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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:

We call this the briar patch.  That blue guy is about to have the worst day of his life.

We call this the briar patch. That blue cultist is about to have the worst day of his life.

Huge like a bowling trophy.  If your bowling league were sponsored by an insane asylum.

Huge like a bowling trophy. Assuming that your bowling league is sponsored by an insane asylum.

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:

You know where would be a great place for a cataclysm?  EVERYWHERE.

You know where would be a great place for a cataclysm? EVERYWHERE.

… 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:


Porn for Spaceship Nerds

I’m sure you’ll be shocked out of your sneakers to hear that I love both video games and space.  So, naturally, any intersection of those things automatically gets all my money.  Case in point: Star Citizen, being developed by Chris Roberts, who created Wing Commander and stole a large chunk of my formative years.

He’s pretty serious about this game, space ladies and space gentlemen.  Check out the trailer for a newly revealed ship, the 300i:

And before you ask, yes I already bought one 🙂


Alzheimer’s Research – Little Help?

A few years ago, I lost both of my grandparents on my father’s side to Alzheimer’s.  At first they seemed okay, just a few more ‘senior moments’ than they used to have, but hey, that’s growing older for you, right?  But pretty soon they were losing track of people’s names: good friends and neighbors, even family members became ‘honey’ or just an embarrassed pause.  Faces went next, and then finally the shared history they had lived with other people.  Parts of their lives simply vanished.  It was as if certain people ceased to exist for them, to the point of having them introduce themselves to their own relatives.

Sometimes you’d find that they hadn’t eaten that day, or taken their medication.  They became fearful and paranoid, even enraged at times.  It was a terrifying experience for them and a heartbreaking one for the family.

The reason I’m bringing this up is to ask you to please give a few dollars, whatever you can spare, to fund Alzheimer’s research.  This whole area  of research is chronically underfunded, so there’s no shortage of good places that could use your help, but if you’re not already connected with a particular group then please consider donating to Tess Gerritsen’s War on Alzheimer’s fundraiser campaign.

She will match the first $25,000 dollars that we donate, so this is an excellent chance to double your impact.  She’s also sweetening the pot with a chance to name a character in her next novel in her TV-adapted bestselling Rizzoli & Isles series.  From her fundraising page:

EACH $5 DONATION ($25 donation = 5 chances) ENTERS YOU IN A RAFFLE TO WIN:

– Two opportunities to name a character in Tess’ next “Rizzoli & Isles” thriller, coming in 2014. The named character’s role in the story is up to the discretion of the author.

Three runners-up “Rizzoli & Isles” prize packages including:
– Signed copy of Tess’ most recent hardcover, LAST TO DIE
– “Rizzoli & Isles” baseball cap, tee shirt and surgical scrub top
– Handcuff earrings

Tess has pledged to match total funds raised up to $25,000 – let’s help her get there!

From Tess: Why I chose to donate to The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI):

– It’s ranked as one of the most influential scientific institutions in the world (Source: Thomson Reuters), and is one of the world’s largest independent nonprofit organizations for biomedical research.

– TSRI has produced a steady stream of medical breakthroughs leading to new therapies for a wide range of illnesses.

– TSRI’s 1200 scientists include three Nobel Laureates and 26 fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The institute attracts scientists from around the world.

– For the third consecutive year, TSRI has been awarded a four-star (highest) rating from Charity Navigator for fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency.

– With research centers in both California and Florida, TSRI facilities are located in geographically creative hotspots, fueling collaboration and cross-pollination with other research institutions.

Please help if you can.  Here’s Tess:


Food Thing:Bottled Coffee

The British have tea and biscuits.  I have coffee and cupcakes.  That makes me the winner.

The British have tea and biscuits. I have coffee and cupcakes. That makes me the winner.

I’ve admitted this before, but I don’t really know from coffee. I like it, yes, but not in some educated, connoisseur-esque way.  I’m more like a barn owl that likes mice. I know a good mouse when I cram one in my beak, but I’m not exactly going to be able to wax poetic about oakey notes or hints of cricket or whatever.

I’m just coffee-aware enough to drink it black and register a preference for French press over coffee served from a scorched pot with an orange plastic band around the top, and that’s not saying a whole lot.  But, because I’m all about the self-improvement, especially when combined with eating something fancy, I decided to give this bottled black magic a whirl.

And by self-improvement, I mean peer pressure.   Everyone else uses Twitter to be informed about what their peeps are up to.  Apparently I use it in order to find out what bad habits I should pick up.  That’s why the button is called follow, right?   Anyway, from the Twitters:

@dolohov@lacolombecoffee Had some last week. Best iced bottled coffee ever. Maybe even outside the bottle category.

I’m just glad Chuck wasn’t advocating eating roofing nails or Drano, you know what I’m saying?  It’s a hell of a lot harder to type these blog posts from the ER.

Long story short (too late), I done got me some.  There’s marketing stuff and technical coffee stuff that you can read about here, but since I’m not qualified to tell one from the other, I’ll just say that their big claim about not being bitter is spot on.  It has all the richness and depth of flavor that you want from really good coffee, but none of the battery acid kicker on the back-end that you learn to put up with when drinking lesser brews.

It’s pretty much the perfect coffee to use if you want to trick your friends into giving up sugar and cream and marscapone-apple-caramel or whatever people  are putting into their coffee these days.  Tell them black coffee is delicious and not bitter at all, then give them a cup of this.  Hilarity will ensue next time you see them, faces puckered up and clenching a mug of the regular stuff.

Is it weird that I like a food more if it can be used to enrage my friends?  Of course not.  Have some coffee.


Mojo Declares Summer Good, Grass Comfy




This is his smug “I don’t have to type things” dance.


I plan to do something similar the next time I’m eating steak.  TAKE THAT, DOG!



Game Day is Best Day

Crunchy, creamy, cheesy!

Game day eats! Crunchy, creamy, cheesy!

Inverted Aeropress coffee madness!

Game day fuel!  Inverted Aeropress coffee madness!

Victory for some!  Zombie mastication for others!

Game day gaming!  Victory for some! Zombie mastication for others!

Game days really are the best.  We hugged, we cried, we nerded.  Hope your day was as delightful.

By the way, if those Arancini (fried risotto balls) look good, you can find the how-to guide here.