Last weekend, Sandy invited me down to take another sneak peek at Cthulhu Wars. This time to see the whole thing in all its sprawling glory: the core set, the expansions, every add-on, every creature. It was a blast and I have a bunch of stuff to report, but before I go any further I have to show you something:
This was a quick shot of us unboxing and setting out the factions and figures. For scale, this wooden counter is over two feet wide and easily twenty feet long. And when I took this picture? WE WERE STILL TAKING THINGS OUT OF THE BOXES. Seriously, if you ordered the DVM ‘get everything’ pledge, prepare your body. You’re going to swear you failed a sanity check as stuff keeps pouring out of the boxes. I’ll drop some close ups of the figures as I go along.
The State of the Game
The scope of the game is huge. Not only does every figure come with special abilities, and in some cases their own spellbooks, but there are three additional expansion maps, each with their own special rules and figures. The combinations of factions, neutral forces, and maps is staggering.
I asked Sandy what, out of all this stuff, we could play. He pointed at the vast sprawl in front of us and said, “Anything you want. You choose.” I wasn’t sure if he was serious, so I offered to help playtest anything that still needed work or balancing. He just grinned at me. “No need. It’s done.”
So we spent the day playing anything we wanted on any map we wanted. And guess what? He was right. Everything fits together like clockwork. It’s ready.
How It Works: Azathoth Comes for a Visit
Think of the core factions as hubs. The neutral Great Old Ones and monsters socket into your faction, expanding your forces on the map and granting you access to their powers. If you think facing Cthulhu is bad, wait until you see Big Green coming your way arm-in-arm with his new buddy Azathoth. And some Elder Things. And maybe a Star Vampire or two.
Players start the game with only their faction in play. But as they accumulate points and power, they can bring in heavy hitters on a first-come-first-served basis. If I purchase a Star Vampire, then only I can bring them in for the rest of the game. Of course, they don’t come cheap, so I need to make sure they compliment whatever mad strategy I’m in the middle of pursuing or I’ve wasted precious resources.
You would think that this would quickly become a convoluted mess, but Sandy has managed to create a system that provides complexity without complication. The unspeakable horrors that you summon integrate neatly into any of the factions, providing the expected benefits that are common to all creatures, plus a specific power or two that work within the existing gameplay as you would expect.
You get clear and usable options, rather than puzzle pieces that don’t fit. A good example are the High Priests. For all intents and purposes, they act like regular cultists and provide the same benefits: producing a power each turn, taking ownership of gates, and selflessly throwing themselves in front of your enemy on command. But they can also be used as living eldritch batteries that can be sacrificed to give you a burst of power when you need it most.
There are three new factions and they’re all brutal. Each one has a new and unique play style and can easily go toe-to-toe with the four original factions.
Windwalker is a combat powerhouse. He’s slow to build up, but the longer the game goes on, the more ridiculously powerful he becomes. First of all, as combat begins to happen around the board, you’ll discover that battlefield deaths are summoning your Windigos for free. You’ll also notice that every one of the powerful Knoph Kehs that you summon is cheaper than the previous one. Oh, and while your army is rapidly swelling up on the board, you get to back them up with a Great Old One that is indestructible. And you STILL have Ithaqua, your primary Great Old One waiting to join the fray. Oh, and don’t forget to hibernate so you can save up your power this turn in order to release it all in an overwhelming show of force next turn.
The downside to playing the Windwalker? Keeping people from ganging up on you early. The upside? Laughing when they gang up on you later…
If Windwalker represents power, then The Sleeper represents leverage. Pound for pound, Sleeper is the best at turning points of power into mayhem and destruction. Don’t like spending power to summon units? No problem, how about free monsters that can appear anywhere? Don’t like the fact that other people have monsters on the board? Me neither. Good thing they have to sacrifice them to you, oh mighty Tsathoggua. Covet their faction powers? Why not use them yourself with your devious Serpent Men? Hate other people taking turns while you’re trying to crush them? Why not take a nap while they scurry around and then spend all your power at the end while they watch helplessly from the sidelines?
