Review: Catacombs 3rd Edition - by @buryboardgames

Review: Catacombs 3rd Edition - by @buryboardgames

Hang on. The fantastic flicking, dexterity challenge that is Crokinole? And the TTRPG phenomenon seeped into our subconscious via shows like Stranger Things? Smushed into one package? What you’re now thinking of is Catacombs, a flick-fest bonanza by Elzra, designed by Aron West. Is it a mad gimmick? Or mad enough to work? Let’s delve down into the dark and spooky catacombs and find out…

You All Meet In A Tavern

Catacombs takes place in and beneath the fantastical town of Stormtryne. There’s monsters and ghouls lurking afoot! The game system is a one-versus-all format, with one player taking on the role of The Overseer. They control all the monsters throughout the game, much like a Dungeon Master does in Dungeons & Dragons. The rest of the players are in co-op mode, a party of four adventurers there to rid the subterranean rooms of foes. (It’s always 1-vs-4, regardless of player count. In lower head counts, some players will control multiple heroes.)

Each character in the game – and ranged weapon and spell, for that matter – takes the form of a stickered disc. As you flick them at one other, physical contact represents the target taking damage. There’s a range of different kinds of shot you can take, such as common melee and ranged attacks. But there’s also a smorgasbord of advanced shots, too. Portals, summoning, and poison… And for D&D fans, there’s even a Devour Shot, when the Gelatinous Cube enters the scene!

The party’s aim is to make it through a series of dungeon rooms, wiping out the monsters. The showdown sees them take on a powerful Catacomb Lord. Beat them, and they return to the surface triumphant winners! The Overseer’s aim is to prevent that happening, by killing all the heroes. Think of this like one hell of a 60-90 minute one shot adventure, rather than an ongoing campaign. It has a start, middle and end all in one fast-paced session. 

Heroic Tropes Or An Off-Piste Chicken

Players get to play as classic – albeit predictable – heroic tropes. You’ve got your barbarian, wizard, thief, or an elven archer. Happily, the other two options are about as off-piste a character choice as you could get. One is Roosan the Chicken Champion (yes, you can play as a chicken!) and the other is Marog the Skeleton Explorer. 

Each hero comes with a player board, where you can track your current Health Points (HP). There’s also space here to hold any ability cards and loot. The heroes are modular, with a variety of starting HP, and character traits.

  • Xoric the Barbarian has take more hits, and starts with a special Berserker Battle Axe weapon.
  • Varesh the Wizard starts the game with 10 Spell Cards, and a shield.
  • Oleira the Elf starts with a bow, two arrows, and a Spirit Familiar – think Tinkerbell as an ally to Peter Pan.
  • Roosan has a Feathers of Fury ability, where it can run around the dungeon like, well, a headless chicken!
  • Elani the Thief picks up extra loot, which comes in handy when buying equipment.
  • Marog is immune to certain types of poison attack (hey, it’s a skeleton without arteries, after all!).

You’ll find yourself feeling attached to them as the game progresses, much like you do a character in a TTRPG. My favourite is Varesh the Wizard, because of his deck of cool spells offers variety aplenty to assist the party. If you want to be ‘The Tank’ – if carnage tickles your fancy – then you’ll want to play as Xoric. Rest assured, everyone at the table will feel like their character is cool.

So who are you up against? The Overseer picks one of four asymmetrical Catacomb Lords. (The Sorcerer, the Gorgon, the Lich Lord, or the Dragon; they increase in difficulty, in that order.) However! You don’t start out fighting this lord of the deep, straight out of the gate. They’re the final boss. Like any tale of a fearless fellowship, it’s often the journey itself that maketh the hero. First up, you need to take out the Catacomb Lord’s malevolent minions…

Kick Down The Door: What’s Inside?

