Full disclosure: A preview copy of Arkham Ritual was provided by Ninja Star Games. I’m likely not going to focus on the art as much as gameplay, but keep in mind that these rules are subject to change, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
So, in a surprise twist, I’m taking a look at another Cthulhu game (or, from your perspective, the first Cthulhu game since I may or may not have published my Don’t Mess with Cthulhu review by now, despite it having been written for … some time). This one, however, is from the delightful people over at Ninja Star Games, who also made Wolf & Hound, a game with an amazing theme of herding sheep in the Alps, which I adored.
Anyways. In Arkham Ritual, you play as a team of journalists (surprisingly large at 7) who manage to anonymously sneak into a hidden underground ritual (hence the name) to potentially summon the Old Ones (specifically Cthulhu) into our dimension. Before you know it, you get wrapped up in the whole thing and the entire experience starts eating away at your sanity. Can you escape intact? Or will you succumb to the unfathomable?
So setup is actually really easy. There are 22 cards, each of which I will explain in Gameplay. Shuffle the deck:
Deal each player 1 card. DO NOT let any player look at their card. They should hold the card facing outward, away from them, like Hanabi.
Now, have every player except for one put their hand on the table. The player who doesn’t have their hand on the table is the Active Player. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to go! I can’t really do a setup picture here since it’s hard to show every player with their card face-out.
Alright, so, gameplay. A “game” of Arkham Ritual is made up of several “rounds” in which you score Insanity Tokens for losing. Each of these rounds is made up of several turns. Each turn starts with the Active Player drawing a card, looking at it, and passing it to another player, face-down.
Here’s how every turn works from that point forward:
- When you receive a card, take your hand off the table.
- Decide (without looking at the card) if you want to take the card, discarding your other card face-up to the center, or if you want to pass it to another player with their hand on the table. If there are no players with their hand on the table, the round ends. Otherwise, that player starts at Step 1.
Once the round ends, everyone reveals their cards. Generally, you win the round if you have a unique blue card. If you have a red card, or you have the same type of item as any other player, you lose (and so do they!).
So, in this case:
The single candelabra would win (unique blue card), and everyone else would lose (Ritual Dagger and Ancient Key are both red cards, and the two Grimoires match). The key thing is that when you lose a round, you gain an Insanity Token for every player that lost. So if just you lose, you gain 1 Insanity Token. If, say, five players lost, you’d gain five Insanity Tokens.
That said, as with so many games, there are some complications.
So, there are three each of five different types of items: two are blue, and one is red:
There are also seven … other cards:
I’ll talk about each in turn.
- Magical Orb: When you discard this card, you draw the top card of the deck and look at it. You then decide if you want to put it back on top or discard it to the center, face-down. This is a cool card. This is considered a blue card at the end of a round, if you’re still holding it.
- Elder Sign: When you discard this card, the round immediately ends. Sometimes pretty useful. This is considered a blue card at the end of a round, if you’re still holding it.
- Investigator: If you’re still holding this card at the end of a round, you discard an Insanity Token to the center. This is also a blue card.
- Cultist: If you’re still holding this card at the end of a round, you change the rules. Instead of red cards making you lose, blue cards make you lose, now. You still lose if you have the same type of item as someone else, blue or red. Note that the Cultist is a blue card, so the player holding the Cultist also loses. Sucks.
- Cthulhu: Does nothing when played or discarded, but is a red card at the end of the game. It only matters if another player has …
- Gate: There are two Gates. If a Gate is ever discarded and another player is holding Cthulhu, Cthulhu is immediately summoned. The player holding Cthulhu wins, and everyone else loses, regardless of what card they have (meaning that they will get # players – 1 Insanity Tokens instantly).
Lots of fun, there. The major thing is that the first player to 7 Insanity Tokens loses. All other players win! (Or, you could argue that the player[s] with the least Insanity Tokens win. You do you.)
