What eldritch magic hath wrought: the rise of Cthulhu games

Cthulhu has crawled from the sunken ruins of R’lyeh to become one of the most popular trends in tabletop gaming over the past ten years. The cosmic horror of horrors has jumped from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos to our tabletops, with heavy hitters like Arkham HorrorMansions of Madness, and Elder Sign continuing to draw new players and sell copies. Even big franchises like PandemicSmash Up, and Monopoly have released Cthulhu expansions or versions.

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But where did all of this Lovecraftian enthusiasm come from? I decided to look back into the history of this genre and try to figure out where it started, so I reached out to Richard Launius, the terrible and powerful force behind Arkham Horror, Elder SignFate of the Elder Gods, and many other great games (Cthulhu-related and otherwise) to get some insight into the phenomenon.

The mythos

Before we start looking at games, let’s talk about the High Priest himself. If you’re not familiar with Lovecraft’s creations, I highly recommend taking a moment to read “The Call of Cthulhu.” It’s a pretty quick read (assuming it doesn’t destroy what’s left of your fragile sanity), and it’s an absolutely phenomenal story. I recently opened the tome for the first time, and it quickly became one of my favorite pieces of literature. It’s amazing.

After “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft continued developing the mythos through a number of his other stories. According to the H.P. Lovecraft wiki, there are seven stories that constitute the mythos:

These wicked tales lay the groundwork for an ever-evolving literary canon of Cthulhu stories; people are still writing them today, and video games, board games, tabletop RPGs, and movies are adding to the mythos all the time (for a cool collection of modern Lovecraftian fiction, check out New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, edited by Paula Guran, and Cthulhu Lies Dreaming: Twenty-Three Tales of the Weird and Cosmic, edited by Salomé Jones).

The first Cthulhu board games

With their current popularity and their rise—seemingly—out of the black, forgotten caverns beneath the earth, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cthulhu board games are a relatively new phenomenon. Interestingly, however, you’d be wrong. The first game listed in the Cthulhu Mythos family on BoardGameGeek is 1983’s Dark Cults, a two-player card-driven storytelling game that details the struggle between the beings Life and Death over the fate of a single man on an evening walk.

While there’s no specific mention of Cthulhu in the game, it does hint at the darkness hiding behind what we can see of the universe, evoking a cosmic horror theme that’s very characteristic of Lovecraft’s work. The main character’s name is Horace Phineas Lovejoy, further strengthening the ties between the two.

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The original edition of Arkham Horror, the quintessential Cthulhu game, was released shortly after in 1987 (before being re-released in 2005 by Fantasy Flight). I asked Richard Launius, high priest of Arkham, what his inspirations were in designing this game.

I loved the [Call of Cthulhu] role-playing game, but it was limited to play because it required a Keeper or Game Master and I wanted something that could be played without someone controlling the story and I wanted something that would be more visual for all the players. So I began to create a board game set in the Call of Cthulhu universe, more of a cross between the Lovecraft mythos and pulp adventure with the players taking a cooperative role as investigators with the game itself taking on the role of the protagonist, or Keeper.

That mix of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and pulp adventure-mystery has left an indelible mark on the world of Cthulhu games, and its dark influence can be faintly seen even in games that eschew specific Lovecraftian themes, like the forthcoming deck-builder Eschaton:

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And Arkham Horror remains, of course, atop of the dark throne of thematic, co-operative board games. Many have tried to usurp its terrible rule over the minds of gamers. Few have left with their sanity intact.

1989’s Cthulhu Horror used a theme similar to that of Arkham Horror, requiring players to work together to discover which Ancient One was about to awaken and stop it (or, in some cases, betray the other players and join it). Around the same time, a few other games were released, but none made names for themselves like Arkham Horror.

After these earliest games, there was a smattering of releases here and there, with a few surprising ones, like 2004’s Necronomonopoly, where players try to buy parts of the Cthulhu mythos until they’re driven insane, at which time they turn into cultists and start sapping the sanity of other players (the last sane player wins).

2004 also saw Cthulhu 500, the only Cthulhu racing game, and the predecessor of Fantasy Flight’s Call of Cthulhu card game. And then, of course, Fantasy Flight released an absolute banger of a smash hit, the second version of Arkham Horror, in 2005. In 2007, Steve Jackson dropped a Cthulhu version of Munchkin.

