June 18, 2012 by brennon
The dungeons of many fantasy worlds are filled with dangerous creatures and malevolent forces ready to bring you low. Traps hang from the ceilings and are hidden beneath the floor, and if you’re fighting in a Gygaxian dungeon then good luck touching that gargoyles shiny jewels, but what’s this scene missing? Ah yes, rebellious and backstabbing fellow adventurers looking to steal your glory.
In Cutthroat Caverns it’s not about how much treasure you have found but boasting about it while holding the heads of your fallen foes when you get back to the tavern. A monster might have been bashed half to death by the Dwarf but if you landed the killing blow then of course the glory should be yours!
Let’s dive into the world of Cutthroat Caverns…
Cutthroat Caverns is a card game driven by a massive deck of cards which will see a lot of wear over the games you play. This is one of the games where I would strongly suggest some card sleeves! There are a number of different card types and all will be essential to you playing the game so I will go into each of them in turn to explain the different effects and actions.
The first up is the basic Attack Card. An Attack Card is easily distinguished by a large red flash on the front with ATTACK followed by a value. These are basic attacks which do damage based on the value in the middle. Around the edge you will also see a few modules each with a number in them. This is used whenever an attack is boosted or crippled by other cards and simply requires you to turn the card to show the right value.
Next up are the Rider and Stand In Cards. A Rider Card is placed in place of a normal attack and has alternative text on it telling you what to do. An example would be the Slip Behind card which allows you to bide your time and on your next attack deal x2 damage with an attack. Stand In cards are a little different as they are activated immediately with added effects. An example here would be the Double Strike one. This allows you to play two Attack Cards from your hand and resolve them immediately.
Action Cards are the next type of card and most can be played out of the normal turn sequence. These involve things like ‘Not so Tough’ which doubles your damage on an enemy or ‘Counter Strike’ which immediately lets you resolve an attack against a monster who just smacked you on the noggin. You will find these become precious and important resources during your fight through the Caverns.
Last but not least in the player deck are the Item Cards. These range from basic Health Potions which heal either you or an opponent to treasures like the Potion of Iron Skin which makes you immune to damage for an encounter or the Alchemist’s Fire bottle which damages all enemies AND allies around you.
Next up in the box are the Hero and Encounter Cards. The Hero cards are nothing more than background information as no hero differs from the others (unless you get your hands on the expansion, but let’s concentrate on the base game for now). There is a Dwarf (of course!) an Elf and a few Humans to choose from. Encounter Cards will form the various enemies that you fight throughout the dungeon from something as basic as the Ripper to devilish and underhanded Arc Mages. It’s recommended that you start with the Ripper since it’s a very basic monster but you will soon find that many monsters within the Caverns are dangerous; even more so when teamed with the scheming and backstabbing members of your so called adventuring party.
The Monster Cards also have a scaled level of health and damage so the game stays fun and to the hilt if you have 3 or 5 players.
As well as all the cards there is a wealth of tokens and glass beads. The tokens are used for tracking minion creatures for the Wolf Pack and the Boogen Encounters while the glass beads track your health, the monsters health and the encounter number that you are currently on. There are also additional Prestige tokens which can be added to a monster to make them more attractive kills, but we will go into that when we get to gameplay.
All the components are fairly robust and have survived a lot of games with my group. I would suggest card sleeves for the player deck and you will need something to stick the glass beads down with, preferably blu-tac, otherwise they will slide all over the place!
At the beginning of the game you are dealt seven cards and choose a hero from the selection available. These form your starting hand. Any Item Cards (marked with glowing green gems) are played immediately face down in front of you and don’t take up any of your maximum card allowance. After this has been done deal nine Encounters to the centre of the table. You must defeat all of these monsters to make it out of the dungeon and be declared the winner. This is where the game gets interesting…
Once you have all settled down you take the separate Initiative deck cards appropriate to the number of players and deal one face down to each player. This means you do not know in what order you will be attacking the monster(s) that appear from the Encounter deck! I can already see plans forming in peoples minds. The Encounter is revealed, its life set to the right amount, and people declare if they would like to use potions or not. Once players have decided if they would like to use a potion, the Initiative cards are flipped and you see how lucky you’re about to become.
