Designed by Sandy Petersen
Published by Green Eye Games & Petersen Games - 2015
2-4 Players - 90-120 Minutes
Review written by John LS Foster
It can be said that the function of language is often mirrored by aspects of game design. We apply order to abstraction and draw the conceptual down into the realm of the literal with words in much the same way the physical elements of a game give form to the idea of a thing. This figure is my legion; this painted bit of cardboard, my lifeblood; this bold line, the limit of my domain.
Here, now, I set out to define the unfathomable and bind it with words in order that your frail sanity might comprehend a game that deals in elder beings of such scale as to skirt the very boundaries of what reasonable table size can accommodate. I give to you the first word of binding:
of or relating to the universe or cosmos, especially as distinct from the earth
Take a moment to contemplate the above term. Does it call to you? Does it compel you? Does it engender some need in you to own such a game as would be described by this word? Then you, my friend, are seeking Cthulhu Wars.
Cthulhu Wars is a game set in the Lovecraftian mythos by none other than the mad Sandy Peterson, author of the demonic text “Call of Cthulhu RPG”. In this game players begin by commanding a group of acolyte cultists for their faction and summoning all manner of monsters; even going so far as to call forth their own particular great old one (elder god) to do battle with other players’ own horrors. Their battleground; Earth.
In Lovecraft’s writing the horror of the unknown always lay just past the edge of what we can see or understand and the doom of mankind was always one arcane word or aligned planet away. In the Earth of Cthulhu Wars mankind has long since fallen and all that remains are the disciples of the great old ones who call their gods and monsters from beyond our world through eldritch gates to battle for supremacy against one another.
These battles take place over a series of rounds during which players spend their power points on various actions like creating new gates, summoning monsters from those gates, abducting enemy cultists for sacrifice, and attacking in a frenzy of thrown dice. Each round begins with a Doom phase during which players score points for every gate they control and extra points if they spend power to push the ritual marker up one space. The game ends on the Doom phase where the ritual marker reaches the end of its track or any player has 30 or more points.
This conflict is cosmic is every sense of the word; both vast in scale and calling on beings from beyond our world and our understanding. To take it in we must further distill its concepts. The second word of binding:
[ˈɡrandēˌōs, ɡrandēˈōs] ADJECTIVE
impressive or magnificent in appearance or style, especially pretentiously so
excessively grand or ambitious
Any discussion of Cthulhu Wars is inevitably drawn into commentary on the scale of the board and its figures. To gain a thematic sense of the otherworldly power you command, the figures, not mini’s (there’s nothing mini about them), range in size from the average-scale cultists to their gods that dwarf them. In addition to simply being large, the presentation and detail is impressive and the color choices of the factions is refreshingly vibrant leading to a game that has presence rather than one that just takes up space.
Yes, the figures could be smaller and the map could take up less than an entire table, but the figures are gratuitous in a way that is supremely satisfying and their scale goes beyond the awe and joy they create in the players and ties directly into the theme.
But size and scale are a thin veneer that obscures what lies beneath; gameplay. To know it further I give you the third word of binding:
[ˈmāˌlā, māˈlā] NOUN
A confused fight, skirmish, or scuffle
A confused mass of people
This perfectly describes both the look and feeling of Cthulhu Wars. Units of any faction can willingly coexist in all areas on the board and battles are initiated only when a player chooses to do so as an action for their turn. The reasons for these battles are the gates which provide both power points and victory points and can only be controlled by a cultist. Only a single one of these can lay claim to each gate one time and they themselves offer no strength in battle and must be guarded by allied monsters to prevent abduction by other factions’ units.
What results is a riot of colors as factions build gates to expand their power and net more points each turn, but also begin to stray into other territories to abduct cultists left unprotected by other units and to lay in wait for other players to leave gates lightly guarded.
This is not to say that Cthulhu Wars is unpredictable by any means. There is a palpable tension as the board begins to fill with units; players start eyeing one another to see who might consider a sudden attack of opportunity, securing a few extra points in the next turn’s point collecting phase. Adjusting your actions perfectly to the placement of enemy units, the powers currently available to each player, and which of the 8 possible factions are present in each game can feel like capturing lightning in your hand; dangerously impossible yet transcendent if achieved.
