With Strange Aeons Even Dice May Die

It's Santa Cthulhu!Once more Halloween is upon us. It’s a time of year that always gets me thinking about ghosts, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night. However, as I wrote last year in The Problem with Horror Games, the horror genre hasn’t transferred very well to board games.

Despite that, there’s one horror subgenre where publishers — mostly American publishers — have been very active in for many years. That’s the subgenre of Cthulhu games (or Lovecraft Games or Mythos Games, as you prefer). This Halloween I’m going to spotlight them by taking a creepy tour through about twenty-five years’ worth of Cthulhoid ludographics.

As will probably become obvious by the breadth of this article, I’m a big fan of the Old Gentleman from Providence. It’s not necessarily because of his writing, but rather because of the huge mythology that’s sprung out of it, with hundreds of authors all adding their own element — each of which might be picked up by other authors, creating a massive web of interrelated stories. I’ve even offered my own contribution, a comic book called Return to Arkham that you can find over at Skotos. It ties in to our own Lovecraftian computer game.

But even introduction, let’s get those blasphemous games.

The Cthulhu Countdown

What follows is a listing of all the Cthulhu games that I’m familiar with, grouped into a couple of categories which represent my views of them. Keep in mind, I have a few biases. First, my gaming company brokered the deal to get Arkham Horror back in print and as a result has some financial ties to the game. Second, I used to work for Chaosium and in fact contributed development to the Mythos card game while there. Despite those ties, I still believe this listing to be a fairly accurate rundown of the subgenre.

The Greats

Arkham Horror, First EditionArkham Horror (Chaosium, 1987; Fantasy Flight, 2005). Twenty years ago Chaosium put out a board game that was pretty rough around the edges and which made my head hurt to play because of the awkwardness of the rules. Four years ago Fantasy Flight published a second edition of the game that was so much better polished and so much more playable that it truly deserved the subtitle “second edition” in ways that few games do. The game is, of course Arkham Horror.

In Arkham Horror your ultimate goal is to run around Arkham, improving your characters until they’re good enough to close down the gates leading into town, and thus restore sanity to Lovecraft Country (for a time). Part of the beauty of the game is in the extremely high level of theming found in the game, thanks to decks full of textual encounters and huge piles of different sorts of items. It’s not quite Tales of the Arabian Nights, but it’s almost as much of a storytelling game. The other notable aspect of Arkham Horror is of course that it’s a cooperative game, and with its origins way back in 1987, it was one of the forerunners of a whole cooperative style of play that’s just emerging in Eurogames now.

Arkham Horror, Second EditionIn this new edition, Fantasy Flight has further pushed the game up to “11″ by putting two supplements out every year, like clockwork. The new possibilities for the game just multiply the amount of color and the evocativeness of the whole setting.

Though I rate Arkham Horror as the top Cthulhu game of all time, I will admit that it’s a game that might not appeal to Eurogamers. It’s very much an experiential game, full of color and randomness. There are many games in the experiential category that I don’t like (including Betrayal at House on the Hill, as some local players know), but Arkham Horror does such a good job of presenting the experience that I can’t help but love it. My only complaint is the playing time, which keeps it out of my playing range most of the time. This Halloween is going to be my first play of the year, but I’m looking forward to it.

Read my Reviews: [ First Edition, Second Edition, Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion, Dunwich Horor expansion ]

Mythos (Chaosium, 1996; OOP). I don’t play CCGs any more, but if I did, I’d play Mythos. It’s a fairly unique CCG in that it’s essentially a set-collection game, rather than a resource-management and resource-depletion game, like most in the category. You build deck around Adventure Cards, which list other cards that you have to play to complete your adventure. The object is to do so efficiently, getting out cards that can help toward several Adventures at the same time. There is some resource depletion too: you have Sanity, which can get used up by doing various things in the game and which can also get harmed by your opponent summoning monsters and attacking you with them. But in my experience, games are much more likely to end due to adventure completion than due to sanity loss.

Like Arkham Horror, Mythos has a ton of theming, as you’d expect when you realize that there are hundreds of different cards depicting people, places, and things from the Mythos (though that great amount of color still can’t compete with the virtual stories you get in Arkham Horror). I also think the system is pretty elegant. Mind you, you’ll never understand how hard it is to keep an expanding rule system consistent until you’ve developed a CCG. I was the master holder of the system rulings while I worked at Chaosium, and I felt like they were slowly spinning out of control, with each new supplement resulting in new rulings that carried things to a slightly less intuitive level than the one before. But I suspect that’s a feeling that’s pretty common for CCGs. As Dominion has taught us, every single new cards offers hundreds or thousands of new possibilities when combined with the others.