The modern Cthulhu canon

It was after the Munchkin set that Cthulhu games really started to take off. Here’s a graph that I whipped up of Cthulhu games released by year, with one line for base games and another for base games and expansions (this is taken from BoardGameGeek’s Cthulhu Mythos family page, with as many promos as possible eliminated):

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As you can see, after 2007, the number of Cthulhu games released skyrocketed (and our collective sanity, of course, plummeted). 2011 was an especially active year, in large part due to Call of Cthulhu CCG expansions. And in the past five years or so, we’ve seen a Cthulhu version of just about everything, as well as the release of new games like the updated Mansions of MadnessEldritch HorrorCthulhu Wars, and an as-yet-unreleased Cthulhu deck-building game.

And we can’t forget the huge collection of Arkham Horror and Elder Sign expansions, Pandemic: Reign of CthulhuCthulhu FluxxCthulhu Realms, and Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Set. There are already a few games for 2017 listed, as well. The Ancient One is indeed rising from his slumber.

The call of Cthulhu (games)

So what’s the attraction to Cthulhu games? Why have they become so popular, and why now? Lovecraft wrote his stories in the 1920s and 30s, and the first Cthulhu games showed up in the 80s, so what’s the deal?

I asked Launius what appealed to him specifically about the Cthulhu universe, and he emphasized the “vast, interesting, and bizarre” world that Lovecraft fashioned for his mythos. He also pointed out the fact that no matter which role players take on, be it investigator, cultist, or even monster, there’s always a wide range of experience that can be created by a designer.

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The huge breadth of Lovecraftian games certainly gives credence to this idea; from the anti-deck-builder Miskatonic School for Girls to the alien and divine carnage of Cthulhu Wars, there’s a significant variety of game types, play styles, and eldritch stories to take part in. This variety has held sway over the imaginations of creatives for decades, with the 80s, 90s, and 2000s seeing numerous releases of RPGs, movies, video games with Lovecraftian themes. It seems that Cthulhu has finally built up some momentum.

And let’s not forget that many of these stories take place in the world of the 1920s and 30s, a charismatic time that Launius calls “full of gangsters, detective noir, speakeasies, and a vast world that is still a mystery.” Hardboiled detective fiction rose to prominence because of its depiction of the gritty underworld lying behind the glamorous sheen of the roaring 20s and the pre-World-War-II 30s. Lovecraft’s writings, and the games based on them, show us a similar underworld that didn’t end with World War II; it continues to writhe and seethe under a thin veneer of normalcy in the 21st century, awaiting its destined time to return to the surface.

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This feeling of inscrutability may very well reflect how many players feel about the world today. The violent conflicts that remain largely out-of-sight, hidden away in remote corners of the world; the specter of terrorism and all-out war reaching their tentacles out of the darkness to smash our mundane existence . . . there are plenty of parallels you can draw to modern life that might make the Cthulhu mythos especially apt.

“But at the heart of it,” says Launius, “is a sincere love by many designers and a large part of the gaming community for the unique mythos that Lovecraft and many other authors since him created. Games based on the mythos, like the stories, all share moments of adventure, mystery, horror, and most of all—heroics.”

That combination of adventure, mystery, horror, and heroism is one that Lovecraft perfected, and that we as gamers have continued to perpetuate through our love of games like the Call of Cthulhu RPG, Arkham HorrorMansions of MadnessA Study in Emerald, and even Cthulhu Fluxx.

Big publishers like Fantasy Flight, Asmodee, and Portal are going all-in on Cthulhu titles. Only one question remains: will you embrace the madness and join the cult of the High Priest of the Great Old Ones? Or will you perish with other mortals in the coming age of darkness?

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(One final note: out of curiosity, I asked Richard what his favorite Cthulhu game designed by someone else was. His answer?

That one is easy. It would have to be Mansions of Madness, original design by Corey Konieczka and the 2nd edition by Nikki Valens. . . . There are just so many great things about the game; the miniatures and beautiful art on the cards and location tiles, the variety and depth of the stories that are told with the mystery unraveling as the game proceeds, and the combat system that really brings the story to life by creating the situation and story for each attack and the skill that will be used. It is innovative and brilliant in my opinion. . . . It delivers adventure, mystery, great game play mechanics and depth of story in one of the most visually stunning games on the market.

So if you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure to grab Mansions of Madness from Amazon. If you haven’t played Arkham Horror, nab that for $45, too. And if you haven’t backed Fate of the Elder Gods, be sure to do that before the last vestiges on your grip of reality are torn away by the cosmic horrors lurking in the forgotten hollows under your very feet!)

Image credits: Fantasy Flight Games, Archon Games, Petersen Games, Portal Games, Gomeisa-Studio.

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