To this day, Catacombs remains my preferred way to flick wooden discs around a piece of cardboard. Where most dexterity games are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them affairs, Catacombs was smart enough to take its time, chewing its band of heroes down to the gristle over hours rather than minutes.
As you might expect, this was also the great weakness of Catacombs. For a flicking game, it tended to ramble. By the time it reached its final showdown, it had begun to resemble one of those twenty-part fantasy novel epics that are probably the linchpin strategy of a shadowy organization’s plot to discourage literacy.
Enter Catacombs & Castles. This time around, designer Aron West’s goal was to harness the mighty long-winded power of Catacombs, while compressing the experience into a single battle rather than an entire campaign.
The first thing to note about Catacombs & Castles is that it’s really two very different games. Both share the same boards, abilities, and — naturally — flicking wooden discs at other wooden discs and somehow instead sending them clattering beneath your couch despite the inclusion of a cute little retaining wall that wraps around the play area. But two modes there are, and they’re radically different despite looking pretty much the same.
Before we get into the differences between these two modes, let’s talk about their shared similarities. In both cases, players command a bunch of heroes, mooks, or dungeon lords, and attempt to batter the other side to pulp before they are similarly battered. The inclusion of big chunky blocks and cylinders transforms the board into an obstacle course of potential ricochets and clipped corners, keeping both sides on their toes. More than that, veterans of Catacombs will be pleased to see so many abilities in play, even if some of them are just different stickers applied over the top of wooden discs. Archers hide behind cover before loosing tiny (and oh-so-easily lost) arrows. Mages launch special “egg” abilities that give birth to one-hit warriors. And trappers toss nets that can temporarily lock characters in place or employ grappling hooks that can haul friends to safety or drag enemies into harm’s way.
Far cooler, characters now boast special abilities that gradually charge as they deal damage. With these, it isn’t uncommon for someone to unleash a powerful chain spell that upends the status of the battlefield or issue a powerful order to someone who’s already spent their action that turn. These don’t appear regularly, and are instead wisely reserved for the final push in the midst of a pitched fight.
Speaking of fights, Catacombs & Castles offers two flavors, and they couldn’t feel more different.
The less exciting mode is designed like a straight duel. Both sides pick a trio of heroes and are then unleashed into the arena. It’s as straightforward as it is unimaginative, with both sides plinking back and forth almost aimlessly, one point of damage traded for another. This isn’t to say it doesn’t remain a game of skilled finger-work, and cleverly, teams are given pools of health rather than individual hit points, eliminating player elimination entirely. But a few good ideas aren’t quite enough to elevate this mode up to the level previously offered by the original Catacombs.
Fortunately, the boss mode functionally is the original Catacombs, albeit the final climactic battle rather than an entire overarching campaign. Gone is the duel mode’s unnecessary symmetry of forces, replaced by the setup that made Catacombs such a delight in the first place. On one side are your usual trio of heroes, with chargeable abilities and swaggering pools of health, arrayed against an übercharged dungeon lord commanding a broad host of disposable mooks.
This presents both sides with their own wonderful conundrum. The heroes are only required to kill the dungeon lord, but the bastard is as slimy as they come, teleporting out of danger or transforming into an alternate form or both, and it’s hard to stay alive for long when you’re being harried from all sides by hordes of monsters. Meanwhile, the dungeon lord is playing a staller’s game, trickling out reinforcements and trying to keep his thugs alive long enough to sap the heroes of their life force. If the heroes are too shy, they’ll wither; too bold, and they’ll find themselves at a positional disadvantage. The dungeon lord, on the other hand, must balance his attacks with his available forces, and always carefully meter which blows he can afford to trade.
This mode is a stark reminder of everything Catacombs got right all the way back in 2010, as well as the ways it’s improved over the intervening years. It’s fast and hard-hitting, with plenty of low-key drama to keep everyone groaning about how they plinked their hero off a cylinder and into a kill zone.
As for whether Catacombs & Castles is better than Catacombs, that’s anybody’s guess. It’s certainly more immediate, set up and broken down with total ease, and reaches that final crescendo a good couple hours before the original could. Unlike Catacombs, it isn’t a game that demands an entire evening to play.
That said, it’s also missing many of my favorite things about Catacombs. The smaller but more plentiful asymmetric battles, the gradual gained equipment and sapped health, the long-form anxiety over whether a particular hero would live to fight another day. Catacombs stands out as bold precisely because it was so uncompromising. It was as likely to kill your adventurers as transform them into true heroes. The same went for its baddie, who was forced to finagle a wide array of situations into the best possible outcome. Can you delay the heroes with some assorted graveyard trash? Can you chip away Xoric the Barbarian’s life just a tad before the heroes win this one? Can you force the good guys to waste their gold on healing potions rather than better swords? Any game that lets you summon an invulnerable Antient that gleefully switches sides between turns is a good one in my book.
But for those who can’t carve out the time for Catacombs, Catacombs & Castles is a sterling alternative, especially its boss mode. You’ll put a crick in your interphalangeal joints in no time.