Cthulhu Wars Review

After waiting just over a year longer than advertised, I finally got part of my backer reward from the Cthulhu Wars Kickstarter (just the core game: still waiting on the extras/expansions/exclusive content).

So, was the wait worth it?

For me, yes, and for several reasons.

First, as anyone that reads this blog knows I'm a huge fan of Lovecraftian horror: I have several volumes of Lovecraft's stories (both in dead tree and pdf format), ran a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign based around it (woulda run more, but one of the players started having nightmares about it), often include stars cults in my games and materials, and featured several thematic items in one of my books.

Board game-wise I own Arkham Horror plus a couple expansions, and almost everything from the Mansions of Madness line, but I'm honestly only really a fan of them in concept, especially the latter: unfortunately the setup time, complexity, and—particularly in the case of the latter—the staggering difficulty largely relegate them to our bookshelf.

Cthulhu Wars bucks this trend by not only having an incredibly simple setup time, and being very easy to learn and quick to play (after a few games Melissa is no longer asking questions at all), but it also flips the concept around: instead of playing fragile, mortal investigators that get driven insane and/or devoured by monsters, you are monsters, and an entire cult's worth at that.

Phenomenal cosmic power (in various states of paintage), or itty-bitty investigator?
So the game is easy to learn, setup, and actually play. All great benchmarks for any game, but there's something else that I like about it. See, one of my upcoming setting books takes place on a world orbited by the charred corpses of beings at least thematically similar to great old ones, and after our Ravenloft game wraps up the players want to go through an actual Sundered World campaign (which has corpse stars).

What does Cthulhu Wars have to do with any of this, you ask? The minis: they're not only mostly awesome, but perfectly scaled for tabletop use. Honestly even if I hated the game in actual play (which I don't), I still wouldn't feel like I wasted any money just for this reason.

And on that note the game is somewhat surprisingly (for me and my group) fun, mostly because we're not into wargames, which means I'm not sure if it's similar to other wargames out there.

I've never played Risk, and I've played Axis & Allies once but don't remember it. Besides Warhammer 40,000 the only other wargame I've played more than a couple times is Conquest of Nerath; this game is much, much simpler, you only use six-siders, and I think there is some actual diversity faction-wise (I might be mis-remembering, but from what I recall the units did the same thing, just had different names and models).

So...yeah, I can't make a recommendation by comparing it to another wargames out there. We'll be doing a boardgame hangout next week, so if you wanna get in on that or just watch and see how it plays, feel free to jump in (hit me up on G+). Otherwise if you like fantasy games, or any game with Lovecraftian horrors, if nothing else the box will give you plenty of quality minis to play with.

What's In The Box
The Core Game comes with four factions (and there are expansions aplenty on the way): Crawling Chaos, Great Cthulhu, Black Goat, and Yellow Sign. There's a faction sheet (for tracking power, ongoing benefits for your faction, showing the costs for summoning monsters and awakening old ones, and recording what spellbooks you have/how to get them), awesome minis, and six spellbooks for each.

There's also a crapload of standard six-siders (though you can get special ones with symbols), gate tokens (still waiting on my gate marker minis), desecration tokens (for the Yellow Sign), a Doom Point tracker, Doom Point markers for each faction, several Ritual of Annihilation trackers (depending on how many people are playing), and two double-sided boards that depict the world (which sides you use depends on how many people are playing).

As I said above the miniatures are mostly awesome. I'm sure some people might complain about how certain monsters are depicted, but my main criticism—aside from the sculpt quality of a few—is that since I like painting my minis (check the image dump below) I wish they had come un-assembled; some of them (namely the fungus of Yuggoth and byakhee) will be all but impossible to complete without chopping them apart.

Bringing About the Apocalypse
Setup is a breeze: you gather the minis and spellbooks by the corresponding faction sheet, put a gate and six cultists in each starting location, lay out the Doom Point and Ritual of Annihilation trackers, and you're ready to go.

