GTM #233 - Cutthroat Caverns
by Smirk & Dagger Games

Without Teamwork, Youʼll Never Survive.

Without Betrayal, Youʼll Never Win!

When Cutthroat Caverns launched some 12 years ago, it was quickly touted by fans and critics as one of the seminal semi-coop games to hit the market. It won the Dice Tower Award for Most Innovative Game of the Year, as well earned Smirk & Dagger Games the title of Best Small Publisher of the Year. It was nominated for Best Card Game by the Origins Awards and won A Platinum Pawn for Best Game of the Year. Since then, the game has seen multiple reprintings and spawned five different expansions, boasting over 120 uniquely monstrous encounters. And it has remained in the “Top 100 games of all time” on both The Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down to this day, as well as any fan-made list of “Best Backstabbing Games.”

And this year, Cutthroat Caverns gets a well-deserved, ground up reboot.

But perhaps you never had the opportunity to treat yourself to this devious, emotionally-charged game of betrayal. Well, imagine you and every player sitting around the table have just discovered you’re Boromir. Yes, that Boromir (sort of), but without the whole ‘coming to your senses in the last moment’ thing. That’s because this morning, you unearthed the one Relic of unimaginable power and it is slowly corrupting each one of you and tearing your party of adventurers apart. It claws at your mind, filling it with a desire to own The Relic for your yourself, but only the player who earns the most Prestige from slaying monsters will earn the right to keep it. You will do anything to make sure that player is you. Perhaps you will trip them or edge them out of the way to assure your blow kills the beast instead of theirs. The trick is, if you mess with each other too much, the creatures live longer, do more damage and you all get closer to death. In your greed, you may find the whole party dies, without a winner at all. Every encounter tempts you to give into your baser instincts and betray the others – and if you don’t, they most certainly will. It is a deliciously delicate balance between needing to work together to stay alive and doing what must be done to win.

This game delights in shaking your fist at friends and cursing their names. It’s all about “kill stealing,” and spoiling their well-timed strike, so you can get yours in next turn. Your betrayals are against all of your best interests, yet even as the other players feign outrage, they know they had the same planned for you. It is tension filled and spiked with raucous laughter. It’s damned funny – and not because of anything amusing on the cards, but rather, the humor comes directly from the interaction between players and the extreme lengths they will go to in order to win.


Breaking Down The Anniversary Edition

The Cutthroat Caverns Anniversary Edition is a ‘soup to nuts’ revamp of the base game and will reimplement it moving forward as the new core game. It is important to say that it is FULLY compatible with all previous expansions, all five of which are still in stock, and will no doubt gain new attention. Common card backs were maintained amid all the other graphic enhancements, so fans can combine it with their collections. So, what is new?


Upgraded Illustrations & Graphics:

It is fair to say that the previous art for the game was inconsistent at best. Perhaps passable in 2007 for a small publisher with meager budgets, but not in today’s marketplace with the quality of art and graphics being as high as it has ever been. In the past couple years, Smirk and Dagger has received attention for the beauty of some of their most recent titles and they have brought that same sensibility to this edition. And what a difference a day makes.

The cover has moved from its previous cartoonish quality to a full rendered, beautifully rich illustration by Lindsey Look. The realism of the character illustrations sets the tone for what is to come inside, as 21 of the 27 creature Encounter cards have been completely re-envisioned. The contrast between some of the THEN and NOW comparisons is jaw-dropping. Bugaboo, for example, brings the ghastly horror to life in ways its predecessor simply could not. Though a few of the creatures, Arc Mages, Ripper and Fear chief among them, have been kept as well-loved ties to the original, the consistency of high-quality new illustration is a beauty to behold. Encounter cards have also been redesigned to enhance the size and presentation of the art, first introduced in expansion 5: Death Incarnate, as well as provide a cleaner surface to read the rules text.

