We recently had the opportunity to try out Critters Below, the brand-new card game from Antler Games. You may have heard of them as they were the team behind the successful board game Saltlands. Returning to Kickstarter, Antler Games is looking for people all around the world to back the project and fully funded Critters Below. If it makes the pledge goal on the crowdfunding website the game will become a reality.
So, what is Critters Below? It is a card game where players take up the roles of humanoid creatures as they try to scavenge for items to keep themselves alive. Unfortunately for players there are plenty of ways to die: Starvation, Bleeding, Poisoning and Radiation. The environment is what is trying to seal your fate from the very start of the game. To the extent there is only one neutral type of Condition Card, Vigor, and one positive card, Regeneration.
Set up is straightforward with some minor shuffling and counting out cards. A “Shelf” of cards is laid out in the middle of the table, containing 4 items cards. This is the communal pool if items available to players, though each also receives two each at the start of round 1. Alongside these starting item cards, each player also randomly receives one negative condition card as damage and two Vigor cards into their potential conditions pile.
Due to shelters in the world of Critters Below being dark the Shelf cards are unknown items, with cards being face down. Three Facility cards are however placed blue side up, meaning they are visible to all players. These, like the Shelf cards, can be utilized by any player. Each turn players will be able to use up to a maximum of 3 actions. These can consist of flipping a Shelf card, which activates it instantly. Activating the abilities shown on their unique character card. Using a Facility card’s abilities or playing an item card from their hand. Using any type of item card sees it discards from the game, while Facility cards and character cards are always available.
There is a range of abilities that cards can offer, though often they have both a positive and negative aspect. A card may for instance allow you to peak at what items are on the Shelf, giving you the advantage of seeing what is available and if it is beneficial. This card will most likely also see you taking a negative condition card. Other actions include removing damage from yourself or others, picking up condition cards and restocking the Shelf.
Once your actions are complete it is time to take damage. Take your collected Condition cards, shuffle them and another player chooses one at random. That is what effect you receive. Thankfully you are then able to discard all other cards of that type. You could be lucky and see a Regen or Vigor card pulled out from the conditions. Alas this doesn’t happen too often. Once the condition has been dealt, if you have three of a single type your Critter has died and you are out of the game. Either way it is now the next players turn.
Unless everyone has died and the game is lost, at the end of each round players get to decide whether to venture outside of the shelters or not. This give the opportunity to grab some additional loot items but could see players collecting a lot of negative condition cards. Play then continues until players have either survived or died. The latter being the most likely.
During each turn, it’s a choice between being slightly detrimental to a character while offering only minor benefits with, going for high reward and high risk. Often players will be able to remove potentially harmful cards from their hand of one type only to replace them with another. This is when it becomes important to recognise which cards you cannot have a fellow Critter randomly select at the end of the round and which you can get away with.
My favourite part of Critters Below is where players can choose to venture out into the wasteland or not. Critters Below starts at with the bombing and war already ongoing. As a result, the first turn takes place on the third card of the Event tracker. If you decide to venture out at the end of the round you flip the previous three turn cards to see what happened. It isn’t completely a random guess, as the back of cards hint towards what has happened, but you still cannot be sure. Will you risk taking several negative condition cards just to get hold of those loot items? Apparently, I do not know when to. I seemingly push my luck to far and take a fist full of harmful cards whenever I venture out. Perhaps it’s just the game telling me to stay in the safety of the shelters, especially when others always manage to pick the right time.
Throughout the games turns you’ll acquire harmful effect cards, but these don’t count towards your impending doom while in your hand. It is only at the end of your turn after you’ve shuffle them and a fellow Critter has randomly chooses one that it affects you. So, it is about maximising the neutral/positive cards (Vigor and Regeneration respectively) in your hand so you have the best odds of not getting a harmful effect. Another angle people can take is to maximise the damaging condition cards of a type that they don’t mind taking a damage point of. For example if you have 2 Starvation cards already dealt as damage from previous rounds but no Bleeding cards, weighting your conditions hand so the probability a Bleeding card will be chosen may help you survive another round.
It feels at times as if there is a backstabbing element to Critters Below, ready to rear its head. Players will need to work together in the early rounds, getting the facilities upgraded and making sure no-one dies too quickly. Later on, if someone else might take that bit of damage, so be it. Critters Below is at the end of the day a semi-cooperative experience. Everyone is out for themselves to survive, it just helps to some extent if others don’t die off early on or often don’t die at all. This is due to a lot of cards having an ability that targets another player and can even remove a type of damage from their Critter. Abilities such as this will need to be bartered for in a “you heal me, I’ll heal you” sort of scenario.
One potential improvement that the team could introduce after testing is specifically designating cards to remove from the deck when set amounts of people are playing the game. This is used well in games such as Blood Rage or 7 Wonders where in a 2 player game cards designated for 3 or more and 4 or more players are removed. This removes that chance of a lot of similar cards being in play and maintains the variety of the full deck.
The only other addition to Critters Below that would add something is more Critters. While there are enough Critters to go around for the full 6 player game it would be interesting to see additional creatures be turned humanoid and become playable. These could not only provide more unique artwork to the game but also different variations of abilities. It might just shake things up rather than in a six-player game always having the same 6 characters. Fingers crossed some stretch goals will be met and a couple extras will be included!
I’d like to point out the components I played with are not final, with some artwork missing and the turn. Much of the artwork is there and everything works harmoniously to generate the theme, with the full set complete I’m sure this will only be more impressive. Distinctive colours and symbols have been used for each of the deadly traits. While I do not know if it was the designers’ intensions it means the game is perfectly accessible to those whom with various levels of colour blindness. It also just helps things be clear from the offset of the game.
Critters Below offers a unique semi-cooperative experience that is trying to kill you off left, right and centre! The thing that sets the game above others is the choice to venture outside between rounds. It can turn the game on its head, making an otherwise simple decision have drastic consequences. We played with an artwork incomplete version but could tell the visual style the team is going for will help generate the right atmosphere, in keeping with the theme. I would highly recommend check out the Kickstarter campaign for Critters Below which launches today, June 7th!
[Editor’s Note: Critters Below was provided to us for preview purposes by Antler Games. The images in the review were also provided to us as they represent what the final game will look like.]