Brawl of Cthulhu — A Lovecraftian Gamopedia

Some time ago, I wrote an article discussing many of the Cthulhu games on the market. Six years later, I’ve decided to return to the topic by looking at some of the major Cthulhu games that have appeared since. However, rather than just creating a partial list of new games, I’ve also reprinted (and revised) all my previous mini-reviews, to make this a comprehensive look at Cthulhoid games.

The one limitation is that these are just the games I’m familiar with. Most I’ve played, but for the one where I just read the rules, I’ve noted that. There are still a few notables missing, such as The Hills Rise Wild, and Munchkin Cthulhu. I may add them to this article with a quiet edit some time in the future. (And, if you’ve got a Cthulhu game that you’d like me to play and add to this list, drop me a line in the comments.)


The Greats

Arkham Horror (Chaosium, 1987; Fantasy Flight, 2005)
Designer: Richard Launius
Style: Adventure Game, Co-op

Arkham HorrorIn the ’80s 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. Then in the ’00s, Fantasy Flight published a second edition of the game that was so much more polished and playable that it deserved the subtitle “second edition” in ways that few releases 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 its extremely high level of theming, thanks to decks full of textual encounters and huge piles of different sorts of items. It’s not quite Tales of the Arabian Nights (1985, 2009), 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.

Arkham Horror, Second EditionIn their second edition, Fantasy Flight dialed the game up to “11” by constantly supplementing the game for several years. The new possibilities for the game just multiply the amount of color and the evocativeness of the whole setting (though I found the complexity of supplements to get too high pretty quickly).

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 — such as Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) — 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.

Read my Reviews: [ First EditionSecond EditionCurse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion, Dunwich Horor expansion ]

Eldritch Horror (Fantasy Flight Games, 2013)
Designers: Corey Konieczka, Nikki Valens
Style: Adventure Game, Co-op

Eldritch HorrorEldritch Horror is a very close kin to Arkham Horror. In fact I’d call it a redevelopment or else a reimagination. Just like in the classic game, in Eldritch Horror you’re fighting against a Great Old One while running around, trying to close gates, fight monsters, and stave off other Mythos problems.

There are two big differences between the two games. First, each Great Old One has unique conditions that you must meet in order to defeat him, adding a lot of variability to the game. Second, the game is played not on a map of Arkham, but instead on a map of the world.

With al that said, Eldritch Horror is a very good redevelopment. Every single system has been cleaned so that it makes more sense and is easier to use. For example closing gates is now managed entirely through card draws, where before you had to dig through a few layers of arcane rules. Fighting monsters has similarly been simplified, so that it comes down to just two roll which are clearly depicted on the back of each monster counter.

Eldritch Horror MonsterMeanwhile, Eldritch Horror remains a very evocative and colorful game. You’re constantly drawing cards and having adventures. It’s fun for exactly the same reasons that Arkham Horror is fun, but it’s a little shorter (though still long), and in my opinion it’s a overall better game. If someone were coming to these games fresh, I’d probably tell them to pick Eldritch Horror over Arkham Horror.

Read My [ Anatomy Analysis ].

Mythos (Chaosium, 1996; OOP)
Designer: Charlie Krank
Style: Collectible Card Game

Mythos CardsI don’t play CCGs any more, but if I did, I’d play Mythos. Unlike most CCGs, it’s a set-collection game, not a resource-management and resource-depletion game. You build a deck around Adventure Cards, which list other cards that you have to play to complete your adventure. The object is to do so efficiently, so that you can play several Adventures at the same time. There is some resource depletion too: you have Sanity, which you get use up by doing various things in the game and which can 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 HorrorMythos has a ton of theming; there are hundreds of different cards depicting people, places, and things from the Mythos (though that great color still can’t compete with the virtual stories you get in Arkham Horror). I also think the game mechanics are 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 (2008) has taught us, every single new cards offers hundreds or thousands of new possibilities when combined with the others.

Mythos was also 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.

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).

Cthulhu Wars (Petersen Games, 2014)
Designer: Sandy Petersen
Style: Action Points, Area Control

Cthulhu WarsThis last year finally brought a new game that I think can compete with the Cthulhoid classics. Mechanically, Cthulhu Wars is a war game of area control where you try to earn victory points through the control of gates and through the presence of your Great Old One on the board. The mechanics play fast and are well-polished … but mostly stay out of the way.

