Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 14 May 2010

Can I Dice With Madness?

The latest game from Steve Jackson Games is insanely silly, and that is the point. Cthulhu Dice – or rather Cthulhu “Die” because you only get the single die, but then how can “Cthulhu Die” since he is both alien and immortal – is a dice game in which the aim is to drive your fellow servants of Cthulhu completely mad. It is a game about losing Sanity, sometimes gaining Sanity, and when the tentacles are really on the line, summoning Great Cthulhu himself. This is really bad for everyone!

Designed for two to six players aged ten and up, Cthulhu Dice comes as a blister pack containing one large “Cthulhu Die,” a ziplock bag containing eighteen green glass beads or Sanity Tokens, and a full colour rules sheet. The “Cthulhu Die” is actually a twelve-sided die that is marked with various symbols. Most of these are Tentacle and Yellow Sign symbols, with the rest being made up of single Cthulhu, Elder Sign, and Eye symbols. The “Cthulhu Die” is available in various colours, including some glow-in-the-dark variants that are exclusive to Warehouse 23, but being traditional, I chose the green die (and will probably buy the purple die for a certain perky Goth that I live with).

Game set up is simple. Each servant of Cthulhu receives three Sanity Tokens. Then the servants take it in turns to be the Caster, choosing a victim from amongst their fellow servants to curse, with the victim allowed to counter cast against the Caster who then becomes the victim. Once this Casting exchange has been completed, the next servant of Cthulhu is given the opportunity to target a fellow cultist.

To target or curse a victim, all the Caster has to do is roll the Cthulhu Die, apply the effects of the symbol rolled. The true nature of the metaphysical universe means that casting Mythos spells or at least summoning Mythos entities can have fickle outcomes or at least wildly misunderstood ones. Most of the results on Cthulhu Dice – represented by the Yellow Sign and Tentacle symbols – have the Caster stealing Sanity from the victim and keeping it or stealing Sanity from the victim and giving it to Cthulhu, in which case the Sanity Token is placed in a pile in the middle of the table. The more rarely rolled symbols result in the Caster gaining Sanity from Cthulhu (yes, really!), in the Caster picking the symbol of his choice, or horror of horrors, in the successful summoning of Cthulhu. In which case, everyone loses a Sanity Token to the Great Old One.

If as a result of all of this die rolling, a servant of Cthulhu loses all of his Sanity Tokens he goes Mad. A Mad Servant of Cthulhu cannot lose any more Sanity nor can he gain any unless he rolls the Elder Sign symbol. Even then, he is not exactly sane. After all, not only has gone insane after prolonged exposure to the Mythos, but even after regaining a semblance of humanity, he is still willing to dabble in things that Man Was Not Meant To Know. That really is madness...

Play proceeds like this until there is just the one just about sane servant of Cthulhu left. In other words, the one servant of Cthulhu who has not gone mad. He wins the game. It is entirely possible for everyone to go Mad, though this happens rarely. Anyway, if everyone goes Mad, it is Cthulhu who wins rather than one of his servants. Which he will anyway, come the End Times and it is just the meddling of his servants that hastened his victory...

All of which takes about five minutes to play. During which time, none of the players have done anything more than choose a victim, roll a big fat die, and hope for a really nasty outcome. Which is odd, because Cthulhu Dice is a “take that” style of game, and you would expect to have more choice in the game than you actually do. In fact the only choice available in the game is in choosing your victim with perhaps a slim chance of the servant of Cthulhu rolling an “Eye” symbol and getting to select the symbol and its effects that he wants. Nevertheless, Cthulhu Dice is fun. It can got out of its pack and the rules read through in about a minute with another minute needed to teach your fellow servants of Cthulhu.

Although Cthulhu Dice is designed for two to six players, the game has a problem that it shares with various others in that the two-player option is just not as fun as it is with more than two players. The two-player variant suggests that each player control more than one servant of Cthulhu with players taking alternate turns rather than rolling in for each servant of Cthulhu. I suspect that the primary reason for the two-player variant not being as fun is that it lacks the player interaction and the table talk that you get with more servants of Cthulhu.

Obviously, Cthulhu Dice is very pocket friendly, both in terms of actually fitting in your pocket and in terms of being friendly to your wallet. That said, I would have liked it to have been even more pocket friendly. Carrying the Cthulhu Die, the rules sheet, and the eighteen Sanity Tokens in the ziplock bag is not the best option as there is likely to be wear and tear on all three just through this carrying. For a few dollars more, what I would have liked to have been given is a cloth bag to store all three components in, perhaps marked with a Cthulhu symbol? Does this mean that there is room for a deluxe version of the game?

If you put aside the fact that it is possible to gain Sanity from Cthulhu, then Cthulhu Dice succinctly models the Sanity loss that we know and love all so well from Call of Cthulhu. Of course, in being so absolutely succinct it loses all of those fruity, soggy, squidgy, and squishy bits you get in between the Sanity loss in Call of Cthulhu, but in so cutting to the chase Cthulhu Dice becomes an excellent filler game. There is nothing wrong in that, because Cthulhu Dice is silly, insane fun, and who would not appreciate five minutes of that?