Full disclosure: A review copy of Die of the Dead was provided by Radical 8 Games.
I always love dropping thematically-consistent reviews around holidays, and look! I’ve done it again! I haven’t actually played a Dia de los Muertos-themed game before, so, kind of excited to check this out (and I think there’s a Pokemon Go event for the next two days, so also that). The game’s already very visually striking, so let’s see how the gameplay holds up and dive right into it!
In Die of the Dead, players are friendly spirits guiding souls back up to the land of the living. Naturally, as with all things, it’s easier and more fun if you add a bit of competition to it, so here you are. Whoever can get someone back to the land of the living first wins! So gather your souls and hope for a bit of luck along the journey. Will you be the first to guide a wayward soul back?
First thing you’re going to want to do is set up the steps:
These go in the center of the play area, towards the back. This is so that you can place the four caskets below the steps. They can be in any order you want; it does not matter.
After doing that, place the Casket Boards below each casket with either side face-up. They should go from 1 – 4, but for your first game I’d recommend the side with text:
The Token Boards are next to be placed; they should be placed below the Casket Boards on either the A or B side. For your first game, start with the A side.
Place the tokens on top of their respective Token Boards:
Set the City of the Dead board nearby:
Each player gets a player board in the color of their choice:
And they should take dice in that color, as well. Three of the dice are Power Souls (skulls in lieu of 3 / 4), so those get placed in a column of the City of the Dead Board:
The remaining dice go in each player’s supply. Now, do final setup after deciding a start player:
- Player 1: Place one die in Casket 1 and one die on your player board.
- Player 2: Place one die in Casket 1 and one die in Casket 2.
- Player 3: Place one die in Casket 1, one die in Casket 2, and one die on your player board.
- Player 4: Place one die in Caskets 1, 2, and 3.
- Player 5: Place one die in Caskets 1, 2, and 3, and place one die on your player board.
You should be ready to start! Take the lid off of Casket 1 so that everyone can see inside. The other caskets remain lid-on.
A game of Die of the Dead is played over several turns as players rattle dice (called “souls”) around in caskets as they try to ascend them back to the land of the living. On your turn, you’ll choose a Casket to activate, and each has a Main and Secondary Ability. You may also be able to activate various tokens during your turn (or on other players’ turns). You can even eventually earn Power Souls, where the Skull side is wild (any number between 1 and 6, inclusive). Let’s go through the Caskets!
Casket 1’s quirk is that it’s always open and visible to all players. So that’s fun.
Add up to three “Prepared” Dice (dice from your player board) or one die from your supply to the Casket. You can choose to add 0 and do nothing.
If there are at least two different colors of dice in the casket, shake it up! If any of the dice end up showing a 1, advance all caskets one board forward (wrapping around, so that Casket 4 becomes the new Casket 1). As keeping with the rules of Casket 1, it is then opened and made visible to all players.
Prepare up to two dice, adding them from your supply to your player board.
Shake Casket 2. Whichever player has the most dice showing the highest value may prepare a soul (ties are broken via the dice with the next highest value, and so on). If at least one die shows a 1, advance all caskets one board forward.
Shake Casket 3. All dice of the same color showing the same value are removed and returned to players’ supplies.
Gain a token of your choice. Each player may only have two tokens at a time.
Shake Casket 4. Whichever player has the most dice showing the highest value may have two of their souls ascended (removed from the casket and placed on the stairs).
This is a bit complex, so I’ll elaborate. Dice are placed on the stairs by the player who chose to activate Casket 4, and they are placed starting at the bottom step and moving one step up at a time. Stairs have various bonuses, and placing a die on a space showing some symbol immediately gains that bonus for the owner of the die. There are blank spaces on steps, as well. Generally these rewards allow you to take a token, prepare a die, or gain a Power Soul.
You may either move the caskets, gain a Power Soul, or ascend a soul of yours from Casket 4.
