Cthulhu Board Games – The (Almost) Definitive Guide
Cthulhu (pronounced Cuth-hoo-loo) has become a staple of the gaming world over the past few years. As the board game world has exploded, so has the love of HP Lovecraft and the universe he created. There are several reasons for this – ranging from the romanticised fact that he created a whole, mysterious, mythos for games to explore – to the far more pragmatic fact that the copyright for his works is now in the public domain.
As such, Cthulhu and the Lovecraft mythos has kind of exploded onto the scene, with companies such as Fantasy Flight taking up the mantle, creating unique and amazing games that simply blow your socks off. The world of macabre and weird horror games has never been so flush.
Of course, this also comes with a downside. Now there are a whole host of games on the market, and it can be difficult choosing between them. Most gamers want variety on their shelves, and so only have room for one or two games of any particular theme. I’ve heard the phrases “I already have a [theme] game, I don’t need another one” or “I have enough [theme] games in my life” a few times now, and so thought I would try a new type of article. Let’s see if we can break down an entire theme within the gaming world to make it easier to choose between games of a certain theme.
So, within the article, we’ll be looking at 15 games in particular. These are considered some of the biggest players in the Cthulhu board games market, so although they do not cover all games, they are a substantial segment. Within this I have left out games where Cthulhu is a minor segment, like within D&D (for the Eldritch Knight) or in Munchkin Apocalypse. So, the games we are looking at are, in no particular order:
- Call of Cthulhu – A tabletop RPG based in the Cthulhu mythos. Please note that, in order to avoid confusion, the Call of Cthulhu card game has been missed off this list.
- Mansions of Madness – An American Style investigatory boardgame.
- Eldritch Horror – An exploration game based on stopping portals from opening to allow the Elder Gods to enter this realm.
- Arkham Horror: The Living Card Game – A cooperative living card game in which players build investigator decks to solve mysteries. Please note there is another game called Arkham Horror. This is not that.
- Elder Sign – A push-your-luck dice game based around one night in a museum.
- Arkham Noir – A solo game based around solving mysteries as HP Lovecraft.
- Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu – A Pandemic style game in which players must stop cultists from taking over the world.
- Mountains of Madness – A cooperative game with real-time elements, exploring the Mountain. For this we are looking at the Second Edition.
- Cthulhu Wars – A miniature based control game in which you play as the Elder Gods trying to amass power on Earth.
- Cthulhu Realms – A take-that style card game come deck builder, with quirky artwork.
- Cthulhu Gloom – A Lovecraftian take on the classic storytelling game of Gloom.
- Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Set– The only expansion on this list. Use Cthulhu themed factions in a game of Smash Up.
- Cthulhu Fluxx – A card game where the rules are always changing, based on the original Fluxx, this time with a Cthulhu twist.
- Munchkin Cthulhu – A take-that style Card Game, based on the original Munchkin, designed for 3-5 players.
- Cthulhu Dice – A very simple dice game, designed around the notion of stealing your opponent’s sanity.
You will notice that this is an eclectic mix of games, coming from all kinds of backgrounds. Please note that, before we start, I haven’t played all the games so we won’t be relying on opinion for this a article. Instead we will be trying to objectively look at games using third party data sources like Board Game Geek and Amazon.
The Goal: Breaking Down Cthulhu Board Games
The goal of this article is to provide a toolkit for players to be able to choose between Cthulhu-themed board games. It is to provide a breakdown of games depending on what you, as the player, want to play. Hopefully, this article will act as a guide through the world of Cthulhu-themed board games, creating some clarity around the Elder Gods in gaming.
How Many Players Do You Want?
So, step number one is to understand how many players you want your game to be for. The good news is that, no matter what kind of game you want, the above list consists of games catering to (more or less) any size group, assuming it is not a giant party game you want. This is what that breakdown looks like when we look at game vs number of players.
The good news is, if you want a game for a pair of people to play then most of the games are open for you to play. Only Mountains of Madness, Arkham Noir, and Munchkin Cthulhu aren’t available to play for a couple (unless you want to leave one person out with Arkham Noir). If you want to play solo then there are five games available for you to play, and if you want to play with a much larger group (7-8) then there are still three games that can be played.
It is worth noting, something I didn’t put on the above chart, that if you buy two base games for Arkham Horror then you can play with four players. It is also worth noting that whilst Smash Up: Cthulhu (as I have shortened the name to above) is playable on its own, it is designed as an expansion rather than a two-player game.
How Much Do You Want To Spend?
If the price is important to you with your Cthulhu game then there are several things to take into account. The first is that this is the base cost for playing the game. No expansions have been included. Secondly, the cost is in dollars as the majority of the games are available in the USA without extortionate shipping. The one exception is that I couldn’t find Arkham Noir on Amazon USA, so I translated the price I paid in GBP (in Forbidden Planet near Covent Garden, London) into USD. Call of Cthulhu is the only other exception, where two books are needed to play the base game. The cost of these have been added together. The rest are just the current Amazon USA listing prices.
As it can be seen, the Cthulhu games span a whole range of prices, from incredibly cheap to incredibly expensive (for a board game). The majority, as would kind of be expected, revolve around the $20-$40 mark – however, there are a few that are more expensive. These are the ones that include miniatures.
