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Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game» Forums » Reviews

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Mark Watson
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Background/Introduction

Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game, is, as the name would very much imply, a card game based upon the stories of H P Lovecraft. The game is one of Fantasy Flight Games’ “Living Card Games”, available as a core boxed set which is expanded by a series of separately purchased expansions. The game is designed for two players.

I’ve been playing this game for around a year and a half. I didn’t play the Collectable Card Game version (though I did play Mythos, back in the heyday of CCGs). I’ve played (and enjoy) Warhammer:Invasion, and I’ve played a lot of Magic: the Gathering (henceforth MTG) and a fair few other CCGs. I continue, very occasionally, to play (and enjoy) MTG, but tend to avoid investing in new releases apart from pre-constructed decks. Fantasy Flight Games’ Living Card Game format therefore appealed to me as an approach whereby one could enjoy the full game without effectively buying stock in the company.

Mechanics

The core set provides 155 player cards (and a further 10 story cards), all of which are unique. The player cards are divided into “factions”, reflecting broad groupings of interest from the original stories. There are seven factions in the core set (and in subsequent expansions); there are, additionally, neutral cards which aren’t part of any particular faction. Of the factions, there are two human/good factions (the Agency and the Miskatonic University), a human/bad faction (the Syndicate) and four supernatural/cultish factions (Cthulhu, Hastur, Shub Niggurath and Yoth Sothoth). It’s possible to combine the good/bad/ugly factions together in decks, and without restriction, although some character cards are marked “Heroic” or “Villainous” and there are constraints on a player having such cards in play at the same time.

The rules included in the core set suggest, when learning the game, that each player combines any two factions (20 cards each) and half the neutral cards (14 in total, so 7 each) into an immediately playable 47 card deck.

The object of the game is to win 3 “story cards” (note, however, as with most CCGs, there are alternative victory scenarios, for example a player can lose by running out of cards to play in his/her deck). The core set includes 10 story cards and at any time 3, drawn randomly, are in play. A player wins a story card by placing 5 investigation tokens on that particular card (more about how this happens in a second). Story cards also have activation effects, which can optionally be played by the winner of the card, and have a further impact on play.

Players compete to place tokens on stories by playing cards from their hands. The cards have costs, which are paid for from resource pools called “domains”. Initially, each player will have three such domains, each containing one resource. Players build up their domains by discarding cards into them (usually a maximum of one card per turn). Each domain can be used (the game jargon is “drained”) to pay for a single card, and additionally at least one of the resources in the domain must match the faction of the card being played. Players can overpay for cards, with no ill-effects, so (for example, and assuming the factions match correctly) a domain containing 3 resource cards can be used to play a card costing 1, 2 or 3 resources.

Each player turn consists of a series of phases:
A “refresh” or housekeeping phase, whereby players “unexhaust” (equivalent to MTG “untap”) their characters, and remove markers from their drained domains
A “draw” phase: the player typically draws two new cards per turn
A “resource” phase, whereby the player can discard a card to build up one of their domains
An “operations” phase, wherein the player uses the resources in the domain to play new cards
… and a “story” phase, where the active player attempts to place their tokens on one or more story cards

More about this story phase in a second. Most of the cards, across all of the factions, represent “characters”, which are used by players to challenge that final story phase. Characters will, in addition to their costs, have certain “icon abilities” which affect the story phase, and also have a skill score, which is used to decide the story phase. As well as all of this, most cards have their own playable effect. Besides characters, there are other types of cards, some of which sit in play and apply permanent effects to the other cards (much like MTG enchantments and attachments); others are playable as one time effects (similar to MTG instants).

In the story phase, the active player may commit those characters they have in play to one or more of the story cards, in order to win the opportunity to place investigation tokens. For each of the contested story cards, a series of (usually) four “struggles” take place between the two groups of characters which have been committed to the story. Before getting onto the detail of the struggles (the mechanics for this game, as you can see, involve multiple layers of detail), one other point: when either side commits characters, they “exhaust” them (tap, if you’re an MTG player). For the defender (the non-active player), this is less of an issue, since they’re going to shortly get the opportunity to unexhaust their characters in the next refresh phase. For the attacker, well, you can only defend with unexhausted characters, so in the general case, committing your characters removes them from the pool available for defence in the other player’s turn.

