‘Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game’ Delivers the Dread (But Fun Dread)

I have been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos since I discovered it way back in middle school. Later in high school, I would buy a copy of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that NONE of my friends ever wanted to play, but I still loved reading the resource books and adventures (and often managed to merge them into my D&D games as DM). Lurking Horror is still one of my favorite Zork-style text adventure games, and in more recent years I’ve been having fun with the games Betrayal at House on the Hill, Elder Sign, and Mansions of Madness. (And if you’ve never played Ancient Terrible Things, you might want to give it a shot. Very fun, and it also has an expansion called The Lost Charter.)

I’m not sure if Cthulhu fans will sympathize or not, but one BIG problem I often have with my fascination with Cthulhu-centric games is finding players! I get that not everyone is into the dark and foreboding themes that are frequently (constantly?) embedded into these types of games. Thankfully, many of the modern Cthulhu-themed board games offer solo variants. I don’t always like to play solo boardgames, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice. I’m always on the lookout for new Cthulhu Mythos games, so it’s great when I find one that also offers solo rules.

mythos-and-minions

Early in August, I got the chance to try out a new Cthulhu Mythos game at Gen Con. The game is from Wyvren Gaming, and it’s called Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game. There are a number of reasons why I am absolutely loving this game:

  1. It offers both cooperative and solo play — I go back and forth on cooperative Cthulhu-style games, but this one nails it. You really do need to coordinate with your fellow players if you’re going to survive and defeat an Elder God. If you’re out to survive and aren’t finding ways to help your teammates, your odds just dropped drastically.
  2. The artwork — In a nutshell, this game is dripping with dread… and the artwork just sells it. Every card just perfectly captures the mood. The dark shades, thick lines, and (sometimes) disturbing imagery had me often just staring at the cards and forgetting to play them.
  3. The balance — Let’s face it, most Cthulhu stories just don’t end well for the poor soul narrating the tale. In my mind, any good Cthulhu game is going to offer a real risk of losing. Wyvren Gaming states that most players will win around 60% of the time on Normal Mode (more on that later) and only about 20% in Cthulhu Mode (the harder option). After playing a number of games, I can verify that these are pretty accurate. The rules are fair… there is game balance. But the word “balanced” definitely should mean something different to Mythos fans.
  4. Expansion — The game box has plenty of room for the game to expand. I don’t know of Wyvren intends to add to the game, but there are a number of card categories (such as Library or Minions) that could easily be upgraded with new card sets. Even the Elder Gods deck (the Big Bads of the game) screams for more–more powerful, more deadly… you get the idea.
  5. Variability — Tucked into the box are over twenty Character cards, each with different Health and Sanity values as well as special abilities. The rules state players should pick a character randomly, but you’ll soon find your favorites. (My two favorites so far are Hunter and Mortician, but Librarian is also becoming a fav.) Combine this with the dozen Elder Gods that are possible and the 10 varieties of Minions that can be spawned, and you won’t be playing the same game again. (And this doesn’t include the over two-dozen Mythos random event cards that can totally save the day or destroy humanity faster than you can spell doom.)

library

In terms of rules, the game is fairly straightforward to learn. The Setup phase includes:

  1. Each player chooses a character card. This is supposed to be random, but feel free to pick one you like. I’m finding that I have the most fun, however, picking randomly. Grandmother came up for one game, and her shotgun was very helpful.
  2. Each player will build their own deck consisting of Starter Cards plus cards obtained (purchased) from the Miskatonic University. When starting, however… ten cards that include seven Sleuth cards and three Stagger cards.
  3. Five cards are revealed from the shuffled Miskatonic Library deck, and a number of Elder God cards are selected (randomly) based on the number of players in the game and whether you are playing Normal mode or Cthulhu mode. Number of players also determines how many Mythos event cards are revealed per turn.

elder-gods-and-misc

Players work through three phases before Combat, with each player performing all three phases before the next player moves through the phases:

  1. Preparation Phase — This is where players examine their hand (containing five cards drawn from their shuffled deck) and choose to activate cards to be used during the Preparation phase. Players will be using Moxie to purchase cards as well as deliver damage to enemies, so you’ll always be trying to balance holding back some Moxie for the Combat phase with activating enough Moxie cards to make needed purchases. (Stagger cards don’t offer Moxie, so these are the cards you do NOT want to draw from your deck typically.)
  2. Research Phase — Players may use activated cards to purchase Spell, Equipment, Location, and Action cards. Each character has special abilities, and these are often enhanced by using certain types of cards. The Engineer, for example, will do a lot better in the game if he’s collecting Equipment cards, but it’s not required and sometimes you’ll be forced to grab what you can to try and survive.
  3. Final Preparation — This is where you choose purchased cards to play in an attempt to do damage to Elder Gods and Minions. Sometimes the cards you use come at a cost–you might lose Sanity or Health or both.

characters

Finally, we have the Combat phase:

  1. The Elder God (or Elder Gods if you’re unlucky) will go first. Some Elder God cards do damage to players… others will spawn Minions. Some are just horribly cruel and will have you pulling your hair out wondering if you should just go play a nice game of Go Fish.
  2. Remember the Mythos deck? These are horrible events that really shake things up. Most are one-time events, but some of them are permanent and remain in play during your game–good times!
  3. Minions go next. Yeah, the minor bad guys get their chance to kill you as well. And be aware that Minions can often spawn more Minions. Things will often get out of hand here. Try to stay calm.
  4. Finally, it’s the Investigators turn to fight back! Do what damage you can here, but try to be smart about it. Killing the Elder God will win you the game, but sometimes those Minions have got to go. It’s a tough call here, and things can take a turn for the worse with the flip of a single Mythos card. Forget calm here–deal damage and hope you survive to the next round.

Cleanup is next, with players discarding any cards in their hand to the Discard pile and hoping they can quickly build up their existing deck with lucky purchases and research done at the University. Fortunately, the rules allow you to clean out the Library and refresh it when Brass Knuckles show up and what you really need is a good protective spell!

I’ve been playing Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game now for a few months. I’ve played maybe a dozen solo games and half a dozen cooperative games. I’ve had some glorious wins where a few lucky cards arrived just in time… and I’ve had more horrendous losses where the Minions just overran us before we could even get near the Elder God. I’ve gotten pretty good at the Normal mode when playing Solo, so I’ve now switched over to the more difficult Cthulhu mode where I’m drawing two Elder God cards and two Mythos cards are pulled instead of one. I’ve come close to winning once, but so far… the world hasn’t fared so well.

If you’d like more information about the game, you’ll want to head over to Wyvren Gaming’s website, where they have a number of videos that show you all the phases of the game. You can also find a link to download the rules and view some of the artwork.

I’d like to thank Wyvren Gaming for providing me with a copy of the game. I could tell right away after sitting down with them at Gen Con that they were big Cthulhu fans and wanted to create a game that they’d enjoy playing, too. I’m quite pleased with Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game and I have found myself reaching for it numerous times over the last few weeks to play a couple late night solo games. Just the thing before bedtime, right?

Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game is available for online purchase now.

James Floyd Kelly is a full-time writer in Atlanta, Georgia.