Designers: Roman Hladík, Petr Mikša
Artists: Roman Hladík
Publisher: Outset Media
Year Published: 2017
Even the most casual observer who enters my home and happens upon my game shelf can tell that I love Dungeon Crawls.
And I have no problem finding big ones and small ones to adorn my walls, but over the past couple of years, I have come to face a unique dilemma now that I have children—my five year old wants in on the action now, (and has wanted in ever since she was three) so I have consistently been at a loss trying to explain to her why she can’t play things like DnD, Shadows of Brimstone, etc.
However, sometime in 2019, I stumbled upon a local game store that had something that looked intriguing, a self-designated Dungeon Crawl for kids. I was skeptical that such a game could be any good, and I left the store without buying the game, which turned out to be a huge mistake, as first I forgot the name of the game when I went to research it a bit more. Then COVID hit, and drove the game store out of business before I had a chance to go back and buy the game. So then I proceeded to order the game online from out-of-the-country, where the game then proceeded to get stuck for more than a year on the other side of an international boundary.
What was supposed to be a gift for my daughter’s 5th birthday didn’t arrive until just a few weeks ago, with her being almost 6 now.
And in the time that elapsed since my having first seen and ordered the game, I had to endure the humiliation of being beaten to a review of Catacombs of Karak by The Dice Tower—and if things had gone according to plan, I would have bested them by months in terms of getting to the punch first. Curse you again, Tom Vasel!
Catacombs of Karak…*ahem*…Yes, I was supposed to be talking about Catacombs of Karak.
So yes, this is a purported dungeon crawl for kids. It recommends an age of 7+ and supports 2-5 players. But can it really contain the soul and essence of RPG’s and dungeon crawls in a box and be playable for children?
Well, don’t expect full-fledged role playing, you won’t be rolling for charisma checks or anything of such nature. But you will be using a variety of characters (7 in total) to explore a dungeon and ultimately confront an epic dragon in the tale of a hunt for treasure that will be told throughout the ages.
The game includes quite a lot for its size. A huge drawstring bag of monster and item tokens, tons of dungeon tiles, 7 character standees and cardboard portraits, health tokens, and also 7 very nice inset character boards that hold the aforementioned portraits, tokens and items, and a pair of dice.
And most amazingly, virtually nothing about the production is cheap—defying the norm of what I normally encounter for anything that is cardboard bundled in a children’s game.
The punch board is strikingly sturdy—not a chance this will be damaged any time soon.
The rule book is very nicely detailed, and all of the art is both cute and effective for portraying not just the characters that players will use, but also the dungeon denizens themselves.
Each character portrait also details 2 special abilities each character has that are totally unique. The Wizard may be able to teleport between walls, and use magic missiles more effectively than other players, while a Gladiator type character can power through monsters with free re-rolls on 1’s and potentially gaining extra combat turns on rolls of 6, so a sense of distinction among various characters is not lacking at all.
As for gameplay itself, it commences with all players starting smack in the middle of the same, centered dungeon tile, knowing nothing about their surroundings. Players roll to see who goes first and subsequent turns take place in a clockwise order.
Players get four actions on their turn. However, certain actions may end a turn early. These actions are:
—Reveal (and move onto) a new dungeon tile. The active player places a random dungeon tile from a pile and moves their standee onto the new location. If the new tile is a large room, this also triggers drawing a random tile from an included drawstring bag, which may be a monster (that needs to be fought immediately) or perhaps an item that is on the floor…players may then proceed to take remaining actions, provided they were not involved in combat upon entering the new room. If the tile was a simple hallway, no random token is drawn, and the active player may also continue using unspent actions since there was nothing of interest in the hallway.
—Move (consumes one action per move)
—Pick up an item (ends turn immediately)
—use a teleportation portal to immediately traverse to another portal (if two are found on the map)
—Combat a monster (ends turn after battle is finished)
—Use healing fountain to regain all health and eliminate curses (ends turn)
—Open a treasure chest (requires a key and ends turn)
Tiles (and monsters) are gradually revealed until the end of game is triggered—eventually, upon exploration of the dungeon, a dragon will be revealed. Defeating the dragon ends the game, but it is not necessarily the person who defeats the dragon that wins the game, but rather the person who collected the most opened treasure chests (the dragon counts for 1.5 as opposed to just 1).
Treasures are essentially dropped in the dungeon by defeating monsters, but in order to open these chests, you need to defeat more monsters that may drop keys that are essential to claiming the treasures that spell victory for you.
In addition, monsters may drop various weapons (daggers, swords, axes) that can grant you a +1, +2, or +3 combat bonus per slot you equip them in (each character has two weapon slots) or you can also acquire various scrolls that can give you healing or magic missile spells that give you a one-time damage bonus that is consumed upon use.
