Isn't it so frustrating when your undead army just don't match? They're terrorising the village with opposite eyes hanging out, tattered shirt colours clashing, shuffling around with socks and sandals. You wouldn't want to be seen dead with these eldritch reanimations!
If that's a problem that's stopping you from becoming a necromancer, then there's some good news on the horizon. Cadaver by Cheatwell Games is a fun, simple card game that rewards you for getting sets of matching corpses, so you can focus on practicing your shamanism without the shame.
Players: 2-6 Ages: 14+ Game Time: 20-40 mins
Before you get to the main business of being a necromancer, the starting rule of this game is that "the player who is closest to death goes first". I made the error of playing this with my parents, and the competitive race to the bottom that ensued when I read out this rule, causing them to debate the pros and cons of their various health conditions and which one of them was closest to the Reaper's sweet embrace, could have been a game all on its own.
When you're ready to reanimate your corpses, Cadaver makes use of three simple resources: brains, scrolls, and potions. Each type of corpse requires different sets of three resources to reanimate. All corpses and resources start off in the same deck, so what you get is truly random. Once that deck has run out, dawn has arrived and it's the end of the game.
You're aiming to use resources to reanimate matching sets of corpses. There's three of each type of corpse in the deck; if you get a matching set of three, that's worth 10 points to you at the end of the game. A non-matching set of three is only worth five points, the Abomination Corpse (which requires one each of brain, potion & scroll) is also worth five points, and then any spare corpses are worth a point each. Any corpses you've failed to reanimate before dawn are still dead weight, so they're worth nothing.
You can play up to two cards each turn, whether that's revealing a corpse, playing a resource on that corpse to work towards reanimating it, or activating an accomplice (more on that later). Discarding cards counts as a play, so while you can clear your hand if it's suboptimal, you have to be really sure you don't have anything better you could do.
Once you've played your two cards, you then draw back up to a hand of five. This is then followed by my favourite part of the game: a trading phase. I hate card games where all players are stuck with hands that are useless to them, and I love trading that makes cards that might be useless to your immediate cause at least worth something in a potential strategic trade.
To make things even better, the only limits Cadaver puts on trading are what your fellow necromancers are willing to trade with you (although you must trade from your hand, rather than anything anyone's already played out in front of them). Because it happens after your trading phase, you can trade above that 5-card hand limit if your negotiation skills are keen enough, or drop below five cards if you're willing to give it all away to get one advantageous card. This allows Cadaver to take on a much more competitive aspect than a set collection game that simply goes through the motions.
There are a few things other than resources and corpses in the deck to spice things up a bit. Accomplices allow players to take certain resources that have already been used to animate corpses off their respective resource piles. Coffin lids lock access to a corpse, accomplice, or resource pile until another player unlocks it with a key (and there are fewer keys in the deck than there are coffin lids).
Ghouls let you steal a corpse, and any resources or coffin lids that have been placed on that corpse, from another player, unless that player can block it with one of three rare amulets. All of these things can also be swapped between players during the trading phase, if they choose to do so. That's plenty of opportunity for you to play sneaky 'take that' actions on other players in the darkness of the night.
Some of my playing group found these additional cards a bit confusing, and suggested that the game could do with some player reference cards as part of the deck. But I disagreed - I think the rulebook doesn't necessarily help; despite being shorter than rulebooks for a lot of other games, I found myself wishing it had been simplified into a basic turn order of:
Play two cards
Draw up to five cards
Trade from your hand
An explanation as basic as this doesn't need a whole reference card, and would allow you to focus your memory on what the rarer cards do. That said, it could also have been helpful for symbols to be added to the cards to explain what they do - especially the ghouls and amulets, which focus much more on the haunting art than their purpose in the game.
My only other criticism of the game would be that there's a minor imbalance of the contents of the deck. A number of accomplices came out quite early for us, so getting resources from the resource piles wasn't too much of a challenge (although we could probably have used the coffin lids to sabotage those resource piles more often).
Meanwhile, those early accomplices meant there weren't so many corpses in circulation, so players found themselves discarding resources on some turns because they had no corpses to place resources on. Other players weren't willing to trade the few corpses they had in their hand, lest they end up in the same corpseless situation. Perhaps stacking the deck very slightly when you shuffle (e.g. splitting the deck into two and putting more corpses in the first half) could be a valuable improvement to how your game pans out.
Cadaver is a lot of fun. That trading element I love really keeps players on their toes, even when it's not their turn: you're trying to keep track of what sets of corpse other players are trying to collect so you know what to trade, which accomplices would benefit the corpse sets they're collecting, and how many keys are left in the deck to protect you coming up against coffin lids. Despite a couple of small flaws, it excels in the 'take that' competitive nature you want from a casual card game.
One final note: that 14+ age recommendation is the one on the box, but this is probably a little overprotective. There's no art more horrifying than an Iron Maiden album cover here, so as long as your younger players aren't too easily disgusted, and they're not squeamish about the idea of necromancy, they should have just as much fun playing as everyone else. Start them on this game young - anyone under 14 in 2023 will need to learn to reanimate corpses anyway if they want any chance of owning a house.