Critters Below starts a short while after the bombs have begun falling. Almost everybody is dead, with only a handful of survivors stowing away within a mysterious and extensive bunker network.
In Critters Below players take on the role of humanoid animals, from rat to rabbit, as they cower and scavenge around a bunker, in the wake of a massive, nuclear attack. It’s a dark setting for sure, and with each player starting off already wounded and very quickly in a situation where they have to weigh up the merits of cooperation vs betrayal, it’s one where players are quickly thankful they’re not having to play human counterparts.
Radiation, poisoning, and bleeding are on the menu, and it’s about the only thing liberally served up in the corridors of the bunker. Worse yet, players simply die should they gain three active, negative tokens, and they begin the game with one. Times are definitely tough for the lightly-branded survivors in the game, with death and betrayal lurking around the corner, and the only real hope for victory outside on the surface.
Critters Below funded on Kickstater in July of 2017, you can read all about its journey on the Kickstarter Page. As you’ll very quickly realise, all of the images used in this post are from that page.
Critters Below sees each player fending for themselves as they attempt to survive long enough in the bunker as to make a successful foray out into the post-apocalyptic world. Once there any survivors are declared the winner, as they pick clean the remnants of old society, and start their own.
Players compete not only to be the first out onto the surface, but also to not be cold-bloodedly betrayed or murdered by the competition. There are only a certain amount of items available for use at any time, and savvy players can set up traps among the storage-room shelves as to eliminate rivals, that before taking more deliberate and direct actions.
The structure of the game means that, despite the fact that the game follows player-to-player turn-based rules, there is always a danger of betrayal. If not because of the ridiculous traps people can lay out for the next player, or the targeted attacks, but through the previous player being at the helm of the ticking timer which can see a player drop dead from consecutive ailments.
Critters Below comes stored inside a tin reminiscent of a large food tin. Perfect as starvation is very much a threat in the game, and perfectly sized for the components. The condition cards are a bit on the small side, and — due to the nature of the game — there are a lot of them. The item and character artwork has a dark, moody art-style which is extremely fitting of a game where other players can very easily be the death of one-another.
The artstyle is consistent and fitting to the theme, and the tin can gimmick makes the game memorable and easily found.
The play area is organised into several zones. Depending on player count, and player choice, there will be a variety of rooms which will occupy the centre of the board. These facilities are naturally in a ‘closed’ form, however can be upgraded later to become more powerful versions of themselves. It’s these which players will spend most of their more important turn actions throughout the game — clearing their radiation in the lab, gaining vigor in the barracks, populating the storage board, or more.
Next up there are event cards. Critters Below‘s event cards serve as both a turn-tracker and the way to win the game; at the end of each turn players can head out into the wasteland, facing off against the dangers of the day, and the previous two day’s, bombs. Victory comes in heading outside when the effects have resulted in a day of peace, and any players who manage that win the game.
Also central to the table is the item shelf. This is populated with face-down cards which are either found through players rummaging around in the storage facility, through the actions on other cards, or through players sneaking items they don’t want onto the shelves. Not far from that is the item deck and the item discard pile.
Finally, each player has their character card (each character has their own abilities), any items they are wearing, a hand of concealed items, a hand of concealed ‘condition cards’, and any conditions they currently have applied to them laid out in front of them, for the world to see.
Critters Below’s turn structure is surprisingly straight forward — although, much like Antler Games’ previous title, Saltlands, the B3 team did struggle with the rulebook at first.
During their turn each player can perform between one and three actions, the choice of these actions, and the quantity, is entirely up to them. These actions can be spent in a variety of ways; from using a facility, to collecting a face-down item from the shelf and instantly using it, to using their character ability, to using an item from their hand.
The balance to all of these options is that players only need three negative traits in order to die, this is exasperated by almost every action causing players to have to pick up one of the six types of condition cards. For example, resting in the barracks will give you some vigor cards, cards which increase the odds of making it through the end of the turn without succumbing to a deadly end.
Radiation, bleeding, poisoned, starvation, are the four negative conditions, while vigor is more of a get-out-of-jail-free draw,, and regeneration actually removes an active condition.
Once players are done stocking up on, and using items. They then turn to another player, who then selects one of their face-down condition cards, which instantly goes into play. Any card used sees all cards of that type removed from the hand, meaning players who stock up on healing and neutral cards are simply increasing their ODDS of surviving the next turn, rather than surviving the game. Harsh, deadly, and extremely tense.
Play then continues until each person has taken a turn, at which point players are given the chance to head up and outside the bunker. If any players do then the current day on the tracker is flipped, and the top effect is delivered to the player. This could be anything from stacks of radiation, to a few items added to the storage room shelves. If that wasn’t bad enough then the second effect from the previous day, and the third effect from two days previous, also take effect.
If any of those three effects are clear, however, any players who left the bunker win. Most of the time, however, they’re simply gaining massive stacks of deadly radiation and poisoning on their adventures.
The B3 group which played through Critters Below was six strong, giving us extremely long turns between the option to head out into the wastes appeared. This meant that most of the players were more delicate in their use of the storage room, and more tactful moving around items between the shelves and their inventories.
A few days had passed before the first of the team died, largely down to bad luck. When a player dies they instantly ‘add’ a food item to the top of the item draw pile, so once we started dropping off like flies the rest of the players realised they could use… more direct approaches as to ensure survival.
Matt H, who left the bunker at every opportunity, yet survived against the odds, started taking greater gambles with the storeroom; planting mines on the storeroom shelves before grabbing items that he could both stab and shoot Claire in the same turn.
In the end, however, it was Claire who was well-fed as he fell victim to his collective injuries. As the only one left alive she chose to head out into the ruins of the world, only to find that the bombs were no longer raining down. Slightly stabbed, and slightly shot, it would be she who led the society of the new-world.
Once most groups have played a few games Critters Below will become exactly what it says on the tin: a 45~ minute game. However, much like with Antler Games’ previous title, Saltlands, it will take a little careful reading and interpretation as to get your head around the rules.
Due to the subject matter — Post Apocalyptic, Moraeu Cannibalism, Violence — it’s not family friendly, although there’s nothing grotesque about the game.
Critters Below is unlike any tabletop title I have played before, its ability to balance co-operative with the risk-reward loops of items, venturing above the surface, and the condition system, is utterly fantastic. On a design level it is exceptionally smart.