Across my desk there are scraps of scribbled notes — creased and crumpled from being scrunched up and nearly discarded before their use became clear. Notes on dreams, on passions, on beings beyond our reality, on concepts currently beyond thought. My formative hours of Cultist Simulator created more notes than sense, but once the information was in my grasp, everything started coming together.
Cultist Simulator is the debut title from WeatherFactory, a small study from some of the minds behind Sunless Sea and Fallen London. It’s a curious, resource-management RPG which places players on the cusp of a 1920s delve into the depths of cult management — and eldritch depths beyond the mortal realm.
Where most games with the ‘simulator’ moniker start players off already within the titular role, your protagonist — whom you have the chance to name — exists in a dross grind before their thoughts are tilted to dark gods.
The life of a cult leader likely isn’t what you expect. This Lovecraftian cult is utterly spearheaded by the player character, with you leading rituals, assigning tasks to your followers and exploring the world hidden within dreams.
It’s not just the cult you’re overseeing, either; threats come via your own existential dread and despair, or getting too wrapped up in fascinating visions and more. These need to be managed by creating the emotions to counteract them — create contentment to stifle despair, use dread to crush fascination and the like. There are also investigators out to catch you, tracking you down through your more daring attempts, collating evidence to try to form a case against you and your underlings.
Cultist Simulator plays out across a digital tabletop, with cards representing all its concepts: from locations and statistics to objects and characters. On occasion however, the tabletop lights up, springing to life as an action creates a silhouette of a moment or place — or erupts into a sweeping diagram of the mansus of the gods as you come to master your dreams. Of the various card types, the most important can be divided into vitals, verbs and nouns.
Vitals are your Health, Passion, Reason and Funds. Barring the latter, you can view these as RPG-style statistics. You can perform certain actions to gain more of them, which is critical, as you’ll need to apply the vitals to events to trigger most events.
There are, as with many RPGs, ways to permanently damage those statistics: untended ill health leads to an affliction, untended affliction leads to decrepitude — decrepitude never heals. Losing Health, Passion or Reason in this way can be crippling (literally) in the early game.
Verbs — tiles representing Work, Study, Explore and more — are how you interact with the world around you. Study a vital and you may find ways to improve it. Dream using funds and you’ll purchase opium to gain contentment. Had I put aside the mild threat of danger the combination gave, my first ten or so deaths to despair would not have happened.
Most of my deaths were due to despair: something brought on by three Dread cards stacking on the Despair tile. This can happen quickly, as Dread is created somewhat regularly, not least as a result of restlessness.
In the early game, clues on how to clear Dread are almost non-existent: it can be used to stop visions (which can result from Fascination) and it can be nullified by Contentment. But, Contentment — as in life — is hard to find. My notes tell that Work plus Passion can create it — and that Dream and Health, Passion or Reason stand a chance at doing so, too. The odds of getting these are low, as many interactions can have multiple reactions.
Off to the side I’ve scribbled ‘Funds + Dream = Contentment (Very High Risk)’, something I’d picked up from one of the few early card hints but not actually looked into. On facing that risk in a bleak moment, I survived. That moment of trial and error, which then saw me start my most successful run, underlines the learning curve of the game. In fact, I’ve not suffered a death at the hand of Despair since.
Many of the verb/action combinations can have multiple stages, requesting new card inputs each with their own wonderful morsels of prose. An example of an early–mid game interaction would be sending your cultists to explore a location — you can send several followers with assets and currency to try to raid or rustle the target. As they push further into the location, you can send along more of your cult or more funds for the task, each stage telling a tale of how your forces are doing. If you don’t send enough, or sent along the wrong combinations, then there’ll almost certainly be some losses.
From shortly after you start your journey, everything becomes consumed by ticking timers. Almost everything — outside of properties, artifacts, your vitals and the verbs — have a timer on them. Like life, emotions and opportunities are fleeting. You’ll need to act fast to use up fleeting memories or to benefit from a boost in vitality; many ‘cures’ or summons require these emotions, so having a notepad to hand is a good way to play, as the game lacks any note-taking options.
Discovery through trial and error feels alien at first. However, things start to become familiar with repeated play — that and you soon learn that tinkering with emotions and opportunities is the best way to advance the game.
In addition to this, death is not final. Should your character die, you can select a new character to exist within the same timeline; their father may have been investigating you, you may have been a detective assigned to sniff out your previous form… These new lives are quick to reconnect to your previous path (should you wish), so it’s quite interesting, exciting and emotionally engaging to re-enter your old world from a new perspective. As a result of this, timers — initially perceived as a threat — become something to push you forward and encourage you to take risks.
Cultist Simulator is, interestingly, best played like an old CRPG. In Baldur’s Gate, for instance, combat is thick and fast; if you have sorcerers or mages in your party,you’ll pause much more frequently than every six seconds (a D&D turn) as you carefully re-target your party, juggling health, mana, potions, items, abilities, skills and spells. Cultist Simulator captures the reliance on pausing in those moments — everything is very overwhelming until you learn to assess risks and remember the game’s patterns.
You find yourself enraptured with growing and establishing your cult, with not enough time to do what you want to because of the other tasks at hand. You can’t ‘Work Passion’ to create a painting due to the combined reliance on funds and the mundane, droll job that consumes your Work verb.
The journey from fleshy peon to transcendent being is one fraught with danger and excitement — even for a game about dragging cards around a board. I remember fondly when I first broke into The House, a realm of gods which can only be reached through dreams and with the right combination of lore, luck and magic.
From there ,you unlock different ‘ways’ into the realm, which lead to different areas of the house. Exploring The House during your rest, and poring over books while you are awake, is the best way to unlock new rites and rituals. Neither of these are easy, requiring artifacts, components or even sacrifices, but there is a massive depth of power in them. A troublesome detective is close to cracking your cult open? Why not summon a beast to destroy them?
Cultist Simulator comes with nine different types of cult, as well as more content than you can shake a stick at. With the various legacies it is, however, inevitable that there are several options to bring an end to your unrelenting hunger for power. These range from surrendering your flesh and becoming one with The House or ending the world to submitting to the humdrum of the daily grind.
There are weaknesses in some parts of the game’s design, that said. All cards have multiple attributes, so a cultist of a certain type may have the knock attribute and will almost certainly have the mortal attribute. There are so many of these and they are present from the start of the game. It leads to a heavy amount of information, making Cultist Simulator feel like it really should come with a glossary of sorts. There is joy in learning, of course, but there is so much to learn that many may feel pushed away. A note system, possibly in a space which opens up from the UI or can be pinned to cards, would relieve this — that or a ‘history’ option where you can reflect over previous combinations.
The latter would be great in many other ways, too. Sometimes when a timer ends the created card is snatched away by another card before you can check to see what was made. It would also allow us to revisit some of the truly amazing prose which serves as the beating heart throughout.
It truly is the writing that serves as a power to the game’s grip. Everything comes together in a fantastic tapestry of words and lore. Thanks to that, the setting never feels gimmicky or overworked, with hints of the gods laced into everything in the game, rather than left obnoxiously protruding or marched in front of you. The setting truly feels realised, with little left feeling like a tangent.
Cultist Simulator never feels easy, with a lot to learn — and fast. It’s possible to get yourself into a safe and secure grind, but the true excitement of the game comes from pushing forward and experimenting. Because of this, it will likely be quite a divisive game, but its tabletop and card appearance should warn off most of those who would be unwilling to persist along its dark paths.
Cultist Simulator is available now on PC, Mac & Linux.