Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu takes a well-established formula for cooperative disease control, and transports it to Lovercraft’s New England, where a team of investigators will need to fight off Cultists, prevent the locals from being consumed or driven mad by Shoggoths, and generally hope that the Old Ones don’t awaken and devour the world. All whilst they seek victory by sealing all 4 Gates to other worlds.
This game has generated a lot of hype by combining one of the biggest franchises in gaming right now, with an enduring popular theme, but it is any good? Let’s find out.
Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu: a box full of Madness
At first glance, the contents of the box for Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu looks quite a bit like a normal Pandemic game – you have a map of various locations, divided into four colours, and connected by lines you can travel along. There is a deck of cards to generate bad things happening, and a deck of cards for you to collect. The deck mostly contains places, but with some unique useful things shuffled into it (more on this later).
When you look closer though, there are differences. Instead of Meeples, you have plastic investigator figures, and instead of disease cubes, there are little cultists. Breaking new ground entirely, are the larger Shoggoth models, which have no direct comparison to standard Pandemic.
The board art for Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is really nice, as is the card-design. Overall, I really liked the aesthetics of this, and the component quality feels solid.
What do we do? How does it play?
For anyone not familiar with Pandemic games, each turn in Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu follows the same sequence. Firstly you take 4 actions – typically movement, removing bad stuff from the board, or swapping cards with other players. Then you draw two cards from the player deck- normally cards that you are trying to collect (Arkham, Dunwich, Kingsport, or Innsmouth), but shuffled in you’ll also find 4 “Evil Stirs” cards which ramp up the speed at which things disintegrate into madness. Finally, you reveal cards from a location deck and add cultists to the locations indicated.
As befits a Lovecraft game, there are many, many ways to lose Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu, and only 1 way to win. You win by sealing all 4 gates on the board – something you can do by going to the gate, and using one of your actions to discard 5 location cards of the matching colour. You lose if you run out of Cultists, if you run out of Shoggoths (there are only 3), if all characters are insane at the same time, or if Cthulhu awakens and devours the world.
With Great Power comes great… insanity?
Each character in Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu has two sides – their sane side and their insane side. Insanity is always a big theme in Cthulhu Mythos games, and the implementation in this game is simple and thematic. You start out sane, with 4 actions plus a special ability or two and you have 4 sanity tokens to enable you to keep track of how sane you are.
As you play the game, your sanity will be eroded. Various effects in the game force you to roll the sanity dice and that can make you lose tokens. Once you reach zero, you flip your card and become insane.
A character’s insane side has 1 fewer action than their sane side, and their special power will be reduced or altered. It’s worth noting that not all characters are created equal. Some characters have starting powers that are significantly more useful than others, but these are typically the ones who have the more significant drawbacks once insane.
As an example, let’s consider The Doctor and The Hunter. The Doctor is a very generic character, and a direct copy of a character from the regular Pandemic, (the Generalist), which has 5 actions instead of 4. Once insane he has 4 actions (as opposed to everyone else’s 3).
The Hunter has 2 very powerful abilities: she can remove all cultists in a location for a single action (instead of the standard 1 action per cultist, again this is a power copied directly from regular Pandemic), and she can remove a Shoggoth for 1 action (it normally takes 3). However, once she goes insane, she loses the Shoggoth-busting power, and has to roll a dice when entering an empty location for the first time on her turn, with the potential to actually add cultists to the board. Likewise, the Reporter has more powerful movement abilities when sane, taking buses to anywhere and everywhere, but loses the power to catch the bus at all when insane.
I really like these features of Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu, both the chance of going insane as a whole, and the drawbacks that some characters bring once insane. The risk/reward calculation of taking a powerful character vs taking a character with an innocuous insane condition adds a level of choice to set-up, and may impact how you play the game as you go along – you’d like to use that gate to travel to the other side of the board, but can you afford to risk the sanity roll? You can recover your sanity – by sealing a gate, but it’s something you’re unlikely to manage more than once, so the drawbacks are not to be underestimated.
Outbreaks? No. Awakenings!
In regular Pandemic, an attempt to place a 4th cube of a given disease on the board will trigger an outbreak – initially this just adds a cube of that disease to each adjacent city, but ultimately reaching 8 outbreaks will end the game.
In Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu there are no outbreaks, but instead there are awakenings. When you would place a 4th Cultist in a Location, or when a Shoggoth activates on an open gate, or simply when you reveal an “Evil Stirs” card, a new Old One awakens.
