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Cracked LCD- Cthulhu Wars in Review

I was very, very skeptical of Cthulhu Wars to say the least. I’m not a big supporter of the current trend toward crowdfunding in the hobby games market and I’m not entirely on board with the concept of these “Cadillac” games with astronomical presale prices. But there were three things that drove me to ask the publishers if they would send me a press copy. One is that I had heard great things about it from folks whose opinions I trust. The second is that I wanted to see what one of these luxury class games- in this case one retailing for $199- had to offer in comparison with more traditionally priced designs on the marketplace. The third is that Mr. Petersen is certainly not some upstart, armchair game designer selling their product with a flashy video and lots of promises. This is the guy that created Call of Cthulhu, still my favorite RPG of all time. And he also had a hand in designing games like Doom, Quake and other seminal, hugely influential computer games.

So “the Great Old One” himself responded, issuing a command to one of his Servitors to send a copy to me. A few days later I got this 11 pound box in the mail and opened it up to find a big, black box with good illustrations and luxurious embossing. It looked deluxe, sure. Opening it up, I was a little underwhelmed at first. It’s hard to not expect to be completely blown away, but the reality of it is that Cthulhu Wars is still a physical product, not a life-changing experience. But then I dug through the layer of punchboards and the map and saw IT. It wasn’t Cthulhu that caught my eye, it was Hastur. A huge, bright yellow monstrosity that put me in mind more of old fashioned plastic dinosaur figures more than gaming miniatures. I picked it up and just kind of laughed at it. Was it the taint of madness?

Also packed into the hard shell plastic tray were a huge Cthulhu that could be a replica of the statue in the story. There were Dark Young, tentacles frozen in mid-writhing along with their mother, Shub-Niggurath. Nyarlathotep, looking indeed like a Crawling Chaos. And the majestic yet abominable King in Yellow, of course rendered in yellow plastic. It’s been a very, very long time since I have been impressed with miniatures. These impressed me not just with their size, but also their detail and the implication that these were toys meant to be played with. In addition to these incredible pieces, the game is also packed with scads of great-looking monsters and cultists for each of the four included factions. Nightgaunts, Byahkees, Hunting Horrors, Deep Ones, Fungi from Yuggoth- if you know these names, you’ll be thrilled to hold these pieces in your hands.

After the initial sanity check, the reality set in that some of the components simply aren’t as impressive. The cardboard is pretty standard stuff and I’ve seen better in less expensive games. The gate markers in particular could have been and should have been more visually striking. The player mats and tracks are cardstock when they should have been thick punchboard. It’s hard to avoid being disappointed in the bag of plain old black 6mm D6s- games a fraction of the cost of Cthulhu Wars have custom dice. The maps are decent, but the visual design lacks the impact of the plastics.

I don’t usually spend a lot of column inches discussing the physical product in my reviews, but Cthulhu Wars definitely deserves it because of the consumer cost and also because it is such a wild mix of incredible and mundane. The effect is something like driving a Cadillac and realizing that it is just a car after all. It’s still a Cadillac and that matters, but it is important to keep expectations in check. This is still a small press, crowdfunded board game. And it is worth noting that the current “Onslaught 2” Kickstarter campaign offers both free and paid upgrades to several components. You pay extra for the seat heaters and deluxe floormats.

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Out of all of the things I expected out of Cthulhu Wars, the last thing I expected to be quite honest was to encounter an incredibly streamlined, highly refined “Dudes on a Map” design that I think is the best in its class since 2005’s Nexus Ops. This is a spectacular piece of development work that showcases Mr. Petersen’s experience and expertise in creating game systems, mechanics and concepts. This is absolutely a “fun first” design built to put players into a very specific setting, give them the insane powers of an alien god, and then get out of the way as much as possible to let players play. It is highly accessible, approachable and easy to learn. Administration is at a minimum- there are very few tokens to fuss with, no decks of cards to learn and manage, and the bookkeeping is as simple as it gets. In a way, it’s very old fashioned, but it also cuts through a lot of the clutter and bloat that have plagued “conquest” style games over the past decade or so.

The concept is cool and anyone that loves Lovecraft- from the original stories up through recent games such as Eldritch Horror- will immediately appreciate it. What if all of those gate-closing, cult-thwarting, Cthulhu-shooting exploits in other Mythos-inspired games was for naught and the Great Old Ones won? The core game’s map depicts an Earth upon which mankind no longer holds sway, the Great Old Ones along with their minions and monsters struggle for dominance. Cultists spread their abhorrent practices across the post-apocalyptic wastes, establishing gates through which they can summon monsters and even the Great Old Ones themselves. The overall goal of the game is for your faction to earn 30 Doom points. This only takes 60-90 minutes once your group has a handle on the game.

Fundamentally, Cthulhu Wars hews close to the Dudes on a Map tradition that goes back to Risk. Moving pieces and fighting with them is the prime directive. Combat is a matter of rolling dice equal to the combat value of everything in a space with sixes killing any unit (even a Great Old one) and fours or fives resulting in “Pain”, effectively a rout or forced retreat. There are also some other cool concepts at work. For example, if you put a monster in a space with an enemy’s Cultist that does not have a monster of their faction then you can abduct them to earn extra power. So a Nightgaunt can fly in and snatch up a guy left alone holding down a gate.

