Review – Catacombs


Catacombs
  


Designer: Aron West, Marc Kelsey & Ryan Amos (2010)
Publisher: Sands of Time Games
# of Players:
 2-5
Play Time: 30-60 min
BGG Rank/Rating: #436/6.60
Weight: Medium Light
Category: Gamer’s Game

A finger-flicking dungeon-crawl game…

Well, that was enough to pique my curiosity and put Catacombs on my wishlist.  Plus, I had heard some surprisingly positive buzz about it from a number of podcasters and reviewers that I respect.  So, after my birthday, I found myself cleaning mold from lots of little wooden discs and applying stickers in order to finally get this to the table.  A few weeks and a half-dozen plays later, I’ve pretty much made up my mind about this strange mash-up of a boardgame.  But I’ll get to my opinion a bit later…


Game Basics  (click here for complete game rules) 

Catacombs has all the trappings of a typical dungeon crawl boardgame.  One person always takes on the role of the Overseer, who controls all of the monsters in the dungeon and serves as the opposition to all of the other players.  There are actually four different Catacomb Lords for the Overseer to choose from, which serve as the “big boss” in the last room of the dungeon, as well as having some effect on which creatures show up in the earlier rooms.  The rest of the players then get choose one or more of the characters (Rogue, Wizard, Barbarian & Elf), which each have different strengths and special abilities.

The dungeon itself is constructed randomly by laying out a series of cards that each represent rooms.  In the standard setup, cards from three different difficulty levels are included, as well as a room with a merchant (where the heroes can buy extra equipment), a healer, and the Catacomb Lord’sa lair.  When the adventurers enter a new room, the next card is flipped over, and it indicates which board will be used and shows which monsters will be encountered.  Each board also has cutout spots where you place extra wooden disks that serve as obstacles.  The heroes set up in their start area first, and then the Overseer places the monsters. 



Room cards, showing which board (the background) and monsters are used…

Combat

The heroes always get to go first (I guess because they’re the ones kicking in doors and killing the poor, innocent inhabitants of the dungeon… a statement which, I guess, lets you know where my sentiments lie in this whole shebang).  They get to decide in which order they will activate, and each hero may only activate once.  So on their turn, heroes may either use their special abilities or make a simple attack.

To make a simple attack, the player just flicks the wooden disk for their character.  If the disk hits any opposing piece directly, that creature takes a point of damage.  Potentially, a hero could hit two or more monsters with the same attack, all of which would take damage.  However, players never damage allied pieces with attacks, and secondary hits (when a monster struck by the hero hits another monster) never cause damage.  However, such maneuvering may still be beneficial because they could set up the next shot or remove a monster from having a clear line of counter-attack.

I’ll run through the special abilities of the characters quickly, just to give you an idea of what things they can do:


  • Barbarian – can Rage twice per game, which allows them to make four flicks in a row (but can’t damage the same creature on two consecutive flicks), but leaves them incapacitated (missing a turn) afterwards.  Plus, they have a lot of hit points.
  • Rogue – If they don’t damage a monster on their first flick, they can get a second flick to get into a better/safer position (but which cannot damage monsters).  Plus, they get 100 extra gold for any monster they kill.
  • Elf – Don’t you love how they’ve gone all “Basic D&D” on us and made “Elf” equivalent to the other character classes.  Anyway, the Elf gets two ranged shots per room, which are smaller yellow discs that they can flick from anywhere within 1 inch of their character disc.
  • Wizard – they get a deck of spell cards, which do all kinds of things such as giving different ranged attacks, summoning a skeleton, placing a shield somewhere on the board, and even healing or teleporting a character.  Each spell card may be used only once and is then discarded.

Once all the heroes have gone, the Overseer gets to activate all of the monster, which usually just means flicking all of their discs as well.  But there are some monsters that have special powers as well, most of which are related to having some number of melee and/or ranged attacks.  Each Catacomb Lord, however, has a list of special abilities that they can use each turn as well. 

