Cthulhu Wars Game Review

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The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up (publisher suggests 12+)
  • For 2 to 4 players
  • Approximately 90 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management
  • Worker Placement & Area Control

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Moderate
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • The final war for what little remains of Earth

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek mixed!
  • Child Geek mixed!

Overview

In the end, humanity could not save itself from its most base and barbaric nature. War, famine, greed, and the primitive need to survive drove all nations to turn on their neighbors and themselves. Chaos and death reigned. The heralds and prophets who spoke of the end times finally got their wish, but even they couldn’t know the fate of the world. The Great Old Ones have awoken and the real battle for Earth has begun.

Cthulhu Wars, designed by Sandy Petersen and published by Green Eye Games/Petersen Games, is comprised of 4 Player Hint cards, 2 game boards (double-sided), 4 Faction markers, 3 Ritual of Annihilation tracks, 1 Doom track, 20 six-sided dice, 4 Faction cards, 1 Ritual of Annihilation marker, 1 Fist Player token, 24 Spell Book counters (6 per faction), 12 Desecration markers, 24 Gate counters, 36 Elder Sign chits, 24 Acolyte Cultist miniatures (6 per faction), 4 Deep One miniatures, 2 Shoggoth miniatures, 2 Starspawn miniatures, 1 Cthulhu miniature, 3 Nightgaunt miniatures, 3 Flying Polyp miniatures, 2 Hunting Horror miniatures, 1 Nyarlathotep miniature, 2 Ghoul miniatures, 4 Fungi from Yuggoth miniatures, 3 Dark Young miniatures, 1 Sub-Niggurath miniature, 6 Undead miniatures, 4 Byakhee miniatures, 1 The King in Yellow miniature, and 1 Hastur miniature. The component quality for the game is excellent. Deep and moody colors, detailed illustrations, and very durable game components. The most striking components are the miniatures. They are very well detailed and huge. Sizes range from 42 millimeters (1.5 inches) to a towering 186 millimeters (7 inches)! It should also be noted that the game comes in a really big box. More like a small chest, if the truth be told. Everything fits snugly within it, but you’ll need more than a little shelf space to keep it off the ground.

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Example of 4 Great Old Ones and a hapless LEGO guy named Howard

From the Ashes, A New War Begins

To set up the game, first place the 2 game board  pieces together in the middle of the playing area. Each game board has 2 sides that depict the same continental shapes, but will have different map areas. Which side of the game boards you use will be determined by the number of players and if this is your first game or not.

Second, place all the dice and the Gate counters to one side of the game playing area. Place the Elder Sign chits face-down (Elder sign up, number value down) and mix them around. If available, I suggest you use a cloth bag or a large bowl to hold the chits. Players will be randomly drawing them during the game.

Third, select the correct Ritual of Annihilation track to use based on the number of players and the Doom track, placing both next to the game board. Place the Ritual of Annihilation marker on the “5” spot on the Ritual of Annihilation track. The unused Ritual of Annihilation tracks go back in the game box.

Fourth, have each player select a faction. Each faction is comprised of 1 color. Players should not rush this part of the game set up, as each faction plays very differently. Of course, there is nothing wrong with blindly or randomly assigning a faction, either. When a faction is selected, the player takes all the faction miniatures, the Faction card, 2 Faction markers, and the 6 Faction Spell Book counters (along with any other faction-specific counters and markers). The Miniatures and Spell Books are set to one side of the player and are referred to as the “Player’s pool”. The Faction card should be placed right in front of the player. Then the player places 1 Faction marker on the “zero” space on the Doom track and 1 Faction marker on their Power track found on their Faction card.

Note: The rule book includes an introduction and suggestions on how each faction should be played. It doesn’t give direction, so much as hints, tips, and things to avoid. I highly recommend that all players read their faction’s section before playing if they want to quickly learn the strengths and weaknesses of their specific faction. Or learn as they go, which is also a lot of fun.

Fifth, listed on each Faction card is the player’s Start Area. Each player is now given 1 Gate counter and places it on their faction’s Start Area, along with 6 Acolyte Cultist miniatures. One Acolyte Cultist miniature should be placed on top of the Gate counter to show that the player controls it. The other miniatures just need to be within the same map area as the Gate. This is the player’s starting foothold and power base.

