A Deckbuilding Look at Cthulhu Realms

Cthulhu Realms BoxThe brand-new Darwin Kastle deckbuilding game Cthulhu Realms is a new iteration of his Star Realms system, which means that it’s another classic deckbuilder with a focus on interpersonal combat. Despite its origin as an iteration of an existing design, it still offers new innovation to the field.

With its Lovecraftian basis, it’s also a great game for the Halloween season!

The Game

The gameplay of Cthulhu Realms (2015) follows closely on the design of its predecessor, Star Realms (2014). This means that the deckbuilding play is pretty basic: you play cards that give you money (conjuration points), then you use that money to buy cards from a row of randomly selected cards. The cards then go into your discard pile, for use on future turns. This also means that the other play focuses player conflict: you play cards that do damage to your opponents, with the ultimate goal of killing everyone else off (well, driving them insane; it is a Cthulhu game, after all).

However, the cards of Cthulhu Realms are also heavily interdependent. Many have powers that only activate when you play a card of a certain color or a card of a certain type. Others only activate when you force a discard of a card or trash (abjure) a card. The result is both increased tactical play and increased emphasis on the deckbuilding.

The Good

Here’s some of the great stuff that Cthulhu Realms adds to the deckbuilding genre.

Multiplayer: More Fighting! One of the innovations of Star Realms was that it took the mechanics of deckbuilding and applied them to a take-that attack game. Unfortunately, Star Realms had limitations because of its conception as a two-player game. Cthulhu Realms maintains the fighting focus, but supplements it with simple rules for multiplayer play: whenever you play sanity-blasting cards, they affect both of your adjacent opponents. (There are still some limitations, but more on that in a bit.)

Multiplayer: Clever Buys. Cthulhu Realms put even more thought into its multiplayer card buying. Like Ascension (2010) and Star RealmsCthulhu Realms has players purchase cards from a randomized central row. However, Cthulhu Realms makes different cards available to different players: each pair of players has a short row of cards between them that can only be purchased by the two of them (and so each player can purchase from two different short rows of cards). This dramatically reduces the chaos implicit in random card buys. Though an opponent might still snatch a good card from you only one opponent can do so for any specific card; you have much more opportunity to plan and to purchase what really matters to you.

Cthulhu Realm CardsPowers: Synergy. The main advance in Cthulhu Realms’ deckbuilding may come through its deck play. The cards are heavily synergistic, thanks in large part to a prerequisite system. Many cards gain additional powers if a card of the appropriate color or type is played. Other require a discard or abjuration to have occurred. There’s certainly some of this synergy in many deckbuilding games, and it’s a very important ingredient, because it’s what allows you to build good or bad decks. However, Cthulhu Realms really cranks up the possibilities by making it such a core part of so many cards.

The synergy extends to the permanents (“locations”). Not only can a permanent fulfill the requirements for having played the right sort of card for activating other powers, but they also work together in interesting ways. Some permanents have special powers and some protect you from attack, but there are others that protect locations from attack — making a “sanctuary” that protects you and a “nexus” that protects locations a potent combo.

Powers: Abstraction. Generally, Cthulhu Realms does a great job of abstracting powers by boiling them down to their essence and removing any baroque confusion. The result is a set of six powers that are easy to use and apply: abjure a card, acquire a card, conjure, destroy a location, draw a card, and gain sanity.

However the nicest element of the game’s abstract is that the powers are reflexive. Thus the ability to gain sanity is a mirror image of the ability to blast sanity, just like draw a card is the same thing as discard a card — and they can both be applied to anyone in the game. Sure you’re usually going to blast your opponents and heal yourself, but it’s great to have options (and more importantly to see these seemingly different powers reduced to a symmetric pairing).

Powers: Trashing! I’ve said more than once that I enjoy deckbuilding games that make trashing cards from your deck into an important part of play. In my mind, that’s half of deckbuilding, and it’s been mostly ignored for too long. Cthulhu Realms is another recent game that does a great job of building this side of deckbuilding up. It innovates card filtering in three ways:

  1. It’s built-in. Trashing (abjuring) is one of the standard six powers in Cthulhu Realms.
  2. It’s multipurpose. You can abjure not just cards from your hand or discard, but also from the central purchase rows. Thus, you might be using the power for filtering your deck, or you might be using it to make new cards available for purchase (resolving another issue with random-row card purchases).
  3. It’s encouraged. Some cards gain extra powers if you’re abjured something on your turn. Other cards can be used for special powers if they abjure themselves.

The result is that filtering is a standard part of Cthulhu Realms that you’re frequently thinking of — as should be the case in deckbuilding games.

Powers: Suits. The Ascension-Realms sequence of deckbuilding games has been strong on suited cards. They’ve helped to create synergy in all three games and they’ve also differentiated the cards in the games — which in turn allows players to play different strategies when they focus on different suits. In Cthulhu Realms, the yellow cards seem to focus on card draws, the greens are heavy on abjuration, and the purples allow for healing. Damage and currency are spread across all the suits.

The Other

Here’s some of the stuff that you might like or not.

Cthulhu Realms StartersCards: Theming. Obviously, this is a Cthulhu-themed game. Also, the art isn’t dark or horrific, but instead cartoony and quirky. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the art, but once I opened the box and played a game, I loved it.

