No Place Like Catacombs
At long last, the great gates that have obstructed your passage to Khrlot shudder open, axe-bitten oaken doors shrieking on their hinges. So stale is the air that the moisture of your mouth and nostrils is sucked dry in an instant. Beside you, Elani sighs noisily, flicking a glinting coin into the air and nabbing it just as quickly. Xoric runs his finger along the blade of his axe, testing its bite, and Varesh rummages through his spellbook, frowning deeply. Before you is the darkness of the final tomb obstructing your passage to Vasesak, the foul sorcerer of the catacombs beneath Stormtryne.
He will know your fury. You have vowed it.
One by one the braziers gutter to life. You are not alone down here — not that you expected to be. Long before you can make out their shifting outlines, you’re bombarded by a ghoulish cacophony, clacking pincers and the chattering jaws of Vasesak’s reanimated servants. To your side, Xoric tests his axe’s weight, giving it an exploratory swing through the air. Elani pockets her gold and licks her lips. Varesh begins muttering an incantation, flames licking at his fingertips.
And then you ram into the nearest skeleton with your forehead, bashing him to pieces, before rebounding off a pillar and smacking a troll onto his arse. “Good shot!” shouts Elani, following up your assault by smacking into the troll with her shoulder. You grumble a bit. After all, she just stole your kill.
For those who’ve somehow missed out on it thus far, Catacombs is one of those games we might term a “dungeon crawler,” pitting four plucky do-gooders against a single dungeon lord and his hordes of monsters. The heroes descend into the depths, defeating baddies and looting gold, quaffing potions and buying bigger axes to enable better defeating of baddies and looting of gold, and so on and so forth. You probably know the drill.
What sets Catacombs apart, however, is that it’s what we fancy-pants board games connoisseurs call a “dexterity game.” To the uninitiated, that probably conjures up fond remembrances of college Twister tournaments. For us nerds who didn’t get invited to those sorts of shindigs, it means a game about flicking your pieces around the board. As in, lining up your heroes — wooden discs with pictures of your adventurers stickered onto them — and flicking the crap out of them. Sometimes you’ll collide with a monster piece, dealing damage the way a die roll might in a regular dungeon crawler; other times, you’ll bounce off a pillar and roll under the couch. It’s all part of the fun.
A large part of what makes it so challenging is that you aren’t just trying to clear a single room of monsters. A room takes maybe fifteen minutes to clear, during which time you’ll be trading blows with a variety of uglies, hiding from incoming arrows behind pillars, ricocheting fireballs around corners, getting poisoned and then using up one of your limited antidotes. You’ll take a few hits, maybe burn a couple items, but in the end it’s almost inevitable that you’ll crush the bad guys. After all, you’re a hero. Who could stand up to that? Now give yourself a self-adulatory pelvic thrust.
But clearing a single room doesn’t mean you’ve won the game. Quite the contrary. As you celebrate your crushing victory, the catacomb lord quietly sweeps the pieces off the board, hands out some gold coins for the creatures you’ve slain, and then flips a card and begins setting up another room. No big deal, you tell yourself. We crushed it last time.
Two rooms later, as your heroes struggle to keep their last couple life points from slipping away, as your supplies dwindle and your problem player keeps charging straight into battle, the game changes. It becomes less about hooting over your victories and more about playing smart. Maybe you hide from the big monsters until you can gang up on them, or debate when to use your best weapons, or knock friendly pieces into position like Aragorn tossing Gimli into the fray at Helm’s Deep. For a game about flicking pieces of wood across a board, it’s enormously punishing and surprisingly strategic. Little surprise that it’s best played standing — to better set up angles for tricky shots, yes, but also because this is the sort of game that has people celebrating when those shots are successful by leaping to their feet and smacking each other on the butt. This is also a good time to make them lift up the couch and grab all the pieces that they’ve rolled under there.
It helps that there’s quite a bit of variety to what the pieces do. Rather than merely slamming into each other all day, every monster and hero and piece of loot offers something a little different, bending the rules in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. The simple act of loosing an arrow, for example, involves placing an even tinier disc on the board and hoping you can get a handle on its weight, sacrificing accuracy but letting you stay out of reach. Some monsters and familiars — allies who can join your team for a price — can choose to roll around instead of sliding, changing the dynamics of how they move. There are monsters who deal poison damage, or instill you with terror (letting the catacomb lord flick your piece), or reflect your shots back at you. Others avoid damage until you knock them off the board, burst into a pillar of flame that deals damage when touched, or fire homing missiles that can be flicked over and over again. There’s even a huge gelatinous cube, a plus-sized hunk of wood that can devour heroes whole, trapping them in its stomach until rescued by their companions.
Heroes also have plenty of variety to take advantage of, but in keeping with the theme of exhaustion during a long and dangerous adventure, most of their best options are limited to a single use per room, or even once ever. It isn’t uncommon to reach the lowest levels of the catacombs and find yourself wishing you hadn’t used your magic missile and poison antidotes so flippantly.
All this variety adds up to a tremendously replayable game. Not only is it equal parts grueling and hilarious, but every round is made up of a new selection of rooms, monsters, heroes, and catacomb lords. You can never be sure just what sort of challenge you’ll be faced with. And as the catacomb lord, learning to manage entirely new toys each game makes for a joyous experience.
Catacombs has been one of my favorite dexterity games for a long while, and the only reason I’ve taken so long to write about it is because the third edition has only recently sprung into existence. This version integrates at least one of the old expansions, sands down some rough edges, and gives the game an entirely new artistic sheen. Now with color! Some people have complained about the sillier aesthetic, but those people probably complain about everything. The new art may be a little goofy, but it’s also in keeping with the game’s inherent silliness, where an arrow can rebound off a magic shield and smack a centaur in the face. Then it will roll under the couch again.
Lastly, I suppose I ought to note that there is a cardboard skirt that can wrap around the board to prevent pieces from leaving the table, but I recommend ignoring these. As a catacomb lord, you need every advantage you can get, and forcing the heroes to strain their forearms on your furniture is the perfect way to wear them down. After all, you’re the bad guy. Now give yourself a self-adulatory pelvic thrust.