So I’m writing this around Halloween (which should give you a good idea of how long it takes for a reviewed game to exit my buffer — I think I drafted Onitama’s review in like, July, and I still haven’t posted that one), and what better way to celebrate Halloween (or, at this point, the winter holiday of your choosing) than with vaguely spooky games? While there are many spookier than Don’t Mess with Cthulhu (like Betrayal at House on the Hill or its expansion, Widow’s Walk, which I published before this one despite writing it long after), it’s an interesting enough game that I figure I should give it a look.
In DMWC, you find yourself with a dilemma — Cthulhu is about to wake up and rise to destroy the world, and you might see that as kind of a problem. The problem is, not all of you think that it’s that bad, since some of you are cultists of Cthulhu and desire nothing more than a hundred years of darkness and madness or whatever. I’m not super familiar with the mythos. Anyways, the Investigators need to find Elder Signs to prevent Cthulhu’s waking, and the Cultists want to end everything. Will you be able to achieve your desires, mad as they might be?
So setup’s really easy. You’ll find a flashlight token and some character tokens:
Shuffle the characters and deal each player one, face-down. If you are playing with four players, remove an Investigator token before doing this.
Next, you’ll find some investigation cards:
As you might be able to tell from the greenness and the tentacles, that’s Cthulhu, and he wants to awaken and reign over insanity or whatever. The fern-y looking things are Elder Signs, and that’s the only way to keep him asleep. The blank slate cards are Futile Investigations. They’re just nothing, so I’ll probably call them blank cards outside of Setup.
You’ll shuffle them and deal them out, but use different counts of cards for different player counts:
- 4 players: Remove 2 Elder Signs and 8 Futile Investigation (blank) cards. You will have 20 cards total.
- 5 players: Remove 1 Elder Sign and 4 Futile Investigation (blank) cards. You will have 25 cards total.
- 6 players: Use all 30 Investigation cards.
That’s pretty much most of the setup, to be honest. Shuffle the Investigation cards you’re using and deal five out to each player (this will use all the cards, which is also a good sanity check [pun intended]). Give the flashlight token to a player; they will be the first Active Player. When your play area looks like this, you’re ready to start:
So here’s the thing. The game is pretty simple, and takes place over four rounds. Here’s how you win:
- Investigators win if all Elder Signs are revealed. There is one Elder Sign in the game for every player, so if you’re playing with six people you need to reveal six Elder Signs.
- Cultists win if Cthulhu is revealed or if the game ends without all Elder Signs being revealed. That’s a bit tougher since there’s only one Cthulhu, but the Cultists can run out the clock.
With that in mind, let’s talk about how the game is played.
So you just received five cards. Check them and your Character token (to see if you’re an Investigator or Cultist) and then shuffle the cards and lay them flat face-down in front of you in a row, like this:
You cannot look at them again for the rest of the round, and you don’t know which card is which. At this point, players can claim what cards they have. You will probably hear “I have X Elder Signs” or “I have nothing” or maybe even “I have Cthulhu”. Note that you do not have to tell the truth, and it might be important to you to lie, even if you are an Investigator. Why is this important? Well, the player with the flashlight is the first player who gets to do what’s called “investigating” in the game.
To investigate, place the flashlight on a card belonging to another player, like so:
That card is revealed! If it’s Cthulhu, the Cultists immediately win the game, so if you’re not a Cultist, try not to do that. If it’s an Elder Sign, set it out in the center where all players can see it, and if it’s a Futile Investigation card, set it aside. Now, the player you just investigated gets to investigate someone else! When you pass the flashlight you are essentially designating them as the next player to play, so be careful that you’re giving power to the right person!
Each round has the same number of turns as players, so in a given round with six players you will take six turns. Note that due to the way turn order is set, some players might not get to play in a given round. Not only is that allowed within the rules, often that’s a thing you want to have happen, but I’ll talk more about that in strategy.
Once a round is over, remove the Futile Investigation cards from the game and leave the Elder Signs somewhere where people can see them. Now, deal each player N – 1 cards, where N was the number of cards you had in the previous round. If you just finished the fourth round and didn’t find the last Elder Sign, the Cultists immediately win the game. Time is of the essence. The next round starts with the player who was holding the flashlight when the last round ended. Play continues until one team wins!
Note that the game provides Insanity Tokens as a multi-game variant option (similar to affection tokens in Love Letter or whatever they want to be called in the Lost Legacy series). If you lose the game, take an Insanity Token and start another game. Once any player has taken three Insanity Tokens, the “multi-game experience” ends and the player with the fewest Insanity Tokens wins!
Player Count Differences
So I haven’t tested the three-player variant, so I can’t speak as much to that, but having played at 4, 5, and 6 I’d say I slightly recommend it at 4 or 5 over 6, though it’s certainly not bad at 6. The major reason why I say that is because at 6 you’re sort of forced into certain patterns of thinking if you’re not careful (since you’re guaranteed two Cultists) whereas at 4 or 5 it’s possible to have only one Cultist, which I think makes the game a smidge more interesting. Note that this is, as far as player count preferences go, a very, very light preference, so don’t take it as gospel.
Other than that, they scale the length of the game to player count, so I don’t have much else to say about it. You’ll always get five cards, no matter how many people you’re playing with.
There are definitely some interesting strategic decisions you can make, but since this is a social deception / deduction game, be careful that your team agrees with your strategy, otherwise you’ll just look like a Cultist since you’re doing something weird.
