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Subject: An Achievement in Asymmetric Gaming and the Ultimate Mythos Playground rss

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James
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***A small update to this review (four year old at the time I am now writing) is posted below with a follow up after a few years of Cthulhu Wars on the table.***


INTRODUCTION
After five years on this Geek this is my first review. It's a long one and any of you can skim or skip with my blessing; heck, take the extra time you'd gain by doing so and read The Shadow Over Innsmouth instead.

I am writing a review I actually hesitate to write for a couple of reasons. First, I have played the games three times; I would like to have had more plays before putting the review together. Second, I am hesitant to write this review as I am so squarely in what must be the target audience for this game that I may have a challenge for some on this site in having my thoughts on the game being regarded as having a broader relevance. I hope to address this challenge.

I have been playing The Call of Cthulhu RPG obsessively for over twenty five years now and my deep gratitude to Sandy Petersen's creativity goes back just as long. I don't think it's generally realized how much he has fleshed out the Cthulhu Mythos in how it is presently conceived (He created the Dark Young; how cool is that?). His work on Doom, Quake and Age of Empires II is even less known. When this Boardgamegeek member heard that Sandy intended to make his definitive statement on the Mythos in board game form, it became the dream game for me. As my personal excitement grew, though, the sheer scale and cost of the project gave many in the BGG a skeptical approach to the game; some commenters even seemed unfairly dismissive. I actually found myself hoping it was "just okay" so I would not feel the pressure of adding my voice to the discussion. I have strived since I joined BGG to have discussions which are sober, constructive and critical so as to maintain meaningful discussions. Despite my love for many games, I never want to be the fanboy, so pathetically distracted by theme and chrome, so easily dismissed.

But it was dropped on my porch last month.



And it was good. It was very good.



Dammit.


THE APPEAL OF THE GAME
As the components and rules of Cthulhu Wars are well presented already on the site, I will keep my rules overview brief and general. The base game offers a medium weight, three to four player experience (two with a less compelling variant, five with an additional expansion faction). Each player controls a faction of dark, cosmic evil competing with other similar factions for the lion's share of the remains of a defeated, dying Earth. Players push and battle each other to control areas, build gates, gain power, achieve personal goals and unlock special abilities in the form of spell books to make their own faction supreme. The player wins who, having acquired all six of their spell books, accumulates the most Doom Points through holding areas with constructed gates on the board and blind drawing Elder Signs. The miniatures are conspicuously monstrous, appealing and evocative but their ostentatious nature runs the risk of obscuring the game that happens to be in this box, too; I'm going to try to talk about that game here.

It is the most wildly asymmetric game I've ever played.
My favorite games include Dune, Cosmic Encounter and Chaos in the Old World. I really, really like asymmetric games. I love the feel almost of role playing, settling into the character of your faction; the more faithfully you inhabit them, the better the mechanics become tools of your play. I love the clamor of the different factions crossing each other, each playing their own game, each trying to sit atop the others in The Game.

Cthulhu Wars' asymmetry is so daring one would think it would be game breaking -- but so far, at least, it's not; it's sublime. I am chuckling hearing how imbalanced some gamers claim one or another faction is, but to this point I believe I have heard from different posters how unbeatable all of the factions are. Sandy Petersen is the designer who was responsible for balancing the seventeen different playable sides of Age of Empires II (which included dozens of upgrades and unit types); I think that experience likely served him well in playtesting and refining Cthulhu Wars.

In any case, the four base game factions all have different core abilities that give them a significant advantage in the game. In addition, many of their monsters (generally three unique monster types) have or can acquire different powers. In order to win, each faction must satisfy six different goals mostly unique to their faction. Finally, by doing so, each faction unlocks six unique spell books that either give the monsters the powers stated or provide another faction advantage. I have to date played three of the four base game factions. In the words of the designer, Cthulhu bullies; that player becomes a bully in order to win. Crawling Chaos vultures; that player becomes the nasty, opportunistic trickster that Nyarlathotep is. Playing the different factions doesn't so much feel like driving different makes of cars, but rather like operating your choice of a car, a boat, a plane and a train. There is real innovation here.

Combos, combos, combos!
This is actually the weakest contribution I can make to the review as I have made every attempt to avoid seeing strategy videos and combos mentioned on the Geek. Some have leaked through to me; some have been discovered in the course of my sessions. Because the spell books can be acquired in any order, players can determine their favorite spell books to combine to great effect in order to battle, move, gain power, control gates and advance the endgame. Combos make me feel intelligent (however misplaced this impression might be), especially when I happen upon them during a session and execute them with a sly smile, conversely darkening my opponents' expression. I've found a few and I can't wait to find more. I have to believe that each of the individual factions' combos take a back seat in power to what can be accomplished when two players collude to take down a third, something I look to explore in the sessions ahead.


