A Beginner’s Guide to Cthulhu Wars … by two beginners.
Wade: I remember the first time I saw Cthulhu Wars. It was an online post and I turned my phone to my wife and said “Check this out.” It was a scale shot to show how large the actual Cthulhu “miniature” actually was. My wife checked it out and said “That is fucking insane.” “Right?!” I responded… but, inwardly, I was intrigued. It wasn’t “just” the huge chunks of plastic madness. Sandy Petersen’s pedigree meant that it might be really good. After hearing impressions from players that I actually trusted, I realized it could actually be great. As it turned out, it is freaking awesome.
Marc: When people ask me what the game is about, I tell them it’s about ‘Actual size!’ “See, it says so right on the box!” Now, we begin to discuss non-Euclidean geometry and what ‘Actual size!’ means in that respect. Cultists, start your chanting...
Wade: Cthulhu Wars gets saddled with the “Cadillac of Board Games” title but, let’s be honest: At least with the Onslaught Two version of Base Cthulhu Wars, the only thing that is REALLY “Cadillac” is the minis. The included Doom and Ritual tracks are flimsy affairs. Sure, you can upgrade them...but after throwing down a fat wad of cash on a game, the first thought shouldn’t be: “Let’s make this premium!”
Marc: That’s true. I’ve had people question why the base faction boards are thin card sheets, while the expansion factions are sturdy cardboard. I could get into an explanation about the cost of production and how keeping components in the main box acceptable but not ‘premium’ is what lets you afford the base game in the first place (kinda.) But usually I just say it’s because the expansion factions are cooler (cue: Windwalker joke.)
Wade: The story of me actually securing a copy of Cthulhu Wars is a somewhat interesting one. I had a $100.00 gift certificate to Miniature Market. I headed out with plans to pick up Lords of Hellas. However, when I reached the actual retail Miniature Market, the Ding and Dent section had a copy of Cthulhu Wars with a fist sized hole punched in the bottom. Maybe someone REALLY didn’t like the elder gods but, damn, 70% off? Get me the tape and some cardboard, I’m going in.
Marc: I got mine in an Amazon sale. I’m not sure what kind of sale led to it being roughly half price (those are usually clearance prices for ‘going out of business sales’, which Amazon is, uh, not) but it was and I figured I’d never find it cheaper, so I sighed heavily and plunked down my electronic cash. When Petersen finally re-released the other factions, I worked my way into those over a couple months of spending too much on board games (Is that every month?)
Wade: My first game was a four player affair. Everyone was a virgin to the Cthulhu Wars experience but I had done my “Damn, I’ve got to teach this game” research. I let everyone pick a faction and, by default, ended up playing as Crawling Chaos. The ‘Control three gates’ and ‘Control four gates’ spellbook requirements were just too tempting. I over-expanded early. I grabbed the spellbooks in less than optimum order. I snagged The Thousand Forms early because I couldn’t resist. I had too many pre-battle spellbooks and not enough strength to actually battle. I let the King in Yellow stray too far from where I was located, never allowing me to exploit him for Elder Signs. Needless to say, I didn’t win.
Marc: My first play was similar, but I picked Chaos. Nyarlathotep has always been one of my favorite characters (I even got a short story published about him) and Crawling Chaos is the opportunist’s dream. If there’s any role I take while playing DoaM games, it’s weaselly opportunist. Everyone plays very cautiously around me, because I tend to pounce on any mistake.
Wade: I really thought that Black Goat was going to be my jam.
Marc: I really thought Black Goat was going to be more combat-forward, but it’s really not. In fact, for a game that often only lasts six rounds or so, Black Goat really has to start out kind of slow, in defiance of both the pace of the game and the route to its spellbooks. Many, many players think that sprawling across the map in the first round will get them somewhere, only to find that they have jack-all for power for the next three rounds because they spent everything on movement and not on gates. I usually tell people that Chaos is the trickiest of the base factions to understand, but I’m starting to think that Black Goat may be the real problem child. But it might just be my group, which is not very combat-oriented (other than, y’know, me.) I’m guessing a faster start with the Dark Young (sac 2 Cultists, take Red Sign, get Dark Young, start making and occupying gates with them, then following with summoning Shub in the next round) might be the answer, depending on opposing factions.
Wade: On the surface, I love the idea of cultists with combat power (with the Frenzy spellbook). Double down on that with Dark Young being able to control gates and I saw what I thought would be my favorite faction. I still think it has the potential to be my favorite but it just hasn't come together the way I was anticipating when I have played as them. Probably my own fault, I wanted to do all the cool things Black Goat could do and do them all in one game. How ironic that all the possibilities got in the way of me actually executing a game winning plan with them.
