Catacombs is the natural result of crossing Heroquest with Shove Ha’penny. You are adventurers who are BOLDLY GOING where every fantasy game in history has GONE BEFORE: ie, down a DUNGEON. Which may or may not contain DRAGONS. But which definitely contains QUITE UNNECESSARILY UGLY ART. There you will meet MONSTERS. Who you will attempt to SLAY. By means of MIGHTY DEEDS. By which I mean: flicking a little wooden disk across a board.
Let me get this out of the way right now so that there can be no doubt: Catacombs. Is. Amazing. I can mock because I love. It is amazing because it is so simple. Your adventurer is a little coloured wooden disk. Each turn you flick him (or just barely her) at these other coloured wooden disks. Which are monsters. If you hit a monster, you hurt it. If you hurt a weak monster, you kill it. If you hurt a stronger monster, you flip its disk over and the next time someone hurts that monster they kill it. Once all the players controlling adventurers have had their go, the player controlling the monsters gets to flick them at your party. Each time you get hit, you take a wound. Take enough wounds, you die. THAT’S ALL. That’s all you really need to know to get started playing Catacombs. The rest is just fluff. Each player and some monsters get special abilities like being able to fire arrows (read, flick small wooden disks) or cast a fireball spell (read, flick a big wooden disk). Killing monsters gives you gold which you can spend on cool equipment and/or spells once you reach the shop which is situated in the middle of a dungeon because of course it is. Some other stuff. NOT IMPORTANT!
Catacombs is amazing because as soon as you’ve spent the 90 seconds it takes to grasp the rules you turn into the love-child of Erwin Rommel and Stephen Hendry. The act of flicking your piece feels so natural and instinctive that tactics immediately start suggesting themselves to almost literally anyone, ever. Can you hit that goblin and ricochet off to hide your adventurer behind a column, safe from retaliation? Can you kill both of those skellingtons with one flick? Can you nudge that troll out from behind cover and set him up so that your mate the barbarian can finish him off on his go? I don’t know! But you’ll definitely try. And when it works you will feel like the BOSS of the hugging WORLD.
So. It’s accessible. It’s sneakily deep. It’s tense. But those are not the real reasons Catacombs is amazing. Catacombs is amazing because it is funny. Oh my god is Catacombs funny.
In about the third room of our first game, my two oldest sons get into THE MOST impassioned and detailed tactical discussion in the history of human conflict vis a vis: which of them is going to take the next shot and exactly what they are going to attack. Without a word of exaggeration this goes on for literally fifteen minutes, each passing moment seeing the argument getting more and more nuanced and more and more heated. Finally, an uneasy detente is reached. The wizard leans over the table and lines up his attack with painstaking care. After a long, long moment he draws back his finger and… flicks. His piece prompltly flies down the board at roughly twice the speed of sound, sails clean over the assembled slavering undead horde without so much as brushing a single enemy token, shoots across the room and vanishes under the sofa. The game is then held up for five minutes while everyone present collapses in fits of hysterical laughter. And is then held up a further five minutes as we try to coax the wizard’s disk to emerge from its sub-upholstery lair.
(Half an hour later another ludicrously extended frank and thorough exchange of views ended with my other son lining up for a shot at a distant enemy, then somehow managing to almost completely miss his barbarian piece with his finger, the disk shifting like half an inch. Well played, Catacombs. Well played.)
I am a dude who loves a dungeon-crawl. When I was a young teenager I conducted whole campaigns of Advanced Heroquest on my own on my bedroom floor. I’m currently playing a grumpy barbarian-thief with an upper-class English accent in a Pathfinder game on the BGG forums. I own seventy squillion pounds of Descent stuff. Measured both in value and in weight. Is Catacombs my favourite flavour of dungeon crawl? If I’m in the right frame of mind, it might be. It’s all very well moving your little dude four squares and rolling the right number on a die to kill the giant. But being able to reach across that table with everyone’s eyes on you and make the shot the party’s depending on you to make – that’s proper heroism. It’s a particularly stupid sort of heroism, but it’s heroism all the same.