All of the units behave in entertainingly thematic ways.
This is what I feel might be the charm of the game that is most lost on gamers not familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos (see "Notes of Concern" below). One element so entertaining about this game to fans of the Mythos fans is that the monsters and Great Old Ones (GOO's) act exactly as they should act. The mechanics all have a backstory. The shoggoth can absorb his own units to become even larger and more dangerous (picture the Blob here). Hunting horrors can be called from anywhere on the board to feast on an unfortunate unit (as hunting horrors always get their man). The nightgaunt takes an enemy unit off the board (as I picture the shiny black demon flapping his arching wings, victim trapped in its claws, encircled in by the yellow moon of a cloudless night sky). Seeing all of these monsters and GOO's in play together seems like some awful, wonderful ballet.

The game promises increased depth for the individual who dives into one faction.
As I mentioned, I've only discovered a few combos mostly because I've taken turns playing each faction and avoided spoilers. However, after playing each, I found myself aching to play that one faction again, turning over and over in my head what I would have done differently. However, having one effective combo is not going to make any player unstoppable because you have three factions dedicated to stopping you. I may well specialize in playing one faction at some time in the future as I came to like to do with Chaos in the Old World (Hello, Slaanesh!). However, I know that I am going to have to develop a deep and varied toolbox, ready to respond to different scenarios in order to compete because if I reveal my love for using a hammer, my enemies will certainly deprive me of nails.

The game promises increased richness for the group that grows with the game.
I understand that a strong influence on the crafting of this game was Cosmic Encounter. It shows. In the first game it is clear that just understanding your own faction's goals and abilities takes up your full attention. However, in subsequent games, you develop a knowledge of what other players need to do and can do. This learning curve can be accelerated by using hints both in the rulebook and on BGG but the journey is worth it to me. Acknowledging the limits of my having played only three times, I can easily see this game becoming richer as a group that has played with each other several times learns the habits and strategies of each player. Further, memories of opportunistic alliances and betrayals in past games likely will inform future sessions, at least in my game group of truly awful human beings. Because the game features a competition for needed gates and areas are seldom more than a couple of spaces away from each other, players are thrust at each other almost as if a Destiny Deck were at work. Virtue looks to be tested by expediency. I expect lots of "talk" - both kinds: "table" and "smack."

It is easy and quick to play.
So far I have referenced Dune, Chaos in the Old World and Cosmic Encounter in describing Cthulhu Wars. I'll add another comparison: Nexus Ops. Just like Nexus Ops, Cthulhu Wars is a pretty efficient fun machine. The strategy and tactics are pretty approachable, each player having tangible personal goals to work for as an overall winning strategy just like Nexus Ops. The game is very easy to learn, the base game rules easily fitting on a one page player aid (I put one together myself for the Files section). In full disclosure, the game's shared rules are simple but the complexity of the game comes in learning one's faction and then, after the first session perhaps, the abilities of the other factions. So long as a group is not greatly imbalanced in experience level, the tone and complexity of the game will be set by the experience level of the group. The low level of downtime is owed to the fact that each player performs one action at a time in a rotating turn sequence. Finally, the game is surprisingly short. The action starts immediately and ninety minutes later, you've had a grand, cosmic brawl.

It will be for the foreseeable future the definitive statement on the Cthulhu Mythos.
As Sandy has said elsewhere on the site, this game was intended as his magnum opus board game on the Cthulhu Mythos and it so gloriously is. For anyone who has spent any time in the past years reading Lovecraft, playing Call of Cthulhu or Arkham Horror, you have imagined these beasties and GOO's. You have possibly imagined the Deep Ones flopping up from deepest Y'ha-nthlei or the Dark Young shambling from occult forest thickets...and they're here. Once the expansions come they will all be here. It's the same thrill for lovers of the Mythos perhaps as super-hero fans seeing The Avengers on the screen for the first time -- providing the X-Men had defeated contract law to show up as well. Since in Cthulhu Wars the person whose vision is being realized is the person in many cases who gave articulated form to Lovecraft's cosmology, it's the kind of realized statement that we seldom get to enjoy in the geek world.


You get to play with toys.
Without question, there is no shortage of Lovecraft games out there, some good, some not so good. Most of the better titles simulate in some capacity investigators using their knowledge and wits to try to avert cosmic evil being visited upon the Earth. They have a desperate, multi-step plan. In Cthulhu Wars this plan has failed. You are the cosmic evil battering against other cosmic evil and it's silly, wonderful fun.

