Boardgame Reviews

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu Review – I’m A Bit Cranky When Woken, Too

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Designed by: Chuck D. Yager
Published by: Z-Man Games
Players: 2-4 (Solo possible)
Playtime: 45+

Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.

Now that it is freely available to use Lovecraft’s unique brand of horror is turning up absolutely everywhere, especially in the boardgame industry who seem to like nothing more than to take the name Cthulu and slap it on just about anything. Case in point here we have the hugely popular Pandemic designed by Matt Leacock being smushed together with the also hugely popular name of Cthulu. A few tweaks here, a rule change or two there and a mechanic or three over in the corner and voila! A new game appears, presumably in a cloud of smoke and a somewhat anti-climatic trumpet sound. So what happens when you take one my favorite games and combine it with the writings of Lovecraft in what feels a lot like a blatant attempt at earning extra cash? Turns out you still get a pretty good game. And a pretty good cash grab.

I’ve reviewed Pandemic before, waaaaay back in December of 2013, so I’m not going to be covering all that again in depth. You can just read that review by clicking RIGHT HERE YOU NOSEY GIT! Suffice to say I loved it, and despite having played a lot more games since then it remains firmly one of my most cherished possessions, alongside my PC and a blow-up doll called Samantha Carter. Ahem.

First things first the theme has obviously changed massively, swapping over from playing as a bunch of people trying to cure deadly diseases to a bunch of people trying to stop cultists from summoning the dreaded Old Ones, beings of immense power who aren’t so much evil as just sort of oblivious to our existence and plight. To do this you and your fellow investigators must work together to seal four portals that have sprung up in the towns of Arkham, Innsmouth, Dunwich and Kingsport while also fighting off the cultists and occasional shambling Shoggoth. Like Pandemic there’s a lot of ways to lose and just one way to win, so working out the best strategy for each move is key to success. If you run out cards to draw from the player deck, you lose, thus since you draw exactly two every turn there’s a ticking timer constantly demanding that you speed things. If too many cultists roam the streets of the board’s four towns, you lose. If there’s three Shoggoth’s terrorizing the people and a fourth needs to be summoned, you lose. If everyone goes insane, you lose. And if Cthulhu wakes up, you really, really lose.

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There’s a number of different characters to choose from, each boasting their own unique abilities. The hunter, for example, is capable of taking out every cultist in a space in a single fell swoop, while the racing driver can scoot around the board faster than anyone else and the occultist can actually force cultists and Shoggoth’s to move, potentially avoiding a crisis. Every turn you’ll take your character and perform up to four actions; move one space around the board, remove a cultist from a space, defeat a Shoggoth at the cost of three actions, trade cards, take the bus and seal a portal. Those last two things just don’t feel like they belong in a sentence together.

Once you’ve performed your actions you draw two clue cards from the player deck. These colored cards match the four different quadrants of the board, so green for Arkham, Purple for Dunwich and so on. These cards are useful for a few reasons, but the most important is that you need them to seal the four portals and thus win the game. To do this you need to get five cards that match the color of the portal, so if you were attempting to shut the portal in Arkham you’d need five green cards. Once you’ve got ’em you simply march up to the portal and use an action to close to the dimensional breach, which rewards you by automatically removing one cultist from every location within the town. However, these cards can also be used to scoot about between the four towns quickly by visiting a bus station then either spending a card to travel to anywhere in the town matching that color, or spending a card matching the town you’re currently in to travel anywhere on the board, handy for dealing with those pesky cultists because should the supply of cultists ever run out it’s game over.

Inevitably this means that you’re going to want to trade cards with other players, especially if one of them is the detective because he’s able to seal gates using one clue card less than everybody else. In the original Pandemic trading cards was a major headache because to hand one over you both had to be on the exact location listed on the card. Let’s say you wanted to give the blue London card to another player; you’d both have to be in London. If you then wanted to hand over a second blue card, say Madrid, you’d then both have to move to Madrid to do it. It was a cumbersome system that failed to make any thematic sense – if we’re both in the same location why can’t we exchange information? It did, however, make co-ordination a key part of the game. Reign of Cthulhu ditches this concept by doing away with specific locations on the cards, so now you can trade cards provided you’re both in the same location and the card color matches the town you’re in.

Buried within the player deck are a bunch of relic cards that can be played at anytime, even by other players during your turn. These provide a variety of effects, such as letting you rearrange the next four player cards or stopping cultists and Shoggoth’s spawning in a town with a sealed gate. However, in order to play these cards you need to grab the sanity die and roll it. This is Reign of Cthulhu’s frankly slightly weak attempt to mimic how important the fragility of the human mind is within Lovecraft’s work, the idea being that dealing with the many horrors takes its toll on the brains of mere mortals, driving them utterly insane. In this case each character starts with four sanity tokens, and the die can remove none, one or two of these, or arguably worse it can also force you to immediately spawn two cultists at your currently location. Should you ever run out of tokens your character has gone insane and their card must be flipped over to reveal the black and white reverse side, which degrades their abilities, making them less useful, except in the case of the Journalist whose insane power to snag a clue card from the discard pile  seems oddly powerful. An insane investigator also loses one action per turn. But they can regain their sanity by sealing a gate, thus somehow allowing them to regain their full faculties.

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You can also risk your sanity by travelling through an open gate, which lets you instantly jump to the location of any other gate so long as it hasn’t been sealed yet. Should you also happen to enter a space with a Shoggoth or it enters the same space as you then a sanity roll must be made as well.

