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Jesse Dean
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Cave Evil, by Emperors of Eternal Evil, is a squad-based tactical combat and resource management game which feels both mechanically and thematically distinct. In the game, each player is as an undead necromancer inside an incredibly magical and incredibly evil location, the titular Cave Evil, using squads of minions to destroy each other with the ultimate goal of being the only one remaining to harness its power. This in of itself is pretty unexceptional, as the core game play is fairly similar to other tactical squad-based games, but it has enough mechanical depth and thematic depth that it is well worth the experience even if you are someone, like me, who finds other games in this genre to be ultimately not worth playing.




Components
I have mixed feelings about Cave Evil’s components. Some of the components are of excellent quality, but there is enough about them that I find unsatisfactory that I am unwilling to endorse them wholeheartedly.

My problems with the Cave Evil’s components start with its map board. As a poster, it is tough to keep it flat after being folded while remaining useful as a board unless you use some sort of flat transparent surface like glass or plexiboard. I have one but transporting it in addition to the game itself is a pain, and it is disappointing that you have to either deal with a substandard playing surface or buy additional, secondary materials to properly play the game. I understand that the main reason that a poster was chosen over a mounted board was the cost and limitations of a 500 copy print run, but that does not stop me from wishing it was better!



The second problem I have is with the representations of the different squads. For playability issues each squad is represented by a color-number combination, with each player having their own color and set of numbered squads. This in of itself is a pretty good idea, but to represent the squads on the board tent-shaped bits of thick paper are used. While I understand why they did this, as it allows for a better perspective on where individual pieces are on the board, it is pretty ugly and I wish they had used cardboard tokens like they use for wandering monsters if they wanted to keep costs down. Additionally the colors they use are not particularly good for those of us who are red-green color blind. While for most of the game it was possible to identify which unit belonged to whom based on their relative positions, I wish they had picked colors that were more distinct.

Beyond that, I am pretty satisfied with what they have done with the game’s components. The carboard components are effective, thick and easy to punch out. The cards are also of an acceptable quality and have varied and evocative artwork, that really bring out the theme. Each piece of artwork is unique, even for monsters or items that have the same name, making it particularly delightful to play before you become familiar with all of the cards.



A Dark Theme
Cave Evil is thematically rich with every component and mechanic being an extension of the central conceit of the game: you are an evil undead necromancer intent on killing all of the necromancers in the service of your dark lords in order to achieve power.



Individual components lack flavor text, but they do need them. Each piece of artwork presents some sort of perverse and frequently disgusting monstrosity, both unique to the game and some, such as ogres and the obviously D&D kobold-derived cavelings, that are either more traditional or provided fun twists on more traditional monsters. Nothing is out of place and they seem like these would be the sort of things that would want to have as a murderous psychopathic necromancer.

The mechanics push the theme further with everything from resources to monster special abilities to performable actions being intimately tied to the fact that you are an evil necromancer out for mayhem and destruction. The three primary resource, gore, metal, and shadowflame, are used to produce monsters and items that fit well with their costs and have special abilities that both fit the general idea of the monsters as well as the thematic and mechanical goals of he game. Similarly the primary actions that squads can perform, meditating (for more cards) and invoking (turning the potential of the cards into an actual presence on the board) for the necromancer squad, and fighting, tunneling, and converting wandering monsters for non-necromancer squads all fit well with the game while also providing interesting things to do. No action I performed in the game pulled me out of the game’s thematic underpinnings.

Of course the game’s tight theme could be construed as a negative if you do not actually like the theme of the game, and I suspect that there will be people who, much like with Chaos in the Old World will find that they are uncomfortable with the game. If you are not comfortable with the idea of summoning demons and constructing undead from the remains of sentient beings than this is probably a game that is not worth playing. I do not have that particular problem, and I think that the theme on the whole is pretty fresh considering the stale tropes that are typically used in fantasy games. My only real bit of discomfort is some of the naming conventions used for the ‘female’ monsters, but they are rare enough that it is easy enough to ignore.

An Impressive Mechanical Structure
While the game’s thematic tightness is appealing, it would be essentially meaningless to me without an effective mechanical structure underneath the hood, and luckily Cave Evil delivers. While the game can run long, it is able to be effective with a minimal amount of downtime and plenty of interesting decisions from beginning to end. I do have a few minor issues with the rules, and one fairly major one, but I suspect that the game’s quality is sufficient that I will be able to overlook them in the long term, and fans of this style of game will be able to overlook them completely.

Despite having an imposingly long rulebook, the game is structurally pretty simple. At the beginning of each turn you draw a card from one of the game’s four resource decks: Bribe (made up of creatures that use the metal resource to be brought into play, a lot of items, and a small number of events), Construct (made up of creatures that use the gore resource to be brought into play, a smaller number of items, and a larger number of events), Summon (made up of creatures that use the shadowflame resource to be brought into play, an even smaller number of items, and a greater number of events), and Abyss (made up of creatures of all varieties, some unique items, and a large number of events). This card can be either added to the player’s hand and thus be made available for later purchase or it can be discarded to supply a quantity of resources equal to one of the creature’s costs. This lends itself to some interesting decisions, as the biggest and most powerful creatures and items are also the ones that are worth the most, making it so that you have to determine if you want to have a lot of resources for creatures and items that may be less valuable or you want to have bigger creatures but less of a potential to bring them out. I also really like how thematically and mechanically distinct each of the decks is. Rather than having one big deck of chaos, the four different decks at least give you an idea of what you are going to get, and thus if you have ended up with a large amount of a particular resource you can dive into a deck that you know will be able to give you cards that use that particular resource. If you don’t know what you want, or want a greater chance to change the game state, you can go for the Abyss deck.



