Mutant-Approved Geek Games IV: The Obligatory and Inevitable Lovecraft Edition

Probably one of the most ironic things about the writings of H.P. Lovecraft being so prominent in tabletop gaming is that the man himself hated games. Even considering that games in his lifetime were quite different from the current scene, his opinion likely wouldn’t be much different today. The fact that many of the games inspired by his works are tongue-in-cheek in tone would likely annoy him.

So, with Halloween this weekend, perhaps you may consider bringing one of these to the table.

Reign of Cthulhu

$49.99, 2-4 Players
Ages 14+
Designed by Chuck D. Yager
Published by Z-Man Games 

There are quite a few games on the market which have been reskinned with one or more different themes. Munchkin and Fluxx immediately come to mind. For such variants, the Cthulhu Mythos has been one of the more popular themes to apply. And if there’s one game that would probably benefit the most from its reskins, it’s Pandemic. For some gamers, the core game’s theme might not be so entertaining after last year’s unpleasantness (YMMV of course).

In Reign of Cthulhu, the plague is one of cultists and shoggoths popping up around the Miskatonic River Valley region. And it’s all because of those stupid dimensional gates. The investigators need to shut them down, all the while keeping the number of cultists and shoggoths in check as they proliferate like rabbits. It would also be desirable to keep the number of awakened Old Ones to a minimum.

As with the base version of Pandemic, each player has a role which provides a special ability. On a turn, a player gets to perform four actions. These include movement, removing cultists and shoggoths from your space (though the latter requires three actions to perform), and trading clue and relic cards with other players. The most important action you can perform is to seal a gate. To do this, you need to be in the same space as an open gate, where you discard five clue cards that match the town where you’re currently located.

Once you’re done with your actions, it’s time to draw two cards from the player deck, discarding your hand down to seven afterwards should it end up exceeding that limit. Most of these will be clue and relic cards. However, there are four Evil Stirs cards which were seeded in the deck through a stacked shuffle at the beginning of the game. When one of these is drawn, the player roll the Sanity die and accepts the result. Then the next Old One card in line is flipped over and any effects are applied. The bottom card of the summoning deck is drawn and a shoggoth placed on the indicated location. Finally, the card you just drew is shuffled with the summoning deck discards, which are returned to the top of the deck.

You conclude your turn by drawing cards from the summoning deck, the number of which depends on how many Old One cards have been flipped over. For each card, you place a cultist in the indicated space, or flip over the next Old One card if there are three cultists in that space. A few summoning cards will also cause any shoggoths on the board to move towards the nearest open gate, with shoggoths already on an open gate being removed from the board as the next Old One card gets flipped over.

As is common in Cthulhu-themed games, sanity is a trait which can erode quickly. As well as the above-mentioned case of drawing an Evil Stirs card, you risk losing sanity by entering a space with a shoggoth, a shoggoth moving into your space, using a relic, or moving through a gate. While reducing your sanity to zero doesn’t put you out of the game, it does hinder your effectiveness, as you get one fewer action per turn and your special ability gets altered in an unfavorable manner.

The only way to win is to seal all four gates one the board. However, there are plenty of ways to lose. These are not having a cultist or shoggoth available to place on the board when called for, flipping over the last Old One card, the player deck running out, and all investigators becoming insane.

Pandemic is widely considered one of the classics of modern tabletop gaming, along with titles like Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, and Carcassone. And you can see why, as it features an exquisite balance of strategy and luck. But as it happens, I often find that these games will possess rather bland and unengaging themes. Realms of Cthulhu proves to be an excellent fit for this particular structure and a fine alternative to a more mundane contagion.

Miskatonic School for Girls

$49.00, 2-4 Players
Ages 12+
Designed by Luke Peterschmidt
Published by Fun to 11 Games

Let me tell you a story. Back in 2012, I was attending the Guns of August gaming convention. While browsing through the Dealers’ Room, I saw this game on a shelf. Without knowing anything about the game aside from its title, I knew I had to have it. Such is the power of a sufficiently creative title.