As to the struggles themselves: remember those icon abilities on the character cards? Each character card has a number of icons which determines the character’s score for the four different “struggles”: terror, combat, arcane, investigation. The story phase goes through each of these in turn, comparing the total pool for each of the opposing sets of characters. For example, if the attacking players pool of characters, on story A, has more terror icons than the pool for the defending player, the attacking player wins the terror struggle. Winning each struggle activates an effect: winning the terror stage drives one of the opposing characters “insane” (effectively a double-tapped state, where it’s going to take two turns to fully unexhaust the character); winning the combat struggle will wound a character (usually killing them, since most characters have only one hit point); winning the arcane struggle allows the winning player to unexhaust one of the characters committed to the story (in the attacker’s case, freeing that character for defence in the subsequent turn); and winning the investigation struggle allows placement of an extra investigation token on the story.

Note that if a character goes insane, or is killed, then he/she/it is removed from the struggle currently in progress. At the end of the struggle, the remaining committed characters’ skill scores are added up on each side, and if the attacking player is ahead, they get to place an investigation token. If the defending player is left with an aggregate skill score of zero for the characters committed to the story (maybe because they didn’t commit any characters to it in the first place) the attacking player gets to place a further token. Combined with the token which could have been placed in the investigation struggle of the struggle, the attacking player could have placed up to three tokens per turn across the stories. So potentially the game could move quite quickly.

Now, it’s possible (and this is a likely beginner approach) for each side to take a look at the cards currently in play on both sides, work out how the struggle is going to go and then either commit or sit tight and end up with a fairly boring game. However, with the options for attack spread across three different stories, and with the consideration of what to withhold for defence against possible new cards to be played by an opponent, and with the crossfire of card effects and instants (of which there are relatively few in the core set), it’s actually a fair bit richer than that, and the bigger issue becomes one of trying to take lots and lots of decisions (added to the resource discard and card playing decisions in the earlier phases) across what feels like millions of moving parts, rather than end up in a deterministic deadlock. If you like playing complexity, this has a ton of it and the effect is deeply rewarding. The corollary, however, is a steep learning curve, firstly to get your head around the mechanisms in the game (I’ve missed out a number of things in this description) and then to grasp the consequences. Many beginners, having managed to get over the first peak, tend to be put off when they fail to get the second part (and I think some are put off when they do, because the range of cause-effect decision choices can make your head hurt).

Components

As well as the cards, the game box includes punch out cardboard tokens (of the typical FFG type) to place on stories, and also doubling as wound markers; a game board; and six large plastic Cthulhu figures, three for each player to use to mark drained domains. The box itself is huge and comes with a useless cardboard insert which manages to both fill out the space and at the same time make the box difficult to repack.

The components are technically unnecessary (no more necessary than their equivalent components in MTG, which doesn’t generally supply them) but the board and the tokens are OK (I don’t normally like FFG cardboard chits but these are relatively harmless). The Cthulhu figures could have been half the size and should have been a different colour. Also, since a player might have more than three domains, there aren’t enough of them (FFG sell an extra bag of them, which you can buy separately). It would have been better to save money (and space) here and include some more “instants” cards to enhance gameplay in the core set.

Also, the actual marker for a domain is to simply re-use an unused card from the rest of the set; this “make do” approach seems at odds with the huge, pointless Cthulhu figures used to mark the domain usage.

I’ve heard criticism of the card art, but for me it ranges from C+ to A, and none of it is actually really bad (to damn it with faint praise). It probably isn’t at the same standard as MTG is these days but is better than many CCGs which have been and gone (including Mythos). I would have preferred, personally, for the card effect text, of which there is so much, to have been in a slightly larger typeface.

Theme

In my experience, FFG games generally promise much in terms of theme and too often let themselves down through over-complex or carelessly designed core mechanisms (step forward, Runebound).

With CoC/LCG, there’s definitely complexity. I’m not sure it gets in the way of the theme, but the theme got forgotten at certain points: for example, the idea of insanity, so significant an abstraction in the RPG (and the game directly claims inspiration from the RPG as well as the original stories) has probably been reduced down too far here to a simple two-turn “tapping” mechanism. Better maybe to have had an “asylum” discard area which was more difficult to escape.