Marc: Right. The hallmark of most Dudes on a Map games is tactical adaptability. You have to be able to respond to map conditions, your opponents’ actions, and your own variation; typically because of card draws or things like that. Since Cthulhu Wars doesn’t use card draw, you end up dictating your own variation on conditions by which spellbooks you grab and when. Despite the chrome, CW is still a remarkably fast game (we’ve often finished four-player games in around an hour), so you have to be on your toes.
Wade: I love how insanely fast it is. I remember one game when Yellow Sign came out of the gate pretty quick. By the time I felt like I was really ready to begin rolling, the player controlling The King In Yellow had used desecrate over and over. Suddenly, he starts flipping over Elder Signs like a map slapping down 100 dollar bills ...A 3...another 3 ...a third 3. I’m not sure what gods he was praying to when drawing those Elder signs but Bam, the game was over ...all because we weren’t paying attention to desecration. Define desecration. Because images of The King in Yellow just shitting all over the board is irrefutably burned into my brain from playing this game.
Marc: That’s not an inaccurate assessment from where I’m sitting. If you think of the Yellow King as kind of a twisted swan and imagine the Desecration tokens as the most toxic bird shit in the world, I think that works. But, yeah, anyone who has played with a decent Hastur player dreads the emergence of the Yellow snowball in the third or fourth round, where the King just flits from place to place with his Zombie posse and racks up Elder Sign trophies at will.
Wade: I’m really, really enjoying the Great Cthulhu Faction at this point. I love how they can dictate the pace of the game. When big green is out and you can see the fear in the other players’ eyes, you can cut those deals (well, with some players anyway):
“What do I want? I just want you to build a gate in that ocean area next to your GOO.”
“And you won’t take it over?”
“Nope, I promise I won’t attack you for the next two rounds”
“So, there is no downside for me, I get a gate and a non-aggression pact?”
(I just leave out that, while there is no downside for them, it still gets me energy if I have the proper spellbook, I can concentrate on building land-based gates, which gets me closer to getting another spellbook. So, complete upsides for me.) And then you cut the SAME deal with the next player and the third player is just sweating at this point. Am I even READY to attack anyone at this point? Maybe, maybe not, but the threat can still be effective.
You can’t just sit back when you play Cthulhu, you have to pay attention to everyone. You are the Enforcer. You plod along gathering Doom points, never relying on that “One Big Turn” to win the game. Instead, you must make sure no one else has that one big turn. Just make sure you are playing Old Unpronounceable (Y’ha Nthlei) with the “updated” submerge cost. I say “updated” but the errata are about two years old at this point. Still, I had to print out some stickers and update my Cthulhu spellbooks.
Marc: Mine’s the Omega version, so everything is updated. I live for the tricks that Cthulhu can execute. Dreams, Submerge, emergency Deep Ones, annoying Star Spawns. It’s too much fun. Y’ha Nthlei is also kind of devious because people like to place gates in the oceans, as they’re often quite strategic locations for movement. Meanwhile, Cthulhu laughs while dreaming. One of the restraining factors is the low number of models for the green guys. You want to use Absorb and turn your Shoggoths into wrecking balls, but you can’t keep sacrificing and re-summoning Acolytes or Deep Ones all the time because you’ll run out of power, so it’s a matter of timing and deciding where a strategic Dreams will actually pay off, rather than hopping your guys on and off the map. (Yes, that was a frogs/Deep Ones joke.)
Wade: Onslaught Three recently hit a few retail stores and the expansion factions that have grabbed my interest (Windwalker and Sleeper, specifically), immediately sold out. I really want a fifth faction, just for the option to play 5 players, but paying full “game” price for one extra faction isn’t something I’ve been able to pull off. The High Priest expansion for roughly 20 bucks? Oh, I’m totally down for that. I can still get ahold of Tcho-Tcho and Ancients factions but they seem so different to the base factions, I’m a little hesitant.