End of Game
The game ends as soon as a player’s soul is placed on the ninth step (the one showing the land of the living). As soon as that happens, the owner of that soul wins! This means that this can happen on another player’s turn, so keep an eye out.
In a two-player game, you play with a third player who starts with all souls in their supply. After each player’s turn, you do the following:
- If the dummy player has two souls on their board, place them in Casket 1 and shake them, moving them as usual if any dice show a 1.
- If not, add a soul to the dummy player’s board.
Otherwise, treat them like a normal player, but they don’t gain any bonuses from Caskets 2, 3, or 4 (even if they win). They do get to ascend souls if they win in Casket 4, so it’s possible that they can win the game. That would be embarrassing, though, so try to avoid that outcome. The rulebook doesn’t say anything about what happens if they roll a skull with their Power Soul, so we just assumed it’s whatever is most “advantageous” to their game.
You can also play a more “strategic” game by leaving all caskets open. Up to you! If you do, don’t use the Marigold token’s A side and don’t use player powers.
Player Count Differences
I think, fundamentally, Die of the Dead is a game that gets better with more players. It’s even implied in the two-player variant; you need another fake player added in to keep the game moving. If there’s too few players, the caskets aren’t moving as much and the memory element doesn’t matter quite as much, either. With more players, it’s a constant shell game of who has what dice where, and there are always a few surprises around the corner. I think that the game’s best when it’s moving fast and taking big risks that don’t pay off, even if those risks don’t always pay off. This does mean that a lot can happen between your turns, though, so if you’re not looking for a high-chaos dice game, this might not be your particular cup of tea. On the plus side, you can also gain benefits when it’s not your turn (and even win!), so there’s always a reason to stay engaged. Or maybe you just like heckling? I’m not here to judge. I’ve tried the two-player variant, and while it’s fun, adding a die to the dummy player’s board every turn is the exact little action that I, the player who tends to have to keep track of those things, am inclined to forget while I’m playing. This causes obvious problems.
- You’ve got to remember which casket has most of your dice in it. This is a critical part of the game; it’s not just remembering where your opponents’ dice are so that you can avoid rolling them (or you can specifically punish them via Casket 3), you’ve also got to remember when you can make a big play on Casket 4 to get your dice ascended. You only really need to pull that off three times, assuming you always have at least three dice in the casket every time. So keep an eye on what’s going where.
- Sometimes it’s worth shaking a casket even if you think you’re going to lose; it might have other downstream effects. Preparing two dice is a strong move, so even if you’re going to let someone else prepare one, it might be worth going after Casket 2. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend shaking Casket 4 if you know you’re going to lose; that can even lose you the game if you’re having a particularly bad time. It’s also particularly embarrassing if you accidentally let someone else win on your turn.
- If you’re forced to place other players’ dice on the stairs, try to avoid giving them helpful bonuses, if you can. Either place them on blank spots or place them on token spaces if they have too many tokens, so that you can force them to dump a token that they can’t use. Offer them Power Souls when they’ve already got them? There are a lot of various bonuses that aren’t helpful, so keep an eye on your opponent’s situation so you know how you can best “help” them. Help being, of course, a specific word.
- If you’re using player powers, make sure you’re leaning into those as much as you can. They have their own benefits and specific situational uses, so make sure that you find them and leverage them well. For instance, blue’s ability allows them to pull dice off of the stairs and return them to the supply. This means that you should be consistently cycling dice back into your supply so that you can be getting more dice on the stairs in the future.
- Using abilities to manipulate the casket order can put some extra power behind your dice. Putting dice in Casket 1 and then immediately being able to shift them to Casket 2 on the next turn can help you quite a bit, especially if Casket 1 (now 2) is exclusively filled with your dice. Even things like moving a casket mostly filled with your dice from Casket 3 to Casket 4 can be really helpful, as it avoids the Casket 3 action which can knock out a bunch of your dice if you’re unlucky.