Player Count Differences
I figure just that if you have fewer players you’ll play more rounds since your maximum “damage” is reduced (since you can’t take as many Insanity Tokens if everyone loses). That said, each player will have more turns per round (obviously), so you’ll have that going for you, which is nice. Your chances of having the same card as someone decrease a bit as well, since there are fewer players holding cards. That said, at higher player counts it tends to be the most chaotic. I think I like it at 5-7.
I wouldn’t say this is a super strategic game in that you can go in with a plan and come out having executed that plan well — you can often get left out of a round because you’re holding a red card, nobody will pass to you, and so you’re stuck with it. It can literally be impossible for you to win. That said, there are definitely some tactics you can do to try and either help others lose more or less, depending on which side of that line you think you fall on.
- Try to figure out your card. There are many ways to do that or to at least intuit it. By the end of the game, you should have it down to two cards (three if the Magical Orb was used and the player discarded the card they saw), since you can see everyone else’s card and every card that’s been played. If you can do that, you can figure out if you’re currently winning or losing. At the very least, try to figure out if you’re currently losing or “unsure”, as that gives you some insight as to what to do next.
- If another player has a Gate and you don’t see Cthulhu, try to get them to discard it. If you have Cthulhu, great! You win! If you don’t, well, you’ll find out and you get another player to discard a semi-unique blue card, bringing them closer to losing, which might be good for you?
- Don’t tell another player if they have Cthulhu. It’s better for everyone if they just discard it. Don’t imply it or try to convince anyone, just let them discard it.
- It’s totally encouraged to lie / bluff other players. If you’re already losing, try to talk them into discarding bad cards so that they won’t lose, meaning you’ll take fewer hits. If you’re winning, try to give them cards that will cause them to lose. To that end, listen to the table and try to figure out who is telling you things and why they might be.
- If everyone else looks like they’re winning, you might want to try and get a player to discard the Elder Sign and end the round. The round going on longer is bad for you if you’re already winning with them, and even worse for you if you’re already losing, as it’s likely that you either match with another player or more people will be forced into losing, giving you even more Insanity Tokens.
All in all, I’d just say try and feel it out each round.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Short and light. It’s a microgame, so, that’s helpful. Very easy to transport, too.
- Interesting mechanics. It feels very similar to competitive Hanabi (or at least it’s Deception: Murder in Hong Kong to Hanabi‘s Mysterium, a sentence that literally only makes sense in board gaming [if at all]).
- Seems built for stretch goals. I can imagine if the Kickstarter goes well there might be more cards with new abilities (or more art) added, though they’d have to be careful with the art since the game is somewhat built around five sets of the same icons.
- Definitely an opening game. I don’t think I could reasonably play this more than a few times in a night, which is fine, but it’s a great way to open up some gaming. I wouldn’t say it sustains my interest in the same way longer games do, but it’s not bad for a microgame.
- I think I’m still kind of Cthulhu’d out. Just not my particular cup of theme tea. It’s the same reason I haven’t picked up Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, though Iberia looks good.
- It feels kind of long, at times. Not in the worst way, but each turn can feel a bit lengthy. It’s nice that you always have some interaction, either by getting a card passed to you or by drawing a card and getting to do the passing, but some turns do feel like there’s not much to do, especially if you’re sort of “out” because nobody will pass you cards.
- I don’t feel much personal agency. I feel like I can really only help other people win or lose. I’d love the ability to change my own card, but it doesn’t seem like there is one. This can be a bit frustrating for some players (myself included).
- Fine line between acceptable and unacceptable table talk. For instance, it seems reasonable to just tell someone what card they have if you want them to discard it, but that also seems not in the spirit of the game? You might have to house rule that around, depending on how you feel about it. I feel like it should be explicitly prohibited in the rules, but I haven’t found anything to suggest it.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, this is a cool little game, especially if you’re looking for a quick way to open up a night. I imagine it’d go great with a Cthulhu night — maybe start with this, move into Don’t Mess With Cthulhu, and then go into Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and / or Arkham Horror? Could be a pretty cool evening. Might add in Betrayal at House on the Hill + Widow’s Walk. Anyways, if this seems up your alley, I’d recommend checking it out! I’ve enjoyed playing it.