In Reign of Cthulu, you attempt to prevent the rise of the old ones and stop his minions from taking over the world. The core mechanics of the game are similar to Pandemic, as could be expected, but there are enough tentacles in this game for everyone.
The game plays up to four players, and the box states a playtime of 40 minutes. I would suggest that at a full player count you will want to give yourself a full hour, but I'm sure with more games under your belt, the 40 minute mark is more than enough.
The map and components
The majority of the board is split into four towns, each comprising six locations, one of which will contain the gate for that area. Closing all four of gates will bring victory to the investigators, but believe me there are many more ways to lose. The rest of the board contains room for the decks, and as in all Pandemic games the top row is dedicated to the adversarial force, in this case the rising power of the old ones.
The game contains two different sizes of card. The first is a regular playing card size, whilst the other set is larger and similar to a tarot card. The regular cards are investigators, clue cards, summoning cards and relics but it's the over-sized cards that draw your attention as these are for the old ones!
The artwork is great, the cards truly encapsulate the horror and despair these creatures should instill. There are 12 oldies including Cthulu, who is always the last one revealed - losing you the game. The others all have a one time game effect. The last components of note are the cultist, investigator and Shaggoth miniatures. The cultists and investigators are a nice sculpt but it is the Shaggoth miniatures that really shine, being a writhing mass of tentacles, eyes and teeth. Just what you would expect from the big bad boys of the Cthulu mythos.
Setting up and starting the game
Set up is quick and simple. First you remove Cthulu from the old ones deck and then shuffle the remaining cards, before placing the top six face down into the first slots on the old ones track - the last place being left free for the Cthulu card which is then placed face down.
Each player then chooses an investigator, of which there are seven, the pile is shuffled and two investigators are drawn. The first player picks one, with a second player drawing another card, and choosing one of the two investigators available. This continues until each player has an investigator. Once everyone has a character each player takes their corresponding figure, placse him/her on the train station and takes four sanity tokens. Each investigator has a skill which will help them throughout the game, just like the roles in Pandemic. Unique to this version, they also have a reverse side, which comes into play if/when your investigator is driven insane and it contains, as well as your skill, a drawback that now affects your character.
Next you determine the game's difficulty. The introductory game uses all the clue cards, with each higher level removing a number of clues from the deck, the highest being two of each colour. This significantly increases the difficulty so I would recommend starting at the introductory level for your first game.
Once you have chosen a difficulty the next step is to place the starting cultists and shaggoths. To do this you shuffle the summoning cards and flip the top two - placing three cultists on the locations shown. You then flip another two cards, placing two cultists on each this time before finally flipping a further two cards and placing one cultist on each. That's all the cultist spawning, you now flip one more card and place a shaggoth on this space. All the cards drawn in this stage go into the summoning discard pile.
Now to create the player deck. Take the relic deck, which contains 12 cards, and randomly remove four, five or six of the relics. This depends on the number of players - two, three and four respectively. The relics drawn are shuffled into the player deck (only location cards at this point) and two, three or four of these will be dealt to each player, two being for a four player game. The cards dealt to each player increases by one for each player missing from the maximum. The remaining cards form a relic deck.
After the cards have been dealt, you divide the player deck into four piles and place an evil stirs card into each. Each pile is shuffled independently before being stacked to form the new player deck.
Playing the game
Play begins with the person who has most recently read a horror story, before proceeding clockwise. So starting with that most unfortunate of souls, each player turn will take the following sequence:
1 - Take four actions (five if you have the doctor)
2 - Draw two player cards
3 - Reveal summoning cards
Each player has a choice of movement or special actions. Movement actions involve walking from one connected location to another, taking the bus from one of several marked locations on the board. This involves either discarding a clue card to move to any location in the town pictured, or discarding a clue card matching the colour of the town you are in - to move to any location in that town. Alternatively you can use a gate.To do this you must be on a gate space and you can then move to any other non-sealed gate space. After the movement you must roll the sanity die which can have one of four effects, ranging from nothing to losing sanity to spawning cultists - so this is not the preferred way to travel as many a madman could attest I'm sure.
There are five special actions available: Defeat a cultist to remove one cultist from your current location, defeat a shaggoth (this requires 3 actions and removes a shaggoth from your location), while also netting you a relic card from the unused pile we created during setup. You may also give or take one relic card from a player on your location, give or take one clue card from a local investigator or seal a gate.
The passing of cards is important to try and line yourself up for this last action, as to seal a gate you must discard five clue cards from your hand that match the colour of gate you are standing on. If you do this you also get to remove one cultist from every location in that town, and you are now one step closer to winning the game. These actions can each be taken as many times as you have actions and in whatever order you so desire.
The next phase is where pressure can really rise. You draw two cards from the player deck, most of these cards are helpful having a location and a colour on them, which are then used in the previously mentioned sets to close gates, and upon being drawn go into your hand, but the deck also contains the four evil stirs cards and a number of relics. The relics, like the location cards, can go into your hand and have a one time effect which can be used at any time.
These effects are very potent however when you use a relic you also run a risk as you must again roll the sanity die. Rolling the sanity die is nothing in comparison to drawing the evil stirs card though, if this occurs you must then follow a series of instructions. First of all the current player rolls the sanity die, then you reveal the first/next old one on the track and apply its affect. You draw the bottom card from the summoning deck and place a shoggoth on the location shown (if a player is on that location he/she rolls the sanity die) before reshuffling all the discarded summoning cards and placing them on top of the summoning deck. That is a whole lot of hurt and definitely more potent than the epidemic cards in Pandemic. Like epidemics there is also the possibility of two of these being drawn, back to back. So providing you haven't just revealed Cthulu or placed all of one of the minion(cultist/shaggoth) pools and thereby lost the game we now proceed to the Summoning step.
Here you will reveal a number of cards equal to the summoning rate, this will normally be two cards, and spawn a cultist on each card revealed. If at anytime a fourth cultist is placed, an awakening ritual will occur and I'm sure you can guess what that means? The next old one awakens. These summoning cards also have a chance to move the shaggoths, who always move towards open gates.
So to win you must close all four gates and to lose you reveal the Cthulu old one card, run out of cultists or shaggoth miniatures, run out of player cards or all the investigators go insane! Sounds fair right? Well suck it up, no investigator worth his weight didn't have a bit of a challenge.
This game is tough and I mean that. I would again advise you start with introductory difficulty until you feel confident with the mechanics, even if you have played regular Pandemic.
I think the theme is well integrated, it certainly feels like a struggle against the rising tide of old one worshippers. Is it good enough to compete against regular Pandemic and other Cthulu themed games out there? I think it is! I'm a Pandemic fan so when Reign of Cthulu was announced I was excited as I also enjoy Eldritch horror and was hoping that this would present a similar style of game that could be played slightly faster and with some of the great mechanics from Pandemic - which we got.
Reign of Cthulu is essentially Eldritch Lite, a good Cthulu theme with Pandemic rules. Of course to achieve this they have made the game more abstract, but it was a worth while trade. Reign of Cthulu will be my Pandemic game going forward, the added challenges are really something veteran players will enjoy but are still easy enough for the game to function as a gateway game, though perhaps not for your kids.
So come down to Innsmouth, but I wouldn't stay too long, there is definitely something fishy afoot.