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Cthulhu Wars in Review

MB Updated May 23, 2019
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Cthulhu Wars in Review

Game Information

Game Name
There Will Be Games

The Big Green One.

I was very, very skeptical of Cthulhu Wars to say the least. I’m not a big supporter of the current trend toward crowdfunding in the hobby games market and I’m not entirely on board with the concept of these “Cadillac” games with astronomical presale prices. But there were three things that drove me to ask the publishers if they would send me a press copy. One is that I had heard great things about it from folks whose opinions I trust. The second is that I wanted to see what one of these luxury class games- in this case one retailing for $199- had to offer in comparison with more traditionally priced designs on the marketplace. The third is that Mr. Petersen is certainly not some upstart, armchair game designer selling their product with a flashy video and lots of promises. This is the guy that created Call of Cthulhu, still my favorite RPG of all time. And he also had a hand in designing games like Doom, Quake and other seminal, hugely influential computer games.

So “the Great Old One” himself responded, issuing a command to one of his Servitors to send a copy to me. A few days later I got this 11 pound box in the mail and opened it up to find a big, black box with good illustrations and luxurious embossing. It looked deluxe, sure. Opening it up, I was a little underwhelmed at first. It’s hard to not expect to be completely blown away, but the reality of it is that Cthulhu Wars is still a physical product, not a life-changing experience. But then I dug through the layer of punchboards and the map and saw IT. It wasn’t Cthulhu that caught my eye, it was Hastur. A huge, bright yellow monstrosity that put me in mind more of old fashioned plastic dinosaur figures more than gaming miniatures. I picked it up and just kind of laughed at it. Was it the taint of madness?

Also packed into the hard shell plastic tray were a huge Cthulhu that could be a replica of the statue in the story. There were Dark Young, tentacles frozen in mid-writhing along with their mother, Shub-Niggurath. Nyarlathotep, looking indeed like a Crawling Chaos. And the majestic yet abominable King in Yellow, of course rendered in yellow plastic. It’s been a very, very long time since I have been impressed with miniatures. These impressed me not just with their size, but also their detail and the implication that these were toys meant to be played with. In addition to these incredible pieces, the game is also packed with scads of great-looking monsters and cultists for each of the four included factions. Nightgaunts, Byahkees, Hunting Horrors, Deep Ones, Fungi from Yuggoth- if you know these names, you’ll be thrilled to hold these pieces in your hands.

After the initial sanity check, the reality set in that some of the components simply aren’t as impressive. The cardboard is pretty standard stuff and I’ve seen better in less expensive games. The gate markers in particular could have been and should have been more visually striking. The player mats and tracks are cardstock when they should have been thick punchboard. It’s hard to avoid being disappointed in the bag of plain old black 6mm D6s- games a fraction of the cost of Cthulhu Wars have custom dice. The maps are decent, but the visual design lacks the impact of the plastics.

I don’t usually spend a lot of column inches discussing the physical product in my reviews, but Cthulhu Wars definitely deserves it because of the consumer cost and also because it is such a wild mix of incredible and mundane. The effect is something like driving a Cadillac and realizing that it is just a car after all. It’s still a Cadillac and that matters, but it is important to keep expectations in check. This is still a small press, crowdfunded board game. And it is worth noting that the current “Onslaught 2” Kickstarter campaign offers both free and paid upgrades to several components. You pay extra for the seat heaters and deluxe floormats.


Out of all of the things I expected out of Cthulhu Wars, the last thing I expected to be quite honest was to encounter an incredibly streamlined, highly refined “Dudes on a Map” design that I think is the best in its class since 2005’s Nexus Ops. This is a spectacular piece of development work that showcases Mr. Petersen’s experience and expertise in creating game systems, mechanics and concepts. This is absolutely a “fun first” design built to put players into a very specific setting, give them the insane powers of an alien god, and then get out of the way as much as possible to let players play. It is highly accessible, approachable and easy to learn. Administration is at a minimum- there are very few tokens to fuss with, no decks of cards to learn and manage, and the bookkeeping is as simple as it gets. In a way, it’s very old fashioned, but it also cuts through a lot of the clutter and bloat that have plagued “conquest” style games over the past decade or so.

The concept is cool and anyone that loves Lovecraft- from the original stories up through recent games such as Eldritch Horror- will immediately appreciate it. What if all of those gate-closing, cult-thwarting, Cthulhu-shooting exploits in other Mythos-inspired games was for naught and the Great Old Ones won? The core game’s map depicts an Earth upon which mankind no longer holds sway, the Great Old Ones along with their minions and monsters struggle for dominance. Cultists spread their abhorrent practices across the post-apocalyptic wastes, establishing gates through which they can summon monsters and even the Great Old Ones themselves. The overall goal of the game is for your faction to earn 30 Doom points. This only takes 60-90 minutes once your group has a handle on the game.