Where the game really excels is its theming (which is a recurring theme in Lovecraftian games). Each player plays a specific faction (cult), like Cthulhu or Hastur. They have specific monsters and Great Old Ones, which gives them specific powers. They also have six individual goals that they’re working toward, each of which generates a new special power. The result is that each cult plays very differently, giving you a feel for the different monstrosities of Lovecraft’s universe of cosmic horror.

Since the release of the core game, Petersen Games has released a ton of Cthulhu Wars supplements thanks to some very successful Kickstarters. They generally make the game better. The new factions for Yog Sothoth, Ithaqua, and Tsathoggua are the best, because they play to the game’s strengths. However, the new maps and the new neutral monsters all add to the variability and depth of the game.

Read my [ Review | Expansion Review ]


The Very Goods

Mansions of Madness 1e (Fantasy Flight Games, 2011)
Designer: Corey Konieczka
Style: Adventure Game, Co-op

Mansions of MadnessOne of several attempts that Fantasy Flight Games has made to reinvent the magic of Arkham Horror, and in my opinion the most successful after Eldritch Horror. It’s another adventure game, where players take on the roles of Lovecraftian characters, but this time they’re investigating on a much smaller scale: an individual mansion, which is cleverly laid out using individual room-tiles, resulting in a  unique play space for each game.

As you’d expect, this is a co-op game, but unlike the rest of FFG’s Lovecraftian fare, this one is an “overlord” driven co-op: one of the players takes on a Keeper-like role, advancing the Cthulhoid forces against the investigators. Add this on to a story-like plot where it really feels like players are uncovering a mystery piece-by-piece, and you end up with another very evocative game. It also has some some great sub-systems, like its puzzle system, which requires players to reorganize puzzle-tiles in a limited amount of time.

Overall, Mansions of Madness is cleaner and faster than its predecessor Arkham Horror. I might have rated it a “great” if it’d come first.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (Z-Man Games, 2016)
Designers: Chuck D. Yager, Matt Leacock
Style: Action Points, Co-op

Pandemic Reign of CthulhuReign of Cthulhu is a Cthulhoid revamp of Pandemic (2008), which may be the most influential cooperative game design of the 21st century. It faces players with the problem that cultists (originally: diseases) are proliferating across a map of Lovecraft Country (originally: the world). To defeat them, the players must close four gates (originally: cure the four diseases), one in each of four towns (originally: four global regions). Oh, and shoggoths will occasionally emerge onto the board, and both they and the cultists can cause Great Old Ones to be summoned if they’re not dealt with appropriately. Too many Great Old Ones, and the Stars Become Right and the world ends. Iä! Shub-Niggurath!

The original Pandemic was so influential because it was a brilliant design. It took the cooperative ideas of games like Arkham Horror and Lord of the Rings (2000) and produced a totally new cooperative gaming style that was simpler, more abstract, and played much faster. Suddenly you had a tense game that was full of tough decisions and meaningful cooperation, and you could easily explain it to new players and then quickly play it in an hour or less.

Reign of Cthulhu maintains Pandemic’s strengths, but with some simplification. Where Pandemic had multiple diseases, Reign of Cthulhu just has cultists, and where Pandemic had specific location cards, Reign of Cthulhu instead ties its set-collection cards exclusively to larger regions. This somewhat simplifies the game, which old-time fans of Pandemic may not like. But it’s in service to the new mechanics that Reign of Cthulhu introduces. Ambulatory shoggoths and unique Great Old Ones introduce new challenges.

As with many Lovecraftian games, Reign of Cthulhu really excels in its color. The Great Old Ones appear as cards that are revealed over the course of the game. Each one has unique and beautiful artwork, and each one causes unique and specific repercussions. Artifact cards similarly evoke the feel of Cthulhoid stories.

Technically, Reign of Cthulhu is probably a better design than some of the co-ops that precede it here, such as Arkham Horror and perhaps Mansions of Madness. It appears a bit lower on the list because of its simplicity and shallower depth. But, if you’re not looking for a 2-8 hour extravaganza, then this one might pop up on your personal list.

Kingsport Festival (Stratelibri / Passport Game Studio, 2014)
Designers: Andrea Chiarvesio, Gianluca Santopietro
Style: Dice, Resource Management

Kingsport ThumbnailKingsport Festival is another revamp of a classic, this time a dice-rolling game called Kingsburg (2007). As in its predecessor, you roll dice, then you use the results of those dice to activate patrons. In Kingsburg they were court nobles, but here they’re ancient monstrosities. Your patrons give you resources which you can then use to build (take over) locations in Kingsport. These in turn give you new special powers. Meanwhile, foes (investigators) are making constant assaults on town that you must fight off, lest you lose what you’ve built.

