I created a couple of games on GameCrafter in the early 'teens and found it a pretty good platform for prototyping and publishing, if not really for promoting. I've stayed subscribed to their emails since and every update the site goes through appears more positive and functional, now with a kajillion bits to use and customizable everythings. Radical 8 Games' Die of the Dead, by Mark Stockton-Pitt, seems to me to have used the best that GameCrafter can offer to produce a visually arresting prototype of their game, with some real showstopper components.
The mix of flora, skulls and vibrant colour palette - along with the punny title - leave one in little doubt about the theme here: the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Two to five players try to guide their souls to the top of the marigold steps through a combination of preparedness, luck and a little memory. What really brings the game to life - or death... you know what I mean - are the marigold steps themselves which, while huge, retain way more functionality than the lumbersome tree in Everdell (Starling Games), and the four chunky cardboard caskets the game revolves around.
After a set up that seems to address first player advantage, each turn a player simply activates one of the four action boards beneath the caskets. Each has two actions: one which benefits the active player and one that possibly benefits or hinders many players. With the objective of ascending your souls (dice) out of Casket 4 and onto the steps, preparing them for the afterlife with Casket 2 is essential, as is starting them on their journey in Casket 1. The bones are rolled often and, as with many dice games, having more increases your chance of success; here, power souls (dice with wild sides) are in the mix, but fickle, and the caskets' rules vary so that, while highest is still best, different numbers also benefit, especially in Casket 3 where any duplicates are eliminated.
The memory element comes in when the caskets move closer to the marigold steps: only Casket 1 has its contents on display; when they move, Casket 4 rotates to become the new Casket 1 and any souls inside will have to journey again to ascend. When the coffin lids close, remembering which casket has your dice in is key to triggering their ascension from slot 4. A die ascended to the steps reaps a reward: preparing a soul; gaining a power soul; or taking one of four tokens. Tokens grant one-off powers like jumping into a dice roll, replacing an opponent's soul, and even forcing a move of the Caskets, which we found most powerful.
This all might sound a lot, but it really is quite simple and engaging, tho' as with any game that has 13 dice per player - many of which are rolled every other turn - there is going to be a hefty dose of luck involved. That said, getting your dice into the right position to weigh the odds in your favour is where the game is at, and nobbling your opponents doesn't hurt either. For variety, there are alternative powers on the flip side of the token boards and the option of asymmetric abilities for the five player colours, if desired.
You can see that a lot of thought and passion has gone into Die of the Dead and, for a game with a lot of dice rolling, rather than being a soulless abstract the theme actually does come through quite strongly in the rush for the top step. Early moves tend to be a bit predictable - getting souls out in quantity is vital - and I'm not entirely convinced that the bonus dice compensate for early player advantage, but these are minor quibbles.
All in all, whether you're dying to play or are just happy to roll along with the family, Die of the Dead is spirited entertainment for 30-45 minutes, with plenty of suspenseful dread as the bones roll in Casket number 4. The game was on Kickstarter earlier this year where it successfully funded. Tho' you've missed the Kickstarter, click here and you should still be able to grab a late pledge.
(Review by David Fox)