- You can be reasonably sure that at least one 1 will be rolled with several dice in a casket. It’s already better than a 50% chance with just four dice in there; it only gets better with more dice.
- Try to get Power Souls as quickly as possible. Getting Power Souls allows you to potentially have more control over the dice that you roll and what values you can get, so they’re pretty useful. Naturally, you don’t want to put them on the stairs if you don’t have to (unless you’re using blue’s player power and recalling them as soon as you can).
- While the temptation to just roll caskets 2 – 4 is real, you also will need to clear your prepared dice so that you can eventually add more. I love rolling dice! I believe you. It’s a real thing. They’re just … there. In the caskets. You can roll them. But if you don’t keep preparing dice, you’ll end up junking up your player board and you won’t be able to win anything in Casket 4. So keep occasionally shifting to dumping dice into Casket 1 so that you can keep the flow of the game going in your favor.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like the theme and was relieved that they hired a cultural consultant. This is definitely a theme that you see decently used in popular culture (sometimes wildly inappropriately), so I’m glad that they took the time to bring someone in for advice on this. I think it’s a fun concept to explore for a game, but I always want to make sure that it’s done in a way that doesn’t inappropriately leverage culture for entertainment.
- The game’s use of color is excellent. The game looks incredible, frankly. The use of color and contrast makes pretty much every part of the casket and the stairs pop during the game, and it looks great on the table. I’m a big fan of it from a design perspective.
- Shaking a casket to rattle around the souls inside is an excellent tactile experience, as well. It manages to be fun and noisy without being as ear-shattering as Roll for the Galaxy or Popcorn Dice. There’s definitely a lesson there. If you want to make it even less loud, you could probably put a thin-ish layer of insulation inside the caskets, but that’s an advanced level of care for a game. I respect if you go that route, though.
- The stairs as an advancement mechanism look great and give the game a nice sense of three-dimensionality. They could very easily have been a flat board, but choosing to go with a physical staircase lends a certain elegance to the game’s theme and improves the game’s table presence. I love when 3D elements in a game are functional (Everdell‘s tree, for instance, is a bit less functional than these stairs, but it still is a visually striking piece for a game). Honestly, I think this goes back to Battleship and other early games that used 3D space as part of the game for added player benefit. Inheriting from that sensibility goes a long way in games, and I like what Die of the Dead has done with it.
- I also appreciate that there are two different token sets. You can play the A side or the B side, and both are pretty varied. I appreciate giving some options to players with the same components.
- With a group of experienced players, the game can play pretty quickly. You’re kinda shaking caskets and moving along. There’s some variability given that the dice are the main driver of gameplay effects, though, so the game can take a bit longer depending on your dice luck. Even then, turns are pretty snappy as long as nobody’s agonizing, and I appreciate that.
- The special player powers are also a nice addition to the game. I really like them! They’re all distinctly beneficial in certain circumstances, and they pass the age-old check of “one player really wishes they had another player’s ability” for most players. I particularly like Blue’s player power, but it fits more with my rushed gameplay style, I think.
- It took me a couple minutes to figure out that the caskets have skulls on the “top”, but those sorts of things take me a while. I think that I thought the lid was the wider piece, not the deeper piece, but it makes sense that the shallower piece is the bottom, as it makes the dice easier to see. I was also very tired for my first game of this, so, I ended up having a few other difficulties in the memory space.
- The iconography isn’t always intuitive, which can either force players to use the text sides (which take away from the theme) or try to get through the icons. This is a common challenge with icon-heavy games, but even here, I wouldn’t exactly call a few of the icons particularly intuitive. Many are fine, but the “Compare Souls” icon and the “If two or more players’ souls are in one casket” icons are not something that we understood on our first game, so we definitely couldn’t shift to using the icon side until we really internalized those. I’m not sure that particularly better iconography could have been done, but that’s the hazard of icons, I suppose.
