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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Pandemic Over Arkham

Although there had been cooperative games before, some even dating as far back as 1989 as in the Aliens boardgame or even 1974 with the Eascape from Colditz boardgame, it is oft forgotten how groundbreaking Pandemic was when it was first released in 2008. Although its subject matter was grim—four scientists from the Center for Disease Control attempting to find cures to four epidemics before they wiped out mankind—it was an accessible subject matter, and to most people, the play of the game against the game itself was novel as well as challenging. The rules were also instantly accessible, so that you could open the box, read through and do the setup in minutes before starting play. Once you played, you knew that you had to go back and play again, if only to beat the game itself, because essentially, playing Pandemic was like playing a puzzle. So it was in June, 2008 when playing Pandemic for the first time, it having gone on sale that weekend at UK Games Expo. Since then, it has become a mainstay of the hobby, only receiving attention anew when Z-Man Games published Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 in 2015. Back in 2009 though, a friend commented that the diseases in Pandemic—red, blue, black, and yellow—might not represent diseases at all, but rather they could be cultists devoted to one of the Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos. So the yellow disease cubes could be members of the Cult of the Yellow Sign, the black cubes members of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, and so on. In 2016, the interpretation of the disease cubes in Pandemic became a reality with the publication of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a cooperative game in which stalwart Investigators work to thwart the summoning of the Great Old Ones in the Lovecraft Country towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport. They must race to find the clues necessary to close the Gates in each of these towns all the while cultists gather and summon Shoggoths—things from an elder age—that will inexorably move towards the Gates and once there summon an Old One whose influence over this section of New England will only further hamper the efforts of the Investigators. Not only do the Investigators have to contend with the difficulty of piecing the clues together to close the Gates and nefarious cultists determined to summon their eldritch masters, there is the chance that they will be sent mad by their very efforts. 

If too many Great Old Ones are summoned and Cthulhu is woken from his slumber, then the Investigators lose. If they are overwhelmed by cultists—that is, when the supply of cultists runs out—then the Investigators lose. If they are overwhelmed by shoggoths—that is, when the supply of shoggoths runs out—then the Investigators lose. If they fail to gather the clues in time—that is, when the supply of Clue cards runs out—then the Investigators lose. If they all go insane, then the Investigators lose. If they seal all four Gates before they run out of Clue cards, then the Investigators win. 

So five ways to lose, one way to win.

Designed to be played by between two and four players, aged fourteen and up, the design of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a mix of Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the old and the new, the latter being the new theme. Though that said, that theme owes much to Arkham Horror with the need to shut several gates to prevent the intrusion of the Old Ones. It is played out on a map of four connected towns in Lovecraft Country—Arkham (green), Dunwich (yellow), Innsmouth (purple), and Kingsport (red). Each town consists of five locations, plus a Gate. One location in each town is marked with a Bus Station, though Arkham has two. Above the map is a line of spaces for Old One cards, each one representing an Old One who will be awakened when a Shoggoth passes through an open Gate and bring its baleful influence to bear upon Lovecraft Country and the Investigators. For example, the awakening of Hastur heralds the appearance of another Shoggoth and the movement of all Shoggoths closer to open Gates, whilst Yig makes Gates closer to seal. At the end of the line of six spaces for these Old One cards is the space for Cthulhu himself. When he is summoned, then the game is over. Under each space is a number, indicating how many Summoning cards are turned over at the end of each turn. This number increases as more Old Ones appear, escalating the game’s difficulty as play proceeds.

The map also has spaces for the Summoning cards and the Player cards. Both decks contain cards corresponding to locations on the map. The Summoning cards are used to determine where the Cultists will appear and spread their influence on the map as well as if any Shoggoths on the map will move towards an open Gate. The Player cards represent clues. If an Investigator can collect five of one colour and go to the Gate in the corresponding town, he can seal the Gate. Seeded into the Player deck are two other types of card. The first are Relic cards, which grant the Investigators a temporary advantage. For example, the Seal of Leng allows the Investigators to block and cancel the effect of an Old One for the rest of the game, whilst the Book of Shadow lets an Investigator look at and rearrange the top four cards of the Player deck. The latter mirrors the effect of the Forecast card from Pandemic, but the use of Relic cards forces a player to roll the Sanity die to determine if his Investigator loses Sanity. The second type of card is the Evil Stirs card, which works much like the Infection card from Pandemic. In effect, it increases the difficulty of the game, making the player roll the Sanity die for his Investigator, reveal a new Old One, make a new Shoggoth appear in a random location on the map, and the Cultists regroup—the cards in the Summoning card discard pile are shuffled and added back onto the top of the Summoning deck. This means that the same locations are open to Cultist influence again and again...