In its time Kingsburg was a very innovative game that cleverly mixed together worker placement and dice rolling — both topics that were popular at the time. Kingsport Festival revamps some of the mechanics from Kingsburg (most successfully by adding spells to cast), but it’s still largely the same game, which means that it’s an exciting and fun dice-rolling game that has a back-end that allows for strategic resource management. You add that on to some Lovecraftian theming (which is mainly focused on the gods, who unfortunately don’t have their names on the artwork) and you have a game that will appeal to Cthulhu fans.

The original Kingsburg had some issues too: it was a little too long and it got a little stale over time (but I say that having played nine Kingsburg games in person and dozens on the computer). Those issues are still present here. In addition, the graphic design of Kingsport Festival, which was probably related to internationalization, unfortunately makes the game harder to play than it should be. Nonetheless, this is still a very good game, and for Lovecraftian fans, it should definitely be what you pick over the original Kingsburg.

Cthulhu Realms (TMG, 2015)
Designer: Darwin Kastle
Style: Deckbuilding, Take That

Cthulhu RealmsCthulhu Realms (2015) started out as Star Realms (2014), a science-fiction deckbuilding game of attacking your opponents with space ships until they’re dead. Cthulhu Realms reimplements that as a Lovecraftian deckbuilding game of attacking your opponents with Cthulhu monsters until they’re insane. (There are also some other changes from the original, as covered in my deckbuilder article on Cthulhu Realms.)

The deckbuilding aspects of Cthulhu Realms are simplistic, but enjoyable. Some of your cards give you money (conjuring power), which you use to buy new cards. Some of the cards also give you the ability to trash old cards (abjuration power). If you make good use of these abilities, you’ll have an ever evolving and improving deck that will (over time) give you more power to draw cards and to drive your opponents crazy.

There’s a bit of complexity: a lot of cards get better when you play other cards of the same type or when you take certain actions. This adds another level to the deckbuilding play. It’s no longer just about grabbing the best cards; you also have to work pretty hard to grab cards that work together well — or else you’ll build a subpar deck.

Though it’s a pretty light and somewhat simple game, Cthulhu Realms — like its predecessor Star Realms — is toward the top of my pantheon of deckbuilding games. And it’s a pretty good Cthulhu game too, with beautiful (cartoon) artwork showing off fun Lovecraftian people, places, and things. The effects of those cards are somewhat abstract, but the artwork will probably win you over. (My favorite: The King in Yellow.)

Cthulhu Fluxx (Looney Labs, 2012)
Designer: Keith Baker
Style: Card Management

Cthulhu FluxxFluxx (1997) was a simple game: collect Keeper cards to meet the game’s ever-changing goals. As with other recent Fluxx games, Cthulhu Fluxx adds a bit more variety through “creepers” that are bad cards to have and “ungoals”, which are ways for everyone to lose.

With all that said, a Fluxx games rises (or fails) mainly based on the quality of its cards and how they work together, and here Cthulhu Fluxx excels. Baker did a great job of giving everything a Lovecraftian feel, allowing you to play a Lovecraftian game. As with all the Fluxxes this one is crazy and chaotic and there’s as much luck as there is strategy, but if you’re OK with that, it’s a good game.

Read my [ Review ]

A Study in Emerald (Treefrog Games, 2013)
Designer: Martin Walace
Style: Action, Auction, Deckbuilding

A Study in EmeraldMartin Wallace designs elegant action-based eurogames full of lots of moving pieces, and this deckbuilding game is one of them. You’re bidding on cards to improve your deck, but you have to maintain careful control of your bidding resources. There’s also a great team mechanic, where you’re fighting for individual victory, but you have to make sure that no one on your team finishes last, because if they do then your entire team is knocked out of play. It’s a unique and interesting game that I suspect has a lot of replayability in it.

Here’s the downside: I don’t find the Cthulhu theming very strong. It’s theoretically based on Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” story, which mashes up Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu. But the result feels more like anarchist rebellion than Cthulhu horror. I also think the themed isn’t helped by the bland, monochrome cards. For most Cthulhu games, I’m willing to forgive some mechanical failures for thematic greatness. For A Study in Emerald I’d say the opposite.

Read My [ Deckbuilding Analysis ].

