You’re dead. Now what?
Actually, you’re not dead. But your social life is! In the game I mean of course. So why not put your world leading necromancy skills to the test and bring some deceased potential party guests back to life so your party is not a complete dud?
Pretty normal basis for a game right? I am not sure what was in designer Daniel Newman’s head when he came up with this game, but I have to say the theme intrigued me. The name too really pulled me in. And when I saw the box art, well I was sold and picked it up as soon as I could. But is the game any good?
Spoilers. Yes. Yes, it is.
Billed as an action queue, variable phase order game, Dead Mans Cabal is a mid weight strategy game, that brings together multiple mini games, into one overarching goal. Bring the dead back to life and invite them to your party. I am not sure what the party is for or why it was an easier move to raise the dead rather than just send out a few Facebook invites. But there you go. Players take it in turns to pick a private action for just them which is followed by a group action that everyone gets to do. As such, all players are always engaged and involved in decisions for their own strategy, and the game moves on at a pace.
However, the box promises a 60 minute game and I found that not to be the case. For anything over 2 players you are looking at doubling that to a 2 hours experience, especially with new players learning the mechanics. But settle in, dim the lights, burn some incense, because you are in for some ghoulish fun.
Game of the Dead
Each round begins with the active player choosing a private action. Something only they can do, (not a move in secret!) Followed by an action everyone can do. The choice is not completely free. The colour of the skull you choose to discard decides what action you do, and you won’t always have all the colours available. However, each turn starts with you drawing a new skull from the draw bag. Then placing a skull into the Ossuary (a vault with a collection of Skulls) and shifting the rest along a column, pushing one off this mini board.
The skull that slides off is placed into your active supply. As such, you have two ways to manipulate what you have at your disposal before you choose your action. This alone is a nice bit of strategy, rather than just placing a piece on the board and declaring, “yeah, I’m doing this thing this turn.” This is not a worker placement game.
The majority colour of the middle column in the Ossuary then determines the action in the public phase. This of course can be controlled by the active player deciding which skulls to shift along.
Dead Man Gaming
Your choices of action are either to visit the Athenaeum by disposing of a gold skull to research new rituals. This means, adding bones or cards into your hand. Bones are currency and used for obtaining cards, skulls, runes and having extra turns in certain rooms. Cards are the dead people you want to bring back to life and invite to your bash.
The Sepulchre can be visited when you place a red skull back into the bag. Here you have the pleasure of collecting more skulls to add to your collection. White skulls traded at the Scriptorium allow you to get more bones and runes. Runes are placed on matching symbols on cards when you raise them from the dead. more on that later as there is some fun to be had here first When you remove a rune from the Scriptorium, you place one of your coloured player cubes where the rune was. This is a 5x6 grid and you are looking to get your cubes in one big land mass for extra points at the end. It becomes a bit of area control.
Get to the Sanctum!
Once you have the right cards, bones and skulls, you can head to the Sanctum. This is where the dead are brought back to life. On each potential party guest card, there is a set of coloured skulls showing what you need to do in order to get a positive RSVP. The Sanctum is a circular mini board with multiple intersecting lines. What you are looking to do here is get the right colour skulls down on these lines, matching those on your cards. If you do, then this person is risen, dusted off, dressed in their best glad rags, and then presumably, sat waiting for the game to end, and the party to start! There may also be some paper work, I am unsure on the logistics of raising the dead.
Each card also has two rune symbols on. If you have those runes in your collection at the time of reincarnation, you can place them on the card and then chose one of the 6 sections of the final mini board to place one of your coloured cubes. The final board is The Oracle. It has 6 end game score options you can chose from.
At the end of the game, the players with the most or second most of their colour in each section, scores that sections allocated set of victory points. Either for the highest use of a particular colour of skull used in rituals, points for your largest area of cubes in the Scriptorium, points for left over skulls in your collection and finally, points from the cursed star. Which is just plain good old-fashioned points. From a star. That is apparently cursed. You know, a cursed star?
Hey, good lookin’!
The game boards look very moody. It’s quite dark and brown but it does fit the bill. The card art is hilarious and makes the whole, bring dead people back to life thing, surprisingly appealing and in a way, isolated of course to this game, acceptable. There is a Bowie, Fresh Prince, and funny looking characters from many different eras of history. However, it’s the bones and skulls that steal the show! These tiny plastic components are beautifully made and very detailed. They look and feel great and add a lot to the game.
Dead Good or Dead End?
There is a lot of strategy to the game. The order in which you do things is crucial. Planning ahead is essential to good scores, and you need to watch what your opponents are up to and adjust your tactics accordingly. The game moves quickly and smoothly, but with 4 players, can take a few hours so you need to prepare for that. In a 2, the game can pass you by quickly, and you can easily find yourself behind an opponent without careful planning.
I would recommend this to anyone who collects skulls, enjoys the peaceful tranquillity of a graveyard bench, or simply just enjoys the macabre. The theme is crucial to your enjoyment of this game, although if you don’t like this idea, but can look past it, there is some fun to be had with the mechanics alone. The collection of mini games seems at first disparate. But when you find your groove, you see how connected everything is, and it becomes a game of choices. Agonising, crucial and problematic choices. Because you often want to do more than you can. Which for me, makes it a lot of fun.