And Not a Catacomb in Sight
Whenever you call something a “dexterity game,” there’s one last ambiguity to resolve: are we talking about flicking dexterity or stacking dexterity? For a number of years, Aron West, Ryan Amos, and Marc Kelsey’s Catacombs was the finest examples of the former, equal parts competitive and slapstick. Now West has teamed up with Ken Valles for Catacombs Cubes, which is all stacking and no flicking. But with plenty of excellent stacking games out there, how does it stack up?
I will never apologize for the crime of a good pun.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Catacombs Cubes isn’t about stacking the same way games like Men at Work or Rhino Hero Super Battle are about stacking. It erects no soaring spires, balances no teetering girders, features no barely-balanced construction workers or suspended monkeys. Its scale is measured in one or two inches much like MegaCity: Oceania, but even that isn’t a particularly good comparison. For one thing, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see anything topple. For another, when a topple happens, you shrug and put the building back together again. In a way, it’s a stacking game sans the dexterity. Stacking full stop.
It works like this. You’re trying to build a pleasant fantasy village not unlike all the other pleasant fantasy villages you’ve assembled over the years. This time, however, all your structures have an element of… well, not always verticality, but certainly an element of three-dimensionality. Enough so that the cards picture two blueprints, both essential: one from an isometric angle, almost like an illustration of intent, the other as a sort of “depth map” from above. You’ll collect a bunch of pieces that would feel right at home in Tetris, stack them together, and hopefully assemble your desired structure before anybody nabs it out from under you.
And it works. Technically. Functionally. Even, at times, tranquilly. But underneath every step there’s some niggle preventing Catacombs Cubes from coming together the way its more adventurous forebear did.
Every round begins with a draft. There are two methods available, neither of which is established as preferred in the rulebook. Either you roll some dice, pair them up according to color, and pick a pairing, or you do largely the same thing with a stack of tiles. In both cases, the current “architect” is permitted to manipulate the arrangement, whether by swapping two dice or assigning a third tile to each pair. The dice are faster but less prone to disruption, the tiles are the other way around.
As a draft, either method serves admirably, although it’s slightly irritating that the rulebook offers both during setup rather than defaulting to one or the other, asking you to make a decision before you’ve ever played the game. Meanwhile, sometimes the architect’s meddling can break up a powerful pairing, but the dice are already balanced so this is a significant exception. Most of the time, there’s very little reason to rearrange anything.
Still, this method of drafting is useful for offering some pieces and then getting out of the way. In addition to nabbing new components, every so often you’ll be presented with a free action, like chiseling apart a larger block to get something smaller or adding a one-by-one-by-one “obsidian” to the communal palace project. It’s light, almost suitable for family play, and lets you hop straight into the action.
Then again, that action hovers uncomfortably between similarly light and occasionally galling. The reason for all those pieces quickly becomes apparent — you want to trade them in to construct buildings, whether a generic village tile, a personal residence you were dealt during setup, the communal palace, or one of the expansion’s monuments. There are plenty of options to consider, but it isn’t long before Catacombs Cubes reveals as many sticking points as endorsements.
Your building area, for example, is split between a construction yard and a warehouse. When not playing, it’s natural to tinker with your pieces to see how they’ll fit together. When you finish a building, you lose everything in your construction yard, including any pieces you didn’t actually use. This is a solid design decision, preventing cheesy strategies like hoarding resources until you produce five buildings in a row. Additionally, if ever the proper piece’s supply has run dry, you’re allowed to either take the next-smallest piece or steal it from another player’s yard — although, as before, the rules refuse to make a judgement call on which is the proper way to play. Meanwhile, any pieces in your warehouse are secure, both from other players and from the end-of-construction cleanup.
At first glance this division seems like a nifty idea. In practice, it’s often a hindrance to clarity. In order to keep all your pieces straight, both for your own sake and that of your architectural rivals, everything should be clearly divided between your construction yard and warehouse. But because you’re moving everything around to see what you can build, they tend to jumble together. Was that orange square in your warehouse? Is an opponent’s purple T capable of being stolen or not? How many obsidian blocks did you have in reserve and how many in temporary storage?
