Welcome back to the second article in Mythos Mayhem – our series covering gameplay and strategy for Petersen Games’ Cthulhu Wars! If you’re new to the game, you might want to check out our first article, “What is Cthulhu Wars?” here.
Even if you’ve played wargames or strategic board games before, Cthulhu Wars has its own unique timing and strategies that set it apart. So let’s to talk a bit about how the game flows, and strategies any faction should consider during each phase of the game.
Even though Cthulhu Wars is a big box game, chock full of minis, most games only last about 5-6 rounds (particularly with experienced groups). This is a really important part of your strategy, as in that time, you must…
- Earn all 6 of your Spellbooks by completing the prerequisites on your faction card
- Score as many Doom points as possible (by controlling Gates during the Doom phase or gathering Elder Signs)
- Survive your opponents’ attempts to deny you both!
This means you’re going to want a plan, and your opening moves can affect your fortunes much later in the game. As such, it’s better to think about tactics in three distinct phases: opening moves (Turns 1-2); mid-game moves (turns 3-4); and late game moves (turns 5 and beyond). Your focus on which Spellbook requirements to pursue; how to engage your opponents; and which units and actions you should be taking all tend to change in each of these phases. So let’s dig in!
The first two turns of Cthulhu Wars are all about establishing your base – building Gates, grabbing the simpler Spellbooks, and setting the stage to summon your Great Old One in the mid game. In this phase of the game, there is very little combat (or if there is, it’s coming at the cost of building one’s power base), so you can afford to focus on your own objectives, rather than the machinations of others.
Try to Get to 10 Power in Turn 2
Power is everything in Cthulhu Wars, so your most important job in the first turn is to make sure you have enough Power to keep up with your opponents. No matter your faction, you should always set yourself up to have at least 10 Power in turn 2. With just the base game, getting to 10 means Moving one or two Cultists with one action, then building a Gate with a second (total investment 4-5 Power), for a total cost of at least half your starting Power. You can always spend your remaining 3-4 Power to build a second Gate (setting you for 12 Power in Turn 2) but that leaves you dangerously exposed to your opponents (see below).
Get High (Priests)
If you’re playing with the High Priest expansion (my personal favorite), your Power-generating options really open up. Recruiting a High Priest costs 3 Power – the same price of a Gate – but they also generate Power and control Gates like a normal Cultist and can also be sacrificed at a later time for 2 Power. With your opening 8 Power, you can Move, build a Gate, recruit a High Priest, and summon a 1-cost monster, which will give you access to up to 13 Power in Turn 2 (7 Power for cultists + 4 Power from Gates + 2 by sacrificing High Priest). That extra 2 Power can make a massive difference in Turn 2, especially if you plan to summon your Great Old One early (see below).
Cover Your Ass(ets)
While there’s not too much aggression in the early game – Cultists have 0 Combat and Power’s too scarce to summon the really powerful monsters or Great Old Ones – you still need to make sure you don’t lose valuable Power by overextending. Remember that any Monster can capture a Cultist for just 1 Power, even if it has 0 Combat! A lone Cultist on a Gate is ripe for an opponent to swoop in with a monster + Cultist, capture your solo Cultist, then take the Gate – a 3 Power swing for the next round (if you see an opponent make that sort of move, you should definitely take advantage).
The best way to protect your Gates and Cultists in the early game is to make sure you never leave a Cultist alone in an Area. Moving or leaving 2 Cultists into the same Area where you build a Gate is one way to protect them, but another, even more effective way is to move into an Area, build a Gate, then summon the cheapest Monster you’ve got to protect all the Cultists in the same Area. Monsters cannot capture Cultists in areas occupied by other monsters, and since every faction has a 1 Cost monster (the same cost as recruiting a Cultist) you can protect multiple Cultists without risk of losing any Power short of Battle (which is rare in the early game).
Prepare for Your Great Old One
This one took me a few games to learn, but Cthulhu Wars assumes that Great Old Ones appear in the early- to mid-game, not the late game as you might expect. Most GOO’s cost 10 Power, so you won’t see them in the first round, but factions which include 2 Great Old Ones (Yellow Sign and Windwalker) are certainly capable of getting one on the board in the early game – and often do.
Additionally, every faction earns a Spellbook just for summoning their GOO(s), so it’s a big cost you’ll need to plan eventually anyway. Look carefully at the rules and cost to Awaken your GOO and start doing the ground work you’ll need to bring them into play. For instance, Yellow Sign will probably move 2 Cultists away from their starting space, then Awaken the King in Yellow on Turn 1; Opener or Sleeper might move, build a Gate, then summon the monster each of those factions requires to bring their GOO into play for use in later turns; and everyone else might just focus on building and protecting a few Gates to ensure they have sufficient Power to summon the GOO.
Spellbooks in the Early Game
Generally, it’s a good idea to try and earn at least 2 of your Spellbooks in the first 2 turns of the game. Establishing your base is the first priority in the early game, so you’ll probably want to choose the requirements that are the lowest-hanging fruit (such as sacrificing 2 Cultists as an action for Black Goat, or capturing an enemy Cultist with Crawling Chaos) to get the ball rolling.