Each turn, all of the Cultists you have on the board generate a Power Point and you get two for each gate you control. The meager, misguided worshippers are also expendable, so you can sacrifice them for more power. These points are used to pay for movement, battle, gate construction, summoning, kidnapping Cultists and paying to use your faction’s Spellbook powers. These abilities- each player has six- are earned when you complete a specific goal keyed to your faction’s agenda and overall strategic direction. Shub-Niggurath has “achievements” keyed to spreading her “Thousand Young” across the map. Nyarlathotep is focused on control of gates and gaining power. Hastur’s Yellow Sign gang benefits from The King in Yellow spreading desecration into territories, the Undead springing up to serve his majesty. The followers of Cthulhu earn Spellbooks from controlling the oceans and devouring other players’ pieces.

The Spellbooks are outrageously overpowered and unfair. Some of them are at Cosmic Encounter levels of rules bending or breaking. Cthulhu can submerge with a couple of Shuggoths and Star Spawn and spend just one power point later on to pop up anywhere on the map. Nyarlathotep has a Madness ability that allows his player to choose for everyone else where “pained” (routed) figures are moved to after combat. Hastur can move to a Cultist that accidentally spoke his name and then abduct them. The Black Goat faction can turn their congregation into one die combat units.

The point is that all of these appropriately godlike powers are extremely powerful and desirable, while also giving each faction both a unique flavor and a variable, situational strategic direction each game. Some Spellbooks interact with a faction’s units to augment their abilities in movement or combat. They are all well balanced and well written, but it is imperative that new players understand what each faction’s special ability is along with all of their Spellbooks. Unaware players may miss the importance of not allowing the Black Goat’s monsters to run rampant or of keeping the Crawling Chaos player out of gate territories.

Scoring all of the above is quite interesting. In each round, each player get Doom points for each gate they control. Each player also has the option to perform a Ritual of Annihilation wherein power points are spent in exchange to effectively double the points earned from gates and give the annihilating player a secret Elder Sign mark worth one to three points for each Great Old One they control. But it is also at the expense of resources available during the turn. The Ritual becomes more expensive each time it is performed and there is a terminal point at which so many of them ends the game whether someone has reached 30 Doom or not.

This scoring method has a knock-on effect- it keeps the game moving forward, continually escalating the stakes but without creating the kind of “steamroller” effect that often occurs in this type of game. There are a couple of checks and balances in place. If you manage to get two more gates than everybody else on just one turn, you can do the Ritual to get a four point jump in addition to a possible three point boost from an Elder Sign, which also serves to baffle the “beat up the leader” impetus. And then there is a charity provision that enables a player that gets just completely devastated on a turn to earn power points equal to half the leader- which can be a big boon.

This is a very aggressive, very fluid game so fortunes and territorial control can change dramatically over the course of the action. There is no turtling, the close quarters map with few territories simply doesn’t allow it. Rebounding from losses is fairly easy, and “Pain” results are more common than kills. The feeling this generates is one of struggle between equivalent powers punctuated by dramatic shifts in game state.

The immediacy of this game- coupled with its easy play and approachability- makes this one of my favorite designs in this genre space. I love that it is a game that someone can come to my house, see on the shelf, get curious about and I can have them up and running with it in about ten minutes. Setup and commitment are minimized. Impact and engagement are maximized.

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Brilliantly editorial in its design yet over-the-top in production, the final question in regarding Cthulhu Wars is one that has likely been on the minds of any reader who has not yet either bought the game from the previous Kickstarter campaign or pledged on the recent one. “Is it worth it”? It’s a harder question to answer than it seems because in comparison to other products on the market it’s difficult to argue for it when you can easily buy three or even four very high quality, comparable titles for this game’s selling price. And that is before you figure in the expansion material, which is also premium priced with a full set of add-ons costing $600 before shipping.

But here it is. The answer might be regarded as something of a cop-out, but I’m going to tell you, reader, that it is simply up to you. Take a look at what is online, take a look at what is offered in the current Kickstarter, think about what your tastes are and what your group likes to play. Consider if a luxury-class Dudes on a Map game is something you want as a centerpiece in your collection. If you are interested in the Cthulhu Mythos, factor in how much you think that playing with these awesome figures and powers would be fun. Play someone else’s copy- if you dare to tempt yourself.

For my part, I think it is worth it because it is a masterful design that evokes an old fashioned sensibility while presenting itself in a very modern and very innovative set of rules that feels outside of the usual set of influences and antecedents. The miniatures, if you can call them that, do actually impart a sense of grandiose, cyclopean theater to the game and I would not want them to be reduced or replaced by less extravagant components. I appreciate the heart and soul of this game, I value that Mr. Petersen in some sense regards it as a culmination of his life’s work in games. The expansion content lingers in my thoughts like some kind of malignant corruption, the sound of a mystical unseen flute summoning my wallet.

I love this game and I think it is one of the absolute best games released this year and in time it could become one of my favorite games of all time. It is the best crowdfunded board game released to date. Like most of the games I cover, I was given it to review so take from that fact what you will. But if not for Mr. Petersen’s generosity, I would have been on my phone ordering a copy immediately after my first play.

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