There is no denying we have a morbid fascination with war and destruction. We turn it into entertainment at every opportunity with films like 1917 and games like Tank Duel. Yet, just as much as we love blowing something up we love putting it together too. Titles like Civilization and Tiny Towns pull in the numbers like Cherokee street on ‘Tamale Thursdays’.
Catacombs Cubes slots right into the lighter spectrum of this genre. At first blush it’s an odd departure for Elzra, publisher of the outstanding dexterity dungeon crawler that shares a similar namesake as this town builder. There’s an attempt at unifying the themes by centralizing a faux dexterity element of constructing edifices with 3D polyominoes. It’s more a cognitive spatial challenge than a physical one, however, as there’s no time pressure or requirement to build your construction in one go.
But at a high level you can really reduce this game to some very simple concepts. You take turns drafting from a randomized allotment of pieces in a race to build one of several blueprints from a public offer. The tension arises from someone sneaking in and nabbing that basilica before you can claim it. Since building a structure requires you turn in all of your pieces, extra shapes are wasted and a clear indicator of your failure as a Doozer.
Building the pieces out of the Tetris shapes is certainly fun and has a minor toyetic quality. This ties in rather well to the overall light nature of the game as it’s punching slightly above family weight. There is a subtle feeling that the design is torn in two directions, wanting to offer greater strategic variety while also attempting to appeal to a wide range of participants. This is where the bulk of its struggles exist.
We see this where complication is introduced. Drafting pieces is done via seeded die roll. The last player in the round rolls the bundle of chunky wooden dice and then pairs them up by color. This offers groups of polyominoes you can draft, which have variable values depending on the structures in play and participants’ existing store of shapes. This last player can then strategically swap two dice to mix up the draft a bit, which can occasionally be significant but also occasionally feels superfluous.
The touch of complication arises when we start to get into the alternate vectors of point scoring. Sometimes a die won’t show a shape, instead it depicts a little tower with a black square. This means you can take one of the smallest cubes from the supply and place it towards a shared public construction on the palace space. This is thematically a selfless act but it rewards you with forward movement along a track offering a few resources or victory points.
Another symbol on the dice is a blue hammer. This is neat as it allows you to chisel away at a piece in your warehouse to produce a smaller shape. Interesting.
None of this is too complex and it’s easy to initially grok. But let’s move on to when you complete a structure.
After finishing a building you flip it over, changing from the 3D isometric view to a colorful Denis Martynets illustration. It’s cute how the artwork mimics the shape of your completed building which is a clever touch. But let’s not get distracted.
You then must place this square tile in the central grid, another layer to the puzzle. Colored triangles on the outside edges link up with other adjacent buildings and offer you rewards. There are five different options, including a trio of coins that offer interesting bonus actions.
But wait, there’s more.
These coins come in three colors. If you forego spending them for their special power you can instead compete for the majority in each of the three variations at game’s end. This can be a solid way to rack up some bonus points and provides an interesting alternate vector to simply completing buildings.
OR, maybe you just want to spend the coins to take extra actions on your turn such as drafting more pieces or building additional blueprints. They do that too.
Now all of this isn’t crazy. This game is just a touch above family weight as I mentioned earlier. The challenge is that all of this is conveyed through a decent amount of iconography. Again, it’s not too much but it’s close, and you will be referring to the back of the manual often in your early days.
That conflicted core rears its head in a few other aspects. The most awkward is the division between a player’s construction yard and warehouse. The construction yard is where the vast majority of pieces go. This is where you will build from and spend willy nilly like you just received your first paycheck out of college.
However, through the use of gray coins you can move shapes from your construction yard to your warehouse. This offers a nice benefit of allowing you to save pieces in between builds. Instead of losing all of your extra polyominoes, any unused bits in your warehouse remain. Nice, except you probably should have just wasted the extra piece or two and saved the gray coin for end game scoring. Maybe.
There’s some additional functionality here with an optional more aggressive variant that allows players to occasionally take a piece from your construction yard, however this act is rare and probably not worth bracing for.
So we do have a decent amount of strategic options here which is appreciated. You can tell the game has a pretty malleable core engine and these nodules slapped atop do not feel too egregious. Where the identity stumbles for me is in its lack of totally committing. There’s this odd quality where the scoring value of structures is comprised entirely by the number of square segments it contains.
This raw number feels unnecessarily uniform because it’s clear early on that some buildings are more difficult to fabricate. Ones that contain hanging sections or columns with no grounded foundation are hammered together with a more rare subset of polyominoes. I’d definitely give designer Aron West the benefit of the doubt that the math here holds up and everything is balanced, but it can feel a bit odd at times. It’s hard to shake this feeling that the scoring system craves more nuance.
Complication and depth of play arises from those extraneous bits – coins, palace building, dice seeding, and tile placement – instead of pushing the boundaries of its core mechanism. I would have loved to see it double down on its central concept in this regard.
And this wish is flirted with when delving into the first expansion, Monuments. This expansion is nearly mandatory as it offers a new style of structure to build. These tiles offer significant rewards at the cost of additional blocks. What this does is offer nuance to the efficiency puzzle of the game and further complicate the drafting of pieces. There’s also only a single monument available so there’s risk with the longer lead time of someone else sliding in and plucking the tile out from under you.
Alright, so I’ve spent a lot of words needling this design and perhaps coming across as somewhat negative. While I think there’s a bit of conflict at the core of it all, I do need to follow through and convey the quality of fun here. Catacombs Cubes is definitely fun.
It’s breezy enough to quickly hammer out a game in an hour or less. It doesn’t waste your time and it allows diversity in strategic pursuits. I find the spatial element more engaging than Tiny Towns and there’s a decent amount of decision space here to explore.
This is one of those games where despite it’s overall simplicity, I’ve spent a fair share of time contemplating my choices and considering what I should have done differently.
There’s also this excellent quality where the physical piecing together of a building conveys a thematic touch that’s easy to dig. It goes a step beyond simply laying tiles and captures a solid amount of physical interaction, which pairs well with its otherwise Euro-style resource management.
Catacombs Cubes is a solid entry in the genre. It’s really a separate construct than its peers, playing in an entirely different manner. The pairing of cute with a formidable decision space is enticing and it’s hard not to appreciate fiddling with the wonderful bits.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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