13th Sep2019

‘Dead Man’s Cabal’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


If you just sit back and look at Dead Man’s Cabal, you’d just have to conclude that it was one of the most overproduced and opulent games of recent times. I mean, just look at some of these plastic components – beautifully sculpted, weighted plastic skulls in four colours, long, realistic feeling bones… These pieces are just incredible. Look further though, and the quality level drops… Look at those tiny, fiddly cardboard runes and the completely necessary corridor tiles that link each of the actual rooms (although there’s no movement in the game.)

Dead Man’s Cabal is quite the paradox. For all of its macabre, Gothic qualities, it’s also quite a mainstream game, with a mechanical weight that is on the lighter side despite some quite unique and interesting mechanisms. A gateway game for heavy metal fans, or a rather relaxing way to offend prudish parents and relatives into leaving you and your friends alone long enough to listen to The Cure’s greatest hits album on a lazy Sunday? Whatever you use it for, Dead Man’s Cabal never fails to draw attention, and in the main, it’s a much more appealing game than its components make it out to be.

The basic premise is simple. Each of the players is a necromancer who is not represented on the board (hence why no one needs to move anywhere) but is part of a group that occupies an ancient series of catacombs. These necromancers, apparently not satisfied with each other for company, must compete to resurrect the most interesting party guests in order to build their own following – or cabal, if you will. To do this, they’ll perform rituals that essentially allow them to trade things in various ways to engineer the right situation to summon a zombie from one of the cards in their hand. Placing runes on that zombie at the time of its incarnation will score additional points.

And that’s pretty much the game, but what makes Dead Man’s Cabal interesting is the way in which the action happens. On their turn, a player will choose one action by placing a skull from their personal supply onto the Ossuary board. This will in turn cause the other skulls in that row to move to the right, with the skull that falls off being taken into that players collection.

Next, the player gets to take the action associated with that colour of skull. In the case of a gold skull, for example, the player would trigger an Athenaeum action, allowing them to take three bones, one card and one bone, or to discard one bone and draw cards up to the hand limit of five.

If the skull taken was red, the Sepulchre would be activated, allowing the player to take one bone and one skull (from those shown) or to discard one bone and take two skulls, or discard two bones and take three skulls. The Scriptorum and the Oracle allow players to take runes (replacing them with cubes in their colour) or to place cubes onto scoring spaces respectively, but more on that later.

After this main action is taken, a public action will be taken by all players. This is usually determined by the row of skulls in the middle column of the Ossuary, with the dominant colour being the action that all players will then take. The current active player decides the action when there is a tie, but the public action can never be the same from one turn to the next, so a ram skull piece is used to cover the colour that was taken last turn.

All players may then take the public action one by one, until everyone has done so and play passes to the next active player to repeat the process. The most interesting action tile (which I haven’t described yet) is the Sanctum, which is where rituals take place. In summary, on this board, the players need to place skulls in such a way that they link on the pentagram.

If a card in their hand has skull colour requirements that can be matched exactly by an unbroken line of skulls, the ritual can be performed and the zombie card will be scored. When a player has completed seven zombies, the end of the game is triggered and a final scoring occurs. Players will track their score throughout the game, but depending on their placement on the Oracle and Scriptorum boards, there are a number of end game points that can add a significant amount to one or another player, swinging things in their favour.

So, mechanically, Dead Man’s Cabal is unusual. The double action mechanism is very interesting and the way in which a player might be left with a sub-optimal (but nonetheless individual) choice as their primary action, but with the ability to then take that action as a public one is very cool. This actually invokes more thought than you might think, since during the public action, the active player acts last rather than first. As such, others can affect the board between when the action is decided and when the active player carries it out.

The fact that the way the Ossuary is manipulated is what determines both the individual action and public action is very cool, since it still offers a high level of control. You may sometimes have to choose an approach that you don’t like, but you may also be able to scupper your opponents by doing so.

I also like the simple concept of creating zombies, linked to the slightly more complex spatial puzzle of setting out the Sanctum. Each time a ritual is performed, the player performing it will need to take one or more skulls away, so if you fail to perform your ritual quickly, you may lose out. Thankfully, when the Sanctum public action is taken, the skulls remain on the board until all players have finished their rituals, and are then removed simultaneously.

The Oracle board that provides end game scoring for things like collecting most one of coloured skull, or having the most runes, for example, can also be fun. The points it provides are swingier than you might think, with harder feats offering greater rewards. I have seen a number of games be lost in this way, without the former leading player realising what was about to happen to them. You’ll either love this or hate it, and it really depends on whether you like a more strictly calculated eurogame, or a bit of potential chaos.

My only real gripes with Dead Man’s Cabal amount to the component issues that I hinted at right at the start of this review, and I have no issues with the gameplay at all really. The use of really tiny, fiddly runes on a compacted board is a nightmare that results in messiness, whilst using coloured cubes to mark spaces feels out of kilter. I’m not a fan of the corridor spaces that join the boards (hence they are not pictured in my review) because they are just a waste of space.

Overall then, Dead Man’s Cabal is a good looking game with some superb components that will impress you with their look and feel. On the other hand, you’ll feel that this investment in skulls and bones resulted in corners being cut elsewhere, however the end result is a reasonable price point. More importantly, Dead Man’s Cabal features interesting gameplay driven by a very nice mechanic, and the pace is rapid and feels rewarding. A nice and unusual addition to any shelf.

***½  3.5/5

Dead Man’s Cabal is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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