Cthulhu Wars is as Big and Epic as Its Name Suggests
Back in 2015 Peterson Games released the first edition of the gigantic area control game Cthulhu Wars. Since then, Peterson Games has continued to release countless expansions including new playable factions, maps, and cosmetic upgrades. Its theme and growing scope has held my interest for years as one of my grail games. Late last year, I finally got a copy and it’s better than I could have imagined.
Cthulhu Wars puts players in control of a cult that serves one of four Great Old Ones at the end of days. Earth is a battlefield and life as we know it is over. The only thing left undecided is who will rule over its remains. Playing as either Crawling Chaos, Great Cthulhu, Yellow Sign, or The Black Goat players will fight for control over what remains of Earth by completing rituals, summoning monsters, and unlocking unique spell books. With no two factions being alike and a collection of add-on factions, there’s an incredible amount of variability to enjoy.
Before beginning gameplay, players will select one of the four color coded factions and familiarize themselves with the contents of the faction board. The faction board will act as the player’s guide to everything during the game. As a (very) basic generalization, the assets on the left of the board provide an overview of faction’s specific units and starting powers. The right side of the board features the Power Track and all of the abilities that can be unlocked during a game.
Setup is easy, but varies faction to faction. Players setup their pieces on the map according to the instructions written on the front of the faction board. Each of the base game factions start in a fairly similar way with one summoning gate and six acolytes in the space that matches the factions’ sigil. The Great Cthulhu begins the game in the South Pacific, the Yellow Sign in Europe, Crawling Chaos in Asia, and The Black Goat in Africa. All other minis are set aside as the player’s pool.
A round of Cthulhu Wars is broken up into three short phases and one longer one where players take their actions.
Gathering Power Phase
In the Action Phase players spend their power to move, summon new monsters, and conquer the wider world. But you can’t spend what you don’t have. The Gathering Power Phase is when players take stock of the board state and add power points to the track on the faction board.
During this phase, players may simultaneously calculate their total power points to keep the game moving. Players will move their token up the power track earning:
- 1 Power for each of their own Cultists on the map.
- 1 Power for each Gate on the map that’s uncontrolled by a player.
- 2 Power for each Gate controlled by their faction.
- 1 Power for each enemy Cultist they captured during the Action Phase. After adding the appropriate amount of Power, these pieces must be returned to their owners.
Some factions, like Yellow Sign, may have abilities that reward additional Power. These additional points should be tallied before advancing any further. Once players are familiar with this phase, it should take less than a minute for everyone to complete.
As a way to ensure that there’s never a crippling difference in Power between players, Cthulhu Wars has a Minimum Power Rule. If any player ends this phase with less than half the Power than the player with the most, they’re awarded some equalizing points. Players will always end this phase with half the Power as the leader rounded up.
For example, if Player 1 has fifteen Power points but Player 2 only has three points, Player 2 will then gain an additional five to put them at a total of eight points (half of fifteen rounded up).
Determine First Player Phase
Once everyone has gained their Power, the person with the most power become the first player for the round. This is signified by taking the first player token (pictured above). Whoever is the first player for the round can choose whether the round’s turn order will go clockwise or counter-clockwise by flipping the token over to the relevant side. Not unlike the Gathering Power Phase, this phase should only take a few seconds to resolve.
The Doom Phase
We’re now at the appetizer of Cthulhu Wars with the Doom Phase. The Doom Phase itself is divided up into four different pieces, all of which are pretty quick. As players will not meet most of the criteria that influences this phase, it’s skipped for the first round of a game.
Doom Track Advancement
The Doom Track acts as the victory point track. The more Doom Points a faction has, the closer the world is to the influence of its Great Old One. During the Doom Track Advancement portion of the phase, players will each gain one point for every Summoning Gate under their faction’s control. This step can be executed in any order or simultaneously. Once a player reaches thirty points, the game comes to an end.
Ritual of Annihilation
Starting with the First Player and going around the table in turn order, players have to option to perform a Ritual of Annihilation. To do so, players will spend the requisite amount of power indicated by the current position of the marker and then advances it one space, increasing the cost for future Rituals. The player that then performed the Ritual also repeats the Doom Track Advancement, effectively doubling the amount of points they earned this round. Lastly, they will randomly draw an Elder Sign token for each Great Old One one the board that they control. Each Elder Sign token will award them between one and three additional Doom Points that can be added immediately, or saved until the game’s final scoring. Personally, I enjoy keeping a few of these extra points hidden from my opponents to creep ahead after the game’s action has come to a close. Given the significant impact Rituals can have on the game’s outcome, each player is only allowed to perform it once per round.
In the above instance the marker is in its starting position. To perform a Ritual of Annihilation a player would have to spend five Power. If the First Player in a round were to perform the Ritual, they would spend five Power to resolve all its associated effects and then move onto the next player. They would then have the option to resolve its effects for themselves at the cost of six Power.
If a player were ever to perform a Ritual while the marker was on the ten cost slot, the marker would advance to Instant Death, resulting in the end of the game once the entirety of The Doom Phase is resolved.
Some factions will have passive abilities that take place during the Doom Phase. If any players have such an ability on their board (faction ability or spell book), those actions take place now.
At this point, players will simply check to see if the game has come to a close. If any player reached thirty Doom Points or Instant Death on the Ritual of Annihilation tracker, the game is now over.
