H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an American author who created an entire subgenre of horror fiction that has become a rich source of inspiration for authors, illustrators, cartoonists, designers, and of course, gamers. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos seems to get more and more popular every year, despite his lack of success during his own lifetime and his somewhat archaic writing style.
Cthulhu is one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, enormous and cosmically powerful beings who once ruled over the earth in the distant past and, with the help of ancient texts and insane cultists, plan to do so again. Cthulhu sleeps in the dread city of R’yeh, sunk deep somewhere beneath the Pacific ocean. One day, it is said, Cthulhu’s cosmic plan will come to fruition and his city will rise again, waking him from his age-long slumber… But Cthulhu is just one character from Lovecraft’s astonishingly imaginative oeuvre. Bizarre cities lie in the frozen Antarctic, watched over by the vast and terrible Shoggoths … inbred villagers breed with fish-people in the rotting town of Innsmouth … the pages of the dread Necronomicon lure unwary researchers on to the most horrific of revelations… and all manner of horrors lurk in the mist-shrouded and haunted woods of New England …
One of the reasons why Lovecraft’s work continues to be so popular is that it evades definition. The power of his stories came no so much from what his characters saw, but what they did not – the otherworldly, terrible, monstrously powerful things that lurked at the edge of sanity. He cleverly relied on the reader’s imagination to create terrors beyond the boundaries of his written words. That’s why it is so difficult to create a game that really captures the unique flavour of his fiction – the more you try to define it or illustrate it, the more it loses its power. The characters in Lovecraft’s stories often literally go insane when confronted by the ultimate secrets they investigate. All of these games take interesting approaches trying to capture that unique atmosphere, but it could be argued that none completely succeed—but since Lovecraft’s work means so many things to so many people, that doesn’t matter in the least.
The grand-daddy of Lovecraftian gaming is the roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, first released in 1981 by Chaosium and now in its 6th edition. As in many of Lovecraft’s stories, the emphasis in this game was on investigation and exploration, with the ever-present threat of insanity looming over your investigator character. Combat was a very occasional and usually deadly occurrence. A long line of supplements explored the Mythos in settings ranging from Victorian London to the 23rd century.
Without a doubt, the most well-known and most-played of boardgames based in the worlds of Lovecraft is Arkham Horror and its many expansions. The original game, by Richard Launius, was published in 1987 by Chaosium, but in 2005 Fantasy Flight Games released a completely revamped version that took the gaming world by storm and continues to be one of their most popular games. Set in Lovecraft’s fictional city of Arkham, players control1920s characters who co-operate to roam the city gathering items, skills and spells in an attempt to close a series of otherworldy Gates that are releasing a tide of horrific creatures. Eventually, if they fail to stop the inexorable progress of the Doom Track, a Great Old One (GOO) itself may be released, which the players have a (very small) chance of defeating.
Arkham Horror has been criticised for not really capturing the unique atmosphere of Lovecraft,due to its emphasis on combat, and the fact that, unlike in the stories, it is even vaguely possible to defeat a GOO in combat. But the fact remains it is a vastly entertaining game that is bursting with theme. Sure, it’s incredibly random and sometimes ridiculously difficult, but it really is one of the closest experiences to a role-playing game session that a boardgame can provide. The huge amount of supplemental material makes it endlessly different and engaging, and it can also be played solo.
FFG has continued to support Arkham Horror with a steady stream of expansion sets – so many in fact, that it would be difficult to find a table big enough to play them all at once! The ‘big box’ expansions – Kingsport Horror, Dunwich Horror, and Innsmouth Horror – bring extra boards for those cities so the players can travel to these unique locations, lots of new components, and quite a few extra rules as well. ‘Small box’ card-based expansions – Curse of the Dark Pharoah, The King In Yellow, Black Goat of the Woods, and the upcoming Lurker at the Threshold – have brought more cards, characters and special rules into the game. You can even buy custom dice!
With the huge amount of Lovecraftian mythos content out there, it was the perfect subject for a collectible card game. The first of these was a 1996 game called Mythos – again by Chaosium, and now out of print. The card game of choice now is the Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game (LCG) by – you guessed it – Fantasy Flight Games. Originally a collectible card game, FFG changed this to its ‘Living Card Game’ format, taking the blind buying out of the experience (and changing the card borders from black to white). With a deck made of cards from various factions, players engage in battles using their card’s Terror, Combat, Arcane, and Investigation ratings in order to fulfill Story cards. Monthly expansions—’Asylum Packs’—for this excellent game are now being released by FFG.
Moving on from FFG, a recent boardgame that draws heavily on the Mythos is Witch of Salem by Mayfair Games. This is based on a series of books by Wolfgang Hohlbein which are derived from Lovecraft’s work. There are some similarities with Arkham Horror – co-operative investigators in Arkham, gathering objects, closing portals – but the game is in a far simpler style, for a more ‘game-like’ and less roleplaying experience. The artwork is absolutely stunning, especially the board, and the game is extremely challenging, though relatively easy to learn.
From Twilight Creations, Inc., the makers of the seemingly endless Zombies!!! series, comes Innsmouth Escape. It’s certainly not in the same league artistically as the previously mentioned games, but you do get one hundred Deep One miniatures! A single human player desperately tries to escape from the doomed seaside town of Innsmouth (from the Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth), while being pursued by horrible fish-people. It’s a fast-playing, light game that fans of Zombies!!! will especially enjoy.
But why stop there? There are plenty of other gaming experiences to be had in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Try Munchkin Cthulhu (in Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin series), Cthulhu 500 (which somehow manages to mix car racing and Cthulhu), Do You Worship Cthulhu? (a re-theme of the party game Werewolf), Cthulhu Rising, Cthulhu Mash …
There’s no sign of the Cthulhu phenomenon ending anytime soon. But perhaps that’s all part of the cosmic plan …?
For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit the publisher game sites, including Chaosium at http://www.chaosium.com and Fantasy Flight Games at http://www.fantasyflightgames.com. You can also find a comprehensive rules summary and reference sheets for Arkham Horror, Call of Cthulhu Card Game and Witch of Salem at http://www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html.
by Universal Head
Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate websites, to postage stamps, to a mobile phone interface. His personal site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.