Christmas is a jolly good time – where everyone celebrates with their families, gorges on cookies and fights over what to watch on TV. Then of course there are the presents, and a time for every gamer to value those friends and family members who know about their (secret) passion. Me, I am one of those lucky ones: I wouldn’t be playing Skyrim, for example, if it weren’t for my last birthday. This Christmas, my brother opted for table-top and picked the Call of Cthulhu Card Game. Naturally, we’ve been testing it these last few days, and this is a small summary of our experiences. (We alternated between this and Carcassonne, another brilliant and very addictive Christmas present.)
The rules of CoC seem complex at first, but are actually pretty easy to learn. I’d reccomend this official video to get into the games, but just reading the rules also suffices. The game functions like many dueling card games: Two players battle for success with their individual card decks. I am not going into the details here, for I’d rather discuss the actual experiences we had during the game. For more information on the rules, check the official website or the fan forums.
First, let’s take a look at the game’s “economy”. I like games that are minimalistic in their use of game pieces, but at the same time, huge, over-the-top board games (like Descent: Journeys in the Dark, for an extreme example) have a crazy nerd appeal as well. Call of Cthulhu, I think, tries to do both, at least in the edition we have. There is a game board that certainly looks pretty (that is, creepy), but really fulfils no necessary function. It makes the table look more like a dueling space and emphasizes the game’s goal, the story cards. Then, there are six rather large Cthulhu figures. They look cool, but other than marking which domains were drained they have no purpose in the game. I find them a little superfluous, really. Other than that, the game is really efficient in its use of the cards. You use unused cards for your domains, and the resource cards are simply regular cards flipped upside down. Not only does that eliminate the need for spcific resource cards (like in Magic: The Gathering), but it also adds a strategic element to the resource aspect of the game. Players need to decide which cards to sacrifice as resources, and the “resource match” rule forces them to make even narrower decisions in that area. Nice.
The cards themselves are great: varied and very well illustrated (we recognized some of the illustrations from the Arkham Horror board game!) The seven factions – Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur and Shub-Niggurath for the monsters and The Agency, Miskatonic University and The Syndicate for the humans – are identifiably different and well balanced, as far as I can tell for now. Each faction has specific advantages and disadvantages the player needs to exploit for maximum efficiency. I had great fun organizing my play area around certain central cards, to make their interlocking effects as “waterproof” as possible. For example, the Hastur deck focusses on insanity: With only three combined cards in play, I was able to turn at least one, maybe even two of my opponent’s characters insane every turn, as well as immediately kill off his insane characters before he could restore them. So far, this is awesome.
However, this brings me to my biggest critique of the game. As I have experience with the Cthulhu role-playing-game, I find it odd to play in this setting, with very specific characters and stories from the Cthulhu Mythos, without actually focussing on the stories themselves! The story cards have a title, such as “Frozen in Time” or “Through the Gates”, with neat illustrations suggesting some kind of a story behind them. Yet their effects are expressed in random game terms (“Each player sacrifices all characters with printed skill 3 or higher”) with no inherent relevance to any kind of narrative. Furthermore, the player who wins a story may ignore its effects if they bother him (e.g. if he has several characters with a printed skill of 3 or higher, while his opponent has none) – with no consequences, there is no real development in the game, and the stories become meaningless.
The game, as well as several guides I found, often suggest mixing human and monster decks to create a well-balanced playing force. This boils down to a simple game mechanic: Investigation. To win the story cards, a player must collect five success tokens. Fittingly, they have the investigation symbol on it. In the four icon struggles on the stories, characters must first withstand going insane and then survive the terror physically (much like in the RPG). After that, they may gain arcane insight and finally investigate the scene. Note that this is already my narrative interpretation of the game’s challenges. Now the human characters simply don’t have the terror icons necessary to pass the terror struggle, while the monsters have them in abundance. The monsters on the other hand, don’t have a lot of investigation icons. The investigation struggle is the most important, since winning it grants the player another success token. So even if a human character does not have the final combined strength (skill points) to win the story, they can still collect investigation points during the opponent’s turn. This gives the human characters an advantage. As long as they can withstand the monsters’ terror (many human characters have “Willpower”, making them impervious), they can steadily gain sucess tokens by default.
The simple solution for this would be to mix the decks, as it is often suggested. Yet in order to make the game more enjoyable, we decided to try and create a narrative around our game during play, and the most logical choice seemed to be monsters vs. humans. In this case it really becomes necessary for the monster player to have some kind of strategy to stop the human investigators in their tracks long enough to win by brute force. I believe this makes the game more definable, since you feel like you’re fighting for something. When we both used mixed decks, I kept wondering why the heck Yog-Sothoth would want to fight Cthulhu, if they could both simply anihilate the humans. In this respect it comes down to personal taste: Are you a story-gamer or not? We tried to imagine the investigations, the challenges and the battles as actual situations, and found this made the game a lot more fun. Let’s compare:
“I send the Lab Assistant, the Mad Genius and the painter to the ‘Ancient Apocrypha’ story.” – “I challenge with my Forest Sister and my Ancient Guardian.” – “Okay, you win the terror struggle. Mad Genius goes insane.” *flips card* “You win the arcane struggle, ready a character.” – “I get one success token for the investigation challenge and none for the skill challenge.”
But how about this:
Rhonda, the hot Lab Assistant tentatively follows her boss, the genius scientist, through the ancient tunnel that was hidden in the library. Richard, the painter, stumbles behind them as he struggles with his canvas and materials. In the dark and dusty secret room, they discover ancient tomes of unfathomable wealth. Suddenly, the scientist screams and collapses. From his hands falls a book that is still glowing with a faint, green light… But before Ronda can investigate, a blood-curdling shriek penetrates the crumbling walls. Something is coming through the tunnel. Something big…
And so on, and so forth. Of course we didn’t go into that much detail during play, but we managed to at least create some kind of a story around the events. It helps that many characters are taken from Lovecraft’s stories, of course. After an hour or so, this gets a little tiresome, and as the host of characters grows, we sort of lost track of our general narrative. The game does not support this style of play, which is a loss, since it really makes the experience more rewarding. But I’m guessing during an official table-top duel one would not stop to tell cliché horror tales.
This is really just an amateur’s experience with the game – I am no expert on dueling card games. (In fact whenever I say this, I hear in my head “I challenge you to a children’s card game!!1!!”, thank you, oh wonderful Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged…). I dabbled in Magic: The Gathering, and since then only ever played The Settlers of Catan Card Game (which I can truly recommend.) One last thing needs to be said, after mentioning Yu-Gi-Oh: The Cthulhu Card Game doesn’t use the “cat in the bag” principle of buying new cards. You buy its expansion packs knowing exactly what you get for your money. Anything else I find utterly ridiculous.
All in all, I really like the game. As my opponent had to realize after a few sessions, this really depends not so much on this game, but on whether or not you like these types of dueling games in general. I do, and Call of Cthulhu is a well-executed version of a well-known principle. I hope to build my own deck with extra cards some time in the future, and pray I find some more people to play against! So much for my first table-top review