Who'd be an Elder God? For eons you wait in patient slumber, building your strength, poisoning the dreams of mortal men, ready for the breaking of the world when you will rise and take your rightful place as Ruler of all. Then at last the fateful day comes, and it turns out one of your upstart brethren has had the same idea. Rude. Now of course the world is a big place. You could share it, ruling together over the chaos as equals, revelling in the destruction together. But where's the fun in that?
Darlin' We're The Old Ones
Cthulhu Wars: Duel, from Petersen Games, is a new version of the popular but eye-wateringly expensive behemoth Cthulhu Wars. While the original was a multi-player free-for-all that could last well over three hours, Cthulhu Wars: Duel is, as its name suggests, a two-player game that plays in around 60 minutes, yet retains the overall feel of its bigger, bulkier brother. Set in HP Lovecraft's literary world of evil Elder Gods from beyond the stars, it adds a twist to the usual Cthulhu-themed games.
In Arkham Horror The Card Game, for example, the focus is on humanity's clandestine struggle against the servants of the Old Ones as they battle to prevent the apocalypse and cling to their sanity in the process. In Cthulhu Wars: Duel, that ship has long sailed- humanity lost. You play as one of two awakened Elder Gods as they struggle for world domination. Basically, this is a "troops on a map" game where your troops are betentacled nightmarish horrors with more eyes and mouths than anyone strictly needs.
Overview: Help The Aged
One of the main strengths of Cthulhu Wars was the asymmetrical nature of each faction- the Gods are all powerful but in unique and interesting ways. Duel retains this feature but streamlines it. Instead of having to learn lots of different factions and how their powers work, you start with only two, although more factions will be as expansions down the line. In Duel, you get The Black Goat and Cthulhu himself (herself…itself? Pronouns are hard when you are Ancient!). Both have unique strengths and abilities leading to significant differences in play styles.
The game is played on a compact map featuring regions from Lovecraftian literature. Each player has different creatures to summon, including their own Great Old One, and can also recruit cultists who are the squishiest but also most versatile, of your pawns. Over the rounds of the game, players will use power to move, fight, build and control "gates" and summon monsters until one player has sufficient points-called 'Doom' but pronounced "DOOOOOOOM!!"- to vanquish their rival and claim the World as their own.
How To Play
Each turn in Cthulhu Wars: Duel is made up of four phases: Actions, Gather Power, Determine First Player and Doom. These phases play quickly with the majority of the game taken up in the Action phase where players alternate taking actions that vary in effect and cost. For example, moving a piece one area costs one power, while building a gate costs three. To summon monsters requires a gate and the cost varies from 1 power for a basic creature such as a ghoul to 10 power when you want ol' Squid Face to make their first appearance.
Play alternates in this phase until one player runs out of power. At this point, the other player can continue taking actions but every time their opponent misses a turn, the cost increases by one. This "decay" mechanism ensures that even if a player is way ahead in power, they can't easily run away with the game. It can also lead to some interesting tactical considerations as smart players can use this to their advantage making opponents pay for leaving more costly actions to the end of their turn and throwing their plans off. When all players have taken all the actions they can, the Gather Power phase occurs. Players each gain power depending on several factors- their own Cultists in play, controlled gates, captured enemy cultists as well as some special powers. The player with the most power is determined as the first player in the next section.
The final stage is the Doom phase. Here players can choose to do a Ritual of Annihilation, whereby they will spend power to gain Doom points based on the number of gates they control. Each one performed increases the cost of future rituals and if a ritual is performed for the 8th time by any player this instantly triggers the end of the game. Similarly, if any player reaches 30 Doom points, which they also get through combat and some other specific actions, then the game will end that turn.
How It Plays: Pros And Cons Of Being A God
Cthulhu Wars: Duel is designed to play quickly, and while there is certainly tactical depth, the focus is more on players having fun, impactful turns where the game can swing from victory to disaster and back again with some well-timed actions. Combat is dice based and as quick and simple as it is at times hilarious. This doesn't mean it lacks in tactical decision-making, on the contrary, dealing out losses and "pain" results is a key tactical consideration, but when Cthulhu can potentially be taken down by a couple of cultists with one lucky roll of a D6, it can feel a little silly.