The Old Ones; mighty figures from the Lovecraftian Pantheon have no direct parallel in regular Pandemic, but are drawn from a randomised deck, and they each have their own horrific power. Some will be instant, taking sanity or cultists when they are revealed, whereas others with have ongoing effects that prevent you from taking certain actions, or triggering particular abilities.
The presence of the Old Ones means that suffering 2 or 3 Awakenings early on in the game will actively hamper you throughout the rest of the game. It’s also worth noting that unlike regular Pandemic, where the number of bad cards revealed each turn is tied to the number of epidemics, in Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu, it is tied to the number of awakenings. That means that a bad start can jack the rate up from the word go. The fact that the Old Ones are randomised and not all of them will be used every game also introduces a nice level of additional variety and replayability to the game. The final Old One is always Cthulhu, and his appearance means the end of the game (and, indeed, the end of the world as we know it).
The Main Event: Relics of Ancient Power
Aside from the place cards people are trying to collect in order to reach ultimate victory, Pandemic veterans will also be expecting cards that they can play for a one-off powerful effect. Rather than a vaccination programme or a mobile hospital, Investigators in Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu can call on the aid of powerful Eldritch relics. The big difference between playing a relic and playing an event, is that using a relic typically requires the rolling of the sanity dice, potentially exacting a high price for whatever benefit you extract from it, and meaning that you need to think carefully about which ones you use and when.
Again, the risk/reward aspect of this is really interesting. Some cards like the Elder Sign are really powerful, as they can make an entire town safe with no danger of further cultists or Shoggoths appearing there. That said, it does add to the already considerable randomness of the game, which can get frustrating at times.
Pandemic Veterans – reason to buy?
I own the original Pandemic game, and the first expansion. I’ve not bought into all the subsequent waves or spin-offs, although I have got my eye on Pandemic Iberia.
There have been a fair few threads cropping up on Board Game Geek about how Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is too easy to offer any meaningful challenge to Pandemic veterans. That wasn’t our experience at all. Playing this in both 2-player and 4-player games, we repeatedly got trounced, both on easy and standard difficulty. As I’ve noted above, Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu punishes you for early awakenings in a way that the regular game just doesn’t for a couple of outbreaks.
The Shoggoths are also particularly horrendous creatures: the need for 3 actions to defeat one makes it almost impossible to take one out unless you can get to its location in a single action, and the requirement to roll a sanity dice when you enter the Shoggoth’s space means that you risk going insane just as you prepare to vanquish the beast – perfectly thematic but rather frustrating.
Travel generally is more limited than in a standard game of Pandemic, both due to limited networks and the fact that this particular corner of New England is not a sphere, so you can’t leave the board off of the left-hand edge and re-appear on the far-right. As a result, a problem occurring on the far side of the board can be far more challenging to get to. It’s also worth noting that whereas in regular Pandemic you improve the transport networks as you build more research stations, in Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu, your movement is increasingly hindered as you close Gates, and can no longer use them to teleport to the next town.
Cultists still hang around sealed gates – unless you can get rid of them with an Elder Sign
A major issue afflicting players of Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is the lack of reward for success – Cultists don’t get any easier to remove once their local gate is sealed, and the concept of eradication has no direct parallel. The only benefit (aside from being a step towards ultimate victory) of sealing a gate in Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu, is that the Shoggoth has further to go before he can escape the board and awaken another old one.
New to the party? There’s plenty of room
If you haven’t played Pandemic before, you have the question of whether to go for the original game first, or for Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu. Ultimately, I think that’s a matter of preference, and your thoughts on the theme will greatly impact your decision. Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu isn’t a deep, immersive, narrative-driven game like Mansions of Madness, but it does have a Lovecraftian feel, a sense of battling these dark and sinister forces.
Original Pandemic, saving the world from illness, is probably a lighter, more family-friendly theme, and the resulting game is probably a bit more abstract.
Overall, I think that Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is a slightly sharper, more well-honed game, and it offers more variety out-of-the-box than original Pandemic. That said, if you’re going to play the game to death, the fact that this has no expansions, (whereas original Pandemic has 3), does limit your options for spicing up your games later.
For me, the main thing was that Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu is good fun, even when we lose, and I feel like it has plenty to offer in terms of new options: the way that location cards are handled, the risk/reward elements, the relic cards, and the whole approach to insanity, the awakenings, and the Old Ones all feel like they offer plenty of new experiences, and I’m happy to have both this and the original game sitting in my collection.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.