Fate of the Public Domain Monsters
When it comes to board game settings, I’m about as energized by the appearance of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu as by anything featuring zombies — as in, yeah, they’re overdone, but at least they’re easy to design around. Just as zombies provide baked-in behavior (walk and bite, walk and bite), the presence of Cthulhu & Co. means you know what you’re getting yourself into. Hooded cultists, the coastal hamlets of New England, encroaching madness, and the Arkham that isn’t associated with Batman. It’s thematic shorthand for “watch your health and sanity meters.”
It might be possible to say that Fate of the Elder Gods does the setting a service by letting you don the robes of the cultists themselves as you strive to summon your chosen mind-flaying monster, but it’s hardly the first to do so. Instead, we’ll have to settle for celebrating the fact that it’s a surprisingly good screw-your-buddies affair.
The first thing you’re likely to notice when laying Fate of the Elder Gods across the table is the board itself. Arrayed like an old-timey wagon wheel, with an abyss of dead cultists at its hub and various locations situated between the spokes, it’s certainly the attention-grabber. It isn’t the game’s chthonian heart, however. That honor is reserved for the unassuming deck of spell cards, one of five colors on their backside and one of many dozens of powers on their front. These are the buggers that will determine where you move, the powers you and your rival cults can access, and ultimately the ways you’ll break the rules in your favor.
Not that the board isn’t critical. Each turn sees you interacting with a single space, gradually amassing the powers and cultists you need to summon your elder god. The primary target is usually the Other Worlds location, where cultists can be used as dice rolls to hopefully draw your elder god closer to the surface of reality. As you might expect of a place called “Other Worlds,” this spot is tricky to reach, often requiring a gate card procured at The Ceremony. Nicely, while some locations initially appear more useful than others — particularly the ability to bounce between The Ceremony, The Gathering, and Other Worlds in order to summon your elder god as quickly as possible — all of them offer compelling ways to get ahead. There’s the Museum for gathering artifacts, the Library for hoarding extra spell cards, and spots like the Streets of Arkham or The Gathering for siccing those do-gooder investigators on your enemies or replenishing your forces.
It’s even possible to boost a location’s power, either by controlling them outright with a pile of cultists or via an unlikely roll. Some of these bonus actions are extremely powerful, like how the Library lets you prepare a full rack of spells or how the Museum goes from sort of doofy to being the only reliable way to get rid of the elder signs that threaten to lock away your elder god for good.
Infuriatingly, while each location’s basic actions are printed right onto the board, these boosted options are nowhere to be seen. Why the designers chose to conceal such crucial information on the reference cards is a question on par with why anybody would serve the cosmic pimple that is Yog-Sothoth. Still, these options are available, and add an extra dimension to what can be accomplished by carefully cultivating your position — even if you’ll have to refer to your reference cards a few too many times before everything clicks.
While the board is important, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that your hand of spell cards is the first and last thing you’ll be thinking about every turn, because that’s literally the case. Every turn opens with you choosing a new spot for the fate marker — that grey bust of Cthulhu himself, just in case you were worried that a single H.P. Lovecraft game would avoid replicating the Sleeper of R’lyeh in plastic — by playing a spell card to its current location and sliding it around to the spot that matches the card you just plopped down. Hoping to visit the Museum? First of all, that’s not often likely. Secondly, you’ll need a blue card to get there, like some ghoulish train ticket. Then, once all of the game’s little mid-turn steps are completed, it’s once again your hand of spell cards you’ll consider, this time to prepare a spell, though this isn’t as simple as choosing a card. Instead, you have to spend the cards that have been discarded over previous turns to move away from that location, so there’s no guarantee you’ll have what you need.
It’s a clever system, and lends all those locations and abilities a mouthful of bite. Maybe you’re holding a white spell that will let you go pick up that gateway card you need from the Ceremony — except wait, you need that spell readied in order to help out your future visit to the Other Worlds, and anyway you can’t ready any spells at the Ceremony just yet. Off to the Streets of Arkham you go. Unless you’re willing to discard two matching cards — but would that leave too many options for future players to choose from when they’re considering which spell to prepare?
Of course, it’s entirely possible to live in the moment, playing cards as they appear and giving no thought for which ones you ought to hold onto. But a cult without a plan is but a week away from an ATF raid, as my polygamous great-grandfather used to say. At its best, Fate of the Elder Gods revolves around both careful positioning on the board and a pocketful of spells for mitigating any danger that comes your way.
And sources of danger are plentiful. The most common irritant comes in the form of investigators, those Lois Lane lookalikes who can’t help but follow a scoop right off the board and into your cult’s private lodge. These pests pile up over time and eventually prompt a raid, which is the entire three-hour experience of Mansions of Madness reduced to a single roll that threatens to bury you in elder signs, the elder god equivalent of a gonads-punch. A few of these aren’t necessarily a big deal, but accumulate too many and the game is cut short before someone can actually summon their elder god. This both acts as a timer — getting rid of elder signs is far harder than gaining them — and offers a second path to victory for those who can’t seem to get ahead in the “unleashing unspeakable terror on the world” gig.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other ways to irritate your fellow cultists. There are spells to sling, locations to block, and elder god powers to abuse. One of the most significant screw-yous comes in the form of curses. These resemble the crossroads cards from Dead of Winter, with the player next to you holding onto your curse until you meet its criteria, then interrupting the action to read it aloud. When the cursed cult occupies a location with four cultists, kill everything they own in that location. That manner of douchery.
It’s a fine idea, though I’m not certain it actually works as intended. Fate of the Elder Gods is already taxing on mental bandwidth, requiring players to assess the state of their cards, the board, and about a half-dozen-plus intersecting factors of cultist majorities, investigator gangs, and spell or artifact effects. With so much going on, asking someone to keep tabs on an ongoing curse threatens to nudge the game a little too close to a ledge of complexity, especially since, unlike in Dead of Winter, curses stick around across multiple turns and can pile up over time. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone blurt, “Oh! You triggered this curse a little while ago, can I read it now?” Not a good sign.
Here’s the thing about Fate of the Elder Gods. It has some flaws, true, including my bitterness over its failure to position some of its most important information front and center. Oh, and those demanding curse cards. And an expansion that does no harm but is also entirely unnecessary in every possible way.
That said, its turn-by-turn process of playing spell cards, gathering cultists, gates, and powers, and eventually bouncing between locations to awaken your elder god or bog down your opponents with investigators, elder signs, and curses — well, it feels fantastic. It scratches both that nerdy love of seeing a plan come together despite all opposition and the more primal need to poke somebody’s best efforts with a stick until it all comes falling down. It’s even thematically appropriate that the business of tampering with reality in order to rouse a creature composed of teeth and more teeth should be convoluted, risky, and ever-so-slightly infuriating.
Convoluted, risky, and infuriating. But also rewarding and oh so mean. That’s Fate of the Elder Gods in a cosmic clam-shell.