At the start of each turn, every player gathers power. You get 1 point per cultist you have in play, 1 per uncontrolled gate on the map, and 2 per gate that you control. You can also gain bonus power if you manage to capture enemy cultists. Some factions can gain power through other means: Great Cthulhu has an option to gain 1 power for each enemy controlled gate in an ocean zone, and the Yellow Sign gains 1 power for each zone that both has one of their units and a desecration token.

Once you've got your power all figured out, each player takes turns spending it to perform one or more actions until they run out of power, at which point the round ends and you start over.

Most actions are Common, which means that you can only do one of them before your turn ends. This is stuff like Recruiting a Cultist (which you can only do if you have fewer than six), Move (you can move multiple units by spending more than 1 power, but only one zone per turn), Summon a Monster, Awaken your Great Old One, use some faction spellbooks, and so on.

A couple actions are Unlimited, which means you can do them in addition to taking a Common action. By default the only Unlimited action is Control/Abandon Gate (so you don't have to spend an entire turn leaving or hopping on a gate), but once you have all six spellbooks Battle also becomes Unlimited, so you can move all of your units into a zone and get straight to fighting.

Speaking of fighting, this is also incredibly simple: each unit has a Combat Value, so both players add them all up and roll that many six-siders. Each 6 is a Kill, and each 4-5 is a Pain. For each Kill you inflict the opposing has to remove one of their units, and for each Pain they have to move a unit one zone away, into a zone that doesn't have units from the faction that forced them to flee (if you are completely surrounded, then you lose one more unit and you don't move at all).

Now, there are some things that can make combat a bit more complicated, namely pre- and post-battle effects.

Pre-battle effects are triggered before the dice are rolled, like Cthulhu's Devour ability, and if you have the Invisibility spellbook then your flying polyps can exempt a unit from the fight (great for keeping your cultists safe, or preventing a potent enemy unit from participating). Post-battle effects happen once the dice settle, like the Black Goat's Necrophagy spellbook.

Keep in mind the point of the game isn't to crush the other factions (though it certainly helps): the goal is to have the most Doom Points and/or all six of your spellbooks, either when someone hits the 30 mark on the Doom Point tracker, or when the Ritual of Annihilation is advanced to Instant Death.

You get one Doom Point for each gate you control when the round starts, and can get more by snagging Elder Sign tokens or by advancing the Ritual of Annihilation. You have to choose whether to advanced the Ritual at the start of the round, after you've gathered power, so depending on when you do it, it can eat up a significant chunk of your power for a turn (and it gets progressively more expensive each time anyone does so).

The upside is that you both get double the amount of Doom Points you get from gates and some Elder Sign tokens.

Elder Sign tokens are worth 1-3 Doom Points, but you don't have to reveal or even play them right away. In fact you can keep them hidden from the other players, and cash them in at the end of the game when Doom Points are being tallied (great for fucking over a player that thought they were winning). Each faction has their own way of getting Elder Sign tokens besides the Ritual: Great Cthulhu gets one each time they Awaken Cthulhu, and with the right spellbook the Black Goat can sacrifice a cultist before gathering power to get one.

That's something else that I love about this game: each faction plays very differently. We've played the game several times, usually with all factions at the table (we didn't know you were supposed to at first), and it's been an interesting learning experience for us.

For example the Black Goat can summon more than one monster per action, you just gotta pay the total power. This means that you can drop a trio of dark young out on one action, and quickly start spreading out. This is something you want to do, since three of the Black Goat spellbooks require you to occupy a certain number of zones at a time, and one of them requires that you share spaces with each other faction at some point.

On the other hand, the Yellow Sign works best when you move a cultist out, Awaken the King in Yellow right away, and start slowly making your way around the board desecrating zones. Not only do you get free units doing this, but you also get extra power if you have units in desecrated zones when you gather power. Finally, three of your spellbooks are acquired by desecrating zones with certain symbols.

And that's just scratching the surface: each faction has something unique that they get (Crawling Chaos units move two zones instead of one), the Great Old Ones each have their own thing (like Cthulhu being stupidly cheap to Awaken once he is killed the first time, and the pre-combat auto-kill), and spellbooks have different requirements, obviously do different things, and can be gained in any order (which adds to the replay ability).

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