As I explained in the introduction to the review its not who does the most damage to the monster but the one who kills it that reaps the rewards. This, twined with your Initiative card draw will determine what card you’re about to play. If a monster is on high life points and you’re first player you don’t want to do too much damage to it since you’d make it far too easy for the other heroes. It’s important to add that when you ‘Set’ an Attack Card it goes face down so your opponents can’t see! In the first case you might slip in a low damage card or a Rider to wait until next round. If the monster is on low life points and your first, get in there with a big damage attack to finish it off before anyone else does! Oh if it was only that easy…
After everyone has attacked the Encounter the Initiative cards are drawn back in and re-dealt. Monsters will then damage you and you repeat the process from before, revealing your place in the attack sequence and plotting on how best to get that killing blow on the enemy. This constant cycling Initiative twined with the mountain of cards that can be used to plus or minus your attack, or maybe even completely negate your turn, makes up the backstabbing portion of this game. You might have started the turn in first place but someone can easily play a card to switch your card with theirs and grab your kill. You can then hit back with a Critical Miss and punish them for stealing your victory, but then the kill could go to another player who sniggers heartily at both your expense.
A delicate balance has to be struck between helping your party get through a particularly bad Encounter and screwing them over when the time is right. The games catchphrase of…
“Without Teamwork you will never survive. Without Betrayal you will never win…”
…has never been more pertinent.
The game continues in this way, gathering cards and working through Encounters trying to beat your allies to the punch until you hit the ninth Encounter. Once that has been beaten, the one left standing, or with the most Prestige is declared the winner.
Gaining Prestige is simple and that’s by killing the monster within an Encounter. For example the Anti-Paladin has a Prestige value of three whereas a Gas Bag has a value of one. This can be boosted from round seven onwards. At this point the quest is nearing its end and with glory in sight even the lowliest creature is suddenly more precious. You will be accruing this Prestige throughout the adventure with the monsters you have killed lain out next to your character card. This way everyone can see who is in front and who needs to bite the critical miss bullet next round.
There are some exceptions to the Monsters within the deck. Two rooms, the Riddle Room and the Trap Room don’t involve any backstabbing but tests of memory and luck around a collection of cards. They can be healthy reprieves from the violence or come at just the wrong time. The basic ‘reveal initiative, set a card, play card’ system continues throughout most encounters however and once you have played it a few times you will get into the swing of things.
A few of you might have got a little confused while reading the gameplay section of this review, and that brings me to one of the first niggles with this game. The rulebook is not very clear despite the breakdown of sequence section within it and you will find yourself having to play a fair few games before it all becomes second nature. The natural comparison with this game is to Munchkin which has simple rules and a heavy focus on the backstabbing theme, but that doesn’t make Munchkin a better game by any means.
Once you get past the rules issue within Cutthroat Caverns you will find a very deep and interesting game.The real draw with this game is that it actually is semi-co-operative rather than knife-in-the-back skulduggery. Players will find themselves banding together and defeating a particular encounter simply because if you don’t, none of you will escape the dungeon. Sometimes it’s worth letting a player get the Prestige if it will keep you alive and mean that further down the line they now owe you one. This delicate balancing act between backstabbing and heroic intervention means that you’re playing a game within a game. You will find there is a lot of table talk going on as an encounter is revealed and you look at your dwindling health.
Another great reason to be playing this game is that there will rarely be a breakaway winner throughout the entire game. If one player is streaking ahead then it’s a simple matter of banding together to make sure they don’t get the Prestige and it goes to a different player. This can mean it gets very deadly towards the end of the game where huge amounts of Prestige can be up for grabs, but I love the increase in tension and decision making. You will nearly always have a very close fought game of Cutthroat Caverns.
Only one other minor problem will arise through playing this game. You will soon realise that it would be a lot better if the base game characters had some special powers to mark them out as different from the others. Simply having the heroes as a health counter appears like a wasted opportunity. Smirk & Dagger have remedied this in later expansions with character specific powers but as a starting point you might feel that it’s a little lacking.
Overall however Cutthroat Caverns is a robust and exciting dungeon crawling card game. It has the right amount of backstabbing and bribery to make it a tense experience but twins this with the great feeling of teamwork that comes from adventuring as a party. It’s certain to get you telling stories of when “Talon died to a Gas Bag exploding in his face” and (in our gaming group’s case) what happens if your stuck in an infinite loop of Wolf attacks…yes, that really happened.
Game Length: Between 40 minutes to 1 hour Depending on Number of Players.
Do you need a card game to play between wargaming or role-playing? Grab this game!