[REVIEW] Cthulhu Wars

[REVIEW] Cthulhu Wars

The Daddy of Cthulhu Games From The Godfather of Lovecraft Gaming

Image for postPublisher: Petersen GamesNumber of Players: Core set supports 2?4 (expandable to 8 players)Play time: 90?180mins+Age Guide: 14+Type: CompetitiveMechanisms: Dice Rolling, Asymmetric, Area-Control, Action Point Allowance

Want the short version? Jump straight to the Low-down!

I first heard the name ?Cthulhu? in 1983. I was an 11 year old geek at the time. A Stranger Things kid. I was pretty new to role-playing games (RPGs), having dabbled in Basic Dungeons & Dragons and run games of its sci-fi stable-mate, Star Frontiers.

Chaosium?s Call of Cthulhu (CofC), by Sandy Petersen, was my second ever RPG purchase, mostly bought for the creepy, tentacular box art and the fact the 2nd edition was a Games Workshop licence, and I was a bit of a GW fanboy back then.

CofC is based on the 1920s weird fiction and ?mythos? of famed oddball and neurotic casual racist, Howard Philips Lovecraft and friends. Their horrific, cosmic, mind-bending creations must be defeated in-game by a party of intrepid (and lets face it, foolhardy) investigators.

Image for postYeah, that pistol?s going to be really effective, mate. The lady has the right idea? although she probably won?t live to cast the spell. [Image: from ?Imminent Demise? by Hennig Ludvigsen]

This formula of part investigation, part dying/going insane has been used in countless games since, and now that H. P. Lovecraft?s work is public domain, that trend doesn?t look likely to end any time soon. In fact many are sick to death of Cthulhu-this and Cthulhu-that, and are put off simply by the name in a game?s title.

Which is a shame really, as many are rather good. You just need to sort the wheat from the chafe.

Image for postLovecraft fans are certainly well catered for in tabletop gaming?

Sandy Petersen always kept his hand in with CofC, but for much of the 80s, 90s and 00s he was more involved in video game production designing levels and content for titles like Doom, Quake and Age of Empires.

Despite inventing the whole investigatory Cthulhu gaming genre, he was conspicuous in his absence as the designer of a single Cthulhu board game until 2013 when Sandy led a Kickstarter campaign to fund Cthulhu Wars ? a labour of love and what he thought would be a fond farewell to the gaming scene into early retirement and emigration.

Image for postPromotional Petersen Games image from the first Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter campaign

What he hoped might make a couple of hundred thousand dollars at most went on to net just over $1.4M. In today?s Kickstarter gaming market that figure might be no great shakes, but back in 2013 it was serious wedge for a board game, especially when raised by just 4,389 backers.

So Sandy stuck around, and two more Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter campaigns later (the most recent, Onslaught 3, funded late August 2017, also made over $1M), the game is one of the most expansion-heavy games on the market. Not to mention one of the most expensive.

Is it really worth it?

Overview

Image for post[Image: Petersen Games]

For the uninitiated, Cthulhu Wars is an asymmetrical war game/dudes-on-a-map game, where each player controls a faction dedicated to one of Lovecraft?s various Great Old Ones* ? monstrous immortal beings squabbling over annihilation rights to a doomed Earth.

That?s right. In this game you?re not the investigators trying to stop otherworldly horrors from destroying the world. You ARE the otherworldly horrors trying to destroy the world.

Image for postGreat Old Ones Cthulhu (green) and Nyarlathotep (blue), summoned forth by their acolytes and ready to face off?

Each round the factions will gain and spend Power to move forces around the globe, fight each other for control of gates, summon monsters (even the godlike Great Old Ones) and net Doom points which can win them the game.

In addition to amassing Doom points the factions also need to amass six spell books, gained rather like video game achievements by meeting certain requirements. Once acquired the spell books adds new powers and thus possibilities to a faction?s strategies and tactics.

The game?s asymmetry is front and centre. Big time. Everything is different for each faction from their spell books, to the monsters and Great Old Ones they can summon. The only identical thing for each player is their starting tools of six cultists and a controlled gate.

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Of course the Doom/Spell Book objective for winning is also the same for each faction, but how they each get there couldn?t be more different.

*[Just to placate the Lovecraft scholars, I know (as I?m sure Sandy Petersen does) that certain ?Great Old Ones? in the game, are actually other god-like beings from the Cthulhu Mythos (such as Elder Gods), but for simplicity?s sake they?re referred to as Great Old Ones in the game.]

