Cthulhu Realms Review

andysmTo close out our month of Augusthulhu, we are reviewing Cthulhu Realms, a deck-building game about mysterious cults, sanity-shattering artifacts, eldritch locations, and some rather hilarious art.

Designed by Darwin Kastle, Cthulhu Realms is sort of an oddity.  Emerging from the primordial darkness just in time for Gencon this year, this small-box deckbuilder, published by Tasty Minstrel Games (Harbour, Eminent Domain, other awesome stuff), may at first appear to be a re-theme of Star Realms.  Indeed, the comparisons are obvious and necessary – Darwin ‘Awesome First Name’ Kastle also designed Star Realms, so there can be no accusations of forgery.  However, is Cthlulhu Realms anything more than just a (very well illustrated) reskin?

jessmJess:  Well, yes and no, I guess.

andysmAndrew:  How can something be both true and untrue?  MADNESS!

More like Beyond The Star Realms, am I right? Haha, up to! Just me? Ok, I'll see myself out.
More like Beyond The Star Realms, am I right? Haha, up top! Just me? Ha…Ok, I’ll see myself out.

Last year, Star Realms absolutely supernova’d (that’s a word, right?) onto the scene, delivering an incredibly tight, fun deck-building experience for anyone with $15 to spare and a friend to play against.  In the face of classic deckbuilders like the mighty Dominion and Thunderstone, Star Realms was agile and accessible, bringing everything you needed to play a 2-player game in a single deck.

With smartly designed mechanics and a deck of cards that somehow all felt overpowered, Star Realms was and remains an absolute gem of a game that totally deserves its own dedicated review (::adds Star Realms to Ye Olde Liste of Perpetule Reveue Queue::).  However – if this is what we have found among the stars, what, perchance, lies beyond the stars?

The tentacle approves!
The tentacle approves!

Beyond the knowledge of man awaits cyclopean darkness, an ancient, unknowable nightmare, defined by what it is not; a place of tentacles and terror, of hungry emptiness and –

jessmJess:  CATHULHU!  That’s awesome!!!

See that cultist on the left? I feel like that all the time around here.
See that cultist on the left? I feel like that all the time around here.

…Let’s start with the basics (which will be incredibly familiar if you’ve played Star Realms).  In Cthulhu Realms, all players start with an identical basic deck of 10 cards.  On each turn, you will play cards from your hand to acquire new cards, to deal damage to your opponent’s sanity, and to restore your own.  First one to drain all the sanity from their opponents wins!

andysmAndrew:  Sort of like high school.

jessmJess:  Or arguing with the cats.  Though honestly, who would be so foolish as to do that?

andysmAndrew:  I’d actually rather argue with the cats than go back to high school, but I see what you mean.

Set up for a 3-player game.
Set up for a 3-player game.

Between you and your opponents is a market of available cards.  Each turn, you will have the opportunity to add more powerful cards to your deck which will make future turns even more effective.  Some cards let you draw additional cards, some deal tons of damage, and some combo off each other to produce really big effects that would be otherwise impossible for single cards.

The game has a sense of humor that cracks me up constantly
The game has a sense of humor that cracks me up constantly

andysmAndrew:  The combos are really worth talking about, because the concept of ‘ally bonuses’ was intrinsic to Star Realms.  The basic idea was, for nearly every card, as long as you played another card of the same suit that turn, you would trigger potent bonus.  It was a simple, clever mechanic that encouraged you to build your deck a certain way to best take advantage.

Cthulhu Realms features a similar combo mechanic, but it is ever-so-slightly more complex.  Instead of just requiring you to have played another card of the same suit, you might need to have played a certain type of card, or have a location in play, or have Abjured (Trashed, in the Star Realms vernacular) a card this turn to trigger the bonus.

jessmJess:  It’s not as simple as ‘play as many green cards as possible, laugh as opponent dies’ (darn-blast the Blob!); Cthulhu Realms is just a teensie bit more brain-burny (fittingly), but it doesn’t feel fussy or overdone.

The illustrations really are worth calling out specifically, too.  The art in Cthulhu Realms is hilarious and beautifully done, somehow complimenting the horror theme perfectly.  The production value is top-notch, in line with basically every other Tasty Minstrel Game out there.

A small sampling of the madness. The all-icon card effects become second nature after a while, but your score-tracker also doubles as a cheat sheet for them. Convenience abounds!
A small sampling of the madness. The all-icon card effects become second nature after a while, but your score-tracker also doubles as a cheat sheet for them. Convenience abounds!

The other major difference between Cthulhu Realms and its sci-fi cousin is the fact that Cthulhu Realms plays up to 4 players right out of the box (Star Realms required you to purchase additional decks to do this).  Cleverly, instead of having everyone purchasing from the same offer of cards, in a 3 and 4 player game, the cards on offer will sit between you and your opponents and you are restricted to purchasing only from the rows to which you are adjacent.  It adds a little complexity and strategy to the game, much to its benefit.

Vote Cthulhu! Why choose the lesser evil? Also, we'll beat the tar out of you otherwise.
Vote Cthulhu! Why choose the lesser evil? Also, we’ll beat the tar out of you otherwise.

jessmJess:  And they included Sanity trackers!

andysmAndrew:  Yeah, that’s a big deal to me.  Star Realms had these cards used to keep track of Influence (hit points), but it was so cumbersome and annoying.  Cthulhu Realms totally handles that much better.

Cthulhu Realms is more than just Beyond The Star Realms (I still think that title is damn clever, though).  Though the games are definitely similar, they cannot be accused of being the same, and I honestly do have room for both on my shelf (especially since they are both small-box games).

As someone who likes both sci-fi and horror (if you can call the hilarious illustrations in Cthulhu Realms ‘horror’), neither theme edged out the other and, gameplay-wise, there is just enough difference between the two to justify Cthulhu Realms as its own game.

And at the ludicrously low price-point that it now occupies and taking into account its potential to play more than just 2 players, Cthulhu Realms may just barely beat out the otherwise-amazing Star Realms as a go-to small box deckbuilder!

jessmJess:  Honestly though, once Cathulhu showed up, there was never any real competition.

I have no words.
I have no words.

(Total disclosure of awesomeness – TMG sent us this copy for review purposes. No matter how cool they are, their generosity didn’t influence our review)

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