Cthulhu Wars is a game designed by Sandy Petersen through his company Petersen Games. Before I say anything about this game, I must mention that it is an excellent game that most people will ignore because it is expensive. This game costs $200 because of its minis. Well, they aren’t very mini at all. The figures that come in this game are incredibly detailed, beautifully sculpted, pre-assembled, and big enough that you probably couldn’t bring this game on a plane as a carry-on. In terms of the market for miniatures, $200 is actually an incredibly good value for the amount of plastic you get. If you are a fan of miniatures or the Lovecraft mythos, stop reading, scroll through some pictures, and buy this as soon as you are able. Now, if, like me, you are neutral to miniatures, I assure you this game is excellent. There is a lot of game beneath the pounds upon pounds of plastic. I do think the miniatures could have been easily replaced by minis that are actually mini (and not blunt weapons), chits or stand ups – or even photos of cats. However, the designer said that he has no intention of making a version of this game that is less content-heavy. However, the designer does encourage forum-based play through which you could try this game. Whether or not you are interested in buying the game, I encourage you to try it somehow.
So why is this game so great? First of all the graphic design is absolutely incredible. If you are into minis or Lovecraft, these will be some of the most gorgeous minis you will ever come across. I do think the board might be a little small, given the size of the minis, but the designer says he wants the board to feel overwhelmed. I mean wouldn’t you feel overwhelmed during a war of the Great Old Ones? Combine that with mechanics that make sense and brilliantly-written flavor text that is positively creepy, and you are completely plunged into the Mythos.
The gameplay is also simply incredible. At its core, this is an area control game that uses magic points to determine what actions can be done. You try to bring out and maintain control of as many Summoning Gates as possible. In between rounds, you score victory points for all the gates that you control. At the start of every round, you also get a certain number of magic points for all your gates as well as your puny humans (cultists), who are necessary for establishing those gates. Every turn you get a chance to advance the Doom tracker by spending the appropriate amount of magic points (it increases every time) to then gain points for all your gates a second time and to gain a secret amount of victory points (Elder signs had to be in here somewhere).
This game does rewards you for doing well, but there is not a runaway leader problem, as people will notice you are doing well and correct that. There are two ways the game can end. Either someone advances the doom tracker to the last position or someone gets 30+ points. In either case whoever has the most points (including the hidden Elder Signs) and has all six spellbooks wins.
So what can you do with this magic points? First and foremost, magic basically determines how many actions you get. Actions include summoning monsters, awakening the old ones, recruiting cultists, building gates, abducting cultists, movement, attacking, and some player specific actions. Some actions are cheap, while others are expensive, so this game comes with really interesting action-point management. You could spend it all in one turn, but you will probably get smacked. Players go around doing one action at a time until everyone runs out of magic. Every turn, you have to do an action or sacrifice all your magic points, but you can repeat actions. Fun fact: first player (he/she who has the most magic), determines if play goes clockwise or counterclockwise.
Every monster and Great Old One has a different cost, and you can spend that many magic points to summon one in one of your summoning gates. The monsters/old ones are awesome. They all have different attack values/summoning costs/abilities/synergies with the spell books, and they all help shape a very different strategy for each faction. Each faction has three levels of units: cultists (1), monsters (2), the great old ones (3). As an action, you can also recruit cultists. You start the game with all six out, but you can lose/sacrifice them through the game. Cultists are vulnerable, but they are necessary for building gates. As an action, you can build a gate where you have a cultist for three magic. Remember gates are important for magic points and victory points.
I mentioned that you can lose cultists. That happens through another action, abduction. So say I’m blue and I leave my cultist alone in a space. If red moves in with a cultist that does nothing. But if he brings in a Dark Young (a level 2), he can use an action to remove my cultist from play. If there is a gate in the area AND he has a cultist in the area, he gains control of that gate. At the beginning of the next round he gets a magic for each captured cultist, then he returns it to the respective player’s reserve (so I can’t just immediately recruit him back). Now rewind. Say I had a cultist, but with him was my Flying Polyp (also a level 2). Well that Dark Young can’t abduct my cultist, unless Shub-Niggurath (the great old one, level 3) is in the area, unless my great old one in the area too. Basically, you need to have a higher level creature than your opponent to capture a cultist.