Components

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This is where things get a little crazy, because Cthulhu Wars? ?miniatures? are actually freakin? HUGE, and are one of the main things that resound with folk even if they?ve never played the game.

?Oh Cthulhu Wars. That?s the one with the stupidly huge figures, yeah??

Yup. That?s the one.

Actually, most of the miniatures in the game are just in the standard 25/28mm scale one expects from tabletop games these days. Many of the monsters (and definitely the Great Old Ones) are actually undersized for the rest of the game?s scaling.

Image for post[Image: Chaosium ? click to enlarge]

Whilst there?s a certain satisfaction to be had from summoning your faction?s Great Old One and plopping down several pounds of plastic on the table to a general round-table of ?uh-oh?, it?s also my first niggle with the game.

The game board can get cramped awfully quickly when a couple of factions throw down over control of a smaller territory ? Central America being a fine case in point.

Image for postGood luck squeezing another cultist into Central America, let alone another Great Old one.

Suddenly the huge size of the minis starts to seem like folly, and has me wishing the game?s scale had been 15mm instead: the Great Old Ones would still tower impressively over everything else, but you wouldn?t have to pile figures together in something resembling a rugby scrum, just to avoid overlapping into neighbouring territories.

Image for postBundling in like this isn?t uncommon?

That said, there?s no denying that at every other time, having a table chock full of towering colourful plastic is pretty awesome.

The miniatures themselves are actually fairly good. Many folk dismiss them due to the lurid colours and the fact the plastic is of a reasonably bendy nature, making some of the larger figures feel like over-elaborate (not to mention dangerously spikey) dog chews.

Image for postNo, not dog chews. Great Old Ones.

But you only have to take a look at some of the paint jobs floating around online forums (or take a look at the models close-up) to see that they?re actually pretty good, with dynamic poses and a fair amount of fine detail.

What?s more, for those that can?t be bothered to paint them, or appreciate the way the colours define the factions for new players or those unfamiliar with the Cthulhu Mythos, the bendiness of the plastic makes the miniatures a lot more robust when it comes to transport.

I?ve even just bagged the different factions of my copy in custom draw-strings:

Image for postCustom faction bags [Logos and Art by Petersen Games. Layout by Tabletop Tribe. Manufacture by Artscow]

So apart from the minis, what?s the rest of the box contents like? Well, to be frank, it?s a bit of a mixed bag.

There?s nothing sub-par about anything (although I?ve seen some examples of some fairly dodgy asymmetric dice on forums ? the ones in my copy were fine), it?s just that after the minis, and more importantly the price tag, everything else just feels? adequate.

The card stock is good for the counters but you feel some should be plastic; the faction sheets have great art and layout, but are a little flimsy; the card stock gates are kind of uninspiring; there?s no custom dice even though the combat system really begs for them.

But you know what? You can have all that stuff. All of it.

For a price.

You can have funky plastic gates that perfectly fit your cultists and High Priests. You can have big plastic Yellow Sign discs to Desecrate the map with. You can have 3mm punch board for your player boards. Want those custom dice for combat? Here?s packs of twenty of them in every faction?s colour. Have a custom coloured gate for each faction while you?re at it.

Image for postThe core components (top) along with their blinged up counterparts, available for even more cash.

Now you can look at this in two ways. Either it?s a prime example of FOMO-gouging of folks? wallets, or some awesome luxury modular gaming system. Or a bit of both.

It?s a bit like buying a luxury car where everything internal but the seats and steering wheel is an extra.

To get just the core set of Cthulhu Wars blinged up with plastic and cardstock, would cost about as much as you paid for the core set in the first place. None of it is essential to play the game, but neither are those TVs in the headrests of the luxury car. Both are really cool, though.

Image for postOne of the best rule books out there ? also available in hardback.

One thing that isn?t skimped on is the rule book, which is a glorious 145 page, full colour tome with splendid artwork and production quality. Only a small part of it is actually rules, with the rest covering numerous play examples, tactics for factions and details on all the wonderful expansions, along with the rules that apply to them.

The board is also pretty nicely made and illustrated and comes in two parts that can be flipped independently depending on the player count. Any more than 5 players and you?ll be needing the 6?8 player map expansion pack.

Gameplay

Image for postThe eponymous Great Old One himself. Great Cthulhu?s ?tactics? consist primarily of devouring or annihilating everything in sight.

