“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming” ― H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories
As a gamer today, you can’t throw a rock in a game store without hitting a title with a Cthulhu theme (Note: do not throw rocks in your FLGS). I’d wager only games about zombies and euro games set in the Mediterranean are more abundant then this ancient old one. For this reviewer though, I’m perfectly fine with that, as I’ve long been a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos. Anytime this theme pops up in a new game, I’m bound to stop and take a look.
Today, we are going to dive into Cthulhu Wars, a game that was supposed to be designer Sandy Petersen’s last hurrah (he wrote the original Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG), and instead helped him launch a new game company (Petersen Games). Cthulhu Wars was originally funded on Kickstarter and ended up raising over 1.4 million. With miniatures reaching as high as 7”, one can only hope that the game play holds up to the excellent looking components. Is Cthulhu Wars all style and no substance? Only one way to find out!
Cthulhu Wars is an action point and area control miniatures game for 2-4 players that takes about 60-90 minutes to play. Cthulhu Wars plays best with 3-4 players.
In Cthulhu Wars, players each controls one of the game 4 factions: The Great Cthulhu, Crawling Chaos, Yellow Sign, and the Black Goat. Each faction not only comes with its own set of unique miniatures, but also approaches the game somewhat differently. If you like asymmetrical game play, this is for you.
In the game itself, players will be using their forces to gather power, control gates, summon monsters, cast spells, and awaken their ancient old ones. As there is only so much space in the world, expect battles to break out as your forces spread out across the globe. Battles are swift and deadly, but necessary as players fight for control of summoning gates.
As a player’s influence grows in the world, they will acquire doom points and elder signs, the games form of victory points. The first player to research all their spells and achieve 30 doom points will emerge the winner.
One look at this gigantic black box (seriously, the thing weighs over 10 pounds) and you will know this isn’t an ordinary game. Cthulhu Wars comes with a dual sided game board that is in two pieces because it’s so large. It actually fills up a decent portion of my gaming table. The board depicts the earth in a somewhat abstracted art style. But the game boards are two sided allowing for it to be setup for different player counts.
But you are not here for the game board; it’s the miniatures that will draw you in. Each faction monsters and ancient old ones are beautifully rendered and some reach as high as 7”. Can you still call something a miniature when it’s that big? While having minis this large does seem a little gratuitous, I don’t really care. I love them, they look fantastic and they are an absolute joy to play with. If you have this game going in a crowded room, you will be drawing a lot of interest from spectators.
The other thing the giant minis do is give the game a sense of scale. In Cthulhu Wars, the elder gods tower over the puny cultists. This helps all monsters reflect the hierarchy of their power. Even from across the board, you can tell that Cthulhu’s Starspawns are tougher than their Deep Ones. I also really enjoyed how each faction’s monster is unique in its appearance. Only the cultists shared mold.
My only gripe with the components has to do with the doom track and the faction cards. These are all made out of a thin cardboard and I’ve already seen some with dents on them. I really wish they would have gone with a thicker cardboard that would have held up to transport a bit better. These feel almost out of place in an otherwise spectacularly put together game.
How to Play:
The game starts with each player choosing a faction and then getting to know their new monsters. I say this because each faction approaches the game just a little bit differently. So at the start, it’s good to read up on how to gain your spell books, summon your elder one, and really just control your faction. The rulebook also has tips for playing with and against each faction.
Once the board is setup, the Cthulhu player gets to be the first player (having your name on the box comes with perks). The game is divided into a series of rounds, each of which has 4 phases:
1. Gather Power: Each player adds up and gains power for each of their cultists (1 Power), controlled gates (2 Power), abandoned gates (1 Power), and captured cultists (1 Power), and adjusts their power track accordingly.
2. Determine first player: Whoever has the most power becomes the new first player. That player also decides if the turn order is clockwise or counterclockwise that round.
3. Doom Phase: Players gain 1 doom point (victory points) for each controlled gate they have. Players also have the option of performing a “Ritual of Annihilation” at this stage by paying power points. This gains them extra doom points and an elder sign token (secret doom points).
4. Action Phase: This is where the bulk of the game happens. Each player takes turns paying power points and performing one of the following actions:
- Build a gate (3 Power)
- Move a unit (1 power per unit, can move multiple units)
- Start a battle (1 Power)
- Capture a cultist (1 Power)
- Recruit a cultist (1 Power)
- Summon a monster (variable)
- Awaken your Great Old One (variable)
Combat is really easy to resolve. Each monster has a power rating, a player rolls dice equal to the power of all their monsters in the battle. Each 6 rolled kills an enemy unit. A 4-5 forces a unit to retreat to an adjacent area. Some factions will also have pre-battle effects and post-battle effects that will help them.
One of the primary goals in Cthulhu Wars is to gain your spell books. Each player has a set of 6 unique spell books that will grant them special powers once gained. The way a player gains spell books is pretty clever. Each faction sheet has a number of conditions that must be met to gain a spell book. Think of them like Achievements in an Xbox game. Once you meet whatever condition is in that square, you gain a spell book of your choice.
