Monday, November 19, 2012

Holiday Gift Guide 1: The Turn of a Friendly Card

Sweet Jebus, I just figured out I've been playing Mythos-based games for over thirty years.

In all that time the only one that I've continually returned to is the "Call of Cthulhu" role-playing game from Chaosium. There are a lot of reasons for the game's success since it's release in 1981, but it was, and is, the emphasis on props and handouts that keeps me coming back. No other RPG, or game in general, has ever embraced that level of immersiveness so consistently.

Of course, things are a bit different today than they were back in the 80s when CoC reigned supreme. Now there are dozens of tabletop Lovecraftian games and expansions. Out of all of them there's only one I find myself playing repeatedly- "Munchkin Cthulhu".

I know, I know. Just look at that cover. It absolutely oozes the kind of cuteness I've repeatedly expressed a disdain for. Everything about it was seemingly designed to rub me the wrong way, and for years I begged off when anyone suggested giving it a try. Then I was reluctantly dragged into playing it last year.

That first game featured five players besides myself, most of them with previous experience playing Munchkin. It only took a few minutes to learn the basic mechanics. Frankly, I thought the rules were overly simplistic. The cards were dealt, we started playing...and I not only had a blast, but actually won the game.

There are two reasons I ended up adoring "Munchkin Cthulhu". The first is that it wholeheartedly embraces the tropes of the Mythos in general and of "Call of Cthulhu" gaming in particular. Much of the humor, and this is a very funny game, comes from the designer having an intimate knowledge of Lovecraft's work. Beyond that, the game is hysterically self-aware of how ridiculous the mainstreaming of the Mythos has become, mocking everything from Cthulhu bumper stickers to the very Cthulhu plushies that Steve Jackson Games also produces.

The second is the social aspect. This is one of the very few games where the more people that play the more fun it is for everyone, and that's brilliant game design. The mechanics of Munchkin Cthulhu really are quite simplistic in and of themselves. What the rulebook doesn't convey is the dynamics of how the players interact within those guidelines, producing an endlessly entertaining number of alliances and betrayals. Wheeling and dealing is not only part of the fun, but a key part of claiming final victory. I can't count the number of times I've been able to win by simply donning the halo of friendliness and helping every other player. It's all smiles and happiness...right up until that priceless moment when I get to say "Shucks guys, I think I just won."

"Munchkin Cthulhu" is a great game. If you're a die hard Mythos aficionado you'll discover it's filled with references and minutia you'll enjoy, while the social play style makes it easy to dragoon your friends and family into playing. It's easily the best Lovecraftian game of the last decade.

Also Rans

Bag of Cthulhu- Exactly what it says- a bag filled with Cthulhu. 30 altogether, consisting of 24 small figures and 6 larger ones. They're supposed to be used as counters for the collectible card game. I ordered my first set back in 2009, and since then they've ended up being used for everything but game counters. ProTip: These make outstanding ornaments for a Mythos-themed miniature Christmas tree.

Arkham Horror- Put simply, one of the most beautiful games ever produced. Both the artwork and the quality of the components are outstanding. There is a huge fanbase of dedicated players of "Arkham Horror", but despite over a dozen attempts I have never been able to finish a game. And Lord, how I've tried. Mind you, I'm saying that as someone who has literally spent years working on projects for the "Call of Cthulhu" RPG. My sorry history of failure eventually led to the conclusion that that the game is like one of those exquisite crystal animals that spend their lives in a box. Once in a while you take it out to admire the magnificent craftsmanship and artistry, but then it's back into the box and up on the shelf.


manur said...

To each his own for Munchkin Cthulhu, I guess. For me, it's a forgettable filler.

If you don't know Mansions of Madness, I wholeheartedly encourage you to try it : the whole fun and beauty of Arkham Horror, plus one can finish the game (in three or four hours, granted, but much more often than AH).

Jedediah said...

I recently played a game of Arkham Horror while on vacation with my gaming group and the one thing we all said about the game was: It sure takes a long time...
We did have fun once we figured out the rules and it really is a beautiful game, but if we find ourselves with an evening to spare and nothing to do, we all agreed that we'd rather play Munchkin or the CoC RPG.

Veselina Nedkova said...

Ever tried "Mansions of Madness"? Looks pretty cool. Kind of Lovecraft-based "Descent:Journeys In The Dark".

Tylermenz said...

Ditto on mansions of madness, it is a great game with re-playability. Also, the elder sign app from fantasy flight is pretty awesome too, its like the elder sign board game, which in turn is a bit of a simplified arkham horror.

Daniel Luce said...

I;d like to add Cthulhu Dice as a suggestion. It's a very simple variant of "Left Right Center", but it's a lot of fun, especially when you're playing with folks who aren't really into gaming, or Cthulhu.

And out of curiosity. Have you tried Trails of Cthulhu? Same immersive encouragement (though they don't supply props or things ike Chaosium does), but it's more streamlined than the CoC RPG.

CoastConFan said...

There are “Games That People Play”, but there “May Be A Price to Pay”, but you have “Nothing Left to Lose”, however “I Don’t Wanna Go Home”, you “Gold Bug”.

Sebastian said...

Well... I saw Munchkin and thought: Meh, you can do better...
I saw Arkham Horror and thought: We're getting closer to good games.
Then I realized Mansions of Madness is missing on your list....
I wanted to comment on this but "manur" already mentioned it.
So I can only say: Play Mansions of Madness! It has all the Arkham-Cthulhu-Lovecraft-feeling plus a playing-time of 2-4 hours plus cool miniatures of shogoth and mi-go etc. plus very deep atmosphere.
I do not know where you live, but should it be near Hamburg, Germany just drop me a line and I will host a gameround.
have a nice day.

Propnomicon said...

@ Manur

I've heard anecdotally that "Mansions" was the result of a thought experiment that started with "Hey, we've got all these awesome components in Arkham Horror, but it's almost impossible to finish a game. How can we use the cool fiddly bits and speed things along?"

@ Jedediah

I agree about the need to prioritize your use of time. The last time I spent over six hours playing a conventional game was back in the days of "Star Fleet Battles". Once you have a family it's almost impossible to do that anymore.

@ CoastConFan

I love Alan Parsons. He and Jim Steinman are the greatest record producers of all time.

My thanks to everyone else with suggestions for "Mansions of Madness". I just happen to know several parties that were wondering what to get me for Christmas. Heh.

Phil said...

"Building an Elder God" looks like a rather fun card tile game.

Jonathan Oliver said...

great start to the genre sir.
looking forward to your other discoveries :

Rev. Marx said...

I use the Bag of Cthulhu figures for gaming tokens, for every game but the one it was made for. They make a great token for monopoly (and just about any other game).

Brewmiester said...

Litko Aero makes a number of tokens and gate markers if you feel the need to pimp out your Arkham Horror game.

The Bathyscaphist said...

Have you tried Elder Sign: Omens for iOS/Android? It's Arkham Horror for your phone/tablet, only you can actually sometimes win!