The characters track their hit points on their corresponding character mats, while monsters are either eliminated on the first hit or can flip to indicate that they’ve taken one (of their two) health.  The Catacomb Lord itself is the only monster with a player mat and a track for health.



The Catacomb Lord and Heroic Character play mats…

Special Rooms

Heroes get gold for each monster they kill.  In the Merchant’s room (usually found after the second encounter), they can spend this gold (either individually or collectively) to purchase a random assortment of six items.  Most of the items are character-specific, and give some extra special ability.  All the items have an inherent cost, but the hero players get to choose to be “on sale”, which can be bought at half price.

After the fourth encounter, the heroes may make use of the Healer.  For 1000 gold, a character may be resurreced (with 2 health), and additional health may be restored for 300 gold each.  In the standard game, there’s no use for gold collected after the Healer, but I suppose that you could use it as some sort of game score to track how well you did in the game (assuming that you survive, that is).

End of the Game

The game ends and the Overseer wins if all of the heroes are ever killed and/or incapacitated at the same time.  The heroes win (as a group) if they can survive to the last room and manage to slay the Catacomb Lord. 


Strategery



Catacombs is a very tactical game.  But unlike most other dungeon-crawl games, where the results are dependent on the randomness of a die roll or something similar, success in Catacombs is determined solely by the skill of the players.  This skill involves both the quality of their tactical decisions and the physical execution of the flicking actions.  There is, just to be clear, absolutely no randomness in the game.

So the first and most obvious “strategy” or, more appropriately, “skill” in the game is the actual flicking of the discs.  It takes some practice, but especially if you have some experience with Carrom or Crokinole, this should be pretty simple stuff.  If, however, you really suck at flicking or just don’t like it, then Catacombs probably isn’t for you.  Personally, I use a technique where I flick with my index finger, holding it on the sides (with my thumb and middle finger) and then flicking straight out.  It seems to give a lot better control than a simple “thumping” motion.

A huge part of the game is also the tactical movement and positioning around the board.  Even when you could possibly make a nice shot and hit a monster, it may not always be the best choice, especially if it leaves them wide open for several counter-attacks.  So when planning moves, you’ve always got to keep obstructions and other discs in mind, both to protect and to set yourself up.  Along with that, however, are also the ideas that sometimes you want to flick either into an ally or opponent because you want to position them more advantageously.  And often, the success of the first player or two in a turn will change what you can and even want to try and accomplish with your turn.

One specific positioning tidbit that I’ll give away is where to put your ranged dudes (like the Elf, Skeletal Archers, Wizard using most of his spells, etc.).  Since you can place the “arrow” disc up to 1 inch away from your character/monster disc before you flick it, it’s often a good idea to hide directly behind obstacles with these units.  So basically, you can then “shoot around” corners while staying under cover.  Be careful not to actually in in contact with the obstacle, however, because then someone can come along and strike it, sending you flying in the opposite direction all croquet style.

The final point to consider is when and how to use the special abilities of the heroes and monsters.  The Barbarian’s rage is incredibly powerful (especially when set up by the Teleport spell), but it will set him up to take a severe beating himself if you’re not careful.  So whether you’re thinking about setting up the Thief to finish off monsters (for the extra cash) or when to use a particular spell, you’ve got to give some consideration to these kinds of choices all game long.   


 




What I think…


 

In general, I like flicking games.  Whether it’s PitchCar, Carrom, or even Sorry Sliders, I have a lot of fun almost any flicking-style dexterity games.  So almost in spite of the dungeon-crawl theme, I picked up Catacombs originally because, if nothing else, I figured I’d enjoy that part.  And in the end, the pure dexterity portion of the game is very satisfying, with lots of opportunities to make difficult shots and use your mad flicking skillz.

But what really blew me away with actual play is how much thought and teamwork (among the hero players, anyway) is required.  You really have to communicate your intentions and how you will try to set each other up (or defend each other) in order to do well.  And as people then begin to carry out their plans, everyone else has to roll with the complications that pop up from things not turning out exactly as they were intended.  So again, you’ve got a situation where you have to make tough tactical choices, but then deal with wrinkles that are due not to the whim of random and uncontrolable chance, but to the skill (or lack thereof) of the players.  That’s just so cool to me.    

