Review: Cthulhu Realms17 Jun 2016 9
Review: Cthulhu Realms
Released 13 Jun 2016
When Dave reviewed deck-builder Star Realms in 2014, he was even more impressed with its gameplay than I. Cthulhu Realms, its Lovecraftian sequel, improves on the original in nearly every way. I found Star Realms to be an impressive design, but generally too linear (cards tend to work well within but not between groups), as a result of which the result too often depended more on which cards showed up in the center row than on strategy or informed choices. The Elder Gods are famous for their corruption of Euclidean paradigms, so it's perhaps thematic that the factions in Cthulhu Realms balance their faction-reinforcing abilities with cross-factional benefits. Consequently, the game is far more open, with a wider variety of strong decks and greater strategic flexibility throughout the game. It's also very funny.
Darwin Kastle has designed or contributed to a number of games I esteem highly, including the aforementioned Star Realms, the Battleground series (in which inexpensive cards play the role of armies of miniatures), and The Battle for Hill 218/Sector 219*. So his name gets my attention for more than just being the closest approach I've seen among game designers to the likes of "Kandy Kupps". Both the game and the app build on the existing work on Star Realms, so not only the gameplay, but also the interface and multiplayer functionality have a strong basis and have improved on it conservatively enough to avoid introducing substantial new problems. Perhaps because of the desire to avoid such problems, the app does sadly omit one of the most appreciated innovations of the tabletop version of the game over Star Realms: excellent play with three and four players rather than the more usual two. While disappointing, the decision to allocate resources as they have probably suits the uses of digital games better than tables.
One element which seems to have received a surprising amount of polish is the narrative of the campaign. Board game campaigns are often fairly interesting, changing up rules or starting conditions in various ways, but only Galaxy Trucker has given me a chuckle until now. Not only is the writing sardonically humorous (among my favorite lines: "Langham theorizes that, since you memorized the US Tax Code, you have some immunity to the madness of fear that grips most men."), Nicole Vilencia's voiceover is enthusiastically bonkers. Which, come to think of it, adequately describes the overall tone of the game. When you see a cheering fan waving a giant foam hand with "Dagon" on it, or The King in Yellow illustrated in the style of Dr. Seuss, it doesn't take long to recognize that this game goes far beyond the winking nods to Indiana Jones and Phryne Fisher in Arkham Horror. Unlike that game, which has slumbered patiently on my shelf since my children were old enough to be disturbed by something more psychological than blended peas, Cthulhu Realms is light-hearted enough to qualify as a family-friendly apocalypse.
While the game is free to try, several important features including the hard AI and second chapter of the campaign are locked behind a single $5 in-app purchase. The easy AI is welcoming without being so poor that newcomers will always beat it, but either the hard AI is very good, or I'm pretty bad. Part of the problem is that I still play Ascension daily, and cut my teeth in the deck-building genre on its progenitor, Dominion. In both of those games, some cards are worth victory points at the end of the game, and it's still an adjustment when I play a game in which the cards in my deck are purely tools to accomplish some other goal. Though both Ascension and Dominion involve timing when to switch from accruing more useful cards to purely gaining points, the parallel concern in Cthulhu Realms is only one of its timing issues--you must also gauge when to use the abilities of cards which allow you to remove them from your deck to gain a bonus. That's a much more complicated question, because the size of your deck and the relative value of those abilities compared with the static abilities they have if you keep them each play a role, as does how crucial those bonuses are right now for gaining a particularly crucial card or destroying an opposing location which will cause you continual problems that may snowball. So I have some bad habits which the hard AI seems quite able to punish.
Fortunately, multiplayer is also an option, and many other people are as bad as me. Some, anyway. Both asynchronous and real-time options are available--asynch involves a single option of a 48-hour timer per move, while real-time has kind of a clever clock mechanism which keeps the game moving but still seems fair. You start with 30 seconds per turn, but you get an extra five seconds for every action you take, and extra time carries over from turn to turn. Play against friends uses the developer's own solution, rather than Game Center, so you'll need to know friends' usernames on this service to challenge them. The byzantine, unpredictable subject matter was not reflected by the experience of online play; even synchronizing games between devices worked fine (though I did somehow lose my progress on the first chapter of the campaign after I finished it, but that was before I even tried it on my phone, and had very little impact). Also notable is the small indication you get of the number of other players playing, and whether any of them are looking for a real-time game. This seems like excellent feedback which might solve the dusty, tumbleweed-blown lobby problem common to board games with real-time multiplayer matchmaking against strangers.
About the only headwind Cthulhu Realms faces is deck-builder fatigue. If you like the genre, you have a lot of options on your devices these days. This one is an interesting twist on the Star Realms basis, but it's about as innovative as you'd expect from an expansion rather than a genuinely new game. I'm not particularly fond of either zany humor nor the artistic style in which the game's presented, but both seem about as well executed as they could reasonably be. In my first real-time game, I felt substantially outplayed in the mid-game, but managed to make a few critical decisions which left me in position to have one monster final turn which barely won me the game. Star Realms and most of its fellow deck-builders rarely push players into continuously adaptable decision-making. If you can grapple with Lovecraftian dread treated as a punchline (and, in fairness, there are a number of elements of Lovecraft's work which merit a punchline) and don't mind revisiting a familiar genre explored with a few clever innovations which broaden the strategy, this is an excellent option.
* Disclosure of possible biases: I reviewed The Battle for Hill 218 a while back, and have continued to play it nearly daily since. On the basis of my appreciation of it, I backed The Battle for Sector 219 on Kickstarter, and will soon be receiving the cardboard versions of both it and Ogre 219. I also thereby got beta access to the Steam version of The Battle for Sector 219, which is pretty slick, and which I expect to write about again when it comes to mobile. Also, Chad Ellis only very recently spun off the operations of Your Move Games, which published Battlegrounds, Hill 218, Sector 219, and Ogre 219 (among some others) to focus on his Boda Borg business. I have interacted with him on numerous occasions in BoardGameGeek's Religion, Sex, and Politics forum, and tend to find him insightful.