Tuesday, August 11, 2015

World conquest, Cthulhu style

Cthulhu Wars is the brain child of veteran game designer Sandy Petersen (creator of Call of Cthulhu), and it really shows off his lifetime of experience with games in general, and the Cthulhu Mythos in particular. It did over two million dollars on Kickstarter, largely due, I'm sure, to the game's incredible array of miniatures. However, credit is also due to the incredibly smooth and well thought out game design, a fact that was made very clear in the months Petersen spent demoing the game all over the country, in advance of the Kickstarter campaign launch.

One of the biggest problems with area control games like Cthulhu Wars is that once you start losing, it can be difficult to recover. Couple that with the fact that area control games tend to be elimination games that only end when one player knocks everyone else out of the game, and you often have a game where the early leader will run roughshod over the other players, who wind up just wishing the game were over.

Sandy Petersen must have been aware of this problem, because a lot of the game play in Cthulhu Wars addresses it, and for the most part eliminates it. All the players are in the game until the bitter end, and there is a built in time limit to keep the game from going on for too long.

Rather than playing as intrepid investigators on the verge of madness, as with most Lovecraft-inspired games such as Arkham Horror, players of Cthulhu Wars get to be the bad guys. Each player takes command of an ancient, god-like horror such as Hastur, Nyarlathotep, or even Great Cthulhu himself, along with an army of monsters and cultists. Cultists open gates which allow your monsters, and eventually your ancient one, to enter play, and the monsters guard your territory and attack the other players.

Each turn, players earn power based on the number of cultists and gates they have in play, and spend it to move their pieces around the board, summon new monsters and cultists, launch attacks, and eventually bring their ancient ones into play. One nice bit of balance here is that you always earn at least half as much power as the strongest player, so you can't really fall too far behind, even if you get completely wiped off the board.

 Players start the game with a stack of six spell book tokens specific to the ancient one they are playing, each with a unique ability. They have to earn these by accomplishing certain goals, also specific to their ancient one, such as occupying a certain amount of territory, bringing a certain number of creatures into play, or destroying so many enemy units in battle. A player can't win the game unless they've earned all six of their spellbooks. I particularly like this aspect of the game, as it gives each player a plan for what they need to do over the course of the game, and the different requirements and abilities serve to make the player factions even more different from each other.

The game play is deceptively and refreshingly straightforward, and I find that when we play we rarely need to refer to the rule book for anything more that a quick refresher, which is unusual for a game of this scale and complexity. The game round is divided up in such a way that you're never waiting long for it to be your turn to do something, which is also nice and definitely feeds into the idea that every player is there for the entire game, with very little down time.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) A very immersive game with a lot of strategic depth, and smooth, intuitive rules. The only real down side is its high cost ($200 retail for the base 4-player game). The miniatures alone are worth it though.

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