Quick Introduction to Your Faction

A Faction card contains all the details the player needs to know when it comes to the specifics of the army they are leading. In addition to the Power track, the faction’s unique abilities and units are detailed. Additional rules are also provided that are specific to the faction during game play. Finally, the Faction card also contains a space for the player’s Spell Books. This section of the Faction card is blank at the start of the game, but will later contain collected Spell Book counters. It’s not uncommon for first-time players to become rather intimidated by their Faction card, as it contains a great deal of information. Rest assured, all that is shown is needed, but not all at once.

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Spell Books

The Spell Books open new strategies and tactics to the player by providing unique actions and abilities. One of each Spell Book is specifically designed for 1 of the faction creatures, including the player’s Great Old One, but they must be earned. In many respects, earning a Spell Book is like earning a video game achievement (in fact, the rule book says as much). While the player is not required to obtain any of their Spell Books right away, it would be foolish not to do so. A player will be at a serious disadvantage if they neglect their research into the dark arcane while attempting to conquer the dead ruins of Earth. They will also not be able to win the game.

Example of 2 different Spell Books from different factions

Example of 2 different Spell Books from different factions

Each Faction card lists the 6 requirements to obtain a Spell Book. These requirements are not linked to any specific Spell Book, meaning the player is welcome to select which Spell Book to collect once they satisfy a requirement. Some of the requirements are harder than others and all are faction specific.

Awakening Your Very Own Great Old One

A player’s Great Old One (the most imposing miniature to be placed on the game board) must be brought into play by satisfying certain conditions. Each player, except the one who took the “Yellow Sign” faction, will have 1 Great Old One to awaken. Once they do, it becomes a miniature to be moved and used on the game board. Some of the Spell Books are only useful with certain miniatures in play, including the Great Old One.

The Final Battle

Note: I wouldn’t say that Cthulhu Wars is difficult, so much as involved. Game turns go fairly quickly and are very focused. The player is limited in what they can do and must constantly evaluate and re-evaluate how best to spend their turn. Needless to say, there is a lot to consider, but not a lot to actually take action on depending on how well the player is doing in the game. That being said, I will only summarize the game play here. It would be very difficult to capture the depth of this game from the perspective of each faction and keep this review to a reasonable length. Much of this game needs to be experienced first hand to understand it fully.

Cthulhu Wars is played in turns, with no set number of turns per game. A typical game turn is summarized here and is further divided by phases.

Phase 1: Gather Power

Everything in the game costs power. Players earn power at the top of each round and then spend it later on actions. The power the player has available to them is recorded on their Power track found on their Faction card. A player calculates their earned power by adding the following, based on what is present on the game board.

  • +1 power for every Acolyte Cultist
  • +2 power for every controlled Gate
  • +1 power for every abandoned Gate (not controlled by any faction)
  • +1 power for every captured Acolyte Cultist returned to the opponent’s pool (Acolyte Cultists must always be returned during this phase)
  • Faction specific conditions might also provide additional power

Given the above, the player will start their first turn of the game with 8 power, which should be recorded on their Power track.

The Power track only goes so high, but does not cap the total power a player can earn. If the player earns more power than what the Power track can record, some other means of recording power needs to be used.

Before continuing to the next phase, players should announce their power value for this turn. If any player has less than half of the most power gathered, this player’s power is set to half of the most power collected (rounded up). In this way, players who had a terrible last turn and lost much of their power base are still able to continue without being at a serious disadvantage.

Phase 2: Determine First Player

If this is the first turn of the game, the player who took Cthulhu is the first player. For all subsequent turns, the honor of being the first player is given to the player who has the most power. This player is given the First Player token. If two or more players are tied for the most power, the player who had the First Player token during the last turn decides which of the tied players gets the First Player token, including themselves if they were part of the tie.

The First Player now decides if the turn order sequence will go clockwise or counter-clockwise, announcing the direction to the table. This is the Order of Play for the duration of the turn, including all action resolutions.

Phase 3: Doom

Now things are going to get a bit more involved. The Doom phase includes a number of steps that must be taken in sequential order. This entire phase is skipped for the game’s first turn.

Step 1: Advance the Doom Track

Players take a quick look at the total number of controlled Gates they have on the game board. Their Faction marker advances on the Doom track a number of spaces equal to the number of controlled Gates they have. For example, if the player controls 3 Gates, their Faction marker advances 3 spaces. If a player’s Faction marker hits 30 or goes past 30, the game ends at the end of this phase. See “Doomsday”.

Step 2: Ritual of Annihilation

Starting with the First Player, each player announces if they will perform the Ritual of Annihilation. This can only be done once and this is the only time during the game turn it can be performed. A simple “yes” or “no” response is all that is required.