The Sleepers motto? Life is hard. For everyone else.
The Opener of the Way represents change. Specifically, changing the entire game world around so that you win. Cthulhu Wars revolves around gates. You need them to generate power and to be the start player, certainly, but more importantly, they generate the doom points you need to actually win the game.
Players spend all their time and resources scheming to protect their own gates and to take yours. You know what makes this hard? When someone has the power to yank a gate completely out of reality and keep it to himself like some kind of private cosmic hot tub. Or how about when they are staging their forces to take over a gate, only to have it vanish and reappear on another continent?
Welcome to trying to deal with Yog Sothoth. Oh, and check this out:
See the four figures on the right? That’s one mutant. The longer anyone tries to face you, the bigger and nastier he becomes. Automatically. You see one of these and you know its about to be time to leave the neighborhood. Oh, and did I mention they can split back apart into lots more mutants at will?
And the final nail in the coffin? The Opener of the Way gets to sit back and wait for the perfect moment during the game, that instant when he has a lot of gates and the points are rolling in, so that he can double them. In one of our games, the Opener controlled EIGHT gates at once (a new record, by the way). The only thing better than winning the game is the look on everyone else’s face when you go from last place to first in a single turn.
Maps: Freezing Your Shoggoth Off
We had time to play two of the new maps: Primeval and Yuggoth. Or as I like to call them “trapped in a barrel with a beehive” and “why is my army gone”. New maps are always good to have in a game, but far better is to have new maps that change the game itself. Believe me when I tell you that these maps change things.
We played Primeval first. You start out like any other map, happily placing gates and doting on your precious army of cultists. And then the world begins to freeze over. Gates become uninhabitable, slipping from your grip and feeding power to the entire board. Then locations begin freezing over, forcing everyone to the center, shoulder to tentacle, tooth to claw. And all the while power levels keep rising as more and more unoccupied gates feed everyone.
By the middle of the game, you’ve basically buzzed 4 monstrous armies on shots of espresso shoved them into a shoebox to fight it out. Which is both a huge amount of fun and hilarious.
Next was Yuggoth. The first thing you notice about the Yuggoth map is the giant green pyramid in the east. Building gates there gives you bonus power. Next you might notice a laboratory in the north that lets you convert cultists into Brain Cylinders, letting you greatly expand your army of followers with gurgling neural tissue that happens to be immune to pain. In the west you’ll discover a plateau that allows you to summon an army of Slime Molds which are 100% loyal. To whoever happens to own the plateau.
All of that would be enough to change the game and make everyone rethink their strategies and make it a fine map. Naturally, Sandy pushed to another level. Meet the Watcher of the Green Pyramid:
When this guy spawns, and he will, things get real messy, real fast. Imagine playing a game of hot potato with a grenade. That explodes every time you throw it. Over and over again. The Watcher is a combat nightmare. To give you an idea, a faction monster that is built for combat would roll 3 dice, maybe 4, tops. A Great Old One like Cthulhu would roll 6. We were rolling *17* dice for the Watcher. And every player gets to control him in turn.
It’s huge fun and the map that produced the most howling, laughter, and tears all day. Highly recommended.
In a Nutshell
It’s finished. It plays beautifully. All of the new factions and creatures slot into the core game seamlessly. And it’s fun as hell.
Is there a learning curve? Yes, but it’s not as steep as you would think. We had a new player who had zero exposure to Cthulhu Wars and he picked Opener of the Way as his faction for the first game, arguably the most complex of all the factions. By the middle of the game, it had clicked for him and he came in second against 3 experienced players.
That said, it is a full blown strategy game. It will reward groups that play together regularly, allowing them to really develop their strategies and experience the game’s depth. If you play with a lot of pick up groups or folks that aren’t familiar with this sort of game, you may find it more challenging to introduce people to it.
For those that have the luxury of a regular gaming group, this game will quickly go to the top of your list.