Remember Cthulhu Wars? Sure you do. There’s no forgetting that mountain of plastic, as eye-catching as it was bombastic. The horrors of H.P. Lovecraft molded in day-glo, waging war for command of Earth, regardless of whether that placed more emphasis on our little ball of dirt than cosmic horror really calls for.
Now Sandy Petersen is at it again, this time laboring upon another molded mountain. At the very least, Glorantha: The Gods War makes stronger internal sense, pitting rival pantheons against each other in a contest for total supremacy. But it holds so much in common with Cthulhu Wars, from the way factions develop over time to the outcomes of its battle dice, that it’s impossible not to compare the two.
The most obvious parallel between Glorantha and Cthulhu Wars will also prove the most difficult to surmount — namely, that both games are blessed with an overwhelming surfeit of colorful plastic. It’s the board game equivalent of staring into the sun. Everything else dims from view when placed alongside those towering mounds: the wishy-washy rulebook that practically serves as a sell sheet for the expansion packs, the emaciated gameplay that promises much but delivers unnecessary complications, even the chintzy cardboard components that feature a bland landscape blighted by errors on the edge of the board and cheapo 3D renders on the building tokens. Buildings tokens? Pffft. Take a gander at pages twenty-nine through thirty-one of the 120-page rulebook. Why use tokens when you can purchase plastic buildings instead?
Put another way, Glorantha isn’t the kind of game you can really talk about with any sense of distance. It’s a toy, packed with extra toys, explained by a magazine designed to sell you even more toys. Fair enough. Not every game is going to play host to subtleties and deep thoughts. Either it’s something you’re already willing to embrace or it’s already the subject of your distant scorn.
That said, despite a few improvements, it doesn’t acquit itself very favorably when stacked up against its older cousin. One step forward, three steps back. Ragnaglar, God of Chaos, would approve mightily.
The good news is that Glorantha’s developments are significant. And that’s because they’re tied to the lessons learned from Cthulhu Wars, in particular the way the factions are designed.
Of the four factions included in the base game, two stand out as emblematic of Glorantha’s best improvements. The first is the Sky Empire, the realm that initially appears the most plain-faced until you realize that it’s led by the literal god of the sun who happens to be trapped in hell. How’s that for an opening hook? Every other faction works their way up to their more powerful units, but the Sky Empire begins with the Sun God right there on the board. Or at least on the table. The board in question happens to be the hell sideboard. And springing yourself out will likely prove difficult.
You see, movement in Glorantha isn’t always easy. Oh, it usually is. Most of the time. If anything, movement, like building, is often too easy. But we’ll return to that. For now, the important thing is that there’s the world — the big map — and then there are two sideboards, one for hell and one that’s pretty much heaven. Moving from the land to these sideboards is as easy as traveling off its edges. Go north or south and you’ll step into the airy heavens. Go west and you’ll drop into hell. What about east? Well, that’s where you come out of hell. But only if you’re permitted. Hell wouldn’t be very good at being hell if you were allowed to leave willy-nilly.
So here’s the situation. The Sun God is trapped in hell, but can only escape if it receives permission from a more powerful unit. Who’s more powerful than a Sun God? Well, almost anybody, as long as the Sun God is still stuck in hell. In theory the Sun God could give himself permission by deploying a more powerful unit into hell; except, again, the Sun God’s units lose their strength the instant they’re cast into the darkness. So much for the all-conquering light.
Cue the earliest stages of the Sky Empire’s strategy. In order to escape hell, the Sun God needs to have somebody else release him. You could use one of your upgrades, Call to Justice, which whisks any unit to the Sun God’s location. Now all you need is that unit’s consent. To secure as much, it turns out that the Sun God is a bountiful deity, willing to share power and cards with other players — an ability that’s repeatable, with upgrade tiles swapping off your faction board whenever you invoke the Noblesse Oblige upgrade. Just like that, the Sun God is compelled to play some minor diplomacy, trading promises for freedom.
The second emblematic faction flexes its sinews in even more dramatic ways. Chaos — not to be mistaken for Darkness — acts as a soft antagonist to the other factions. For one thing, it’s the only faction that can plop down structures in occupied areas, seeding chaos nests in place of everyone else’s shrines. For another, early on the “spike” that allows passage between the middle of the board and heaven will shatter, replaced by a chaos rift. This rift provides advantages to the Chaos Empire while draining everyone else. Over time, everyone else will sacrifice units to shut it down. Chaos, naturally, sacrifices units to keep it churning as long as possible, resulting in a minor arms race to control the state of the board.
Anyone who’s played Cthulhu Wars will be immediately familiar with the upgrade system. To put it crassly, imagine video game achievements that award upgrade tiles upon completion. When the Sun God escapes hell or bestows a blessing upon a rival faction, that’s an upgrade. When the spike shatters or certain horrors are summoned, the Chaos Empire gains a new ability. This tends to act as a guide, shepherding you through your faction’s natural development and gradually doling out more impressive tricks.
In the case of the Chaos Empire, any death will push its Mad God marker forward. Once enough souls have been winnowed, the Mad God receives a bonus card. These deaths can be inflicted by anyone upon anyone, but there are upgrades that help Chaos take a direct hand, such as Blood Sacrifice for immediately killing enemy units during the Council Phase or Oblivion for penalizing rival losses. In theory, this transforms Chaos into an unholy terror, sweeping across the map and leaving desolation in their wake.
