Dead Man’s Cabal Review

I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre for a while. Sure, I’ve played Zombicide and Dead Panic, but my zombie obsession probably started with the Left 4 Dead video game series. Sitting around with friends, taking out as many zombies as possible, screaming when you get dragged away by that ridiculous tongue monster…. oh, those were the days.

But no matter what it was, back then everything was about killing zombies. But in the past few years, new takes on zombies have started to come forth. Take Warm Bodies, for instance, a movie about the love story between a girl and a zombie. Now, zombies are more than just target practice. They have a heart, too. 

Well, maybe. I’m not exactly sure how zombie anatomy works.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Dead Man’s Cabal puts two to four players in the shoes of necromancers who are looking to throw a party. Unfortunately, it seems they have ostracized everyone in their quest for all-encompassing power, so they instead will resurrect their guests from the dead. You know, as one does.

The game doesn’t really have a board, but instead a bunch of different cardboard locations that are spread around the table (you can even add hallways to connect them, if you would like, but this is completely unnecessary and really just takes up space). On your turn, you’ll start in the ossuary (apparently a room in which the bones of dead people are placed), which features three rows of skulls.

I Deal in Bones

Skulls are a key element of this game, as they are used for determining the actions you’ll take on a turn, as well as enabling you to resurrect your party guests. In the ossuary, you’ll do some manipulating of the rows so that you add a skull and take a skull. You’ll then discard a skull, the color of which determines what “private” action you as the active player will take that turn. Meanwhile, the center column of skulls in the ossuary determines what “public” action is taken, meaning what everybody (including the active player) gets to do that turn.

There are four different actions that take place in different areas, and all of them intertwine to make a simple yet multi-faceted set of mechanics. You can go to one area to get skulls, while another area lets you arrange those skulls on a board in a pentagram-like pattern. You can then resurrect party-goers using these skulls from cards that you acquire in yet another area. Finally, there are runes that you can acquire that are added to the party-goer cards to give you the opportunity to place cubes on the oracle, which awards bonus points at the end of the game.

There’s certainly more detail about the actions than what I’m supplying here, but the main goal for players is to get seven zombies raised from the dead. This triggers the end of the game, and then points are added from the raised zombies and the oracles. The player with the most points wins!

Where’s The Meat? It’s all Bones!

I am fully aware that my description doesn’t do justice for the mechanics of the game, but they are a bit hard to describe without just reciting the rulebook. I will say that they do come together quite nicely. You can’t just focus on one particular action every round or you will lose. You have to be sure that you’re getting the skulls you need to take the other actions you want to take. You also have to really focus on the runes, because the bonus points can be very valuable. However, you generally have to resurrect people for the bonuses to grow in size, so a balance must be struck.

I also like the bones mechanic in the game. Each location has different versions of an action that you can take based on the number of bones you want to spend or acquire. For instance, you can get one skull and one bone as your action at the sepulchre, or you can trade in a bone to take two skulls, or two bones to get three skulls. This currency system of bones allows for more strategy for the players, as they must determine when they should take smaller actions that will also allow them to build up their bone collection and when they should take the big swing that costs a little bit extra.

It’s So Dark

I personally like the “story” of the game and was expecting a more light-hearted approach to this dark theme. However, aside from the artwork on the zombie cards, the overall motif to this game is very dark. There are pentagrams all over and other symbols that bring forth thoughts of witchcraft and other dark magic. While some may really enjoy this artistic approach, I found it to be quite off-putting, as did those with whom I played the game.

Aside from the artistic direction, I’m also not a huge fan of the scoring system found in the game. The bonuses are far too powerful – they were worth as much as forty-five points in some of our playthroughs. While this forces you to consider the runes more carefully than you might otherwise, I feel that they completely diminish the impact of the zombie cards. Perhaps we didn’t play the game as intended, but we barely made a dent in the oracle area, but I think if we had given more attention to the bonuses, we may have doubled our game time, something that wouldn’t have been good.

This Party’s Not For Everyone

I have had a hard time determining my feelings about Dead Man’s Cabal. I think that the mechanics behind the game are fascinating, and I’ve seen very few games that overlap their elements as well as this one does. I also think that, with a few tweaks, the scoring mechanism could be much better and would provide a more satisfying experience. However, I just do not vibe with the way that the theme has been put on this game. I think it may work for others, but it just doesn’t for me. Who knows? Maybe one day this game may be revived just like its zombie characters into something a little more “party friendly”.

You can pick up a copy of Dead Man’s Cabal at your local game store or purchase the game from the Amazon.

Highs

  • Well-layered mechanics
  • Good illustrations on the cards

Lows

  • Theme might be a little too dark
  • Scoring is unbalanced