However, the early game is also a time when taking less-than-maximized actions hurts you the least, so you could alternatively take it on chin and get difficult or expensive Spellbooks out of the way early (such as Crawling Chaos’ “As an Action, pay 6 Power” or Windwalker’s “Become the First Player” requirements). Doing so in the early game gives you a chance to recover and try again if you fail, and ensures your opponents are less able to take advantage of your vulnerability.
Generally, you should choose Spellbooks that are most widely applicable for your faction in the early game; those that improve a Great Old One or rely on having a lot of monsters are far less useful than, say, those that affect all your Cultists, introduce unique actions for your faction, or improve the inexpensive monsters you’re able to afford in the early game (I’ll discuss specific Spellbook-choosing strategy alongside future articles on the factions).
With their bases of power set up, in turns 3 and 4 players start scoring substantial amounts of Doom, awakening Great Old Ones and developing their factions via Spellbook choices. Natural expansion of territory means factions also start competing for the same Areas, so Battle and captured Cultists are far more common occurrences.
Get Your Great Old One into Play
The mid-game is when you want to get your Great Old One on the board and wrecking face. Beyond just being an automatic Spellbook, Great Old Ones bring a lot to your faction: they’re usually your best combat units; they earn you Elder Signs when you perform a Ritual of Annihilation; they can capture Cultists, even when monsters are present; and at least 2 of your most powerful Spellbooks either rely on or improve when your GOO is in play.
Mid-game is the time to start expanding your territory, but the space on the Cthulhu Wars maps is tight – like “knife fight in a phone booth” tight. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to get aggressive, and turns 3 and 4 are a good time to start. Around this point, you should have a few monsters and your Great Old One in play, and have earned some combat-focused Spellbooks, so it’s a good idea to start moving aggressively and attacking targets of opportunity. Unless you’re a really combat-focused faction like Cthulhu, Opener, or Windwalker, you’ll probably start by attacking the fringes of your opponents’ power base or picking off isolated groups of units to inflict some attrition and blunt future attacks on your borders.
Fight (for) the Power
Like the early game, the best place to spend your still-limited forces are Areas where you can swing the balance of Power in your favor. Lightly-protected Gates are always a great place to go after in the mid-game, as taking out or capturing Cultists and Gates produce huge swings in Power. It’s not uncommon to see players with 15 or more Power in the mid-game, especially if they’re doing a good job at consolidating their Gates or taking them from others.
If you don’t have areas to you can attack, you can also start building Gates closer to enemy borders. Expect these Areas to be hotly contested, and keep monsters nearby to defend in case of attack.
Spellbooks in the Mid-Game
By the mid-game, you should have your forces built up enough to start earning your spellbooks in fairly short order. It’s a good idea to earn at least 4, preferably 5, and hopefully all of your Spellbooks by the end of Turn 4; this way, you narrow your opponents’ chance of preventing you from completing all 6 Spellbooks and thus shutting down your chances of winning entirely! Having 5 Spellbooks by Turn 4 means you’re extremely likely to get all 6, even if your opponents actively conspire to prevent you from doing so (as my playgroup tends to do – they can smell weakness like a shark smells blood!).
If you don’t have all your Spellbooks by mid-game, your choices still matter. At this point, you should have all your generally-applicable Spellbooks, plus those that fit your Great Old One’s play style best. For instance, if playing Yellow Sign and I summon Hastur, I probably have to choose between the Spellbooks He Who Shall Not Be Named (which lets Hastur teleport around the board) and The Third Eye (which decreases the cost to Desecrate with the King in Yellow to 1 Power and grants an Elder Sign on success); which Spellbook I grab would depend entirely on whether the King in Yellow is in play, is actively being targeted by my opponents, and whether he’s completed his “Desecration tour” around the map.
LATE GAME MOVES
In turns 5 and 6, the game accelerates as players rush to complete their Spellbooks, control 4 or more Gates, and regularly perform Rituals of Annihilation to double their score and get Elder Signs for GOOs in play. Most factions will have nearly all their models on the map, and the resulting crowd means there are lots of Battles as players try to grab their last Spellbooks and enemy Gates or thin the opponents’ numbers.
Finish Those Spellbooks!
Job #1 in the late game is to earn your last Spellbooks if you haven’t already completed them; you must have all 6 in order to qualify to win the game, so get your butt in gear! If you’re still not done, protect your Gates and focus all your energy and actions on getting these Spellbooks first, then you can turn your attention to lesser concerns like “scoring points” and “winning the game” later.
Battle, Battle, Battle
Once you’ve earned all 6 Spellbooks, you also get an additional but easily-overlooked benefit: Battle becomes an unlimited action for you. This means each time you take an action, you can also start Battles anywhere you share an Area with enemies (provided you spend 1 Power per Battle). Thus, you can move into an Area and immediately start a battle; build a Gate in 1 Area and start a Battle in another; etc. Obviously, you don’t want to be pointlessly aggressive – after all, it’s costly to move or resummon units – but you be much more opportunistic and aggressive in the late game.
By the late game, there’s generally one player who leads in Doom – either by points on the Doom Track, or by having a big pile of Elder Signs. Since the board is crowded and most players can get aggressive, the late game is a good time to build some alliances with other players to start undermining the lead player. Not only does it serve to make for a closer game, it can also refocus your opponents on what matters and take some heat off you (if you’re not the lead player, that is!) to grab a few extra Gates or backstab an opponent who was beating up on you. As a frequent Sleeper player, I often spend much of the mid game building alliances and biding my time, then pouncing on Gates in the late game to grab lots of points once everyone has punched themselves out on the leader…
Don’t Forget to Ritual!
When we were new to Cthulhu Wars, the game has shifted from ending when one player has more then 30 Doom, to ending when the Ritual of Annihilation crosses “Instant Death.” Rituals are an incredibly valuable way for scoring extra Doom and Elder Signs (see below), but they can also be a crucial tool for the leader to end the game before he or she gets brought down by enemies. When you control lots of Gates or are in the lead, Rituals of Annihilation are a vital component to your endgame strategy.
Spellbooks in the Late Game
Obviously, if you’re going to even win the game, you need to get all your Spellbooks by the end of the game – preferably by Turn 6, but maybe even early as Turn 5 if your group has been aggressive about Rituals of Annihilation. If folks have been slower to score Doom and Elder Signs, and there’s been little action on the Ritual track, the pressure is off – but you should still do everything in your power to get those Spellbooks out of the way as soon as you can.
If you find yourself needing 2 or more Spellbooks at Turn 5, try first to “bundle” them together – for instance, if playing Black Goat and you don’t yet have the “Have Units in 8 Areas” and “Share Areas with all enemies,” try and move so you can accomplish both at the same time. If bundling isn’t possible, try to earn your costliest/toughest remaining Spellbooks first, as you want to leave yourself as much leeway as possible to earn it should something go wrong.
We all know that scoring Doom points via Gates is essential to winning a game of Cthulhu Wars, but there are two connected scoring mechanics – Rituals of Annihilation and Elder Signs – that are not quite as clear in their application.
Rituals of Annihilation
A Ritual of Annihilation can be performed during the Doom phase, after gaining Doom from Gates you control. The Power cost of a Ritual depends on how close to the marker is to Instant Death; when the marker reaches Instant Death, the game immediately ends. Each time you perform a Ritual, you score 1 Doom per Gate you control (effectively letting you score twice in one Doom phase!), and gain 1 Elder Sign per Great Old One under your control. Rituals are thus the second end condition to Cthulhu Wars, with the added bonus of being a Doom-generating machine for players who work to control lots of Gates.
So when should you perform a Ritual? In my experience, it’s most efficient to perform a Ritual when you at least 3 Gates, and definitely when you have 4 or more. Rituals are not cheap – costing at least 5 and up to 10 Power – so performing one when you don’t have enough Gates won’t yield enough Doom to justify the Power cost. My rule of thumb is to only Ritual when I stand to earn at least 1 Doom per 2 Power cost (meaning I might Ritual if I control 3 Gates and the Ritual cost is 6, and will definitely Ritual if I control 6 Gates, no matter the cost). The only times I might hold back are when I need to summon my Great Old One for the first time (to grab that Spellbook); I’m being ganged up on by all my opponents; or I’m a long ways out of the lead in the late game.
If you’re the lead player, you should definitely look at the Ritual as a doomsday button, especially once the Ritual track is within 2 spaces of Instant Death. In this situation, you’ll probably win first player, thus having the first opportunity to Ritual (and score Doom for your Gates a second time + an Elder Sign per GOO), which puts the rest of your opponents in a predicament: do they also Ritual to score their Gates again, knowing the game will end due to Instant Death; or do they skip the Ritual, missing out on the extra Doom and Elder Signs, in the hopes of pulling you out of the first position during one last Action phase (since you’re pretty sure to Ritual in the next turn)? It’s a tough call.
All factions can earn Elder Signs by performing a Ritual of Annihilation; additionally, most factions have abilities or Spellbooks that grant them access to Elder Signs (such as Great Cthulhu’s Immortal faction ability which grants an Elder Sign each time they summon a GOO, or Black Goat’s Blood Sacrifice Spellbook which allows the player to sacrifice a Cultist during the Doom phase to gain an Elder Sign).
Though the values are random (and held secretly until revealed), each Elder Sign is worth an average of 1.5 Doom points. This is essential information, as some factions – especially Great Cthulhu or Yellow Sign when they get on a roll – can easily have 10 or more Elder Signs, allowing them to end the game quite suddenly in the Doom Phase. Keep this score in mind as plan your Doom scoring and try to guess the Doom totals of others.
Oh man – that went waaay longer than I expected, and that’s just the general advice! Like I said: Cthulhu Wars has got a lot of depth and strategy to explore. Next week, we’ll start digging into strategies for the individual factions: their themes, Spellbooks, and specific strategies for playing (and winning)! We’ll kick off with the man, the myth, the legend – Great Cthulhu and his armies of aquatic ne’er-do-wells.
If you’re interested in Cthulhu Wars, this is a great time to jump in! Check it out right here.
We’ll see you next week, Cultists!
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