Thursday 16 February 2017

Review - Catacombs (First Edition)

Designed by Ryan Amos, Marc Kelsey, and Aron West
Published by Sands of Time Games
For 2-5 players, aged 12 to adult

Catacombs first edition box art

My hands are basically screwed.

Have I ever mentioned that?

They randomly betray me, flinging things across the room. Last month I had to remove electrical outlets from my wall to drain them because a full cup of tea escaped my fumbling grasp, and not long after that I bounced one of my best friends freshly painted space marines off the table. It wouldn't have been so bad, but it was his first go at painting miniatures for about two decades. Fortunately, those space marines are a lot more robust than some people give them credit for. I guess they have to be if they're going to survive in the grim-dark future of the Warhammer universe.

And this is my hands under normal conditions. If it starts to get cold, they straight up stop working altogether.

My rubbish hands take the full blame for my inability to learn to play the guitar (my lack of persistence is completely unrelated, I assure you), and also for my heavy reliance on ink washes and drybrushing to make my painted miniatures look even halfway decent.

They're also why I'm not overly keen on dexterity games.

I don't hate such games in theory, but if my hands decide they aren't going to play, any game with a strong dexterity element becomes a chore.

All that considered, it may seem a bit odd that I ever purchased a first edition copy of Catacombs. After all, I probably wasn't going to enjoy it, right?

Catacombs box (first edition)

To be honest, the odds were stacked against it; but if I remember back through the mists of time to 2010, I recall some very positive reviews about the game that got my interest. I then fell in love with its old-fashioned line art, so reminiscent of early roleplaying games. After that, I started to think what a clever idea it was to reinvent the classic dungeon crawler as a dexterity game; and once you're that far down the rabbit hole, it becomes surprisingly easy to convince yourself that a disc-flicking game probably doesn't involve that much command over your hands anyway.

It was actually the concept of the dexterity element that intrigued me the most. I have always loved dungeon crawlers, and I am a bit of a fan of games that have a gimmick or use certain mechanisms in an interesting new way; and I really wanted to see if it was possible to replace dice rolling and grid-based movement with finger flicks.

Turns out, it is possible; and for what Catacombs is trying to be, it's definitely a success. Everything works. Everything makes sense.

But it's also a dexterity game...

And... Yeah. I'm not really keen on dexterity games.

To start with, I have to say that I think the game does a really incredible job of incorporating the theme. I mean, when I opened my copy, all of the wooden discs inside were coated with mould to create that authentic dungeon vibe. Turns out this was a common problem with the first print run, and the publisher had a replacement parts system in operation. The customer service was really good, and after filling in an online form and waiting about three weeks, I finally had a mould-free set of discs to play with.

The discs replace the more traditional miniatures, standees, or even tokens you expect in such games, and they represent everything from the heroes and monsters, to magic fireballs, arrows, and even obstacles. To differentiate them, they are in different colours and sizes, and there is a sticker sheet to label them with more of that cool, old-school D&D artwork.

Once you're done with the sticking, it's time to start flicking. Up to four players take control of the heroes (there are always four heroes in play), and one player (the overseer) takes control of all of the enemies, including one of four bosses. The heroes get character cards for tracking hit points and special abilities, their hero discs, and any other discs they may get to use throughout the game (such as the aforementioned arrows and fireballs). The overseer gets a massive stack of monster discs, some reference cards for monster abilities, and an evil glint in his or her eye.

Catacombs boss monsters

The overseer is responsible for creating the dungeon by arranging a small deck of dungeon cards. As the heroes proceed through the game, they work through the cards in the deck, facing chambers of monsters (and a wandering merchant!) before finally reaching the last location where they must fight the boss.

Each of the cards indicates a room type and some monsters; so when the overseer flips the card, he or she finds the correct double-sided game board from the three available, and then... goes blind. Because each one of those game boards has... and I really can't stress this enough... the absolute worst artwork I have ever seen... anywhere... ever. It really has to be seen to be believed.

And even then you won't believe it.

Each piece of art looks like a basic texture file lifted directly from a computer, and barely makes sense as background artwork for a dungeon-based adventure.

It's just hideous.


Catacombs playing board with vile artwork

But forget that, because the boards are really only there to define the size of the arenas the brave heroes are going to fight through on their quest, and to ensure you have a nice, smooth surface to flick the discs over.