Fundamentally, Cthulhu Wars hews close to the Dudes on a Map tradition that goes back to Risk. Moving pieces and fighting with them is the prime directive. Combat is a matter of rolling dice equal to the combat value of everything in a space with sixes killing any unit (even a Great Old one) and fours or fives resulting in “Pain”, effectively a rout or forced retreat. There are also some other cool concepts at work. For example, if you put a monster in a space with an enemy’s Cultist that does not have a monster of their faction then you can abduct them to earn extra power. So a Nightgaunt can fly in and snatch up a guy left alone holding down a gate.

Each turn, all of the Cultists you have on the board generate a Power Point and you get two for each gate you control. The meager, misguided worshippers are also expendable, so you can sacrifice them for more power. These points are used to pay for movement, battle, gate construction, summoning, kidnapping Cultists and paying to use your faction’s Spellbook powers. These abilities- each player has six- are earned when you complete a specific goal keyed to your faction’s agenda and overall strategic direction. Shub-Niggurath has “achievements” keyed to spreading her “Thousand Young” across the map. Nyarlathotep is focused on control of gates and gaining power. Hastur’s Yellow Sign gang benefits from The King in Yellow spreading desecration into territories, the Undead springing up to serve his majesty. The followers of Cthulhu earn Spellbooks from controlling the oceans and devouring other players’ pieces.

The Spellbooks are outrageously overpowered and unfair. Some of them are at Cosmic Encounter levels of rules bending or breaking. Cthulhu can submerge with a couple of Shuggoths and Star Spawn and spend just one power point later on to pop up anywhere on the map. Nyarlathotep has a Madness ability that allows his player to choose for everyone else where “pained” (routed) figures are moved to after combat. Hastur can move to a Cultist that accidentally spoke his name and then abduct them. The Black Goat faction can turn their congregation into one die combat units.

The point is that all of these appropriately godlike powers are extremely powerful and desirable, while also giving each faction both a unique flavor and a variable, situational strategic direction each game. Some Spellbooks interact with a faction’s units to augment their abilities in movement or combat. They are all well balanced and well written, but it is imperative that new players understand what each faction’s special ability is along with all of their Spellbooks. Unaware players may miss the importance of not allowing the Black Goat’s monsters to run rampant or of keeping the Crawling Chaos player out of gate territories.

Scoring all of the above is quite interesting. In each round, each player get Doom points for each gate they control. Each player also has the option to perform a Ritual of Annihilation wherein power points are spent in exchange to effectively double the points earned from gates and give the annihilating player a secret Elder Sign mark worth one to three points for each Great Old One they control. But it is also at the expense of resources available during the turn. The Ritual becomes more expensive each time it is performed and there is a terminal point at which so many of them ends the game whether someone has reached 30 Doom or not.

This scoring method has a knock-on effect- it keeps the game moving forward, continually escalating the stakes but without creating the kind of “steamroller” effect that often occurs in this type of game. There are a couple of checks and balances in place. If you manage to get two more gates than everybody else on just one turn, you can do the Ritual to get a four point jump in addition to a possible three point boost from an Elder Sign, which also serves to baffle the “beat up the leader” impetus. And then there is a charity provision that enables a player that gets just completely devastated on a turn to earn power points equal to half the leader- which can be a big boon.

This is a very aggressive, very fluid game so fortunes and territorial control can change dramatically over the course of the action. There is no turtling, the close quarters map with few territories simply doesn’t allow it. Rebounding from losses is fairly easy, and “Pain” results are more common than kills. The feeling this generates is one of struggle between equivalent powers punctuated by dramatic shifts in game state.

The immediacy of this game- coupled with its easy play and approachability- makes this one of my favorite designs in this genre space. I love that it is a game that someone can come to my house, see on the shelf, get curious about and I can have them up and running with it in about ten minutes. Setup and commitment are minimized. Impact and engagement are maximized.


Brilliantly editorial in its design yet over-the-top in production, the final question in regarding Cthulhu Wars is one that has likely been on the minds of any reader who has not yet either bought the game from the previous Kickstarter campaign or pledged on the recent one. “Is it worth it”? It’s a harder question to answer than it seems because in comparison to other products on the market it’s difficult to argue for it when you can easily buy three or even four very high quality, comparable titles for this game’s selling price. And that is before you figure in the expansion material, which is also premium priced with a full set of add-ons costing $600 before shipping.