The premise is that you’re a student at the prestigious New England boarding school alluded to in the game’s title. However, what goes unmentioned in the brochures is that the staff consists of eldritch abominations and their human minions. Very remiss of them. It’s every house for themselves, as you attempt to recruit desirable students into your house, while directing faculty to harass other houses. House names aren’t provided in the base game, but I go with Hasturpuff, R’lyehclaw, Gnophkehdor, and Shuddem’ellin.

The theme of the game is realized through a deckbuilding mechanism. At the start of your turn, you collect any cards which may be in your purchase pile. Regardless of whether or not there were any cards there, you then draw from your deck until you have a hand of five cards. In the upper corner of the cards are a list of the friendship and/or nightmare points which enable the purchase of student and faculty cards respectively. There will be a selection of three each for both types, which rotates and restocks at the beginning of each turn. You must purchase one student card (which goes to your purchase pile) and one faculty card (which goes to the purchase pile of the player to your left). If you can’t afford any of the current selection for one or the other, take one from the Transfer Student or Substitute Teacher pile instead. If your hand consists entirely of student cards (an incredibly rare situation), you discard your hand and your turn ends. But if you have even one faculty card, you must then conduct a Classroom Session and get schooled.

Before the Classroom Session begins, you may use any pre-class abilities on the student cards from your hand before discarding them. Then you draw cards from your deck equal to the number of faculty cards you have in play. Any faculty cards drawn are called Pet Teachers, and you get to place them in the discard pile of your choice. Student cards that are drawn are your BFFs and will aid you in your time of peril. After resolving any BFF abilities, their Girl Power ratings are totaled and (if necessary) distributed between the faculty cards. If the Girl Power assigned to a faculty card equals or exceeds its Health, that faculty card is defeated and goes to your discard pile. If there are any faculty cards that survived, total their Damage and subtract the total Resolve of your BFFs to determine how much you reduce the Sanity of your house. Players continue taking turns until all but one house has their Sanity reduced to zero.

There’s no question that this game has a high level of randomness. About the only significant player agency occurs when you purchase cards. For the most part, everything else relies on the luck of the draw. If the thought of Lady Luck being the Bill McKinney to your Ned Beatty fills you with dread, you’ll probably want to pass on this one. But if you’re a big enough Lovecraft fanboy, you’ll find plenty in here that’ll be worth your while. For instance, some of the less renowned stories Lovecraft wrote get a nod, such as Arthur Jermyn and The Terrible Old Man. Many of the student cards will also have little gags about the characters they were derived from if you know what to look for. There are also some amusing design choices, such as superimposing the Girl Power stat over a croquet mallet and the Damage stat over a spanking paddle.

One final note. At first glance, it might appear that a few unlucky draws could knock a player out of the game early and be stuck watching from the sidelines. However, in my experience this almost never happens thanks to a variety of card effects and gameplay incentives. But if the possibility of it happening still bugs you, you can always have the game end after one player’s sanity reaches zero.

Arkham Horror: Final Hour

$39.95, 1-4 Players
Ages 12+
Designed by Carlo A. Rossi
Published by Fantasy Flight Games

Since Lovecraft is in the public domain, that means any random dipstick with an idea and a successful Kickstarter can crank out a game with a Cthulhu theme without facing legal repercussions. And I can attest that several have done so. However, for well over a decade Fantasy Flight Games has had the license for publishing Chaosium’s Arkham Horror board game, with its link to the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Since then, there has been a load of spin-off games and tie-in novels (the quality of the latter can vary, though Mask of Silver by Rosemary Jones is particularly good). I’ve tried pretty much all of them, so it was a tough choice to decide which I would feature in this article. I went with Final Hour in part because it is possibly the most Euro style game Fantasy Flight has ever published.

The typical premise of a Lovecraft-themed game with a serious tone is an investigation of strange happenings. Final Hour instead skips to the point where everything has gone pear-shaped as dimensional gates open on the Miskatonic University campus and monsters pour out and rampage. A last-ditch effort is being made to perform a ritual that will shut down the gates, but there’s only a limited amount of time to gather the necessary components and perform it. The area for the ritual will also need to be kept reasonably clear of monsters, who are sure to make themselves a nuisance.