The Stars Are Right (Steve Jackson Games, 2009)
Designer: Klaus Westerhoff
Style: Puzzle

The Stars are RightThis was one of the first Cthulhu Eurogames —designed by Klaus Westerhoff and 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.

Overall, the mechanics are quite clever. You play cards to switch the board’s tiles around — always trying to get tiles arranged just right … and often failing because your opponent is doing the same on the same grid. Unfortunately, the many possibilities of the game board can lead to a huge amount of analysis paralysis. I find it tough to decide moves myself, and I wouldn’t want to imagine what would happen if an AP-prone player tried. The rules say 2-4 players, but I think the downtime (and chaos!) that appear when you’re playing with more than 2 aren’t worth it. Still, it’s a fine, fine two-player game.

The theming is, of course, very light. But there’s just enough to make this feel somewhat Cthulhu-esque, not just an abstract.

The Goods

Mansions of Madness 2e (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016)
Designer:
Nikki Valens
Style:
Adventure Game, Co-op

The second edition of Mansions of Madness (2016) revamps the game top-to-bottom, reconsidering just about every game system. However, the biggest change is the fact that the “overlord” keeper of the first edition has been replaced with an app.

This has some obvious benefits. The long setup of the game board is now gone, and instead the app reveals it over the course of the game, which makes the game truly feel like an exploration. But, it has real deficits too, the most obvious of which is that the app only does half of the job because it doesn’t track the whole game state. This is most obvious when you’re moving the monsters, where you have to jump back and forth (and forth and back) between the app and the board, causing some real slowdown. I also don’t love the way that people are now crouched over an iPad when working on a puzzle. Generally, I feel like the app drags down the game because of its clumsy integration; this also seems to notably increase the play time.

This is all a shame, because the rest of the renovation of Mansions is quite good. You’re now moving into the streets and exploring the countryside, which provides a lot more depth to the evocative color in the Mansions game, while systems like skill resolution and damage are simpler, more elegant, or both. But given the choice, I’d pick up 1e over 2e every time — though I know this isn’t the general consensus. (On the other hand, some day that app will stop working due to lack of support, and the folks who held on to their Mansions of Madness 1e will be thrilled by their foresight, as they’ll be the only ones still able to play the game.)

Cthulhu Gloom (Atlas Games, 2011)
Designer: Keith Baker
Style: Card Management, Take That

Cthulhu GloomBy Yog-Sothoth’s hoary coterminosity, it’s another Cthulhu-themed version of a classic American game by Keith Baker!

Gloom (2005) is of course Atlas Games’ classic game that uses transparent cards to build up piles of attributes on characters. The goal? To die with the most points. And dying is a very important part of that formula.

Much as with Cthulhu Fluxx, Baker does a great job of applying solid and evocative Cthulhu themes to the core game, resulting in something that should be a lot of fun for Lovecraftian fans. The rules are also nicely polished, resulting in a second-generation Gloom ruleset that improves on the original. I thought the original Gloom was a little long and that it was a little random, and those issues remain here. If you don’t mind them, it’s a fine game.

Cthulhu 500 (Atlas Games, 2004)
Designer: Jeff Tidball
Style: Card Management, Racing

Cthulhu 500This is a cute and somewhat abstract card-based racing game. There’s no track; instead cars are placed in order; they pick up chits as they lap each other to show overall ordering. 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, several years ago.

Read my [ Review ]

Call of Cthulhu CCG/LCG (Fantasy Flight Games, 2004/2008)
Designer: Eric Lang
Style: Card Management, Resource Management

Call of Cthulhu CCGI’ve never played this one, 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 MythosCall 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 (which is a trend at FFG: 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.

Elder Sign (Fantasy Flight Games, 2011)
Designers: Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson
Style: Co-op, Dice

Elder SignAnother attempt by FFG to repeat the success of Arkham Horror, and my least favorite of the set. Here you’re rolling die to match specific formulae in various rooms in a museum. The dice-rolling mechanics are fine (though not super exciting), but the game really fails in its theming. The weird dice formulae end up making the game super abstract so you never really notice the rooms you’re in or what you’re doing … which sets Elder Sign far apart from the superior theming of Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness.

The cooperative mechanics of the game are more successful, including a clever way for players to “save” dice for each other, and also some interesting challenge systems that keep you on your toes, so that you dread the events that are scheduled to happen at midnight. On the whole, the game plays well enough (though the balance was off in the original release), but without a strong theme it could have been any sort of game.

