This week we’re looking at another classic horror boardgame theme: Cthulhu. If you are at all aware of HP Lovecraft as a human it’s hard to not have an opinion on his abilities as a writer or his racism. I think it’s an understatement to say that he had a bleak view of the world, and it’s not surprising that a mind like his would produce the horrors it did. Also not surprising that French author Michel Houellebecq chose to write a book of literary criticism on Lovecraft.
The more popular Lovecraft’s legacy becomes, the more evidence that comes out about the extent of his racism and the increasingly difficult conversations we need to have as consumers of this work. Is Lovecraft a product of his time and was his racism “normal” for the society that he came from? Does that explain it away, adding the necessary context and justifications, or should we re-examine Lovecraft’s work through this new lens with the objective of possibly rejecting it completely? Can we, should we, separate works from their authors, or must we always see the ideas in the Cthulhu Mythos in an even more terrible way? I don’t know. Most people who love Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s ideas have no idea of their origins. Does that mean Cthulhu has already become detached from its roots, whether we wanted it to or not? Should we be disgusted with the success of Cthulhu as a perennial theme or should we celebrate its success and aim at the erasing of Lovecraft himself?
For this episode we will set all that aside and treat the Cthulhu Mythos as something that has now undeniably permeated popular culture. We will extract it and look at its influence on boardgames.
The first BGG listing for a Cthulhu board game is 1983. Why did it take this long for HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos to embed itself into the DNA of boardgaming? One reason could be that it wasn’t until 1981 that Sandy Petersen’s important contribution to role-playing games arrived: Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium. This seems to be what really kicks all of this off. Boardgames saw a powerful story-driven concept and borrowed it. Boardgames even borrowed Sandy Petersen several times as we’ll discuss.
But why did it take until 1981 for Cthulhu to join gaming culture? I’m guessing copyright, reprints, battles over literary estates, the up and down waves of popularity that ideas and writers have. Someone out there probably has a definitive answer, and if you do be sure to let us know. Until then, let’s talk about:
The rules tell us that Horace Phineas Lovejoy, age 42, goes on night walks. While Cthulhu is not explicitly mentioned in the game, designer Kenneth Rathman was clearly trying to conjur HP Lovecraft’s work in this story-telling card game.
The next game up is more explicit in its Cthulhu Mythos inspiration. And somehow it doesn’t surprise me it’s from Steve Jackson Games. Here’s a brief description of gameplay:
You are a journalist investigating the disappearance of a college co-ed. Each turn the player chooses from a list of places to investigate and then reads a paragraph to see what happens. These may involve dice checks and re-directions to yet other paragraphs. In addition there is a Time Chart — the character must eat and sleep — as this is also a “race against time.”
Racing against time seems to be a persistent theme in these games. Along with madness. But that is a matter for our next game:
With a 3 hr playtime and accommodating up to 8 players, Arkham Horror is described as an cooperative adventure game. The BGG description notes that “The game has players exploring the town of Arkham as they attempt to stop unmentionable horrors from spilling into the world. It’s possible for everyone to go insane and lose in this game.” That sounds like a pretty cool pitch.
When you look at the original rules it is an interesting melding of role-playing games and boardgames. And the theme of sanity/madness is predominant as you attempt throw your d6 and perform sanity checks.
The last interesting entry for the 1980s is a Japanese card game from designer Mirukii Fujimoto.
Not sure if the Japanese printing of Arkham Horror had inspired this, but it’s an interesting attempt at simplification. Here’s the BGG description:
One of six great demon lords is slowly awakening from deep slumber, and if he does, there will be hell on Earth… Players are different teams of adventurers in the 1920s, finding tomes like the Necronomicon, fighting monsters like the Mi-Go, and solving world-spanning Events, mysteries of Lovecraftian weirdness. Events give victory points to whoever finally solves them, but the great demon will arise if there are 100 points worth of these Events in the unsolved stack–if he arises, there is the endgame of final apocalyptic battle. So players are constantly balancing co-operation with competition–under certain circumstances, a player can discover the great demon ahead of the endgame, and even decide to join the demon!
It doesn’t rate very highly, but sounds like a noble attempt to take the theme and do something different.
Right off the bat it’s hard not to judge the game by its John Kovalic cover art. If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell just think of the Dork Tower comic or Munchkin or other Steve Jackson games.
I have not played this, but it looks like another light card game.
A few years later we would get another Cthulhu card game, but this one would be not-so light:
Designer Charlie Krank decided he was not done with Cthulhu yet. With the early-90s craze of the Collectible Card Game (CCG) in effect Chaosium brought us this multiplayer (BGG lists as being between 1-10 players). The description reminded me a lot of Arkham Horror, and sanity once again features up front. One player described it as being more like a traditional card game than a CCG, which I also wondered after reading the description:
In this card game based in H.P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, you play an investigator (represented by a double sized card that has your stats, special abilities and keeps your story organized) who must complete stories without going insane. From a deck of at least 52 cards you draw 13 and take turns playing one at a time so it moves at a brisk pace. You stock your deck with at least 20 points of stories (usually 3 or 4) and try to get the required cards into play. As an example The card ‘A Day in the Life of a M. U. Student’ requires you to visit 3 Different Miskatonic University Locations, cast a spell, summon a monster, go to a country site and play an ally of the opposite sex. When you have fulfilled the conditions you score the card and gain sanity. In this card’s case you score 8 points and gain 2 sanity.
