Cthulhu: Death May Die by Rob Daviau and Eric M. Lang.
With these two designers on board, one would expect something a little special. Well, after half-dozen or so games, here’s my first thoughts…
Death May Die is a bit of a dungeon crawler. I say a bit, because the dungeons you crawl into aren’t particularly large or sprawling, but the principle is the same, in that you’ll be moving around a map of tiles, killing (maybe) monsters, and trying to reach the goal of the scenario – Think Mansions of Madness on a smaller scale and without the app.
Sounds like we’ve heard it all before, but there are a few things that set this game apart from its peers. Before I explore those things, let’s qualify where I’m at in terms of giving my first thoughts…
For starters, I only have the retail base game, which comes with two Elder Ones, Hastur and Cthulhu. The game has 6 scenarios, called episodes, and each can be played with either Elder One giving a different gaming experience. So far, I have only played the first two of these, but I have played them both with each Elder. All have been 2-player games with my daughter, some playing with a single investigator each, others with two, and we have tried out all ten of them.
As I was saying, there are a few things that this game does that’s a little different to the usual run of the mill. Firstly, something I really like, and it’s something that is at the centre of the game play, and that’s the investigator advancement. Investigators get better as they lose their insanity – that’s just mad, right!
As investigators slowly (that’s a lie, it usually quite quickly) lose their marbles, at certain points along their sanity track they get to level up their skills, they also gain more dice to roll too. This makes it an interesting balancing act. You want to lose sanity to get powerful, but not too much as to lose the game – if one investigator goes wibble before the Elder One is summoned to the board, or if all investigators’ brains turn to mush after he is, then it’s game over man!
The way you have to judge this varies from episode to episode, and from Elder One to Elder One, and it helps to have played before, so you know what to expect.
Something else I found a little different here was, wait for it… You get to take 3, yep, THREE, actions per turn!
Now, that doesn’t sound like much of a revelation, but think about it. All the other games I have played with a Lovecraft theme all see you take just 2 – Mansions, Eldritch, and Arkham Horror: The Board Game (you take 3 in AH The Living Card Game, but that’s a card game and so I’m choosing to ignore it!) – in fact, most crawler and similar style games I’ve played only see you take 2-actions, and so upping it to 3 makes quite a difference.
Really? Yes, it does. As a player, it gives you plenty of options (Actions include – Run, Attack, Rest, Trade, and Episode specific actions) and you feel like you’re able to achieve something great every turn, though in reality it often proves to be not so worthwhile after all!
Throughout the game, you do get attached to your investigator. Starting as a bit puny and weak, you start to lose your grip on reality and with it you become stronger, more useful to the group. I know that doesn’t necessarily make sense, but when your upstairs faculties wear thin you do things purely on adrenalin and it’s amazing what can be achieved.
Each Investigator has three skills, one of which is unique in the game. You have the chance, as I’ve mentioned, to improve these, and it is totally up to you which of them gets advanced when the time is right. This decision is one that you may come to rue if you haven’t played the scenario before, as some skills are handier in certain circumstances, like the ability to run away and drag another investigator with you.
One more thing to mention that is on my like list, are the discovery cards. Each Episode comes with its own deck of discovery cards. You get to draw one each turn if you finish on a safe space – a space with no enemies in it – and they often give you a boon. They often give you a choice too, such as choosing between an item or a companion, and either one may cost you something to take. You can also gain things like a Guilty conscience, maybe if you steal something or don’t help someone, and this just might play on your mind and bit you on the bum later on.
These discovery cards also tell a story of their own, which is linked into that of the Episode. For example: One card might tell you that you’ve discovered a dead body of a policeman, whilst drawing another might see you meet someone carrying a truncheon, wonder where he got that then? These cards don’t recycle, so once they’ve been used, discarded, or hoarded, you won’t see them again, and eventually you’ll have discovered everything there is to find in the dungeon.