I will take just a moment to call some attention to the mold issue, however.  Apparently, the printer didn’t let the paint dry completely before bagging up the discs and packing the game, so most copies of the original print run will probably be pretty infested with mold.  In my case, it was confined to just the bag the discs were in, so it wasn’t a big deal.  I just cleaned them off with white ammonia and haven’t had any more issues with them.  But Sands of Time has been pretty on top of this issue, and provided extra discs to anyone who had the problem.  Just be aware of this possibility, though, if you decide to pick up a copy. 

So who is Catacombs good for?  Well, with the obvious target audiences, it’s always done well for me.  So whether you’re interested in the flicking or the theme, it will probably be a winner for you.  Even with just a typical gamer audience, though, it’s always gone over well and we’ve had fun with it, even if the other players didn’t quite get into it as much as I do.  With those not good at flicking, however, it can get pretty frustrating.  And unfortunately, the theme may actually make it a lot less playable with non-gamers than something more abstract (like Carrom or Crokinole) would be.  

But as for me, it’s almost certainly my favorite game that I’ve gotten in the last several months.  It hits so many of the things I like, both from a dexterity game and a tactical combat game, and I plan on playing it for a long time.  Heck, I can’t wait until they put out an expansion so that I’ll have some new boards, rooms, monsters, heroes, and Catacomb Lords!
  
 
      
The Verdict! 

Rules: Simple and surprisingly intuitive, easy to explain in just a few minutes.
Downtime: As long as you don’t agonize too much about your shots, things move quickly.  If anyone has to really wait for his turn, it’s the Overseer, since the other players are always planning and talking about their next moves.
Length: I find the game to be more in the 1 hour range, which is, to me, completely appropriate for the amount of fun I have. 
Player Interaction: It’s a combat game, so there’s a ton.  Plus, you have the cooperative interaction between the hero players.
Weight: Medium Light

GamerChris’ Rating: Catacombs is a brilliant little finger-flicking, dungeon-crawl game that is an absolute blast to play, so I give it a glowing 8.   
 


 


 

13 Comments


  1. Chris, I have yet to play this with you all. I’m hoping you can bring it on the 30th and we can get in a game before 9PM. That will be the next time I can make game night due to a couple other obligations between now and then.
    Thanks,
    Shawn


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  3. Chris Ingersoll

    “There is, just to be clear, absolutely no randomness in the game.”

    Other than what cards you get, both in the dungeon layout and at the Merchant. (On the subject of the Merchant: a “two” seems to have escaped the “on sale” sentence.) But that’s a perfectly acceptable amount of randomness in my book, even if the items available for sale are a huge factor in the heroes’ chances.

    My only real issue with the game is the crazy healing prices, especially since cash is useless after you pass the Healer anyway.

  4. Chris Norwood

    Touché… I guess what I meant was that there is absolutely no randomness in the tactical board play of the game. 

    And I’m totally behind the relatively high healing prices, because I feel that the game is at least slightly tilted in favor of the players in most cases.  It’s really hard to kill them by killing them outright (getting rid of all their hp, that is).  A good number of my wins as the Overseer have come instead by using the Crypt Spider or Gorgon to incapacitate all of the heroes at the same time.  Britt’s win this week (as the Overseer) was only due to the fact that both Brad and I were, in turn, radically stupid with our moves, and he managed to stun both of us with a single ghoul.

  5. Chris Ingersoll

    I didn’t say anything about the healing prices being high…

    Although it was sort of implied by “crazy”. I guess what I’d really want is a way to spend the “excess” gold the heroes have by that point (the gold they get in the next room is still unneeded); maybe some sort of “pay more, get more” deal.

    Also odd now that I think about it: the game appears to have two Healer cards that are completely identical except for the name on it. Is there any reason for this? Alternate set-up, maybe?

  6. Chris Norwood

    Yeah, they said in the rulebook that the extra card was for alternate layouts, and gave some suggestions (either there or on their website) about some things you could do to make different types of dungeons.


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