If you have even a passing interest in board games these days, chances are you’re aware of Pandemic. The co-operative world-saving game has become enormously popular over the years, leading to expansions, follow-ups and spin-offs. If you’re not familiar with it, the premise involves you and your friends taking on the roles of disease control operatives, traveling the world to cure and eradicate four different diseases. Over time, the diseases spread and become harder to contain. By the end of the game, the players will have either cured the plague by trading in coloured cards at labs or (more likely) failed due to there being too many disease outbreaks, amongst other fail states. It’s pretty tough, especially at first, but is a great co-op experience.
I recently received a copy of one such spin-off in the form of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. In its most basic form, this could have simply been a reskin of the base game, but it ended up being so much more. Whilst the core mechanics remain the same, there are many changes to the gameplay that make this quite a different experience. Even better, you don’t have to be familiar with Pandemic (or even the Cthulhu mythos) to enjoy this.
You and your allies take on the role of different investigators, trying to prevent the awakening of Cthulhu by cultists. Rather than the board being based on the whole world, it is split into different parts of four towns from the books of H. P. Lovecraft: Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport. Players use their four actions per turn to travel around the board, remove cultists, trade cards, and close portals. At the end of a turn, a player takes two player cards to add to their hand and reveals two summoning cards that add more cultists to the board. At the top of the board there are six cards representing different old gods, with a final one for Cthulhu himself. Should there ever be more than three cultists on a node, the next Old One is revealed (along with some other nasty effects). Should Cthulhu be revealed, the game will end with defeat. If the players manage to close all the portals by trading in cards of matching colours, they prevent Cthulhu awakening and win.
Each character has a special ability that can be used as an action. This might involve moving more spaces, taking extra actions, or defeating more cultists. Players can also acquire relic cards that can be played at any time. Each gives specific benefits, such as skipping the summoning stage for this turn or preventing Shoggoths from moving. Due to the powerful nature of these relics, players have to roll a die for a sanity check when they use them. All players begin the game with four sanity, which can decrease over time. Should their sanity run out, players flip their cards over to reveal their ‘insane ability’. These tend to be weaker versions of their previous ability, such as taking fewer actions, being forced to always move two nodes, or experiencing slowed movement. This is the weakest area of the game, as the insane abilities don’t really seem all that interesting. The doctor goes from five actions to four and the driver is forced to move additional spaces. They don’t seem all that imaginative really. At any rate, if all the players go insane, the game ends.
The game is as hard as you might expect, with lots of ways to lose. If Cthulhu is awakened, you lose. If you run out of player cards, you lose. If there are too many cultists, you lose. If you all go insane, you win! Wait, no, you actually lose. Shoggoths are large, horrifying monsters that add an extra dimension to this challenge. Some cards will force you to place a Shoggoth on the board and they can only be defeated by entering their node (having to make a sanity roll due to the horror of them) and spending three actions to remove them from the board again. Certain summoning cards cause them to move towards the portals on the board, which will lead to another Old One being awakened if they make it to one. There are only three Shoggoth pieces and, just like the cultists, if you run out of them, you lose. They change the game quite considerably, as all of a sudden you need to plan a different route around the board for fear of losing your sanity. They also become a high priority, as things can escalate quickly if you allow them to start moving towards portals unchecked.
Upon opening the box, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the components. Pandemic had plastic cubes and standard player pieces that could be found anywhere else. Here, though, the player pieces are all individually modeled, the cultists all look carefully made and the Shoggoths are horrific monstrosities. The board and card art also looks utterly gorgeous. Special note for the Old One cards having fantastic artwork — they depict each god alongside having unusual dimensions (for a playing card) to match the unnatural nature of the creatures they represent.
We had a lot of fun playing this. I say ‘playing’, though ‘losing’ might be a better word. But in spite of our repeated failure to save the world, we enjoyed the time we spent doing so, as it’s a very well-thought-out package and not simply the same game in a different skin. Whether you’ve played classic Pandemic before or not, I would strongly recommend this to any group who are in the market for a fairly light co-op board game. Just don’t go mad if you keep losing…