A game of Catacombs takes place over the duration of approximately eight Room Cards, the eighth being the Catacomb Lord’s Lair. Which Rooms in particular is the Overseer’s choice. (Of course, if you want an easier or quicker game, you can play with fewer Rooms, or more for a longer/harder game.) There’s 28 different Room Cards: 5 easy rooms, 14 medium rooms, and 9 hard rooms. There’s also four Special Room Cards, where battle doesn’t occur. Instead, these are locations such as the Inn, or the Healer’s apothecary, or a trip to the merchant for supplies. Players can spend gold that they earned killing monsters here to buy better items, or heal.

Each Room represents a different location within the town of Stormtryne, or a sector of the catacombs. Rooms state which beasties’ discs lurk inside that room. Sometimes the monsters within are of a certain challenge level, and the Overseer gets to decide (within the difficulty bracket). Some are minion-specific to the Catacomb Lord you’re playing as this game. The fact there’s 28 Rooms, and a single game features only five or six of them, means there’s superb modular variety.

It’s worth noting at this point that while yes, the Overseer wants to win, their task isn’t to win at all costs. Like a DM in D&D, the Overseer wants to create an awesome challenge for the players. There’s no point building an impossible, crushing scenario, though. Catacombs is at its most enjoyable when the difficulty and fun barometers sit balanced on a fulcrum. (This does hinge on players’ flicking skills… but I’ll talk more about this, later.) You’ll pick a Room or two from each difficulty bracket, broken up between the Special Rooms. That way the Heroes get a breather, and a chance to lick their wounds. Either way, Rooms get revealed one at a time, which is a fun way for the heroes to feel like they’re exploring a land unknown.

Catacombs comes with three double-sided main game battle boards. Which board you fight on room-to-room is down to the Overseer’s discretion. They’re 62x31cm in size, which provides a functional, achievable warzone. You place six chunky cylinders on stated spots, to provide cover for both sides. There’s a shallow perimeter wall you can build around the board. Handy in case any discs stray off the table surface due to wild flicking!

Flick For Initiative

The Overseer preps each battle by placing the Room’s corresponding monster discs behind the Monster Start Zone. Then the heroes place their discs within a thin strip on the board’s opposite side. The Overseer will – if they have an iota of sense! – situate their monsters so they’re sheltered behind the pillars. They won’t want their beasties in an easy line of fire straight out of the gate. 

Why? Because the heroes always flick off first, in an initiative order of their choice. Each hero takes a turn, then the Overseer gets to take turns for all the monsters. Then it’s back to the heroes, and so on. This continues until either the Room’s cleared of all monsters, or all the heroes have met a sticky end. If monsters die, they leave the battle board (and the hero earns gold for killing them). If heroes die, they leave the board, and can get resurrected for the next room. But they only revive on half their max HP, and lose all their gold. (There’s a tougher variant where only a visit to the Healer will revive a fallen hero.)

On a hero’s turn, a player can take one of four actions. The most common is to perform a base shot type according to their Hero Rules Card. This will either be a Melee, Rush, or Ranged shot, depending on their character.

A melee shot is a case of flicking your character disc itself, and if it hits a target, it deals 1HP damage to it. A Rush shot is a similar flick, but with movement, not damage, in mind. It could be to position itself in a better spot for later on, or to bump opponents (or allies!) into a new location. The ranged shot sees you place a second, artillery disc within 1 inch of the shooter. Then you flick the missile disc itself at a target.

Some of the characters (such as the wizard) have spells that they can use, instead. Some are different forms of ranged attacks, such as Ice Blast; if it hits a target, it freezes it in place. You place the Ice Missile disc on top of the target’s disc. It remains frozen until that ice piece gets knocked off (either friendly fire or by a later hero). How cool is that? The effects of these spells and attacks aren’t mere, fresh variety. They hold with them a thematic tie, and that aids players imaginations as the battle evolves.

Heroes might have an Ability Card, such as Oleira’s arrows, or Roosan’s Feathers of Fury. These tend to be a once-per-Room ability, so you have to pick when to use it with care. You get them back for the next Room. (This differs from Varesh’s Spells, which are once-per-game. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.) Feathers of Fury lets Roosan take four actions back-to-back: Rush/Melee/Rush/Rush. Meaning the crazy chicken can cause mayhem as it bumps into all manner of targets, changing the layout of characters amidst the battle! Talented flickers will aim to leave their discs in smart locations with the next turn in mind. Whether that’s in a hard-to-hit spot, or a sacrificial pawn intended to lure someone out from hiding? It’s all part of the infectious, delightful strategy.