Marc: I wouldn’t, honestly, unless you have players that are now experienced with the game. Ancients is weird and requires a lot of pretty subtle play and social engineering at the table. Tcho-Tcho has issues, in that turtling up with your free GOO from the first turn onward is a viable path to victory. The new Tcho-Tcho Tribes expansion, which gives the option to replace some of the troublesome spellbooks with new ones, is available now and is pretty cheap if you do end up with Mr. Pink (“How about Mr. Purple? I’ll be Mr. Purple.” “You can’t be Mr. Purple. Mr. Purple’s a guy on another job! You’re Mr. Pink!” [Mr. Purple’s on some job about a gate. And a key.]) I’ve lately been tempted by the most useless of all expansions: different Acolytes for each faction. It’s not necessary. It might even be confusing for newer players, since the minis won’t match the cards and it’ll be harder to tell them apart from things like Ghouls, Zombies, and Mutants. But the Tcho-Tcho and the Ancients have interesting looking Acolytes, so why shouldn’t we have an egalitarian world doomed to oblivion? Gaming is about personal expression, yo.
Wade: Well, crisis averted, I just checked and it looks like all the expansions are back in stock at the usual suspects. We should probably hold off on too much expansion talk. We need to save something for the next edition of 2 Beginners. I would like to acknowledge that supporting five players out of the box and only including four base factions is freaking catnip to me. I can’t resist the idea of adding another faction but deciding which one to add, that is going to take some playtesting and/or deep reading.
Marc: As someone who owns the other five factions, I’d argue for Opener and Sleeper first, since they’re the most interesting while still staying within the realm of what the other factions do. Windwalker swings from biding time to combat crazy and, as noted above, the other two factions are relatively large departures from the rest of the game. Plus, if you got in on the recent Kickstarter, there are two factions (Bubastis and Demon Sultan) coming next year. The insanity never stops
On that note: One interesting thing is that the Ritual of Annihilation mechanic initially seems like something tacked on so the insanity will stop and keep games from becoming four-hour slogs as players gain two or three points a round. (Don’t get me wrong: I like four-hour games and would gladly play more of them, life and time permitting.) But it’s also a strategic choice: Do I sacrifice a considerable amount of power to gain a few more points and hinder myself in the coming Action phase? The first person to do so gets the advantage of paying less power, but also usually takes the biggest hit when power is harder to come by in the earlier rounds of the game. So, it becomes an essential part of an overall strategy and sense of timing. I also think it was a smart design choice that some factions have spellbook conditions or spellbooks that are tied directly to that Ritual, so it feels less like an add-on and more like an intrinsic part of the game.
Sandy has written a fair amount of advice and strategy for the various factions, some of which is contained in the Omega version rulebook. (Tangent: the size of the rulebook is incredibly daunting to some players, before I reassure them that it’s filled with pictures and strategy advice for every expansion the game has had (except the Ancients) and the actual rules take up about 15 pages in very large type.) But he’s also written some general advice both there and on BGG. One thing he stressed a while back was getting your biggest plastic toy, the GOO, on the board by the second or third round. I think he’s backed off of that, since it’s pretty difficult to pull off for everyone but Black Goat, the Tcho-Tcho, and some “lesser” GOOs like the Yellow King (where getting him out early is absolutely essential.) I think Cthulhu Wars is meant to be a rapid game, but not necessarily a quick game. It also never sat very well with me, thematically or mechanically, that your “unit to end all units” should be brought out before the game is even really rolling. It is important to do, though, since the GOOs tend to enable quite a bit for the various factions, especially when it comes to Elder Sign acquisition.
Shub-Niggurath, for example, is key for Black Goat in the midgame. She makes your monsters cheaper; she enables you to pick up Elder Signs for the cost of a Cultist; and she can be almost as threatening as a Submerged Cthulhu with Avatar. And the counterpoint to my unease is that the game highly encourages, if not requires, you to play with ALL your toys. No Zerging with tons of little guys and maybe summoning a desultory Bloodthirster as a ‘win more’ move at the end. You need the big boys in most cases; most notably factions like Yellow Sign, where Hastur’s presence to make Desecration easier and more profitable (Sounds like a tagline for Chevron…) is typically the only way to keep up with everyone else.
Wade: There is certainly no lack of information when it comes to how to play the various factions. Reading about other players’ ideas and execution is very interesting to me, but simply playing out their strategies move for move doesn’t interest me at all.
Marc: And I don’t think there’s any need for that, since your games will shift according to whom you’re playing with. As I said, my group isn’t really eager to engage, so my strategy can shift along the lines of everyone playing in their own sandbox until things get tense at the end. I had to force combat a couple times playing both Opener and Great Cthulhu to complete spellbooks, as no one seemed interested in tussling with me.
Wade: Tune in next time as we dive deeper into Cthulhu Wars (or maybe some of the other titles that Marc and I both enjoy).