There’s something enjoyable about having a board game with tons of miniatures and a complex board to set up, and many modern board gamers love titles like Gloomhaven, Twilight Imperium, or Railways of the World because of the immersive nature of having a 4’x8′ table covered with game boards, maps, and components. But these same games aren’t so easy to tote about, bring on a holiday adventure, or set up for a lunchtime diversion. At the other extreme are what are known as “mint tin games”, games that have all components fit into an Altoids-size metal tin. With some ingenuity, there are some games that are surprisingly immersive and engaging while still fitting neatly the tiny box, and it’s definitely a design challenge for a game developer!
The latest mint game I’ve been playing is Buried Beneath from Thunk Board Games. It’s a solo-only D&D-style adventure game and plays surprisingly well for something that fits into a pocket-size storage tin. In the game, you’re a retired adventurer who’s been relaxing and regaling your tiny village’s residents with tales of your derring-do. As luck would have it, however, a primeval horror has been lurking below the village and it just awoke! All the monsters in the hills are also being drawn to your village to serve the horror when it emerges. Oh, and it gets worse; almost all of the villagers are hiding in the mountains, hoping that the village will survive the chaos.
Not you, though, you’re a hero! Well, a retired hero, so it’s your goal to inspire villagers and have the few that haven’t split help you keep the village safe from the monsters and then, hopefully, help you battle the horror, if you survive the four waves of increasingly dangerous monsters. Ready to relive your greatest glory and smite a few baddies? Then you’re ready to play Buried Beneath…
BURIED BENEATH: SETUP AND COMPONENTS
There’s no question that having to fit everything – including game rules – into a mint tin is an enormous challenge. In fact, the rules are almost unreadably small and your first step should be to jump over to BoardGameGeek and download a PDF copy. Game developer Dustin Hendrickson has also made a black & white version available that I found even more legible and far more colorblind-friendly too.
The game is played on a 3×3 village map, assembled randomly from 9 two-sided cards (meaning there’s a lot of replayability). Monsters spawn from their starting points on the edges of the village, you track your stats on a hero card and, lurking on the sidelines, the boss horror, who you will have to defeat to win the game:
The dice are tiny, so don’t use those as a size reference. Instead, each card measures approx. 2 1/4″ x 3 1/2″. Each village card has two locations, and the village center has five: The actual village center that the hero is defending, and four supporting buildings that can be damaged by sneaky monsters along the way. Notice the yellow paths; everyone in the game is constrained to traveling those paths, and monsters that spawn show up in the square closest to their spawn card, which then slides to the next clockwise location after deploying a monster.
There are four stats to track in the game: health, damage, speed, and manna. They are represented by skulls, swords, boots, and, um, a blue thing that represents manna. Village locations can produce one or more of these components, and many have a cost associated with the production too. Here’s a closeup of a few location cards:
Notice that the top left space produces one attack damage point (the sword), while the top right space produces both manna (the blue icon) and range (the boot), but at the cost of one life (skull). In the village center, the four helpful spots each produce one of these components without any associated cost; as monsters destroy these spots, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay healthy and powerful!
Let’s have a look at my hero character, one of six possible heroes. I’m The Rogue and my starting stats are shown at the top: 3 health, 1 manna, 3 speed, and an initial attack strength of 3:
Stats are tracked with unlabelled color cubes: Blue for manna, clear for speed, green for health, and red for attack damage. Every time you actually use one of these stats, you’ll decrement it, but every time a villager is sent to a space in the village that boosts that stat, you’ll probably be increasing it. Each hero also has unique skills that can be critical in overcoming the monsters and horror. The number adjacent shows how many recovery rounds will then be needed before that skill is available to the hero (in other words, if the Rogue uses Poisoned Blade, it will take two rounds before that’s available again. This is tracked with the blue dice).
Where the mechanic is a bit unexpected is that moves or actions of any sort can only be triggered by a villager being placed in a location. There are no autonomous hero movements, so your villagers are vitally important. Move one to a spot that earns manna and an attack, for example, and you could either increase one or both stats or spend them to take that action. But the action you then take is based on the pre-spend value of the stat. In other words, if my Rogue has a speed of 3 and I move a villager to a location that generates +1 speed I can either increment my speed by 1 (to 4) or spend it to move 3, after which I will then decrement my speed stat by 1 to 2. This has a net effect of having the hero stats constantly moving up and down, requiring you to plan ahead to ensure you don’t run out of health, manna, attack damage, etc.
One of my initial monsters is Orc Raiders. Typical. No-one ever invites them to parties because, well, they’re just not very pleasant. Monsters in Buried Beneath are pretty complicated and have a spawn order (the printed dice on the top, one for each wave of the game in this instance), along with special speed and attack rules. They also have their own stats as shown along the bottom: Orc Raiders are tough with five life, one speed, and one attack strength. The die represents the monster (black for one group of monsters, white for the other) and it shows their current life points, so the undeployed Orc Raider starts with a full score of 5 as denoted on its die.
