Die of the Dead is a new game from Radical 8, funded via kickstarter. 2-5 players, best with 3+, plays in 45 minutes. It's fun, it's pretty, it's light, and it's a hit.
Theme and overview
The game is about the Mexican "Day of the Dead" celebrations. You each have a collection of souls (dice) which you have to guide up the Marigold steps to visit their relatives in the land of the living. You play by putting the dice into the first casket. As you take actions, the caskets move up positions. Eventually, they'll move to the last casket, where you may be able to take them out and place them on the steps. The first to put a die on every step is the winner.
Appearance and production
First off, the game looks gorgeous. The box is amazing with vibrant and colourful art. That continues to all the contents, which have bold, bright colours and large components. The marigold steps are a centrepiece of the game, standing proud on the table with a myriad of brightly-coloured symbols. The caskets are large and colourful, with bright patterns and large pictures of friendly skulls. The papel picado boards, with action summaries, are bright and clear.
It's a long way from the traditional board game style, of a flat board and a few wooden cubes.
All the components are well-made too, generally from decently thick cardboard. You have to be a little careful with the marigold steps, but we've never had them fall over in a game. I'd have liked something a little sturdier, but I can see it's a compromise with having something that packs away well in the box. The caskets are decently sized and thick and are very satisfying to pick up and shake when full of dice. The dice are large, distinctly coloured with clear faces.
Almost all the actions in the game are resolved by rolling a casket of dice and doing things with the highest valued results. This is not a game of careful strategy, but there is plenty you can do to move the odds in your favour. In theory, you pack your dice into one or two caskets and put them in the right places to advance many dice up the marigold steps. In practice, the caskets never end up in the right place at the right time and you forget where you put dice a round or two before. That means many actions are greeted by groans and laughter as exactly the wrong casket is opened, but the dice are rolled to allow an underdog to benefit from it.
Turns come round quickly and decisions are quick when it's your turn: all you have to do is choose a casket and do the action. You're engaged during other people's turns too: their turns mostly involve opening caskets, reminding you of what's where. One-use tokens mean you often influence your turn, or another player's turn!
If you've played it a few times, you can use the other sides of the player boards. These give minor special effects, different for each player. They add a bit to the game, but no so much as to change it drastically.
The game has a decent catch-up mechanism built in. To win, you have to place nine of your dice on the marigold steps but you only have with twelve to fifteen dice. As you get closer to winning, you have fewer opportunities to advance, but you still have plenty of dice around so there's always something to do.
The game is long enough to have some flow to it, but short enough that it doesn't outstay its welcome.
It's a game produced in Britain about a distinctly Mexican tradition. It could easily mis-step and become offensive. But a Mexican friend of mine saw the kickstarter art and insisted she have a copy of the game. When we unboxed it, she was delighted by the art, presentation, and how much of the Dia de los Muertos was represented in the game and its components. She kept noticing things in the game and commenting how they reflected the celebrations in Mexico. Her comments were "it's playful and respectful, and not a gruesome Americanised caricature." I'll call that a win!
It seems the initial kickstarter-funded production run produced only a small number of additional games for after sales. There are a few additional copies available through Radical 8's web store. I've no idea if there will be additional production runs.
In case the review hasn't made things clear, this is a great game. It's simple enough to pick up easily, it's a treat to look at and handle on the table, and there's a lot of fun to be had from trying to remember where you dice are, and watching everyone else face the same problem. And even if you remember right, there's a bit of luck that keeps everyone interested.
You can tell it's good because two other club members have bought copies, and it's often requested and played at recent club meetings. And that, I think, is the strongest recommendation of all.