Creating Azathoth

Creating Azathoth

Quick Note on the Pledge Manager

We had some hiccups in preparing the various credit giveaways for this project (related to backers who also backed the CATaclysm KS so they don’t pay extra on shipping, as well as other ones). Due to this, we will be launching the PM late next week.

NOTE: After the PM launches, it will only be open for a few short weeks (we are looking to close it towards the end of July). This is a major change from how we have normally run pledge managers in the past which normally stay open for several months. This one will be much shorter so we can get the reprint numbers to China faster and get the games to you sooner. 

Creating Azathoth

Let’s talk about how the Daemon Sultan Azathoth was designed (my version). Not the rules, but the actual concept and visuals.

First off, many people have noted that I used an odd approach to naming the avatars. Rather than stages or forms they are actually the three parts of the Fichtean dyad, and this is essential to the concept. You see, the philosophical way these work as as follows:

THESIS – represents some assertion. Example, “The universe is under a supreme entity’s direction.”

ANTITHESIS – represents the opposite of the assertion. “The universe is random and chaotic.”

SYNTHESIS – this reconciles the two previous concepts into a new, correct, whole. “The universe is controlled by a blind idiot.”

This is critical, because you cannot have a Synthesis without both the Thesis and the Antithesis existing. If we instead imagined Azathoth as three stages like a larva/pupa/adult, you could imagine the adult appearing by skipping over a previous stage. But a Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis only works in relationship to each other. Each of the three parts is necessary to the whole (well, technically you could have just the Thesis or the Antithesis by itself, but the Synthesis requires all).

So that is the philosophy of it. How about the appearance?

The Larvae

First let’s discuss the Larvae.

The Larvae are displayed as smaller, weaker, undeveloped forms of their respective adults. But Azathoth doesn’t “breed”. It’s not a species that needs to reproduce. It is a lone singularity, a terror at the center of the cosmos. So what is going on? Quite simply, the larvae are projections of Azathoth to all corners of the universe. A sorcerer can use one of these projections to “suck in” the greater reality that is Azathoth, and bring a real avatar of the Daemon Sultan to his presence. So they are actually more like trigger points, or if you will let me make an analogy from Youtube these are “thumbnails” of Azathoth – if you click on one, then Azathoth’s reality “loads up” and becomes awful reality.

The Thesis

The Thesis is “classic Azathoth” as it is often portrayed. Tendrils, mouths, and raw terror. This is the positif of Azathoth – the aggressive awful form. It grows cancerously until it fills all around it. It can devour, and converts what it eats into itself, growing logarithmically in speed and size until that unfortunate section of the universe is doomed.

The Antithesis

The Thesis, on the other hand, is Azathoth as the Big Bang – the cosmic explosion and destruction. This is Azathoth negatif – the cancellation of reality, the End of Everything. Instead of a growing, replicating mass of life (Thesis), you get a devouring hungry maw with no interior – just oblivion. This is the opposite of the burgeoning Thesis. Instead growing fat on the rest of existence, and leaving a giant monster in its place, this swallows the universe and leaves behind nothing – not even a black hole.

The Synthesis

This is one of the realities behind the growing tentacle-beast of Thesis and the destructive whirlpool of Antithesis – this is the entity whose other aspects are simply facets of the awful whole that is the Daemon Sultan. It has tentacles, yet the bulging spheres on the front in fact are the opposite of eyes – they project destruction, annihilating all that they rest upon, rather than taking in light or images. Thus the feral chaos that is Azathoth rules the cosmos.

But what about the OTHER Azathoth?

Of course we have another Azathoth figure, and it’s not obsolete. What the heck is Sandy thinking?

This is the projection of Azathoth that I regard this as the common form – when a mad sorcerer tries to contact the Daemon Sultan, conceiving of it as a sort of super-monster, this is what he gets – a sort of “shadow” of the Outer God. It has a form, and in fact you can see within the orbs and open “maws” the universe itself roiling, as though it surrounds and engulfs everything, instead of being at the center as it is usually imagined.

This form may take its shape in response to the mind and spells of the sorcerer, but it is a sort of sub-type of the reality that is Azathoth, bringing through a horror and a power that is much more difficult to dismiss than it is to summon.

Chaos and Daemon Sultan

Chaos and Daemon Sultan

The Cthulhu Wars factions are, obviously, extremely asymmetrical. But they have some features in common. All of them have some way of earning extra Elder Signs, and all of them have some kind of interesting Power bonus. Let’s talk about the latter.

