Rob: Very few board gamers who have crossed the line from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley to Z-Man and Fantasy Flight have managed to do so without learning about a few go-to Cthulhu-themed titles. I’m looking at you, Arkham Horror and Elder Sign. But there are a whole lot more elder gods in our favorite pastime than that.
Hence today’s review of The Cards of Cthulhu. It’s not the most obscure Lovecraftian card game out there, but this little gem from designer Ian Richard and publisher DVG (Dan Verssen Games) was still quite the surprise.
I first discovered The Cards of Cthulhu the way I imagine most board gamers find out about new games: random chance. A little browsing in an online shop or two and a couple of YouTube videos later, and it was on my list. My initial expectation was for something sort of like a more numbers-driven version of Elder Sign (what with the name-defying necessity for dice), but what I found was definitely something different. Also, I liked it. I just want to get that out of the way.
You play the role of one of several different investigators trying to stop a doomsday cult from waking an elder god and bringing about the end of the world. So, you know, a day ending with “Y” in the Cthulhu universe. Only instead of having to stop one doomsday cult you need to stop four. And resources are limited. And there are several ways for you to fail and/or die, such as ending your turn with a cult board that’s full of minions or, you know, dying.
One of the things I really like about The Cards of Cthulhu is how self-contained it is. You have one deck of cards that represents all the evil minions, otherworldly gates, terrifying horrors, helpful followers, useful artifacts, and irritating cursed objects. Then there are a few dice, a stack of some really nice metal coins, and a small assortment of investigator cards. That’s all you need. Although the box is a bit larger than it needs to be, which is irritating. I can seriously fit all the cards, dice, and coins in a space about 1/5 the size. I think the only reason we have more box is because of the cult boards.
Getting back on track, because you really only have one set of cards to worry about it’s extremely easy to set up and break down. You just shuffle the one deck, select an investigator (randomly or not, it’s your choice), give each player four coins, and you’re good. Then you start drawing cards and hoping the world doesn’t end.
Playing is super-simple, too. You draw one card per cult board (so four to start), then one additional card per open gate. Minions go on the board that matches their color, horrors do the same but come into play face-down because they’re sleeping (really), gates go in the gate space, and everything else like followers and artifacts get set aside. Any followers or artifacts can be purchased using coins, or you may discard them to earn one coin per card instead.
Then it’s time to kick some ass by picking a cult board to attack, deciding whether or not to spend more coins to temporarily add up to three spirit dice to your pool, then rolling everything and clearing out baddies. Each minion has a number on its card that indicates how much total dice value you’ll need to eliminate them, and you can add up the dice however you want so long as you don’t split the difference (i.e. spending dice with a 6 on a minion with a 4 uses up all those dice and you don’t get to keep the leftover 2). You may re-roll as many dice as you want but 1s are locked, so there’s a bit of a push-your-luck mechanic in play here. Each defeated minion also gives you one coin, so with a few lucky rolls you can really stock up.
What makes The Cards of Cthulhu challenging is how quickly everything can get ugly. If you have a few bad rolls, draw a few too many horrors, or fail to optimize your turn there’s a good chance the world is doomed. Don’t misunderstand, though; luck is certainly a factor but strategies like knowing when to take a hit or sacrifice a follower instead can make all the difference.
Despite how much I obviously enjoy this game I do have a couple of problems that extend beyond the oversized box. For starters, as fantastic as the metal coins are there just aren’t enough of them. I run out quite often and end up having to use a spirit die as a counter, even when playing solo. That actually segues nicely to my second problem, which is the way it works with different numbers of players. It’s fantastic when played solo – it actually feels like it’s been designed primarily as a solitaire game – and it’s fun with two players, but it loses a lot of its luster when you go up to three or four. The more players you add the more it disrupts the flow, and don’t even get me started on how inadequate those coins are in a four-person game. There is a sort of add-on pack that includes more dice and coins, but I feel like that’s the sort of thing that should’ve been rolled into a second or third printing rather than sold as an accessory.
The Cards of Cthulhu is an absolutely wonderful solitaire game that isn’t too heavy on the rule or mechanics but still requires some strategy and thought. It’s also a fun two-player game as long as you have extra coins or some stand-in tokens available. If you’re looking for something to keep a larger group busy though, you might want to turn your eyes elsewhere.