Final Hour is what could be called an uncoordinated cooperative game. That is while the players are working together to complete a goal, certain mechanisms prevent them from communicating their intents amongst themselves. At the start of each round, the lead investigator (a role that alternates) draws the top card of their action deck and reads it. Then, without telling the other players what it says, the action card is placed facedown and a card from the player’s hand of four priority cards (which are numbered 1-30) is placed faceup on top of the action card. A replacement priority card is drawn, and the next player takes a turn, doing the same thing. This continues until four action cards are in play. The action cards are then resolved based on the assigned priority cards from lowest to highest. The first two will resolve the actions on the top half, which are always useful (such as moving or fighting monsters). The third and fourth cards resolve the actions on the bottom half. This always features a detrimental effect, though many will have something good as well.

Now you may ask yourself why you’d want to use the lower half of an action card. Aside from the fact that someone must take one for the team, it’s also the only part of the card which will offer investigate actions. At the start of the game, you shuffle the clue tokens with ritual icons and randomly select two without looking to be placed facedown on the indicated spaces on the ritual track. Clue tokens with item icons are then shuffled in before they get assigned at random in the marked spaces on locations that aren’t the ritual site or a gate location. An investigate action allows you to reveal a clue token in your current location and place it on the ritual track, which is key to pulling off the ritual.

Once the investigators have resolved their actions, it’s now time for the monsters to screw things up. First you check the priority cards that were played to see if they have any omen icons. If there are, total them up and check the Ancient One sheet to determine what sort of headache is incoming. Then the top token of the gate stack is drawn and placed in the location with gate tokens that have a matching icon. Random monsters equal to the number of gate tokens on that location are then drawn and placed there. Each location can only hold a limited number of monster tokens, so if it’s full, the monster follows the red or blue path connected to the location based on the token’s border color. If the next location is full, it continues until it reaches one with a free space.

As with Reign of Cthulhu, there are multiple ways to lose, but only one way to win. At the end of the round where the final gate token is drawn, the players must attempt the ritual (though it may be done at the end of an earlier round if the players feel good about their chances). Each player selects three of their priority cards (each of which has one of the five ritual icons on it) and places them facedown. The two clue tokens set aside at the beginning are revealed. The offered priority cards are then compared and if cards with icons that match those on the tokens are equal to or greater than twice the number of players (or simply the number of players if the token icons are a pair), they win. If you don’t have sufficient cards, you lose as the dimensional gates go out of control. You also lose if any one investigator’s health is reduced to zero or a monster moves into the ritual site when all the spaces are occupied.

This game involves a lot more strategy than you usually see in an Arkham Files series game, which tend to involve a lot of dice rolling and other luck-based mechanisms. This mostly comes through in the use of the priority cards. As you’re not allowed to talk about what your action cards can do before they get resolved, this is the only way to indicate to the other players which of your two possible actions you wish to use. Then there’s the setting up your hand for the final ritual. Let’s say that, through the use of investigate actions, both of the clue tokens with the star ritual icon get revealed. Now you know that it’s impossible for either of the facedown tokens on the ritual track to have a star. Ergo, if you have any priority cards with a star, you’ll want to get rid of them at the earliest opportunity, since they’ll be useless for the ritual.

Fast & Fhtagn

$29.95, 3-6 Players
Ages 13+
Designed by Jeff Tidball
Published by Atlas Games

Several years ago, Jeff Tidball had designed a game for Atlas Games called Cthulhu 500. The concept of Lovecraft-themed NASCAR racing was a promising one, and the game featured some solid mechanics. However, the issue of positioning was made a bit too abstract. For a sport where vehicles race at well over a hundred miles per hour while bunched together like they’re in a parking lot, this was a questionable decision. But in recent years the game received an overhaul that addressed the weaknesses and retained the strengths. While they were at it, the theme was tweaked to mimic street racing instead.

There’s a decent assortment of lean, mean, non-Euclidian racing machines to choose from. The stats are kept basic, consisting of Speed (a modifier for all driving tests) and Complexity (the target number for fix-it tests). Rather than have hit points or a similar mechanic for tracking wear and tear on your racer, a binary system where its state is either damaged or not damaged is employed. Should you take a damage result when your racer is already damaged, you simply fall back one rank instead. The good news is that that it only takes a one successful fix-it test to return to an undamaged state, regardless of how many times in a row you took damage.

