Theme and What is it?
The cover of Cutthroat Caverns says it best. “Without teamwork, you’ll never survive. Without betrayal, you’ll never win.” In Cutthroat Caverns players take on the role of an adventuring party heading into a dungeon looking for glory. In the end, if they survive, only one player will have the highest glory and win the day. Through a mix of teamwork and sudden but inevitable betrayal players attempt to be the one party member to survive with the most glory.
Cutthroat Caverns uses a mix of hand management, simultaneous selection, and a traitor mechanic to give players a unique experience. The game begins with nine creatures randomly selected and placed facedown into a dungeon deck. Players then receive a hand of seven cards featuring a mix of attack, item, and interrupt cards. Players then use a shifting imitative order, card play, and negotiation to fight their way through the dungeon gaining prestige for each encounter that is defeated.
However, prestige is only awarded to the player that scored the killing blow. This makes the decision to play a big attack vs a quick hit a significant decision. Playing a big hit to weaken the monster and end the room might be a good idea but if your hit isn’t the one that kills the beast you could be setting someone else to get the killing blow. Additionally, the longer a fight lasts the more damage the party takes and the less resources they have to rely on since you only refill your hand between rooms. While you do draw individual cards between fight rounds, it may not be enough to keep your hand full for the entire fight. Though it could be a good idea to let some of the other players get the early kills to set them up for another mechanic later in the game.
Cutthroat Caverns also features a betrayal mechanic. It’s possible to get another player hit or killed by the monsters. Even one of the items hurts the other players in the group when used. This makes jumping to an early lead in prestige a good idea for attempting to set yourself up for the win, but get too far in front and you just make yourself the biggest target. A substantial lead quickly turns into a bullseye in Cutthroat Caverns. This is because victory is given to the surviving player with the most prestige at the end of the game. This of course means I don’t have to be faster than the monster, just faster than you.
However, you don’t want to be too fast in dealing with the other players. The power level of each monster is based on how many adventurers were at the party when it started. If you start with a party of six and kill three players in room four, the remaining five monsters will still be powered for a six player party. This means you have to split more health and damage between fewer people. So, while the game does feature player elimination, it’s a good idea to save it too closer to the end. However, in my experience, once adventurers start dying, the game is almost over; one way or another.
One of the final mechanics in the game is the monsters themselves. Every monster has its own rules for combat. The Arc Mage requires each attack to be stronger than the one before it, The Riddle Room causes players to play a game of memory instead of a typical combat round, and Medusa flips a coin when she attacks to either deal a little damage stunning a character or deal a lot of damage in a single hit. Each monster card is unique, and since the game comes with twenty five and you only use nine randomly ordered cards in a game, you can never be sure of what you’re going to have to deal with.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had initial impression of this game. I’ve owned my copy almost since it came out in 2007. It is one of the first games I ever played with a betrayal mechanic and I remember being excited about that.
Game Build Quality
I like the quality of the components. Card quality is nice, though you will be shuffling quite a bit so sleeving them isn’t out of the question. Character boards are a nice thickness, and all of the tokens and chits are good quality.
The art in Cutthroat Caverns is decent. The hero cards have a slight cartoonish quality that is very nice. I enjoy the monster artwork, though it’s obvious that they used several different artists for this game and I liked some better than others. The art on the attack cards is a little lack luster, but I think that’s mostly for clarity. All in all though, I would say the art direction is quite good. As for the graphic design on the cards I think that’s pretty good here. Everything is clear, easy to look at, and understand.
The fun here comes from the anticipation of betrayal. It’s fun to kill the monsters, get the treasure, and face the foes. The real thrill of this game is knowing that even though I’m working with all of the other people at the table, one of us is going to throw the first punch. Someone here is going to be the first to break the uneasy truce that is keeping this thing going forward. Also, that person may very well be me. There’s a gallows humor level of tension to this game because of that.
Age Range & Weight
The Box says 14+ and that feels right. It might be difficult for younger players to grasp not wanting to kill all of the monsters because it just paints yourself as a target. Also, some younger kids will get upset at the betrayal aspect of this game. Heck, there are some adults that get upset by the take that aspects of this game. Other than that, I think the rules are pretty straight forward and easy to follow. Though some of the rooms can get a bit complicated.
I really like this game. I’ve owned it for a long time and have a lot of fun playing it. The puzzle of when to betray the other players always offers interesting decisions. There are ways to heal the other players at the table, but they have to agree to let you help them, and you get prestige for it. When do you offer to heal someone else, do you let someone else heal you? Do you stop someone else’s attack or let it go through? Do boost an opponent’s attack to make killing the creature easier for you or do you boost it so they kill the creature, painting the target on their backs a little bigger? There are so many interesting decisions to make in this little simple little game that make each session an engaging experience.
There is some random luck involved. It’s entirely possible to get a bad hand and have nothing to do. It’s possible to misjudge how much damage the rest of the party is going to do and in one fell swoop end up either further behind or ahead than you wanted to be.
There is player elimination here. A monster you weren’t prepared for could kill you pretty fast and take you out of the game. While I tend to avoid games with player elimination this one fits neatly into a very small niche where I can tolerate it. As I said earlier, once people start dying, the game is almost over in one form or another.
This game also falls into a nice place for me as a take that game. While you are hurting and hampering the other players at the table, you have to be careful about when and how you do it. Get too punch happy and you could end the game for everyone. Even with that, the take that element here isn’t that bad. Everything you do has a point. There aren’t any cards that are mean for the sake of being mean. When you have your damage halved, doubled, negated, or redirected you understand why it happened. I’ve rarely seen a, “why are you picking on me,” moment during the game. Even the ones I can think of, were mostly due to someone taking the game a little too serious. Which is a problem with this style of game.
If there were one negative with the game it’s the lack of unique heroes. All of the characters are identical except for art. To be fair this is resolved in the first expansion, Deeper and Darker, which gives each character a one use individual power.
Finally, I think this game is a ton of fun. I have a fun every time I play and enjoy dusting off the box for one more run at the dungeon. If you get a chance, give it a try. I think you’ll have a good time.