooms with easier monsters will be at the beginning and the more harshly populated rooms will be near the end. Along the trail of rooms will be a merchant card, which lets the Heroes spend their gold to buy new supplies, and a healer card, where they can raise any dead characters (for a cost) and purchase healing to increase their health tracks. The last card along the trail is the Catacomb Lord's lair, where the final battle will take place if the Heroes survive that long.

The game then begins with the Exploration Phase, where the next unrevealed room card is flipped over. This then leads directly to the Setup Phase, which the appropriate game board is laid out, then the Heroes place their characters on their starting area, followed by the Overseer setting up on his area of the room board.

The background of the card shows which board to lay out. The room also shows that the Overseer will set up 5 Orcs in the room and one Wandering Monster (the question mark symbol). The Wandering Monster is determined by the type of Overseer. 

Following up, this is how the room for the above card may be set up once the Heroes and Overseer have placed their tokens on the board. The Wandering Monster, in this instance, is a Fire Spirit - the Wandering Monster from the Dragon Catacombs Lord. The black disks are inset in holes in the board to create bumpers for blocking and ricochets. 

After everyone is set up, the Battle Phase starts. This phase continues over a number of rounds. Each round begins with the Heroes' Turn. Each Hero character can perform one action and can go in any order as determined by the Hero players. An action consists of either taking a standard melee shot or performing their character's special action.

A standard melee shot is just a flick of the character disk on the board. The flick is done in a manner similar to Pitch Car or Crokinole. This represents both advancing the character and the attacks. If the character disk hits one of the Overseer's monsters, that monster takes a point of damage. Many monsters only have one health and once the damage is done then their disk is removed. Some creatures have 2 health and those disks are flipped over to their "damaged" side when struck. If they are already on that side, then they are defeated and removed from the board. If a character hits multiple disks, they cause damage to each enemy that they hit. There are a couple of other things to note about this, however. If the active character hits another disk into a monster, it does no damage. Only direct hits from the acting character counts. Also, there is no friendly fire, so you can bump into other Heroes with no fear of damaging them. In fact, you can use it to set up another player's shot.

A special action is based on either the character's ability as listed on their character card or granted from a piece of equipment that they have acquired. The special abilities on the character cards differ for each character. The Barbarian can rage and make four flicks in one turn. However, afterward he is incapacitated for a turn as he recovers. The Elf is a master archer and can make two arrow shots per room, in which the player sets down a smaller "arrow" disk and fires it from their disk's current location. It causes damage on a hit, but keeps the elf in a more protected location. The Thief can get an additional flick if they do no damage on their first flick. The second flick cannot do damage, but it is useful to either setup or retreat. And the Wizard has a deck of spells that he can cast from, each usable once and offer a large range of abilities and actions to be taken.

After each of the Heroes has taken their action, then the Overseer gets to take actions with each of the monsters remaining on the board. Some monsters can just make standard attacks (one flick to cause one damage if they hit), but others have special abilities. Each monster has a card that is laid out to show the abilities of that monster. These effects may be a paralyzing attack (which incapacitates a Hero for one turn), arrow shots or other effects. There are some symbols that you need to learn on the cards, but it really is intuitive and quick to pick up.

Cards like this show all of Overseer's monsters' abilities. The two blood drops on the Fire Demon card shows that it has two health. And it gets either a standard melee assault or can fire two fireballs on its turn. It is also immune to the Wizard's fireball spell and any missile shots. Also, in the lower right, it shows that the Hero who kills it collects 300 coins. 

Battles alternate between the Heroes and the Overseer until one of the following happens:
1. If all of the Heroes are dead or incapacitated, then the game ends and the Overseer wins.
2. If all of the monsters are dead, then the heroes have conquered that room and can move on. They collect coins for each monster that they defeated and begin the Exploration Phase with the next room.

When the Heroes encounter the Catacombs Lord's lair, they will battle the Catacomb Lord that was chosen at the start of the game. These creatures are very powerful and have four to eight health (depending on the Lord) and have powerful special attacks. Each of them also has a number of minions who accompany them in the room. This final battle continues until either all of the Heroes are either incapacitated or killed, in which case, the Overseer wins, or until the Catacombs Lord is slain, in which case the Heroes have won. Now, the Heroes only need to kill the Catacombs Lord, so even if there are minions remaining once he is slain, the Heroes have still won.

The Theme:

Catacombs is a dungeon crawl themed game, and despite being a dexterity game, it still manages to pull off the feel of a trek through a dungeon. The Hero characters each play and feel unique and the monsters are varied enough that each of them plays differently and has a different feel and strategy behind them.

Obviously, this isn't a deep game or so theme heavy that you feel like you've just run through the Temple of Elemental Evil, but it appeals to that D&D player in me, while at the same time just being plain fun. Don't expect to break out into any deep in-character conversations while playing the Heroes, but that isn't what this game is about.

It succeeds very well at being a dexterity game, while at the same time giving you that bit of a dungeon crawl feel.

Learning the Game:

The rules are well presented in a 16-page 5.5" x 8.5" booklet. There are examples and diagrams throughout and it really is well presented. The rules are not complex, so it does not take much to learn. Probably the only bit of the game that holds any real learning curve is the symbols that are on the cards that explain the special abilities of the monsters and the equipment that the characters can obtain. But these are very basic and after your first time encountering the ability, you will have no need to go back to the rules again to recheck what it means. There are not many symbols to learn and they are all fairly intuitive.

