I know there are a lot of Cthulhu games out there, as it is an easy theme to jump on since it is open and there is no licensing required. But I am a big fan of weird, gothic horror, so I’m into this tone and theme (minus Lovecraft’s racism). I have enjoyed Arkham Horror, Cthulhu Pandemic, Miskatonic School for Girls, and we’re even making our own Cthulhu-themed party game. So when my friend Andrew (who is also a big fan of the mythos) brought this over to play, I was keen to give it a go. Also, he painted the figures up and they look really good.
I am also a fan of cooperative games, and facing challenges as part of a team with varied abilities appeals to me. So this has many of the things that draw me to games.
COVID DISCLAIMER: Throughout this series I mention that our friend Andrew is coming over and bringing the games. I would like to reassure our readers that our game nights/afternoons consist only of my immediate family and Andrew. Andrew lives alone and has no other social groups; we consider him part of our immediate family, although he lives in a different house. We take the threat of COVID seriously and take steps to protect ourselves and those around us.
Cthulhu: Death May Die has nine publishers listed on BoardgameGeek.com, the first one being CMON Games. There are only two designers listed though, Rob Daviau (who you may know from a whole slew of games, including many Risk variants, Pandemic Legacy, and Downforce), and Eric Lang, who you may know from high school. Wait, that’s just me? I went to high school with Eric Lang *name drop*. Anyway, he also has a load of amazing games to his credit.
In Cthulhu: Death May Die, the players are investigators fighting against dark forces plotting to summon Elder Gods. There are several characters to choose from, who are all interesting, quirky, and fun. Each character has three special abilities. One is unique to them and the other two are ones that other characters might have as well. There are three tracks that players need to pay attention to during the game. There is health, which is fairly standard: you take damage, you lose health and when you run out, the character is dead. The other two are fairly different from other games. There is stress, which is located next to health, and using a stress allows you to reroll a die, either one you’ve rolled for yourself or against yourself as an enemy attack. Once you have used all your stress, you can’t do that anymore. Also, some effects cause you stress and specify that if you are at full stress, you lose health instead. Being at full stress can also trigger a madness.
And that’s the other track: madness. A much longer track at the top of the character card shows your character’s madness level. You can gain madness (or lose sanity, however you want to express it (I’m pretty sure the rules say “lose sanity”, though)) through dice rolls or card effects. If you get to the end of this track, the character goes mad and dies. So you probably want to avoid this. Well… not really. It’s also your experience track! By losing sanity, your special abilities improve and become more potent! Every few spaces along the track there is swirly symbol. If your marker (also a little plastic tentacle) would cross this symbol by losing sanity, you stop it there and there are effects. Firstly, you can move the marker on one of your abilities up by one, improving it. Also, your madness is triggered. At the beginning of the game, while choosing a character, each player also draws a random card with some sort of mental instability on it. The effect of this happens when you reach the next level of sanity loss. These effects are varied and can either be detrimental, or if you time them right, can actually be helpful!
Doing stuff in the game is done through each player being allowed 3 Actions. These include moving up to three spaces, making an attack, trading an item with another player, or doing an action specific to the scenario (or Episode). Doing something that might not work requires rolling the dice and getting successes. A success is the side of the die with the exclamation mark. The other sides of the black dice are: blank, meaning nothing happens; tentacles, which means lose one sanity; or elder sign, which usually means nothing, but might count as a success if you have an ability such as Arcane Mastery. Every player rolls the three black dice when making any roll, but might also be able to roll the green bonus dice as well, depending on the circumstances. For example, I chose the character Lord Adam Benchley, who is armed with a shotgun and whose quote is “Shoot first. Never ask”. He has the “Marksman” ability, which lets him attack into adjacent spaces. If I level that up once, he gains two green dice on any attack made into an adjacent space. His unique ability is “Fueled by Madness”. This means that any time his madness marker is on one of the swirly spots, he gains an extra green die to attack with. If I were to level up this ability, he would instead get a bonus die when the marker was on or one space before a swirly spot. And if I leveled it up again, he’d get two bonus dice!
This is in addition to any he would get anyway, since some of the swirly spots have a small green die printed beneath them, meaning any player who crosses that spot on their sanity track gains an extra green die to use on any roll. So you can see how powerful he can become as he loses sanity. The trouble is, lose too much, and he’s out of the game. It’s a balancing act at that point. The green dice, by the way, don’t have madness symbols on them, only success, blank, and elder sign.