Mythos was also quite special because it offered great multiplayer play, not just as an option, but as the way the game was genuinely meant to be played. There were scant CCGs that ever moved in this direction (though I remember Jyhad fondly), and Mythos was one of the best.

My one other comment is that when I played Mythos recently, it felt long to me. That was probably partially due to the fact that I hadn’t played it in years and partially that Eurogames have really led me to a different sort of gaming. However, when I was back at Chaosium, I remember that I’d always be able to get a full game of Mythos in at lunch with two or three other players.

Though years out of print, you can still get Mythos online, as the majority of the game was overprinted (with only the final, New Aeon set being particularly hard to find because, well, it got printed at the right level).

The Goods

Call of Cthulhu CCG/LCG (Fantasy Flight Games, 2004/2008). I’ve never played this one (as is also the case for a few others in this category), but I’ve read the rules a couple of times now, and it’s obvious that it’s a fairly notably entrant in the Lovecraftian subgenre. Unlike Mythos, Call of Cthulhu CCG is a resource-management game where you’re constantly putting monsters head-to-head with each other, pretty much following the basic outlines of Magic. However, its mechanisms are unique and baroque, centering around 4-part combats where cards can go insane, get killed, get reactivated, or (eventually) grant you a majority-control point toward a victory-point.

It’s colorful and evocative. The mechanisms feel very CCG-like, but trending toward the Euro side of things (as I think most of FFG’s original games have American mechanics trending toward Euro). The biggest complaints that I’ve heard center around analysis-paralysis (since you have to consider all four of those possible combat steps for any combination of critters) and the fact that its easy to lose powers amidst all the cards. It’s also sadly a 2-player only game.

Still, if you like CCGs, this isn’t a bad offering from what I can tell, particularly if the mechanics in Mythos weren’t exactly what you were looking for.

Cthulhu 500 (Atlas Games, 2004; OOP). This is a cute and somewhat abstract card-based racing game. There’s no track; instead cars are placed in order and pick up chits as they lap each other. The mechanics are simple and elegant. There are rules for passing and for doing bad things when people try the same, but overall this is definitely a beer-and-pretzels game, with lots of luck (but some strategy) making up the gameplay. It’s also got marvelous theming. I love the artwork, and I adore the silly adaptations of Mythos concepts into racing gear. Though a number of other Mythos beer-and-pretzel games have lost their shine for me over the years, as I’ve played more Euro offerings, this one I still quite enjoyed when I last played it, a couple of years ago.

Read my [ Review ]

The Stars Are Right (Steve Jackson Games, 2009). Another game that I haven’t played yet, but I’ve heard enough from people I respect to know that it’s a good one. This is actually one of the first Cthulhu Eurogames, as it’s by Klaus Westerhoff and was originally published by Pegasus Spiele. It’s more a puzzle game than anything, where you’re trying to arrange a grid of tiles into certain configurations in order to summon up Great Old Ones, Greater Servitors, and Lesser Servitors. If you summon enough monstrous beasties, you win. The theme is light, but the puzzle aspect seems quite endearing to people that have tried it out.

Witch of Salem (Mayfair Games, 2009). This is the last game that I haven’t played, though here not only have I read the rules, but I’ve got the gaming waiting to go. I find it pretty exciting, because it’s the big-box Eurogame look at the Cthulhu Mythos (and it’s further by Michael Rieneck, the author of Around the World in 80 Days, Cuba, and Pillars of the Earth, who I have a lot of respect for). Actually, it’s not quite the Cthulhu Mythos, because it’s based on some German novels. There’s some wackiness (from my American point of view) such as the fact that the Great Old Ones are almost all depicted as tentacular monstrosities, but it’s still pretty close to what you’d expect.

Witch of Salem is overall what you’d get if you took Arkham Horror and turned it into a pretty short Eurogame. And, I think that’s actually how this game came to be, as it centers around cooperative play where players wander around Arkham, collect items, and try to close gates. Mechanically it’s cooperative-management and resource-management as you’re trying to get the right people with the right things to the right locales to close gates and/or banish monsters. There’s an ever-ticking timer and some events that can mess you up.

