Cave Evil is one of my favorite designs. It’s this completely off-kilter, esoteric head to head skirmish in an underground labyrinth. It’s a bit like Wiz-War if Tom Jolly was a metal-head and had a few screws loose. This is a game where you command a Necromancer, crafting your legion of misshapen ghastly horrors out of gore and shadow. With an outstretched finger, you command them to carry unstable bombs and sentient blades to their assured doom. The map itself is carved away as you dig into the unholy earth and nightmares from the minds of the most depraved are unleashed. It’s surreal and low-fi as it bleeds atmosphere with its shriveled black heart. I adore it.
Cave Evil: Warcults is the sequel. The team behind the release – known as the Emperors of Eternal Evil – held nothing back. This is not Speed 2: Cruise Control or The Matrix Reloaded. Nah, this is more akin to Aliens or The Empire Strikes Back, at least in terms of vision.
Players control warlords (not necromancers) and head to battle with a preassembled team of all-star death dealers. It feels a little more like a skirmish game, the entrants lined up and ready to charge into the dizzy fray. It’s certainly visceral.
This is why it’s incredibly deflating to realize Warcults is not for me. I’ve had this boxed set for a year, slamming in my pre-order as soon as that mother went live. There’s a reason I’ve never rambled about this captivating beast until this point – for the longest time, I didn’t know how to approach it.
Then I realized, that was my angle.
Warcults is nothing if not intimidating. Its rulebook is bloated with basic and advanced sections, multiple ways to build warbands, a lengthy and engrossing campaign mode, and options upon options of rules to customize your experience. This thing reads more like a sacred text for a diabolical cult as opposed to something as silly and frivolous as a game. Gone is the comparatively simplistic experience of necromancer-on-necromancer bloodshed. Put down the dark beer and furrow your brow because this one requires dedication and hardship.
As a piece of art, this is one of the most demanding games I’ve had the pleasure to experience. It’s the Advanced Squad Leader of the indie metal board game scene (if that wasn’t a thing before, it is now). It has no qualms stomping the skulls of those faint of heart. I never thought I’d be bested by a Nate Hayden release, a designer who has my complete admiration, and yet it happened.
This game is just too much. Diving into the basic rules is fine, but the complete sandbox nature of layering on the additional sub-systems is rough. There’s not clean delineations on how to ease yourself in and you’ll need to come to a consensus on which set of strictures we’re playing with today. The true potential of the Warcults experience appears to be in running a warband for the long term, accruing experience and pushing your warlords down paths of skill advancement. There’s a very sophisticated system for long term play and it’s leaping off the page and demanding your attention. The sheer possibilities and imagination are fascinating.
Too bad it’s not to be, at least for this pagan.
One of the weaker aspects of this reimagining of Cave Evil is the lack of strong variety. Instead of crafting your minions and brutes through gathered resources, you begin play with an assembled army ready to ride hellfire into the abyss at your whim. As a concept, this is hot shit. It sounds great. We get to skip past the slow buildup and crash our legion of broken bones and bent horns against each other like waves of chaos colliding upon the surface of the dark waters.
It does, in fact, play out that way to some degree. There’s a rush towards the opponent and a massive swell of carnage. Creatures are felled and screams of victory reverberate through the underground.
The issue is that the sheer joy of that first bloodshed diminishes when you return to the field. The setup is the culprit, as the game offers two options. The best is clearly drafting creatures to assemble your cohort. This will give you a wide range of abilities and the satisfaction in recruiting an army out of the distended limbs of frightful hallucination. The problem is that this is a long process requiring commitment. It undercuts the rapidity of the skirmish and stalls momentum out of the gate.
This works incredibly well when setting up a warband for repeated play. However, when you just want to throw down with a Lava Lancer and a Boarier, things get hairy. Of course, this trio of established designers foresaw this issue. The solution is that you can grab one of the prebuilt warbands utilizing icons on the cards. So you can just rifle through the deck and grab all of them with a matching symbol and away you go.
But damn if that’s not satisfying.
After a play or two, you realize you’re not seeing the full gamut of possibility. The same horde of usual suspects are returning to the fray and the lack of creativity stings like a bitch. That crucial element of Cave Evil, the sheer unpredictability of what you’ll encounter, is just not quite there in Warcults. It feels as if we’re playing a deranged version of Warhammer 40k where we can’t afford to buy any more units so our little club is stuck with the same people fielding the same armies again and again. It’s like Groundhog Day to some extent, except Bill Murray has been replaced with a Gorebortion – yeah, that’s an actual thing.
For all my gloom and criticism, it’s hard to drop the axe on this sequel. Warcults doesn’t owe me a damn thing. The fact that my beloved Cave Evil has turned into a lifestyle game, one I don’t have the time to fully experience, is not something I can hold against it. The promise here is in delivering such a massive, all-encompassing experience that dwarfs its predecessor. In this respect, this design is nothing short of a resounding success.
If you can commit to the heathen life, then the heathen life will commit to you. Those moments of outright insanity persist. You’ll barter with neutral Hellionoids to secure their services on the battlefield. You’ll excavate previously untouched passages and harvest blood. You’ll battle on a cliff edge, your Outcaster mind-controlling the opponent’s Undying Giant off the precipice and into the chasm. It’s fantastic.
Even if I can’t cut it.
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