GTM #215 - Cutthroat Caverns: Death Incarnate
by Curt Covert

In the vast universe of games, there are those that have earned a rather dubious honor and distinguished themselves as true, visceral games of unmitigated betrayal. More than simple ‘take that’ games, these games require their players to form alliances, to work together, trust one another – and in the end, turn upon each other in an effort to win! Cutthroat Caverns, by Smirk & Dagger Games, is one such game, infamous in the category as one of the top contenders for the backstabbing crown. Now entering its 10th year, this classic is delivering new excitement that will open the doors to a whole new crop of fans, including a killer new 5th expansion, an upcoming Anniversary Edition, and a mobile app version of the core game.

When asked about the game’s beginnings, Curt Covert, inventor of Cutthroat Caverns and owner of Smirk & Dagger Games, said he found inspiration in the sharp dichotomy between two role playing groups from his youth. “I had a very unusual D&D group in high school. It was six women and me, all friends from the drama club, who found the improvisational storytelling of an RPG an absolute blast. We were a VERY lawful good party. If someone found a magic item, by the gods, it went to the person who could wield it best. It was high fantasy, Tolkien-style.”

But after graduation, he arrived at Syracuse University and began playing with a very different group. “It was all guys from our dorm. And a few sessions into the game, I remember looking around the room in absolute horror. There was nothing the DM could dish out that would ever be as dangerous as the party members by my side! My roommate (and best friend) smiled gleefully as he perfectly executed a plan to assassinate the DM’s favorite NPC. He never saw what was coming, as Dave dropped rot grubs, captured from an encounter earlier that evening, on the character’s eye sockets to bore instantly into his brain, as he lay helpless. Just to make a point!”

Years later, it was this feeling of abject terror, the realization that you couldn’t trust the people you had thrown in with – and the cold, brutal knowledge that they were deadlier and more dastardly than the monsters you faced, which Curt wanted to capture and prolong throughout the entirety of Cutthroat Caverns. “I've always been one to design ‘theme-first,’ so I built the game around ‘kill-stealing’ and I looked for the levers I could use to reliably push players to commit terrible acts in order to gain wealth, power, and prestige, in spite of the impact to the party and their own best interests. Each Encounter in the game was built with a new and unique funnel that tempts players to misbehave in horrible, hysterical ways.”

It is this design imperative that drives game play and leads to both the ‘shock and awe’ of what seems like self-destructive, or at least short sighted, game play — and the peals of laughter from enjoying the misfortunes of others at your hand. The German word, schadenfreude, so perfectly describes this experience — one almost feels as though the word was coined just for this game.

Cutthroat Caverns lives up to the expectations set upon the cover, “Without Teamwork, you’ll never Survive. Without Betrayal, you’ll never Win!” and has spawned several expansions over the years including the latest, Death Incarnate. This fifth expansion, released in September of this year and co-authored by Jonathan Lavallee, is completely dedicated to the most memorable and interesting of the Cutthroat creature types, The Incarnations.

“The Incarnations — Hate, Fear, Spite — are fan-favorites for a reason. They’re not the same old orcs people are used to fighting… they’re the very essences of human existence! Philosophically, this is the struggle of the whole game. How do you fight your baser instincts? How do you defeat them without succumbing to their influence? And on the flip side, how does it feel to fully give over to the temptation to act in ways we never would in the real world, in the safety of the game’s construct?”

Death Incarnate more than doubles the number of Incarnations in the game, which now boast over 100 creatures, each delivering a unique play experience, like playing several mini games in a row. Here you’ll face the Incarnation of ‘Death’, himself, who appears early in the game, throws fear into your hearts, and then drops to the bottom of the deck for you to face as the final Encounter. His touch removes every card in your hand, and his second doesn’t deal damage — it out and out kills you! ‘Pride’, on the other hand, preys on your very achievements. All your hard fought Prestige points become the means of your destruction, as he strikes for 5 Life Points (LP) for every point of Prestige you have earned. ‘Fortune’ brings her own 22-card Tarot deck, which functions like a Deck of Many Things. Draw one before combat and, depending on the orientation, it’s a boon or a curse. Fail to draw the cards, however. and she’ll face you at the end, powered up for every card you didn’t draw!

