(image courtesy Smirky @ BGG)
There’s something to be said for very simple games: games that you can teach in a matter of minutes that anyone can learn. “Beer and pretzel” games, as they’re often referred to. One fairly popular category of beer-and-pretzel games are “take that” games… games where you may (and will) play cards that directly affect other players in some negative fashion. Some popular “take that” games you may have heard of include Munchkin, Killer Bunnies, and Guillotine. Cutthroat Caverns is one of the newest entries in the genre and manages to bring a lot of interesting things to the table.
First off, let me say that I’m not a huge fan of games where you can directly screw other players over. It can be fun for awhile but after getting messed with time after time the gimmick wears thin. Add on to that the tendency for everyone to gang up on the leader and you have a style of game that can frustrate quickly. Take Munchkin, for example. I love John Kovalic’s artwork and the roleplaying satire is fantastic. In fact, the premise of the game is quite cool: romp through a dungeon, kill monsters and steal their loot. The game falls apart after awhile, though, as players will just keep piling on the leader. Combine that with the massive number of cards in the deck and there’s no real strategy and no way to plan ahead. I do feel that type of mindless entertainment certainly has its place in the gaming world, though, and these styles of games tend to be very popular.
Along comes Cutthroat Caverns. Like other “take that” games you can directly screw other players at the table. What makes the game so brilliant is that isn’t always the best idea. In Cutthroat Caverns the players are a band of adventurers killing of a series of nine monsters. Players must work together to defeat the critters as they take turns swiping at it. The catch is that each monster is worth a certain number of points but only the person who lands the killing blow actually earns the points.
That’s right: it’s a game about kill stealing (for you MMO fans).
This very simple but ingenious twist really sets it apart from other “take that” games out there. If you die before the last monster is killed it doesn’t matter how many points you earned because you won’t be alive to enjoy them. Each monster has a strength based on the number of players but if someone dies the monster strength remains the same. This means if you kill off too many party members the group as a whole will struggle; if nobody lives to see the end then nobody wins! You don’t see cooperative/competitive games very often and Cutthroat Caverns really nails that concept.
Each monster is revealed, one at a time, and the players must fight them. Each player is given a hand of cards. These cards usually have an attack value but others are potions that give you temporary bonuses or action cards that directly affect other players, usually in negative ways. A battle against a monster is made up of several rounds of combat. First initiative cards are dealt, then each player chooses an attack card in secret. Cards are resolved in initiative order, the monster attacks its target and you repeat until the monster is dead. Whoever kills it earns the points.
A few things make this whole concept work. First off, the monster powers are crazy. Some are certainly easier to kill than others but they tend to push the teamwork element quite a bit. You’ll need to work together in some fashion and just because you could cancel someone’s attack doesn’t mean that you should. For example, you might be counting on their attack to soften up the monster just enough so you can swoop in for the kill.
Second, you’ll go through the deck quickly. You draw a new card after each round of combat and between encounters you may discard and redraw new cards. There’s a good chance you’ll go through the deck two or three times during the course of a game meaning all the cards will be seen a few times; this helps to minimize the amount of luck as you’ll quickly become familiar with the deck. You’ll find yourself making some fun decisions on how hard you should hit this turn or how you can best work the monster’s special attack powers to your advantage. Do you go for the big hit and hope nobody has cards to cancel your attack or do you use a very weak attack and try to set yourself up for next round? There are real decisions to be made here, and while luck is certainly a big factor I think it is possible to make good and bad moves in the game.
Cutthroat Caverns isn’t without its issues, though. While I love the artwork and components I do think the glass marker beads are a little too hard to use, especially on the monster hitpoint track. Like most card games with lots of text there are also quite a few rule ambiguities and scenarios simply not covered in the rules. Common sense usually prevails without too much effort but the game’s fun is slightly diminished when you need to take a moment to discuss how to rule a should work. Finally I do think the game is a little fiddly. After each round of combat you have to collect, shuffle and redeal the initiative cards. I understand why initiative works this way but it does add a bit of overhead.
Even with those complaints I think that Cutthroat Caverns is the best light, “take that” style game I’ve played. It has a built in timer – nine monsters – so the game will never drag on too long. Luck is diminished a bit with the frequent cycling of cards and ability to refresh your hand between encounters. Plus the whole semi-cooperative aspect really adds in a new level of fun when trying to decide how to best play your turn.
If you like fantasy games, dungeon crawlers and/or have a fondness for Munchkin and its ilk, do yourself a favor and check out Cutthroat Caverns. It plays 3 to 6 players and due to the monster health scaling I think it works well with any number. The game is easy to teach, plays in roughly and hour and you’ll have plenty of great moments to laugh about as you play.