Game Review – Cthulhu Wars (Pre-Production)
I’m going to warn you right now, this post contains a lot of me bragging about how I got to spend yesterday playing Cthulhu Wars and you didn’t. On the other hand, there will be a lot less bragging about my performance, as I was up against Sandy’s sons, Grant and Arthur, who proceeded to crush me under a mass of squirming tentacles and clever tactics. Repeatedly. Even so, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It was an astonishly fun experience.
A quick bit of background: Unless this is your first visit here, you know that I kind of like playing board games. If you’ve read my books, you also know that I might be obsessed with Lovecraftian horror. So, when I saw Cthulhu Wars on Kickstarter with Sandy Petersen’s name on the box, you can imagine how badly I wanted to give it a try .
For those not in the tentacles-and-insanity crowd, Sandy created Call of Cthulhu, the groundbreaking pen and paper role playing game that introduced me and a generation of gamers to Lovecraft’s mythos. In all seriousness, if it weren’t for Sandy Petersen, I’d probably be writing about elves or vampires or god knows what. He also worked on a couple of video games that you may have heard of, like Doom and Age of Empires, so I guess it’s fair to say that he was instrumental in creating both the things that influenced my writing and the stuff that frequently prevented me from doing that writing. If it weren’t for Sandy, the entire horror video and board gaming genres that we take for granted today would be very different.
In any case, when I saw that the father of Lovecraftian gaming was launching something epic for the tabletop, I started
stalking reaching out to him. And because he’s a delightful and charming man, he had no problem ordering his security to let me up so I could take a look at his new game.
First of all, let me tell you two things about the figures. One: photos don’t do them justice. They’re huge, intricately detailed, and vividly imagined. Hastur is the size of a baby’s head. You can see the souls swirling in Nyarlathotep’s belly-maw. Cthulhu could easily serve as a standalone piece of decoration for your mantle (until your creeped-out significant other took it down and asked what was wrong with you). Just take a look at Shub-Niggurath and her kids to get an idea for the level of care and detail in these figures. Click for a close up view:
The second thing about the figures is that they aren’t built this way for the sake of looking cool on the Kickstarter page. Anything less would have been a disservice to the gameplay. The first time you see the abilities of the factions, all you can think is that they are completely, insanely overpowered.
Cthulhu is an engine of destruction who begins devouring his enemies before combat even starts, and worse, he can appear with his impossibly hard to kill and offensively overwhelming minions anywhere he wants at any time. Did I mention that the Shoggoths can become powerful enough to destroy even an elder god by themselves or that the Star Spawn are even worse?
Or that Shub-Niggurath can give birth to an entire army in a single turn? Get anywhere near her brood and you’re in for a bad day. Of course, staying away from her is no picnic, either. Her fungal Mi-Go can cause a planet-wide extinction event and even her cultists are rabid enough to kill enemy monsters.
Nyarlathotep has a cadre of flying engines of destruction that appear instantly whenever his faction is threatened, and if it looks like you might survive that, he can make you completely irrelevant by shifting you right out of reality. You’ll enjoy watching invisibly from the sidelines as the rest of your faction is ground up into giblets. And on the off chance that you do manage to fight back, he actually gains victory points when successfully attacked. Delightful.
And then there’s Hastur. His place in the pantheon is as the assassin of the other gods, if that gives you any idea what its like to face the King in Yellow. There’s literally no protection from his attacks, so be prepared to kiss your best beasties and even your Great Old One goodbye. And because he draws power from corrupting the land he moves across, you’ll get to watch him continue to tear reality a new one while everyone else is helplessly out of power at the end of the turn. He actually exists as two separate Great Old Ones, because I guess one god-eating bastard wasn’t good enough, which would seem totally unfair if the other groups weren’t so completely nuts themselves.
Each faction is a complete nightmare. The board represents the entire Earth and it can barely contain them. It’s gloriously epic and visceral in a way that you rarely see in any game, much less a sophisticated strategy game like this one. The factions all feel badass and super-charged, instead of just generic sets of actions and win conditions lumped under a common theme. The fact that they are balanced against each other, while at the same time being completely asymmetrical in abilities, is a testament to Sandy’s skill as a game designer, as well as an absolute truckload of playtesting.
One thing I want to mention is despite having lots of unique units on the board like this:
… each player’s turn is very fast and straightforward. In fact, often a player’s turn will only last a few seconds, keeping everyone involved and immersed in the action. If you’re worried about let-me-surf-on-my-phone-between-turns syndrome, rest assured that nobody is going to be wandering off as play moves around the table. The secret is how Cthulhu Wars manages to break down fairly complex gameplay into easily manageable chunks that are still effective and easy to knit into an overall strategy.
Which brings me to replayability and tactical depth. You might think that because every faction is a nuclear weapon, there’s not much need for strategic finesse, but you’d be wrong. All of the factions are just as tough as you are and none of their awful tactics can be directly countered. You really do have to think on your feet if you want to survive the kind of stuff the other three factions are capable of throwing at you, but the brilliant thing about the way the game works is that none of the strategies you’re empowered to use require lots of time to get running. You can improvise and adapt fairly quickly, alternating between attacking, building up your forces, and triggering your own widespread destruction as events unfold.
The truth is that as much as I like Sandy, Cthulhu Wars would blow me away no matter who made it. The gameplay is fast and addictive, the strategy is deep yet accessible, and the arresting quality of the components sets a new bar for board games. It’s not cheap, but frankly, you’re looking at an *eight pound* box full of awesome. Without a doubt, there’s more value here than you’d expect for the price, especially if you’re serious about tabletop gaming.
As of this posting, there’s still time to pledge at the official Kickstarter, and there’s a crazy amount of free stuff at certain pledge levels. Here’s Sandy: