Mythos Mayhem: What is Cthulhu Wars?

Shub-Niggurath visits the city.

Hi there, and welcome to Mythos Mayhem, Gamerati’s new series on Cthulhu Wars, the strategic game of Lovecraftian end-time beatdowns from Petersen Games! I’m Alex Flagg, game designer and co-owner of Crafty Games and enthusiastic wargames blogger at DZCommenter.com.  I backed Cthulhu Wars’ original Kickstarter and have been playing steadily since February 2015. The depth of strategy and tactics in the game really impressed me, to the point where I thought the game deserved the same sort of treatment I’ve been giving Dropzone Commander. So let’s start with the basic question: just what is this game, anyway?

visit cthulhuwars.com

Thematically, Cthulhu Wars is a game set in the modern day, when the stars come right and the famous horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos return to conquer the Earth for their own. The cultists, creatures, and beings from beyond the stars have gathered into factions, each following one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones – immortal alien creatures (effectively gods) who once ruled the planet, and wish to once again. Each player chooses a unique faction and battles their opponents for total dominion and the end of humankind once and for all!

When I first discovered Cthulhu Wars during its Kickstarter back in 2013, I didn’t have much of an idea of what the game was supposed to be, beyond being game created by Sandy Petersen (co-creator of Call of Cthulhu RPG, the single most-influential expression of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and the Cthulhu Mythos to date), with piles of gorgeous miniatures from Fenris Miniatures, and the extraordinary art of Richard Luong. That was enough to get me to back the original campaign, regardless of what the game played like. What I discovered after receiving my (absolutely massive) game box in the mail, and playing it pretty much every other week since then, is that it’s a very good game, indeed.

CTHULHU WARS IN A NUTSHELL

Cthulhu-Wars-In-Action

At its core, Cthulhu Wars is a strategic area-control game, where players battle to take and hold spaces on a map of the Earth and score victory points from round to round. The game ramps up quickly (with many factions starting just 2 spaces apart in many cases!), rewarding players who play boldly and aggressively from the get-go. Those familiar with Risk, Axis & Allies, or Fantasy Flight’s excellent Chaos in the Old World will feel right at home playing Cthulhu Wars, but the game has plenty of its own unique experiences to offer as well.

With all its figures and emphasis on player interaction and conflict, the game is distinctly American (as opposed to parallel-play Eurogame experience), but there’s no player elimination – such are the advantages of being an immortal being from beyond the stars! To paraphrase a famous bit from Call of Cthulhu, even if you nuke a foe’s Great Old One, it just comes back 15 minutes later, angry and radioactive…

Cthulhu Wars’ turn structure is simple. At the beginning of each turn, all players gather power (action points), based on the number of Cultists and Gates they control; the player with the most power becomes the first player and sets whether play will pass clockwise or counter-clockwise. Then players score Doom (victory points) for every Gate they control, and may perform a Ritual of Annihilation to score more Doom and move the game towards an earlier end. During the Action Phase, each player spends power to take an action (such as building Gates, recruiting or capturing Cultists, summoning monsters or Great Old Ones, battling enemies, etc.), then play passes to the next player. When a player runs out of power, they are out for the rest of the turn; when all players are out of power, the new turn begins.

As the players succeed in completing certain tasks during play (as defined by their faction), they also earn Spellbooks, which they choose and add to their faction card to power-up their units and unlock new abilities and strategies. Once a player has collected 6 Spellbooks, they become eligible to win the game, incentivizing players to both play to the spirit of their faction and to try and undermine their opponents’ actions at the same time. It’s this confluence of faction-based strategy, Spellbooks, and player interaction that gives the game so much strategic depth and replayability (see below).

The game ends when one or more players either earn 30 Doom or the Ritual of Annihilation reaches “Instant Death” during the Doom Phase. The player with the highest Doom and all 6 Spellbooks is the winner! In most cases, this takes about 5-7 turns for a complete game, depending on how aggressively the group is playing; once your group is familiar with the basics, you can easily complete a 4-player game in about 2 hours.

THE FACTIONS

The heart of Cthulhu Wars is its factions – a tightly-themed collection of cultists and monsters in service to a Great Old One. The base game includes 4 factions featuring many of H.P. Lovecraft’s most popular creations (figure colors in parenthesis):

Great CthulhuGreat Cthulhu (green): The Man Himself leads this aquatic-themed faction, supported by protoplasmic Shoggoths, amphibious Deep Ones, and alien Star Spawn. Cthulhu and friends are easily the most combat-oriented faction in the game, with lots of tricks to get into combat quickly, control enemy Cultists through their dreams, make his various minions terrifying combatants, and turn the sea into a source of power and weapon of conquest. As befitting the stories of Lovecraft, Cthulhu is immortal and even earns Elder Signs (random victory points) for returning to the struggle. He is, after all, the god that will herald the end of the world…as well as the end of his opponents’ hopes for victory!

Black GoatBlack Goat (red): This faction are the worshippers of Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat in the Woods with the Thousand Young, a dark goddess tied to fertility cults the world over. True to literary form, the Black Goat faction fuels its growth through sacrifice of its own units and tends to spread across the map slowly, like a disease, using her Ghouls, Mi-Go, and dreaded Dark Young to build an unassailable power base. Though the faction lacks the fancy tricks of the other main factions, the Black Goat’s forces become cheaper and more effective at gathering Power, and can be summoned in swarms to crush the enemy beneath weight of numbers.

Crawling ChaosCrawling Chaos (blue): The devotees of Nyarlathotep, Messenger of the Outer Gods, are masters of trickery and manipulation. Speedy but initially weak in battle, Crawling Chaos’s otherworldly monsters come to learn many tricks to even the odds: Nightgaunts can sacrifice themselves to remove enemy models from a battle; Flying Polyps can cause enemy units to sit out a fight; and Hunting Horrors can appear whenever and wherever they’re needed. Nyarlathotep himself is a beast, growing stronger in battle the more Spellbooks both sides have, gaining power or Elder Signs from any Great Old Ones he defeats, and typically incapable of dying anything less than another Great Old One!

Yellow SignYellow Sign (yellow, duh): This Yellow Sign faction sports not one but two iconic Great Old Ones – the King in Yellow and Hastur, He Who Shall Not Be Named (uh…oops?). Like the stories it’s based on, the Yellow Sign is all about corruption; in order to win, the faction has to move throughout the map, Desecrating certain areas and summoning new Cultists, Undead, and powerful Byakhee. This faction is cagey and unpredictable, and very often (in my experience) ends the game spread out all over the map, with a massive pile of Elder Signs that makes it nearly impossible for opponents to guess how well they’re doing until it’s too late.

Beyond the box, there are 4 more standalone factions: Sleeper, Opener of the Way, Windwalker, and Tcho-Tcho (added as part of the Cthulhu Wars: Onslaught 2 Kickstarter). I haven’t been able to get my hot little hands on these guys yet, but they’re supposed to start arriving in people’s hands within the month!

DEFINING FEATURES OF CTHULHU WARS

Though Cthulhu Wars has a great deal of great features, there are some that really stood out to me the first time I played, and that stick with me 6 months later. Here are a few of my favorites.

Top-notch figures and production values
Petersen Games calls Cthulhu Wars a “premium game experience,” and when opening the box, one cannot help but be impressed. The huge box is filled to the brim with colorful, beautifully sculpted renditions of the most popular critters from Lovecraft’s twisted brain, from the hunched and dog-like Ghouls to the swirling fleshy masses of Star Spawn. The Great Old Ones figures are massive (Cthulhu is over 7 inches tall!) and packed with detail (and creepy as all get out). Similarly, the board is handsome, the rules are glossy and packed with great art, and tokens made of thick, full-color chipboard, ensuring the game looks fantastic while you play.

The Spellbook system
The innovation that has most impressed me about Cthulhu Wars is the Spellbook system – how they’re earned, what they do, and how they sculpt play and asymmetrical strategy during the game (see below).

Yellow Sign faction card with Spellbooks on the right.