At the beginning of a player’s turn, certain street conditions must be resolved. First, any civilian vehicles on the left-hand side (or right if you insist doing the streets British style) move one rank forward (which relative to the racers is one rank back). Those that move into the rank behind the last place racer are removed from play, as they can no longer affect the action. Any racers with the misfortune of being in front of such a vehicle take damage and perform a drift or fall back (more on that below). Then if you happen to be the leader, new street mats are drawn and placed. If however you’re in last place, the civilian vehicles on the right-hand side (or left as the case may be, what ho) fall back one rank. For all in the middle of the pack, nothing else happens. Once that’s done, it’s time to take up to four actions. When you’ve used all the actions you wish to, you may then discard any number of cards from your hand and draw up to two, so long as your hand count doesn’t end up exceeding five.

The most desirable action available is to advance, which requires that the space in front of you be unoccupied. You’ll also need to make a driving test. If the spaces adjacent to the one you’re attempting to move into are unoccupied by racers, you must roll equal to or higher than a flat target number based on your current placement. But if one or both of those spaces has a racer, you must make an opposed driving test (when there are two, you go against the one with the better placement). If you roll higher, you get to advance. If the opponent rolls higher, your action has been used up to no effect (though you can try again if you have any actions left). If there’s a tie, both vehicles become damaged.

However, moving forward isn’t always an option. Fortunately, there are a plethora of alternatives. While on the street, you can play a usable action card, perform a straight fix-it test to repair damage, add a crew card to your gang, or discard a card from your hand and draw a replacement. If you’re on a sidewalk, you may also pull over, though this will provide every racer placed behind you with a free advance action. A pull over action allows you to add or remove a driver, add or remove a mod (of which you can have a maximum of three at any one time), or repair damage with a fix-it test that gains the bonus provided by your gang.

If you still wish to move while the way forward is block, you can instead drift (move sideways) or fall back. Unlike with an advance, drifting and falling back automatically succeeds if the target space is unoccupied. If there is a vehicle there, you can still attempt to claim the space. Civilian vehicles will automatically fall back. Against another racer, opposed driving tests are rolled. Results are the same as with advance attempts, except the initiating racer winning causes the losing vehicle to move one space in the direction it was pushed. Being pushed off the racing area or into a median bar causes the affected vehicle to spin out, which results in the racer being placed in the corresponding space of the rank immediately behind the last place racer.

While it’s obvious that racers in the forward ranks are ahead of those in ranks behind them, what about two or more racers in the same rank? Much like Asimov’s robots, there are three Laws of Placement within the same rank. The First Law states that a racer on the street places ahead of a racer on the sidewalk. The Second Law states that a racer going with the traffic places ahead of a racer going against the traffic, unless this contradicts the First Law. The Third Law states that racers closer to the center place ahead of those further from the center, unless this contradicts the Second Law. Thanks to these three Laws, it is impossible to have a tie.

Street mats define the terrain, which can potentially hobble your options. As well as when the lead racer’s turn begins (as noted above), new street mats will also be drawn whenever a racer takes over the lead after a successful advance. They indicate how many lanes of traffic are available, if the sidewalks can be accessed, and if there is a median bar in the center blocking drifting attempts. If a racer is suddenly no longer in a legal space, the player gains two free drift attempts to move back into the racing area or be forced to spin out. New mats can also bring civilian vehicles into play. A die is rolled for each lane, with a result equal to or higher than the printed number resulting in a civilian vehicle being placed on that space on the mat. Once one of the two Finish Line mats (which are seeded near the bottom during set up) is drawn, the other is removed from the mat deck and placed in the opposite position. Then each player gets one more turn, with the highest placing racer winning at the conclusion.

Fast & Fhtagn is a major step up compared to Cthulhu 500. The more defined terrain and additional obstacles make for a more satisfying experience as regards employing strategy. If there’s one gripe I have, it’s with the poor organization of the rulebook. The extensive index mitigates this to some degree, but it can be a stumbling block for rookie gamers.

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