In truth though, this allows you to concentrate on enjoying the chaos rather than get bogged down with endlessly analysing each move. And besides, if your strategy for winning stands or falls on the outcome of one battle, then you probably don't have a strategy at all! It is also highly thematic; you are after all playing as an Immensely powerful Eldritch God of Chaos… but then so is your opponent. So sometimes you'll just have to suck it up.
There are of course numerous ways to mitigate the randomness inherent in the game. For example, The Old Ones themselves each have a powerful special ability they can use to exert influence on the board once summoned. For example, Cthulhu has "Devour", which enables them to take one enemy cultist or monster out of a battle before it even begins (and gain Doom for it), giving them a huge advantage.
Also, as the game progresses, players will be able to unlock 6 unique Spell Books, giving them access to powers that will all break the rules in some way. As well as adding some interesting additional asymmetry, Spell Books ensure that playing as an Old One feels both satisfyingly powerful yet also nerve-wracking; any one of these powers can turn the tide of the game in significant ways and if played at just the wrong time can be devastating to your plans.
One potential downside of this asymmetry is that the factions favour different play styles to get the most out of them and that isn't always immediately obvious. Cthulhu, for instance, is a beast in battle. Every time Cthulhu is returned to the board after an initial defeat, not only is it significantly cheaper, but the controlling player also gains an "Elder Sign" token which is worth between one and three Doom. This, along with the Devour power detailed above, encourages the player to be aggressive and confrontational in play.
The Black Goat, however, seems to encourage a more subtle approach, favouring area control and a build-up of forces in the early rounds to swamp the opponent later in the game. From my initial plays, while both factions are powerful and well-balanced overall, I felt that the Black Goat's style of play takes time to get used to and for beginners, this could be frustrating.
The original Cthulhu Wars was known for its high production values, with oversized miniatures which swamped the map in colourful plastic and… well there is none of that here. The plastic has been replaced by cardboard standees, which are still pretty big and cover the map very effectively once summoned but obviously have less table presence than miniatures. All the other pieces are good quality cardboard although nothing to write home about.
The artwork is excellent and in keeping with the theme but overall, the game components aim for functional rather than lavish to keep the cost down. And honestly, it's a good thing too, as Cthulhu Wars: Duel could easily be thought of as a starter set in the series. It already has a baby brother in the form of its first standalone expansion, Cthulhu Wars: Extinction. This features two different Elder Gods, an alternative map and adds some new game mechanics to the mix.
The factions are all designed to be mixed and played interchangeably with more expansions planned in the future meaning there is plenty of replayability if the game captures your imagination.
One minor complaint I had was that the rule book, while humourous and comprehensive, isn't laid out in the most logical or approachable way. On the few occasions when I needed clarification while playing, it took a while to find the right sections and a couple of times rules appeared to be missing or attributed to the wrong page. Hopefully, this will be rectified in future expansions, and in honesty, it didn't stop me from playing or enjoying the game at all.
Final Thoughts: Apocalypse Now
To get the negative out of the way first, Cthulhu Wars: Duel is a simple game that embraces the source material enthusiastically and unashamedly. So if you didn't like Cthulhu or HP Lovecraft turns you off completely then keep walking as this is not the Apocalypse you are looking for. But for everyone else, and I would include those who consider themselves Cthulhu-curious or simply neutral, then this is a bit of a gem. It manages to give the feel of a much bigger game with a fraction of the resources required, both in terms of financial outlay and time spent learning and playing.
It is wild enough to satisfy the Ameritrash gamer looking for big thematic game-changing plays, while also having enough depth to satisfy someone of a more analytical bent. Cthulhu Wars: Duel rewards replays as it takes time to learn each faction's tricks and techniques, such as which Spellbooks to unlock first and when to bring out your Old Ones- early isn't always best. Don't let the dice rolling fool you, if you lose in Cthulhu Wars: Duel it's generally coz you done screwed up, not because you got unlucky. Either way, you'll enjoy the ride. And let's face it, there's never been a better time to be an evil, ineffable creature of shadow and nightmares, so you might as well embrace the chaos!