Cthulhu Realms is a deck-building card game designed by Darwin Kastle and released by Tasty Minstrel Games. It plays from two to four players and lasts from 25-45 minutes, so sayeth the box. In Cthulhu Realms each player is summoning powerful entities, artifacts, and locations in an effort to force their opponents to lose all of their sanity! If you can be the last player who hasn’t gone insane after dealing with the Old Ones, then you will win the game!
In Cthulhu Realms each player receives a sanity card and sanity token which are used to track your… sanity. Each player also starts with a deck of ten cards which consist of Followers, Goons and Initiates. These produce a combination of conjuring power and sanity loss that you can deal out to your opponents and/or their locations. A row of five cards is laid out between you and your opponent (three cards between you and each of your neighboring opponents in a game with more than two players), comprising the “available cards” which you can use your conjuring power to obtain. These available cards consist of entities, artifacts and locations, and can be one of four colors. Cards that you conjure are placed into your discard pile and as you play your deck will become depleted. When you must draw but are unable to because your deck is empty, you take your discard pile, shuffle it, and it becomes your deck allowing you to draw your remaining cards. As the game progresses you obtain cards which are more powerful than those of your starting deck, and you may sculpt your deck to take advantage of the synergies and actions listed on each card. Some cards allow you to abjure them, or abjure other cards (either from the available cards, your hand, or your discard pile), allowing you to remove these cards from the game completely, further sculpting your deck and the synergies within. Some cards require other cards to be played before their actions can be triggered, for example, the card High House in the Mist requires that a green card be played in that turn, after which you can make someone discard a card. Requirements can be based on card color, card type or even actions. R’Lyeh is a location which requires someone to have discarded a card, after which you may have someone (yourself included) draw a card. Entities and artifacts that are played during your turn are placed into your discard pile at the end of your turn, but any locations are kept in play. Locations have a sanity value, and a player has to deal out that much sanity loss to the location at which point it is destroyed and placed in the discard. The abilities of a location card will take effect each of your turns that it remains in play. Locations are also able to protect you, or protect your other locations. These locations must be attacked first before the opponent may attack you or a different location. R’Lyeh is one of these locations that protects the player where High House in the Mist is a location which can be bypassed in an attack, presuming that the opponent has no problem with you getting its effects each turn. Each player starts with only fifty sanity, and the goal of the game is to be the last player with any sanity remaining. If you are, then you win. If the draw deck runs out with more than one player left in the game, then the player with the highest sanity is the winner.
It is inevitable that this game be compared to Star Realms, as it was well known when the game came out that Cthulhu Realms was essentially a re-print of Star Realms with a new theme pasted onto it. This is perhaps why I never pursued the game. I was plenty happy with Star Realms and didn’t need a re-theme. Now that I have played Cthulhu Realms I can see that I was wrong. The game isn’t a simple re-skin. In fact it adds quite a bit to the game play from Star Realms. For example, in Star Realms your card synergy is based almost solely on whether you have a card of the same faction in play. In Cthulhu Realms the synergy effects can be based on card color (faction), card type, and even actions such as if you have discarded or abjured a card that turn. In expanding the interaction between cards, Cthulhu Realms has quite a bit more flexibility than Star Realms. Deck construction doesn’t have to rely solely on one or two factions, but can include choices like picking up cards that let you draw a card and discard a card, where the discard action triggers that other card which then lets you abjure a card, which then triggers another card that lets you draw a card or inflict some sanity loss on your opponent. By the end of the game I felt like I really was losing my sanity because I had so many different interactions, and it was a little overwhelming. Normally I would dislike that, but here it really fits the theme!
After just one play of Cthulhu Realms I have a few of issues with the game. The first is more geared towards the new player and/or the AP (analysis paralysis) prone players. With so many interactions it can start to become confusing. At one point I just looked at all of the cards in my hand, dumped them on the table and started triggering the actions that I needed or wanted to use. Other actions that were unnecessary were simply ignored. Why would I need to draw a card and discard a card when I have no cards in hand? Like Star Realms you are essentially gathering two resources, sanity and conjuring power, and as you play the cards from your hand and the actions trigger, the resources that you gather go into a pool, but many of the cards have choices on them, and it can be difficult to keep track of which choice was made for which card, and as a result the total amount of sanity and conjuring power that you have at the end of all of the interactions can be… elusive. I have five sanity to deal and ten conjuring power… no… wait. I chose sanity on that card, not conjuring power, ok, I have seven sanity and seven conjuring power. The next issue I have is one of card layout. In most card games the name and cost of the card are at the top and the effects are on the bottom. Cthulhu Realms is laid out with the cost and effect at the top, and the name at the bottom. With the cost and effect both at the top, and the cost symbol very similar to the “gain conjuring power” symbol, for someone who hasn’t quite picked up the difference it can be quite confusing. After one or two plays the player should get used to it however. My final issue is with the iconography used in the game. When you have just a few actions it can be great to replace those with a symbol, thereby removing the game’s reliance on language. However, Cthulhu Realms has five different card ability symbols, and these can each be augmented by one or two prerequisite symbols, of which there are nine! The result is mix of a multitude of symbols which on first play was quite confusing. Once again, repeated experience with the game would clear this up, but I fear that there are players who would play the game once, be turned off by the confusing aspect of all of the symbology, and then not play the game again.
I imagine that some may take issue with the Cthulhu theme, as in many cases it can be quite dark and disturbing. Cthulhu Realms is not that game. The artwork is in a cartoon style, and while there are a few brains laying around, there really isn’t any blood or gore. Even the monsters come off as cartoons more than actual monsters. I wouldn’t have much problem playing this with my 12 year old niece, though she probably wouldn’t play it thanks to the theme.
I really enjoyed Cthulhu Realms. In the comparison review I find that I enjoy Star Realms more, but I also don’t really think that comparing the two games is the correct way to go. Cthulhu Realms adds more gameplay by having more interaction between the various card types, colors, and abilities, and it just doesn’t feel anything like Star Realms. In conclusion, I find that there is room in my game closet for both games. If you like the potential for brain-burning interactions, the cartoon-style Cthulhu theme, and deck-building games, then you will probably like Cthulhu Realms.