Let’s take Black Goat for example – she has two Power bonuses – one obvious and one less-so. The first is the combination of her Red Sign spellbook with Dark Young. In effect, this gives her 3 extra super-cultists, who also can’t be captured (except by Tsathoggua, that cheater). Her other Power bonus is that she can get her monsters on the cheap with Thousand Young. She can combine this with her sometimes-maligned Fertility Cult ability to react extremely quickly to an enemy move.

Her Elder Sign bonus is Blood Sacrifice which she needs to get and use as early as possible. Unlike some factions’ Elder Signs, she is limited to just 1 special bonus one per turn, which means if Shub Niggurath is out on the second turn, she’ll probably get just 4 more. Not terrible, but not amazing.

Now let’s talk about your power bonuses as Daemon Sultan Power. You have three. First, your Psychosis ability, which places cultists for free (some conditions apply). Second, your spellbook requirement which lets all your rivals choose between 1 Power or 1 Doom – but you get the same. In a 4 player game, if all your rivals picked getting 1 Power, you’d end up with +3 Power. This one is kind of unreliable though, because those jerks will make their choice partly based on whatever they feel you need least at that moment. Your final Power bonuses are your Undirected Energy & Fiendish Growth spellbooks. The former straight up gives you Power, while the latter just gives you free units, which is sort of a shortcut.

Both Undirected Energy and Fiendish Growth require an Avatar (Thesis & Antithesis respectively). If the Avatar’s not in an area with an enemy, then these spellbooks are a wash. They cost 1 Power, and you earn 1 Power (or get a unit that costs 1 Power). Big whoop. You only start making a profit if you are in an area with a foe. If you can find an area with two foes, it’s even better though. Still, these are not going to make you rich – they’re maybe 1-3 extra Power per turn.

If you don’t count free units & monsters as “Power”, then during the course of the whole game you’re likely to end up with only 6-8 total bonus Power. Say 2 from your spellbook requirement, and another 4-6 for effective use of Undirected Energy during Turns 2-5. That’s not much, compared to the other factions. Nyarlathotep can pull in 3.5 a turn with Thousand Forms, and even more if he uses Harbinger for Power rather than Elder Signs. Yellow Sign can get 6-8 extra Power PER TURN once he’s on a roll.

SO you don’t get much Power, yet you have to spend a lot to win – you need 19 Power to awaken your Avatars, plus you will want at least one Ritual – maybe more – to take advantage of having three Great Old Ones in play.  How do you do it? (Why 19 Power – 8 for Thesis & Antithesis, 8 for Synthesis, and 3 for the 3 required Larvae.) It’s a good thing your cultists are free, and your gates difficult to steal. It’s also good that Antithesis eats a cultist from each enemy when awakened, because this helps slow down their response.

How about getting extra Elder Signs? Well, one I’ve already referenced – the fact that you have up to three Great Old Ones. A single Ritual gets you 3 Elder Signs, and that’s pretty great. But you may only be able to afford this once, on the last turn. However, you have another tool – your Traitors spellbook. This gives you an Elder Sign at the cost of a Chaos Gate and a Cultist. The Cultist is nothing – you’ll get him back free. The Chaos Gate is only a slight problem, since it costs just 1 Power to reclaim. So in effect you are spending 1 Power for an Elder Sign, which is amazing. Unfortunately, unless you’ve carefully set your plans, you can probably only do this once per turn. And if you HAVE gotten set up, you can still just do it twice. But you should try to do it every turn – that’s 3-4 more Elder Signs over the course of the game.

You need to be efficient and careful in spending Power, obviously. But you have another secret weapon – that you spread chaos and dissension among the other players.  Let’s look at how you do this.

ANIMATE MATTER & TRAITORS COMBO –  move your Chaos Gate into somewhere obnoxious, like another faction’s home area. Then Traitors away your cultist, replacing it with a cultist from a third faction. His cultist is now in a dangerous situation, and he must choose whether to protect or abandon that gate. Meanwhile the first faction must muster to attack. In either case, they’re focusing on each other. Not you.

AWAKEN AVATAR THESIS or AVATAR SYNTHESIS – you divide up Power among the enemies. Nothing says you have to be fair about this. Boost players who are less likely to harm you, or who are enemies of a mutual foe. Did Cthulhu just drive Sleeper’s out of his home area? Why not give all the Power to Sleeper so he can wreak vengeance? Did Crawling Chaos just roll “6” on his hated Thousand Forms die? Perhaps the other factions would appreciate an ability to strike back at him? Or, if Crawling Chaos only rolled a “1”, and is sad, you could cheer him up by pointing out how much you’d like NOT being targeted with Harbinger. Then give him some Power to hit the others.

