Slaying the hand you’re dealt in The Cards of Cthulhu

, | Games

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Note: Phantom Leader designer Dan Verssen asked if I would take a look at a prototype version of a game he’s publishing, which is in the middle of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Since the game is basically finished in terms of the design, and since this sort of thing is definitely in my wheelhouse (i.e. horror, tabletop, solitaire!), and since it’s H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday, I happily took him up on the offer. Fortunately, it didn’t suck, so I’m happy to also write about the game here.

The Cards of Cthulhu is a solitaire game with a healthy amount of die rolling as you try to keep the boards from filling up with nasty Lovecraftian creatures. The overall vibe is holding back evil tides pouring through dimensional gates. Anyone who’s played Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror knows the feeling. Plug one hole and two more pop open. Before you know it, you’ve got byakhees in your basement, old ones in your attic, and Cthulhu dragging himself out of the Pacific. It’s not easy holding back elder gods. It’s even less easy holding back four of them. This is what happens in The Cards of Cthulhu and I’m pretty sure it’s not realistic. There is no HP Lovecraft where four gods come knocking at once. But I suppose I can make an allowance for a fantasy tabletop game.

After the jump, full house, deep ones over fungi from Yuggoth

The Cards of Cthulhu is mostly a deck of cards. Each elder god is a suit. The cards in each suit consist of beasties of varying strength, identical for each suit. For instance, for every elder god, there are three strength-2 cultists all the way up to a single strength-10 shoggoth. Guess who would win in a fight among a mi-go, a byakhee, a deep one, or a xathagorra, whatever that is? If you guessed xathagorra, give yourself a gold elder sign. Of course, the shoggoth would trump them all. These are the minions that you draw each turn. You line them up to roll dice to try to knock them into the discard pile, thereby earning tokens. Spend your tokens to recruit followers and buy items as they emerge from the deck. You can also spend tokens to cast spells that are available every turn. There are never enough tokens.

The procession of minions gets in the way of gates that open, adding to the number of cards that come out each turn. There are also powerful horrors that force you to burn tokens or followers to avoid going insane. When you fight the horrors, you have to play a Yahtzee style game to get a sequence of numbers or matches. It’s a solid and snappy system that leans equally on die rolls, card draws, and risk/reward calculations.

But since each elder god is nothing more than a suit, nothing distinguishes Cthulhu from Yog Sothoth from whoever Arwassa is. The only differences are the names on their powerful horrors. And I must not be up on my Lovecraft because I don’t know most of these guys. Saboth the Elder? Xiurhn? God of the Red Flux? Are they making these up? Is there really something called Knygathin Zhaum? I know enough to question this game’s visual interpretation of a shoggoth, but I can’t make heads nor tentacles of who most of these guys are. But I don’t mind so much, because they’re drawn with dark moody horror art that I’d be proud to own on solid card stock.

When you sit down to play, you choose from among nine characters, each of whom gives you a special ability. The characters also appear in the deck as followers who give you special powers and, frankly, serve as meat shields. For whatever reason, only the characters get flavor text and only on their follower version. But whereas the minions and horrors aren’t very well distinguished — this is pretty baldly a numbers game — the characters have a welcome sense of gameplay flavor and variety. Your game with the journalist didn’t go so well. Surely the priest or big game hunter will do better. And that mystic? She’s gotta be easy mode.

Cards of Cthulhu is a snappy game, but it’s always about getting through the entire deck. There is no other victory condition. You have to survive all 80 cards every time you play, from the twelve cultists to the four shoggoths to each suit’s three horrors. And along the way, you’ll likely get jacked by a bad roll or a bad draw. Suddenly there are five minions on a board and you’ve lost the game. Or a horror wakes up the turn after you’ve spent all your tokens to buy that Necronomicon and now you’ve gone insane. Or you take a point of damage just after all your followers have been flipped so you’re dead. There are far more ways to lose than win.

But that’s not my issue with The Cards of Cthulhu. After all, it’s entirely appropriate to lose suddenly and drastically when you’re fighting an elder god, much less the four elder gods piling on here. My issue is something more fundamental, and something that comes up far too often in tabletop games from less experienced developers. The “interface” is bad. The boards aren’t necessary. Instead, this game should have focused on fitting the cards together somehow to indicate the relationship among gates, minions, and horrors. The idea is that some cards block on behalf of other cards, and that a certain number of minions will wake up a specific horror, and that gates keep pouring in new cards. The mechanics are simple, but the layout doesn’t express them well. A good interface would have helped. Instead, the boards are clunky and not at all intuitive, and there are four of them spread out on the table. A good boardgame interface — or card game interface given that the boards are superfluous — would have made this lean mean game even leaner. Furthermore, The Cards of Cthulhu supposedly supports two to four players, either competitively or cooperatively, but there’s not enough player interaction to really make it a viable way to play. And there’s very little by way of social dynamics to recommend it this way (contrast this with Verssen’s Rise of the Zombies, which has similar interface issues, but taps neatly into the tabletop social dynamic).

Still, I’m totally on board for the card art, the unique character abilities, and the snappy pace. Fantasy Flight made Elder Sign: Omens as a more streamlined and solo friendly version of that unholy mess known as Arkham Horror. Now The Cards of Cthulhu takes the concept further, making your tabletop Lovecraft even more streamlined and even more solo friendly.

You can support the Kickstarter campaign here, securing a copy of the game for $30. The intended ship date is February 2014.

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