Updated: Oct 24, 2020
You need only a passing acquaintance with Greek mythology to know that Cerberus was the monstrous three-headed hound guarding the underworld. The ferry to Hades across the river Styx was usually considered to be a one-way trip so you'd expect the odds to be against you in any game built around the premise of evading the jaws of Cerberus in an escape from the underworld.
Designed by Pierre Buty, published by La Boite de Jeu and Origames, and distributed by Blackrock, Cerberus is a semi co-operative game for 3–7 players. You are all trying to get out of Hades and you will be working together, often advancing other players' pieces rather than your own. You need to work together because you can only win if enough players reach the row boat at the end of the track to fill all the seats. However, you don't know at the start of the game whether the boat will hold one, two or three players' meeples.
There's a story about two strangers backpacking in the woods. They come upon each other and decide to walk the next bit together. Around a bend in the trail they come face to face with a bear. One stranger drops to his knee, pulls his running shoes from his backpack and begins removing his hiking boots. The other stranger just stares and says, 'There is no way you can run faster than that bear.' The kneeling stranger stands up and replies, 'I don't have to be faster than the bear. I only have to be faster than you.' That's a principle that is likely to apply in this game. When Cerberus gives chase, he's almost certain to catch the hindmost meeple. That's what makes this game only semi co-operative: you're very likely to find players deciding to sacrifice one of their number so that others can get away.
The mechanics of the game are straightforward. Everyone starts with an identical set of four cards, each of which can be played for one of two different individual or pairs of actions. Most actions come at a cost: usually advancing Cerberus' speed marker along his 'rage' track. Cards are only retrieved if you play a card that lets you retrieve them. You can additionally collect Survival cards which allow further actions but these cards are single use only.
Whenever Cerberus' marker reaches the end of his rage track, the hell hound hunts: chasing after the escapees as many spaces as shown on his marker (a minimum of 3 up to a maximum of 8). If the Cerberus meeple reaches a space with one or more escapees on it, it ends its movement and it returns those players' meeples to the underworld. In an interesting twist, however, unless they are among the last two players left, the game for them isn't over: they simply switch allegiance so they now help Cerberus to capture the other meeples. They flip their action cards to their Cerberus side and they draw and play Betrayal rather than Survival cards. It turns out, it may not have been such a good idea after all to sacrifice another player. At least, you won't want to do so too soon...
The components in this game are great. The art, by Pierre Ples and Jules Dubost, hits just the right tone. The board is modular and can be adjusted to ramp up the difficulty. Each of the wooden meeples has a unique shape as well as colour, and the wooden Cerberus meeple is a sight to behold. And just in case you worry this game is Cynophobic, one of the escapee characters is a (normal, non-monstrous) dog. The game also comes with stickers that can be used to mark up the box to celebrate achievements in play. Like achievements in video games, this acts as a way of incentivising replay.
Cerberus works well as a family game, usually lasting around 30 minutes. The side-switching mechanic offers an interesting way of tackling the perennial bugbear of player elimination. It also means there's a degree of strategy needed to timing any betrayal of other players. You might even deliberately allow yourself to be caught early on by Cerberus so you can help capture all the other players and share in the Hades victory!
(Review by Selwyn Ward)