The Initiative Cards have been given new life, as had the entirety of the main deck of cards. The new border treatments feel modern in execution and are fully illustrated, but keep the same familiar color coding for Attack, Action and Item cards, so as not to seem too foreign to longtime fans. The game-wide graphic and illustrative enhancements are significant and beautifully done. Many fans may wish to repurchase the game on these grounds alone, but there’s more in store.


Materials Improvements:

In the original game, player and creature life points were tracked by glass beads, resting on glossy cards. During the course of play, the beads could get bumped and slide around to the annoyance of the players. In the new edition, larger, dual layer, die-cut player boards provide grooved insets along the life point track. Instead of the beads, wooden tokens can now be placed into the appropriate notch and are far less susceptible to jostling. This same principle has been applied to the Encounter track board, with its own unique shaped pegs. A welcome improvement.


Streamlined rules & keywords:  

For years, Smirk & Dagger maintained a lengthy FAQ on their site, largely because the original game did not make good use of a consistent set of keywords to aid player understanding. Part of the reboot is a tighter 3.0 rulebook and clear keyword ques of the most important game concepts. Those who have been playing for years can passively appreciate this, but new players will find it a much more approachable game as a result.


Enhanced Encounter Stats:

Fans of the game know that the creatures became tougher and tougher with every expansion over the years, as players hungered for a larger threat of death. After five expansions, a third of the original base game creatures felt a little lackluster and have been given higher life point totals or heavier strikes. So, the next time you encounter Mind Grub, you may find it a bit more of a challenge then you remember.


Variable Game Lengths & Epic Finishes:

New to this edition are variable game lengths. Smirk & Dagger provides details on how to set the game up for short, medium and standard durations, running 30, 60 and 90 minutes long respectively. These shorter games are perfect for getting a game in at lunchtime, for example, and adjust the number of Encounters faced and the Life Point totals of the characters.


You can also assure your game ends with an epic finish thanks to the new “Finisher” rules. Players each get to choose a favorite (tough or exciting) monster from their collection that they think would make for a dramatic end. These are then shuffled, and one is secretly placed face down as the final encounter. This is far more satisfying than the previous rules, which made it completely random. The Trap Room is fun, but no one wants to end the game there. With the new rule, you won’t be certain of what you will face, but it is bound to be interesting. While any creature can be selected, certain Encounter cards are marked as Finishers to aid players in selection.


Bonus Encounter – In Game and In APP:

Cutthroat Caverns initially launched with 25 Encounter cards. In the third printing, Smirk & Dagger placed one of their promo cards, Rune Cast, into the game officially. This set adds one more to the mix, the Goblin Dragon, which strikes for more damage if the party doesn’t keep increasing the damage that they do to it in order, or lessens the damage if they can work together. Notably, there is a digital code inside the game rules to add Goblin Dragon to your Cutthroat Caverns APP.

Oh, did we forget to mention that? Launching at the same time on iOS and Android platforms is a fully playable APP version of Cutthroat Caverns. The app version picks up the Anniversary Edition content and pits you against 3 AI opponents, where each AI has been modeled to simulate the different play styles most commonly observed at the table. There’s one who just hate you, specifically, and lets you know it. There is one who always targets the last player to mess with them. There’s the peacemaker who wants to spread things around evenly. And – of course – they all want to win and would rather see you die than themselves. Because your opponents are all AIs, the game never lags. With the opportunity to interrupt and counter plays as often as this game does, you will understand why networked play was not pursued. But, surprisingly, it is easy to forget you are not playing live opponents.

The Cutthroat Caverns Anniversary Edition is chock full of new reasons to own this game – or consider buying it all over again. And if you haven’t played, there is no better time, but just remember… “Trust No One.”


Curt Covert is the owner of Smirk & Dagger Games. A sixteen-year veteran in the industry and the inventor of Cutthroat Caverns, Hex Hex, and Nevermore, just to name a few. His new line, Smirk & Laughter, has expanded their reach to a broader audience than ever with games intended to connect with players on an emotional level.