Note that I said in theory. In practice, the Gods War isn’t always quite as far-reaching as Glorantha would have you believe.
To put the problem in a nutshell, Glorantha takes this lightning bolt of an idea, bottles it, and then makes the bottle’s release flange only operable with a pinch, squeeze, and crossword puzzle, at which point the lightning has been reduced to a static jolt. Too much for too little. Before long, it’s about the flange, not the lightning.
Here’s what I mean. All those aforementioned advantages, the dynamism of its factions and the ways they express their overriding ethic through narrative beats — they’re less signposts and more like amusement park rides, forever bound to their rails. Every match will open with the Sun God imprisoned; every midgame will temporarily stutter while the chaos rift is dealt with; every endgame will be preoccupied with the Great Compromise distributing catch-up points. Unlike the freewheeling nature of Cthulhu Wars, where each play featured an arc of its players’ own manufacture, born of moves and counter-moves, actions and reactions, Glorantha moves between story beats with all the certainty of a drum beaten by a toddler.
Speaking of the Great Compromise, it’s an event that triggers once a certain threshold of points has been reached, much like the shattering of the spike. Once invoked, every round concludes with somebody sacrificing half of their points to distribute a descending pool of points: four, then three, then two, and then you can figure out the last one. In raw terms, however, this option will nearly always be claimed by the most power-rich player, who will also nearly always be the most points-rich player. As such, the game’s rubber band instead functions as a way to keep the wealthy in the lead, especially because points and your economy are tied to the same source — real estate.
In fact, real estate quickly becomes a major sticking point. As one friend put it, buildings in Cthulhu Wars functioned as a spotlight, focusing the action on locations that rewarded protection, investment, and offensive sorties. In Glorantha, buildings can be placed anywhere, even beyond the presence of your units. This initially feels liberating. You can build anywhere! No limitations! Partake of the land rush! It isn’t long, however, before that land rush eclipses all those hulking plastic monstrosities altogether. It’s often more cost-effective to continue plopping down cheap shrines rather than hunting down and engaging in uncertain battles against your enemies. This defocuses the beam, becoming a floodlight to Cthulhu Wars’ spotlight, spreading everybody’s attention to nowhere in particular.
This isn’t to say that roving armies aren’t the best thing about Glorantha. They are, and clashes are fast-paced spectacles of thrown dice and triggered abilities. But for all their visual and table-shaking splendor, they’re relegated to the sidelines by matters of economy. Sure, there are instances where combat is useful, even necessary, especially when you need an upgrade or to pick on a leading player. But they’re exceptions, testy propositions that don’t offer much appeal when weighed alongside the possibility of steadily improving your score. A shrine costs one pip of power and an open space; an invasion costs one power to move, one power to initiate a battle, and as many power as the cost of your units. To keep harping on the “unlike Cthulhu Wars” angle, the outcome of this arithmetic means that combat is a distraction rather than the main focus. Why go to war when peace is so much more profitable?
It doesn’t help matters that other details quickly reveal themselves as ancillary. Rune cards are often nifty but just as often underwhelming. Each faction boasts six slots for objectives and upgrades, but they aren’t essential to victory, and the rulebook merrily chimes in about which to prioritize, as though the joy of such a game wasn’t derived from learning how its sides function. The map is weirdly expansive, providing plenty of room for shrines and making it even harder for armies to conduct any pillaging. There’s even a floating island, complete with its own movement rules. Will you ever bother moving this island? I did once, as an experiment. Now I know better. The thing barely even fits on the map, let alone confers any advantages.
But that’s the problem with Glorantha: its focus rests in all the wrong places. With its mouth it proclaims war, while handing you the tools and space to spread your shrines far and wide. It boasts about faction upgrades, but neither makes them essential nor lets them offer any real alternatives to the land rush. Worst of all, it provides a mountain of plastic, yet barely give you any reason to smack them into each other. Battles are secondary. What a thing to say about a game that’s invested so much love into the ways its monsters can tear into each other.
I can already hear the principal counterargument, and I don’t entirely disagree. Players are clearly meant to police one another, and if battles go unfought then every defenestrated deity at the table deserves their fate. I’m not entirely sure I find this convincing, as it trades one problem for the issue of someone winning by staying clear of the fray. And anyway, in our experience the player who established an early economic lead could flippantly rebuild any lost shrines before that round’s points were tallied. Just as the game’s narrative beats became rote within a few plays, so too did its mechanical arc.
But in another sense, I suspect this argument raises a point about how Glorantha should be approached. As a game it requires an audience that’s willing to play with its toys in the manner intended, rather than seeking an optimal path to victory. Regardless of how shrines are placed, or how upgrades are earned, or how persnickety the rules governing the Great Compromise and the Chaos Rift are, or how battles are only rarely necessary, the game functions best when those realities are ignored. Bash that plastic into each other, swarm into territory regardless of the cost, and laugh about the monster that looks like a feature of female anatomy. After all, my favorite moment was when everybody converged their armies on a single territory just to see what happened.
Still, my preferred mound of Sandy Petersen’s radioactive plastic remains Cthulhu Wars.
A complimentary copy was provided.