Okay, stay with me here, there’s a lot to explain. There is a lot to this game. But despite that, once we got started, the game play itself was very intuitive and went smoothly.
After an investigator does their 3 actions, they draw a Mythos card to see what happens next. The Mythos card might move a monster or cultist on the board, or maybe summon a new one through one of the gates on the board. There are three gates, a red one, a blue one, and a yellow one. The card says which gate a newly summoned cultist or monster arrives at.
The Mythos card also might have a symbol at the top which advances the ritual to summon whichever Elder God has been chosen for this scenario. Once three Mythos cards with that symbol have been drawn, the Elder God figure moves once place along the track on a separate card. There are three red spaces and three green spaces on this track. Once the Elder God gets off the last red space. It is placed on the board where it can fight the investigators! But the investigators can’t hurt it unless they have completed the episode’s objective. It’s pretty important to be ready to fight the god by the time it arrives! A counter replaces the god on the track, and continues to move with each set of 3 symbols on the drawn Mythos cards. If the counter gets to the end of the track, the god is fully summoned and invincible and everyone loses and presumably the entire world descends into madness and chaos.
The Mythos cards have cool thematic names. An early one we drew was “Crawling Chaos”. Crawling Chaos refers to the story about Nyarlhotep, which wasn’t our Elder God for that episode, but my mind finished the line “Crawling Chaos underground/cult has summoned, twisted sound” from The Thing that Should Not Be by Metallica.
After the Mythos card has been resolved, the investigator must fight any enemies in their space. Each monster or cultist rolls specific dice for their attacks, with any roll of the exclamation mark being a wound against the investigator. The cultists use green dice, so they don’t cause madness, but many of the monsters use the black dice to allow for that possibility. What’s neat here is that the player rolls their own attacks against themselves, not “the player on the right” or some random player. The investigator may use their own stress to reroll attacks against them. Adam has the ability “Toughness”, which means he always gets one reroll per attack against him (unless he levels it up, in which case he just ignores one success per attack against him).
If there are no monsters or cultists in the space with the investigator, they can draw a discovery card, which might give them some ability or companion to aid them. These cards are really cool and thematic as well. The flavour text is fun, and there are two effects for each card, and often the investigator gets a choice as to which one to use. Sometimes it costs stress to make a specific choice, other times not. The flavour text is in the middle third of the card, with the options on the left and right thirds. Once a player has chosen which they want, they slide the card under the left or right side of their investigator card so that the choice they made is sticking out the side, the rest covered by their investigator card.
Once that has been done, any end of turn effects are resolved (like, if you’re on fire you might take damage). Then the next investigator takes their turn.
It does seem like there’s a lot going on, and it feels like a lot to explain, but once you’ve gone through a turn, it flows really well, as once you’ve made your decisions and action, a lot of what you do is following the instructions on the cards.
We played two scenarios in one evening, using the same characters (except Andrew, who got Ian, the one-armed soldier, killed in the first game). I played Adam (as described above), who had the madness card “Short-term Memory Loss”, which meant if I was at full stress when I reached a swirly spot on my sanity track, I would lose an item. Connor played Rasputin, whose special ability was that he could die multiple times before it was final. And Rhiannon played “The Kid”, a little girl who wielded flaming magic as her weapon (both she and Rasputin had the Arcane Mastery ability). Her quote was “Hahaha hahahaha hahaha”. And for her madness card she got “Pyromania”. So Rhiannon was a big fan of her character, and I pulled up some songs for her character on Spotify while we were playing: Firestarter, Through the Fire and Flames, We Didn’t Start the Fire, I Burn, Burning Down the House…
And in the first scenario, we were trying to prevent the summoning of Cthulhu in a house that was on fire. And the monsters were Byakhee and Fire Vampires. So… there was fire. Oh, and we were trying to destroy lab equipment that was being used for vile experiments, and if successful, we had to flip the lab equipment token to see the result, which sometimes was “Inferno”, meaning we had to add fire tokens to the room. The way fire works is that it doesn’t matter if you are in a room that is on fire, but anytime you leave a room that is on fire, you add a fire token to your character for each fire token in the room, and during the end of turn phase, the fire makes a damage roll against you. So there was a lot of that.