For such an asymmetric game where each faction literally has different rules that apply to each of them, Cthulhu Wars is relatively easy to teach and learn ? just hard to master

Whilst it looks like a Risk-style area-control game at a glance (and you can certainly con folk into playing it with you by misrepresenting it as ?Risk With Monsters?), your faction will dictate whether or not you really need to control large areas of the map to win.

Each of the game?s four phases are fairly straightforward and will be familiar to gamers and not too confusing for non-gamers:

  1. Action ? Players take it in turn spending Power to perform one action, continuing until all players are out of Power.
  2. Gather Power ? Players gain power points for each of their cultists and controlled gates.
  3. Determine First Player ? whoever has the most Power gains the First Player token and decides the direction of play.
  4. Doom ? Players gain Doom points for each of their controlled gates, and choose whether to gain more through a Ritual of Annihilation.

Play continues in this way until someone gets to 30 Doom points, or the Ritual track reaches Sudden Death, either of which initiate the end game. Then whoever has all six of their spell books and the highest Doom point total is the winner. If no players have all six of their spell books, then humanity wins. Hurrah!

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Thus most of your actions each turn revolve around ways to gain more of your spell books, and ways to create and control gates, or steal them from other players, and because of the game?s asymmetric nature each faction will have a variety of ways to do it.

Thrown into the mix too are Elder Sign tokens, drawn from a bag and with a value from one to three additional Doom points. These can be gained in a number of ways (the most common being performing a Ritual in the Doom phase) and can be cashed in at any time, often swinging the game unexpectedly to one faction?s favour.

Image for postIf you can?t decide what to do on your turn, trying to fulfil spell book requirements is always a safe bet.

Sooner or later factions will clash in a shared territory, at which point some six-sided dice are thrown. Each die can yield three misses (1?3), two Pains (4 and 5) or one Kill (6) ? you can see why the custom dice are nicer to play with!

Kills will remove models from play and Pains will force models out of the contested territory ? the controlling player chooses what dies and where Pained units retreat to? usually!

Image for postThe game really begs for the upgraded dice (available in silver/grey and every faction colour), but you?ll have to shell out more cash for a pack of 20 of them.

So general game play and combat are fairly straightforward in Cthulhu Wars. It?s the factions? unique abilities that increase not so much the complexity, as the amount of things you?ll have to remember in order to effectively defend against the depredations of your opponents.

That said by halfway through your first game you?ll probably have the measure of most of your opponents? dirty spell book tricks, but how they implement them and the order they acquire them (which is freely chosen each time a spell book requirement is achieved) will keep you guessing at their tactics and overall strategy game-to-game.

It will also take you a game or two to fully appreciate how different factions behave and change throughout the game. Some factions start slow but snowball into powerhouses. Some are wrecking balls from the start but will be overtaken come the end game. Some will work behind the scenes, avoiding direct conflict, to achieve their aims.

Image for postHastur The Unspeakable? Yellow Sign?s assassin of Great Old Ones.

All this makes Cthulhu Wars a game that will take time to master, but that?s part of the appeal. Failing miserably just gets you champing at the bit to return and try a different tack: gaining spell books in a different order; summoning your Great Old One earlier or later; being more or less aggressive or expansionist.

Play time can be surprisingly quick for experienced players (perhaps 20?30 mins per player) but for a table full of noobs don?t expect to get much change from an hour per player for your first game.

The Low-down

Image for postThe Opener Of The Way, Yog-Sothoth (purple), joins the fray (available as a faction expansion boxed set).

Let?s just get this out of the way: I hugely enjoy Cthulhu Wars, and will never turn down an opportunity to play, regardless of the faction. It?s a game that I?ve seen have resounding success on the table with both experienced players and newcomers alike.

The core rules are actually surprisingly light and players are usually gleeful about having their own unique faction and abilities, and equally thrilled to use those powers in various nefarious ways against their opponents.

I do have niggles concerning the practicality of the models in relation to the board size, and the fact that you?ll have to pay an awful lot of money to experience Cthulhu Wars in the most luxurious way with all its associated component upgrades.

Image for postI mean who wants to just make do with crappy cardboard in their luxury 3-figure game?

Game-play is satisfyingly fast and furious, with little down-time between turns and often ways that you can act out of sequence (if only to defend in combat). With experienced players the game time is surprisingly short compared to other sprawling asymmetric epics.

Replayability is great, even with just the core set. I?ve played about four games as the Black Goat faction, played differently each time, lost every game, and I?m still eager to play with them again and try something else.