Spellbooks are earned much like achievements in video games: you get one whenever you complete a set of prerequisites defined on your faction card (such when Cthulhu kills or eats an enemy combatant in battle, or Crawling Chaos controls 4 or more Gates at a time). Players must pursue these prerequisites to be in contention to win the game (you need to have all 6 Spellbooks to be in the running), so the chase to finish them – and to deny your opponents the opportunity to finish theirs – has a huge impact on gameplay.

Every faction comes with 6 spellbooks, each of which providing a thematic expansion to how the faction works: for example, Cthulhu’s Absorb spellbook gives him the ability to sacrifice a model during battle to give one of his Shoggoths 3 additional dice, while Dreams lets the player spend 3 Power to exchange an enemy cultist with one of his own. Generally, about half these Spellbooks are general-use or are good in the early game, while require your Great Old One or more expensive monsters in play to get the most use out of them. However, none are useless – even a Spellbook that radically powers up your Great Old One (such as Crawling Chaos’ Emissary of the Outer Gods or Yellow Sign’s The Third Eye) can quickly turn the game when played at the right time.

Simple rules
In a game with so many components and options (14 expansions originally; 21 including the new additions in the Kickstarter), it could be easy and even likely to bloat the game with rules and make it harder than the core experience. Fortunately, rules-wise, Cthulhu Wars is actually fairly simple. There are only a handful of basic actions everyone can take, making planning a turn easy and keeping the game moving at a brisk pace. The basic rule of one action per player turn also avoids option paralysis and gives everyone a chance to recover should they make a suboptimal move (thus taking the onus off of planning and putting more on playing). Even Battle is simple, just requiring players to add up the Combat scores on each side and roll that many dice, with results of 4­-5 causing Pain (forcing a unit out of the Area) and 6 causing Kills.  This basic simplicty makes it exceptionally easy to learn and remember the basics of the game, freeing up valuable attention to focus on key goals like good Power management and opponents’ actions.

Asymmetrical strategy
While Cthulhu Wars is easy to learn, it’s also tough to master thanks to the very balanced and asymmetrical play experience of factions. Each faction has its own unique set of monsters, abilities, Spellbook requirements and choices, and other tricks that provide each their own path to victory. Put more simply, while all factions win the same way (getting 6 spellbooks and having the most Doom), the ways they get there are hugely different – what works for one faction will not work for another faction. Choosing a different faction is in many ways playing a very different game, which, combined with the strategic flexibility of Spellbook choice and use, gives Cthulhu Wars a great deal of replayability – a real plus for a game with this sort of price point. There’s too much to cover all these issues here, so I’ll get into the differences in factions and the specific strategies for each in later articles.

Cthulhu vs. the Black Goat

A strong metagame
My playgroup is a band of experienced gamers, most of whom have been playing board and wargames together for the better part of 15 years. We know each other well, and are not afraid to use table talk and politicking to get what we want during a game, even if that game has no explicit social component. Cthulhu Wars really encourages not just beating each other up and rolling piles of dice (though that’s well and good!), but cooperating and conspiring with one another to foil the leading player or to achieve your own goals. Very often, the winners of our games will not be the person who built a dominant battle machine and crushed their way around the board, but the player who built alliances (and probably betrayed them) and bided their time until the right opportunity came to strike. Any game that encourages player interaction through both conflict and cooperation is alright in my book!

LET THE MAYHEM BEGIN!

Of course, there’s a lot more to talk about specific strategies and faction of Cthulhu Wars, but we’ll save those for some upcoming articles. If you want to learn more about the game, Petersen Games has a raft of great reviews and a strong forum presence over on BoardGameGeek and a lot of in-depth video on their YouTube channel.

If you’ve decided to take the plunge, a word of warning – stock is very low, with only a few copies of the first game available in retail. However, the Onslaught 2 Kickstarter (running right now) has tiers to get a copy of the game delivered out of Petersen Games’ remaining stock (Pnakotic Manuscripts tiers), to back for any of the expansion materials, or the whole shebang! Check it out here!

I’ll be back in a week with a more detailed breakdown of Cthulhu Wars in action, including basic strategies and info on starting (and winning) Battles for any faction! Catch you soon, fellow cultists!

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