This leads me into perhaps the strongest aspect of the game, theme. The way the Episodes are set up and play out is very thematic. The way the enemies and monsters move around and are spawned gives you a sense of being overwhelmed and fighting for your lives. Your skills, at times, become almost cinematic in the way you’ll produce a great turn from nothing and save the day. The goals of the Episodes make sense and form the storyline into which you will become immersed. On the whole, the theme is what makes this game, at least in the games I’ve played so far.
It’s also fairly easy and quick to set up, it plays swiftly too, meaning you can get a couple of games in with ease compared to a single game of Mansions. The rules are light, not nearly as complicated as I expected, and that helped the game flow along. The components are top notch, with some lovely miniatures, especially the larger monsters, and it’s all nicely packaged within the box.
But it isn’t all plain sailing. There are somethings that I’m not so convinced about. I will put the caveat here that things may change with more game play and exploration of further Episodes, but here goes…
We managed to get games in with all the ten investigators, and I found some better than others. A few had skills that just didn’t let them shine; in fact they were downright dull to play. If I were stuck with one of them in a four or five player game, then I’d be a bit miffed, as everyone else would be running around doing something useful and I’d be standing there like the last kid to be picked for football.
This may well be Episode dependant, as I found that some really stood out in one Episode more than they did in the other. That’s okay, to an extent. If you’ve played the scenario before then you can choose exactly who to take as investigators, but if you haven’t, then you may pick a bunch of duds. Fortunately, the game probably won’t last long if you do, and you can correct for the next one.
I also thought the game played better with more investigators. Not necessarily easier or harder, simply better, more entertaining, more fun. It gives you more scope in laying plans, especially in luring enemies away and picking them off from a distance. Maybe it is a little easier with more, but I’d like to play a few more games before I commit on that one.
My biggest gripe, though, was with the Insanity cards. Each investigator must take one at random during set up, and they get activated every time their sanity hits a threshold. These cards tend to all do something and then as a result of that, do something else usually beneficial. Paranoia, for example, moves all monsters 1-space towards you and then, if there are no enemies in your space, you heal all stress. This sounds reasonable, but some are really handy to have, as you can manipulate them by ensuring the requirements are met, such as staying in a space with monsters only and then taking a hit to your sanity in order to activate Pyromania and deal fir damage to everyone in your space. Others, however, are really difficult to deal with like recurring Trauma that will usually activate a Mythos card again, which can prove a bit of a game breaker.
I didn’t like the ones that kept you apart from other investigators, lest you cause them or yourself damage. This made teamwork more difficult and affected the balance of the game, making it harder. These insanities also affected investigators differently, depending upon their skills. If you have a bad combination of skills to insanity, or, conversely a good combination, then it changed the difficulty of the Episode.
Oh! And did I mention that it’s easy? No? Probably because it isn’t. It certainly challenges you to think, plan ahead, make the most of your investigators’ skills, but above all, use teamwork. Of the two Elders, I found Cthulhu offered the most challenge, and both made the Episode play quite differently – more Elders equals more replayability and more fun, so expansions are something I’d definitely consider.
Whilst it looks good on the table, I have to say the game is a bit of a hog. It isn’t so much the main playing area, but rather the investigator sheets, which are on the enormous side. Four of these on the table takes up quite a bit of room, so you’ll want a good-sized table to be comfortable.
Anyway, I certainly haven’t touched on everything, but that’s probably enough for my first thoughts. I’ll tie it altogether by saying this. Cthulhu: Death May Die, appears to have some flaws, but these flaws do give the game character, especially when you think of the theme. It’s Lovecraft after all, and those minor faults all add to the craziness of the world. Yes, somethings change the balance of the game, but it plays quickly enough not to drag you down, and so it’s acceptable to a degree. Get the right investigators for the Episode and Elder One you’re playing, then the theme jumps out, coming alive, exciting you, and the game really excels, returning a very entertaining hour or so – games we played were under an hour and a half.
Hopefully, I can get another four or five games in and explore the other Episodes, then I can bang out a full review. Me being me, though, don’t hold your breath!