Further, the game lacks the sense of place so much associated with the original stories (and equally of period - though it’s set in period, it doesn’t particularly come over). There are in fact location cards (with their own effects, so that they act as MTG-like enchantments). Right now, I think they’re underused. The expansions also introduce a day/night mechanism, with cards to take advantage of it, which is a nice touch.

Finally, the stories themselves tend to be mere prizes; they should have more narrative impact. Again, there’s a mechanism in here, in the exercisable story effects, but I feel these should have been stronger and had more of an impact on the game. As it is, and in my experience, the effects are often declined by players who win the story, not so much to prevent them from happening but because they’re too subtle to evaluate their impact on the game. There should be more of a “Bwahaha now I can …” or a “Phew, glad that didn’t happen” in there (note, I haven’t yet played the new alternative story deck in the large expansion, “Secrets of Arkham”, which looks more promising). Alternatively, it might be nice to see a story deck which unfolded in the manner of some of the old Chaosium scenario packs, rather than firing randomly as at present.

These, however, are tuning issues, and also possibilities for future expansion. The game is thematically reasonably strong for a C/LCG (marginally less so than its Warhammer equivalent, maybe), and far stronger than some boardgames; the main barrier is the sheer number of game mechanisms taking up thinking time.

Expansion, Deck Building and Support

The “Living Card Game” format is meant (based on FFG’s manifesto for the format) to be different from the CCG formats. Instead of collecting packs of cards, randomly assembled according to set frequency formulae, FFG releases regular expansion decks. The implication is that players, if they commit to spending on these regular releases, avoid the expense and frustration of having to chase, overbuy and trade cards from boosters. For many people, including me, who’ve experienced games like MTG, this is a very refreshing approach, and it’s a big attraction for the game.

FFG has issued a number of expansion packs (“asylum packs”) since the original core release, and continues to do so. The asylum packs include duplicates of cards in the core set (and in previous packs) as well as introducing new cards. The first three or so packs are very difficult indeed to get hold of now. FFG indicates that it will reprint them at some point, but the reprint dates have not been released. This is something of a letdown, given FFG’s manifesto commitment to remove the issue of “chasing rares” from its LCGs. At the time of writing, one copy of the first asylum pack is showing on amazon.com at a price of $1000, although I assume this is a joke (more since I’m not sure I believe the seller has managed to find a copy). Apart from non-availability of the rare cards for competitive play (the bane of CCG players) there’s also the issue for casual players that cards associated with some of the original stories appear in the first two packs; subsequent pack “cycles” have at least in part reflected new Mythos material created for the game.

The official competitive format allows for three card duplicates per deck; given the lack of duplicates in the core set, competitive are immediately confronted, therefore, with the choice of whether to invest in multiple copies of the core set (and a fair bit more shelf space). A few of the expansion-introduced cards have also skewed the metagame itself to effectively mandate certain cards in competitive play. My own preference is for casual play, however, and it’s quite possible to enjoy the game (and I prefer it) without additional sets, and playing with various draft variants. One other note - recent changes to the FFG LCG expansion pack format have ensured that each pack contains enough duplicates for competitive play, which is a nice move and which doesn’t negatively impinge on their usability for casual play.

Apart from regular expansion releases, FFG supports the game with regular articles on their website. These tend to concentrate on upcoming expansions and “killer combos” to be found therein. There also various aids (including videos) to try and get beginners up the steep cliff of the mechanism learning curve. There’s a bit too too little (in my opinion, and to the extent I know about it) support for complete CCG newbies wanted to switch over into deck construction, or just for casual players unfamiliar with deck construction wanting to know how to incorporate the expansion packs to change their game experience. A larger pool of enthusiastic casual players would obviously help the game generally. If FFG is depending on the current CoC/LCG competitive scene to drive the success of the expansion packs, they’re frankly deluded.

