Regular readers will be aware of the general contempt in which I hold co-operative games. Yet Arkham Horror, Robinson Crusoe and the D&D Adventure System are all games I rate highly. How to square this circle? Well, what those games have in common is that they project the semblance of being alive. Creatures move, events change, players need to actually co-operate due to the complexity and uncertainty. Contrast that to the rash of titles inspired by Pandemic which are far more static and which you can play almost by rote.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu looks like an attempt by the designer, Chuck D. Yager, to make the original into the sort of co-op I want. Horrible Shoggoths shamble across the board. Unpredictable ancient gods materialise and affect the game in unexpected ways. Players find and use powerful relics at the cost of their sanity. The four towns on the board begin to live and breathe beneath your fingers.
In spite of the branding, the mechanics are significantly different from the original. You're still collecting sets of colour-coded cards to travel and win. But the goal here is to shut down four gates, one in each town. Instead of disease cubes there are cultists and Shoggoths. And instead of an outbreak a random Great Old One appears and casts its baleful effects on the game. Azathoth, for instance, reduces the number of cultist figures available which is bad news because running out ends the game. Shudde M'ell costs the players a bunch of sanity.
All these extra goodies don't make the game any more complex than the original. It's suitable for family play if the family can stomach the theme and evocatively bleak art. There are, perhaps, a few more variables in the mix. Players can draw magical items which they must consider using when planning strategy. These items, plus encounters with Shoggoths, cost sanity which the players must also track. Mad characters remain in the game with a reduced number of actions and special abilities.
You might expect these additions to make a deeper, more challenging game. Ascertaining whether this is the case is difficult due to a balance flaw. Some characters are much more powerful at lower player counts than others. The Doctor, for instance, gets an extra action each turn while the Hunter can banish Shoggoths for one action rather than the usual three. With less players these efficiency savings come round more often, making the game easier. It's best to play with a full four characters, regardless of the number of people playing.
On balance, it does feel like Reign of Cthulhu is a richer and harder game than its inspiration. When you don't see an Outbreak card in Pandemic for a while, everyone know's what coming. The equivalent effect here means you turn over a Great Old One with an unknown and always detrimental impact. Plus a new Shoggoth begins to roam the board. Existing plans go out the window. Everyone scours their collection of relics and character powers, trying to find some way to ameliorate the horror. The players come to life, along with the game itself.
Added uncertainty equals added tension. Whether game is harder or not, it feels a whole lot more exciting. A lot of games seem to go down to the wire, with the group getting close to victory at the same time as one of the many lose conditions comes into view. And whether you lose or win, it's often not hard to identify points where you did the right or the wrong thing. Points where you can start to learn to do better. And as you do, the rulebook has various masochistic options for making your lives harder if you wish to do so.
Yet for all that it improves on Pandemic, Reign of Cthulhu doesn't improve it quite enough. Even with all the extra stuff zipping around the board, it's hard to escape the sense that your destiny was set the moment you shuffled the deck. That however well you play, the ultimate arbiter of success is whether the right cards happen to be in the right order. Plus your ability to play can still dictated by a dictatorial alpha dog at the table: the curse of most co-ops.
The game also exists at an unfortunate intersection of overused material. There are already several commercial Pandemic variants. There are already more than enough Cthulhu Mythos games. For that matter that are more than enough co-operative Cthulhu games. Reign of Cthulhu does a solid job of evoking a theme and of improving on an existing set of mechanics. Sadly, other games have already done both, better.