Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu Review

Most of you will have played the tabletop game Pandemic designed by Matt Leacock, and even casual gamers will have at least heard of it due to the success that it has achieved since its release in 2008 by Z-Man Games. When we talk about fully cooperative board games, Pandemic is right up there with the best and could be argued to be the pinnacle of a genre that has now exploded into life. This is ingredient one.

In the 1920s horror/science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft created a god-like being known as Cthulhu whose octopus head, dragon’s wings, and webbed limbs drive mortals to insanity just by looking at him. This is ingredient two.

I think we all know where we’re going here: What do you get if you cross Pandemic with Cthulhu? The answer is now right here in the form of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu which is Z-Man Games’ 2016, 2-4 player, fully cooperative, horror game. Let’s find out if it’ll become an epidemic that will spread far and wide, or whether it will drive players insane before being forsaken to the Old Ones.

The game overview is quite simple, and the rule book describes it perfectly, so I will quote: ‘You and your fellow players are investigators. You must work together to seal four gates to prevent the awakening of Cthulhu, or the area from being overrun with cultists or Shaggoths. Failure means the unleashing of an age of madness.’

So, up to four investigators will travel between four towns using actions, special player abilities, and relics to kill fanatics and monsters whilst trying to collect enough clues to seal four gates and prevent Cthulhu from ruling Earth. The game is advertised as 2-4 players, but this being a fully cooperative game it can easily be played on your own. This actually presents new challenges as the rule book does state that players should converse and discuss strategy throughout.

As this is a Cthulhu based game the theme is science fiction horror, and this really shines through from the outset. The box art shows three of the investigators and a cultist being ensnared by Cthulhu’s tentacles with dark, marine colours used to enhance the feeling, a great start.

The rule book begins with a cool short story to lead you into the game that adds to the theme and gets your brain into gear. It then takes you through the set-up of the game and gives players simple step by step instructions whilst using picture art to help digest the information. The rest of the book is laid out in exactly the same manner, taking players through gameplay, explaining actions, and detailing the finer points including explanations about the Old Ones and relics as well as commonly overlooked rules, which is an addition that I really like and one that other publishers should follow. All this is done using numbered diagrams that help break up the text and make for an easier read.

The game board continues the horror theme by picturing four 1920s, gloomy and creepy looking towns that have all the locations which you would imagine such as a graveyard, swamp, woods, and loads more. Each town is physically connected to two others, although the game does have an interesting ‘take the bus’ mechanic that is pretty cool and helps a great deal during play. The pale light of the towns really stand out as the light quickly turns to darkness towards the edges of them which again adds to the ‘what lurks in the shadows’ feel. Around the edges of the board are very subtle but well-designed areas to place game cards and tokens with players immediately understanding where these components will go. The board also offers a handy play guide that instructs players in which order play progresses; for me this is a must and a real touch of class that I look for in a game as it helps embed rules quickly and speeds up play.

There are seven different types of cards in the game; to continue down the theme and artwork track I will describe a couple of these cards in more detail. Firstly, the Old One cards. The Old Ones are demi-gods/monsters that sit under and serve Cthulhu himself and are placed above the towns as if watching over the populace. The detail on these cards is fantastic with more exceptional art work which really adds to the horror theme. When you turn these cards over during play, it feels like something bad is about to happen, and when a piece of art can do that during play then you know you’re onto a winner.

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The investigator cards are the second ones that really stand out. Each displays a character with its own background scene such as the Detective who is stood poised with pistol in hand ready for action, although unbeknownst to him a set of demon eyes is watching from behind. The Hunter is stood out in the open as if tempting an attack, and in the fog behind her a wraith-like claw seems willing to oblige. All seven investigator cards feel unique and that’s before mentioning their special abilities. The Doctor can use 5 actions instead of four, and the Occultist can move cultists & Shoggoths around to different locations.

The other cards in the game include relic cards, clue cards, evil stir cards, summoning cards, as well as player reference cards that offer a ton of information such as player actions and player sanity (we will talk more about sanity later). All these cards are, again, very well put together and offer all relevant information at a quick glance.

Box, board, rule book, and cards all described. What other components could possibly be in this game? Ah yes, the MINIATURES, the component that everyone picks up first and usually spends the most time looking at. I am pleased to announce that the investigator minis are…….exquisite. Each does a fantastic job of representing the image on their card, and for a game that isn’t a miniatures game, Z-Man Games have ensured enough detail on each that will make them look very nice on the board if painted. The other two types of miniatures are the cultists and Shaggoths, which sadly, are not to the same standard as the investigators, and this is apparent the moment you pick them up. The cultists are small so kind of have an excuse, but the Shaggoths are similar in stature to the investigators but are miles away from the same level of detail. A small flaw but definitely needs mentioning, although on the flip side Z-Man could have simply given us cardboard tokens as monsters and that would have been terrible, so a back handed compliment, maybe? You decide!

Lastly on the components, the two types of tokens are Seal and insanity which are both of good stock as too are the dice that are included.

Before going into setup and playthrough, I will give victory conditions: the only way to win Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is to seal all four gates. However, there are lots of ways that players can lose which are: Cthulhu awakens, no cultists left to add to the board, no Shaggoths left to add to the board, no player cards left, and all players becoming insane.