Be mindful of mummies that roam the dungeon—if you defeat one of these you can pass a curse on to other players that renders their special actions useless!
This game is essentially a dice-chucker , which is often at the heart of traditional dungeon crawler battles, so it is going to be a fair amount of randomness for combat. Of course having access to better weapons and spells can offset the luck factor, and this will be vital to defeating the dragon, who requires a hefty modified roll of 16+ to defeat—two dice that add up to a maximum of 12 will be insufficient to beat this baddie.
Health is handled using the inset token holder at the left of each player board! If you take a point of damage, you simply flip your heart tokens over to skull tokens. If you get all skulls, you are knocked out , but don’t die, you are simply forced onto the tile you came from and lose one turn as you recover one heart, and are back into action!
Okay, this is going to be hard to say, but I rate Karak higher than Gloomhaven (See what I thought about Gloomhaven here) . By quite a margin.
But this is not for being a better game overall, but rather from the standpoint of who the game is made for, children.
And from this vantage, Catacombs of Karak really excels.
Everything about the quality of components in this game is superlative, and is sure to withstand the test of time of being handled my kids. The standees are very sturdy and show no signs of wobbling, tearing, or falling out of their bases with a tight, locking fit. Even my wife commented on the quality, and that doesn’t happen often.
This is a game that really empowers learning and decision making.
My daughter is only 5, and can read exceptionally well for her age, but still tries to count manually on her fingers while failing to realize sometimes that counting to eleven or beyond when you only have 10 fingers is not helpful. Consequently, it has given us the option to focus more on memorization since she is able to count quantities in excess of 10 well enough on her own when it doesn’t involve the use of fingers. And I am already seeing an improvement in her ability to memorize patterns in adding, so the fact that this game is serving as a fun way to facilitate her learning is a nice boon.
I also love the sense of empowerment in decision making she seem to employ and enjoy while playing this game ; she simply adores the freedom to decide where to travel in the dungeon next, whether she wants to confront something or run away from it, and I love watching the gears turn in her head as she strategically tries to decide which items she wants to keep, and which items she wants to leave on the dungeon floor as a result of having her item slots all maxed out.
And she has no problem at all determining what kind of character she wants to play, and enjoys the freedom of choice that usually accompanies such a choice.
I can’t promise that every 5 year old will be able to play Catacombs of Karak, but I have perused the internet enough to see that other parents are having the same observations that I am, and that 5 year olds are indeed capable of playing this game (with a little help).
Final Thoughts —
So for what this game is (a dungeon crawl for kids), I have to give it all high marks. Everything about it from a quality standpoint shines—even the storage solution and insert is well contrived enough that my daughter even enjoys putting everything back where it belongs!
If there any complaints about the game, they would be pretty trivial.
It would have been nice if they included a second drawstring bag for both sets of tiles (dungeon AND items), as the game normally has you place dungeon tiles face down to draw, but this is just a minor quirk on my end more than anything, and it does not affect gameplay at all.
Dungeon tiles can occasionally get jostled, but that is to be expected. There are no troubles with items though, they firmly lock into player boards. Though it should be mentioned that if players choose to place dungeon tiles in odd locations or orientations, it can make for quite a large dungeon, or even potentially lead you to making a circular maze that has no end!
For those who worry that the concept of a dungeon crawl may be too advanced for kids in terms of mature content, I really didn’t find anything too suggestive or violent, things seem squeaky clean for the most part. However, the thief/rogue/assassin archetype comes with its traditional “backstab” ability, so while I might have personally opted for another name for this particular ability (especially for a 5 year old) , the fact that it is made for ages 7+ may need to be factored in for parents who would otherwise be concerned.
One funny thing that happened that I have no explanation for after we started playing Karak is that it seems my daughter made a “cheat sheet” for her math calculations on her gaming table.
She also consequently enjoys drawing the Karak characters now quite a bit.
Personally, I was hoping to have Catacombs of Karak in my hands last year around this time. Things didn’t work out as planned, but I finally got a chance to run the game through its paces, and while others may have beaten me to the punch, I am happy to add to the consensus that Catacombs of Karak is a most supreme entry-level Dungeon Crawler.
While I am aware of Coraquest as a potential alternative, I have yet to play that game, so I can’t chime in stating whether or not one is better than the other, but I can tell you that I am sure that I made the right choice for my daughter. This game has been a smash hit with us ever since we opened the box, and I imagine that Karak will take quite a large number of play throughs before we begin the cycle again with my second daughter in a few years. And this game is ultra affordable, too!
For the final score, please take into consideration this is primarily how I view it for the target audience of children and observing how my daughter interacts with the experience.
Components : 9.5
Gameplay : 7
Theme / Art : 9
Fun : 9
Value : 9
Final Score : 9
Jazz Paladin- Reviewer