Elder Demigod

The phrase “Cadillac Game” has been used to describe Cthulhu Wars in the past. It’s a Kickstarter poster child, the kind of game that could only exist in the modern hobby niche. Gigantic miniatures that defy the first half of that word, more expansions and add ons than the Black Goat has spawn, and a price tag to match. Unfortunately for folks who don’t want to spend hundreds on a single game it is also genuinely excellent, a top shelf choice for anyone who enjoys tabletop violence. As such for years folks have been asking Sandy Petersen and co to produce a version with standees, one that would allow for a cheaper entry point and actually be movable without the aid of a forklift. And they kiiiiind of delivered? Now we have Cthulhu Wars: Duel, a 2 player only offering in a smaller box with no miniatures and an adjusted ruleset. 2p area control isn’t an especially common niche for a lot of reasons and while this game does manage to translate CW to a head-to-head environment fairly well, it doesn’t quite get there in one piece.

From a production standpoint the game is, as intended, less ostentatious than the original. We’ve got a much smaller box, board, and standees instead of plastic totems. The art on them is a bit dark but the silhouettes are distinct so it makes identifying which creatures are which easy, doubly so if you’re used to CW already. There was a strange choice to include a total of 10 dice when the game easily has individual sides rolling more than that during big fights, so we chucked in some extras to avoid having to remember how many kills and pains we rolled. Beyond that, no complaints. It’s an excellent smallification of CW while retaining its sense of scale and the prospect of actually being able to take it places is an exciting one.

Obviously turning a group game into an exclusively 2p one requires a rules overhaul, though not as severe of one as you may expect. Many of the changes are subtle; a numbers tweak on a faction ability here, an adjustment to the order of game phases there. By far my most favorite change is the addition of Decay as a constant threat. Once one player spends all of their power the other player’s actions gradually get more and more expensive until they’re eventually forced to pass, circumventing the common tactic of everyone trying not to make the first move in the original game. Fast aggressive play is the way of the day here as you’re more likely to get full value from your resources that way, with players often racing to be the first to initiate combat on their terms, and that makes CWD exciting in ways CW sometimes isn’t.

Yet, there were reasons that the original CW was never a 2 player game. Most dudes-on-a-map games aren’t, often suggesting a minimum player count of 3. They’re too reliant on alliances, on multi-way combat, on “no she’s totally winning fight her FIGHT HER” at their core. I don’t think I ever truly realized just how social of a game vanilla Cthulhu Wars is until I played CWD. It still feels like you’re playing a turn based riff on an RTS video game, which makes sense given Petersen’s design history in video games, but CW was always mostly played above the table. Negotiation, alliances, and betrayal were all standard practice and could all easily happen in a single round of play, then again in the next. It gave the game a great emotional core, one that encouraged players to revisit again and again just to try new strategies. And unfortunately CWD just cannot replicate that feeling.

With only one opponent there’s no reason to pump the brakes on attacking them. Doubly so thanks to another rules change – gaining points for every kill – which does succeed at further incentivizing aggression but also makes other means of gaining points a lot less attractive. Hurting your opponent AND scoring points? That’s efficient! And it’s intentional, but it means that every action you take in CWD also has to serve in slapping your opponent upside the head. No fancy machinations, no spreading yourself thin on purpose for strategic reasons without how many units you lose, because now every single one that gets pinged pulls victory that much further from your grasp.

Admittedly some of this is exacerbated by the two factions included in this particular box. The Great Cthulhu VS Black Goat matchup feels wonky, in large part because Cthulhu is and has always been extremely straightforward to play effectively and Black Goat isn’t. Is it balanced? Based on my plays I believe so, but only after the Black Goat player gets several games in and fully understands how to apply pressure on Cthulhu without putting Shub at too much risk, because if they lose her they almost certainly lose the game. This does mean that Cthulhu is a great option to hand to newbies as they should be able to compete fairly easily, but that will matter more once additional CWD sets come out and other matchups are actually possible. Right now the internet is full of people claiming imbalance where there doesn’t appear to be any, as is gaming tradition, but the lopsided learning curve still serves to make the game feel more awkward than it actually is. I suspect it will come into its own with future releases and seeing how factions like Crawling Chaos or my beloved Tcho Tcho translate to 2p is going to be interesting, but we aren’t there yet.

My experience with CWD leaves me torn. On one hand it’s impressed folks I’ve played it with who aren’t familiar with its bigger brother, and the changes to the ruleset that optimize it for 2p make me optimistic for the system as a whole once it’s expanded with more factions and maps. On the other, I have trouble calling this box in and of itself a winner and would struggle to recommend it as-is. This is very much one of those games that you should try before buying and credit where credit’s due, PG has provided an official TTS mod for that exact purpose. Time, and additional content, will tell how just how successful this twist on CW‘s formula truly is. For now it’s a base hit waiting on a stronger hitter to get it home.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.