I feel like I’ve been waiting for years for a good Cthulhu game for our group.
I’ve not read a massive amount of Lovecraft, but I enjoyed most of what I did: some of the prose is a bit over-the-top, and the casual racism is very jarring (check out the name of the cat in The Rats In The Walls for a line that would never make it past the editors today), but the idea, the world Lovecraft created, is brilliant. Ever since I first encountered it, I’ve always felt that the Mobsters and Monsters setting of his alternate 1920s and 30s was a great setting for fiction, or for a game.
Call of Cthulhu LCG
I picked up the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game several years ago and really enjoyed it: I think in terms of the basic mechanic, it was one of the best card games Fantasy Flight made. The overall objective is to complete various stories, by means of investigation: being the first person to put 5 Investigation markers on a story allows you to claim it. The twist is that before you get the chance to investigate, your opponent has the chance to kill your characters, or drive them insane first: so decks needed to balance their investigative power, with enough strength or terror to hold your own in the struggle.
As good as Call of Cthulhu was, there were definitely issues with: I had some minor quibbles about the resource curve (it always felt very slow to get going, and you’d often spend much of the game with all your good characters just sat in hand), but the much bigger problem though, was the standard issue for game in our house – trying to play a competitive LCG without competitive opponents. Whenever I tried to play this game, I’d be using a deck I’d built – and so would the person I was playing against. Invariably, I knew the rules and the decks far better than my opponent, and the end result tended to be 1-sided games that were no fun for either of us. In the end, this just ended up gathering dust, waiting for me to recognise the inevitable, and decide to move it on.
The other game I picked up around the time I started looking at Cthulhu Mythos games, was Elder Sign. From the outset, this seemed to have some fairly obvious advantages over the LCG – it was cooperative, and capable of supporting any number of players from 1 to about 7 (I can’t actually remember the upper-limit, I’ve certainly never got particularly near to exceeding it).
In Elder Sign, players are investigators in Arkham Museum at night, working through various mini-adventures and puzzles, trying to collect enough Elder Signs to seal the gate to another place before an Ancient One awakes. If they get the Signs in time, they win, otherwise there may be a brief last stand against the Ancient One, but more likely they will just be devoured and/or driven insane.
Elder Sign sometimes gets called Cthulhu Yahtzee. I don’t think that this name is intended as a compliment, and it’s certainly an over-simplification of what’s going on in the game. However, there is still an element of dumb-luck, as you try to roll the right symbols, and probability refuses to play along. The randomness of the dice is added to by the randomness of the cards you draw, and the inconsistent power-levels of the characters you can play as, leaving an end result which is just a little bit too unpredictable, and doesn’t really give enough of a sense that your defeat could have been averted with better decisions.
There have been various expansions for Elder Sign over the years. After some deliberation, I skipped the early ones, on the basis that the game wasn’t getting played all that much anyway, but I picked up the most recent one when I reviewed it for Games Quest earlier this year. Omens of Ice takes the story and sets it in a different location entirely (Alaska), with a whole new set of Adventures and Ancient ones – overall, it feels harder than the base game, but it also feels like they’ve done a good job of making the game feel a bit more even, and giving players more interesting decisions to make.
Elder Sign isn’t going anywhere, and is the sort of game that can expect to get played a handful of times each year. I’m a big fan of the fact that it’s playable solo, and have never gone above 4 as a group-size for it.
Arkham Horror is a sprawling, epic game – it has an advertised run-time of 2-4 hours, and experience tells me that games (at least in the early days) tend to run a lot longer than the time printed on the box. By the time I was looking at Cthulhu games, this had amassed a glut of expansions, which just added to the length, complexity and cost. For a long time, this was a game I wanted to try, but felt I’d struggle to sell it to the people I game with regularly, just based on sheer length.
Mansions of Madness
Mansions of Madness was always spoken of very highly by the people I encountered who had played it. A thematic experience, exploring a house, and doing your best to uncover the secrets behind a particular mystery before you’re driven insane, or killed.