After all players have spent their power, the round ends a new one begins. During phase 3, players check for victory, if any player has 30 doom points and all 6 spell books, they win. If the Ritual of Annihilation track gets to its last step, the game also ends and the player with the most doom points (and all 6 spell books) wins.
One look at this game and you can tell that Petersen Games really wanted to make this as the best possible product as they could. But let’s talk about the elephant in the room and get it out of the way. All that style comes with a price…literally. Cthulhu Wars clocks in at $170-$200. That kind of sticker shock is hard to get over when we are used to paying $45-$60 for a game. Shelling out that kind of money can’t be easy for most gamers out there.
But one thing you can hang your hat on is that fact that you are absolutely getting your dollars’ worth from Cthulhu Wars. This isn’t a case of Tash-Kalar syndrome where there is an expensive price tag slapped on a box of average components. Cthulhu Wars isn’t cheap but at no time will you feel ripped off. This game just oozes awesomeness from both its component quality down to the game play.
Because all that substance wouldn’t be worth squat if there wasn’t solid game play to back it up. Fortunately, I’m exceedingly happy to report that the game play in Cthulhu Wars is not only excellently designed, but also an absolute blast to play. I’ve played a number of times already and honestly find myself constantly wanting to get this bad boy to the table again.
One of the reasons for that is the great asymmetrical game play (full disclosure: I really like asymmetrical games). I find myself wanting to try out each and every faction numerous times to really dig into their quirks. I love how they play just a little differently and you have to tailor your strategy to each one. Cthulhu is good at stomping around the board quickly causing mayhem, the Black Goat focuses on occupation and expansion, the Crawling Chaos is all about opportunism, while the yellow sign slowly spreads its corruption in a nomadic feel. Each faction really feels unique and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Petersen Games is going to give us with the expansions.
When you have 4 very different factions, there is always the risk of unbalance, but thankfully that is not present in Cthulhu Wars. At no time in our plays did any faction feel unbalanced over another. Yes, they all have things that they do better than others, but nothing felt broken or out of place. Almost every game I played, I found myself jealous of another faction’s powers, but also had a smug satisfaction about a particular combo I was using with my own. I have to give kudos to Sandy Petersen for some rock solid mechanics.
Cthulhu Wars is often compared to another great game, Chaos in the Old World. They both feature 4 factions fighting for control of the planet and unique, asymmetrical game play. One of the areas where I think Cthulhu Wars rises above Chaos in the Old World is with how streamlined it is. The game box lists the play time at 60-90 minutes, but there is no doubt in my mind that the 60 minutes is very doable, especially with players familiar with the game. In Cthulhu Wars the action phase goes by quickly with very minimal downtime. I think that’s because the actions are all broken into bite-sized chunks. Expect things to happen very quickly.
Another thing I’ve noticed about Cthulhu Wars is how different every game seems to play out. One of our games was a non-stop battle royale, with miniatures constantly appearing and dying on the game board. However our latest game had only 3 battles over the course of the entire game. And that’s an important thing to know about Cthulhu Wars. While the game is very much a minis game, it’s ultimately an area control game. One big key to victory is controlling gates and battles over them should be fierce. Leave a player alone too long with too many gates, and expect him to win (which happened in our last game).
If I had 1 thing to complain about with Cthulhu Wars, it would probably be that I don’t much like it as a 2 player game. To play with two, each player needs to control 2 different factions. I never much care for this approach to a game, so I don’t think I’d ever play Cthulhu Wars with 2 players. However, when you have 3 and 4, it absolutely excels in the game experience it provides and the amount of fun you can have pushing those giant hunks of plastic around.
If you ever wanted to judge a game by its box, then this is it. Cthulhu Wars ended up being just as exciting and fun as I was hoping when I first laid eyes on those giant sized miniatures. From the easy to learn rules to the well balanced asymmetrical game play, every part of Cthulhu Wars resonated with me as both a gamer and a fan of the Mythos.
Is Cthulhu Wars worth the near $200 of its price tag? That’s a decision for you and your gaming budget. But I can tell you that you should not feel like you are being trick and shouldn’t have to worry about buyer’s remorse. There are some rock solid game mechanics to go with all this flashy plastic and the game in general is just fun.
If you are a fan of miniatures games, the Cthulhu Mythos, or just fun in general, then be sure to check out Cthulhu Wars. This one will absolutely be staying in my gaming collection for a very, very long time. I’m excited to see what Petersen Games is bringing us in the forthcoming expansions, but until then, I’ll to be getting this bad boy to the table as often as I can. Who want’s to play?
If you’d like to get your own copy of this gem, you can get it online for about $170.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – A stunning looking miniatures game that combines great asymmetrical game play with some amazing components. Basically, it’s a win all around.
• Not a fan of the 2 player rules
• The track and faction boards could have been heavier stock.