Since it’s an area control game, movement is a critical action. As an action, you can send any number of units from one location to any number of adjacent locations. For each unit you move, you must spend a magic point. As a different action, you can start a battle with another player’s pieces that you share a space with. When there is a battle, both sides begin by totaling the attack value of all their creatures in that area (every unit has an attack value, though cultists and some monsters have an attack of 0). The total attack value is the number of dice rolled. Both sides roll and compare. Each 6 represents a casualty for the other player, and each 4 and 5 instantly force a unit to retreat into a friendly or unoccupied area (or die). Note that unless you have all six spellbooks you cannot move and attack in the same action, so it’s hard to sneak attack.
At this point you have 4-7 (depending on if you get expansions) armies with different but balanced stats and some mildly different abilities wrecking stuff for an already awesome game. However, the best part of the game is the spell books, some of which give you actions. Well I already said there are six spell books per player, you need all six as a victory conditions, and once you have all six you can move and attack in the same action. Well, the spell books are what really differentiate the armies. To unlock the spell books you meet six different objectives (basically telling you six things to focus on in your strategy). For example, some of blue’s objectives include abduct a cultist or control four gates. While one of Red’s is have units sharing spaces with all of your opponents. These objectives give your strategy some direction, but they do not constrain the gameplay as they can be done in any order. Every time you unlock a spell book you get a new ability to use through the entire game. These give your Great Old One and your monsters crazy good abilities that make the armies so different yet still balanced.
To briefly give a picture of the four base armies:
Crawling chaos is Nyarlathotep’s army, the blue player. This faction is the best at going across the board quickly, being the only faction that can move two spaces instead of one, and they are rather unpredictable in battle. Early in the game, they will avoid conflict, but once the great old one comes out and they get rolling they become harder and harder to kill.
I would say the green player, the Great Cthulhu faction, has the best attack value at the start of the game. Their strategy revolves around attacks and controlling the sea areas; every battle they are guaranteed at least one kill if Cthulhu is present. The first time you awaken Cthulhu he costs 10 magic, but every subsequent awakening costs 4, so this is the only faction not afraid to take a hit on their Great Old One.
Red is the Black Goat, Shub-Niggurath’s loyal faction. Their main strategy is spreading out, as most of their spell books require this. They can summon units very, very easily, having a faction ability that allows multiple monsters to be brought out in multiple gates in the same action, and, once they are entrenched in an area, they are near impossible to root.
Finally Yellow Sign (if you didn’t guess the yellow player) is the faction loyal to the King in Yellow and Hastur. Yes, they have two Great Old Ones. Their strategy focuses on the King in Yellow who has a special action called desecrate, which rewards swarming, creates cheaper power bases, and summons creatures cheaply. Early game they just focus on desecrating, but beware once they start going on the offensive.
Outside of the price (which could have easily been lowered, if the game used more modest materials), I don’t have many critiques of this game. The dice are really small, which means they don’t really roll well, but you can easily substitute those dice. Also, the player boards are a little flimsy. I do, however, have a concern about the board. It is very small, so with these giant miniatures coming out, pieces will have to be constantly jostled around. Yet this cramped board kind of adds to the spectacle of the game, where you see the world being absolutely engulfed in the war of the Great Old Ones. Also, a four player game uses half of the three player board and half of the five player board. That is a really interesting idea, but I think it may give Cthulhu a small starting bonus.
Besides for the price and a few other mild complaints, I have nothing but praise for this game. This manages to be a fully asymmetrical game that is still very balanced. Every single faction has a completely different playstyle, and the end of the game you will feel your faction coming through with its own unique perspective.
Also, this game is really simple to teach. It is very fast paced, with constant ebbs and flows between all of the players. Yet, at the same time this game is still a deep area control game. You can always learn something new about your army. You always need to be paying attention, otherwise your army will be dominated.
Simply speaking this game is phenomenal. If you like asymmetry, area control, combat, or Lovecraft you need to find a way to try this game.
Because of the price, this is definitely a game you should try before you buy. If you are interested in minis or Lovecraft, I would instantly recommend this game. If not, I would see how you like it. It is fast and furious with a simple rule set. However, the armies are so varied that this game is infinitely replayable and more rewarding with each play. There is a very solid game beneath all these (incredible) minis.