Often times toted as the ultimate gateway game, there’s no question Matt Leacock’s Pandemic has had a massive impact on the board game industry. Its success opened opportunities for several expansions and spin-offs. So in 2016, Z-Man Games seized one of these opportunities to create Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. It’s no secret the Lovecraftian mythos is well received by the gaming community. From Arkham/Eldritch Horror to Elder Sign to Cthulhu Wars, people go gaga for the tentacled titan. So it seems like a no-brainer to marry one of the most popular board games of all time with the beloved Cthulhu mythos. But does it work?
(Disclaimer: Much of this review is written as if the reader has some familiarity with the original Pandemic.)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Other-worldly gates have been opened by cultists, and the Ancient Ones are preparing to–Oh, so you have heard this one. Of course you have. This is the same idea as nearly every Lovecraftian game. Defeat monsters, fight back the acolytes, and seal the gates before Cthulhu arrives.
The box shows 40 minutes. Our longest game came in right around there, while our shortest was about 30 minutes. I have heard some people mention losing even before all players had a turn. The decks, constructed randomly, have a strong impact on the game’s length and difficulty.
My biggest gripe is more of a personal matter, but perhaps I’m not the only one. Due to a lack of flow, the set-up page trips me up every time. The graphic design just isn’t intuitive. Again, this one might just be one me.
Gone are those little plastic cubes and pawns. Instead, we have wonderful miniatures to push around the board. Each of the seven playable characters comes with its own unique figure. The cultists and Shoggoth minis (essentially serving the same purpose as the disease cubes) go a long way to strengthening the theme. Another positive is the artwork. As expected, it’s dark and gloomy, but it’s also hauntingly beautiful. The art on both the Ancient Ones and Relic cards highly impressed me.
Much of this game follows the same pattern of vanilla Pandemic. Players collect a set number of specifically colored cards (Clue Cards) and use them to accomplish a goal (Seal a Gate). I found this format fun the first time around, and it holds up once again. But as fun as Reign of Cthulhu is–and it truly is–we found it to be a bit too light. We never felt that tension Pandemic is so good at rendering. Much of this is due to the game being too easy. Players can almost always get to and alleviate an issue before it becomes a problem. One thing I enjoyed about the original–well, maybe not while playing–is its ability to make the world feel enormous. If you’re in Tokyo and yellow disease cubes begin to build in Johannesburg, you better haul ass. Need to trade a card with a fellow player? Both of you need to get to one specific city on the board. In P:RoC, there are only four types of cards to trade and players need only be in specific regions, not locations.
These all seem rather negative, so let’s get to the positive. First, NO OUTBREAKS! Those who’ve played Pandemic know exactly why this makes me so happy. That’s not to say there’s no punishment for neglecting to maintain a clean board. Instead of spreading with a fourth Cultist, an Awakening Ritual occurs. Here’s the most important addition to the original. Each time an Ancient One awakens, a new negative effect triggers. Some of these effects are permanent (sealing a gate takes an extra Clue Card) while some are one time (players must discard a portion of their hand). Also, there are more of these cards than are needed in a single game, and the order in which they appear varies, so players never know just how these cards will affect the game. The last significant change is that players must manage their sanity. As in many Cthulhu games, events can cause characters to become insane. If this happens, characters, each unique, have certain reactions. Thankfully, players who’ve gone insane are not out of the game, and they even have a chance to gain back their sanity tokens.
The big question for many people is, “Is Reign of Cthulhu worth owning if I already have Pandemic?” For me, I’m glad to have both on my shelf. P:RoC may have many of the same mechanisms, but between the artwork, Ancient Ones, maintaining sanity, and the miniatures, the theme is strong enough to set this game apart from the original. And while it might be a bit too easy, it makes a great introduction to the world of Pandemic.