I?ve played as Yellow Sign twice, been annihilated the first game and crushed everyone in the second. I?d still play again with them too, where I?m sure my tactics used for my victory would be countered more effectively the next time around.

Then there?s the expansions. Cthulhu Wars has a staggering amount of them.

Image for postThe shelf of the average Cthulhu wars enthusiast, although this lot hardly scratches the surface of available expansions?

For a start there are another four factions available (with a fifth in the works), and since the core game board can accommodate 5 players, an extra faction is probably where you?re likely to expand first.

There are also four alternative boards to choose from (again with a fifth due in 2018), each with their own unique rules to change up the game play, plus of course 6?8 player version of each? available separately!

Image for postThe Primeval Map sees the factions battling amidst encroaching glaciers that tend to focus conflict into an increasingly crowded equatorial region.

There?s also almost every possible Cthulhu Mythos creature you can think of to add to your games as neutral forces available to all players. Everything from Gugs to more Great Old Ones.

And of course there are those lovely upgrades to replace most of the cardboard in your game with plastic.

There?s enough in the core box to keep you playing it for years, and enough in the catalogue to keep it on your shelf permanently.

Image for postJust some of the Independent Great Old Ones available ? there?s also a staggering array of neutral monsters. Basically if you have a favourite Cthulhu Mythos critter, chances are there?s a model and rules for it in Cthulhu Wars?

None of this is cheap of course, but cost is naturally a very relative thing. You?ll have to work out for yourself whether you can justify spending the asking price for entry. But if you choose not to, I?d recommend you take advantage of a game if it presents itself. I doubt you?ll regret it, Lovecraft fan or not.

Balance

Image for postThe foul Tch-Tcho? divider of board game communities!

This review wouldn?t be complete without a word about the balance of the games highly asymmetric factions.

I usually find games with the four core set?s factions are the most balanced, and the closest in terms of final scores. That said, some of the expansion factions (like Opener and Sleeper) require a little more finesse and experience in their use, which can mean either total victory or being way off the pace.

However, the community at present seems fairly certain that one faction, the Tcho-Tcho, requires considerable balance by Petersen Games, and statistics from games seem to back this up. So too (but to a much lesser extent) does the Windwalker faction it seems.

Image for postWindwalker? Ithaqua?s often unstoppable army?

Both these factions are the most recent faction releases, so perhaps it?s just a case of experience, but experienced groups still seem to mainly support the general community opinion. For the moment I?d recommend skipping the Tcho-Tcho unless you really want to play 8 player, in which case give them to the least experienced player.

Considering the amount of asymmetry of all eight factions though, Petersen Games has done an outstanding job with the balance, especially when you consider the plethora of possible faction and expansion combinations possible.

Image for postScourge of the polar ice caps ? the nigh-invulnerable juggernaut that is Rhan-Tegoth?

It?s also fair to say that PG aren?t averse to making faction balance changes when they think it?s merited, so we?ll see whether they respond to community opinion or published win/loss statistics. Many claim play styles just need adapting when Tcho-Tcho are present.

Final Thoughts

Image for postSpawn of Yog-Sothoth? ready to mutate their way onto the board?

Probably the worst thing you can say about Cthulhu Wars beyond the cost, is that the upgrade components you actually want to hand over fistfuls of money to Petersen Games for, are actually diabolically hard to get hold of.

Mostly you?re looking at pledging on Kickstarter or getting gouged on ebay to get anything beyond basic expansions, and the stocks of those run out all too soon.

Image for postH. P. Lovecraft no doubt wondering what all the noise and brightly coloured plastic is about. Alternate First Player Marker (Kickstarter Exclusive? naturally. Find it on eBay).

However, if you have about 135 burning a hole in your pocket, and Twilight Imperium just seems too epic in time requirement and scope, then you can do a lot, lot worse. Just be prepared to start selling other games to clear shelf space and fund your Cthulhu Wars habit.

Pros:

  • Looks fantastic.
  • Enthralling asymmetric game play.
  • Great replayability.
  • Reasonable play time compared to the competition.
  • Neck-deep in theme.
  • Great rulebook (both in ease of use and production quality)
  • Stacks of expansions to keep things fresh.

Cons:

  • High core entry cost.
  • 2 player rules are heavily modded from the core rules.
  • Upgrade components difficult to source.
  • Tcho-Tcho (and possibly Windwalker) faction balance issues.
  • ?Miniatures? either a bit too big or the board a bit too small.
  • If you like your Warhammer you may prefer the out-of-print Chaos In The Old World, if you can get hold of it!
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