Sandy’s Creative Curse

Now it’s story time.

I get nightmares. A lot. Some are even recurring nightmares. Some are one-offs. I suppose it makes sense – i spend my working hours immersed in Lovecraftiana, and much of my leisure hours are reading horror stories or watching scary movies.

Now, while I’m HAVING the nightmares, it’s not fun. When I’ve found my way into the secret room of one of my recurring dreams, thumbing through the yellowed papers and ancient books therein; and then IT comes … I’m petrified. Sometimes my wife shakes me awake, because I’m crying out as I sleep.

But – when I wake up, I think “that was pretty cool. I can use that.” And often the nightmare gets placed into an adventure or a game. A lot of my creepy ideas & revelations about Lovecraft’s monsters have come this way.

So I basically take the attitude that sleep-Sandy can suck it. Yeah, his dream life is awful, but waking Sandy can use it all!

Now you know.

 – Sandy P.

Daemon Sultan

Daemon Sultan

As Daemon Sultan, you need to react to what’s going on. Because of this nature of your faction, you can’t just make a plan from the start and stick with it. You have to be able to respond to the situation. This is really obvious right from the start, while you are placing your first, free, cultists using Psychosis. Where do you put them?

And when do you get your spellbooks? This is core to any faction. So let’s examine your spellbook requirements, and when you can take them.

One of each type of larva. There are three types, all of which cost 1 Power each. Since you need a gate to summon them, you can’t get this in the first turn.

An abandoned gate is on the map during Gather Power. In theory you could do this in the first Gather Power – if you are the last player, you can just abandon your gate. I wouldn’t recommend it though because you’ll be starting turn 2 with a bad power differential. And then someone will steal your gate first thing next turn. Instead, wait till you have Chaos Gates, and abandon one of them.

During the Doom phase, each other player gets either 1 Power or 1 Doom, and you get what they get. Again, you can’t get it the first turn, but you could kick off your second turn with this boost.

Awaken your Great Old One – you have three to awaken. Sadly, you can’t awaken any the first turn. Do the math. Building a Gate costs 3 Power. Summoning a Larva Thesis costs 1 Power. Now you’re out, and can’t take any more actions. Exception: if you can talk Sleeper into giving you a Power boost in the first turn, you can awaken Avatar Thesis. Lots of luck.

The bottom line is you’re at most going to have one spellbook as your second turn starts (the one where everyone gets Doom and Power). Early on, you can awaken Avatar Thesis, for 0-2 Power easily enough, for a second spellbook. Then build from here. But let’s check this out turn by turn. Let’s say it’s a 5 player game.


You have 4 Power and 0 Doom.

You recruit a cultist somewhere free, and keep doing this until you have at least 4-5 cultists in play. One or more might get captured. Obviously it’s good to avoid this if possible, but c’est la vie. It’s cheaper to recruit a new cultist than to defend one. You need to build 1 gate and summon 1 Larva Thesis this turn. That’s all four of your Power. Don’t do it till the end of the turn, when the other players are low on Power, so they don’t know where you’re going to be setting up.


You have 1 gate, and let’s say 5 cultists out. This gives you a start of 7 Power and 1 Doom. In the Doom phase you get your “everyone” spellbook. Let’s assume two of the other players took Doom and 2 took Power. This bumps you to 9 Power and 3 Doom. A logical spellbook to take is Animate Matter.

Animate Matter (Action: Cost 1) Flip this spellbook face-down. Move a controlled Chaos Gate from its Area to an adjacent Area, taking its cultist along. You cannot move to another player’s Start Area. If the new Area has an existing physical Gate, replace that Gate with the Chaos Gate.

As one of your first actions, you then create a Chaos Gate for 1 Power, following up with a Larva to guard it. You have 7 Power left, and now two guarded gates. You can now awaken Avatar Thesis to whichever gate seems more threatened. If you think you need more monsters & cultists, get a cost 0 Thesis. If you want a tougher Thesis, spend 1-3 Power on it. Say you get a 2 Power thesis. Now you have 5 Power.

Changing the Game

Changing the Game

I spend a LOT of time testing out my games before they get published. This is part of the legacy I inherited from the late lamented Ensemble Studios. I remember once attending a seminar at the Game Developer’s Conference with Greg Street (a fellow designer). The speakers were the designers of a popular and well-respected real time strategy game (like the ones Ensemble Studio produced). The following exchange happened.