There is also surprising equilibrium in the chaos of the outer gods. The asymmetry of the game feels tightly balanced and yet each faction feels uniquely powerful. They push their players towards certain strategies, but requires players to be adaptable and opportunistic or risk being thwarted as other players can just as easily evaluate an enemy faction’s methodology and see the obvious moves coming.
In the end, the blend of heavily asymmetrical factions and quick action-based rounds leads to gameplay that avoids traditional area-control pitfalls. All of this happens in game that averages close to the box’s 90-minute playtime in an experience that is powerful and intensely strategic. But power has its foibles and so I give you the fourth word of binding:
moral or cultural decline as characterized by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury
This is where we come to a discussion of all things overwrought, overplayed, or perhaps even overpriced. To guard ourselves against the perils of such decadent madness we must examine the three areas in which Cthulhu wars indulges the darker nature of gaming.
First; Echoes of madness.
Cthulhu Wars is based in the mythos centered around the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Does the world need another Cthulhu game; this Cthulhu game? Are you a disciple of Lovecraft, cosmic horror, or world-ending apocalypse? Only the individual can answer those questions for themselves, but for my part I can say that whether you can adore Lovecraft, or are completely unaware of him, this game is drenched in theme and takes it to a place that doesn’t dwell so much on the mysterious and unknowable and instead wallows in a sense of inevitable doom. If calling forth towering nightmares to do battle for the remains of a dead world sounds like your game, then this is it.
Second; The call to sacrifice.
Cthulhu Wars insists that you answer the personal question of value by demanding a rather hefty sacrifice of material wealth for its favor. The core set with only four (4) factions and a single map will cost you around $200. The components are of the best quality, but whether this is worth it to you depends on how you view your games. As one game among a deep collection it might not stand out enough to warrant this price, but if you revel in the idea of owning a game you can fawn over and give it the attention it deserves, then this box comes with every bit of the value the price demands.
Third; The countless hordes.
Cthulhu Wars is pluralized for a good reason. This isn’t one war you purchase in a single box, but is an endless battle made up of dozens of expansion sets. The first kickstarter campaign in 2013 launched the core set and no fewer than 3 new faction expansions, 3 map expansions, and a parade of neutral gods and monsters to turn the game on its head. Since then a second wave of content has been kickstarted and delivered and a third is actively campaigning this July/August (2017). That doesn’t begin to account for purchasable upgrades like fully sculpted plastic gates.
All of this luxurious excess inherently begs the question “is it necessary?”. And no, perhaps the core game suffices for some and it is a very complete experience (except the gates, everyone needs the gates to feel whole!). But if the peculiar madness of Cthulhu Wars finds a willing acolyte in you, with its impressively executed gameplay and the tactile excess of its glorious figures, then I suggest that you purchase the faction expansions, plastic gates, and high priests at very least. The neutral gods and monsters might overwhelm some who don’t frequent the game often enough, but the factions and high priests add character and variety without rules complication and the gates are absolutely the finishing touch to fully appreciate the Cthulhu Wars aesthetic. There is much more to appreciate here but I leave you now with a final word of binding:
a final point in space or time; an end or extremity
The wealth of Lovecraftian source material left still untapped and the creator’s passion for the mythos makes me uncertain when or what the final note for this series will be, but here and now we end this written journey into madness. Is this a game for everyone? Certainly not. But, if you can appreciate a game with conflict and asymmetry this is an excellent choice with a play-time that will see it hit the table more often than many games in its genre. If you enjoy the theme of the Lovecraft mythos, or less specifically the theme of titans of unspeakable origin and unfathomable destruction clashing over our ruined world, then this game delivers. If you want a flagship game for your collection that you can feel both proud of and just a little guilty for owning, this is it. And, if you see the hidden truths of the universe as I do and walk the dark path that I tread, then feel free to go all-in during this current kickstarter campaign; it will only cost you most of your savings and just a sliver of your soul, but believe me, I don’t miss either.
John is a freelance writer and occasional co-host of the Cardboard Herald podcast