For those who do perform the ritual, they will reduce their power equal to the current position of the Ritual marker on the Ritual of Annihilation track. The Ritual marker then advances by 1 space on the track. This means later players will have to spend more power than the players before them. If the Ritual marker ever moves to the “Instant Death” space, it still costs players 10 power to complete the ritual, but the game ends at the end of this phase.

After the ritual is paid for, the player advances their Faction marker on the Doom track one space for every controlled Gate and earns 1 Elder Sign chit for each Great Old One they control and is in play (not in the Player’s pool). Elder Sign chits should be selected blindly and the number value should not be shared with opponents.

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Collecting Elder Sign chits are important if you want to win the game, but are not a sure thing. Each chit collected represents a weakening of the forces holding the player’s faction back. Completing the Ritual of Annihilation will earn a player an Elder Sign chit if their Great Old One is in play. Each faction has their own unique way of earning Elder Sign chits, as well. Each Elder Sign has a number value ranging from 1 to 3. These are Doom points, which are used at the end of the game to determine which Great Old One rules the Earth.

Step 3: Resolve Special Events

The Doom phase triggers a number of special events, map events, and Spell Book abilities. Unless it explicitly states otherwise on the card’s text, special events happen after the players have had an opportunity to complete the Ritual of Annihilation, but before victory is determine if the game comes to an end.

Step 4: Determine if the Game Ends

The game ends if any player has 30 or more Doom points (be sure to include Elder Sign chits) or the Ritual marker is on the “Instant Death” space on the Ritual of Annihilation track. If none of these conditions exist, play on. Otherwise, it’s time to determine who wins and who loses. See “Doomsday”.

Phase 4: Actions

If you thought phase 3 was busy, you’ll be out of breath after phase 4. During this phase, players get to bring in new miniatures, advanced on the game board, and battle with their monsters and Great Old Ones. Up to this point, the game has been about accumulating power. This phase is all about using it.

There are no set number of actions a player can take during this phase, but each player will only be able to take 1 action at a time starting with the First Player. Most actions will cost power, which must be paid for before the action is taken. If a player runs out of power, they can do nothing but sit and wait until the other players have exhausted their power, as well. Even if the player has access to an action that costs no power to perform, zero power means zero actions.

Actions fall into 3 different categories. These are common, unique, and unlimited. Common actions include moving, battling, summoning monsters, recruiting cultists, capturing opponents’ cultists, building Gates, and awakening a Great Old One (if game conditions allow it). Unique actions are specific to the player’s faction, which might or might not be available to them during this phase of the game. For example, Cthulhu has the ability to devour one of the  opponent’s monsters or cultists before a battle begins, but if he isn’t around, the ability cannot be used.

Unlimited actions can be taken as many times as the player likes during their chance to take an action and can be used in addition to 1 common or 1 unique action. Some unlimited actions will cost the player nothing to perform, but the player must still have power in order to take actions. Some unlimited actions include controlling or abandoning a Gate and battling with a Spell Book.

A player can also pass during this phase. Doing so reduces their power to zero, meaning they cannot take any actions. However, opponents can still take actions against them.

Summoning Monsters

Monsters (a “monster” is considered to be everything but the player’s Great Old One) can be brought into play from the Player’s pool by spending power. The miniature that represents the monster must be placed in the same map area where the player controls a Gate. A few factions bend this basic summoning rule.

Summoning a Great Old One more or less follows the same rules as summoning monsters, but requires more than just power and an available map area.

Movement

Movement in the game is fairly simple, as most of the miniatures can only move to an adjacent map area. Regardless of the number of opponent’s miniature in a specific map area, the player can still move into it. However, if the player moves an Acolyte Cultist miniature off a Gate, they lose control of that game. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be noted.

Multiple miniatures can be moved at one time, but each miniature can only be moved once per phase. This means that the Acolyte Cultist you just moved off your Gate won’t be returning to it until the next game turn!

Not all miniatures have travel restrictions. Some miniatures can travel further and even dive deep into the ocean to emerge from water halfway across the world.

Capturing Cultists

A player’s Acolyte Cultist is the most basic of units. They are weak, but useful as they allow players to control Gates. Players can capture unprotected cultists. By doing so, they will reduce their opponent’s power during the next turn and earn additional power. Capturing a cultist is like taking prisoner. Any cultists a player captures will be returned to their opponent during the next turn.