When drawing from the various decks there is a variable chance, based on the particular deck, that you will draw an event. Each event causes some sort of game state change, mostly causing monsters and materials to emerge from locations known as throne rooms or by having non-aligned/wandering monsters move. Events are not performed immediately; instead they do not occur until the active player’s turn ends, this is also good as it allows the player to work the event into their plans, creating strategic variety and game state changes without the randomness of the event overwhelming the importance of player decisions.


After drawing your card, each of your squads may move and perform a single action. Most squads are pretty limited in their actions, only being able to attack, bribe wandering monsters (bring them over to your side by paying for their cost), or subdue wandering monsters (bring them over to your side by defeating them in battle). However, there are a few special actions that can be performed by specific squads. Your necromancer squad has the ability to use its action to meditate (draw an additional card) or invoke (use your collected resources to translate cards into hand into squads and attached items on the board). These options create some interesting tactical dilemmas, as by keeping your necromancer hanging back it is less likely to be killed by any enemy shenanigans but are less able to deploy your units effectively or use your rather potent necromancer in battle, while by bringing it up you put your necromancer in much more danger while being able to use it more effectively against your opponents.

Tunneling is a special action that can only be performed by units that have the pickaxe symbol and is perhaps the most unique and interesting thing about the game. With tunneling, you arer able to change the shape, and thus the tactical dimensions, of the board, making it so that a previously safe necromancer is suddenly threatened or allow you to perform a pincer maneuver that was not previously possible. Additionally, you also have the ability to collapse caves, cutting off previously open paths and creating an interesting possibility for some tactical cat and mouse as players lure enemy units into a position where you can trap them or prevent opponents from taking a route against you that they previously planned. Of course tunneling typically takes multiple rounds, and you need to decide before you start whether you are going for a collapse or a tunnel so it may be difficult to time collapse maneuver unless you are able to get sufficient pickaxe symbols to perform the tunnel or collapse in a single round. Creating a specialized tunneling squad is thus rewarded, and items that allow you to improve tunneling skills are particularly useful, as they seem to be the main way to make it so a squad gets enough pickaxe symbols to perform instant tunneling or collapsing.



The vast bulk of the cards that you will be drawing and invoking are creatures. The designers did an excellent job in creating a mechanically distinct array of entities. There are very few repeated creatures in the decks, and those that are repeated are all slightly different, having different costs and stats making it so the particular challenges you will face from your drawn cards, and what your opponents bring to the table will be incredibly varied between games. This combined with the aforementioned ability to dynamically change the layout of the board means that this game has some incredible possibilities for interplay variability. The tempo and particular challenges faced in a given game will frequently be different, making it so that even as you sharpen your skills at playing Cave Evil in general the particular options and possibilities will be fresh and unique. This game has plenty to offer both people who play games more casually and those who like to deeply explore them; the game is very fresh upon playing it for the first time and looks like it will continue to be fresh as plays continue.



Combat is a relatively straightforward affair. Each creature has a hexagon of stats (weapon, strength, special, dodge, bloodthirst, and armor) the particular values of which are unique to that particular creature. When combat is initiated the attacker chooses one of these stats. Each side rolls a d12 and adds a modifier based on the sum of that stat for all creatures in its squad. The winner is noted and then the defender picks one of the two adjacent stats to fight in and then, the final stat is used for a comparison roll. The first side to get two victories wins, with the losing squad being destroyed with gore resources placed on the map as a reward to the victor. While this results in limited tactical decisions in the combat itself, it does result in a lot of thought about both squad compositions, as the relative values of a creature’s special abilities and stats create numerous interesting combinations, and positioning as you have to account for your squad’s relative strengths and weaknesses compared to other squads in the vicinity.

Potential Pitfalls
So the bulk of the game is focused on tunneling and gathering resources, fighting your opponent’s squads and trying to turn any advantage, either in position or squad power levels, into the means of ensuring victory. Combat is brutal and fairly short, and I have seen players in seemingly unstoppably strong positions end up destroyed as they played their necromancer in a position that allowed them to be easily taken out by an item or a powerful squad. It is brutal and engaging, and requires a level of attention and investment that I find refreshing. If you make poor decisions the other players have tools to punish you badly for them. Also, unlike many games with this level of interaction, it is difficult for you to be forced into a losing position due to poor decisions from another player. Usually the only people that they end up hurting with these sorts of decisions are themselves.