And yes, let's not forget that. This is a game about flicking discs. There are no dice, no "movement points," no squares on the boards, no range rulers, and no plastic miniatures. Just wooden discs on an ugly board, and you with your butt in the air and your nose resting on the tabletop, squinting at your opponent's pieces as you line up a shot.

If I didn't spend so much of my time playing with little plastic orcs, I'd be tempted to say the whole concept of Catacombs was a bit ridiculous.

Anyway, the overseer sets up the board for the current room, the monsters and heroes enter play, and you're off: flicking away at each other in a way that, frankly, might raise eyebrows in polite society.

And I'm not kidding. The game is all about flicking. If you want to move a hero into a new position, you flick it. If you want to attack with a hero, you flick it into an enemy disc. If you want to fire an arrow, you take a small disc, place it next to your hero, and then... Well... You can probably figure that out.

Catacombs rules book

First, each hero gets to take one action; and then the overseer takes actions for all of the monsters in play.

Of course, heroes and monsters have special rules, and certain ways in which you have to flick them, which spices things up a bit.

The basic action available to every piece is the melee attack. This simply means you get to flick the piece once, and score one wound on any enemy pieces you hit. You don't have to hit an enemy piece, so in this way the basic melee attack doubles as a move action.

Catacombs skeleton

Some heroes and monsters get other options, like a missile shot (which involves flicking a small yellow disc as a projectile weapon), or a fireball shot (which involves flicking a slightly bigger orange disc as a projectile weapon), or a critical missile shot (which involves flicking a little yellow disc as a projectile weapon that causes two wounds), or a critical fireball shot (which involves... Well... You can probably figure that out).

Sometimes, it's possible to combine these flicking actions, or choose between multiple actions. For example, the enemy centaurs get to make a basic melee attack, immediately followed by a basic missile attack (representing how they charge into battle and then throw their spears). Meanwhile, the giant spider (of course there's a giant spider!) makes a basic melee attack followed by two separate missile attacks that cause stun but no wounds.

Furthermore, a few monsters have additional special rules, such as the zombies that immediately become stunned if they inflict a wound as they go into a "feeding frenzy."

And yeah, that's all pretty clever really. Every monster has a combination of skills and flicking attacks that seems to accurately reflect how that creature would act. The fire demons throw fireballs, the trolls regenerate, the skeleton archers attack in melee or they fire their bows but are too slow to do both in a single round.

Catacombs game in progress

But really, when it comes down to it, you're just flicking discs. And for me, that feels... lacking.

It's a bit of a weird complaint, as you can distill any dungeon crawler into a single mechanism and say it seems lacking. After all, most monsters in fantasy adventures are really just a few stats and a dice roll. Why should replacing the dice roll with a flick make a difference?

I don't know.

It just does.

It just feels like you lose a lot of the scope for creating diverse enemies.

Catacombs enemy cards

In Catacombs, the skeleton is exactly the same as the orc (except the orc has one more wound), and they are both exactly the same as the fire spirit (except the fire spirit turns into an obstacle when it dies), and they are all the same as the scorpion (except the scorpion inflicts two wounds if it makes a successful attack). And the fact that your skill directly relates to the skill of the monsters only compounds the issue. A skeleton archer should be less accurate than a centaur or a fire demon; but in Catacombs the monsters are all as accurate as each other. As accurate as you.

When it comes down to it, none of the monsters really feel like monsters; They feel like little wooden discs.

Which, of course, they are.

I mean, the designers have tried their best within the confines of a dexterity game, even making the enemy discs different sizes to create more of a sense of individuality for each one; but ultimately, you end up using many of the monsters in a very similar sort of way.

It's a slightly different story where the heroes are concerned. They are a bit more diverse, and they each have a unique skill. But the designers seem to have focused on making the heroes different, while completely forgetting to make them equal.

Catacombs hero cards

The elf just has a normal melee attack, but twice per fight she can fire an arrow.

The thief has a basic melee attack, but if she misses she is immediately allowed to make a second melee attack (only the second one doesn't cause damage, it just allows her to get out of danger). She also gets extra money for kills.

The barbarian has a basic melee attack, and twice (sometimes three times) in the whole bloody game, he gets to go into a rage which lets him... wait for it... attack four times in a row instead of just attacking once, after which he's completely knackered and open to a counterattack from every enemy left standing.