The OKs

Witch of Salem (Mayfair Games, 2009)
Designer: Michael Rieneck
Style: Co-op, Resource Management

Witch of SalemThe vast majority of Cthulhu games are American; this was the big-box Eurogame look at the Cthulhu Mythos, by a relatively big-name designer: Michael Rieneck, the author of Around the World in 80 Days (2004), Cuba (2007), and The Pillars of the Earth (2006). 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.

The mechanics of Witch of Salem are 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. You’re trying to figure out the logistics to get the right people with the right things to the right locales to close gates and/or banish monsters. Meanwhile, an ever-ticking timer and some events can mess you up.

Based on the rulesbook I’d originally guessed this would be a “good” game, but in the end I was somewhat let down by the theming. It just didn’t grab me, and a few months after I’d played the game, I realized that I didn’t have much interest in playing it again. I suppose if you’re really looking for a euro/light Cthulhu game, this might do well, but it’s hard to compete with all the evocative depth that an Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness can offer.

Read my [ Review ]

Mountains of Madness (IELLO, 2017)
Designers: Rob Daviau
Style: Co-op

At the Mountains of Madness (1936) is one of the great works in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, so it needs a great game to match it. Unfortunately, Rob Daviau’s co-op Mountains of Madness isn’t that game. Instead, it’s a pretty simple one: you flip over ten tiles over the course of the game, each revealing “challenges” that require you to play certain values of cards of certain types. You play those cards as a group, then you either succeed at the challenge, which rewards you with cool discoveries like specimens or ruins, or else you fail at it, which results in madness or injuries.

There’s a little bit more to the card play than that suggests. It runs on a 30-second timer, which makes it hard to get the right cards down in time. Players also accumulate madnesses, which make it increasingly hard for them to communicate. This last point is the game’s most brilliant mechanic, because it’s innovative, it’s appropriate to the genre, and it’s a good element for co-op play; unfortunately, it’s also the game’s greatest weakness, as many of the madnesses require players to do silly, obnoxious, or humiliating things, damaging the game’s genre appropriateness, and also making it a game that some won’t be willing to play.

The theming is also a bit lighter than I’d like. There’s color text all over, but you never read it, you just look at the abstract icons that you need to match.

Still, if you’re looking for a light game that has adrenaline-pumping excitement, and you don’t mind shallowness or silliness, this is it.

Feed the Shoggoth!  (Self-Published, 2015)
Designers: Badger McInnes
Style: Take That

Feed the Shoggoth!A Take-That Cthulhu game with a twist. The primary objective is to sacrifice minions to a shoggoth. You do away with enough minions and you win! So of course your opponents play cards to move the shoggoth away, attempting to prevent your dark rituals. But, if the game lasts long enough, minions become few and far between. Then players start aiming the shoggoth at each other in the hope that the shoggoth will kill that player because he doesn’t have any minions for dinner. This bipartite play structure is quite innovative for a Take-That game (and keeps it from going on forever).

The theming of Feed the Shoggoth! is also notable because it draws some elements directly from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, such as specific spells (Flesh Ward), artifacts (Ring of EIbon), and organizations (NWI). As an old-time Chaosium fan and Cthulhu editor, I find that pretty cool.

However, Feed the Shoggoth! is ultimately limited by its core Take-That gameplay. It’s going to be pretty random at day’s end, so it’s only suitable as a game for folks who enjoy the light American style of play.

Unspeakable Words (Playroom Entertainment, 2007)
Designers: James Ernest & Mike Selinker
Style: Word

Unspeakable WordsThis 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 ].

Arkham Ritual (Ninja Star Games, 2017)
Designer: Hiroki Kasawa
Style: Card Management, Deduction

This is theoretically a deduction game. Each player is given a card that they don’t get to see, then over rounds of play they’re offered up other cards, possibly alongside commentary suggesting whether they should take the cards or not. There are a couple of cards that have fun special effects during play, but the majority of the gameplay comes down to the end of the round, where players win or lose based on what’s in their hand. The gameplay is nicely minimalistic is the style of Love Letter (2012) — or more notably, Lovecraft Letter (2017).

So, the theory is that you can make deductions about what your card may be based on what people tell you and whether they give you cards or not. The problem is that there’s almost no grounds for that deduction. Perhaps if players act consistently you could make assessments about their actions and statements … but there’s no incentive to act consistently. Sometimes you tell the truth, sometimes you lie, sometimes you give cards to someone hoping they’ll take them, sometimes you hope they’ll refuse them. Without that consistency, there’s no deduction, and without that deduction there’s no game. Still, this can be a fun activity.

