It’s a simple premise for a simple game. You are cultists of the great and mighty Cthulhu, and you don’t like the competition. So curses are flying as each cultist casts curses to drive the others insane. One die, some tokens, and a pouch that can hold it all make up a package small enough to carry in your pocket, so you can spread the insanity everywhere you go. But will it actually be fun, or is Cthulhu the only real winner?
This is very straightforward, because really there is only one component of any note. The game revolves entirely around the Cthulhu Die itself, an oversized, twelve sided die that features symbols relevant to the Cthulhu mythos. The symbols are the tentacle, the Yellow Sign, which looks like three tentacles radiating out from a central point, the Elder Sign, in its commonly accepted star configuration, the Eye of Horus, and Cthulhu himself. The die is generally of really good quality, the faces are large enough that it is easy to see the symbols, and it rolls well.
In addition to this one die the package also comes with a set of 18 glass beads that serve as sanity tokens. Really for the purposes of the game anything can be used to serve as sanity tokens, but it’s nice that they go ahead and include something so the players don’t have to track anything down. The tokens and the dice also come with a plastic ziplock style bag to hold them.
In the end that’s it, that’s the entire package.
The game itself is also very simple. As each player takes their turn they will choose one of their opponents as a victim for the turn. Then they roll the die, and tokens move accordingly. There are five symbols on the die, each with its own result. The tentacle symbol allows the roller to steal a token from the victim. The Yellow Sign, three tentacles radiating from a central dot, causes the victim to lose a sanity token. The Elder Sign gives the roller a new sanity token from the pool in the center of the game, or in game terms from Cthulhu. The Cthulhu symbol causes all players to lose a sanity token to Cthulhu. The final symbol, the Eye, is a wildcard. The roller gets to choose an effect from one of the other symbols.
Once an attack has been made the victim gets a chance to retaliate, and will roll the die themselves against their attacker. The die will have the same effect, but on the retaliation a tentacle roll will still steal a token for the original attacker.
Each player, up to six, will start the game with three sanity tokens and take turns clockwise, choosing a target to attack. When a player loses their final token they are considered insane, and can no longer win the game. They are not fully eliminated, though, they will continue to play. Any tokens they steal while insane will go directly to Cthulhu, but an Elder Sign can get them back in the game, if it comes quickly enough. When only one sane player is left they win the game. And if everyone is insane at the same time? Then Cthulhu wins.
Many gamers are no stranger to the Cthulhu mythos, it’s been a joke in recent years that every game must have a Cthulhu based variant or expansion at some point in its run. In this game the theme is a fun veneer on top of a very basic mechanic. It plays out nicely, the players are casting curses to remove or regain sanity by throwing a die loaded with mythos relevant symbology. Even so, it would be easy enough to re-skin the game in any number of ways to play out other themes without changing the basic rules or mechanics. There simply isn’t enough depth to the game to make any sort of theme really integral to the gameplay.
The game is super light, both from a gameplay perspective and physically, which was its actual design goal. This is a game that you can carry in your pocket and play for five minutes just about anywhere. The easy access means that if your group enjoys the game it will have a lot of opportunities to come out to the table.
The reverse side of that, though, is that its simplicity can be a bit limiting. After only a couple of plays the games will begin to feel very much the same, and there is very little variation in the gameplay.
Because of that replay value will depend entirely on what type of gamers you and your gaming group are.
Cthulhu Dice is going to be very hit and miss on reception. On the one hand it hits its design target perfectly as a very simple, very portable, quick pick up game. Easy to teach, easy to play, done in five minutes, and small enough to slip into a pocket and carry around anywhere.
On the other hand its simplicity can work against it. There is almost no player choice in the game, being limited to choice of target and occasionally which effect to choose when rolling the Eye symbol. Because of this it almost feels more like the game is playing the players rather than the other way around. Sometimes this will be fine, and that’s exactly what you want, but players may be itching for a gaming experience that involves them a bit more.
Cthulhu Dice can be a lot of fun, in small chunks of time and with the right group of players, but you have to go into it knowing what to expect.
Cthulhu Dice by Steve Jackson
Published by Steve Jackson Games