In addition, players can add to their abilities with a set of new Relic cards, each imbued with the power of an Incarnation. There’s a Relic Incarnate for each creature in the box, and every Incarnation going all the way back to the base set. Even the Event cards carry the Incarnate theme. “Jonathan had a vision to place characters into the world of the Incarnate, to have their sphere of influence felt in every aspect of this set, including a new adventure book, offered as downloadable content. His fresh look revealed untapped ways to twist the mechanics for exciting new possibilities and dangers.” For any fan of Cutthroat Caverns, Death Incarnate is a must-have expansion and represents some of the best work the team has produced for the game, ever.

But, wait! 2018 has even more news. Smirk & Dagger plans to release a 10th Anniversary Edition of the Cutthroat Caverns base game, with enhanced art and graphics, minor modifications to some of the creatures, a more intuitive rulebook, and some new rules mechanics. “Ten years ago, I didn’t really have an art budget,” Curt said, “and it’s high time the game got a redress. Some of your favorite creature art will remain, but others, which were, in some cases, a bit rough around the edges, will be replaced with top-notch illustrations.” And as Death Incarnate teased, the graphic layout of the Encounter cards has been modified to provide a larger window to appreciate the illustrations, as well as better legibility of type. “We have also added a rule, which was introduced in Death Incarnate, that allows players to choose a final Encounter for dramatic effect. Each player chooses a favorite ‘Finisher,’ a big, bad creature that reliably delivers an exciting conclusion to the game. One is selected at random and placed on the bottom of the deck to face as the final Encounter.” The game will be fully compatible with all previous versions, with card backs unchanged and the cover art will be updated for a modern audience. No hard release date has been given at this time.

But you can prepare yourself for the release early in February of 2018 when Cutthroat Caverns arrives as a mobile app for iOS and GooglePlay. Created in partnership with Cellbloc Studios, who also created the companion app for Paramedics: Clear!, the app will feature much of the planned anniversary changes for the card game.

“You’ll get to see all the new art in the Cutthroat Caverns app,” said Curt, “and it’ll have some cool features, like the ability to craft your own dungeon, adjust the difficulty, earn achievement badges, and more.” That said, the Cutthroat app won’t feature live opponents. “Cutthroat posed some real challenges in porting the card game to an app environment. There’s so many opportunities to interrupt a player’s turn in the game that any lag or other delay would make it impossible to react —and/or slow play to a crawl, waiting for each player to signal they were passing the opportunity to act.” This meant that the design had to be centered on solo play vs AI opponents. Curt, James, and Walter of the Cellbloc team knew that the AI characters would need to be smart and differentiated from one another.

“I made a lot of notes about specific play styles and the player personalities behind them from my many years observing people play. From these, we set about making six unique AI players that would simulate playing with real people as closely as possible.” There’s a player who’s a peace maker and spreads negative plays evenly amongst players. Another is ‘tit for tat’, targeting players who last targeted him. One has a grudge to bear against you, specifically. Learning who the players are and what drives them is part of the fun, just like in a live game.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to play Cutthroat Caverns, it’s high time. Even amid the never-ending onslaught of games fueling the ‘cult of the new,’ you will be hard-pressed to find a game as devious, treacherous, and laugh-out-loud funny to play. Just remember, as you sit across from your new party members and enter the caverns, heed these words... “Trust No One.”


Curt Covert is the owner and Chief Instigator at Smirk & Dagger Games, dedicated to proving that games are more fun when you can stab a friend in the back. A fourteen-year veteran in the industry and the inventor of Cutthroat Caverns, Hex Hex, and Nevermore, just to name a few. In 2018, he will expand to include a new line, Smirk & Laughter, which will feature games with equally emotional-centered game play, but with a whole new range of emotions to paint with.