The types of cards you have are locations (you almost always occupy one), allies, monsters, events, tomes, spells, artifacts and adventures. A round lasts until there are two passes, at which time all monsters played fight each other then go after the investigators to disable their allies or reduce their sanity. You can throw allies in front of the monsters as cannon fodder to protect your investigator. You then decide what cards you are going to keep in your hand (each investigator has a minimum and a maximum number of cards that must be kept) and draw back to 13 for the next round. Because of this you blow through your deck very quickly and you will go through it a couple of times in most games.
Like all dead CCGs, I now want to play this one to give it a try. It seems like it would be on the lighter side, but that would be fine by me.
The standard set is listed at 104 cards, and there are five expansions adding another 476 cards, so there is a decent card pool to play from.
Speaking of designers who weren’t ready to put down the Mythos, Creatures & Cultists co-designer John Tynes and designer Jesper Myrfors bring us in to the new Millennium with:
The box art looks like the cover of an old slasher film, and the cover quote notes “A frenzied fury of hillbilly horror!”
Wes Craven meets boardgame?
It’s listed as having miniatures, which I thought was an intriguing departure, but they look more like little printed stands. Pagan Publishing brought us this but now seems to focus mostly on their Delta Green supplements for Call of Cthulhu.
And this is the point in the story where the pace picks up.
While you might think I’m going to spend the next half an hour talking about designer Jeff Tidball‘s bizarre thematic mashup Cthulhu 500 (2004), I’m not.
The text from the press-release announcing the game says it all:
The CALL OF CTHULHU CCG will have no relation or compatibility to the Mythos Collectible Card Game published by Chaosium, Inc in the late 1990’s. Fantasy Flight’s CALL OF CTHULHU CCG will present new and innovative game play which will be simply, fast, and yet provide a deep and dynamic experience for players. The CALL OF CTHULHU CCG will seek to inspire the wonderful flavor of the Cthulhu genre, such as the flavorful “pulp” 1930’s environment, arcane tomes and secrets, paranormal investigations, the elder gods and their terrible servants, dark sinister plots, inhuman conspiracies, and dangers from beyond the stars.
We won’t go too deeply into this as the game will soon be re-implemented when Fantasy Flight Games brings us the Living Card Game concept. But more on that in a bit. First something else really familiar.
One of the designers of 1987’s Arkham Horror, Richard Launius, teams up with designer Kevin Wilson on this one for Fantasy Flight. While this version keeps to the cooperative style of play, it does sound a fair bit more complex and lengthy in gameplay (BGG lists it at 2-4 hrs) than the original. I’ve never played this, as much as I would like to. It sounds like a big mess of a game, and I think it’s something teenage me would have enjoyed a lot. Not sure adult me could find the time for it.
With 2007 bringing us Munchkin Cthulhu I think it is safe to say the theme is dead, right? Everyone stopped making Cthulhu games? Not yet.
Nate French and Eric M. Lang work together to re-implement the 2004 CCG version of this. This one has a remarkable run, though. After 9.7 million expansions, they announced it was coming to an end in the fall of 2015. Or, to be more precise, they state: “after seven cycles of Asylum Packs and nine deluxe expansions, the release of The Mark of Madness, the game’s tenth deluxe expansion, completes the series of faction-based boxes.”
That’s a lot of cards. How many? Not sure. How many grains of sand are there? A few less than that.
Surely this is the game that explored every nook and cranny of the Cthulhu Mythos. Is there anything left?
Never one to be left out of the party, Reiner Knizia brought us this “highly-strategic, abstract game” that plays in 20 minutes. I don’t think there’s anything remarkable here, but I wanted to ensure we didn’t leave Reiner Knizia out of every list we will ever make.
After 2008 it is like counting snowflakes in a blizzard. Expansion, expansion, expansion, expansion, some smaller titles, expansion, expansion.
And then Fantasy Flight goes all in on Cthulhu. My guess is that they even briefly contemplated changing the name of the company to something incomprehensible and unpronounceable to reflect this strategic direction. I know, it seems to defy certain laws of time and space, but somehow they breached reality and pulled through even MORE Cthulhu based material. Now, if you’re a fan of the theme 2011 must have been a pretty phenomenal year.
Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, the designers of the Arkham Horror reboot, have another go at it.
Elder Sign is sometimes described as Arkham Horror with dice. Which makes it much faster with less downtime and just enough theme to satisfy your inner Cthulhu needs. It doesn’t seem that one is necessarily better than the other, but comes down to how much time you have to play.