The miniatures, in the words of one reviewer, may be "overproduced." However, all of this stylistic concern about overproduction goes away when I put Hastur on the board and the other players actually let out a little shudder. The game makes me want to make growling monster noises and that is a pretty terrific thing for a forty-something High School History teacher. While offering as much thinkiness as one would want, the game offers so much joy when you push a mound of plastic awful into the home area of your protesting friend; you're throwing cupped hands of dice and playing with toys.


NOTES OF CONCERN
Reviewing my comments above, it strikes me that I have given myself over to naked, geeking rapture several times. If I haven't been dismissed out of hand as the uncritical fanboy I am trying not to seem, I can discuss some notes of concern, too.

It's expensive.
This is not news to anyone, I am sure. On the Petersen Games web site the game is selling for about $200, though this number might well be lower from other sources in the future. It's at a price point that involves planning and decision making for most gamers, there's no doubt about it. The total price of all the expansions will send the overall price higher, of course, for all that they add to the game. For some, the price may just put purchasing the game out of reach.

However, I would caution anyone ready to dismiss the value of the game itself out of hand because of its price point to consider not only what one gets with the game but something else, too. I would wager that many of us have sitting on our game shelves a few games that added together would equal this price point, games that are "just okay," games that don't get a lot of table time. A decision to buy this game is a decision to buy fewer games in favor of acquiring a game that is in many respects a deluxe, centerpiece game. Naturally, if this equation does not apply to you, and your collection is a lean, mean, one then your decision involves different factors.

It would reveal more of its charms to all gamers with more thematic background included.
While as a strategic experience the game stands proudly on its own, the game for a fan of the Mythos offers a double layer of enjoyment. As noted above, each monster behaves exactly as it should, exactly as it has in the stories by Lovecraft and the authors he inspired. The game includes some inspired text on the faction sheets to get one in the mood for playing each Great Old One, but it lacks such explanatory flavor text with all the monsters. In many cases the thematic background can be guessed (nightgaunt flies you away), but in some cases it might be missed. I expect some enterprising gamer on the site will provide some textual references to some of the behavior of the monsters on the board to open up this added dimension of enjoyment of the game for all players.

The cardboard on some of the game components could be thicker.
It is felt by a number of players of the game that the faction sheets, Doom Track and Ritual of Annihilation Track are on cardboard that is a little thin. The thin game components are thicker now so this is no longer the concern it was at the time of this review.

The randomness is not insignificant.
While it is true that more experienced players will hold a very strong advantage over newer players, randomness does have a not insignificant role in evenly matched games. In some of the sessions I played the final points were so tight that die rolls proved critical in the battles that had taken place. Additionally, one feature I actually like in the game, the drawing of Elder Signs, can also affect the result. Different game events can allow a player to blind draw Elder Signs which represent a secret amount of Doom Points which can be revealed and added to one's total at a critical time in order to win the game (think Eclipse). Varying in amount from the few "3" value, to the more common "1" value, the Elder Signs can be drawn by a lucky player so as to turn the game against a player who has drawn nothing but 1 value chits. I like the uncertainty and calculated gambling of the Elder Signs myself as they soften what could be the kind of optimization puzzle of move sequencing that seems out of spirit of the game. However, losing by the Elder Sign draw could prove frustrating to some gamers. Though a strong player will play in such a way as to minimize the role of randomness in depriving them of victory, those gamers uncomfortable with the randomness I describe will want to take note.

CONCLUSION
In the months leading up to delivery of the Kickstarter, I noticed others jumping in and commenting frequently; many had played the game in print and play form or in person. Some sported cool Cthulhu Wars microbadges -- I held off. No, I would not do that; I would not buy a microbadge for a game I hadn't played myself. The excitement level of the players who had gotten the chance to play and love the game was almost too much to bear as I wanted to join in, too, to show my enthusiasm for the project, but I had little of substance to say to my friends in the BGG community. I had read the rules and watched the play-throughs. However, what if the Kickstarter failed to deliver in some big way? What if I just didn't think the game was that good when it finally got to the table? Despite my enthusiasm I stayed relatively quiet. When the box finally sat on my game table ready to opened, I almost found myself hoping that it wasn't that good. Then I could just sit out and enjoy the more relaxed commenting on others' articles rather than sticking my neck out and writing a review myself. Three plays in, I feel compelled to offer for the community my thoughts on the game in that box.