- The memory aspects of the game can be a bit frustrating, but there is an open-casket variant included to avoid that. I played particularly poorly when I was sleep-deprived and having trouble remembering whose dice were where, but on a subsequent play I was much more “with it”, memory-wise. I tend to not love memory games, but I think the memory aspects, while a tiny bit annoying, are annoying in the entertaining way that I think will gel with players. Plus, if you really hate them, you can play open casket; there’s a full variant for that included in the game rules.
- While I agree it’s necessary to have a dummy player for two-player games, it’s still functionally a two-player variant, which can be a bit annoying to have to start with. Without the extra player, a two-player game can be agonizingly slow, as there isn’t enough casket churn to keep things moving snappily. I do tend to get irritated when a game advertises that it plays at two and neglects to mention that their two-player mode is a two-player variant, which means we have to learn additional rules for our first game and the experience is often a bit different than the full three- to five-player one.
- More generally, I wonder what niche this game will land in for players; it seems a bit too complex for the light strategy crowd and it lacks enough dice mitigation techniques for the more strategic crowd, and that tension is felt in-game. I elaborate a bit more on this below, but I think this is a common problem for games looking for their audience. There’s a lot to like here thematically, and folks love rolling dice, but without the ability to truly mitigate rolls (beyond rerolling all of them), I think that players looking for more advanced strategy are going to be left wanting a little more from Die of the Dead. This places it more firmly on the lighter strategy spectrum, for me, but I think it has almost too much going on for me to immediately jump on showing it to my groups that prefer more games in that part of town. It’s a tough tension to resolve, and I wonder if it should have leaned more in one direction or the other.
- I think I just don’t like the token play, though I understand why it’s in the game. My major complaint is that they function as interrupts, which are just .. a gameplay mechanic I hate. It creates a weird liminal space where a player can act, if they choose to, but that action may influence other players’ actions and create a weird chain. Since players can use as many as they want, as well, it means that your token use can be immediately cancelled by another player’s token, which can be frustrating. It enforces some level of a player détente, which I respect, but the tokens allow you to relitigate casket rolls or move caskets around underneath of players, which are reasonable actions but also can slow down play. For instance, I should undoubtedly use all my reroll tokens if a player is rolling Casket 4 with intention to win the game. If I’m successful, they likely have to wait until a few more rounds pass before they have another shot at doing that. By then, I should hopefully have refilled my reroll tokens (unless they take them to block me / do the same to me). That essentially allows me to (hopefully) stalemate until I have more dice on the stairs and can potentially win, myself. That makes the game take longer in an annoying way. That said, the tokens are there to allow players more agency and keep them engaged when it’s not their turn, and I get that, but I’d almost rather this game eschew the token play and focus on being a quick-and-simple dice game with some great components, as I mentioned above.
Overall: 7 / 10
Overall, I thought Die of the Dead was fun! I think what’s holding it back, for me, is its tension between wanting to go for a quick-and-simple dice game and a more strategic experience. You often can’t have both (except for Qwinto, I suppose), so balancing that tension is pretty key. It feels like the tokens were added in deference to that strategic play, but they introduce more problems than they immediately solve. This goes back to my deep-seated distaste for abilities that players can use outside of a particular moment and the interruptions that those abilities create in a game’s flow. I’ll freely admit this is a preference thing, and your group may enjoy getting to undercut each other with fast-paced token play. The core of the game, however, is the caskets and the dice, and the caskets are absolutely beautiful. Colorful, striking, the whole thing. The game looks great, and a great-looking game is always one that I’m happy to try and photograph. I like that they went for the 3D stairs, as well, as players placing their dice higher and higher up is fun from a visual standpoint and also gives a very persistent sense of urgency for players to catch up. Plus, players removing their dice from play means that they have to do more with less, which can often be a useful catch-up mechanic for others. I still do think I’d probably enjoy Die of the Dead more if it were simpler, but it’s a nice thematic experience for a specific time of year, so I appreciate that. If you’re looking for that sort of thing or you just really want to rattle dice around in caskets, you might enjoy Die of the Dead as well!
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