But here it is. The answer might be regarded as something of a cop-out, but I’m going to tell you, reader, that it is simply up to you. Take a look at what is online, take a look at what is offered in the current Kickstarter, think about what your tastes are and what your group likes to play. Consider if a luxury-class Dudes on a Map game is something you want as a centerpiece in your collection. If you are interested in the Cthulhu Mythos, factor in how much you think that playing with these awesome figures and powers would be fun. Play someone else’s copy- if you dare to tempt yourself.

For my part, I think it is worth it because it is a masterful design that evokes an old fashioned sensibility while presenting itself in a very modern and very innovative set of rules that feels outside of the usual set of influences and antecedents. The miniatures, if you can call them that, do actually impart a sense of grandiose, cyclopean theater to the game and I would not want them to be reduced or replaced by less extravagant components. I appreciate the heart and soul of this game, I value that Mr. Petersen in some sense regards it as a culmination of his life’s work in games. The expansion content lingers in my thoughts like some kind of malignant corruption, the sound of a mystical unseen flute summoning my wallet.

I love this game and I think it is one of the absolute best games released this year and in time it could become one of my favorite games of all time. It is the best crowdfunded board game released to date. Like most of the games I cover, I was given it to review so take from that fact what you will. But if not for Mr. Petersen’s generosity, I would have been on my phone ordering a copy immediately after my first play.

Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #214941 12 Nov 2015 15:41
One thing that keeps occurring to me is that everyone obsesses about $700 for the full game, but that is a huge overkill. Even the most obsessed Arkham Horror fan would never suggest you buy all 4 big box expansions, the 4 small box expansions, plus all the extra bling such as miniatures, dice and plastic elder signs. To do so you would be looking at $400+. I suspect a more realistic purchase in Arkham Horror is the base game, 2 big box, one small box and some dice or gate markers, which would be around $200 and the equivalent for Cthulhu Wars would maybe be $300 (base game, 2 factions, one map and the high priests). So in a way it is only 50% more expensive than a similar game, rather than this enormous expense that sucks up the budget equivalent to10-20 games.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #214943 12 Nov 2015 16:13

Sag, this means you.

I was sold long before that, sir.

Years ago Adam Starkweather was pitching a similar concept for WWII right here on F:At. I wonder if this is the design he was considering for development.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #214958 12 Nov 2015 19:00
I think if I'm spending this much, I'm going to spend it on a much more original game---I'd rather spend it on something like Kingdom Death that by all accounts is trying something very unusual you don't get anywhere else. But pure personal preference, not trying to negate your point.

Of course, I'm not buying either, so it's purely hypothetical.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #214959 12 Nov 2015 19:16
MuMu, that is a great point. It's easy to see that $700 Mysteries of the Worm package and say "yep, this is a $700 game". When the reality is that for you, it may be a $125 (figuring in discounts if you go to retail or aftermarket for it) for you. Or if you buy it with a group as some folks have done, it's less than that even. For me, it is a $700 game because I want it all. But you are also correct in comparing it to something like Arkham Horror- the retail for all that stuff AND got all of the "extras" like the dice, miniatures and so on you are looking at several hundred dollars right there. I think what it is more than anything is that a) the expansions are really expensive, comparatively and b) there is a lot of "extra" material that is truly optional and c) you are looking at the upfront price tag for an entire product line, not just a single SKU.