Audience Member: Give us some tips on developing a real time strategy game.

Seminar Speaker: well it’s really important that you spend LOTS of time on playtesting.

(Greg and I look at each other and smile, sagely agreeing with the speaker.)

Seminar Speaker continues: we cannot over-emphasive the importance of playtesting.

(Greg and I nod vigorously in approval.)

Seminar Speaker finishes: In fact you may want to spend as much as THREE WHOLE MONTHS in playtest.

Greg and I stare at each other in disbelief and start to laugh. 

At that time, our current game, Age of Empires III, had been in daily playtests for more than 18 months! So clearly our world view was far more playtest-focused than these guys.

And I’ve maintained that view since then. I playtested The Gods War for 18 months after the initial design (from January 2014 to June 2016). I playtested Cthulhu Wars for 14 months, Orcs Must Die for about 12 months, and over a year for Planet Apocalypse and Hyperspace, my most recently designed games. There are three different things I look for during my playtests.

Speed of Play

I always want to speed up gameplay. Partly this is selfish (I can get more games in), but also I just simply like games better that move faster. I remember when Cthulhu Wars came out, people openly mocked my estimated play time of 90 minutes, only to find that this was actually the case. Lots of games under-estimate their play time, sometimes grossly (I’m looking at YOU Axis & Allies 1914). I don’t.

I am looking at two factors for speed of play. One is that I don’t want people to have to wait to do something. I want a quick turn-around per player. Second, I want the game overall to be short enough that you can get to it, teach the rules, and finish a game in a single evening.

Gods War lasts about a half-hour longer than Cthulhu Wars, mainly because of the Council phase, which takes a few minutes of discussion and often negotiation every turn (in contrast to Cthulhu Wars’ Doom phase, which is lightning-fast). I don’t mind this extra duration, because it doesn’t increase the time between making decisions. Instead, everyone is doing stuff in the Council phase, and stays involved.

Game Fun

Why play a game that’s not fun? I am always looking for things to modify or change that make the game more fun. What is “fun” to Sandy? Lots of things. One obvious thing is “making decisions that matter”. The Gods War has a plethora of these. A typical game ends with the top two scoring players often only 1-2 VP apart, which means literally every decision these players made may have affected the victory. Another fun thing is exploiting abilities or game features. The Chaos player gets to lord it over everyone else during the Chaos Rift segment, and this is always super-fun for him.

The Earth Gift Extinction is fun for Earth. This ability lets you earn a Rune when a kill is scored in a battle containing her Behemoth. And if the Behemoth itself gets killed, you earn an extra Rune. This is fun not only because you often get to make a decision (should I kill off my Behemoth for an extra Rune?), but because you can make other players squirm. I remember in one closely-fought game when I moved my lone Behemoth into an area with an enemy Ziggurat. When I declared combat the other players shrieked in protest because they suddenly realized that my Behemoth was certain to die vs. the Ziggurat, and therefore I would earn 2 Runes, possibly giving me enough Victory points to end the game during the Action phase and win, before the next Council phase. Man that was a glorious day. Even though I didn’t get the 3 VP I needed, and lost the game by 2 points during the ensuing Victory phase, it was great.

Game Balance

In a highly asymmetrical game like The Gods War, keeping the various empires equal in power, while still differentiated, is key to making the game fulfill its promise. Therefore, when we play a sequence of games, and a particular empire seems to be struggling, or to be winning too often, we take steps to address the issue.

The Last Balance Change

The very last change I made to The Gods War, before considering it complete, was a change to the Moon empire. For a long time, the Red Goddesses unique ability was to advance the lunar cycle 1 step when she was in a battle. But this seemed like not enough. We also noticed that she often didn’t have enough units out and about, so we changed her ability so that she got to spawn a Selene when she entered battle. This was cool for a while, but then we wanted … more.

So we altered her ability (called Menses) to give her an interesting choice. When the Red Goddess enters battle, she can choose either to add an Assassin to her area pre-battle (so it participates in the conflict) or to add a Selene post-battle. The Selene is a more expensive unit (with a gift that makes it even better), but the Assassin can boost combat and possibly soak up a hit. It’s a real decision. It also bumps up Moon’s threat enough to make her a competitor, and Moon players have said it makes the Goddess seem way better psychologically.

Anyway, that’s how it works at Petersen Games. Now you know.

– Sandy

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