- I find that there are reasons to lie as both a Cultist and an Investigator. Unlike, say, Secret Hitler or Avalon where I don’t see many reasons for good players to lie about anything, DMWC and The End Is Nigh both share a decent reason for good players to maybe not be 100% forthright, since bad players can win by messing with good players’ cards. If you’re an Investigator, you might not want to immediately claim that you have Cthulhu, instead claiming that you have nothing so that nobody will investigate your cards. It’s probably fine-ish to tell if you have Cthulhu in the first couple rounds since you have a 20-25% chance of finding it (relatively low), but keep that information close to your chest if you’re worried about a Cultist finding out.
- As a Cultist, you should usually tell some kind of lie. I mean, there’s a whole valid strategy around gaining trust and then acting against the team in the final round, but that’s assuming you get lucky with how the cards are dealt. In lieu of that, it’s often better to make the game more entropic and chaotic by making it impossible to tell who really has what. For instance, you might claim that you have two Elder Signs when you only have Cthulhu in the hopes that that will convince another player to investigate your cards, or you might claim that you have zero Elder Signs when you have two to convince players to avoid your cards.
- Remember to check your math. It’s not a good idea to claim that you have three Elder Signs in the first round if you don’t, because if the other players reveal three of your cards and don’t find at least one Elder Sign, you had to have been lying, so they’ll distrust you. Claiming two Elder Signs in the first round (even if you have none) is generally considered a fair Cultist play, since it’s possible (mathematically) for both of those Elder Signs to be the cards that didn’t get revealed. That said, the other players probably won’t buy that.
- Cultists, work with your partners. If there are potentially two Cultists in play, try to lie in tandem. One might overstate their Elder Sign count while the other understates it or something. Again, entropy is your friend, here.
- Investigators, always expect that two people are lying. When you tally up the claims, try to keep in mind that there are usually two people who are incentivized not to tell the truth. See if that makes any claims seem suspicious.
- Sometimes you just gotta go for it. There have been times where, as an Investigator, I’ve told the just-outed Cultist, “I’m on your team; I’m the other Cultist”. This is a totally fine strategy to try and trick them into giving up control to you, especially if it’s known that there’s another Cultist. If everyone says they’re the Cultist, then it’s pretty difficult to figure out who is actually on your Cult Team.
- I wouldn’t try to factor the Insanity Tokens into your strategy, if you play with them. The game is hard enough to win without trying to worry about blocking a win for someone on your team because the multi-game is going to end or something. Just play for fun.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Short, per round, at least. If you’re playing a longer game with the Insanity Tokens then it’s a bit more typical in length, closer to Avalon or Secret Hitler.
- Fun theme. I really didn’t think I’d go for the Cthulhu theme, but it’s kind of right for this game, in my opinion.
- The art is great. Really sells the theme and the Investigators are fairly diverse, which is always nice.
- Right amount of “talk-iness” for a social deduction / deception game. I think you can chat about other stuff or shoot the breeze while playing this, and I like that. It doesn’t feel as intense or stressful as some of the other ones that I’ve played in the past.
- Pretty easy to learn. I think, like most social deduction games, you need a few plays before the “expected pattern of behavior” (both for the game and the group) stabilizes for you and makes sense, but it’s definitely got an advantage here over, say, the One Night games since you don’t have to learn 10+ roles.
- Good quality pieces. I think the Character Tokens and the flashlight are absolutely great. Even the Insanity Tokens feel nicely made. Good work, there.
- The card size frustrates me a bit. My cards are getting a bit grimy from being played a lot, so I was going to sleeve them but they’re not quite standard (closer to, say, Dominion in terms of size) so I’d have to buy different sleeves which I’m not like overwhelmingly enthusiastic about.
- I’m probably 50/50 on the Insanity Tokens. On one hand I feel like they’re a great way to “balance out” the randomness of individual games, but on the other hand I don’t feel like a multi-game series makes me feel any better about the inherent randomness of the game. Again, I have the same thoughts about Love Letter and the Lost Legacy series. Generally I’m down to just play round and round of this without keeping score, as much.
- Sometimes it’s just random luck. You might have played perfectly as a Cultist and then you never drew the right cards to actually do anything that game, so you lost. It can be a bit frustrating, but it’s trying to place itself around a “filler” game in terms of length and weight, so … try not to worry about it too much. This can be a bit frustrating if you’re watching a player agonize over a decision when it’s essentially a coin flip, but this happens often, based on how the cards are dealt. If you’re looking for a pure strategy game with no randomness, this might not be for you.
- Sometimes you get left out. Secret Hitler has this problem as well at large player counts, but sometimes it’s possible that you did nothing and said nothing but, after a few rounds, you were named a Cultist by sheer process of elimination. It can be frustrating but there’s not much to do about it.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think Don’t Mess with Cthulhu is a great little game! I’d say if social deduction is your kind of game, it’s definitely worth giving a try! It was introduced to me at Pacificon and I was, admittedly, a bit skeptical at first (having passed on the Kickstarter), but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and really enjoyed it! It’s good if you’re looking to pass time with a small group between games, but it’s also got enough meat to it that you can actually spend a fair amount of time playing it (and, indeed, I have)! It’s got a non-offensive theme (I think–not sure how people feel about Cthulhu) and isn’t too hard to pick up and play while still being a fairly active social deduction game. I will admit that I think it can be played too much, but that’s a general critique I have of the entire social deduction genre.