Lovecraftian horror is undeniably one of my favourite genres of board game, game, book and sandwich fillings. It's everything you want from the psychological horror, as it's not what you can always see that you should fear. Nowadays we've become so desensitised to everything that film makers have to resort to full blown gore and disembowelment to get an audience to flinch.
Lovecraftian horror stories aren't as scary as they would have been back in the early 1910s. People were easy to spook back then. But the idea of celestial horrors, unspeakable curses, psychological torment and beings with unfathomable power is a tricky one to replicate. You can't show them, as it would defeat the point of them being unfathomable. Lovecraft references that in his writing a lot, often stating that the geometry of the elder gods' homes was wrong or that seeing these horrors drove men mad instantly. Knowing we can't understand is the scariest element and should be what drives us to want to know more, inevitably making us go mad too. And madness is prominent throughout all his tales.
Cthulhu Death May Die, published by CMON and designed by Rob Daviau and Eric M. Lang, is a Lovecraft game of a different sort. Often in this genre, you'll hunt for clues, disrupt rituals, gather evidence and then stop the Elder God's plans. Not in this one. This game is at the point where you've got the evidence and you know what they're planning. You now need to take action, and if that means punching Cthulhu right in his squid face, then so be it! It's more action packed than many other Lovecraft based games, but is equally as enjoyable.
Cthulhu Death May Die is a cooperative game for 1-5 players. Players take on the roles of investigators trying to stop rituals and eventually the Elder God behind them. Each investigator is unique in their set abilities and can level up throughout the course of the game. Also, each investigator is afflicted with an insanity of sorts which will trigger when their sanity decreases.
To start the game, players choose an episode to play and an Elder God to face off against. The episodes can be run with any Elder God, making the game repayable based on the number of Gods you have. The episode's and Elder God's mythos cards are them shuffled to create a mythos deck. Then players need to lay out the modular board as shown in the episode guide, placing enemies and objects as shown. Next, players set up the Elder God track and place the reference cards for cultists and any enemies unique to the Elder God. (Cthulhu has the Star Spawn whereas Hastur has his followers.) Finally, all necessary tokens are placed in reach of all players and players choose investigators and are dealt a random insanity. The game is now set up and ready to play.
On a player's turn they run a set routine, this is consistent through all game play. There isn't a lot of scope to go wrong! Players take their three actions, these can be movements, attacks, interactions, rests, using items, or episode specific actions. They then draw a mythos card and resolve it. These are tremendously specific, if they say you they only mean you, if they say all players they mean all players. In the same way if it says to spawn an enemy, spawn them if possible. The starting enemies are not the finite amount available, and the episode card only determines the variants of enemies. When it says spawn another cultist, do so.
Players then establish if its safe to investigate. If a player is on a tile without enemies they are safe and may investigate, drawing an episode card and resolving it. This may very well give them a companion or an item, which is helpful but may have lasting effects. If they aren't safe they are attacked by all enemies, however that player can choose who attacks in what order. Finally, players resolve end of turn effects including fire and the Elder God's current effects. These stack and as the game progresses, you may have multiple effects upon you. Then it is the next player's turn.
Players have three stats that are tracked throughout the game. Health, stress, and sanity. Health and stress can be recovered by resting or through other effects. Sanity can not be recovered, what has been experienced cannot be forgotten. When sanity meets certain points along this track, the player's affliction kicks in and triggers. This is generally a bad thing as it usually results in players doing things out of their control like setting fires, stealing from players, or attacking everyone in sight. In the right scenario this can be helpful, so timing is key. The silver lining to losing control is that you can level a skill up, enhancing it further. These skills are invaluable and having a focus or a balanced approach are both feasible plans.
In Cthulhu Death May Die, enemies only move through mythos cards and through chasing players. If a player enters a room with enemies and then leaves, all enemies follow them. Some abilities allow players to go undetected, however these are few and far between. Also, the game progresses to players losing whether they complete goals or not. When three mythos cards have been drawn that contain a summoning symbol, the Elder God progresses along its track. When it reaches the red, it enters the real world. The track is then replaced with a summoning symbol to show the Elder God's progress. When the summoning symbol reaches the gate, the world is plunged into darkness and you lose. Until the episode's goal is achieved, the big bad is invulnerable to all damage. Completing the episode's goal is only half the battle, you then need to take down the beastie!
How It Handles
Cthulhu Death May Die is a game you won't win often. That's not a negative, it's a hard truth. You're fighting beings with unfathomable power being assisted by people with insane ideals conducting unspeakable experiments who would die for their beliefs. You're on the back foot from the off! The odds are stacked against you, but it can be done. It will always be a close one, but it is possible. We found balancing our stats the hardest thing to do, as your stress can impact your health negatively, but your sanity cannot always be the scapegoat with its longer track. Despite the need to go insane to get stronger, it only takes a few bad rolls with lots of horror results for things to go sideways!
Tracking the Tracks
The balance of keeping sane but levelling needs to be done progressively. It's an upwards learning curve, a sharp one at that. Your first loss will be because of going mental by choice. Knowing you level up through its progress means you'll advance the track liberally without thought. You'll become crazy powerful and gain lots of dice and upgrades and assume it's an easy ride. And it will feel like it. Then, the game will stack up in power and pain and you'll be forced to take sanity damage or real pain. Inevitably, you'll die. That's ok, it happens to all of us. You'll quickly learn that being strong isn't the best option every time. You need the levels and to upgrade, but gradually. Our learning curve was mega steep, and even with our extra muscle we couldn't actually make great progress with killing Cthulhu. We didn't have the time!