Conclusion

Is this a good game? Yes, in my opinion: it’s very good indeed. Granted it’s not as accessible as Warhammer: Invasion, or for that matter as MTG, but across the combined CCG/LCG universe I can’t think of a game which is quite as intellectually challenging or complex. If you’ve tried it, and been disappointed, I’d give it another try. Just getting a hang of the mechanisms takes a few games, and can get in the way of getting to grips with the implicit range of strategies. It is, in my view, slightly under-supported (probably not for want of trying, just a question of priorities, and the issue of bringing expandable card games to the casual gaming market) by FFG. FFG’s recent announcement of a fourth LCG (Lord of the Rings) may steal further oxygen from this game (particularly by further delaying the re-release of the older asylum packs) which would be a pity.
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Tom Shields
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This is a terrific review; Cthulhu has drawn my interest for it's thematic pleasures & the LCG approach. Since it is a commitment to a system (for example, I find Glory to Rome and Innovation such strong games that it's hard to see another cardgame bumping them anytime soon) I've been sitting back & wondering if this game is "for me" and the folks I game with.

I do think Warhammer is a good game (just two plays), but I think I'm done with the monster faction set-up of this & Magic & Thunderstone, to name a few. Cthulu's draw is a more interesting storyline that may create "stories" out of the gameplay. I know, it has monsters!, but similar to War of the Ring I wondered if it has a more interesting context & opportunity for immersion.

I liked how well you define this whole tension in your review.

Can you or others reading this thread recommend certain cardsets to assemble a "best" game set that addresses your points?

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Gordon Watson
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ASL - other tactical wargames call it Sir.
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Beneath this mask there is an idea.....and ideas are bulletproof.
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Thanks for the review Mark - it's clarified a number of points for me.

One question I still have and which you touched upon is whether to buy additional core sets? Before answering could I set the scene for where I am currently at with this game:-

- I love the whole Lovecraft myhtos so this game was an automatic buy when it came out, as was Arkham Horror. The latter I have got to play on numerous occassions, including all of the expansions. However Cthulhu LCG has only made it into play once (and that was back when it was still a CCG).
- The one play was enough to I liked it and so despite the lack of additional play I have continued to pick up the Assylum packs.
- The intention is still to actually get this back to the table rather than just collect it. One of the things I'm keen to do is to have a CCG/LCG that I can explore some proper deck building with, which is an aspect of this type of game which really appeals - despite the fact that it will only ever be played casually. The only games I have previously explored this with have been Blue Moon (which was a different beast in terms of card numbers and distribution) and somewhat bizzarely for a serious gamer with ASL on his gaming CV, the Pokemon CCG. The latter because my kids actually wanted to play the game with their Pokemon cards they had rather than just collect them, so we did get far enough into this to try buidling our own decks. Based on this I really wanted to get into a game that themeatically was more to my taste but allowed for the deck building. Hiwever I have very little knowledge regarding card distributions and what you need to sensibly build decks withing Cthulhu.

Given the above (if you could be bothered to read it, and I wouldn;t blame you if you couldn't) is investing in one or two more core sets necessary or a bit extravagent. Also, the fact that I only picked up one of each of the Assylum packs as they came out - should I have picked up more?


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Stavros G.
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A excellent piece of review! thumbsup
This game needs insightful reviews in order to help the Investigators who are sitting on the fence

LordHellfury wrote:
(...)
There are some examples by artists such as Viziano Baracchi that are jawdroppingly good (...)

A small typo: it's Tiziano Baracchi.
He has made an excellent job on a few cards for CoC LCG. Also working on 'A Game of Thrones'. Check his web gallery here: http://www.tizianobaracchi.com/.
Tiziano will be a special guest at Stahleck Asylum in Oct 2010, with three other card artists. I will be happy to have him sign one 'Behind the bars' card and see some original drawings or artwork in big sizes
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Mark Watson
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Thanks for the comments, guys. Some responses below:

Thematics, Narrative and Immersive Play
I’ll start with the "immersive" play question, but respond to some of the other questions as well.

