Playing the incongruous out-of-print game The Cards of Cthulhu for the last few days has been a blast! The game is riddled with peculiarities some of which I usually would have found problematic but I’ve had too much fun to care about that. Since most stores are out of copies by now and DVG’s website states that the game “will not be reprinted once out of stock” it feels a bit odd to review it, but I went out my way to find a copy and other gamers might too. This is a review for anybody thinking about acquiring a copy on the second-hand market (although I really, really wish that it would convince DVG to reprint the game).
The game is called The Cards of Cthulhu but it feels more like a dice game. It’s a very light and simple game but it comes in a big box. It has a supernatural horror theme but it was a one-off anomaly released by a publisher known mainly for their wargames. The player tries to save the world from being consumed by the immensely powerful Great Old Ones, vicious Cultists and Unspeakable Horrors but the experience is smooth and streamlined and a moderately sober gamer will win most games when playing on the normal difficulty level. Sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it?
The Cards of Cthulhu was designed by Ian Richard and released by DVG in 2014. It was the designer’s first game and remains his most well known one. It’s primarily a solitaire game but the box says one to four players. With one pretty fast player it plays in about 35 intense minutes. If you lose – when that happens it’s usually due to bad luck – the game could be over in five or ten minutes.
The Contents of the Too Big Box
The game comes with a Cult Deck with 98 cards, four Cult Boards to help organize and keep track of the cards in play, ten Investigator cards, ten really nice metal coins to keep track of experience points, seven custom dice of dubious quality and a player aid.
Apart from the unevenly shaped dice the whole package and the contents are of good quality, but there are some issues nevertheless. The cult boards are pretty useful to keep track of things initially, but they are not necessary and their size means that the box has to be way too big. Also, ten experience coins is not enough. 15 would probably have been enough in almost all cases.
Setup and Gameplay Summary
Setup is almost as smooth as playing the game. First pick one of the ten Investigators. They each have a special power that can be used once per turn.
After choosing your Investigator you shuffle the Cult Deck, put the Cult Boards on the table, take four experience coins and off you go.
The Cult Deck has several different kinds of cards: Minions, Gates, Horrors, Followers, Items and Cursed Items. The majority of the cards are Minion cards. These range from weak Cultists to the strong Shoggoths – ” shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming” (H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness). The four Cult Boards represent The Cult of Cthulhu (green), The Cult of Yog-Sothoth (blue), The Cult of Chaugnar Faugn (yellow) and The Cult of Arwassa (red). The Minions are color-coded to match one of the Cult Boards. The four cults are trying to wake their respective Elder God from its slumber. You know, of course, that these Elder Gods will consume the world in a matter of minutes if they but turn in their sleep, so your job is to stop the cults. If any board has five Minions on it at the end of a turn their Elder God awakens and you lose the game. If you’re killed or go insane you also lose the game. You win when the Cult Deck is emptied and there are four or fewer Minions in play.
Each turn you draw four cards from the Cult Deck. All Minions drawn go to their respective Cult Board. The same is true for Horrors, but these will be placed face down. They only become active and turned face up when there’s a sufficient number of Minions on the board to summon them. Any Followers drawn can be added to your posse of life-loving good guys if you have the experience points to afford it. The same goes for Items (unless they’re cursed and mess with your plans). Any Gates drawn increase the cards you have to draw per turn. If any Horrors awake you lose sanity. Then you manically chuck lots of dice to try to stop the Cultists and other Minions from reaching their goal. It’s as straightforward as it sounds. And it’s a lot of fun. I will not go into further detail about how the game plays. Suffice it to say that it’s a simple game with few rules and a pretty good rule book.
What I like About This Game
Playing The Cards of Cthulhu is a manically meditative experience. It’s not much of a challenge – I played my first ten games on the normal difficulty level, one game with each investigator, and won all of them. I had to double check the rules and the BGG forums to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong. When I ramped up the difficulty by drawing a minimum of five cards each turn instead of four the smooth, fast flow of the gameplay remained but some tension was added. I started winning about half of the games instead.
Part of the joy I get out of this game comes from just learning how to do something, then doing it swiftly and efficiently. When the difficulty was increased so was the excitement of the dice rolls and the card draws.
I also like the theme. Although it doesn’t come across so strongly that it feels like you’ve been at the center of an epic, it marries well with the excitement and uncertainty of randomized cards and dice rolls. That the illustrations are evocative and that the dice and coins look great adds to the cozy horror feeling.
I really enjoy playing this game, not for the challenge but for the feeling, for the flow, for the flavor. “Just one more time” I keep saying to myself. It’s quite addictive.
What Some People Might Not Like About This Game
This is a very simple game. It’s also an easy game. I had the tactics figured out after playing half a game. I’ve won all games I’ve played on the normal difficulty level and half on the hard level. When I’ve lost I’ve lost due to bad luck. These are things I would find problematic in most cases, but playing this game has simply been too much fun to care. People who are less fond of having fun might find this game too simple and too lucky. Some people might also have a problem with the game length vis-à-vis the simplicity of the decisions involved. Another potential problem for some might be the rather low variability.
Please Reprint This Wonderful Game But Consider This
This game is fantastic, but the nature of the game calls for a small package and a modest price or people might be misled. It’s a casual, lightweight game but it might not come across as one. This could cause disappointment. A few more coins and unique illustrations for the Followers instead of the same as the Investigators also would have been a great addition.
Update: after I wrote this review a representative of the publisher (DVG) commented on BoardGameGeek that “the rights for this game are reverting to the original designer which is why we aren’t reprinting it.”
If The Cards of Cthulhu stays out of print it will receive a cult(ist) following. Whatever happens people will be divided. I stand firmly among the Cultists. The first night I played this game I played it seven times in a row and got so into it that it’s a wonder the dice-chucking didn’t wake my neighbors. The feeling reminds me of some years ago when I used to wind down at night by playing the Super Nintendo game Super Tetris 3 for an hour or two. I was in the zone! Some people look down their nose at this kind of full-body experience. Those number crunching puritan bigots probably have to stay away from stuff like this to be able to maintain their austere holier-than-though airs. Hopefully that means that copies of The Cards of Cthulhu will not get too expensive on the second-hand market.
This game is a keeper, it’s a silly amount of fun and the other day I bought the last copy of the expansion still for sale in Sweden. I can’t wait for it to show up.
Other People’s Opinions
Reviewers are divided. Liz Davidson of Beyond Solitaire writes in a positive review that “Cards of Cthulhu is probably the most relaxing game I own that happens to be about the end of the world. It’s the kind of game I pull out on a work night when I’m tired but still want to play a game, or that I lay out on a Sunday afternoon when I want to sit around in my robe and drink hot chocolate.” Tiago Perretto, on the other hand, calls the game “a weak offering” and says it’s “not recommended” in a negative review on BoardGameGeek.
Why is it that whenever I work on a review for a Lovecraft themed game, the cats hide? Juni just had one brief, havoc-wreaking visit to the table during one of the games. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this review. Thanks for reading.