Enemies and Other Nasties
Cthulhu's minions and mates are all tackleable on their own. It's the classic rule of "if it bleeds, we can kill it". However, this is nice enough for the cultists who you'll punch to death with a few dice rolls, but no so much with the fire vampires, shoggoths, hunting horrors and such. These enemies have extra elements to them meaning they'll hurt you and then some. Fire vampires in particular are a nuisance as they spawn and create fire, attack and create fire, and hit like a truck. The dice are specific to enemies and have varying results based on which are used. Black dice are nastier whereas green dice have more chance of success. Who you attack or avoid is going to be based more on experience and smarts, but crowd control is a big thing we'd recommend!
Winning and Losing
Cthulhu Death May Die runs on a timer. It's not a visible one, but it's counting down. Every time a mythos card is pulled with a summoning symbol, the game's clock ticks on. Every three causes the Elder God to progress and trigger its effects. As soon as it hits the red part of the track, it begins phase two and more effects go into motion. All phases are visible when activated and continue until the game is lost. The issue you have with being on a timer is that you won't have enough time to do everything you need to and come out untouched. You're going to get hurt, go mad and inevitably get into sticky situations. It's how you manage the outcomes that aids you more than anything.
Your first goal should always be to address the episode's goals. If the goal is not met, the Elder God can't be hurt and will run rampant across the board. And whether you all die or the Elder God's plans go fully into action, it's a loss on your side. Your only way to win is to defeat all the phases of the big bad and survive. We has many games where we neglected our objectives and had to finish them off with something unspeakable chasing us. It's still possible, but man oh man is it difficult to do! It also means you'll probably not win as the Elder God will be half way down their track to winning.
Lovecraft and authors like him always made sure their characters were incredibly human. And incredibly flawed. They were greedy for gain, for knowledge, for power, and that was often their downfall. He had quite a bleak view of humanity, and in honesty he wasn't the nicest bloke himself. But he saw people as broken from the off, and this is reflected in the characters and their abilities. No matter who you choose to play as, they'll always have a unique ability and two shared ones. The way these are written and sound don't come across as those of a sane person, but one obsessed. It suits the theme beautifully, but also makes you realise why these characters are taking on these tasks. They're haunted with visions of madness.
The unique ability is the one that makes the character the most valuable in the right context. They can be forced to be helpful outside of that, but generally speaking they'll fit into a plan of action. In example, one character could manipulate the gates enemies spawned at and even cause them damage for doing so. This seemed amazing, but I only used the power accidentally as I never positioned myself right next to them as it didn't fit into the big plan of attack we'd created. On the other hand, we played using another character whose ability allowed her to reroll dice. As it levelled up it got crazy helpful as she was always forefront of the action. Again, this is because it fit into our game plan, not because we'd sought out to use it.
Cthulhu Death May Die's other unique element with its characters is their mental afflictions. Each player is dealt a random insanity that impacts them in some way throughout the game as it progresses. It demonstrates how the human mind can be damaged and broken through exposure to these unspeakable horrors. However, these can also be incredibly helpful in the right situation. How you manipulate these will determine their value.
In one game, one player's ability was to keep a mythos card and replay it when they went mad, which helped at some points and was unhelpful at others. As best we could, we ensured they triggered their insanity at a particular point or in a particular place, ensuring minimal threat to other players. Other afflictions were a lot less helpful and impractical. Kleptomania was the bane of my first win, as I constantly increased stress whenever I couldn't steal from another player. Our game plan wasn't to stay together, and it impacted my progress negatively. There were situations where we thought we could use it advantageously, but you can't always manipulate a dice roll. By triggering it early I nearly lost us the game, so it's very double edged in its function.
The monsters described in the writings mentioned are described as being unimaginably horrific. The thing about things being unfathomable and unimaginable is that there won't be a universal idea of what it looks like. What's agreed is that they're disgusting and not necessarily logical. Tentacles left, right and centre, claws, wings just because. Or they're just writhing messes of flesh and mouths. They should drive men insane with just their sight, and Cthulhu Death May Die's impressions of these beasties is quite accurate.
The models are designed with horror in mind and look incredible, and they're of brilliant quality too! If you're a fan of painting miniatures, you'll appreciate the quality of these and enjoy making them look more grotesque. The investigators too look awesome. Each one looks like they're straight out of the 1920s and fit well into the themed tiles of the maps. The artwork across the cards is awesome as always with CMON games, and are of a lovely quality. Being a poor quality painter myself, I would have appreciated having the miniatures pre-painted, however this isn't something that will keep me up at night. What does keep me up at night is how incredibly designed the inserts of the game are. User functionality is at the heart of this design, and it may seem minor, but it makes a difference!
Cthulhu Death May Die is an action packed take on games set within the theme of Lovecraftian horror. There isn't a grand amount of slow down between players' turns, and each turn is essential. No amount of time should be wasted and every mythos card matters. Although there are limited episodes provided in the core box, others are available through the Season Two expansion. Mix that with knowing any Elder God can be played in any episode and you've got tonnes or replay-ability.
Those who want the investigation experience and a mystery to solve may not enjoy this. This is at after that and is centred around the taking down of their plot. If you're looking for the investigation and clue side of Lovecraftian horror, go for Mansions of Madness. It still has the action, but is more driven by investigation and feels slower. We thoroughly enjoyed the faster, more streamlined gameplay of this. Having this new speed coupled with the theme, lore, and weight it presents makes for a brilliant experience. So, don your robes, draw occult symbols, and conduct strange experiments... The Elder Gods stir from their slumber.