01 December 2016
What happens if you cross deadly disease with unspeakable horror? It’s bad news for the human race but good news for tabletop fans
All things considered, it’s a wonder that it’s taken this long for two of the tabletop world’s most popular fixations – Matt Leacock’s disease-curing hit Pandemic and the Cthulhu Mythos of horror author H.P. Lovecraft – to finally collide and form a single entity. Pandemic has dominated ‘best of’ lists since it first appeared a decade ago – helped by multiple expansions, spin-offs and Leacock and Rob Daviau’s impeccable evolution of the concept in Pandemic Legacy last year – while the use of the Cthulhu theme is, well, everywhere as of late.
Given the tabletop ubiquity of Lovecraft’s tentacle-mouthed creation and the perpetual momentum of Pandemic, it’s easy to approach this year’s Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu with more than just a smidge of cynicism and assume it will be little more than a reskinned re-release of Leacock’s original game.
That, happily, is not the case. While it may bear the Pandemic name, Reign of Cthulhu’s mechanics take several steps away from the globe-trotting and cube-removing origins of its namesake to offer a gameplay experience that feels distinctly different.
Okay, okay, so let’s be real for a moment: there are still elements here that feel undeniably similar to Pandemic. As in that game, players (as each of seven ‘investigators’ this time around, rather than ‘roles’) will travel around the board and stem the progression of something unpleasant by using up to four actions per turn, before drawing two cards into their hand and a number of location cards from a separate deck which advance the encroachment of said unpleasant thing, with a set number of events (epidemics in Pandemic, ‘Evil Stirs’ here) giving the antagonistic force
a major bump and upping its rate of invasion.
The geographical perspective has shifted from being a global race against the clock to a world-saving dash around four of Lovecraft’s best-known settings – Dunwich, Arkham, Innsmouth and Kingsport – each of which has specific buildings and locations (park, hospital, graveyard and so on) rather than capital cities. Like Pandemic’s continents, the four towns are colour-coded, and fixed-location bus stations provide the ability to jump across the map in lieu of Pandemic’s buildable research stations.
It may not sound wildly fresh just yet, but the changes made by lead designer Chuck D. Yager (with help from Leacock) go beyond mere aesthetics. Instead of the iconic multi-coloured cubes of Pandemic’s four diseases, Reign of Cthulhu players begin the game by shuffling the 11 Old One cards (minus Cthulhu) and placing six face-down across the top of the board, with the eponymous horror occupying the seventh place face-up. Each time an Evil Stirs card is drawn, the next Old One is revealed, with each monster introducing game-changing effects.
The next Old One also appears if more than three cultists – which replace the cubes and are similarly defeated by spending an action – are placed onto one location but, unlike the same occurrence in Pandemic, outbreaks (where a fourth cube would instead result in cubes being placed on every surrounding city) don’t occur.
Complicating the ability for the investigators to pack up their (probably dark and gloomy) bags and go on a (probably dark and gloomy) holiday are Shoggoths, horrible monsters which look a little like chewing gum found on the bottom of a desk. With tentacles. And teeth. Shudder. Appearing each time an Evil Stirs card is picked, the otherworldly nasties take three actions to defeat and – unlike the static disease cubes, move at the end of each player’s turn towards the four gates spread around the world.
These gates are key to Reign of Cthulhu’s gameplay – players must gather five clue cards of each location’s colour, make their way to its respective portal and discard the set to seal the rift, winning the game when all four are closed. On the other hand, if a Shoggoth makes it to a gate undefeated and passes through, the next Old One is revealed.
The need to contend with the moving Shoggoths introduces a new challenge to Pandemic’s existing mechanics, with the implementation of the sanity die making the creatures and warped world even more of a threat to players. The die is thrown upon landing on a space with a Shoggoth, when warping from one gate to another, each time an Evil Stirs card is drawn or when a player uses a Relic, an item card with beneficial actions from nullifying an Old One’s effect to making a sealed gate an Elder Sign – stopping extra cultists from being placed. The die can result in extra cultists being placed or the player losing up to two sanity – with a total loss of sanity resulting in the investigator going insane and suffering negative side-effects until they are cured. If every investigator goes insane, it’s game over.
If the game perhaps sounds more reminiscent of Eldritch Horror than Pandemic, it’s because Yager’s tweaks and additions to the mechanical foundation of Leacock’s base game bring it much more into line with the globe-trotting Lovecraftian classic – for both better and worse.
Having to be wary of Shoggoths balances out the smaller number of locations on the board – 24 versus Pandemic’s 48 – with being unable to hunker down in one spot for too long, while the Old Ones and sanity die introduce a little more randomisation into proceedings, with a run of unlucky throws dooming our group more than once.
How you feel about the extra unpredictability is likely to be down to personal preference, but our group of experienced Pandemic fans found the changes helped to offer an experience that felt markedly new – although perhaps not as revolutionary as the medical-themed debut.
Also helping with the ease of transition is the theme. Though it may be a well-worn trope in the tabletop world by now, the Cthulhu Mythos masks Pandemic’s co-operative core without feeling forced or convoluted. The replacement of faceless wooden pawns and plastic cubes by individual miniatures for the investigators, cultists and Shoggoths lends a greater air of identity to the group’s efforts, encouraging a greater attachment to the characters and their efforts, which is assisted by the concept of sanity and the recognisable locations and Old Ones.
It’s worth noting here that, as with all of the Pandemic releases to date, the quality of components throughout is high, with the game board beautifully illustrated in murky blues, yellows, purples and black and the rulebook similarly gorgeous, including hand-drawn pictures of some of the grotesque creatures alongside almost two pages of effective tone-setting narrative. Pandemic veterans will find the new rules easy to slip into, while the instructions are well-written enough to introduce newcomers to both the mechanics and theme.
Ultimately, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu feels like a worthy spin-off to the tabletop classic. Its theme may not be wholly original, but the mechanical updates and layering of atmosphere do an effective job of elevating it beyond a mere rebranding and offering an attractive alternative to both Pandemic and other Lovecraft-inspired titles.
Reign of Cthulhu takes two unoriginal aspects and creates something that feels genuinely fresh. The gameplay changes mean that Pandemic fans looking for something a little different will be satisfied, while the addition of Lovecraftian elements – while they may be cliché – brings a new sense of atmosphere. It certainly won’t replace Pandemic or Lovecraftian classics like Eldritch Horror, but it’s a solid addition to the collections of both types of fan all the same.
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Genre: Co-op strategy
Time: 40 minutes
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