Dungeon Crawling Through Depravity – A Look at Cryptic Explorers

Sometimes I come across a game and I just want to shove it into a cannon and blast it into my body. Yeah, that’s somewhat disturbing, which precisely fits the scene as I’m riffing on Cryptic Explorers, a game that’s black, white, and terrifying.

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This is another one of those Kickstarter preview things. I don’t plan on making this a regular habit, but some games are damn good and deserving. Cryptic Explorers fits the bill.

That aesthetic is something you either eat up or toss out. I adore the Black Metal facade and this one sits comfortably on the shelf right alongside the now classic Cave Evil. There’s a stark and oppressive atmosphere at work and it fuels the nightmare your explorers will endure.

The setup is a one-vs-many dungeon crawler. You know, the same style originally presented in HeroQuest, perfected in FFG’s original Doom, and carried on through subsequent generations. Here one player takes on the role of a Goddess, a powerful shade of death inhabiting this slice of oblivion. You will wield an asymmetric cohort of demons and churn through your unique deck of abilities, all in the name of burning the protagonists into ash.

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The rest of your friends are the Cryptonauts. A mix of scientists, occultists, and muscle intent on entering the plane of the afterlife and lifting its secrets. You don spacesuits one degree separated from power armor, brandishing firearms and sorcery to fell the beasts of the pale.

This is where the game takes its first radical departure. Sure, that pale veneer is certainly something, but I’ve already seen that in Cave Evil and Escape the Dark Castle. The first truly innovative touch is in the Cryptonaut squads.

Each player does not control a single character. Instead, the forces of good are comprised of six total explorers spread across 2-3 squads, depending on player count. With two Cryptonaut players, you each control a squad of three ‘nauts. With three protagonists you each control squads of two.

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This matters. The squad structure is not a fluffy designation, it serves to fulfill synergistic play. There are 32 Cryptonaut characters and each contains a set of abilities and powers completely their own. This means your little squad can take many different forms. Some ‘nauts influence your build in direct ways, such as offering bonuses to stats if it’s comprised solely of scientists, or perhaps offering bonus move pushing you towards a swift strike team. The combinations feel endless. Most importantly, the game fulfills this promise of combo-building through its depth of strategy and tactical play.

But it’s never that simple. To fuel those various abilities you will need to progress by harvesting souls. This progress is roughly akin to leveling up in the multitude of RPG-adjacent designs, but it has some of its own flair and clever design.

You will pick up soul tokens scattered about the map, these little amorphous specters of unfulfilled and forgotten souls, and then you may plop them down on the over-sized character sheets to unlock one of your abilities. The strongest of powers requires you actually consume the token for a one time dramatic effect.

This system of growth is exceptional. It pushes you towards the far edges of darkness, battling through walls of fleshy creatures simply to harvest the dead and beef up your scientists-turned-invaders. There’s never quite enough to go around and you will not unlock every single ability, so you must pick and choose how you will progress your squads to tackle the challenges laid before you.

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This setup yields an interesting playstyle that’s very engaging. As you move about the cavern you will do so as a small unit of troops. The spawning rules (lifted nearly straight out of the OG Doom) force you to maintain defensive sight lines and a proper formation. It feels with every bone in your body that you’re a well-trained squad operating under tight procedure.

Meanwhile the Goddess sitting across from you is swelling with hate. She slowly amasses her own precious resource, power, which is used to summon creatures around corners and attack your position. There are large and small beasts, each with distinct abilities and personalities. The Goddess also has her own suite of tricks which spring unexpected traps and crippling debuffs.

The atmosphere is dense and the odds feel insurmountable, yet balance is tight and certainly fair. The multiple character format means player elimination isn’t a thing, and those moments of intense sacrifice and heroic deed are scattered about in digestible chunks. This is a dramatic game where you push forward and shove your mini-gun into the gullet of a hellacious deity that’s as thirsty as you read about.

The final piece we need to talk about is the Realm of Death. This is the board you will explore, a static hulk of cardboard with dizzying artwork. At times, it can be difficult to understand the myriad of textures and contours, but you will acclimate quickly enough and begin to understand the otherworldly geometry at work.

Realms of Death are significant not simply in their layout, but in how they provide the means for the Cryptonaut team to attain their Knowledge of Death cards. These are earned through map-based objectives woven into the environment. These consist of tasks such as unearthing all of the scattered sarcophagi littered across the board, or perhaps destroying the ancient alter which triggers an avalanche of pain courtesy of a massive monster spawn.

By utilizing narrative and tying the maps back into the overarching story, play feels like a closed loop that’s truly a pleasure to interact with. Drama is always at the fore of the design utilizing a single die based resolution system that is simple and keeps the process moving. Adding weight is an excellent stamina system which allows you to re-roll dice or gain extra actions during those crucial moments.

I was surprised at how intuitive and relatively straightforward this game was. The moments it chooses to branch out and extend complexity are carefully considered and focused on expanding the experience. This includes the delightful variety reminiscent of Street Masters where you form a singular experience out of multiple modular components (Cryptonauts, Realm of Death, Goddess).

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I’ve only managed two plays in my limited time with this game, but I’m absolutely enamored. The only rough spots I’ve encountered are primarily a function of this style of design. There is potential for play to turn into a bit of a grind as the antagonist blows up their well of power to summon a wall of enemies. This can lead to an attritional battle that could overstay its welcome. Combat is fast enough that this doesn’t pose a huge threat, and typically the Cryptonaut squads will be operating on separate sections of the map. This means that one team may find themselves in a meat grinder while the other presses forward with little hindrance.