The thing that’s kept me from playing so far is the fact that it only goes to 4 players. I expect to enjoy it, though whether I’ll actually rate it right with the other games in this section is up in the air. It seems to be enjoyed by folks who like lighter Euros and hated by people who thought they were getting Arkham Horror. (To which I say, duh!)

The OKs

Cults Across America (Atlas Games, 1998). Take Risk. Add beer, pretzels, Cthulhu, and a huge wad of randomness. Stir. Cults across America is the result. It’s very chaotic & runs very long: you should know what you’re getting. I actually might rate this lower if I played it again, but for now I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, since the last time I played it was in 1998, not too long after its release.

Unspeakable Words (Playroom Entertainment, 2007). This is a pretty mundane word game. You draw cards and you spell words. It’s different from other word games in that the valuations for letters are pretty arbitrary and you lose “sanity” more often when you spell long words. The cards have beautiful Cthulhoid monsters on them, from A-Z. But that’s pretty much all the Cthulhu theming you get.

Read My [ Review ].

The Bads

Creatures & Cultists (Pagan Publishing, 1993, 1994; Eos Press 2004; OOP). This is pretty much the definition of an American take-that game. You’re playing (very random) cards to do random things to people out in front and hoping that you’re staying low enough to the ground that you don’t get hit as hard as your opponents. It can also really drag on, as I find is generally true for the category. This kind of game depends almost entirely on color to succeed, and there are too many silly in-jokes for it to work for me. (Though I will admit that Creatures & Cultists is the game that added to the big-honking-truck to the Cthulhu Mythos.) Your mileage may vary if you’re a fan of jokey take-that American games.

Read My [ Review ]

Innsmouth Escape (Twilight Creations, 2008). This game starts off with an interesting premise: it’s a cooperative vs. an antagonist game, but here the antagonist is actually a lowly human trying to escape Innsmouth, while the cooperators play deep ones, trying to catch him. As this overview suggests, the result is a little bit simplistic, but the real problem is that the game is totally unbalanced. There is a card that let the deep ones know precisely where the human is, a rule that then let them totally dogpile that human, and another card that pulls back all of their casualties (which would be the whole pile). Two iterations of that in a four-player game, and the human is dead, no questions asked.

I suspect that some of these problems are due to the rules being written incorrectly, because I don’t believe anyone would have published a game so obviously broken, but I can only rate the games as I see them, and this one is definitely broken as is.

Cthulhu Rising (Twilight Creations, 2008). I’m not confident that Knizia’s game is the worst one of the set, but it’s surely the most disappointing. Basically, you fight investigators against cultists by playing numbers to grids. The only thing horrific is the lack of theming. I mean, by the standards of this game, Tigris & Euphrates is a vivid and evocatively cinematic vision of Middle Eastern history. After I read the rules of this klunker, I just handed it back to my friend who had the misfortune to buy it, and we never spoke about it again.

Around the Corner

This is certainly not a complete listing of Cthulhu games; it’s only a listing of the ones I thought were the most notable and/or which I was able to talk about meaningfully. Ones that I’ve actually seen but wasn’t familiar enough with to write about included Cthulhu Mash (which I’m never heard a thing about, other than the fact that it’s a little adventure game), The Hills Rise Wild (a miniatures game which got good regard), and Munchkin Cthulhu (which you already know whether you love or loathe).

In the past week I’ve also written a few reviews, on Eye-Level Entertainment’s Flat Acting (“A fun, but chaotic majority-control game with nice theming and even some storytelling.”) and the new Europa 1912 expansion for Ticket to Ride Europe (“If you’ve already got Ticket to Ride: Europe, this is a great expansion that will give new life to your game.”).

Have a fun Halloween, and say a Iä Shub-Niggurath for me!


Author’s Note: Since I wrote this, I’ve played two of the unplayed games. The Stars Are Right is at least as clever as I thought. Its big problem is AP, and for that reason it starts to fall apart with move than two players. If anything, however, I’d move it higher in the “Good” category. Witch of Salem played exactly as I thought it would, and I had really good vibes coming out of the game and reviewed it very well. Then it dropped totally off of my mental-interest list because it’s so shallow, and I’ve since gotten rid of it. So, I’d drop it from “Good” to a high “OK”.

I’ve since played three other Cthulhu-themed games: Cthulhu Fluxx (high good), Building an Elder God (high bad), and Cthulhu Dice (medium OK). I want to play a few more, possibly Elder Sign and Mansions of Madness, if I can get someone to bring them to the table, and then I’ll have a sequel to this article ready to go. —SA, 10/30/12

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