Andrew’s character Ian had special abilities that had him doing extra damage to multiple enemies, so he got into some big fights, and in the end, went down swinging, surrounded by evil. Shortly after that, my character, Adam, with increased Marksman ability, finished off Cthulhu by shotgunning him to death. Rhiannon’s turn was next, and she was sure she had the actions and power to take out Cthulhu herself, so was miffed that I stole all the glory.
Following that, Andrew picked a new character, Ahmed, and we took on Hastur, the King in Yellow (have you seen the Yellow Sign?). This was a tough one as well, but with less fire. The monster was a Cthonian, and it was so brutal in its attacks that we never let it attack. We had to collect evil tomes in this one, but first had to search cultists for the clues we needed to collect the books. Since killing a cultist and searching a cultist were separate actions, this could take a while, especially since they kept showing up! It didn’t occur to us until later that we should have been keeping a tally, because the competition became reminiscent of Legolas and Gimli’s orc count. So much so that when the Cthonian got taken down, Connor declared “That still only counts as one!”. There were times when Adam was in a room full of dead cultists but couldn’t search them because I needed to use his actions to shoot more of them. We had a good time posing the cultists (one variant has a book and is pointing, and the other has both hands up) like the pointing guy was saying “shoot him first!”, which I obliged, because I imagined this character would delight in shooting the evildoer with his hands up first.
In the end, I used up all my actions, stress, and items to gun Hastur down with “Godslayer” (that’s what I named my shotgun), much to the chagrin of… you guessed it! Rhiannon was all powered up and ready to deliver the final blow.
We really enjoyed this because there was so much detail and character and theme to the game, yet for all the depth, the turns flowed smoothly and it was easy to get into. Andrew’s wonderfully painted models helped as well, of course.
This was so much fun we played two more scenarios again a week later. But this time, Andrew brought the Great Cthulhu! This was for the Epic Episode in which the playing board is the Cthulhu “miniature” itself! I’ll post a second, separate blog to tell of that adventure, but as a preview, will include a picture of our adversary here.
I found this to be quite the fun game. Like most Cthulhu games it’s not really cosmic horror, but it comes closer than most, which is commendable for how ill-suited that genre is to anything interactive. There are a number of things that give it a lot of replayability, like the different Old Ones, all the madnesses, and how many interesting abilities the different characters have. I played Rasputin with the Paranoia madness, which attracts all the monsters to me, and which I misread as attracting all the enemies to me, basically putting the game on hard-mode.
In the first game I started off by running around doing the objective, but then had to go help Andrew nuke down a big pile of enemies with the help of my brawling, which gave me an extra attack and let me split my damage. At that point we had summoned Cthulhu, and after we drove him away from his initial space the most useful thing I could do was to buy room for the others to deal the damage.
In the second game I initially cleared out a big monster that was blocking off an important part of the map for us. Then I spent time gathering up and dealing with the enemies (though there was nothing I could do about the enemies repeatedly spawning on top of the others!) until Hastur arrived, at which point I coordinated movement with everyone else to give them the best shot at taking him down. This was also the game that started my habit of sacrificing myself for the sake of the team. I’ve died at least once every game from here on out for the sake of better completing the mission.
One thing I really like about the game is how thematic the Investigation cards are to the scenario. In the first game I kept ending up with animal companions, including a one-handed monkey. Later Andrew found a monkey’s paw, and we put together that it had come from mine. In each scenario they work together to form a narrative that really adds to the atmosphere.
All-in-all it’s a really fun and well-designed game (especially if you remember to do things right), and I’m looking forward to playing a lot more of it in the future.
I know I say this with all of the reviews but this game was easy to get the hang of. Though we figured out at the end we were cheating a bit (we forgot that the cultists were supposed to be setting more fires).
I was playing The Kid, a crazy firestarter. My madness was pyromania which does an amount of damage equal to the amount of fire tokens to everyone in the room except me.
The cultists were setting fire to the place which worked really well with my character. Oh, and there were fire vampires so there was even more fire.
We went around killing stuff and not really doing the objective because we were occupied with the heck load of monsters coming in every turn. Finally I was about to kill Cthulhu and my dad took all the glory for himself. I was mad.
So in the second game there was less fire, sadly. Monsters were coming in left and right and I was doing a lot of the killing. I was the one who killed the Cthonian but then it immediately came back.
Andrew was in a pickle, but actually did something smart and ran past all the monsters, bringing them with him to an out-of-the-way place. Then he attacked one of them and went insane to teleport back to me. It was surprisingly genius. So I was all fired up to kill Hastur but dad killed it first. I was so angry.