The dynamic nature of that challenge structure is entirely calibrated by the Goddess player. They are free to strategically deploy their forces and hinder the progress of the explorers. This, in and of itself, is a fascinating experiment of sorts. After playing as the antagonist it will stick around like a phantom in your skull. You will question your decisions and rethink strategy. This is the type of reflective exercise I want to be burdened with.

The lack of a native timer could possibly be a stumble. I can appreciate the open nature of play, but if a group gets particularly bogged down things could drag out in terms of literal playtime. Both of my plays have been just over two hours, but it certainly could have drug on quite a bit longer. Players can rest and recover health and the enemy is gifted a continual trickle of power. As purely a thought experiment, play could last indefinitely. This will not happen of course, but those seeking a very controlled tempo will find that entirely in the hands of those sitting at the table.

And yet that controlled tempo is also one of the most liberating aspects of the design. By vesting the power with the Goddess player, it imparts a sense of control and dominion. It feels as though the others are invading your realm and this is your space to protect and wield like a rusty machete.

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A lack of miniatures may be a turn off for some. I’m a miniatures type of guy, but this black and white visual style is the single format where I actually prefer standees. The haunted faces of the Cryptonauts want to stand, simultaneously horrified and steeled, as a piece of unique artwork for all to ogle. A gray plastic miniature simply wouldn’t fit in this particular environment.

I of course can’t offer a definitive take on this design as it’s early days and I’ve played with an unfinished product. I can come out and exclaim that my experience has been gripping and tense in all the right ways. My players have fallen in love and everyone is clamoring for more Cryptic Explorers. 2020 watch out, because the competition is already fierce.

You can find Cryptic Explorers on Kickstarter here.

A pre-production copy of the game was provided by the publisher. This is an unpaid review and no money changed hands. 

If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.

  8 comments for “Dungeon Crawling Through Depravity – A Look at Cryptic Explorers

  1. Ian Allen
    August 30, 2019 at 8:56 am

    Excellent review.

    I notice that you didn’t mention Cave Evil other than the black and white art. Was this intentional?
    How does this compare? It seems thematically and mechanically similar to the point where if you had
    told me Nate Hayden had designed this I wouldn’t have blinked twice. I mean I guess not that many
    people own Cave Evil, but I am one of those people that does.

    Also – it looks like they sent you a copy with player mats. Do those add a lot or are they merely eye candy?

    I can’t really tell from the photos – when you control 2 or 3 squads – is it like Cave Evil in that you have 1 marker per squad and each marker represents several cards or do you move a standee around for each member of your squad?

    Also – the price seems a tad high for the amount of material – can you comment on that? I would expect the boards and standees to be thick and the cards to be linen finished at that price – but maybe you can’t tell if your copy is prototype level?

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 30, 2019 at 9:03 am

      Good questions Ian. I struggled with spending more time comparing it to Cave Evil, but I know that’s long out of print and a deep comparison may have been useless for a majority of people reading.

      I actually feel they are very different games. The squads in this are not identical at all. You have individual standees for your team members here. So imagine Descent or Imperial Assault where each player is controlling 2-3 characters (moving them individually and activating them with 2 actions a piece).

      The squad designation really only matters for certain abilities that buff members of your squad.

      This plays much more like Descent (with some crazy stuff added on top) as opposed to Cave Evil. Cave Evil feels like a longer buildup with resource gathering to eventually duke it out and fight. This is a straight up dungeon crawl where you move towards goals and fight minions spawned by an overlord player along the way. They feel very different to me.

      I did not have the player mats that they list in the campaign. The character boards in this are huge and remind me of Cosmic Encounter player sheets. They’re cardstock like that and oversized to list all of the abilities.

      I’m not sure how the production would compare, but this felt professional level. I’d call the cardboard tokens and everything pretty standard quality. The price does look a bit high, but I think it’s comparable to Cave Evil. Small print run for a game not intended to be a large retail success. I think Maher decided he was fine with losing money or breaking even and said screw it, as he really wanted to make the game.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ian Allen
        August 30, 2019 at 9:31 am

        Cool. One more question.
        I played a lot of Descent 1 and Doom 1 back in the day but I haven’t played them in a long time.

        You mentioned that the spawning rules are similar to Doom 1 with defensive sight lines.

        Isn’t that the same in Descent 1 and some folks found it annoying, so they changed that in Descent 2 or maybe I’m getting my games mixed up and that was Doom only?
        Anyway – you sure you found that fun and not annoying – to constantly have to spend time and brainpower positioning members of your squad to have sightlines that cover corners and longer stretches of hall and so forth to prevent creatures spawning near you. I remember finding that a bit of a chore myself.

        Like

        • August 30, 2019 at 9:37 am

          I’ve always really appreciated that rule because of the tactical implications. They kept it that way in Doom 1 and Descent 1. I’m not sure about Descent 2nd edition, can’t recall and I played that very little compared to the others.

          There is one difference here, you can spawn creatures in full view down a long corridor, the only time line of sight matters is if you want to spawn the creature within 5 spaces.

          The Goddesses can also mess with spawning rules, such as one allowing you to spawn adjacent to Monoliths (powerful spaces on the board the Goddess wants to defend).

          I can understand some players finding those spawning rules annoying or fiddly, but I find incentives to position your group and fighters in certain formations is much more interesting than something like Shadows of Brimstone or Warhammer Quest where you just move forward and hit the enemy, repeating the same process room to room.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous
    September 1, 2019 at 12:21 am

    Nice work 😛 keep it up I will be following along!

    Like

  3. September 6, 2019 at 1:14 am

    This one hooked me instantly with it’s aesthetic scythe but i didn’t throw down the pennies til i read this review. In doing so i discovered what may be my favourite new BG blog. Kudos.

    Liked by 1 person

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