And then there's the wizard, who gets a basic melee attack, and then a deck of spell cards. Each spell card has one use, but there is some really good stuff in there. Healing spells, fireballs, a skeleton you can raise to fight for you, chain lightning, teleportation... It's ridiculous. When you're the wizard you get to do great things. You get to save other heroes, destroy powerful enemies, and employ clever tricks to gain the upper hand.

You get to have fun.

Much, much, much more fun than any of the other heroes.

Catacombs wizard in a spot of bother with some enemies

The wizard is a character who forces you to make decisions every turn. You get to make choices, because you actually have choices. Contrast that with the elf, who after firing her two arrows, has no choice other than to do a basic melee attack turn after turn after turn, or the barbarian, who gets to do a maximum of three mildly interesting things in a whole game.

And it's the lack of choices, the lack of interesting ways to interact with the world, where the game really falls down for me. Imagine a traditional adventure game where every turn you get to move a number of spaces, and then make a basic attack by rolling a dice. That's effectively what Catacombs is. Every turn is largely the same.

Hell, every game is largely the same.

Regardless of which boss you meet in the last chamber of the dungeon, you are still going to have the same four heroes venturing through the same six locations, fighting the same demons, trolls, spiders, and skeletons, using the same tactics to beat them. After a while you always meet the same merchant, who offers you a random selection of six items from the same small deck of nine items. You quickly learn which items are the best, and once you know how to use those items, you use them in the same way every game.

For example, if you get the cloak of invisibility and the poison dagger for your thief, you are going to spend the rest of the gaming "bamfing" behind enemy lines to stab up the big hitters before they have a chance to do serious damage. You're going to do that because (a) it's an obvious strategy, (b) it works, and (c) it's the only tactic that combination of items lets you use.

In fact, most of the items don't really give you any new options. There's a helm that gives the barbarian one extra rage attack. There's a magic quiver that gives the elf one extra arrow. There's a chain lightning spell that gives the wizard one extra... Well... You can probably figure that out.

Catacombs item cards

The feeling you are just doing the same thing all the time is made worse as there's no actual plot. There's no reason to do the things you are doing. This is a game that distills the basic essence of the dungeon crawler. You smash down doors, smash in skulls, and then romp home with a stash of cash to spend at the tavern.

There's no campaign, no overarching story.

Nothing to fire your imagination.

Besides that awesome, old school line art, I mean.

However, there is a leveling up system... You know, that part of any dungeon crawler where your heroes gradually get better. Of course, in this game, the leveling system is you. It's your skill. As you play the game, you get better at judging distances, you get better at rebounding off discs to reach protected targets, and you get better at saving your special abilities until you really need them. It's a very organic experience system.

It's a real experience system.

And that does give you as a player a more immediate, visceral connection with the game. Your abilities are directly reflected on the tabletop. Your heroes really are only as good as you.

Of course, that also means there is no luck to level the playing field. If you are up against an experienced player, you're going to get a beating, and there really isn't very much you can do about it.

Catacombs dungeon cards

So overall, my final opinion of the game is depressingly obvious. It's just not my sort of game. Not just because it's a dexterity game, but also because it doesn't offer enough interesting choices, and because some characters seem more developed than others, and because I simply don't have much fun when I play it.

I don't hate the game, and I must stress that I think it is an incredibly smart design that does a wonderful job of translating traditional dungeon crawling elements into a completely new format. It's neat, and I really wanted to like it. I genuinely thought I might be able to like it. I think a lot of people who enjoy dexterity games will like it. But would I buy it today, knowing what I know now? Would I ever consider upgrading my copy to the new edition, which replaces the original line art with cartoon artwork which is kinda cool, but in a different way?

Well... You can probably figure that out.

The first edition of Catacombs is out of print, and the new edition seems very hard to find in the UK. If you want a copy, keep checking eBay, and cross your fingers.


  1. This was a game that I was incredibly excited about when it came out. I bought a copy and enjoyed a couple of plays.... But whereas some games really 'take off' after you have got to know them a bit, this one sort of fizzled out for me. I was never exactly disappointed with it, but just wasn't inspired.

    Thanks for this review; it pretty much sums up my own feelings about the game.

    1. Thanks for reading. I think what the game does, it does well; it just doesn't really do enough of it.

      I think the nature of the game limits it, and I found that after a few games, I felt like I really had experienced everything the game had to offer.


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