Come At Me, Foe: Introducing The Monsters

Monsters tend to have fewer HP compared to the heroes. This is for scaling purposes. The heroes have copious Rooms they need to progress through, after all. Lower level baddies, such as Orcs and Skeletons, only have 1HP. One hit and they’re down. Tougher monsters, such as Ghouls or Minotaurs, for example, have 2HP. You keep track of this by flipping their disc over to a different colour background. The toughest monsters have up to 4HP each – and you keep track of this with a HP track on their individual cards.

Talking of which: each monster has its own card. They’re all unique with how they attack. Some have multiple actions they can take on their turn, or an either/or option. This keeps the party on their toes, and gives strategical variety to the Overseer. Many of the medium/tougher monsters have Shot Modifiers, which are variants of the standard melee/ranged/rush moves. They’re colour co-ordinated and 100% iconography on the cards. For your first few times playing, you’ll need the rulebook to hand as a reminder.

They’re all awesome modifiers though, with regards to creating drama. Corrosion shots (like the acidic Gelatinous Cube) mean it damages a piece of the player’s equipment. Red icons are Critical Hits – D&D players know how dangerous these are. They deal extra damage. Fear shots (such as the Phantom) mean the Overseer can play a Rush shot on the target. This is so thematic! It’s like the target is fleeing in fear. There’s also Poison shots, Regeneration shots (the attacker ‘steals’ health from the enemy target!) and Stun shots.

When Stunned, heroes can no longer attack; they can only Rush. A hero breaks out of the Stun if an ally bumps into them. It’s like they’re giving them an encouraging slap on the back! When Ghouls stunned three of the four heroes in one game, high drama occurred. The one non-Stunned hero had to bash into an ally, freeing them of the condition. This was a crucial shot within the comabt. Because when Stunned, the action economy within initiative swings to a dangerous advantage towards the monsters.

Some monsters have Nullify or Reflect boxes on their cards. Nullify means that this monster is immune to certain types of damage. The Skeleton Warrior, for example, can nullify any damage via missiles. They travel straight through its ribcage, one assumes!

Reflecting Shots are fantastic fun: you’ll find them on the Minotaur and the Gelatinous Cube. It’s the same as Nullify, only a lot more dangerous. Because if any specific attack hits the monster, it reflects the damage straight back at the attacking hero! It’s hilarious to see this occur mid-fight. Imagine the scene: Varesh fires an Ice Blast at the zombie, but misses, instead hitting the Gelatinous Cube. But because it’s a cube of jelly, all it does it boing into the side of it, and ping the spell back at the perplexed Wizard!  

You Can Picture The Drama Unfolding

The range of attributes like this mimic combat in tabletop playing RPGs like D&D to a tee. You can picture the drama unfolding; you’ll live every second of it. When you’re in the thick of it, you’ll wear a constant grin. Cheers, groans, and laughter will accompany you every step of the way. The chaos in D&D is the fate of the dice, which turn the best laid plans into a slapstick circus act. The chaos here is the skill ability – or lack thereof – of the players’ flicking accuracy. 

Now, you’ll enjoy Catacombs a heck of a lot more if everyone’s on the same level with regards to their dextrous prowess. But if the Overseer can’t flick for toffee? It’s not going to feel as satisfying if you waltz through Rooms without breaking sweat. That said, when players miss the simplest of shots – or pull off outrageous strikes that defy the laws of physics – it’s joy personified. They’re the moments that make Catacombs an absolute blast.

