Everything I know about H.P. Lovecraft and his works comes from how they are portrayed in board games. Most games want to capture the unspeakable horror of a giant octopus god sleeping under the sea, how just one look upon it will drive you to madness. Don’t Mess with Cthulhu isn’t concerned about that. Yes, Cthulhu plays a crucial role in how the game plays out, but the real nightmare doesn’t come from below. It’s sitting to your left and just handed you a flashlight.
Everyone has a role to play, whether it’s as a selfless investigator just searching for a solution to the end of the world, or as a slimy cultist rooting for Cthulhu’s reign to begin. But with lower player counts, there’s uncertainty about the actual number of cultists in the game. Is this bad luck the work of a lone wolf or is there a cultist couple actively ruining your life? If you are a cultist, how can you spot a fellow lover of the dark arts? Players have to fight against a cloud of uncertainty from the very beginning.
Each round begins the same way, with cards being shuffled and dealt to players. You might be given nothing but cold leads, empty cards that do nothing to further the investigation. Or some Elder Signs could be sent your way, their feathery etchings revealing the secrets to locking away unspeakable horror. But you may end up being saddled with Cthulhu himself. Uh oh. Better keep that to yourself. Players then announce what they’re holding (lying if desired) and shuffle them face down in front of themselves. Every blend of these three types of cards, combined with your identity, changes the game drastically, even from round to round. What does an investigator say if they have 2 Elder Signs AND Cthulhu in their hand? How about a cultist with a bunch of fruitless investigations? Let’s find out! Here’s your flashlight.
When you are searching for Elder Signs, you can illuminate a piece of darkness that lies before any other player, but not yourself. Right from the start, you have to decide who to trust, but the game makes that intentionally foggy. You know you have valuable cards in front of you, but they’ve been shuffled. Built-in plausible deniability. This tiny shuffle gives cozy cover to the cultists and dips investigators in beautiful shades of gray. And when you hand over the flashlight, that player takes the next turn, so you’re not only looking for Elder Signs, you’re looking for a partner who will hopefully keep a good thing going.
Players will flip a number of cards equal to the number of people in the game. Revealing Elder Signs propels the game toward victory for the investigators, while futile investigations could stall the game long enough for the cultists to finish their dark deeds. If Cthulhu if found, he shakes off his slumber to rise from the depths, driving the world to madness. Just what the cultists wanted. Yes, that means the game can end on the first card flip, which means your really messed up or you’re winning Cultist of the Month for sure.
Phew. We made it through the first round after revealing a few Elder Signs. Fantastic! Wait, why are you gathering all of the unflipped cards, shuffling, and dealing them out again? It’s because this game mutates and shifts every round, keeping you and your fellow “investigators” on your wingtipped toes. You’re never stuck with the same hand for long, whether that’s good or bad for your team.
Don’t Mess with Cthulhu revolves around revelations. With every flip of a card or pass of the torch, you could be gasping at the information just exposed. A reliable player could suddenly drop their act and demand to know who their sinister sibling is, only to announce later it was all a trap to draw evil from their hiding spot. An Elder Sign could be found among what was supposed to be useless rubble, shining a spotlight on the person now in charge of what that spotlight illuminates next. I’ve played this game over 100 times and it’s amazing how many twists I keep discovering. If M. Night Shyamalan is looking for material, I recommend he picks this one up.
There’s no moderator, eye-closing, voting, player elimination, or script because this game is powered by people. There’s only a few types of cards, and you’ll never need to pause to read your winning conditions in the middle of the game. The mechanisms blend into the background because they are the canvas that players paint on, not the paint itself. The color comes from the shouts of anguish, cheers of triumph, and plans well executed. And with a short playing time, you and your friends can keep churning out masterpieces of memories, each one unique and treasured.