Remember that at the beginning of the game, my attack strength is only 3 (see the hero card earlier) so I’m going to have to attack more than once or boost my attack strength prior to encountering the darn Orc. Meanwhile, on the other side of the village, more monsters are poised to spawn too, Goblin Scouts. And that’s the basic setup; tiny dice representing different monsters versus you and your minions, uh, villager pals, racing to defend and protect the village center!
PLAYING THE GAME BURIED BENEATH
As with many of this genre of games, Buried Beneath takes place in waves, culminating in the final boss battle. Because the villagers are absolutely critical to the game, I found it useful to think of myself more as their coach, encouraging them to do useful things so we could collectively protect the town. If a monster ever attacks a villager, the poor villager flees, which can be catastrophic to your survival plans; one critical aspect of playing the game is to protect those villagers!
Each wave is comprised of a five-step sequence: monsters move, new monsters deploy, monsters attack, hero resets, villagers deploy and actions are taken as specified. The hero reset move is surprising for D&D players because your hero moves back to the center of the village and all villagers run back to your base every turn.
For the initial moves of each wave, it’s time to bolster those stats, as I’ve done here:
Notice how the left villager (the blue meeple) is gaining +1 manna and +1 damage at the cost of -1 life. The right villager is gaining a +1 life, however, so the net result of this turn is that the hero doesn’t do anything, per se, but gains both manna (which must be spent to take special actions) and one more attack damage. Helpful.
Villagers can’t attack and if they’re attacked will run away and vanish for the rest of the current wave, so it’s up to the hero to move to the correct spot and attack the monster thereon:
By planning ahead, I’ve been able to have one villager grant me a move to this spot, and another villager’s location generate manna, meaning I can instead opt to spend the manna to perform one of my skills. My attack is 3, the monster’s life is 2 (as shown on the die) and I defeat it. Since I used my Poisoned Blade skill, it granted me an additional +1 on the attack and earned me a +1 health upon defeating the monster. A turn well spent!
FURTHER INTO THE GAME
It’s time for wave 2, which means that the monsters are going to spawn for every ‘1’ and ‘2’ on their cards. Each wave the cards flip and cycle, so this time there are two entirely new monsters to defeat: Giant Spiders and Banshees. In total, five monsters this time, and the Giant Spiders are range attack beasts so they attack occupants of adjacent spaces, not their own. Since no two of a type can be in the same space, they’ll collectively deploy across the first three rounds of this second wave:
My stats are a bit better, and most importantly, this time I have a new villager who has returned to help out; wave 2 starts with 3 villagers, wave 3 with 4, and so on. Since villagers are absolutely critical to any strategy, more is definitely merrier. As it turns out, one of the monsters in wave 1 made it to the village center, so it damaged one of the four center buildings (as denoted by the yellow cube):
You can hopefully see that the hero is on the lower left, one spot away from the monster with a health of 3. A villager just increased our attack strength (the sword), but I need to use the other villagers to move me to the right spot then allow me to attack or use one of my available skills. Will I survive? It’s a tough call!
FINAL THOUGHTS ON BURIED BENEATH
I have to admit that I like a game with a strong table presence, and rather to my surprise, Buried Beneath offers just that with its simple card-laying map mechanism and ever-changing monster deployment spots. A few things seem unintuitive even after a few plays, however, including the action of moving the hero back to the center of the village after each round, and the mechanism for spending a stat point to utilize that skill or feature. Overall, it’s pretty simple to figure out and get into the basic rhythm of the game.
The bigger issue is related to its tiny size: I would definitely pay more for a 2x tin where everything’s twice as big, particularly the instructions. In fact, the use of white, red, and green text on a black background made these exceptionally difficult for me to read, and while I love thematic rules, the most important guideline is always to have it be easy and legible. Instead, just download them before you even get started playing. Stat markers that have icons to make it easier to track things would be a boon too.
Once I figured everything out, however, I found the game interesting – there’s a lot of both strategy and tactics required to achieve your objectives – but not particularly fun. Part of that was the confusion over stat name, meaning, color, and icon, but part of it was that I wanted to be able to have my hero be more central to the action rather than constantly relying on the villagers. In the first wave, it’s really challenging to only have two villagers, particularly if you don’t end up with a great combo card feature like move + attack or move + manna (neither of which appears on my randomly generated map). Still, a D&D-inspired game that you can slip into your pocket and play on almost any surface might just be compelling enough to justify it being added to your library anyway!
Buried Beneath by designer Dustin Hendrickson and Thunk Board Games. $21.99 online.
Disclosure: Thunk Board Games sent me a review copy of Buried Beneath in return for this candid review.