Still a fairly hefty time-commitment, this one clocked in at about 2-3 hours, which was a significant improvement on Arkham Horror, but still not something to be taken lightly. The bigger issue for us, was the role of the Gatekeeper, the person who controls the monsters and other forces of darkness facing the investigator. In essence, with a big enough group, this becomes a mostly co-op experience, but in 2-player, it’s head-to-head. That, combined with a hefty price tag, made it too big a risk for us to try.
Eldritch Horror was the successor / reboot to Arkham Horror. Keeping that fully co-op feel, but expanding the scale from Arkham to the whole world. It definitely caught my eye when it was first announced, but somehow it never quite made it onto the shopping list – If I remember rightly, when it came out, there was a fairly vocal debate between those who hailed it as the best game ever, fixing all that was wrong with Arkham Horror, against a backlash from some hard-core Arkham Horror fans, who decried it as a travesty and a mess. Caught between these two opinions, and without managing to find anyone locally who’d actually played it, I just felt a bit unable to make a decision, and didn’t end up getting either.
(I should note at this point, I’m aware that there are games out there which involve the Cthulhu Mythos, but aren’t made by Fantasy Flight Games. Study in Emerald was definitely the most interesting-looking of these, but I missed the Kickstarter, and then forgot to look for a retail release – it’s probably a very good game, but I just didn’t feel like I had enough to write a section on here. Most other offerings just feel like paper-thin themes (Cthulhu Munchkin, Smash-Up Cthulhu etc), and don’t really belong in this discussion.
With a sense that I’d explored all the options out there, the Cthulhu Mythos had fallen off my radar a bit (it was probably already slipping by 2013, which may well be why part of why I didn’t get Eldritch Horror. Then, early in 2016, I heard the first rumours of something stirring in the depths.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is still a name which annoys me: it feels like a cash grab, (and reminds me of a very frustrating day of Games Demonstration trying to explain Batman Love Letter to lots of people who had never heard of Love Letter).
However, the game – let’s just call it “Reign of Cthulhu” – looks great. It has a lot of the things that made Pandemic such a good game in the first place, including things included in the core box which only became part of Pandemic in expansions and later editions (the penalties for controlling insane characters feel a lot like the scars you can acquire in Pandemic Legacy). More to the point, Reign of Cthulhu has things which are unique to the game (Shoggoths, Ancient Ones, Gates) which give it a really good atmosphere. Having got to try this once at UK Games Expo, I’ve been on high alert since the end of July, waiting for this one to appear on general release.
It was whilst I was in this heightened state of alert, that something completely unexpected caught my eye – Mansions of Madness: 2nd edition. In a climate where games are typically trailed and hyped for months, there was less than a fortnight between Fantasy Flight announcing this game, and it being available for buyers at GenCon. Crucially, this second-edition uses an app to take over the role of the Gatekeeper, making it possible to play the game solo, making it fully co-op when played with any size of group, and allowing for new creativity in areas like an expanding map-board. This was an approach FFG had taken with Descent (a game I’m still keeping an eye out for) My interest was piqued, and when I managed to snag a review copy of it, the final hurdle (the £90 price-tag) was cleared.
Whilst I waited for Pandemic and Mansions, I turned my attention back to the LCG, and was reluctantly preparing to move it along. The very day I had made the note for myself to sort through the game ready for selling, I discovered that Cthulhu Mythos games are indeed like buses, and all come along at once – an announcement from Fantasy Flight of a new cooperative Arkham LCG coming this winter. In something of a dry spell for me on the Lord of the Rings LCG (expansion fatigue/analysis paralysis from a card-pool that has got very big after 5 years, in a game that just keeps getting harder). Right now, the prospect of a new, co-op, Cthulhu LCG was about the best conjunction of events I could have wished for.
Mansions I was told I could have a review copy of; Pandemic I’m hoping to do the same with (admittedly, other people may have the same idea, so there’s certainly no guarantee). The LCG is a little way off yet, and I’ve no idea whether a review copy will even be a possibility, but being a living card game, it’s probably something I’d need to make a medium-term commitment to rather than just getting a single core set.
Mansions 2.0, Reign of Cthulhu, Arkham LCG. Perhaps any, or all, (or none) of these will finally be the Cthulhu game that becomes a regular favourite for us. Either way, I’ll make sure to report back here once I know – unless of course I’m driven mad first…