W. Eric Martin
H.P. Lovecraft's work has been stripmined repeatedly by game designers and publishers around the world, and why not since the stories are rich with atmosphere, can be applied to numerous types of games, and require no royalty payments to be made for use of the work.
Designer Yves Tourigny has decided to reframe these stories as noir detective tales featuring Howard Lovecraft in the lead role for a series of solitaire games suitably titled Arkham Noir. Tourigny has self-published two of these games — The Real Leeds and The King in Yellow — and Spanish publisher Ludonova is bringing a third case to market as Arkham Noir: Case #1 – The Witch Cult Murders.
In the game, you are confronted with a handful of victims, and you must create multiple chains of clues that lead you from their cold corpses to the discovery of puzzle pieces that will allow you to solve these cases. Your opponents in these efforts are time and your own well-being. Once five units of time pass, another victim appears on the scene; after five victims, you get to be victim #6, thus ending the game. When you encounter certain clues in the game, you're called upon to perform stability checks, and should you fail five of those, then your mind takes a vacation.
The set-up takes a bit of finagling to get everything in the right place, but the player aid cards include lots of directions and reminders that assist during play, and they also help you monitoring the progress on each victim's case.
In the game, you're confronted with two victim cases right off the bat, along with a line of five clues and a hand of three clues. Each clue is one of six types, and most clues have a mandatory (in black) or voluntary (in brown) action depicted on them. On a turn, you pick up the first clue card in the line, then you do something with it:
• Play it onto an open victim case.
• Take it in hand, then if you hold more than three cards, discard a card.
• Discard it.
• Discard it, then play a clue card from your hand to an open case.
• Discard it, then close a case.
You might notice lots of discarding mentioned above. Whenever you discard a card for any reason that bears an hourglass in the lower-right corner, you must place it in the time area; at the end of your turn, if you have five or more cards in this area, you place them all in the discard pile, then add a new victim to your caseload. Only five victims are available, so don't dawdle! (I'm not sure how you know that the supply of victims is limited, but perhaps someone wrote a threat backwards inside your bathroom mirror. Let's say it was that.)
Sample line-up at the start of play
To play a clue onto a case, the symbol on the left-hand edge of the new clue card must be present on the right-hand edge of the rightmost card in that victim's case. You're following the clues, right? An interview with someone leads to a strange object, then you research that object to find an otherworldly location, and so forth. Some clues have "any" on their left edge, so thankfully you can always enter an alley or discover a fetid odor.
Some cards have a large "3" on them, and you can place these cards only if at least three clue cards are already in the case. Other cards have locks on them, and these can be placed on a case only if you have an unused key in the line — and while you might wonder why you're bothering with locks when you're trying to solve a murder, the lock cards are the only ones with the puzzle pieces, and you need those pieces to win.
But getting the keys to then open the locks and find the pieces is not enough! You must actually close a case in order to make progress. After all, no one will believe your wild rantings about a crime victim unless you've actually closed the case. To do this, however, you need to have at least five clue types in the case (to cover every possible objection to your detecting efforts, I presume); what's more, you can score the puzzle pieces only if doing so would not leave you with fewer than five clue types. In other words, you can find the puzzle pieces only while working on a case, but the clue types of puzzle pieces can't the grounds on which your case rests.
Sample clue cards
The game includes only six types of clues, and two of them appear only half as often as others, so you want to track them closely — but the clues are being presented to you in a random order, of course, so it will take lots of diligence to (a) match the icons on the cards while (b) putting together a full set of clues and (c) duplicating the clue types of the puzzle pieces so that you can score them and (d) suffering under the strain of long investigations. Oh, yes, the longer a case goes on, the more your mind starts going to pieces. In game terms, for each clue card you add to a case after the seventh, you must undergo a stability check, something mentioned way back in paragraph #3 that will add to your woes now.
Each time you add a clue card to a case, you must undertake any mandatory actions on it, with these being to discard a card from your hand or the face-up clue line (losing time along the way should they bear an hourglass) or to undergo a stability check. To do this, reveal the top card of the clue deck and look for a silhouetted detective in anguishing pain. That's you, losing your mind. If you find one of these, place it out of play in the stability area. If it lacks this icon, it might still have an hourglass, so you can still suffer in a less painful way.
Deck breakdown and icon explanation
Voluntary actions are plentiful, and they typically involve you taking a card from somewhere — the discard pile, the time zone, the stability area, a closed case — and adding it to your hand. While this sounds beneficial (and often is), if you have a full hand, then you must discard a card to do this, possibly costing you time, and even if it doesn't, you'll have to discover a clue card anyway to use a card in your hand, and that might cost you time instead. Nothing is good for you, and everything causes you to suffer, and that's precisely what Tourigny wants.
I've played The Witch Cult Murders three times on a review copy from Ludonova, and I think I won once, but I probably goofed along the way. The gameplay seems relatively simple — take the first clue card in the line, then do something — yet the possibilities multiply like tentacles in the oven, with you from the first turn staring at two victims (each with two icons) and three clue cards in hand (with at least two icons on each) and five clue cards in a line (again, icons), with you trying to find a way to get keys into a case (should any be visible) so that locks can follow (and you always seem to get locks first) while also having at least five clue types in a case while not having cases go on too long since you have stability checks and (I haven't mentioned this yet) all cards in a closed case are removed from the game. Yes, that's the topper. Not only must you double up on clues in order to grab the puzzle pieces, but all those non-puzzle cards are out of play — and any time that the clue deck runs out, you must shuffle all the discards, then add a new victim to your caseload.
More clue cards
Oh, and to win five puzzle pieces alone aren't enough; you must have five puzzle pieces bearing five different types of clues. (I had overlooked this detail earlier, so that's likely why my win needs an asterisk.)
With nearly every clue played, your stability and time management is being challenged, and when they aren't, you're trying to figure out all the iterations of how cards could be played should you take this or that voluntary action. It's enough to drive someone mad, I tells ya!