I rate Cthulhu Wars a 9 at present and after more plays it may well warrant a 10 for me if it fulfills the promise of depth and replayability that I believe I see in its design. Additionally, all three of my plays were with seven different people -- none of whom are Cthulhu freaks, some of whom are non-gamers, all of whom really liked the game and wanted to play again. In spite of its promise of depth, the game is significantly more approachable than I had expected and I foresee it hitting the table in heavy rotation with all of the groups with whom I play. I still have a lot to explore in Cthulhu Wars and I look forward to it.

Is it right for you? A fan of the Cthulhu Mythos almost certainly wants Cthulhu Wars on their shelf. However, this is a title beyond just its theme and the massive miniatures, as I hope to have shown. It is a game of wild asymmetry; fans of area control and asymmetric games will want to take a long, good look. A valid question to ask is if the game could be as compelling if all the monsters and GOO's in this game were generic. Otherwise stated, would it be as strong a game for someone who knew nothing at all about the Mythos? While I had my doubts about the answer to this question before I played it, I can answer now that the game absolutely stands on its own. Finally, players more given to Euro game sensibilities will also want to note Cthulhu Wars' embrace of direct conflict and how the fortune of the dice can turn events against you; this is an unrepentantly thematic game. On this site, Cthulhu Wars ultimately will rise or fall based on the merit of its gameplay and the appeal that will have for the different kinds of gamers here. Having finally opened this big, scary box, I can tell you that there is indeed a game in there - and this gamer, at least, thinks it's brilliant.



UPDATE (2019)
It has been four years since I wrote this review and my time with Cthulhu Wars has made it the title that represents me as a gamer more than any other.

Since this review I’ve had the opportunity to play it many times, including in the presence of Sandy Peterson himself (high fiving my fifteen year old self at having met Willy Wonka). I’ve introduced it to friends and large numbers of strangers and all pick it up quickly and get those little, wonderful moments of discovery when they find a lever they can pull and a button they can push with a faction, especially when it colludes and collides with the plans of others. I’ve also gotten a chance to have a game group dedicate regular sessions to the game over the years to explore the different factions, independent baddies, and expansion maps, finding new surprises along the way as the universe has expanded.

The game is a solid “ten” for me. I rank it as my second favorite game of all time, second only to Dune (perhaps just because of Dune’s footprint it has to be epic; I can only get that title to the table once every year or so). I don’t expect my feelings about Cthulhu Wars to change much as there is just so much now to explore. Even with the base game there are different ways to approach the game - an all-out scramble or a game of alliances and betrayals. There are different strategic ways to approach the different factions. With the asymmetry, too, each game using only the base factions inevitably produces distinct situational moments.

However, with all of the expansions available, the universe is so rich now that I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust different thematic loadouts of factions and indies, mechanisms and maps to throw together into a different jambalaya of Mythos craziness each time I sit down at the table. I prefer some expansions to others, definitely some factions seem more interesting to me than others, and some maps delight me more than others, but there is room for differing opinions; you’ll find them in the (now very full ) forum here. I’m just grateful. I ‘m grateful for the sandbox and all the toys to knock around. I’m grateful for the mechanical puzzles for my brain, the rich thematic moments, and the free-for-all social scrabble that the game engenders with my friends. One more high five for my fifteen year old self, then; hang tight for thirty years and you’ll get to be a kid again.



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Jean Valjean
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That, sir, is a great review.
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Greg S
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I second that - a great review!

I may just save my pennies and get this!
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S. R.
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Dammit, Brother!

Now you gone and done me in!
Fhtagn!


Might I just say, this is as fine a review as I ever read. Well-written, thought-through and compelling. I doff my hat to you!

A few weeks now I sneak around this game like a lioness around a wounded hippopotamus. Not daring to strike, yet, since the price might be too high...

And there you go, with your fancy words and all, and have me throw caution to the wind...


As a fellow fan of most things Mythos, it now has become a must-have. A pity that the German KS fell flat. I would have loved to get the custom dice and the nice resin portals, and now it seems, not only are the Gods of Shipping Costs, Income Tax and Customs Offices against me, but also the Demon of Obsessive Completion...


Alas, I will save money until a better chance presents itself, hoping that there is still a sun that rises after this long dark teatime of the soul...
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Brilliant review! I agree with 100% of it.

As a long-time Lovecraft fan myself I have been waiting for a game and MINIS like this for over 30 years.

I look forward to your thoughts after more games.

BTW: what level did you back at? Are you getting more expansions via the Kickstarter, or did you pledge for the core game only?