‘My First Monster Bedtime Story’

Kwanchai Moriya’s artwork oozes quality. Once again he injects personality into every facet of the mise en scène. You’ll love to hate the monsters. They all have a charming disposition straight out of a kids’ My First Monster Bedtime Story book. (You might not enjoy applying stickers to all the discs, though. There’s a lot!) The discs themselves range in size; the more dangerous foes are larger, and objects like arrows are smaller. Bigger beasts, like the Owlbear, are an easier target due to its frame, but it has more HP. Meanwhile, the Pit Viper is tiny, so you have to be super-accurate… But you only need to hit it once!

The Battle boards themselves are of a fantastic quality cardstock. They’re almost too thick, given they add substantial weight to the box! Each board provides gorgeous aesthetics, but the artwork is for atmosphere rather than practicality, mechanisms-wise. The only real difference between them is the layout of where you situate the six pillars, for cover. I would have loved to see variants where things like fire pits, ravines, or ice pools represent dangerous terrain. Imagine the potential if you knocked a disc into a frozen pool, causing them damage or some effect? Or knocking an ally in there, when you meant to nudge a monster in there instead? That feels like an opportunity missed.

As things stand, if a disc flies off the edge of the board, it gets replaced back from where it left. The one exception are monsters like the Phantom, or the Blood Skull. These come from the Shadow Realm (the Upside-Down, for fans of Eleven and Co.). The only way to kill them is to ping them off the board, back into another realm! That’s a funky twist. I love little traits like that. They keep battles fresh, with distinct physical tasks to achieve.

Final Thoughts On: Catacombs – 3rd Edition

I am a firm fan of Catacombs. I love flicking games and I’m a huge D&D fan, and this experience didn’t let me down. My biggest bugbear with it though is, hands-down, the rulebooks. There’s a 36-page Reference Guide, and a 40-page Tutorial. Forget the Dragon, or the Lich Lord. This is, without doubt, the biggest threat in the game! The rulebook isn’t bad, per se, but that is a lot of pages to wade through for a dexterity game. To me, dexterity games often shine due to their wonderful simplicity. Not because they dovetail numerous mechanisms like an Alexander Pfister game. When [some] dexterity games try to be too complex – often for their own good – they lose the audience’s attention.

The issue with the two rulebooks here is it can be frustrating to find the answer to rules questions in the moment. And with dexterity games, it’s all about The Moment. Those shots you’ll talk about for days and weeks after: “You had to be there, man!” Nothing evaporates that vibe quicker than a three-minute sift through those 76 pages. It’s like offside goal debates in football with VAR. It’s not fun to sit through. It sucks the satisfaction out, even if you are the victor to the rules question once you finally answer it. 

My advice in this situation is to do what many Dungeon Masters do in D&D: the Rule of Cool. If you’re not sure of a particular rule, don’t let finding the exact rule kill the flow of everyone having the best time. If you think a rule would be cool, apply it. There’s quite a few little nitty-gritty rules that sometimes slip under the radar in Catacombs. But you know what? It doesn’t matter if you goof up and forget a rule or two. If everyone around the table had a blast, then who cares?

The only other minor issue is that Catacombs is a table hog. You’ll need room for all five player boards, the walls around the battle board, and space for monster cards. You’ll need access to a six-seater table, or else you’re looking at playing on the floor.


Do You Guys Give Up? Or Are You Thirsty For More?

Quibbles aside, now I’ve had a taste of Catacombs, it’s safe to say I want more! I mentioned earlier that this gives off a one-shot vibe, rather than a campaign. Now, I wouldn’t want to play Catacombs as a campaign. To me, dexterity games are awesome… in intense bursts. A campaign mode could outstay its welcome, I’d fear. What I yearn for is to sample more monsters, and get the chance to play as more heroes. Modular dungeon rooms is what gets my taste buds tingling!

Fortunate for me, such an expansion already exists. Catacombs: Cavern of Soloth sounds like it scratches the itch. Soloth features six new heroes, four new Catacomb Lords and more monsters. There’s also another expansion, Wyverns of Wylemuir. More of the above, plus new maps, and area-of-effect shots? Yes, please!

What about folks looking to dip their toe into this TTRPG-flicking pool for the first time, though? The base game of Catacombs provides adventures and amazing-ness aplenty.

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