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What is the difference between Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu?

When a couple of friends gave us an early Christmas present of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu I was ecstatic. First of all, it was a Cthulhu game, and I have been a fan ever since I saw a few Easter eggs in Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes and long before I actually read any HP Lovecraft stories. Secondly, as a gamer I have never actually owned a copy of Pandemic. Of course, I have played it several times, but due to the girlfriend not being a fan, I have always just lived with someone else owning it rather than me. Of course, that all changed when my girlfriend’s best friend gave us a copy of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu as a Christmas present. How the tables have turned. Bwahahaha!

I’ll do a full review of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu in due course; however, for the time being I wanted to look at something a little bit different. They are, at their hearts, very different games based upon the same mechanic; however, I don’t think you would lose anything if you owned more than one version of the game. They are different enough to stand up on their own, sharing a mechanic and not a whole lot else. So, with that in mind, let’s look at the main differences between Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu.

Closing a gate in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

Closing a gate in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

What are the differences between Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

Although but one in a series of Pandemic spin offs and expansions, and not as well known as some of the others like Legacy and Iberia, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is probably as far away from the base game of Pandemic as you can get but still pass under the brand name. It is a strikingly different game (for starters, my girlfriend actually enjoys it) whilst still keeping the same base mechanic. You are still moving around the board trying to complete four objectives. In the base Pandemic these are “to cure all diseases”, yet in Pan-thulhu (as it is not known, but I think it should be) it is to “close all gates”. Each turn more trouble gets laid down on the board, again in different forms – disease cubes/cultists – and it is down to the players to fight against that.

That, however, is more or less where the similarities end. Aside from those basic concepts everything has been given its own HP-twists (as it is also not known, but hey, I’m trying new things). It’s a Lovecraftian-geddon (too much?) in which the old game we all know and love is given more than just a facelift.

So, with that in mind, let’s break down some of the core elements of the game, and how they differ from the original. Things are going to get awesome.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu Board

Right from the very first opening of the Panthulhu board it is clear that Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is going to be a very different game. In the old-school Pandemic the players are presented with a world map. In Reign of Cthulhu, however, the map only covers four towns in New England. These are Innsmouth, Arkham, Kingsport, and Dunwich (better known as the North Shore towns), each in their own colour and each unique in their own ways. Each town, as different as they may be, has a gate that needs closing, for it is letting in the demons of the Old Ones (or Elder Gods, depending) who are wrecking havoc on the land.

What this means is that each section of the board, rather than just being a world map, has its own character from the HP Lovecraft/Cthulhu mythos. Each town is made up of buildings and locations that give each section of the map a unique flavour. Some of these are recognisable, even if not directly named, by those who know their Lovecraft universe. For those who don’t, they are still colourful and fun.

The board at the start of the game.

No More Diseases

Ultimately, at its heart, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is not about curing disease. Instead the concept is potentially more deadly, as the game revolves around closing gates that are allowing evil through into the world. What this means, from a practical perspective is twofold. Firstly, the game is about cultists rather than disease. The job is to obliterate those who sacrifice innocent people in the name of Cthulhu, and not cure whatever name you have decided to give the disease (one is usually “The Zombie Virus, am I right?).

Secondly, this means there are no outbreaks. Instead, if too many cultists try to land on a given space, they simply summon a new Old One, changing the rules of the game, and causing havoc on the board. What this means is that, where it is possible for the whole board to get out of control really quickly in Pandemic, this is slowed down significantly in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. Instead, the latter (Cthulhu) is more about the evolution of the game. Rather than having a single event triggering a single event, in Reign of Cthulhu the events that are triggered roll on with the game. They cause the game to fundamentally change, adapting and evolving – causing effects, some positive and some negative, to change how the game is played through the use of artefacts and Old Ones.

Too many cultists cause for the Old Ones to awaken and this is a really interesting mechanic. Rather than just levels of threat, like in the original game, Reign of Cthulhu uses Old Ones to mark how badly things are going. There are seven in total – six with effects, and one Cthulhu who, if things ever get dire enough for him to be revealed (he is revealed last) then the game ends instantly.

The other Old Ones get awakened by several things happening – including cultists growing their following past three on any one location, and turning over an Evil Stirs card. Evil Stirs is a card that is, for all intents and purposes, like an Outbreak card in the original game, only it is much more painful. For a start, it summons a Shoggoth, which we will come onto later. Secondly, it causes madness, which is again something we will touch on. Thirdly, it unveils an Old One.

The reason Old Ones are scary is not only because they progress towards Cthulhu, but because they also have their own special abilities. For instance, when revealed, Hastur will summon a Shoggoth, Azathoth removes unused cultists from the supply (making it more likely you will run out and lose the game), and Shudde M’Ell forces the players to remove sanity between them. This is a core focus for the game.

Trouble in Arkham

Characters, Sanity and Shoggoths

One of the biggest differences between Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is the fact that Reign of Cthulhu has RPG elements. Unlike with the original Pandemic, where the characters are more abstract concepts, in Cthulhu they have more to them. Like with all Cthulhu games, Sanity is something the characters have to compete with. Each character starts off with a set amount of sanity that they have to maintain throughout the game. Yes, characters can go insane, and when they do yet more negatives happen on the board. They can also become sane (re-sanify?) again by closing gates whilst insane; however, this is generally difficult to do. If every character becomes insane, then (yes, you guessed it) the game ends. The characters fail and the end of the world begins.

As a side note – the characters can lose sanity by several means, but it involves a dice. I’ll explore this more when I review the game, but for now let’s just say the original game doesn’t have dice. It’s a nice addition.