The Components:

The wizard character sheet, showing his current health at 2. 

The disks are sturdy wood. Here they are before the stickers have been applied. 

Examples of the Equipment cards that can be purchased at the Merchant.

Some of the Wizard's Spell cards. 

The components of the game are sturdy and fully functional. The artwork may not be spectacular compared to the old school D&D works of Elmore, Caldwell and so on. But for a game of this type and level, it is perfectly fine and fitting. I happen to enjoy a lot of the monster pictures and think that overall, they are very well done.

The disks are sturdy and slide well on the board, which is also perfectly functional. There are a lot of stickers to apply after you first get the game, but it really only takes 10 minutes to put them all on. And the sticker reference sheet was very well done with no confusion resolving a paranoid worry of mine: that I would mess up and put the wrong stickers on a disk and have to pull them off and have less sticky stickers.

The cards are just slightly thinner than I prefer, but there is no real shuffling. They are just reference, so sleeving them isn't really necessary.

The only real potential negative that I can point out with the components is that the Catacombs website has a post about how to get replacement disks in games where mold was an issue. My game was perfectly fine and mold free, but apparently this may be an issue with some sets. However, the only reason I knew about this potential defect was that the game publisher was offering to replace components, so they are apparently on top of the problem.

Playing the Game:

Game play is quick, intuitive and lots of fun. I've come to really enjoy flicking games as a result of my daughter's obsession with Pitch Car and this theme fits my preferences like a glove. It is quick and easy to learn and our last game consisted of four players: myself, a heavy strategy wargamer, a moderate level gamer and a light casual/party gamer. All of us enjoyed it very much despite our different levels of gaming experience.

I do want to mention an official variant that we've tried. Being hardcore D&D players, the appeal of the Labyrinth configuration was very strong and we tried it out. It is a great way to play the game and a lot more fun if you have that old D&D experience. However, there are little guidelines for building the dungeon, so you need to make sure that your Overseer player isn't a sadist (ours wasn't, but it is a risk). I would also consider using Camping variant to make it a little easier for the long trek. The Labyrinth setup can be very nasty since it can be pure bad luck if they Heroes do not find a healer or the merchant.


The game plays from 2 to 5 players and scales well, with a couple of exceptions.

Two players works well with the Overseer against one player controlling all four Heroes. Three players also works well with the Heroes being split two each for the Hero players.

Four players is a speed bump, however. With three of the players controlling the Heroes, there is no way to evenly break up them up. Either one player plays two characters or you choose one of the character (probably the Thief) to alternate on who controls her from room to room.

Five players works very well since each player controls one Hero. However, not all of the Heroes give you the same play experience. The Thief seems to be the weakest of the characters with the fewest interesting options (other than using both hits to set up other Heroes, but that is just a support role). Also, the Wizard is definitely the character who is the most versatile with the most decisions and options each turn. I don't mind unbalanced teammates, but for players who really like to get involved in a game, there will probably be a different level of enjoyment from playing the Thief to playing the Wizard.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. I was a little unsure of how she would like the game. First of all, she's a D&D player as well, so it has the theme working in its favor. However, she's not that wild about Pitch Car. However, it won her over very easily. I was very surprised at how easily it won her over. There is something just pure fun about flicking a Barbarian into a group of Orcs. In fact, her level of enjoyment of the game is greater than her want for long nails. While playing the Overseer in our last game, she complained that her nails were too long and needed to find the nail clippers to cut her nails down to get her a better chance against the Heroes.

Outside of my wife, this game has won over everyone I've introduced it to so far. Our friend who enjoys deeper strategy and war games enjoyed it just as much as my friend who is more of an Apples to Apples casual gamer.

The Pros:

*Lots of fun.
*Quick game play. Games should not take more than an hour.
*Perfectly functional components.
*Decent artwork, even if not everything is great.
*Labyrinth mode variant really hits a sweet spot to whet the appetites of dungeon crawls.
*Lots of variants available online.
*Set up so well for useful and interesting expansions. I'm waiting for more characters and Catacomb Lords as well as equipment and different ways to play.

The Cons:

*Apparently mold is an issue in some sets (though they are easily replaced by the game company).
*Not everyone is good at dexterity games. Plus, some people are very good at dexterity games. This can make some players much better than others, which is difficult to compensate for.
*While I don't mind that all of the characters are not balanced, they do not all offer the same level of involvement or options.
*Has some scaling quirks.
*May cause your wife to cut her nails, resulting in sub-par head scritches later while laying on the sofa together.


Catacombs is a fun-filled dexterity game that has a specific appeal to old school fantasy roleplayers. The game is accessible to non-gamers and heavy gamers alike since it just comes off as being lots of fun. Those very proficient at Crokinole can quickly unbalance the game if up against non-dexterity game veterans and not all of the characters give the same level of involvement in the game. However, the game has a lot of variants posted from the designers and is crying out for expansions that will be great additions and not at all feel unnecessary. Skill levels may separate some players, but ultimately, this is a fun game that will appeal to a broad base of gamers. And even though it is not an intuitive combination of theme to game mechanics, it works and it is a blast.


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