Critters Below Kickstarter Review

Critters Below Kickstarter Review

You’re in a room. It is dark. You’ve been eaten by a Grue.

Ok, not that last bit, but two out of three isn’t bad. For those of you who may wear tinfoil hats and are obsessed with the impending dawn of war, then you may quite enjoy the subject of my latest peek-a-boo as it’s set in a bunker during a war. Whoever chose to build this bunker clearly hadn’t heard of basic requirements like medicine or lighting. Perhaps they were cut from the budget during construction.

It’s hardly surprising that amenities such as a light bulb were missed as the inhabitants of this Stone-Age bunker are a bunch of woodland animals, the Critters, trying to survive a particularly hefty war involving a lot of bombing of a rather unspecific nature. The world is warring whilst our protagonists must wait it out in their concrete cocoon below ground. And thus we arrive at the name of the game in question: Critters Below from Antler Games

Critters Below Kickstarter Review

Now, it’s no secret that I don’t usually go for card-only games as I find them a little lacking, but over the last 6-12 months I’ve been coming round to the idea that they’re not all neckbeard-fodder and a few of them have genuine merit. Steve asked me if I fancy reviewing the latest Kickstarter from Antler Games so I said “sure” – my first reaction was something akin to my opening statement – wandering around a cave system getting assaulted by unseen things springing from dark crevices. A bit like Preston on a Friday night. However, it’s not. Critters Below is a Semi-Cooperative game about surviving just long enough to emerge to the surface and find the war is over.

Critters Below requires a good talent for hand management as you try to make sure you don’t get too battered during your stay in the bunker. You are under constant assault from the perils of war – bleeding wounds, radiation poisoning, regular poisoning and the primary threat: Starvation. Looking at the cards to represent each of these threats, you get a good idea of which one is most common given the size of the decks.

critters below card game review

Like Liam Neeson, each player (critter) has a very particular set of skills that may or may not help them during the game. Players take it in turn to decide what they want to do to try to survive the war by foraging around the bunker for food, medicine or other items. Key thing is, the game is all about hidden information. The “Shelf” containing collectible items remains unknown until inspected, and it’s up to the inspecting player to divulge what each card is, if they choose to. Different light sources allow for more or fewer cards to be looked at in an action, although almost all actions will result in starvation, so choose carefully. Players can only carry two items with them at any time, so inventory is aggressively small, but for good reason. We don’t all retreat to a bunker with a butler and serving staff to cater for our every need. This is War, soldier.

At the end of your turn, you randomly acquire a type of ailment from your assigned hand of possible ailments – most are bad, some are neutral and one is positive. So there’s a certain amount of luck involved, but hand management as mentioned will allow you to tip the balance in your favour. Three different ailments and you’re in the same situation a fox would be in should Teresa May get her way, so there’s a ticking clock.

Critters below card game kickstarter

After everyone has had their turn, they make a choice as to whether they want to venture above ground to see if the massacre has subsided. This is obviously a risky business and for the most part there’s very little information about what may lie in wait which is where I feel the game starts to fall apart. There are “clues” as to what might be on a given event card should Critters climb up, but they’re quite loose and arbitrary so you’re mostly in the hands of fate – something I didn’t really like. The limited number of event cards coupled with the relatively fixed way they are set up at the start means that the game won’t change very much each time – basically you ain’t going above ground before turn 5 (of 8) in all reality, which is effective in raising tension, but I think more variety in the event cards would definitely help here.

There’s a few issues with the rulebook, but as it’s a prototype, that’s hardly a major complaint – rulebooks can be re-written (I know first-hand!) so I can’t gripe at Greg too much for lack of clarity here, plus that’s what schmucks like me are for – playtesting and feedback. Once I got my head round a few of the less-clear items, the game is quite fluid. It’s quick and simple with the hardest part remembering what the icons mean, which is hardly terrible.

Critters Below nuclear bunker card game

But is it any good? Well. That’s where I’m struggling to come to a conclusion. I’m genuinely fighting my usual nature of dismissing card games and taking Critters Below on its own merits and to be fair, it has quite a few. The art is very thematic – it’s almost dystopian in its darkness and style, which I do like. The icons are clear and readable and there are no issues with colour blindness. Mechanically it’s quite straightforward, if a little clunky in places, but a simple rules clarification would sort that.

But. And this is quite a big “but”. If you don’t like random games, then may not get on with Critters Below. Looking at the game objectively, it has nice graphics, simple gameplay and compact form and it’s family friendly too. The ability to screw other players over is quite satisfying and there is a genuine tension when searching for items in the dark as you try to survive another turn. However, the amount of luck involved is a little too much for my personal taste – you’re very much beholden to the deck and if the cards don’t fall your way, you won’t last long, despite your best efforts.

If you do like quick fire, random games, then Critters Below is certainly worth a look. I know that Polyhedron Collider’s Jon will enjoy it – random, quick fire and with backstabbing. Just his cup of tea, but for me I need a bit more oomph to get my euro-brain involved.

This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game provided by the publisher; the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.
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