Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Cutthroat Caverns

I had a terrific time at Dreamation this past weekend, and one of the highlights was the opportunity to play a new (to me; apparently it's been out for a year and a half) game called Cutthroat Caverns by Smirk and Dagger Games, the same folks who brought you Run for Your Life, Candyman! (a spoof of the Candyland game).

Essentially, the game is a delicate balance between cooperative play and backstabbing. You are a dungeon explorer with your party of 1-5 comrades, and (in the basic game, anyway), need to get past nine different encounters and escape the dungeon. The trick is, those encounters are really deadly, and you will need most of your fellow adventurers to get out of the place alive. The real trick is that you want to be the person who lands the killing blow against the monsters, because the person who gets the most renown points wins the game. And therein lies the beauty of the game; you don't want to completely dick over your fellow adventurers, at least early on, because if you do you'll end up getting eaten and nobody will win the game. But at the same time, you want to subtly trip them up and make sure that it's YOU who ends up landing the final blow on whatever beastie it is, even if it's just the last 10 damage points (some creatures go up to 500). The final hit earns the renown, and the renown determines the winner.

Play is card based, and your hand can contain attack cards (which either do straight-out damage or set you up to increase your damage on the following round), actions (which allow you to mess with other peoples' attacks or actions; anything from a critical miss that actually inflicts damage on the would-be attacker to a "trip" that loses them the next round as well), or potions (which can only be used between each of the 9 encounters). Add to that a simple random initiative, and the game is very lively. Expansion sets add to the number and types of cards (there are now events, for instance, which can alter how the encounters work).

The designer of the game, Curt Covert, was on hand, and did a demo for myself and another person of a truncated game about a third the normal length. We then played a full game with a full six players, with all the expansions and a prototype "choose your own adventure" booklet that sets up the encounters based on the choices of the party, rather than just having nine straight encounters. I think I prefer the straight play, myself, but I can see how it'd be a nice change.

I absolutely love this game, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is into the modern wave of card-type games such as Red Dragon Inn. (As a matter of fact, the "feel" of Cutthroat Caverns is quite similar.) The components are top-notch; the counters and tiles have good heft, and the cards are very thick and substantive. The artwork was gleaned from various places, but Mr. Covert's skills as a graphic designer come through and the whole thing comes across as completely professional.

I give it a solid A grade.

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