Battling

Combat in the game is a bit more complicated than movement, but only because players have to take more into account. First players must consider any pre-battle effects and bonuses. These are earned by collecting Spell Books and special abilities. While some of these are free, some cost power. The attacking player calculates their pre-battle bonuses and effects first followed by the defender. Then players calculate their normal combat values, adding them together with any provided by pre-battle effects. This gives each players their “Battle Rating”. Only those miniatures in the contested map area are used during the calculation. Each player collects a number of six-sided die equal to their Battle Rating.

Each player now rolls their dice. Each “6” is a Kill. Each “4” and “5” is a Pain. All results of dice are resolved simultaneously.

  • For every Kill, remove 1 enemy miniature (opponent’s choice)
  • For every Pain, move 1 enemy miniature to an adjacent map area (opponent’s choice)

Monsters and Great Old Ones can be killed. If they are to return to the game board, they must be summoned and re-awakened.

After all the power is reduced to zero, the turn ends.

Doomsday

The game can end 1 of 3 different ways. During the Doom phase with the player obtaining 30 or more points on the Doom tracker, the Ritual marker on the “Instant Death” space on the Ritual of Annihilation tracker, or during the Action phase if a player announces they have collected 30 Doom points or more. Which is awfully sneaky…

However the game might end, a player can only win if they have collected all 6 of their Spell Books. If they haven’t, they are out of the running immediately. For all the other players with 6 collected Spell Books, they count their total Doom points (adding Elder Sign values to their Doom tracker points) and announce their final score. The player with the most Doom points has won the great battle, kicks the other factions into the gates to be lost forever in time and space, and owns what little remains of Earth.

Or, if either of the tracks end the game and none of the players have completed their 6 Spell Books, none of the players win. NONE! Ha! Horrible way to end the game, but humanity has another chance to get their collective poop in a group and rebuild Earth. So it’s kind of a win, if you want to think really positively about it.

If there is a tie, the two Great Old Ones have to share the victory.

Game Variants

There are two game variants, but only for 2-players. Each are summarized here.

Two-Player Game

If only playing with 2 players, each player gets to control 2 factions. Taking actions is first done for one of the player’s factions and then the other. It’s up to the player to decide which faction goes first. Oddly enough, a player’s factions are not really a “team”. They do not share resources or work together. All factions interact with each other in the same way as a 3 or more player game. Which is to say, a player can battle the two factions they are controlling against each other if they really wanted to.

The game ends in the same way as a 3 or more player game. No changes to the victory condition, either.

Epic Two-Player Game

This game variant is only available to those players who own the game boards that allow for 6 or more players and have enough miniatures, too. The game play is more or less the same as already noted in the Two-Player Game variant and the normal 3 or more player game play, except each of the two players controls 3 factions each. Which is a lot of factions (let alone miniatures).

To learn more about Cthulhu Wars, visit the game’s web page.

Final Word

Cthulhu Wars was a very easy game to get the Child Geeks excited about (LOOK AT THOSE MINIATURES, BOYS AND GIRLS!), but a difficult game to get them to enjoy. For the most part, Cthulhu Wars is a game that can be taught in stages as each phase comes up. The game designer did an excellent job of having each aspect of the game waterfall into the next, making the transition of each phase feel natural and intuitive. However, that little waterfall at the start of the game quickly becomes bigger as the game continues. There is more to consider and more to manage. All of our Child Geeks were able to learn the game, but very few made it to the very end as a result. According to one overwhelmed Child Geek, “I like the game but it’s giving me a headache. Can I go and play with my miniatures at another table?” Another Child Geek said, “I thought this game was really easy at first, but now I know better. I cannot pronounce the guys, can’t figure out what I should do next, and I keep having power issues. Great game, but I’m just not old enough for it.” Our older and more experienced Child Geeks loved the game, despite being trounced repeatedly by Parent and Gamer Geeks. Why? One Child Geek said it best: “This is a game you feel like you could win, even if you are going to lose. I never felt left behind and always found each round to be fun to play.” Indeed, all our older and more experienced Child Geeks had a blast. While our Child Geeks were mixed about the game being appropriate for their group, they all unanimously agreed that Cthulhu Wars had outstanding miniatures. Many Child Geeks forgot the game entirely and played with the miniatures like action figures.