I think the game almost gets there but not quite. Some CCGs have managed it (ICE's Middle Earth CCG, or Netrunner, both similarly at the cost of a steep leaving curve, by the way). MTG as a game system can do it but is too infected, for me, by its economics. In CoC:

- the characters, and their fates, need to feel more significant within the context of story. For me, this comes down to two things - the insanity mechanism needs fixing, and the decks need more events (instants) in them than the core set allows. More events slow down the story phase and allow it more of a flow.
- significant supernatural characters from the story need to have more impact. I've played CoC and WH:I games in the last week, and playing a Bloodthirster in W:I has far more "eek" value than playing Cthulhu in CoC. The big "god" cards need to be more costly to play and correspondingly more powerful. I notice from the FFG site that there are new cards for Cthulhu et al coming in the next AP or so, but the cost is the same, with differently nuanced card effects.
- the outcome of a story needs to feel more significant. To LordHellFury’s comments, I also love that the story has a playable effect, but I think it should have more bearing on the game (without necessarily tilting it). In general, the story effects are (strong) instants; to my mind they should be remain-in-play and tuned to favour certain factions (but probably not just one faction, maybe two per card).
- the content/setting of the story needs more depth. Asylum packs are released in “cycles”, whose underlying stories are based around bland Lovecraft pastiches, maybe about the length of a short story. The material is far too thinly stretched. I’d suggest instead that FFG raid Chaosium’s campaigns for ideas (for example, Masks of Nyarlathotep, which has plenty of stuff going on, plenty of setting flavour and is firmly set in the mid-20s)

I think these are all possible within the current game mechanics, with the exception of the insanity mechanism, and just through more interesting card design. It would be possible to retrofit a better insanity mechanism to the rules and current card sets without a complete game reboot, in the way that the Night/Day mechanism is added, but done properly it's an FFG responsibility (since new cards would have to exploit/manipulate the new mechanism).

Art

When it’s good it’s excellent; when not it’s, well, meh. Take, for example, “Visiting Professor” from the Secrets of Arkham set (I mention it since I fished out the set to re-look at the story cards when writing the above review). It’s not terrible, but it’s not very good either. There are quite a few like that.

Deck Building, Casual/Competitive Play and How Many Sets to Buy

If you want to play competitively, you need 3 core sets, and 3 of each AP until the recent format changes came in. Good luck with that. For official competition, you’ll also need card sleeves (mandated by FFG) and presumably a fancy dress costume.

If you want to play with deck building in the spirit whereby the game was designed, you also need 3 of everything (but just of the sets you choose to use). If you want to use those decks outside competitive play, you’ll need an opponent with a similar frame of mind and collection of cards.

If you want to just get an enjoyable experience from casual play, and still enjoy the meta-game, you can get by (for both players) with one core set, to start with, and then add singles of the APs (I think the game actually plays as well, thematically, with singles rather than duplicates anyhow). I’d add Secrets of Arkham first, since it offers the alternative story deck.

On “casual” play: there is casual in the sense of “not competitive”, and casual in the sense of “never played a CCG before, and certainly never built a deck”. If you went out and bought (to pick a random FFG example) “Warrior Knights”, and then bought the expansion for it, it’s completely obvious how to add the new components to the existing game, because it comes with instructions. There is absolutely no similar allowance made (in either CoC or W:I) for inexperienced players looking to incorporate additional packs; the assumption seems to be that the gaming store, or existing players, will mentor new players through the process (my bet though is that in many cases they get mentored back into something else).

I’ll try and write up the draft mechanism we use, for “genuinely casual players” (no extended CCG or deck building experience, enjoyed the core set, want some more variation) and post it to the variants area. It’s not so much super simple as super simplistic.
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Nick Fash
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The cost of the ancient ones is already too high for them ever to come out in meta. Most decks eschew using anything over 4, if they use 4 at all. That's why the new hastur card is supposedly more powerful--this is a game of resources, and by extension, speed, so an experienced player will not let you sit long enough to pull out ancient ones.
 
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Mark Watson
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The core set (i.e. the form in which the game is sold) doesn't play that quickly.

What you're saying is that in competitive play, with multiples of speed cards, you'll get no chance to play expensive characters, and if you do they're not worth it. Absolutely agree. In casual play, without multiples they don't feel worth it either.

But I think it's symptomatic of a drift in card design away from the game theme, that on one hand Cthulhu is underpowered and not worth playing, and on the other that magah birds (three passing references in one of HPL's short stories) are absolutely vital.

People are attracted to the game by the theme. It has excellent mechanics, and is a compelling casual game. FFG needs to work out why a large group of people would want to buy the game, play it and then subscribe to expansions, and then design and support with that audience in mind.
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