Fifteen minute games that aren’t silly or overly simple for two players. Why is that such a rare category? It seems like an ideal way to showcase interesting gameplay concepts. My current favorite is Cold War: CIA vs KGB, which is a series of quick rounds of Blackjack But With Special Powers, situated inside a metagame of agent-based bluffing to win control of classic Cold War countries like Nicaragua, Cuba, and Vietnam. Hey, look, it’s Afghanistan! The more things change…
Rise of Cthulhu, a fifteen minute game that isn’t silly or overly simple for two players, isn’t quite as hearty as Cold War. It’s certainly not as polished (Cold War has been reprinted by Fantasy Flight, and this year they even published a Star Wars version called Star Wars: Empire vs. Rebellion). But it does a great job showcasing an interesting gameplay concept. Namely, the orderly arrangement of sets of cards, with just enough chaos shuffled in the mix to earn its Lovecraftian theme.
After the jump, madness, I tell you!
The basics are like Reiner Knizia’s Battle Line or Schotten-Totten, where each player lines up cards by sets on opposite sides of a node. Whoever has the highest value wins the node. Whoever wins the most nodes wins the game. In Rise of Cthulhu, where the nodes are cities from Lovecraft’s stories, you don’t score opposing sets of cards until one of the elder gods comes into play. When does an elder god come into play? At random but regular intervals. You start the game by dividing the deck into three equal piles, shuffling a randomly chosen elder god into each pile, and then stacking them on top of each other. When an elder god is drawn, it locks down one of the cities. Best out of three wins the game.
But it’s still not quite that simple, because each elder god does something unique. Players take turns drawing cards from the deck, getting closer and closer to the next elder god. You manage the tension between playing cards to control a city, and burning through the deck to bring out the gods. Because when a god comes into play, it favors whomever controls its city. Sometimes it does something terrible. Sometimes it does something not so terrible. You’re only playing with three of the eight included gods, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. Will Cthulhu knock the cards out of the other player’s hand? Will Azathoth change the victory conditions? Or will Yig wipe the table clean? You’ll find out soon enough, as this is a short game. Do you have time for one more? Of course you do.
There’s also a squat little wooden piece with tentacles on top called the Dark Hunter (it looks like a Dark Young of Shub Niggurath to me, but who am I to question the developer’s choice of names?). He sits on a separate face-up stack of cards called The Valley. When you play a card to the Valley, you can move the Dark Hunter to one of the cities. It destroys the highest card, regardless of which side it’s on, and then locks that city down. He’s like a wandering spoiler for powerful cards. This means you don’t just play your highest cards willy nilly. You instead have a delicate game of one-under-manship as you try to get the most points at each city without being vulnerable to the Dark Hunter.
A deck of Lovecraftian monsters with special powers introduces even more chaos. Draw from this deck whenever you have three of a kind in a city. A nightgaunt kidnaps one of your opponent’s cards to your side of the table. Deep ones eat weaker cards. The mi-go imitates any card of your choice. The Hound of Tindalos transcends space and time (i.e. the rules). Some of the theming is, well, forced. Why does a Dark Young make someone discard cards? Why does a shoggoth do what it does? I guess that’s the thing about shoggoths. No one can possibly understand them. Get a straight flush and you draw from a deck of artifacts. Deck of artifacts is a misnomer, because they’re all the same card. The only artifact in the game is a Silver Key, which lets you cancel another player’s card as soon as he plays it. Useful, but a pretty poor excuse for a “deck of artifacts”.
The artwork is really really good. The brooding cities, sinister characters, squirming monsters, and blasted gods are all sharply drawn and sullenly colorful. There’s plenty of detail to get lost in. What could have been five colors and ten numbers is instead a lively rogue’s gallery. The hats worn by the 2 and 9 have nothing on the stylish bowler worn by the 7, whose grotesque familiar probably has to be careful not to knock it off. There’s a tawdry underworldliness to the 2 and 3, and an exotic gypsy vibe to the 5 and the 8. The 9 is probably a 9 because he’s wealthy. Whatever is in the 10’s mysterious box is probably what makes her the 10.
The biggest problem with Rise of Cthulhu is the rules book, which doesn’t do enough to explain the basic gameplay, and especially doesn’t do enough to help you untangle the chaos introduced by the gods and monsters. This is a game sorely in need of a revised rules book. Heck, even an official FAQ would go a long way to smoothing out the rough edges. Figure another ten minutes of playing time for your first few games as you try to look stuff up that isn’t in the rules.
Rise of Cthulhu also suffers from a really peculiar interface cock-up. Values are printed at center of the top of the cards. Who prints card values at the top center, especially when it’s the only information you need to see on the card? If we’ve learned nothing from centuries of playing cards, it’s to print the values in the corner so you can fan the cards out in your hand. How does Rise of Cthulhu not know this? It’s one of the single most mystifying interface designs I’ve ever seen in a game. I’d go so far as to call it maddening. Maybe that’s the point.
I’ve had Rise of Cthulhu for several months now, but I wasn’t going to bother writing a review. It was the product of a Kickstarter in January and the approximately 1200 printed copies were all accounted for. There was no way for you to get it. Writing a review would just be gloating. Fortunately, a successful Kickstarter for a second printing is currently underway. So while you can’t just pick up a copy at the store for immediate gratification or order it online for slightly less immediate gratification, you can get in on the second printing for $25, which includes shipping in the US. Expected delivery is this December. In the meantime, feel free to come over to my house. I’m always up for a quick round or three.