jjensenii: Two board game pieces and a die (board game)
Photo of box of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

I hate Pandemic. It is quite possibly my least favorite board game of all time. Whenever friends bring it out, I politely opt-out.

It's not a bad game; quite the opposite. It's a brilliant game that is clearly the work of top-notch game developers. My rejection of it is purely personal, not a judgment of the tastes of those who enjoy it. In fact, I'll go ahead and say that if you enjoy Pandemic, you probably have better tastes in board games than I do.

What I utterly loathe is how difficult it is even on the easiest difficulty level. There are nearly a half-dozen ways to lose the game, and the game is designed to ensure that every last one of them is hanging over you as a constant threat. It is so bad that my friends who own the game almost always play on the easiest difficulty, and when one is allowed to perform setup, he cheats by putting the epidemic cards (which cause large-scale outbreaks) on the bottoms of each of the four piles before recombining the deck. And even then failure is pretty common.

Playing the game for me feels like being cast in the role of Sisyphus, condemned to forever roll my boulder up the mountain only to see the project unravel at the very end. In no other games do little wooden cubes (I hear they're plastic in newer editions of the game) feel so much like they are mocking me.

All of which goes to make my love of the recently-released (2016) Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu a little bit surprising even to me, a long-time fan of Lovecraft-inspired art and games. Reign of Cthulhu is easily among my favorite board games.

Photo of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu game board

Anyone who has played Pandemic will find many of the rules quite familiar. You and your fellow players assume the role of an investigator attempting to stop the influx of ancient horrors being summoned by mad cultists. Each turn, you can take up to 4 actions, each of which can be moving to an adjacent location, defeating a cultist at your current location, sealing one of the four arcane gates through which the madness of the Great Old Ones is spilling into this world, etc. Depending on which type of investigator you are, you have different special abilities (ex: the Doctor can take 5 actions per turn, the Hunter can clear a location of all Cultists in a single action, etc.). The goal is to seal all four gates, and to do that you need to collect 5 color-coded clues corresponding to the city in which the gate is located.

The game is cooperative. If the gates are sealed before one of the nearly half-dozen losing conditions are met, everyone wins. If not, everyone loses. So far, I haven't won a single game.

The virus cubes of the regular Pandemic game are replaced with cultists and shoggoths. Taking the place of outbreaks and epidemics are "Awakening" events, where you turn over a new Great Old One, each of which has an effect on the game. For example, Ithaqua prevents players from moving from a location with 2 or 3 cultists unless they defeat one of them first, and Azathoth causes three cultist figures to be removed from the game's supply (when there are no more cultists left to place and you need to place one, you lose). The last Great Old One on the track is, of course, mighty Cthulhu, who when awoken bathes the world in madness. In other words, you lose. The action cards have been replaced with artifacts, which can be crucially important, but using them runs the risk of insanity (see the next paragraph).

In addition tweaked and re-themed rules, there are completely new rules, such as insanity. Each investigator starts with four sanity tokens, and these can be lost through various means. If an investigator loses all his or her sanity tokens, they go insane. The beauty of this system is that insane investigator is not out of play, but their abilities change, general for the worse. For example, and insane Hunter, whose specialty is normally removing cultists and shoggoths from the board, now has a chance to cause cultists to be placed on the board if she moves to an empty location. And of course, if all investigators go insane, you lose.

Given that I stated above how I hated the original Pandemic for the fact that the threat of losing hangs over your head at all times, why do I love Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu so much?

It comes down to theme and context. As I said, I love pretty much anything Lovecraft-inspired. And losing to cultists and horrors from beyond the domain of reason is a much more satisfying experience than losing to little wooden cubes. (Anyone who's familiar with Lovecraft's work knows how attempting to fight against the forces of madness usually turns out; even when the protagonists win, the cost to their physical and mental health is immense.) In addition, having the Great Old Ones alter the rules as you go is an immensely fun aspect of the game.

Overall, I highly recommend the game. Lovers of the original Pandemic and its expansions may be less enthused, as I imagine this can seem like the same old game with a little more than a new coat of paint, but for someone who liked the ideas of Pandemic but not necessarily the theme or execution, and who loves the Cthulhu Mythos, this could be exactly what you're looking for.

(Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is published by Z-Man Games. The images above are my own work, taken of my own copy of the game. Neither Z-Man Games or anyone else has paid me for this review, unfortunately. I'm not a professional reviewer and am really not looking to be one. I just love this game so darn much that I had to share it with the world.

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James Jensen

June 2017

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