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu comes with seven Investigators—Detective, Doctor, Driver, Hunter, Magician, Occultist, and Reporter, each with their own special ability. These abilities are a mix those new in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and those adapted from Pandemic. So for example, the Detective needs four Clue cards to seal a Gate rather than five, much like the Scientist in Pandemic, and the Doctor can do five actions per turn rather than four, much like the Generalist in the Pandemic. Whereas, the Driver moves an extra location with a Walk action and ignores Ithaqua’s effect, which is new to the Pandemic family of games. Each Investigator comes with its own card that explains his or her abilities and this card is double-sided. The front is done in full colour, whereas the back is monochrome and details the Investigator’s abilitis after he has lost his Sanity. For example, the Doctor goes from five actions per turn when sane to four actions per turn when insane. Some card effects enable an Investigator to regain lost Sanity, whilst an insane Investigator who successfully seals a Gate fully recovers his Sanity.

Lastly, it should be noted that instead of wooden cubes and pawns—since replaced by plastic—being to represent the diseases and CDC members as in Pandemic, this game uses fully sculpted plastic figures. Those for Cultists and Shoggoths are anonymous, but those for the Investigators are individually sculpted figures which match the illustrations on the Investigator cards. These are nicely detailed figures and greatly add to the period feel of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu.

At the start of the game, six Old One cards are randomly selected and placed in their slots on the board. Each player chooses his Investigator and is given the matching Investigator card, four Sanity tokens, and a reference card. All of the Investigators start play at the Train Station in Arkham. Cultists as well as one Shoggoth are seeded in six locations drawn from the Summoning deck. These cards also from the Summoning discard pile. Relic cards are added to the Player deck and then each player receives two or more cards from the deck as his starting hand. The number varies according to the number of players. The fewer the number of players, the more cards a player is given. Lastly, the Player deck is seeded with the Evil Stirs cards.

On his turn a player has four actions and can get his Investigator to do the following. Walk to an adjacent location; while at a Bus Station, ‘Take the Bus’ by discarding a Clue card to move to any location in the town on the Clue card or discarding a Clue card that matches the town the Investigator is in to move to any other location in the town; or move through one Gate to another. He can also give a Clue card to another Investigator or take a Clue card from another Investigator as long as the Clue card matches the town they are in. He can also defeat a Cultist or Shoggoth and remove it from the board, though defeating a Shoggoth takes three actions. The later also earns him a Relic card. Lastly, he can seal a Gate by discarding five Clue cards of the same colour as the Gate on the Gate’s location. Notably, using a Gate or a Relic card, encountering and/or fighting a Shoggoth, or revealing an Evil Stirs card, all result in the player needing to roll the Sanity die. This may lose the Investigator one or two Sanity or attract the attention of some Cultists. 

From one turn to the next what the players will be trying to do is keep from being overwhelmed by Cultists and stop any Shoggoths reaching open Gates. They will also be trying to reach the same towns so that their Investigators can exchange Clue cards and so have enough to close the Gates. At the end of each turn, they will receive two more cards from the Player deck—these can be more Clue cards, Relic cards, or Evil Stirs cards. This means that they may not be useful. Also at the end of the turn, a number of Summoning cards will be drawn, these indicating where new Cultists will appear  and occasionally, that any Shoggoths in play should move.

This all sounds easy enough, but the Evil Stirs cards are an ever constant and imminent threat, promising to complicate things, always ensuring that Cultists are constantly recruiting from the same location over and over again—just like the Infection card causes cities in Pandemic to be infected again and again with diseases. In both cases because the Evil Stirs or Infection card empties the discard pile and returns it to the top of the Summoning/Infection deck respectively. Of course, in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the Evil Stirs card brings with it the appearance of Shoggoths, ready to move towards the nearest open Gate. 

Just like Pandemic, the order in which the cards appear—from both the Player deck and Summoning deck—can also hamper or aid the play of the game, which is as should be. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu makes the play of the game easier, but more challenging. Easier by placing fewer limitations on movement and the exchange of Clue cards, but more challenging by forcing the players to regulate two factors which left unchecked will ensure their defeat—the number of Cultists and Shoggoths—rather than the one as Pandemic. Then even more challenging by imposing situational difficulties upon the players with the effect of the Old One cards revealed when a Shoggoth is allowed to go through a Gate.

Physically, the presentation of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu matches the theme. It feels and looks fustier, mustier, just a little ornate, and not at all like the killer elegance of Pandemic. Many of the well done components support the game’s replayability. There is not just the replaying again to beat the game and prevent Cthulhu from being summoned, but also the replaying of the game to beat it at a higher difficulty, which can be adjusted. The increased number of Investigator roles to choose from and the number of Old One cards provides more choice when setting up and playing the game as replayability.

So in looking at Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the question is, is it still a Pandemic game? To which the answer is yes. The core mechanics of Pandemic are central to the mechanics of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and anyone coming from the one to the other will adapt with. In fact, the core mechanics of Pandemic remain obviously visible such that the Lovecraftian theme of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu does feel somewhat pasted over the top of them. Yet, that theme also allows the elegant brutalism of the Pandemic mechanics to be pushed and extended, making Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu more challenging and ultimately, more uncaring. Perfect then, for a Pandemic game.


Z-Man Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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