The characters themselves have interesting roles. Each one fits in with the Cthulhu mythos, whether that is as a detective, a hunter, a magician, a doctor, or several other roles. Each has an ability, the majority of which are counterparts to the original version of the game. There are a few which do add a bit more, either thematically or ability wise, and these are a treat to come across. When it comes to picking characters, there is a slightly quirkier way of choosing your character than the Pandemic “deal them out randomly” approach. The first player gets handed two at random to choose from – they then pick one, and hand the other to the next player. That player gets handed another random card along with the one they have been handed, and chooses one. The same process continues with the next player and so on.

The Hunter

There are lots of small things that differentiate the two Pandemic games; however, the final thing to talk about in this article is the use of Shoggoths (if that isn’t the plural then I’m sticking to it – although Shoggothi do have a certain ring to them) as a major threat within the game.

Shoggoths spawn within the game whenever an Evil Stirs card comes up and they are somewhat of a triple threat on the gameboard. Firstly, they count as three cultists – you must use three actions to get rid of one. Secondly, they can move around the board. On occasion a card will come up, making them move towards the nearest gate and, if they reach it, they cause an Old One to awaken. If no more Shoggoths can be placed on the board, of which there are only three, the game ends. They are brutal, and cause a moving threat which needs to be dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This adds a whole new dynamic to the game, something that requires constant surveillance to be able to overcome. It puts something more threatening on the board, and it is something even more dangerous than the amounting threat of an outbreak. They are a huge bane to the players, easily defeated by the Hunter, but otherwise difficult to control. To be blunt, they are an amazing addition, creating a new mechanic for the Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu edition of the game that really makes it stand on its own two feet.

Trouble in Dunwich

Conclusion for Pandemic vs Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

There is always a threat that a new edition of a game is just a reskin, something identical to that which has come before bar a slight theme change. As gamers we see these all the time and often find ourselves buying something we already have all because we thought it would be something different. We often find ourselves sighing because we can become wary of new versions of old games, relatively speaking at least. I am happy to announce that Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is nothing like that. Instead, it is very much its own game.

The fundamental crux of the analysis is that, Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu do share mechanics. At the end of the day that is to be expected. They are both games about eliminating a threat off a map; however, they are also very different games. The original game is more abstract, where, since Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu personifies both the characters and enemies more thoroughly, the Lovecraftian version of the game is more like a story.

Pandemic plays like a puzzle where the real skill comes from the intricacy of the moves. Reign of Cthulhu plays more like an RPG where the players are immersed in the Cthulhu mythos. Where the primary one offers a challenging time, Reign of Cthulhu is more of a story.

What this means is that it is possible for someone to like one but not the other, and vice versa. They are different games, and each has its place depending on the experience you want.

What do you think? Is this just another Cthulhu version of a game and unneeded, or do you welcome the change? If you haven’t played it, do these changes sound promising or not? What are your takes on Cthulhu games? Let me know in the comments below.

15 Comments »

    • It surprised us at how good it is. I worked my way through the Lovecraft collection via Audible at the start of the year, and I have to admit Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu does capture that spirit. If you enjoy Lovecraft then this is definitely one of the better Cthulhu games as Cthulhu hasn’t just been bolted onto an existing game. They completely reworked it to fit the mythos in.

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  1. I like the way they’re doing spin offs from the original Pandemic. Sure, they are milking the game system for all it’s worth but if that gives us new ways to play an old favourite, more power to them. I guess at the end of the day I’m free to buy into a new iteration, or not. It’s nice to see evolving themes that attract different audiences to the same basic game.

    Even though Cthulhu completely permeates this iteration, for me personally as a huge Cthulhu mythos fan, I turn to other games (Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness) when I need my Cthulhu fix as I feel the story runs deeper there. I also have the original Pandemic and the game that for my gaming group has fired the original: Pandemic: The Cure. We seem to like the dice roller version better.

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    • That’s fair enough. Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness are two very highly rated games. Have you played Arkham Horror or Elder Sign? If so, what do you think of them?

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  2. Arkham Horror I’ve played a couple of times but never invested in it, content to play friend’s copies. Frankly, the sheer bulk of it and time requirement once you get into the expansions really put me off. But with the release of Eldritch Horror I jumped in both feet and haven’t wanted to play Arkham Horror again.

    Elder Sign is an excellent solo game – and the app is a fantastic time waster, porting the dice mechanic beautifully – but I don’t play it with others, or at most with one other person. It’s one of those games where there is one set of dice (i.e. King of Tokyo, Age of War, Bang: The Dice Game, Zombie Dice etc.) and the more people the longer you wait between your turns while you watch others roll dice. It’s a fun intro game for newbies though and overall a solid game that is up to the usual Fantasy Flight standards.

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    • Fantasy Flight do have an excellent standard. I have owned Arkham Horror for about six months now, but just haven’t got round to playing it yet. I need to in the new year. Eldritch Horror is a great game, I agree with you there 🙂

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  3. You’ll enjoy Arkham Horror. It’s a more free-form romp than Eldritch Horror. AH creates moments that EH can’t – the trade off for a more streamlined and predictable experience.

    Google “Arkham Horror Expansion Organizers” and you’ll see why AH can be polarizing. Why wouldn’t you want that much content all jammed into one game? Oh right, because it then takes 5 hours to play and you’ll be able to take a full coffee break between your turns. The granddaddy of adventure games.

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  4. Great read. Looking forward to your review!

    I already own Pandemic Iberia and we really enjoy it. Have never played original Pandemic, so can’t compare it to that. However I did recognise a lot of the mechanics from your post, but as you say, sounds like there are still enough differences to make this worth looking at.
    The map and minis look pretty good too.

    I also own Eldritch Horror, but I assume this is a much quicker play through time, given we can get through a 2 player Pandemic Iberia game in under an hour.

    Either way, there’s always room for a bit more Cthulhu madness on my games shelf 😊

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