Dead Man’s Cabal, the board game from Pandasaurus games, has one of the most unique themes I’ve ever seen in a board game. It also features some of the best components on the market.
Can you beat this theme? You are a Necromancer and want to go to a dance party. The problem is you have no friends. So you get in touch with your fellow necromancers and decide to have a get together. Well, what about guests? Who needs friends when you can make your own?
Disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Pandasaurus provided me with a review copy of Dead Man’s Cabal, no other compensation was provided.
What comes in the box for Dead Man’s Cabal?
I would love to point you to an unboxing video for Dead Man’s Cabal but sadly I wasn’t able to record one. I had to beg the Pandasaurus people for this review copy and at the end of the final day of Origins 2019 I finally convinced them to give me one of their demo copies. As the copy I own is previously played, I never got to see what the game looked like from opening the box top for the first time. That doesn’t mean I can’t tell you what you get.
First off there is a rulebook with the obvious Notorious B I G, Biggie, homage skull featured prominently on the cover. It’s eleven pages long but contains a lot of white space. There are plenty of examples, featuring nice large full colour images of the game components. The rules are well presented and clear. My only complaint is the physical size of the rulebook. It’s made to fit the box and I found it a bit unwieldy to read. It’s kind of floppy if you aren’t reading on a surface of some sort.
Under the rulebook is a themed box insert. It’s a nice touch and serviceable. Some of the boards have specific spots but mostly it’s just compartments to put the various components in. There’s room for everything but there isn’t a specific place for each bit. This actually makes clean up pretty easy but you are going to want baggies for most of the components (I’m not sure if the game comes with baggies or not, my demo copy had some but not as many as I would have liked.
There are plastic cubes in each of the four player colours. Colours appear to be colour blind friendly. These cubes are a bit tinier than most wooden ‘resource cubes’ you get in most games. They are nice and sold and have rounded edges which I liked.
The “guests” are represented by a deck of cards featuring black and white artwork. The art style is a unique caricature style. Many, if not all, of these cards, are inspired by real people. The card quality is solid, nothing to complain about there.
The actual game boards are noteworthy. There are four action boards, an action selection board and a scoring board. Each of these is separate and can be placed on the table in any way the players choose. The game also includes a number of short and long corridor tiles. These have absolutely nothing to do with gameplay but exist so that you can place them between the main boards and make a dungeon out of the board layout. An interesting design choice.
This leads me to the great looking plastic skulls and bones. The game includes a number of plastic skulls in four different colours (black, white, red, and gold), a set of white femur style bones (the currency in the game) and one cow skull. These components are top notch, made out of a slightly flexible plastic that just feels like it’s got some good weight to it in your hand.
Finally, there’s a silkscreened bag with the Biggie skull on it that the skulls go into, some cardboard punch outs, runes in white and black and some “vortex tokens.”
Overall the component quality is really impressive. This is the kind of game that catches people’s attention just sitting out on the table. The boards are all bright and colourful and when laid out like a dungeon using the corridors even the board itself has great table presence.
Summoning the dead for a party in Dead Man’s Cabal.
Dead Man’s Cabal was designed by Daniel Newman, features art by Henning Ludvigsen and Denis Medri and was published by Pandasaurus Games in 2019. It is a 2-4 player action selection game with a very unique theme and scoring system.
After building a dungeon out of the player boards, each player receives one skull of each colour (red, white, black and gold) and a starting hand of cards. The various boards are seeded with starting skulls, bones and runes.
Each turn, players draw one skull from the silk screened bag and then place it onto the Ossuary board. This board has a grid of skulls already on it. When a new skull is placed a player picks a row. That new skull goes in on the left and all of the skull slide down to the right, bumping the rightmost one off the track. The player takes this skull into their hand.
Then the active player picks one of their skulls in hand to play. The colour of the skull determines which action they will take as a Private Action.
The player plays out that action by themselves, paying all costs and getting any benefits. Then you look back at the Ossuary. On it, there is one column that is highlighted. You look to that column and find which skull colour has the majority and every player then gets to do that Public Action, starting with the active player.
After all players have taken the current public action, the bag is passed to the left and play continues.
Game end is triggered when one player runs out of cubes or someone has summoned seven guests. At this point, each player gets one more turn and then final scoring is completed.
Final scoring includes the points list on each summoned guest card as well as scoring the Oracle board.
Here is a list of the actions players can take and the boards in the game:
Red: Sepulchre – Get one bone and take one skull, or pay one bone and take two skulls. or pay two bones and take three skulls.
White: Scriptorium – Get one bone and take one rune and place a cube where that rune was taken from, or pay one bone and take two runes and place two cubes. Then buy one black rune from the market, if you wish, paying bones for it.
