Monday, May 4, 2009

Card Game Review - Cutthroat Caverns

Some games suggest the theme through their title, like Android, which is a game about solving a murder where a robot may or may not have been involved. Some use the title to hint at the mechanics, like Blokus, with its crazy plastic blocks. And some other games just have weird titles with very little relation to the actual game, like Cribbage, which despite sounding like a game about cooking bland vegetable dishes is actually a card game with nonsensical rules invented by a drunken Englishman with too much time on his hands. We won't discuss games with names in foreign languages, because frankly, I don't even know what those mean.

But rarely has a game had the kind of truth in advertising found in Cutthroat Caverns. In this dungeon-diving card game from Smirk & Dagger Games (one of my favorite little game companies), you go into caverns and then play really cutthroat. Plus there's some great alliteration there, so it's just a flat-out catchy title.

Everyone in Cutthroat Caverns plays a member of the adventuring party in a quest to nab the greatest treasure ever. But there's only one greatest treasure ever, and only one of you can have it, and your long-standing rule is that the person who gets the kill gets first pick. So now you all have to make sure that the monsters die before they kill you - but more importantly, you have to make sure that when the monsters die, you're the one who gets credit for the kill.

It's actually a really simple mechanic, in theory. Every turn, players take turn playing an attack card face down, then revealing them in turn order. You never want to do enough damage to almost kill the monster, or the next player will get the kill, but you also don't want to hold off entirely, or the damned thing will murder all of you. You have to cooperate, or the monsters will be eating your livers with fava beans and a nice chianti. But you have to be sly, and time your attacks, or an even worse event will transpire - someone else will win.

And if timing doesn't work out for you, there are other options. You can trip your friends so that they miss. You can taunt the monster and then jump behind your allies so that they get hit. You can deliberately screw up their attacks so that they hit themselves. It's nasty in this dungeon, but man, it sure is fun.

You'll fight monsters as you wind your way through the dungeon, defeating one after another as you kill your way to your prize. You'll fight the ripper, which makes you dump cards when it bites you. You'll battle the iron skin gargoyle, which shrugs off weak attacks. You'll take on the clockwork golem, which heals itself as you fight, so that you have to keep throwing your best attacks at it, and it will still probably get to whack everyone at the table.

In fact, all the monsters are amazing, with brilliant art and different tricky rules for every encounter. Don't hit the lurker too hard, or you'll be his target. Hit the basilicanth as hard as you can, or he'll be hitting you, real hard. And if you're fighting the gas bag, try to get someone else to deliver the killing blow, because they'll be poisoned and not actually get any credit for killing it. You have to be on your toes and adjust your strategy for every encounter.

There are even encounters where you don't fight at all. The trap room, for instance, randomly smacks players until they can get through, and the riddle room damages players until they can correctly guess where two identical cards might be hidden. These are fun - but only at the beginning. I can tell you from experience that either one of these makes a really disappointing game ender - everyone is gunning for the score leader, and then it all ends in a random guessing game. It's very anticlimactic, and I recommend that you house-rule these non-combat encounters out of the last few rounds, to keep the game tense until the end.

And boy howdy, is it tense. By the end of the game, people are probably bruised, bloodied and dangerously close to winning - and that means everyone is out to get everyone else killed, except the person winning the game, because his only goal is to try to fend off the backstabbing and betrayal long enough to get out of the caverns and claim his prize. Good luck with that, though, because when everyone at the table is trying to get you horribly maimed to death, it can be awfully tricky to stay alive. The good news is that while they're all after you, they still have to try to land the killing blow, or they'll just end up giving the game to someone else, so they're distracted. Hopefully distracted enough that they don't notice when you cancel their attacks and make them the targets.

After two plays on a rainy Sunday morning, Cutthroat Caverns has leapt to a top spot in my house. Usually when we finish a game, my wife says something like, 'that was fun', and then goes off to do something she actually enjoys. But when we finished this one, she looked at me with blood in her eyes (I won the first game) and said, 'can we play again?' I should have known better. I totally got murdered the second time. But we all had a blast, and my wife even opened up the expansions and read the rules for those. That may not sound like much, but it's been years since anyone but me read the rules. She's just really excited to play again.

Speaking of expansions, there are three really cool expansions for Cutthroat Caverns - but they're big enough and cool enough that they deserve their own reviews, so I'm not going to get too far into them right now. It's enough to point out that not only is the game good enough to justify three full expansions, but it is so fun that Smirk & Dagger was sold out for months. If you can find this game now, I would pick it up before it sells out again.


Really fantastic art
Brilliant, fluid mechanics demand flexible strategy and ruthless card play
Plays so fast, you won't notice you just spent an hour trying to stab your daughter in the duodenum

Pretty darn random - bad card draws can hurt a lot, and a bad last encounter can suck all the awesome out of the game (so cheat and draw again)

Ignore whatever I said here before - Dogstar Games totally carries this game! And you can get it cheap! With free shipping! And the expansions are there too! And I'll review those pretty soon! Maybe once I can quit using exclamation marks!


Anonymous said...

this one sounds great, I am so looking to get this one, love the theme, and it sounds perfect - the wife reading the expansion rules - that settles it I must have it -- thanks

Unknown said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one Matt. I thought it was the opposite of truth in advertising. I thought I was getting a dungeon crawl in a card game, but I came away feeling like that theme was just a thin veil over a fairly standard 'screw your neighbor' card game.

Matt Drake said...

That's kind of funny - this one is guaranteed to hit my table another dozen times. I can understand why it wouldn't be someone's bag, but I really liked it. I think when we add the specific character abilities, it will get more 'themey', too.

Unknown said...

Matt, actually Dogstargames DOES carry this game, and it sells very well for us. We also carry all the expansions! :)

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