The theming is the strong point of the game. The cards are well illustrated with attractive monochromatic palettes. There are characters, Great Old Ones, and special artifacts that have fun powers. This isn’t one of those Lovecraftian games with a super deep theme, but it’s not abstract either.

The Mehs

Cults Across America (Atlas Games, 1998)
Designer: Jeff Tidball
Style: Area Control

Cults Across AmericaTake 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 into. My memories of this are fuzzy because the last time I played it was in 1998, not too long after its release. However, I don’t think it would hold up well to the modern market. And as of 2014, I suspect that Cthulhu Wars has entirely replaced it.

Creatures & Cultists (Pagan Publishing, 1993, 1994; Eos Press 2004; OOP)
Designers: Jeff Barber, John Tynes
Style: Card Management, Take That

Creatures & CultistsThis is pretty much the definition of an American take-that game. You’re playing very random cards to do random things to the leaders 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 note that Creatures & Cultists is the game that added to the big-honking-truck to the Cthulhu Mythos.)

I should say that I actually liked this game quite a bit and gave it quite a few plays in the ’90s when I owned the original Pagan Publishing version. But it’s another game that I don’t think has held up to the modern market. When I got the Eos Press game in the ’00s, I found it long and dull.

Read My [ Review ]

Cthulhu Dice (Steve Jackson Games, 2010)
Designer: Steve Jackson
Style: Dice

Cthulhu DiceI’ll admit that I’m not a fan of this mini-wave of dice games that appeared several years ago. They’re all very simplistic, and they all seem to focus on just a bit of press-your-luck … and that’s the whole game.

I thought Cthulhu Dice might be better than most, because it has cool 12-sided dice that could multiply the possibilities. But it turns out to be worse: you choose a target and you roll dice and you each either gain or lose sanity. That’s it. There are no strategic decisions other than who to target and there are no tactical decisions once the dice have been rolled.

Building an Elder God (Signal Fire Studios, 2011)
Designers: Jamie Chambers, Ben Mund
Style: Card Management, Pipe Building, Take That

Building an Elder GodThis is a very weakly themed Cthulhu game. It’s pretty much a pipe-laying game, except instead of laying down pipe segments, you’re laying down segments of a tentacular monster. And sadly, it’s a tentacular monster that really doesn’t look like any Cthulhu beast (except for the fact that it’s a tentacle).

Beyond that, Building an Elder God is very simplistic. You either add a fairly obvious body part to your Elder God or else attack someone else’s Elder God if they’re about to win. There’s not a lot to think about here, while the “take that” gameplay can stall out too much.

Read My [ Review ]

Innsmouth Escape (Twilight Creations, 2008)
Designer: Darrell Hardy
Style: Hunter

Innsmouth EscapeThis game starts off with an interesting premise: it’s hunter game where most of the players cooperate against a single antagonist — 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 gameplay is a little bit simplistic, but the real problem is that the game is totally unbalanced. There are: 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)
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Style: Math

Cthulhu RisingI’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.


Author’s Notes: Updated on 7/8/15 to add an entry for Eldritch Horror. Updated on 8/2/15 for Kingsport Festival. Updated on 10/7/15 for Cthulhu Realms. Updated on 3/17/16 for Feed the Shoggoth! Updated on 10/11/16 for Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. Updated on 9/7/17 for Arkham Ritual. Updated on 1/3/18 for Mountains of Madness. Updated on 1/21/18 for Mansions of Madness 2e.

Artwork for Call of Cthulhu LCG, Cthulhu Dice, Cthulhu Fluxx, Cthulhu Gloom, The Stars are Right, Unspeakable Words from their publishers’ websites. Some have been further cropped. Artwork for Elder Sign courtesy Chrys Meissner under an attribution license. Artwork for Witch of Salem courtesy Mark Clark Jr under an attribution license.

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3 thoughts on “Brawl of Cthulhu — A Lovecraftian Gamopedia

  1. You should give Kinsport Festival a try. I’ve only played it once (a friend from the other coast picked it up and GenCon last year), but from that one play, it had interesting mechanics and an unusual thematic approach (you play cultists vying for favor amoung the various Lovecraftian nightmares, trying to extend their influence and yours while you fight off pesky investigators).

    https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/154509/kingsport-festival

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