Eldritch Horror brings us card-based combat and a modular house mystery. It’s all about story, though. Here’s the description:
Mansions of Madness is a macabre game of horror, insanity, and mystery for two to five players. Each game takes place within a pre-designed story that provides players with a unique map and several combinations of plot threads. These threads affect the monsters that investigators may encounter, the clues they need to find, and which climactic story ending they will ultimately experience. One player takes on the role of the keeper, controlling the monsters and other malicious powers within the story. The other players take on the roles of investigators, searching for answers while struggling to survive with their minds intact.
The horror has gone global! 1-8 players, cooperative gameplay, 2 – 4 hours of gameplay! Story everywhere! Does it replace Arkham Horror? Lots of opinions on this. I like the global aspect of this one. But if you’re a Cthulhu fan you probably own them both anyway.
While I like the idea of Eldritch Horror, I really do love the ideas packed into the next one.
Martin Wallace plus Cthulhu plus Sherlock Holmes. It’s based thematically on Neil Gaiman’s short story of the same title. What I really like about this one is a shift in mechanics. When a lot of people think Martin Wallace they likely think train games. He also created an interesting deck builder a couple of years previous to this, A Few Acres of Snow. In A Study in Emerald we seem to have sensibilities from both of those worlds, and it looks really interesting. It carries the theme, but also has me interested in it as a game as well. Some of the other more recent titles we mentioned look great, but this game caught my interest not because of the theme but because it looks like an interesting game.
At this point in the story we are neck deep in Cthulhu. There are so many little titles in the past few years that we could do another episode on every dice and card variation. Let’s briefly mention a few recent titles before we wrap it up.
Cthulhu’s Vault is a card game for up to six players. Collaborative in nature, players work to tell the story of the monster’s defeat, but unlike many storytelling games, the ending is not set. Within the storytelling are mechanisms for unexpected turns of events…
Players begin with a hand of cards, each an element to work into the story being told. As they tell their story, they play a card, and if they can link multiple cards from their hand together, they receive a bonus of some sort usable later in the defeat of the Great Old One (or his ascension if the player turns out to be a cultist). If something is mentioned and another player has a card matching what is mentioned, he takes over the story and uses his cards at that point.
The objective is to tell a great story and then reach the climactic fight between the investigators and the Great Old One which is told in story-format as well.
Richard Launius keeps hitting at this theme, trying to perfect ways to tell the story. I like the idea of this one, and it sounds light and fun and more like a storytelling experience than a game. Plus it’s easier to find 45 minutes.
And it’s not just Richard Launius that can’t let the theme go. Call of Cthulu RPG designer and Arkham Horror co-designer Sandy Petersen came at it again but from the miniatures angle.
Although they do not look like miniatures. They are life-sized Cthulhu Mythos replicas that will live in your living room and eat your food and cost you most of your paycheque. That said, it rates very highly on BGG and people do not complain about the gameplay itself. When I see that game it seems like the inevitable direction that this theme had to go, but it was accomplished under the watch of a capable designer, and Cthulhu aficionado, Sandy Petersen.
I thought all the classic Cthulhu designers had had their fill, 2016 would not bring us any more Cthulhu. Wrong! Kevin Wilson couldn’t help himself and brings us:
I know nothing about this game other than it is a cooperative and that it adds a new element brought over again from the role-playing game world. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Europe is ablaze with the final conflicts of World War Two. As the Allies are caught unaware by a German assault in the misty Ardennes forests, the Black Sun unleashes mythos evil from ancient sites, hoping to overwhelm the Allies forces, whilst the Nachtwolfe attempt to power up a vast war machine that will bring about a thousand-year Reich. All the while the dreams of Cthulhu inspire cultists to rise up in preparation for his return!
As the heroes of Section M and Majestic in Achtung! Cthulhu: The Secret War, you must race across Europe on vital missions facing ancient terrors, recovering strange artifacts, and learning unspeakable knowledge to help defeat the forces of the Third Reich and the Cultists of the Old Gods. To aid the heroes’ desperate endeavors, the players must learn to command the powerful but over-extended Allied forces to help halt the tide of evil!
Nazis. Alright. All boxes have been checked. We can officially stop making Cthulhu games now. Is this a shift to explore Cthulhu in ways other than just affecting sanity and health? Is it a way of addressing Lovecraft’s own racism? This isn’t the only Cthulhu 2016 game, though, as BGG lists several others already slated for this year. Is 2016 peak Cthulhu? The inclusion of B-movie elements might mean extended life, or it might mean that we are reaching the end of boardgame Cthulhu, having finally scraped the skull clean. The role-playing game world has more Cthulhu up its sleeve, though, so I suspect we are going to see further waves in the years to come. Or maybe it will just be Cthulhu expansions from this point on. Only the gentle ding of cash registers and the enthusiasm of gamers can determine this for sure.
Postscript: After this episode was researched there was yet another big addition to the Cthulhu universe added for 2016. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. OK. Now it surely must be over. Cthulhu has joined forces with one of the biggest titles in gaming, the evil is now unstoppable.