The summoning phase is where new cultists get placed on the board. During this phase at the end of each player’s turn you’ll flip over cards from the top of the deck based on the current summoning rate, which is determined by the amount of Old Ones currently awake and angry, and then place one cultist on each location shown. This is where we hit one of the bigger changes in Reign of Cthulhu. In the original Pandemic if a fourth disease cube was to ever be placed in a location it would spark an outbreak instead, spreading one cubes worth of disease to every connected location which could in turn spark more outbreaks, turning into a horrendous, glorious chain reaction. In Reign of Cthulhu if a fourth cultist has to be placed an awakening ritual occurs instead, forcing you to flip over the next Old One card and therefore also deal with its effects. It still spells bad news for the players since they’re moving one step closer to disaster, but it just doesn’t feel as great as the outbreak mechanic and its ability to great a chain of destruction that leaves players hurting badly.

Speaking of the Old Ones awakening their various abilities do help mix things up, some spawning Shoggoths (don’t worry, I’ll get to them) and others hindering in various other ways. However, there is a pretty big liberty taken with them; in Lovecraftian lore any one of these beings would be more than capable of destroying our universe. Indeed, in other games each one is the objective in its own right, and should an Old One make it into our dimension you have to battle it in a highly optimistic fight to the end. Reign of Cthulhu believes it’s perfectly alright to awaken siz of these colossal beings, though, so long as you don’t rouse Cthulhu from its slumber in the seventh slot. It makes a mockery of their power that the Old Ones just sort of mildly inconvenience you rather than pose a terrifying threat to your very existence.

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The player deck also includes the less than alluring Evil Stirs cards. There’s four of these horrible things, and at the start of the game you split the player deck into four roughly even piles and add one Evil Stirs card to each before shuffling them and then stacking them together to create a sort of even distribution that stops you from running into more than two in quick succession. When one is drawn a few things happen, starting with a quick roll of the sanity die, followed by one of the Old Ones being awoken. Then a Shoggoth is placed on the board by drawing the bottom card of the summoning deck. Now, Shoggoth’s  are a moving threat because once on the board they’ll begin moving toward the nearest portals whenever a card is flipped over from the summoning deck that includes a Shoggoth symbol. If they arrive a portal and another Shoggoth symbol is revealed then they’re classed as having successfully shambled through to the other dimension, awakening another Old One card in the process. With just six Old Ones before Cthulhu’s alarm clock goes off and he awakens a Shoggoth making it through a portal is bad news. Once that’s done you then take the discarded summoning cards, shuffle them and put them back on top of the summoning deck, which obviously means that all the prior locations which were hit by cultists are now targets again.

From a component standpoint the whole package feels pretty good. Dedicated Lovecraftians might be a tad irked by how the board represents four towns so close together, as in it depicts a bridge seperating Arkham and Dunwich, but it all looks rather nice and compacting the four towns into a smaller area doesn’t bother me personally. The various miniatures that come with the game aren’t exactly what you’d call high quality, but in my eyes they have a lot more personality than the simple pawns of standard Pandemic and with a lick of paint should look quite nice. The card stock is also rather nice, so all in all I have no real complaints.

But much more importalty is that it’s just a lot of fun to play. Much like vanilla Pandemic there’s a great sense of urgency and tension because you’re almost always close to losing, and keeping Cthulhu at bay requires plenty of co-operation between players. Four actions a turn sounds like a lot, yet it really isn’t. If the summoning rate goes up so that you’re drawing three cards from the summoning deck then cultists are appearing faster than you can deal with them, like a rising tide of robe-wearing quack pots. Meanwhile the roving Shoggoth’s add timers within timers, because you can visibly see them inching towards portals and thus toward another Old One being woken up from its slumber. So you send someone racing across the board to deal with that problem, while someone else tries to curb the rising cultist menace somewhere else. Everybody needs to communicate or failure is a certainty. Having said that, much like original Pandemic failure does tend to happen quite often, even on the easiest difficulty.

The thing is not liking this Lovecraftian take on Pandemic was never really a question. I personally love Matt Leacock’s co-op thinker about saving the world from viruses, and it’s frequently hailed as one of the best games of all time. When I was getting into the hobby of boardgames it was the first time where I sat back and said, “wow, that’s some really smart design.” Reign of Cthulu sticks so closely to the established ruleset that there was never a moment when the game was anything less than great. So the real question is whether this version brings enough to the table to really warrant its existence? Did Pandemic need a Cthulhu makeover, or is it just another cashgrab by slapping a popular theme into a very popular game?

The answer is yes and no. There are a couple of nice changes, but not enough to warrant anyone who already owns Pandemic opening their wallet or purse yet again, unless you happen to be a massive fan of Cthulu and his gang of all-powerful beings. However, if you’ve yet to discover the unique joys of Pandemic then this retains most of the original brilliance and mixes it with a fun theme that may very well hold a much wider appeal than trying to cure horrible diseases. Plus, there are some changes I genuinely love; the inclusion of Shoggoth’s is pretty cool, and the trading system is much easier to grasp and explain. With that said, I do mourn the loss of the outbreak mechanic. So does it need to exist? Not really. Is it a blatant cashgrab? Kind of. But then, there’s nothing really wrong with choice, is there? And while Reign of Cthulu may not really expand on Pandemic’s legacy (hehe) I’m still glad that it was made.  Does that mean it gets a recommendation sticker? Yes. But only if you’ve never played Pandemic before.

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