Sax, that is totally valid. For me, if I'm going to buy a big bucks luxury game, my #1 concern is "is this game going to actually get played". I do not want a $400, $500 shelf toad that never gets played because it's too complicated, too weird, too long, too hard too teach others, or that requires too much commitment to get the most out of it. I want something that like I said, you can have someone over that sees it, wants to play it, and you can be in-game within 15 minutes. AND get a great gaming experience out of it that allows for beginner-level play as well as deeper material that comes out with experience.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #214961 12 Nov 2015 19:59
I've certainly dropped a few hundred into games like Arkham as I did buy everything. Imperial Assault I'm sadly assuming I'll spend a few hundred eventually. As far as over-the-top production expensive games go, I think if it has any chance of failing in your group(s) then its not worth even considering it. Big box shelf toads are the worst. They're more like room toads.
OldHippy's Avatar
OldHippy replied the topic: #214962 12 Nov 2015 20:40
DoaM's and dex games are definitely my favourite genre. They are both over-represented in my collection but they all get use. This sounds exactly like something I would totally love. But I just don't have 150$ (edit: actually 205.95 + taxes at the cheapest Canadian retailer I know) right now to get it. I'm going to wait and see for the time being, there might be a chance in the future... you've certainly piqued my interest and I really want to play it now. I assume that the game is fine with some serious longevity right our of the box and the expansions just offer new factions so I don't see a need to jump all in right away even if I could round up the cash for it.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #214963 12 Nov 2015 20:59
I did it. I bought one of the last CSI copies of CW. $130 minus my 4% rewards discount. Free shipping. Now I'll only sink $600 into the KS, because I'm an expansion whore. I WANT ALL THE PLASTIC CRITTERS. ALL.
cdennett's Avatar
cdennett replied the topic: #214971 13 Nov 2015 02:16
I bought a copy from CSI when the price dropped, as well. I'm currently in for about $300 in the KS: all of the expansion factions (4x$50), Asaloth expansion (bunch of neutrals, $50), the plastic gates ($30), high priests ($15), and the better cardstock ($10, based this on comments here). I'm pretty comfortable with this, especially with the rules making all the faction GOOs into independents when not in play. I'm trying to resist getting any of the maps, because the closer I get to $600, the weaker my will will get. Realistically this will not hit the table very often with my group, so I really should be fine. Also, it's not so much the money, but the space. I can hide the cost from my wife, but I can't hide that pile of boxes...
Disgustipater's Avatar
Disgustipater replied the topic: #214977 13 Nov 2015 09:16
Plastic gates have always seemed like a bad idea to me. You are taking an already crowded area and making it smaller.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #214981 13 Nov 2015 11:03

Disgustipater wrote: Plastic gates have always seemed like a bad idea to me. You are taking an already crowded area and making it smaller.

Especially when the Black Goatlings can control them. I don't think they'll fit.
Disgustipater's Avatar
Disgustipater replied the topic: #214984 13 Nov 2015 12:58
It's been a couple years since I looked at them, but I'm pretty sure they have a wider platform built into them for just that purpose.
Da Bid Dabid's Avatar
Da Bid Dabid replied the topic: #214985 13 Nov 2015 13:09
I'm glad I recently splurged to be a Blood Rage late-late backer, it ensures my budget definitely has no room to even consider the possibility of CW. Other than Scott who has already posted his thoughts comparing them (with CitOW) I'd like to hear ya'll Uncle Pennybags' opinions once your games ship to ya.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #214993 13 Nov 2015 14:05
I'm still waiting for Blood Rage to hit MM, I'm doing the review there No KS stuff, but I don't really care as of right now.

Plastic gates, yeah...I dunno, that's on my "maybe not so much" list. The cardboard ones are fine (but are really kind of chintzy-looking compared to everything else) and I was wondering about the Dark Young on them too.

It was actually worth my $1 pledge to get Mr. Petersen's updates...he digs into design ideas, explains what everything does, etc. The neutral stuff actually sounds really neat, things that anyone can buy and use. That could add quite a lot of depth to the game.
Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #214997 13 Nov 2015 14:42
I am hugely wary of the neutral stuff. I remember when we used the mercenary rule in our blood bowl league and it was dominated by teams who had a structural weakness that was worth paying huge amounts to overcome (eg the slow teams loved having skaven runners who are the fastest players available to anyone). It meant that the asymmetry was lost, and and the asymmetry is an important part of Blood Bowl and Cthulhu Wars.
stoic's Avatar
stoic replied the topic: #215000 13 Nov 2015 15:21
I'm just going to imagine that my Nexus Ops DOAM pieces are 10 times larger than they really are and play it. It will save me some serious cash. In my leisure though, I'll continue to worship Cthulhu and calculate non-Euclidian geometry in the Louisiana swamps adjacent to my home... ph'nglui mglw'nafh cthulhu r'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn ...
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #215002 13 Nov 2015 15:39
While you're at it, make up some cards for the factions that give them boosts every time they gain X amount of points or something.
stoic's Avatar
stoic replied the topic: #215035 14 Nov 2015 14:08

SuperflyTNT wrote: While you're at it, make up some cards for the factions that give them boosts every time they gain X amount of points or something.

There's been some discussion on that topic to make asymmetrical faction powers for Nexus Ops. I haven't experimented with it. You?
ThirstyMan's Avatar
ThirstyMan replied the topic: #215036 14 Nov 2015 14:13

stoic wrote: ...... and calculate non-Euclidian geometry....