Setup of the game will take ten minutes as players prepare decks and place cultists etc., which are done at random and will never give the same setup twice. There are three levels of difficulty in the game, and players will also only use four of the seven investigators, six of the twelve Old One cards, and six of the twelve relic cards during setup, meaning that Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu has loads of replay value by offering players a different experience each time.

Each investigator has two sides to their card, a sane side and insane side. At the start of play all players will start with a sane character and be given four insanity tokens. Investigators will lose sanity throughout the game through dice rolls and Old One effects.

Each player will also be dealt two cards from the player deck during setup that could be clues, relics, or evil stir cards as a starting hand. All players will be limited to a hand size of seven unless a special ability or relic allows you to carry more.

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All investigators will start at the Train Station in Arkham and will each have four actions per turn which can be carried out in any order on each player’s turn. Player actions are: walk to a location connected by a line, take a bus by discarding a clue card and moving to that location’s bus stop, use a gate as a portal to move from one town to another (although this comes with the risk of rolling the sanity dice), defeat a cultist, defeat a Shaggoth (takes three actions), give or take a relic or clue card from another player at your location, or seal a gate by discarding five clue cards of that location.

Once all four actions have been used, the player will draw two player cards and either add them to their hand or carry out the actions on the card if an evil stirs card is drawn. The evil stirs cards are always bad and will always hamper the investigators. If this card is drawn, the player will immediately roll for sanity which can either make them lose one or two of their sanity tokens, add cultists to their location, or have no effect. The player will then awaken the next Old One by flipping the left hand’s most unrevealed card over and carrying out that card’s effect (again, these are never good and can have an immediate or game long effect). A Shaggoth will then be added to a random location determined by the summoning deck which will then have its discarded cards reshuffled and placed on top of the summoning deck. The evil stirs card (one of four) is then discarded for the remainder of the game having wreaked its damage.

Before moving on, I want to mention the idea of shuffling the discarded summoning cards and placing them on top of the deck as opposed to adding them to the deck. The summoning deck is used to add cultists to a location, and when the discarded cards are placed back on top, it means that the likely odds of more cultists being added to the same locations are very high, meaning the game offers more difficult challenges for the investigators to face. It’s a very nice mechanic that really helps the game progress at a good pace and will keep investigators on their toes as well as feeling trepidation when an evil stirs card is pulled.

The next step will be to perform a summoning by revealing the next two cards of the summoning deck (this number will increase as more Old Ones are revealed). Cultists will be added to those locations that could trigger more negative effects, and if a location has three cultists with another due to be added, then an awakening ritual is preformed instead, resulting in another Old One being revealed. Once this has been resolved, all (if any) Shaggoths are moved one location closer to the nearest gate where they are looking to escape through. If this happens, then players will again preform an awakening ritual. Once all these steps have been carried out, then that player’s turn is over, and it moves to the next player. This will be repeated until victory/defeat conditions are achieved.

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I want to discuss a few aspects of the game before moving on to the summary. Firstly, the relic cards, these can be used at any time during the course of play and by any player that owns one (not during the draw phase). Relics will usually give players a one off ability such as regaining sanity, but some will offer a bonus for the rest of the game such as cancelling the effect of an Old One card. Usually, when playing a relic card the player will have to roll for sanity but not always, and most of the time if you are in a position that you need to use that card, then rolling for sanity is the lesser of two evils. A player will gain relics by either drawing them from the player deck or by defeating a Shaggoth.

Secondly, let me tell you about player sanity. When an investigator loses all of their sanity tokens, they are deemed insane. This results in the card being flipped over which will reduce their action count from four to three (there is one exception) as well as curtailing their special ability. In short, it is much easier to win the game if your investigator is sane. Of course, if all investigators are insane, then the game is lost. Players can recover sanity through relics or by closing gates, but the number of times this can happen is obviously limited so cannot be relied upon.

Thirdly, the game suggests that it should be played by players 14+. Younger players will easily pick the rules up and be able to follow the game with limited guidance, but the artwork on these cards are definitely not aimed for the younger players, and if you bear in mind that Cthulhu is a horror themed game, it may have younger kids up during the dark hours. Playthroughs will generally take forty minutes to an hour, so the game also fits with younger players’ attention spans.

Lastly, when the idea to combine Pandemic with Cthulhu was announced, hardcore fans of the disease fighting game must have been worried. How will the theme affect the mechanisms? Will the mechanics need to change? Will Cultists spread disease around the world, so on and so forth? I was delighted to find that my own worries were for nothing as the game plays as smoothly as any other on the market whilst staying true to its roots. Even doubters can’t fail to admire the theme, and I will argue with anyone that this theme and its components are way superior to the original Pandemic. The mechanisms allow for a progressive game that gets harder and harder, sometimes very quickly. After two rounds players might think they are doing splendidly well until an evil stir card is revealed, then a Shaggoth escapes and a location is overrun by cultists. Before you know it you’re halfway to awakening Cthulhu himself.

To check out Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and games like it, find your nearest store HERE

Designer: Chuck D Yager

Artwork: Chris Quilliams, Atha Kanaani, Phillippe Guerin

Editing: Jean-Francois Gagne

Publisher: Z-Man Games

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