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My oldest son plays the game at a gathering of Gamer Geeks – he kept them on their toes

Those Parent Geeks that had played more complicated games and enjoyed a good challenged were enthusiastic about Cthulhu Wars. Those Parent Geeks who enjoyed more casual games or were non-gamers found the game to be as horrific as the creatures it contained. One of the funniest quotes comes from such a Parent Geek. She said, “I have no idea what I’m looking at. Is that a man with a squid on his face? And what the hell is this? A walking starfish? I don’t know what this game is about, what these…these…things are about, and I want nothing to do with this game.” Poor girl. A Parent Geek who did enjoy the game a great deal said, “This is a really unique game. It felt extremely tactical and strategic, but not overwhelming. I only had a few pieces to move, but I never felt limited. I really enjoyed myself.” Another Parent Geek said, “This is not a game I would put in front of non-gamers, but I don’t think anyone would have a problem learning it. It felt very intuitive to me, although there were a few times when I simply didn’t know what I should do next.” The Parent Geeks and the Child Geeks did have long moments of analysis paralysis, but the game somewhat helps the players by limiting the number of actions they can take and the resources available to them to take said actions. This made “climbing the mountain” a task measured in steps rather than miles. When the games were over, the Parent Geeks felt mixed about the game, but like the Child Geeks, everyone thought the miniatures were great.

The Gamer Geeks loved this game. It hit all the right spots for them. Theme was excellent. Components were excellent. Game play was exceptionally excellent. As one Gamer Geek put it, “This is a game that just keeps getting better and better each time I play it.” Another Gamer Geek said, “This is a simple area control game, but with so many choices, it feels much more than that.” A few of the Gamer Geeks felt that some of the factions were overpowered, but they had a hard time finding supporters. As one Gamer Geek put it, “It’s all about how you play and who you play with. It can make the difference between Cthulhu being a bad ass or just a squid with wings.” The majority of Gamer Geeks agreed that Cthulhu Wars was a well designed and entertaining game. A number of them mentioned they has played “better games”, but they always do. What is important is that none of the Gamer Geeks felt negatively towards the game, resulting in the Gamer Geeks giving the Great Old Ones all their geeky love.

Cthulhu Wars is a difficult game to talk about because it has so many different aspects you want to dedicated the entire conversation to. For example, the asymmetrical factions are outstanding. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. The only thing that ties them together is the universal game play on the game board. Other than that, each faction is an island. How you win the game with the faction is different than how the opponent to the left and right of you will attempt to win the game. Which brings me to the game’s depth. Bottomless, or so it continues to seem. Each faction has its own tactics and strategy which change based on who you are playing against. How I might approach the Great Cthulhu with the Yellow Sign will be different than how I approach the Black Goat. You have to know as much as you can about not only your own faction, but also your opponents’ faction if you want to make meaningful decisions.

But then again, no you don’t. This is a game that doesn’t say “Hey, you better learn all you can if you want to enjoy yourself!” Totally unnecessary to know a great deal about who you are playing as. You can stumble through the game and still have an impact. I found the minimal power rule to be absolutely genius as it allowed the weakest player in the game an opportunity to still stick it to the strongest player. Nothing in the game is ever a given and the secretly collected Elder Sign points keeps everyone guessing who is leading. Which, of course, makes everyone feel that they should consider everyone a threat. Which they should. Thus the game’s tension never ceases, but only grows as doom approaches.

I have played deeper and more tactical games, but there is a point where more game depth, strategy, and tactics does not a better game make. A game needs to be balanced, provide the ability for players to tip that balance, and methods to tip it back in the other direction. Cthulhu Wars does this using a set of rules that will feel heavy at first, but will become intuitive as the game goes on. This is not a game that wants to crush you. It wants you to play it and crush your opponents. It gives you the means to do so. The fun is finding the ways to go about it. The joy you will get when you kill an opponent’s Great Old One is right up there with winning a free burger. Tastes good, bro.

Cthulhu Wars is a lot of fun, but you need not know a thing about the Lovecraftian mythos to enjoy it. You do need to be able to think ahead, manage resources, and consider sometimes complex strategies and tactics. In fact, it’s an absolute requirement. This is not a light game, nor should it be considered casual. It’s challenging and deep, but it’s also forgiving. New players will learn and enjoy themselves, despite not winning. Even if you are the lowest Great Old One on the ladder, you always have a chance to reclaim territory, earn Spell Books, and fight back. No one is ever the “biggest and the baddest” on the game board and everyone can be knocked down as easily as they can be elevated. The end result is a game that is as rewarding to the mind as it is to the eyes. Simply excellent and a game I highly recommend.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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