Gold: Athenaeum – Get three bones, or pay one bone and take one card, or pay two bones and take up to five cards.
Black: Sanctum – First place skulls. Take one bone and place one skull, or pay one bone and place two skulls. Then summon undead. Summon one guest or pay two bones to summon two undead. Finally, remove used skulls (based on what cards are played). For each summoned undead you can spend runes you have collected if the runes you have match the symbols on the cards. For each matching rune add one cube to the Oracle.
The Oracle – There are seven scoring spots on the oracle. Players will be placing cubes onto these spots. Only the players with the most cubes and second most cubes on a spot will actually score that Oracle spot during end game scoring. There are scoring spots for having used each colour of skull during summoning, for having skulls left over at the end of the game, for having areas of connected cubes on the Scriptorium and one that is just worth twenty points for the player with the most cubes and ten for the player with the second most.
This is a pretty broad overview. To really understand the interaction of the cards, the runes and the oracle board you need to see this game in person. However, I think this gives you an idea of how the game is played. Draw a skull, use it to determine the public action and which skull you will get. Spend a skull to do a private action, then everyone shares in a public actions. Actions let you get more cards, collect skulls, collect runes and spend skulls to summon guests. When you summon guests you want to spend runes to use the Oracle for end game scoring.
Overall thoughts on Dead Man’s Cabal from Pandasaurus Games
Dead Man’s Cabal was one of the games I was really looking forward to checking out at Origins 2019. Of all the games that were being hyped leading up to the con this is the one that had most caught my interest. I was determined I was going to get a review copy of the game and actually avoided doing a demo of it at the con because I was determined I was going to bring the game home.
Once I did get it home and get it played I was impressed overall. I absolutely love the unique theme in this game. Nothing out there compares to a Necromancer dance party. I also really dig the fact that there’s a metagame that happens every time I play Dead Man’s Cabal and that’s players spending time both trying to guess who each of the cards in the game represents and also trying to make a themed set of guests each time they play. I’ve even seen players tell a story about why they chose each guest to resurrect.
You also can’t beat the table presence of Dead Man’s Cabal. There aren’t many games out there as eye catching. Both due to the component quality and the way the board is designed to lay out. Yes, the whole build your own dungeon thing is a gimmick but it works. One small complaint aesthetically is that the scoring board has a typo on it, which is ignorable because it’s a two sided board and the second side is correct, but double check before you start that you aren’t using the side with two 50s on it. My only other complaint component wise is how small the rune tokens are. They are a bit fiddly to deal with and I wish they and the Scriptorium board they go on were a bit bigger.
As for gameplay, I was impressed the first time I played. I really like the action selection system in this game and hope other games take the concept and do more with it in the future. Each of the actions is interesting and I’ve always had fun playing the game, but then you get to final scoring.
Final scoring in Dead Man’s Cabal is some of the most opaque and obtuse I’ve ever seen. While you do get points for the cards you have collected, the majority of your points are going to come from the Oracle board. Until you see this scored at least once there is no way to fully grasp exactly how it’s going to play out and how many points can be earned through the oracle. Every time I teach this game I try as hard as I can to stress how important the Oracle board is and how to best use it and it still manages to confuse and surprise new players each time.
Due to this odd scoring system, end game scores in Dead Man’s Cabal are almost never close. There’s always a huge, usually over 100 point, gap between first and last place, sometimes reaching even 200 points difference. Due to the fact that the majority of points are earned at the end of the game, it’s very hard to tell how well any one player is doing. Because of this, it’s not even a case where you can see that there is a clear leader and do something to stop them.
The rest of Dead Man’s Cabal is amazing. I love playing the game. I love the mechanics and how things play out during the game. At first, I didn’t even mind the scoring system. It was unique and took a bit to grasp, but over time, after many plays, I’ve found that I really stopped having fun once we got to end game scoring.
What I think is worth noting here is that this took time. My first experience was solid. Sure I didn’t quite get it but it was fun. The next few plays were even better, now I knew what I was doing and my scores skyrocketed. It wasn’t until after more plays that I started to feel less and less enamoured with the end game.
So if you are like most gamers and only get your games to the table a handful of times you may never get to that point with Dead Man’s Cabal. My first experiences were great and it was only after many plays that I found that while I had fun playing the bulk of the game, I wasn’t keen on the end game and that somewhat soured the entire experience.
At this point, I will happily break this game out if someone asks to play it, but I think I’m past bringing it out on my own.
Have you played Dead Man’s Cabal? What did you think? Do you have any games that are like this for you, games that you loved at first but have soured on a bit after multiple plays?