Like the rest of the issues in Catacombs Cubes, the fuzzy division between construction yard and warehouse is a minor problem. The larger disappointment is how little the resultant structures matter.
Don’t get me wrong, they matter, but mostly in the sense that they award points. Their payouts don’t always make sense, with most structures scoring according to volume — how many blocks they contain — rather than scaling along with their complexity. More than once, we turned in a handful of obsidian blocks for a structure, just because there wasn’t any doubt we could build it, and why should we bother piling all those polyominoes together when there’s no element of balance at play? Complex structures, meanwhile, such as those with open gaps, are generally worth the same quantity as their simpler cousins, even though they’ll require larger pieces and more involved construction.
This issue aside, finished structures are flipped over and tucked into the village. Every tile has arrows along its side that indicate various rewards, which are doubled if you match them with the arrows on neighboring tiles. Some buildings even become marked as your property, and award further benefits when other architects build adjacent to you, creating a rush to define the final boundaries of the town and block your opponents from attracting new neighbors.
As you can probably tell, I’m lukewarm on this process despite enjoying many of its moments in isolation. My beef isn’t that the points and other prizes aren’t useful — after all, building and placing structures is how you win the game, so points are certainly the appropriate rewards for finishing structures. But Catacombs Cubes wasn’t content to stop there. In addition to building points, you’re also evaluated for your leftover coins. There are three colors: red for adding any one piece to the palace, blue for chiseling your pieces (and keeping the broken-off obsidian), and gray for stuffing something into your protected warehouse. But at the end of the game, points are awarded to those who are holding various quantities of each color. This is an ill-fitting inclusion, transforming every expenditure into an evaluation of whether its freebie action earns more points than its sunk opportunity cost, which actively distracts from the game’s focus on careful construction and wise drafting. Yes, it’s the only thing that allows for even a minor swing in points at the last minute, but it’s accounting in a game that’s otherwise centered on spatial acuity.
Still, while this end-game points adjustment doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the design, there’s a definite thrill to finishing a structure and slotting it into exactly the right spot for beaucoup rewards. But that brings us to the game’s most significant letdown — that Catacombs Cubes doesn’t know what to do with the Catacombs half of its title.
Look, I get it. West and Valles wanted to connect their new game to the recognizable Catacombs brand, so they slapped it into the title. But its presence creates false expectations on two levels. First, there isn’t a single catacomb in sight. The colorful vibrancy of the third edition is present, but without any of its underworld charm, and that’s to say nothing of the grungy aesthetic of the original game’s first incarnations. Add “generic” to “pleasant fantasy village” and you’re closer to where Catacombs Cubes stands.
The second false expectation is a greater offender, and has everything to do with the way Catacombs realized its setting. As a flicking game, Catacombs was notable for the way it translated hack-and-slash tropes into discs and cubes. Skeletons were brittle compared to orcs, certain enemies were best ricocheted away so they couldn’t slug you back, and arrows were small and fragile compared to heavier fireballs. The size and heft of the components, the layout of pillars in various chambers, and the way each boss behaved were all essential details. They were the game’s very essence.
By contrast, Catacombs Cubes reduces everything to points, coins, the occasional free piece, and trying to match arrows, its heavy abstraction riding the coattails of a game best known for its oddball but evocatively realized setting. The tragedy is that it didn’t need to be like this. Special structures could have broken the mold: vampire crypts that stole points, a royal residence inheriting guaranteed building spots, the wizard’s laboratory actually doing something wizardly, dragon dens scaring off neighbors — it’s easy to imagine. Instead, I’m hard-pressed to say why Catacombs Cubes is preferable to any of the other fantasy villages I’ve built over the years.
I’m not exactly pining for some ephemeral experience that Catacombs Cubes didn’t provide. Rather, I’m saying it’s merely fine when its pedigree is one of irreverent and unexpected excellence. Catacombs was a revelation. It proved that a dexterity game could emulate a radically divergent experience. Catacombs Cubes mostly makes me wish it had been born of similar ambitions.
A complimentary copy was provided.