While the games I have been in have been fast, brutal affairs with plenty of carnage, there is some potential for the game to last a long time. However, the designers clearly were well aware of the potential of a very long game and they include a mechanic that neatly keeps the game length from spiraling out of control while at the same time adding another healthy dose of theme to the game. After an amount of time that varies depending on player count, an ancient evil is revealed and then, after a further passing of time, awakens. The effects of this particular ancient evil vary, there are five of them in the game, but their mere presence pushes the game forward as they tend to start killing off necromancers who have racked up less kills. This serves to help bring the game to a close and discourage turtling at the same time, which is a combination I do appreciate even if it has not yet been relevant for us so far.

Unfortunately the game does seem hurt by vague wordings for card effects and while a list of clarifications are included in the box, these are by no means comprehensive. The designers have been pretty good about providing responses to rules questions, but this is not very helpful when you are actively involved in a game and need a ruling on the spot.

My biggest potential problem with the game, and probably the one that most people need to be aware of before playing is that the game has player elimination. While this is not that big of a deal for the two player game or when the game is played at a game day that allows them to wander around and jump into another game, it does suck when you have a smaller group. While I don’t have a problem with player elimination in an abstract sense, I suspect that this will keep from getting from played as regularly as it could be. Since a large amount of the value I get out of board games is the ability to explore their subtleties in great depth, this ultimately reduces the value I will get out of Cave Evil, I like the exploration and think there are plenty of cool things that can be done with it, I am just not sure how far I will ultimately be able to go.

Conclusion
I like Cave Evil. While my experience with squad-based Ameritrash board games is not extensive, I am fairly familiar with tactical collectible miniatures games, and based on that comparison Cave Evil combines an interesting resource management system with fast-paced and brutal combat in an enjoyable and interesting way. It is big enough and meaty enough to meet my needs and I can highly recommend it for anyone who finds the advantages compelling and the potential “flaws” (components, player elimination, and theme) to be non-issues. Even with the potential for limited play in my group, I plan on holding on to it; it is uniquely good enough to be worth owning despite my intense desire to maintain a streamlined collection.
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Jesse Dean
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I live to serve.

What originally attracted your attention to this game?
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Rob Freeman
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I'm glad that you seemed to enjoy Cave Evil. I'm not particularly an AT fan either but I really dug (pun intended) this game, as well as one of the designers previous efforts, After Pablo. I really admire how they both break new ground in terms of theme and how they are completely self-released. It's true it comes at a cost of component quality but I find both games are well designed and interesting.

Thanks for putting this review out there as it is sure to put it on peoples radar who otherwise may not have heard of it or assumed they wouldn't like it.
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Kevin Ice
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Good write-up.

I second the recommendation for fans of Cave Evil to check out After Pablo. Its a brutal area control Euro.
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Joe Norris
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Great review!

Thanks to your fine efforts I have just ordered this game from the company's website!
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Christopher Donovan
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umberts wrote:
I'm glad that you seemed to enjoy Cave Evil. I'm not particularly an AT fan either but I really dug (pun intended) this game, as well as one of the designers previous efforts, After Pablo. I really admire how they both break new ground in terms of theme and how they are completely self-released. It's true it comes at a cost of component quality but I find both games are well designed and interesting.

Thanks for putting this review out there as it is sure to put it on peoples radar who otherwise may not have heard of it or assumed they wouldn't like it.


Don't forget San Quentin Kings...
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Sam
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Great review. A friend bought this but we haven't managed to muster the enthusiasm to get it to the table -- I was really put off by Barnes saying that "[the rules] feel like something out of an Avalon Hill or SPI game circa 1982", since in my mind that means "there is a rule exception for interrogating Finnish ski troops when during a waning gibbous moon (SEE 124.4.4 - PHASES OF THE MOON)".

But now I'm looking forward to it.
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Jesse Dean
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Yeah, the rulebook is much more imposing looking then they actually are. I was pleasently surprised. If I did not think I was going to get in trouble from angry F:AT members, I would almost call some of the resolution systems elegant.
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Kevin Ice
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The rule book repeats itself quite a bit, between the quick start rules, the basic rules, and the standard rules, you read some things 3 times. There isn't an overwhelming amount of information to take in by any means.
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Kane Cathain
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Thanks for the review. Based on the this, the aesthetic being right up my alley, and wanting to support independent game designers, I ordered my copy today.
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dan mce
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Great Review, thanks.

I would like to see more black metal inspired necromantic tunneling games.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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Great review! I agree the components leave a bit to be desired but the most used (and least pimp-able) parts, the cards, are good quality. You have to see some of the crazy monsters to believe them-- vaguely reminiscent of 1st ed AD&D Fiend Folio as I think one reviewer has mentioned.

Also great to see this game has reached BGG's Hotness list-- it's only a matter of time now... (I'm looking at you Twilight Struggle)

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Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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kaziam wrote:

Also great to see this game has reached BGG's Hotness list-- it's only a matter of time now... (I'm looking at you Twilight Struggle)


I would like to think I helped out a little bit.
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Andrew Laws
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Umberts (above) taught me the rules to this game in about 7 minutes and he is a terrible rules explainer. There is no way anyone should be worried about this being over-wrought and cumbersome.

Really good game.
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