Wow, I do that all the time. Does that mean I'm a Cthulhu worshipper? Is that the same as a physicist?
stoic's Avatar
stoic replied the topic: #215037 14 Nov 2015 14:21

ThirstyMan wrote:

stoic wrote: ...... and calculate non-Euclidian geometry....

Wow, I do that all the time. Does that mean I'm a Cthulhu worshipper? Is that the same as a physicist?

I'll consult Cthulhu and Lovecraft's interdimensional shade when I next see them in the swamp.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #215038 14 Nov 2015 16:02
@Stoic: No. I don't own Nexus Ops anymore. Played it a bunch and kind of realized it's not deep enough for my DOAM tastes.

So, this happened today:

The bits seem smaller now. The box seems like it's mostly empty. Shellie has the battle foam in it and it makes sense...mine has bags.

The more I think about this the less I am seeing $150.00 in value there. Mine is a KS version, and I'm not seeing any stretch goals or anything.

If they were painted, totally $150.00 or even $200.00 but unpainted, I just don't see a hundred fifty dollars in the box.
dfour's Avatar
dfour replied the topic: #215039 14 Nov 2015 17:00
Tell me more about how you're not seeing the value, so I can stay strong and not give in in these final days.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #215042 14 Nov 2015 17:44

dfour wrote: Tell me more about how you're not seeing the value, so I can stay strong and not give in in these final days.

  • There's only 30-40 miniatures in the box. Granted, they're big, but still, there's not a lot.
  • The cardstock is thin. The copy I got was sleeved and still my reference cards are bent up.
  • Player mats are thin cardstock as well.
  • The box is as empty as Yig's soul. The box is HUGE and mostly empty. This means less structure. My box had torn corners and seams.
  • It's a far better-than-average DoaM, based on one play, but it's not 100$ better.
  • 50$ per expansion is STEEP AS FUCK. 13 models, 6 cardboard counters, a thin character sheet....and that's 50$? Suck a dick.
  • The "grandiosity" wears off. I played in Mass on Oct. 20th or so. It's not even a month later and now I'm looking at my copy thinking "I remember them being bigger"

I hope this helps. I'd be in for $100.00-$120.00 but for $150.00 I think it's a bit much. If it had a built-in 5th faction I'd be all over it.
Hex Sinister's Avatar
Hex Sinister replied the topic: #215044 14 Nov 2015 19:35
Shoddy cardstock is a real downer for a "Premium" title like this. Close enough to being a dealbreaker for me. Even shitty DotR had decent player boards.

I'm toying with the idea of asking my crew if they will split the cost of this + a 5th faction. I'm not rich enough to own a $200 shelf turd. If dudes put money in then it would get played. And I know for sure this would be a perfect game for everyone since we all have roots in CoC + DoaM. I dunno, it makes me feel greasy to ask lol.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #215046 14 Nov 2015 20:28
In the update Mr. Petersen "respectfully disagreed" with me about the cardboard in the game but it's just a fact- they do not meet the quality of the plastics even half way. The punchboards are a little thicker, but they are also of lower quality (visually and materially) than what you'd see in an FFG, Z-Man or Asmodee title. The player mats and tracks are thin cardstock, mine were "pre-bent" from shifting around in the box.

And the dice...they really bug me. You can buy a $25 game that has custom, etched dice. But in CW you literally get stock D6s...little ones. Black, not even green or something.

The board is fine, but nothing special and it's visually pretty bland...this is one place I will compare it to CitOW, which had a GREAT looking board. In a $60 product.

The figures really do make up for those disappointments, I'm sure they were quite expensive to sculpt, mold and assemble (a couple are multiple pieces). And this is some hard ass, "toy grade" plastic, not the brittle or bendy stuff game minis are usually made of.

If the game were made on a bigger scale by a larger company, I think they could have hit their margin target without cutting those kinds of corners.

The game is so good I overlook some of that...but there again, it's up to you to do the math and determine if it's all worth it.
SuperflyPete's Avatar
SuperflyPete replied the topic: #215047 14 Nov 2015 22:05
With all due respect and speaking from my own personal experience, I do think that a critic can overlook some shit when it arrives free of charge. That's one reason I never tell my crew if it's a review copy or not because I don't want to bias anyone when they vote.

I know I can overlook a lot of shit when I get something free. If someone moves and I get thier kitchen table, for example, the nicks and scratches don't bother me, but If I paid for it at a garage sale, I'd be far more critical.

Just my 2c.

With regard to THIS game, I'd love to know their budened cost. If they're not clearing 75$ a copy then they suck at life.

The shipping bill I got for receiving my copy from St Louis was $14.50 + 3 for insurance