I received a curious e-mail from a gentleman in PR who I had met at an industry event. He was asking if I would be interested in checking out a game called Lil' Cthulhu. I said yes on the basis of the name alone.
I met up with the developer Richard Glenn of De-Evolution Studios and his PR guy Scott Meaney of Big Meaney at The Uncommons in Greenwich Village for a playtest session. I had expected to be there for about an hour. I was there for much longer than I initially planned because I was just having so much fun.
Lil' Cthulhu is a Press Your Luck style of card game for 2-5 players. The core of the game involves baby Cthulhu throwing a bit of a temper tantrum and demanding several thematically appropriate toys such as the "Deaddy Bear" (a zombie-esque teddy bear) or the "Necronomicoloring Book" (a coloring book based on, well, the Necronomicon). Players have to try to collect two halves of each of the demanded toys before their sanity runs out.
That's the elevator pitch of Lil' Cthulhu, but the game is so much more than that. It has several different types of cards and multiple provided rulesets, and the modular nature of the game's components makes it a title rife for expansions as well as homegrown rulesets. We'll start with the basic style of gameplay and move from there.
A "normal" game of Lil' Cthulhu involves the Toy Part Cards, Tantrum Cards, Dark Toy Cards, and Sanity Tokens. Anywhere from 2-4 Dark Toys are demanded by Cthulhu—meeting these demands serves as your victory condition. The number of demanded toys can be adjusted in order to set the length and challenge of the game. Once the toy demands have been set, each player is issued 13 Sanity Tokens and the game begins.
A turn begins with the player anteing up a single Sanity Token. Players can then draw from a single deck that contains Toy Part Cards, Dark Toy Cards, and Tantrum Cards. You can draw as many cards as you wish, but as soon as you draw a single Tantrum card you lose the entire hand and have to resolve that Tantrum Card. Players who complete a toy in the drawn cards can earn some Sanity Tokens back, and players who complete a demanded toy will get a slightly larger sanity bonus (including a refund of their ante).
Tantrum Cards have a range of detrimental affects and they often apply to all players. For instance, The "Call of Lil' Cthulhu" Tantrum Card requires that all players discard their entire hands and they may elect to keep cards at the cost of one Sanity Token each. Tantrum cards comprise around 1/4 of the cards in a normal game so you will be frequently encountering them. Tantrum cards are the primary vehicle that the game uses to make things difficult for all players equally. You're not just competing against other players in Lil' Cthulhu, you're playing against the game itself.
Dark Toy Cards can assist players either by hindering their opponents, stealing cards from other players, or protecting players from the detrimental effects of Tantrum Cards. The "Freezing Hourglass" card, for example, prevents any of the other players from putting a Dark Toy down as an offering on their next turn. It might just be able to buy you enough time to win the game on your following turn.
Players will lose more often than win. During the playtest, we more frequently had a single remaining player based on Sanity rather than any player getting Lil' Cthulhu all of his demanded toys. A variant rule can be brought into play here requiring that you must deliver the toys even if you are the last man standing. In this situation, you will probably still lose even if you're wholly unopposed by other players. The game is definitely slanted against you in the standard format, and thankfully you can often elect to share the pain among your competitors.
If the standard ruleset isn't punishing enough for you, the addition of the booster cards (included in the box at the $35,000 Kickstarter Stretch Goal tier or purchased separately as the Holiday Booster Pack) can make things even worse. Several new Dark Toy Cards add brutal new effects to the game. The Super Sanity Mirror allows you to avoid losing any Sanity Tokens and reflect it at another player. Another Booster card allows you to destroy one half of a completed offering, effectively undoing that player's score.
Worst of all, perhaps, are the green "Wrath of Cthulhu" cards. When one of these is drawn, everyone loses one sanity for every Wrath of Cthulhu card that's already been played. If two Wrath of Cthulhu cards are on the table and someone draws a third one, everyone immediately loses three Sanity. Once these new cards were introduced the odds are really stacked against the players.
It may come to pass that you would like to play the game with younger members of your family that might not be able to grasp some of the more complex mechanics of Lil' Cthulhu. There are also provided rulesets that reduce the difficulty of the game by removing components. Younger players can enjoy a version of the game with only the Toy Part Cards and Dark Toy Cards, and the youngest players can play a simple matching game with just the Toy Part Cards.
I can't speak to the quality of the game components as this was a preview copy that didn't have finalized art in all respects. However, the cards, token, and box all had vibrant, colorful art and seemed relatively sturdy to me. If the finished product can meet a similar standard of quality, I feel that it will be up to par with most other tabletop games.
In my opinion, Lil Cthulhu's biggest strength is the modular nature of the game. I had suggested offhand a rule variant where all players get a larger pool of Sanity Tokens but every player has to ante up sanity each turn. Who knows how it would actually play out, but it's nice that you can add or remove components in interesting ways to make something new. It's a big part of the reason why I'm so fond of Settlers of Catan—I like any game that gives me the opportunity to mess around and come up with my own house rules or variant gameplay.
I've been trying to think of a flaw for what I've seen of the game, and the only thing that comes to mind is perhaps the difficulty in winning. Even so, the game effectively tells you up front that you're facing an uphill battle. Generally, you are going to lose more often than not, and it is sometimes the case that everyone loses.
However, if you wished for it to be a bit of an easier experience, you need only tinker with the ratios of cards. Halving the number of Tantrum Cards or increasing the pool of Sanity Tokens per player would make the game that much easier to win. The developer told me firsthand that he enjoyed how players have come up with ideas for new or variant rulesets once they understood how the different parts of the game all worked together, and I think it's fair to consider this element a strength of the title overall.
Lil' Cthulhu is in the final days of its Kickstarter and has very nearly reached its campaign goal (if it hasn't already). I thoroughly enjoyed the few hours of playtesting I went through, and if you think the game as I have described it sounds fun, it would be a good idea to give serious consideration towards backing the project. Lil' Cthulhu's Kickstarter ends on Thu, Mar 31 2016 11:00 PM EDT.
Lil' Cthulhu was previewed on site at The Uncommons using a copy that the developer had with them.
Disclosure: the developer’s PR agent bought me a few sodas and paid for the table fees at our playtest at The Uncommons.
What do you think of Lil' Cthulhu's style of Press Your Luck gameplay? Does the ability to easily make homebrew rulesets or house rules factor into your decision to purchase a tabletop game? Let us know in the comments below!