Cthulhu Wars Fhtagn!
Since the dawn of time, when we yet believed the stars were fireflies caught in the thatched ceiling of the nighttime sky and fire was a newfangled contraption not quite trusted by the older generation, a single question has nagged at the back of Man’s mind:
Who would win in a fight between Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and Hastur?
The most immediate point of comparison for Cthulhu Wars is the excellent Chaos in the Old World, which pitted a pack of chaos gods against one another in an asymmetrical duel to the death. The key word there is asymmetrical, because the spark that gave it such life was the way each of those four gods (five with the expansion) walked to the beat of their own human-skin drum. Where one sought constant warfare, another might prefer to spread pestilence through the populous regions of the map, or corrupt petty nobles through sexy babe-demons, or chew through decaying kingdoms with uncountable hordes of rats. The result fleshed out the setting by spawning a sort of glorious chaos, everyone pursuing their own goals while flooding the Old World with demons, thralls, and mutants.
Cthulhu Wars largely plays the same trick, and the result with H.P. Lovecraft’s stable of unbeatable aliens is as enticing as it was back in 2009. The base set comes loaded with four Great Old Ones to choose from, each represented by figures so large that they make a mockery of the word miniatures. An army of them spills out from the borders of whichever region they’re terrorizing, as though goading players into sliding them across into neighboring territories. It’s simultaneously awe-inspiring and more than a little ridiculous shoving these things around the board. On the one hand, seeing how bubble-headed Hastur towers over a regular cultist is thrilling, representing an enormous investment of power and a significant handful of dice in combat just on his own. On the other, his huge size also represents an enormous investment of money. As in, real-world money. Like dollars or euros.
But let’s leave that aside for a second, because I’d much rather talk about how each of the four Old Ones brings their own set of tricks to the table.
For the most part, the main rules for Cthulhu Wars are pretty straightforward. Gates to your home-realm and the cultists that spread the good news of your awakening both earn power. Power is spent on actions, usually the summoning of new monsters at gates, moving around and picking fights, and setting up new gates to earn more power and summon more monsters. Some other stuff is going on too, like gaining “doom” and elder signs — Lovecraft-speak for victory points — but for the most part everything is as simple as buying units, moving units, and killing other units.
And that’s a good thing. The game wouldn’t work if it were more complicated, because the Old Ones start breaking the rules almost immediately. Even Great Cthulhu, the “traditional” side of the conflict, his goal being to run around smashing stuff and daring his enemies to kill him (because he just comes back except grumpier), starts messing with the rules right out of the interdimensional gate. How? By gaining power for any enemy gates founded in the ocean, for one. And by turning his cultists into cannon-fodder toad-men at a moment’s notice. And by submerging his entire army beneath the waves, only to come roaring back at some later date — except he can return to anywhere on the map.
The other sides mess with the rules even more. Crawling Chaos, for instance, presents what seems like a fairly straightforward ability: all of their units can fly, thereby moving two spaces. That’s it. Not too crazy. But then you realize how tough it is to lumber these skyscraper-sized monsters all over the place, and suddenly being able to bounce around the board, pouncing on every squamous target that presents even a shred of weakness, well… the fact that they can also tell their opponents where to flee after a battle gone wrong, or leech power from their enemies, or abduct pesky enemies all become fish-scented icing on the cake after that.
While everyone else can only summon one monster at a time, the Black Goat can summon all over the place, then send her Dark Young to control gates the way only a cultist normally could, freeing them up to sacrifice in exchange for extra doom points or to summon Shub-Niggurath. And while everyone else is at least trying to pick smart fights, the Yellow Sign is all about moving around them, slowly corrupting the whole world for more power and upgrades, biding its time until it can unleash Hastur and a bunch of annoying free-action spells.
While this means that most games reach a point where you have so many crazy abilities to track that the board is a mess and nobody’s sure what’s going on… well, that’s also the upside. It’s chaotic and cluttered, and leads to big panicked slugfests between enormous beings who would very much like to have the Earth for a chew-toy.
And the cool thing is that it’s still, somehow, against all odds, a directed experience. The board for each Old One shows six objectives to accomplish, stuff like Awaken Cthulhu or Have Units in Six Areas or Capture an Enemy Cultist. These goad your progression onwards, give your opponents something to watch out for, and then, when you accomplish one, you pick up one of your spellbooks and plop it down in that objective’s space, gaining the spellbook’s game-breaking ability for yourself. If there’s a single area where Cthulhu Wars blows Chaos in the Old World out of the water like snot from one of Cthulhu’s blowholes, it’s here, with abilities that you’ll actually use each game.
Problem is, while Cthulhu Wars is some very good trashy fun, it’s also as troubled as a new adherent to the cult of the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. First of all, it’s bonkers expensive. The mere glimpse of its MSRP is akin to catching sight of the unnamed evil at the end of an H.P. Lovecraft story (spoiler, I guess), immediately transforming its unwitting victim into one of those squeeze toys where its eyes and tongue bug out like Arnold’s face at the end of Total Recall.
This would be less of a problem if it were a better game. But while it’s good, especially for those ready to be wowed by the size of its bits, it simply isn’t that good. Even its toy factor is diminished somewhat upon the realization that its high production values aren’t uniform, as alongside the map-hogging miniatures sit flimsy cardstock Old One boards and doom trackers, not to mention the oddly cramped map board itself.
Still, while the price is outrageous, and while playing it mostly makes me want to revisit the more measured and thoughtful experience of Chaos in the Old World, Cthulhu Wars definitely stands out as a largely unique experience, and a wildly fun one at that. Gauging the strength of an opponent’s monstrous army by sheer bulk alone is something to behold, and there’s no denying that most of us in this hobby would gladly pick up and handle these beautifully-crafted ugly lumps of limbs and meat. It makes for big sloppy fun in a universe that we nerdly folk will instantly recognize.
And I like it for that.
Though unholy Shub… that price.