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There’s something simply magical about dexterity games – those designs requiring flicking, throwing, or tossing pieces. The connection of kinetic force tied directly to a tangible outcome is a result that offers immediate and clear feedback; usually in a delightful click-clacking of pieces or cascading pile of cardboard.
Among this wonderful genre are some absolutely fantastic designs, Catacombs being one of them. This is a fantasy delve in the vein of Dungeons & Dragons where players flick their barbarian or wizard across the table, felling goblins in scores and putting a look of anguish on the overlord’s face. Catacombs has seen multiple editions in its extended life and now even has a sequel.
Catacombs & Castles is immediately recognized in the same family as its progenitor due to the whimsical-with-edge Kwanchai Moriya illustrations that bring the setting to life. Less a dungeon crawl and more a dungeon brawl, this is a dexterity game that plays with the feel of a miniatures skirmish outing. Think Shadespire but with flicking and a cutesy but malevolent presentation.
Make no mistake, this is a light game, even lighter than its predecessor by a fair margin, but it offers engaging and quick tactical play in a unique arena. With a head to head format supporting teams, the ‘catacomb’ group will face off against team ‘castle’. Characters are selected from each faction pool offering asymmetrical powers. Aesthetically the catacomb brood are the bad guys here, cast in darkness and sporting evil sneers on their dirty mugs. The heroes of the castle consist of a noble paladin, a robotic ranger, and even a magic-wielding princess.
A second way of play exists that’s more akin to a Catacombs final showdown against a boss. In this mode, one player takes the role of a beefed up big bad while the rest of the group selects heroes to combat the villain. It can be a formidable challenge and is a nice way to mix up the proceedings due to the asymmetrical sides, but it’s not quite as unique within this game line as the head to head skirmish.
The most interesting detail of this system – and one which sets it apart from its big brother – is how you charge up each character’s unique abilities during play. While every hero boasts a typical melee or ranged attack, you will charge up your super powers as you remove health from the enemy. Once you hit a threshold you may unleash those abilities with great affect. These include some enormous effects such as allowing every character on your side to fire off a string of attacks, or dealing your own private brand of hell via chained shots that inflict massive damage. You can even teleport across the battleground and stun enemies or maybe capture them in webbing. The leveraged variety adds a distinct feel to each warrior and adds texture to the tactical considerations.
As you unleash this raw power and sow destruction across the board, you will sap health not from individual characters but from a group health pool belonging to the faction. This is a strong facet of the design as it avoids player elimination and dis-incentives ganging up on a single target to take them out of the match. It’s a clever inclusion not only from the behavior it induces but also from the reduction of component maintenance and centralization of tokens.
Another fantastic addition to this system is the element of terrain. Catacombs relied on circular discs and similar elements to provide obstacles and produce challenge on the lavish boards. This sequel doesn’t place rounded discs in cardboard slots, but rather includes enormous chunky wooden blocks that players can place at their whim.
At the beginning of the game, each side takes turns positioning these terrain pieces in a manner similar to many miniatures games. The result is a relatively varied setup with each play that produces different approach vectors on the war-torn landscape. There are indeed a limited number of pieces and the game doesn’t drastically change depending on the position, but the shifting battlefield each matchup does enforce reassessing strategy and divergent tactics. The non-static pillars keep you on your toes and avoid an obvious sense of repetition.
The simple structure at play – take turns activating characters to perform an action – allows for a system architecture that can be absorbed by a wide age range. This is a much better choice for a family game than the more complicated and lengthy Catacombs, for instance. Yet the skill-based maneuvering and randomized chunky obstacles will keep even the hardest-of-core coming back and surprised at how damn enjoyable this little treat is.
Catacombs & Castles is a frenetic and fast-paced skirmish game with much to offer. It’s not as robust or enveloping as its sibling, but it cuts straight to the simple moments of joy and it will hit the table more often due to its less bulky ruleset and snappy playtime. We don’t always want to slay Zargon’s legions in a labyrinthine cavern, sometimes we just want to throw down in a field and make it rain blood.
Have you played Catacombs or Catacombs & Castles? Let us know in the comments! Don’t forget to check out into our tabletop show Game the Game hosted by Becca Scott as we play games and talk about what’s happening in the land of tabletop gaming. New episodes go live every Thursday here on G&S!
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Image Credits: Charlie Theel, Elzra Corp.
Editor’s note: A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Ars Technica, Tabletop Gaming, Miniature Market’s The Review Corner, and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on Twitter @CharlieTheel