Players will then total the number of Doom they have, including any Elder Sign tokens they’ve opted not to reveal yet. The player with the most Doom will be declared the winner. However, Cthulhu Wars has the added condition that the winning player must also have unlocked all six of their spell book powers. If the player with the most Doom has not also unlocked all six books, victory goes to the player with the most points and all unlocked spell books. If no players have six spell books, the game ends with everyone losing.
The Action Phase is the meat and potatoes of the game. During this phase, players will spend Power to move around the board, summon new minions, and battle each other. Beginning with the First Player, each player will perform one action at a time by spending Power. The most common actions are:
- Move – players may move as many of their units to an adjacent space as they would like. For each unit moved players must spend one Power. Under no circumstances may a unit move more than once per Action Phase.
- Recruiting a Cultist – If players have an Acolyte Cultist available in their pool, they may pay one Power to summon it to any space with an existing unit.
- Building A Gate – Players may spend three Power to build a new Summoning Gate in an area without a Gare where they control a Cultist. The maximum number of Gates per area permitted is one and therefore the action can’t be performed if there is already a Gate present.
- Summoning a Monster – If a player controls a Gate, they may Summon a Monster to that space by paying the Monster’s cost. Monsters’ Power costs and abilities are further detailed on the left side of the faction board as they are faction specific.
- Capturing a Cultist – If a player controls a Monster or Great Old One in a space where their opponent does not, they may choose to capture one of their opponent’s Cultists by spending one Power. The Cultist is then removed from the board. To prevent capture, the target player must have a unit of equal tier. For example if Player 1’s highest tier of unit in the relevant space is a Monster and is attempting to capture Player 2’s Cultist, Player 2 can prevent that action simply by having a Monster in the target space. But should Player 1 have a Great Old One present, Player 2 must also have a Great Old One present, otherwise the capture will be successful.
- Awakening a Great Old One – Each faction has a Great Old One, an eldritch being that commands their army. As an action players can choose to summon their Great Old One be spending the required amount of power indicated on their faction board. Some Great Old Ones may have other pre-requisites or costs associated with summoning.
- Battle – In order to attack another a group of units a player who wishes to enter into battle must spend one Power to attack one chosen faction in your area.
The Action Phase Ends once every player has either spent all of their available Power or choose to pass (which also depletes any remaining Power they may have). The game then begins again at the Gathering Power Phase and continues in that round structure until either Instant Death or thirty Doom Points have been reached.
What makes me love Cthulhu Wars so much is that it offers the complete experience of an area control “dudes-on-a-map” game in a fraction of the time. Most games in this genre can take two to three hours to provide the same degree of rising tension, but Cthulhu Wars can do all that and more in an hour.
Not only that, but there’s enough of a difference between each of the factions that playing them successfully requires a significantly different approach. I had a blast going back to the game and playing as each of the factions, fumbling through them until I found a play style that really fit my own.
It seems odd that the core game would ship with only four factions, but contain a board that permits up to five. It practically dares the player to dive in and purchase another faction. Then there are the six to eight player boards. After that, you’ll need to buy three more factions to enjoy the collection to its fullest. Cthulhu Wars practically dares players to snatch up as much of the collection as eldritchly possible.
To its credit, the main expansions are excellent. There are neutral Great Old Ones, cosmetic upgrades, and map variants available and while those are fun, they aren’t what I’m referring to. The four base factions are enjoyable enough, but there are seven additional factions that feature classic Great Old Ones like Yog-Sothoth that only increase the variety and enjoyability of the game.
The production quality of the faction units are insane. The amount of detail and physical mass in these figures really contribute to the scale of combat. When the board is full and players are summoning eldritch horrors from the far reaches of the cosmos, it really feels like Earth is just a playground for these behemoths. The Great Old Ones are heavy and and towering making it feel that much more devastating when your opponent calls one from the ether and slams it into play.
But all of this good fun comes at a pretty steep price. When it’s in stock, Peterson Games retails the core game alone at a hefty $200. And those additional factions I mentioned? Those sit around an extra $60 each. Thankfully the core experience is substantial enough so that the expansions certainly aren’t necessary. But even the expansions sit at a higher price tag than most.
Cthulhu Wars is a fantastic game. I would go as far as saying it’s one of the best area control games on the market. But with such a high price tag you have to know that you want it. This is not the game to buy on a whim to test it out. Find a friend who has it, or a board game cafe. Hell, try out one of the mods on Tabletop Simulator. It’s worth the investment, but they don’t call it a grail game for nothing
2 – 4 players with the base game. Able to be increased to up to 8 players with expansions.
Area control games don’t get the love they deserve in my home. They tend to go on a bit too long and have too many layers for my regular group. But Cthulhu Wars‘ streamlined gameplay quick to play and demolished the area control stigma that kept my from enjoying the genre for so long. However, it’s best suited to players who have some past experience with area control games and are familiar with some of the core concepts. Otherwise, Cthulhu Wars will be a monster to teach to new players.
Outside of the player dashboards and map, there’s very little artwork in Cthulhu Wars. Where it truly shines is the scale and detail of the minis. As larger monsters enter play, Cthulhu Wars‘ table presence outdoes even Kingdom Death: Monster.
Cthulhu Wars is easy to return to. It’s an engaging and thought provoking game without being a compete brain burner. With four different factions in the base game, there’s plenty of room to experiment with new strategies before diving into expansions.