19 November 2019
Missing this would be a grave mistake
Welcoming players to a spooky, yet also strangely adorable, underground necromancer’s lair is Dead Man’s Cabal, a game that believes that if you are lacking in friends, you should simply raise them from the dead. It effortlessly mixes the macabre with humour (special credit goes to Denis Medri’s creepy-cute artwork), transforming what could have been a very by-the book Eurogame into something special with a swift incantation – and lots and lots of skulls and bones.
In Dead Man’s Cabal, players compete to get the most victory points by raising various characters from the dead. It is an almost too familiar formula of gathering the correct resources, completing the corresponding card and receiving the appropriate number of points. However, its in-game economy and unique actions elevate this basic blueprint, taking centre stage and making earning points the least interesting part of the experience.
Dead Man’s Cabal has two currencies: bones and skulls, in four different colours. Bones are a minor resource that are easier to acquire and used to enhance player actions. Skulls, on the other hand, are the main tool in the necromancer’s toolbox. To raise the dead, players will need to go to the sanctum and use the correct combination of skull colours, some of which may already be there and others which can be placed from the player’s supply. For a successful ritual, the skulls must be connected by the pentagram-style pattern. This initially looks like an easy task, but
as the sanctum gets more populated and players begin to discard skulls from the board, it becomes more complicated and requires careful planning and even some bluffing.
The players visit the ossuary each turn, where a grid of skulls can be manipulated by drawing a random skull from the bag and adding it to one of the rows. The middle row of the ossuary determines which action all players will perform that round; a
white skull will allow them to visit the scriptorium where different runes can be purchased, while a gold skull will take them to the athenaeum, where players select which character they will be raising next, and so on. The active player will also discard one of the skulls from their supply to perform a private action that only they can take that round.
This way, the skulls cycle through the course of the game: from the bag to the ossuary to the player’s supply to the sanctum and back to the bag. The balance of colours in play – and consequently the number of actions available – is delicate and everchanging. Figuring out how to best manipulate this supply chain to gain the most out of your turn, while attempting to hinder your opponents, is the main skull-scratcher of the game. Even minor changes can have a rebound effect on all the sequences of the round, encouraging players to consider all the stages and rewarding them by making even the smallest decision matter.
It also helps that the impeccably sculpted and detailed skull pieces are really fun to hold and play with. The same applies to the bone tokens, which are shaped like actual bones, and the beautiful cow skull used to track actions. Dead Man’s Cabal is full of little details like these that really help build up the atmosphere. The rooms are connected by small corridor board pieces, which are irrelevant to the gameplay but visually immerse players in the catacombs of dark magic and mystery. The only minor letdown is the rune tokens, which are slightly too small and Fiddly.
It may initially present itself as dark and gloomy, but Dead Man’s Cabal is full of heart and humour. It takes a generic Eurogame blueprint, casts some magic on it and raises it up to become a rewarding, thoughtful board game that will engage all your very much still alive friends around the table.
PLAY IT? MUST- PLAY
Designer: Daniel Newman
Artist: Ludvigsen, Medri
This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.