Cards: Iconography. The game is language-independent, entirely built around icons. Obviously this limits the game somewhat, but the language is still rich enough that it offers quite a few options; including 6 powers, 6 prerequisites, and 1 post requisite, you have (6 * 7 * 2 =) 84 different options for powers, and that’s ignoring the couple of location powers.

Though I found the icons generally clear, I know this is always a sticking point for some players. The thing that seemed to caused the most confusion was the fact that slightly different icons depict abjuration, an abjuration prereq, and a self-abjuration postreq.

The Bad

Here’s the stuff in the game that I found more problematic. They each relate to one of the benefits of the game — the first two to the fighting and the third to the way that the Powers are set up.

Multiplayer: Player Elimination. Like Star RealmsCthulhu Realms bases its combat on a model of player elimination. This is always dangerous, as you don’t want losing players sitting around bored. Fortunately, the escalating damage and paired attacks of Cthulhu Realms combine to mean that players will probably all be knocked out of the game around the same time.

(But if this doesn’t happen, it can be a problem.)

Multiplayer: Inconsistent Results. Though the paired attacks of Cthulhu Realms are a good way to allow “fair” combat in a multiplayer game, they’re not used consistently. Most obviously, forcing someone to discard a card only affects one of your opponents. Similarly, there’s a difference between using some of your sanity damage to remove a locale (which is a possible use of the damage that’s being applied to both adjacent opponents) and using the destroy-a-location special power (which you directly apply to one adjacent opponent). Consistency here would have made the whole system work together better.

Thanks in large part to the great shared purchase method, multiplayer play doesn’t feel like a tacked on addition like it did in Star Realms, but this trends in that direction.

Powers: Confusion! The multi-action cards are great for allowing serious tactics, and they also support the synergistic play (allowing you have some actions that happen automatically, and some that might occur if you meet the right conditions). Unfortunately, they can get confusing late in the game when you have lots of cards that do different things. This is made worse by the tactical ability to use actions in any order you see fit. I’m hoping this will get better through multiple plays, but right now I feel like some of the cards do too much and it can make the late game drag.

The Comparisons

Cthulhu Realms comes from a family of design that originated with Ascension and broke new ground with Star Realms.

Cthulhu Realms & Ascension. This is a very different game from its predecessor, Ascension, but you can still see threads of game design running through the two. They’re both deckbuilding games that were influenced by Magic: The Gathering (1993), resulting in evocative cards with clearly defined suits and clearly defined powers. They’re also both cards in the random-card-purchase school of deckbuilding design, with Cthulhu Realms developing the mechanic in interesting directions with its shared purchases and its universal abjuration power.

Cthulhu Realms & Star Realms. More obviously, Cthulhu Realms is a direct descendent of Star Realms, as they both crossover into fighting gameplay and they use broadly similar mechanics. With that said, Cthulhu Realms is a fairly large reinvention of the gameplay. That comes most obviously through: the use of the new abstracted and synergistic actions, which change both the look of the game and how it plays; and the improved focus on multiplayer play. (I thought that one of Star Realms’ biggest failing was its poor attention to multiplayer play; if they just put both of their major sets in a single box with set rules for multiplayer play, I’d pick it up in a second.) Finally, I thought the theming worked better in Star Realms than Cthulhu Realms, even though I’m a big fan of things Lovecraftian.


Cthulhu Realms is a fine example of a minimalist deckbuilder that takes a small deck of cards, a small set of actions, and a simple ruleset and does great things with them. The result is an enjoyable deckbuilding in an amazingly small box. Its focus on combat is a nice variation of classic deckbuilding play, but it really expands the gaming genre with its interesting actions and innovative purchase methods.

3 thoughts on “A Deckbuilding Look at Cthulhu Realms

  1. My group tried playing Star Realms as multi-player, but it was almost Munkinesque. The new mini-market could be integreted into SR, but it would still need rules for attacking, to avoid dog piling.

  2. For Star Realms, this is how we adapted the rules for 4 players:

    (1) Players start with 70 Authority (optional but we found this the best middle ground).

    (2) Winner is the player with most Authority when the first player is eliminated.

    (3) Before play begins, after the trade row is dealt, each player draws 5 cards. They may keep up to 3 cards with a total point value of 8 (the extra cards are scrapped). If they do not like this draw they discard all 5 cards to the scrap pile and draw 5 new cards. They may do this up to 3 times. Once they have selected their card(s) they are put into their hand (2 vipers, 8 scouts), shuffled, and dealt. The starting player is dealt 3 cards, second player 4, and all players/rounds thereafter 5.

    (4) The Top Card on the Trade Row Deck is Face Up. It cannot be purchased until it is in the Trade Row.

    (5) Docking. When a player has an Base (or Outpost) in play they may “dock” a Ship (not Base) at the Base. This is a free action for ships in your hand–the card is NOT in play and does not affect this round (no faction triggers, trade, authority, damage, etc.). The docked Ship cannot be accessed until the Base is destroyed. When the Base is destroyed the docked Ship is immediately returned to the player’s hand (this allows players to have more than 5 cards in a hand). If the Base is scrapped the Ship is also scrapped.

    This made 4 player feel more strategic and removed the pile on issue. We love this version of Star Realms for 4 players.

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