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

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Cthulhu!!!

Despite publishing innumerable games and supplements, Twilight Creations, Inc. is still best known for its very first release, Zombies!!! Arguably, the 2001 Origins Award winner for Best Graphic Presentation of a Board Game and semi-co-operative, zombie smashing, tile-laying, running from the cadaver cavalcade board game set the groundwork for almost every zombie-themed game published in the fourteen years since. It saw the players racing for the helicopter to escape the town and encroaching zombie horde, fighting their way through the corpse cortège whilst setting zombies in the paths of their rivals and taking advantage of the Event cards whose gruesomely great artwork was the reason that Zombies!!! won the award.

Now Twilight Creations has revisited Zombies!!! once again. Not for its theme, but its mechanics. The theme is replaced by the Cthulhu Mythos—in particular Hastur—and the game is Cthulhu!!!: Hastur La Vista, Baby! Designed for two to six players, aged fifteen and up, it is set in the 1920s in the Lovecraft Country town of Kingsport where ruthless cultists of Hastur aim to bring the Great Old One to Earth. As doughty private eyes and quick-witted girl Fridays, the heroes must find and sanctify enough ritual sites to prevent the summoning. Not only must they face his cultists, they will be harried by Hastur’s servants—the dreaded Byakhee—as they try make use of the Relics to sanctify each site. This will not only prevent Hastur coming to Earth, it will earn the players Victory Points and whomever has the most at game end wins. If, that is, three Ritual Sites have been sanctified; if not, the last player standing wins.

The game comes well appointed, with lots of miniature figures for the Cultists and the Byakhee; full colour, if somewhat dark and gloomy map tiles; full colour Relic and Event cards—the latter pleasingly gruesome; plus card tokens to represent each player's’ Bullets, Life, and Sanity. At game start, each player selects a Private Eye or Girl Friday pawn and three Event cards. Everyone starts out at the Church.

Each turn a player draws a new Map Tile, adding it to the map and seeding it with either Cultists or a Byakhee. Named building tiles will also have either a Bullet or Life token on them, whilst Ritual Sites are seeded with both Cultists and a Byakhee. Then he rolls the die and moves, fighting through Cultists and Byakhee on the way. Fighting Byakhee risks losing a player Sanity and they are harder to kill, but defeating them earns a player more Relic cards than does defeating Cultists. Bullet tokens can be used to modify combat dice rolls, but should a player lose either all of his Life or Sanity tokens, he must start again, but with less Sanity! Should a player have his Sanity permanently reduced to less than one, he is out of the game. At the end of his turn, a player moves a random number of Byakhee and Cultists.

Ritual Sites are of course heavily protected and difficult to defeat, but once done, a player can discard Relic cards to sanctify it. If a player dies on a Ritual Site, the Cultists are successful and the site is activated. If three are activated, Hastur comes to Earth!

Stopping this is a challenge. Fortunately the players have Events to help them. These can grant more Life or Sanity, permanently increase a player’s Life, automatically defeat a Byakhee, give a player a weapon like a knife or Tommy Gun, and so on. Yet other Event cards directly interfere with other players, for example, forcing them to lose all Sanity or Bullets, stealing their weapon, sending Byakhee at them, and so on.

Given the 'take that' aspect of Cthulhu!!!, the players need to decide how they play the game—fully co-operatively or semi-co-operatively and thus partially against each other. Fully co-operatively and Cthulhu!!! is easier to win; semi-co-operatively and the game is more challenging. As a co-operative game, it is of course easier to win than Zombies!!!, but semi-co-operatively and the game is about as challenging.

Given the fact that mechanically, Cthulhu!!! is based on Zombies!!!, the game is solidly designed and playable. This will make it easy for Zombies!!! fans to pick up and play, whilst the co-operative game play should hopefully make it just different enough for them to play. The actual balance between co-operative or semi-co-operative play is well handled and not biased towards one or the other. Where the game feels underdeveloped is in its theme, but it should be remembered that this is pulpy shoot ‘em up, not a psychological study of the insidious influence of the Yellow Sign. That said, it seems a pity not have taken the ‘Cthulhu!!!’ aspect of the title and done something with that rather the lesser known Hastur Mythos.

Although it may lack the depth that devotees of the Mythos might want, Cthulhu!!!: Hastur La Vista, Baby! is overall a solid, though not spectacular, design.