What Core Mechanics Do You Like?
Of course, so far we haven’t actually explored the games themselves. For this we are going to look at the main mechanics of the game. Initially, when thinking about this I was thinking about what the core components are, but then that didn’t really explore the game. For this it was going to be – “is this a dice, board, RPG, or card game?” Where this doesn’t explore a lot – it gives a rough idea. Although incredibly vague, I’ve tabled it up for you anyway so you can decide for yourself if this is the kind of data that will help you make up your mind.
This was all fairly simple, with each slotting nicely into a form of game, bar Elder Sign which has aspects of Dice and Card games in a relatively equal measure.
So, instead let’s have a look at the actual mechanics in each game. For this, I am using the core mechanics listed in Board Game Geek, under each game. This will be split into tables of 10 mechanics each, due to the sheer number we will be exploring, and I will post them back to back.
There are quite a few things to note here. The first is that Call of Cthulhu is an RPG, and so can’t really be judged by board game mechanic rules. The second is that 6/15 games are co-operative board games. This is exactly 40% of the games and an incredibly high percentage. The most common mechanic, however, isn’t co-operative gameplay, but rather variable player powers. Yes, Cthulhu games tend to be asymmetrical.
Do You Care About Reviews?
If the answer to the above is “no”, then you can probably skip this section.
It will probably come as no surprise to you, but I have not played every game in the list. Instead, I have played around 70% of them, but that is one of the reasons we are using hard data and not my own opinion for this article.
That being said, opinion is important. Not my opinion, however (I mean, that is important, you are reading this blog after all, but not for this article). Instead, we will look at reviews from two sources. These are Board Game Geek and Amazon.com. Not all games are available in all regions, so, once again, instead of my usual customary graph, we will be using a table and leaving it blank where a review isn’t available.
It is worth noting that I could not find an Amazon review for Arkham Noir. For Call of Cthulhu we are looking at the review for the core book (not the player handbook), and with Cthulhu Dice the version I used for the price only had two reviews, so we are looking at another version of the game I found on Amazon that had 48 reviews to give a fairer picture.
The reason we look at both BGG and Amazon is because Amazon tends to reflect the general public appeal of a game, whereas BGG tends to have an audience of more experienced gamers. There is also a meta that surrounds both rating systems, so looking at two sources can counteract that.
As you can see, the total is just adding the two scores together to get a score of 15. Now it is important to understand that Amazon tends to have far fewer reviews than BGG does, and so this is not the most accurate way of looking at the data. Instead, if you want to choose one data source in particular then I would recommend BGG. This doesn’t change the overall order all that much, but it is worth stating.
How Difficult/Heavy Are The Games?
Another factor which may or may not factor into which Cthulhu game you want to buy is how difficult or heavy the individual games are. You may be after a particularly difficult game, or you may have a want for something simpler for your shelf.
For this we are going to look at two different factors, both of which are provided by BGG. The first is the complexity rating. This is a score from 1-5 where 5 is horrifically complex and 1 is the easiest possible game in existence.
Secondly, we will look for number of forums about the game. To get the best possible response here, we are going to look at the number owned vs the number of forums there are. This will be provided as a ratio. The reason for this is because the more forum posts there are per owned game the likelihood there is that there are more questions or points about that game. So, if (for instance) there is a 1:1 ratio then it means that for every one owned version of the game there is a forum post. This is not a perfect way of judging a game as, for instance, people who paint their minis may be asking for advice or people may just be discussing how much they like the game, but I thought it could be interesting anyway.
Looking at that we can see that BGG ranks Arkham Horror as the most complex game on the list. Having played it numerous times it is possible to see why. The simplest game on the list is Cthulhu Dice, which again it is possible to see why. You roll a dice, and do what the result says.
Everything else rests somewhere in between, with the larger board games tending to be more complex than the simpler card or franchised games.
The other column – well, for stats nerds it kind of still holds true; however, it is also something of a complete mess. Cthulhu Wars has the ratio that is closest to 1:1, meaning it is probably the most complex on the list; however, Eldritch Horror getting a 75:8 and yet it is the third most complex game is surprising.
So Which One Out Of The Many Cthulhu Board Games Should I Get?
Well…I made a Cthulhu board games flowchart to help you decide…
Yes, if you are still struggling to decide, I had a crack at creating my own low key Cthulhu board games recommendations flowchart. It’s not perfect (in fact it is really far from perfect), as I couldn’t find a way of linking Elder Sign up with also being a one player game and I had to be a bit liberal with my question asking, but it should be a place to start.
Please take note to check maximum player numbers before purchasing any game (luckily for you, you can just scroll up to see them all in one place). Also, there are certain games that do have much wider scopes of players, but we have to start somewhere. Any recommendations you may have on how to improve this flowchart are more than welcome in the comments.
That took me way longer to do then you may think. It turns out that flowcharts like that are REALLY hard to do.
I hope it helped anyway.
So there we have it. A whole host of analysis around a whole genre of games, focusing on some of the key players in the industry. A lot of work went into this article, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be improved upon. Please let me know what you would like to see, what you liked, and what you didn’t like in the comments below.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, for some reason I have a real urge to read some HP Lovecraft. No idea why…