After receiving my core game we're now rabid for all the expansions to get here.
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James
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Thanks so much, everybody!
modest

Dumon, my friend, I am glad to be of service. Your terrific work with Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island sent me down that wonderful rabbit hole and I am too happy to return the favor.

Artificer, I went all-in with the Kickstarter. Like you, I had been waiting for something like this for a long time (without realizing it, really) and started saving my pennies myself when the first thread on this game was posted (it's still there in the forum). That said, I'm actually surprised and pleased to find myself a couple of years later actually talking primarily about the gameplay and what is under the hood instead of focusing on theme and production. The gameplay is what is going to keep me thinking about the game and jumping into it again and again with my buddies rather than it letting it sit on the shelf like some kind of dusty heirloom. I will indeed report back after many more plays.

While I do eagerly await those expansions, the base game is going to offer plenty to explore for a long while. Even if all the expansions had come at the same time, I think I'd still have them in their boxes as I wrap my head around some of these GOOS, beasties and their strategies. Thanks again, all.

Edit: grammar
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James Orr
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Great Review.

Your fandom didn't drown out the review, it made it more enjoyable.

I myself got my copy from Ebay, from a lucky early recepient and I don't regret it one bit.

I am a more recent Lovecraft/Mythos fan, and I saw the KS just a few days before end, I just didn't have the money at the timem though I was very excited.

I am kind of glad I missed it, as I didn't have to angst over its arrival time, and simply had to pay and get.

Anyway, I had my 2ND and 3rd plays tonight. (1 2-player and 2 3-player plays). I am loving the asymmetrical play, which I am a fan of generally, and am finding myself itching to have time for more plays.

It is easily teachable and its fun seeing the understanding enter the eyes of the first time players as they play. It has been a hit so far and am looking forward to many plays. Not only an awesome theme or pretty, (ugly?), face, but a fantastic conflict driven tactical ball of fun.
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Sandy Petersen
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Brother Jim - I see you are in Virginia, but I yet hope against hope that strange paths may lead you to Texas on April 4th for the release party.
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Charlie Theel
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Great review Jim.
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But, Jim, tell us how you really feel about the game...

Indeed a great review, and there is no doubt in my mind this is one to own and play profusely.
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Moshe Saricov
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Amazing writeup and review
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Murray Fish
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They explained everything in detail and at great length. After they finished I sat, despondent, contemplating a bleak and empty future. "I’m glad you’re depressed" said one. "It means you’ve understood the situation.”
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This is a really great review, very well written and well thought out.

Like several others, I went 'all in' and do not regret it in the least.

One 'house rule' I am considering that may at least put some sort of a brake on the 'mega combos' is having the spellbooks be drawn randomly rather than chosen when the criterion for an award is met.


Looking forward to the arrival of the extra expansions!
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muzfish4 wrote:

One 'house rule' I am considering that may at least put some sort of a brake on the 'mega combos' is having the spellbooks be drawn randomly rather than chosen when the criterion for an award is met.


That house rule takes away one of the large strategy aspects in the game.

However, that would be a great and simple house rule to apply to only the more experienced players at the table to even the odds some if there is a big disparity in skill levels.
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Joseph Cochran
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coolguitar7 wrote:
muzfish4 wrote:

One 'house rule' I am considering that may at least put some sort of a brake on the 'mega combos' is having the spellbooks be drawn randomly rather than chosen when the criterion for an award is met.


That house rule takes away one of the large strategy aspects in the game.

However, that would be a great and simple house rule to apply to only the more experienced players at the table to even the odds some if there is a big disparity in skill levels.

That house rule would also preclude using the neutral spellbooks when the expansion containing those comes out.
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S. R.
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The Houserule can cripple a player.

There are spellbooks that are good only if the GOO is out. Which usually happens mid-to-endgame. Consider one player having these spellbooks, with another player having two perfect for immediate use.
This either forces the less fortunate player to summon his GOO at an inappropriate time, or leaves him with no spells to use.

While it will not "break" the game, it will break meaningful strategy in the game. You go from proactive play to reactive play, even in regards to your spellbooks...
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René Schep
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If Yellow Sign doesn't get Screaming Dead in his first 2 spellbooks he almost can't win. This alone is enough reason to not use that houserule.
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Greg Robertson
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A great review from a great guy! It was a pleasure to meet you in Texas.

Are other Great Old Ones giving you a hard time? Then summon Hastur of the Yellow Sign!
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Bamber Loizou
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Sandy, I have acquired and played your wonderful game. Brilliant thank you!
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James
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I thought after four years it was time for an update for the review considering the staple it has been on my gaming table in that time. I'm so glad to have made many friends in person and on the site who have enjoyed it as much as I.

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