During my weekly visits to the Compleat Strategist in Hollywood, Florida around 1978/1979 I would inspect the wargames, but was always a little intimidated by them. Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls were my games. The store carried all the small-press supplements and campaigns to keep me busy browsing all afternoon. But I still spent much of my time walking around and reading the backs of the wargame boxes; PanzerBlitz, Starship Troopers, Squad Leader. I also had no one to play with. Wrangling up other kids to play D&D was hard enough.
The owner of the store must have sensed my curious frustration and introduced me to the microgame, small bagged games with fairly simple rules, a fold out map, and a few sheets of die cut pieces, often suitable for solitaire play. And there were many of them with fantasy themes, with standouts such as: Swordquest, Valkenburg Castle, Lords of the Underneath, not to mention the Fantasy Trip line that included the classic games Melee and Wizard. There was freedom in them as well, and game designers could be as historically accurate (eg. Rommel's Panzers) or as far out as they wanted (eg. Awful Green Things from Outer Space). The microgame that I recall fondly (and have since found a copy of) is the mostly impenetrable and seemingly unplayable oddity Demons from SPI, in which players are magicians who battle each other by way of conjured demons. Much of the game is inspired by an actual magical grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon (or the Lemegeton), a medieval text that purports to contain the formula for calling forth infernal entities. The rules contain a nice "Historical Notes" section and even offers players a text of the actual conjuration if they send a SASE to the game company. While it refreshing to see the current popularity of boardgames, the DIY flavor is mostly gone, and with it that little bit of luridness that made buying a game like Demons feel almost iconoclastic. What's left, at least for me personally, is the nostalgia for those days, and spending too much money trying to recapture something that seems all but lost.
Every so often, however, something from deep in the underground rises just slightly to the surface, emitting an odor of sulfur, and opening my gaming third-eye. It's a spiritual feeling, really, encountering something that so perfectly captures that cultural moment when the fringe of roleplaying and wargames was knocking on the gates of the mainstream, taking advantage of the late 1970s/ early 1980s cultural locus of horror movies, hobbits, and Heavy Metal magazine. It's been a long time since I have seen anything quite as batshit gonzo as the game Cave Evil, in which Necromancers battle for domination in a labyrinthian cave that slowly expands, revealing more powers and threats, all framed within a darkly humorous world. Imagine a realm where Gary Gygax had been possessed by Abdul Alhazred, the fabled author of the Necronomicon. This makes more sense than to believe it was crafted by a bunch of game geeks in their basement.
The creators of Cave Evil – Nate Hayden, Jochen Hartmann and Mat Brinkman – are all driven by a love of the role-playing and wargames they grew up playing, as well as a deep frustration with the current domination of Euro games. Underpinning this is a desire to test the waters of board game culture to see how much weirdness it can tolerate. Their various backgrounds in design, filmmaking, comics, and technology have given birth to a terrifically strange game that seems perfectly suited to a particular generation of weirdos, but has much to offer the budding game designer as to how to create something that can stand out in an industry fast becoming saturated by Settlers of Catan clones.
Setting up Cave Evil can be a bit daunting, but the rulebook provides a clear path through the essentials, offering additional and more complex rules along the way. Part of what makes it difficult is wanting to stop to inspect the horribly wonderful art and the names of the spells (obscene romance, neon mind control), creatures (larvampyr, shoddy abomination), and artifacts (velvet necro slippers, blinding prism), and the terrible fiends that await you at as the in-game timer winds down, such as the Evil Black Old Goat. A few of the design choices – while perfectly suited to the demonic black-light poster sensibility of the overall aesthetic – sometimes make playability a little difficult. The use of muted colors on black backgrounds means certain game cards are almost unreadable, but for the most part the stark white and black of the game is functional. The game itself is fairly straightforward: gather resources, create armies of diabolical monsters and learn spells; strategize where and when to unleash them on your opponent, and deal with wandering monsters as you attempt to destroy the other player before the time runs out and the greater evil — greater than your characters at least — makes itself known.
During a Skype conversation with Hayden and Hartmann, Hayden made it clear their intention for Cave Evil was playability above all things. While the weirdness is what gives it flavor, Hayden and company designed what he calls "a tactical combat game," driven by a dark fantasy narrative. They see Euro games as little more than chess pretending to be narrative games; they center so much on the mechanics, that whatever story there is functions as surface dressing. Cave Evil's rules are dependent on the Goetic magic of the necromancers. The monsters, spells, and items have very specific personalities, and their powers and weaknesses make them more like entries in a role-playing bestiary than just variables in the game play.
Working on Cave Evil was something akin to a necromantic rite, as the friends hunkered down for two weeks for the final push, working at what felt like 24 hour shifts. The almost overwhelming number of creatures and spells alone must have required selling some part of their souls, but in so doing are reviving that aspect of game culture that was once akin to underground music, fanzines, and small-press publishing. There is an argument to be made that there is, in fact, no more underground. But the truth is, there are dozens of small music labels, publishers, artists and musicians that might be using web technology to send out news to fans and post samples of their work, but are still working with the standard tools to experiment and remain visionary. https://youtu.be/V5cMKlpOTD8
When Hayden worked in the film industry, he was frustrated with the binary way it's run. Projects and ideas are either on or off, yes or no. Board game design was something he could do out of his own house, and gave him the platform to tell stories that sometimes even stymies video game development. This is also part of why the group intends to stay independent. They worry about getting too big too quickly, and so have stayed mostly under the radar. Hayden started Blast City Games in 2007, which has produced other limited edition games, including the hand-made (and now out of print) Mayan Sun, Aztec Destiny, and the quite wonderful Mushroom Eaters, a cosmic shamanic journey played on a 3-D game-board (3-D glasses included). His new imprint, Emperors of Eternal Evil, publishes Cave Evil and the horror game Psycho Raiders. There is little that is slick about their website, their games, or even the teaser trailer for Cave Evil ( one of the greatest advertisement for a game you will ever see), but this also is where their unabashed freedom lies. It's a vision of not only game design, but of how to run a small company that is not just a labor of love, but a lover letter to DIY culture when it was at its peak.
Cave Evil, a Necro-Demonic Dungeon-Brawl boardgame ($90)
2-4 players, 1-4 hours