Tasty Minstrel Games offers Cthulhu Realms, a small deck building game for 2-4 players. This is a nod and a wink to Star Realms, which is another small deck builder game from a different company. Players are nefarious followers of Cthulhu trying to drive their opponents mad, inflicting damage to their sanity. It’s a game of player elimination where players try to reduce each of their opponent’s point total (sanity) to zero being the last cultist standing.
As mentioned it’s a deck building game. All players start with a standard deck of 10 cards and have common card supplies which are shared with other players. During their turn, a player will play as many cards as possible from their hand. Cards have a variety of powers which can be activated in any order (including switching back and forth between played cards). Generally cards offer conjuring power used to buy cards, gain/reduce sanity, or draw/discard cards. After playing cards, everything is discarded including their hand, 5 cards are drawn from their deck, and their turn ends.
An exception to removing all cards are locations, and these become important as they always remain in play. Further, many cards require a certain color type in play. So locations become great focal points to use in card combos. They can be removed and thrown into a player’s discard pile by being attacked directly (where sanity loss is applied to a particular location instead of a player). Additionally, some locations have a characteristic that forces their opponents to remove the location first, before attacks can be made against a player. Thrown into this is another location type that must be targeted and destroyed before other locations can be attacked. You’ll find out quickly adding locations to your deck a key strategy during play.
There are three types of cards (followers, locations, and artifacts) along with 4 color types of cards. Many card powers require combinations with other cards to utilize all of their abilities successfully. Another key ability of some cards is abjure, essentially a discard ability removing cards from the game entirely. This is a good way to thin out your deck or potentially get rid of a juicy card your opponent would likely pick up.
In a 2 player game, a supply pool of 5 cards is available for each to purchase. In a multiplayer game, between each player is a separate pool of three cards forming a pinwheel of sorts. For a 4 player game this becomes interesting as sanity loss can only be directed towards opponents to your left and right (ones you share card supplies with). There will be a 4th player essentially untouchable. This won’t last long though as sanity loss hits both your left and right opponents simultaneously. So no hemming and hawing about choosing who loses a few sanity points.
The Good – This is an enjoyable, light, deck building game. It moves pretty fast with some interesting card combinations to explore. There are a variety of approaches in play, either focusing heavily on one color of cards, or trying to spread the field and work up a deck of several card types. I enjoy the multiplayer setup making it a little structured in card supply pools rather than everyone using one card supply. The player point totals use a nifty card and counter system to easily track sanity (victory points) which also doubles as a card ability reference. The card artwork is whimsical and of thick stock. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will likely get many of the inside jokes on the Cthulhu mythos.
The Bad – Not all the card icons are easily digested and deciphered. Expect a bit of a learning curve and having the rules handy to interpret some of them. While the rulebook is a tight document, the layout is a bit of a hassle as it’s spread out on a single, folded sheet of paper. The card artwork is cartoony and just might not work for some. Lastly there are a good number of card types, yet after several plays you might see some card combinations being to recur.
Once a card is purchased, another is immediately added to replace it. This can lead to buyer’s remorse if a powerful card is suddenly added to the supply pool. As there are some especially strong card combinations, it can be simply a matter of players scooping up the right cards first (and these combos can be difficult to break up if not in possession of the right card types). Another quibble is there are multiple powers on many of the cards, and as you can can switch back and forth between other cards in play during your turn, keeping track of used powers and conditions met for other abilities can sometimes be a chore (using pennies or glass beads covering up used powers helps).
The Verdict – I like Cthulhu Realms. It’s a fun, quick, deck builder game. The theme is light and certainly not serious, so I can give a pass on the card art style. It’s not meant to be a somber horror game despite dealing with the Cthulhu mythos. There is just enough variation in the cards and multiplayer layout to add a fair amount of replay. It’s a player elimination game, however it doesn’t quite drag out the process of players dropping out once massive sanity points are being lost left and right.
In the end, you have a compact 2-4 player game in a small box. It’s a surprisingly effective package that delivers a great little deck builder with a low price tag. If you can embrace the playful theme, you’ll find a pleasant gem in Cthulhu Realms.