Why a 2-Person Version of Cthulhu Wars?
By Sandy Petersen
The Genesis of Cthulhu Wars Duel
Back in 2013 when I first launched the campaign for Cthulhu Wars, the single most-heard comments were “why is it so big?” “why not use cheap meeples?” “why can’t I play it 2 player?” “can you make a travel version?” I had just done my absolute dream game. It was so popular and had such strong reviews that naturally those who couldn’t afford the price tag wanted me to do a less expensive version. I resisted – in my opinion, one important reason Cthulhu Wars was such a success was BECAUSE of its size and impact, not in spite of it.
The two-player fans were easier to ignore; Cthulhu Wars is emphatically a multiplayer game, and its interactions are seriously distorted in two player mode. We tried it several times, but it lacked the “mouth feel” of Cthulhu Wars, and left us cold. “Combat” factions, such as Cthulhu, dominated “Infrastructure” factions, such as Black Goat.
So we moved on and basically forgot about it. Then came 2018. In our Planet Apocalypse campaign we’d included a “super-pledge” which we internally called the Masterminds. Those who backed it got to come to my house for a weekend; play unpublished games, hang out, get design practicums, and so forth. Well in September the Masterminds showed up. We had 5 superfans on hand, all of whom loved my games, and so I decided to use them for my own dark purposes.
No, I didn’t sacrifice them to Yog-Sothoth – I sat them down with my assistant game designer, Lincoln P., and we forced them to work on a two-player version of Cthulhu Wars hot and heavy. It’s not all they did – we had plenty of other frolics going on – but it had the most lasting result. uring the course of the weekend, and lots of plays, we worked out what was needed. A few rules changes ensured that the game was still fun but was absolutely balanced.
The Decay Marker
One of the major strategic elements of Cthulhu Wars is to try to run out of Power last, so you get the last few turns without interruption. In multiplayer, this was a fine aspect to the game – usually the end player didn’t have too many turns in a row, and if he did, he would “spread the love” among all his enemies. But in a two player game, this game element was problematic. With only one target, even just 3-4 turns in a row could nearly destroy a victim and ruin the game.
To fix this problem, we added the Decay marker to the game – now if you run out of Power first, the other player has to pay an ever-rising “Power Tax” each time he takes an extra turn. This has two effects. First, it means he does not want to draw out the turn – paying the Power Tax multiple times is painful. Second, it means players feel rewarded for going out first – the complete opposite of the -“real” Cthulhu Wars experience. It’s different, but it’s super fun.
Also, in Cthulhu Wars you are not directly rewarded for combat. I mean it’s its own reward to an extent – by battling you can move an enemy out of a desirable area, eliminate cultists, and many factions require combat to achieve spellbooks. The main controlling limiter to combat is that both players get units lost and/or scattered, which means in a multiplayer game, if you fight too much a third party will take advantage of your weakness. Nobody’s got time for that. But in a two player game, this weakness vanishes – which is why Cthulhu was so dominant against Black Goat in our original 2 player games.
Sure Cthulhu still loses units when he fights, but he’s never “weak” with respect to the enemy because he generally inflicts more losses than he takes. Combat is win-win for Cthulhu and other combat factions such as Windwalker. But we didn’t want all of the 2 player games to be combat-heavy matchups. We wanted ALL the factions to be fun. And a faction that inflicts its damage by capturing (Sleeper) or nuking units from a distance (Black Goat, Opener) was just plain disadvantaged.
So we added a new rule –for every kill you inflict on an enemy, you earn Doom! Suddenly you are scoring points directly every time you use one of those weird special abilities. Cthulhu is still a battle titan – but now Black Goat’s Ghroth spellbook, formerly obscure and little-used, becomes a devastating source of victory points. When Sleeper goes on a capturing rampage, instead of just earning Power, he also is gathering Doom, so even the least-battle-oriented civ suddenly becomes interesting.
To balance this bigger Doom bonanza we changed the Doom phase such that you don’t get Doom simply for controlling Gates. You must not only control a gate but also perform a Ritual of Annihilation.
Collect Them All?
In Cthulhu Wars you can’t win the game unless you have 6 Spellbooks. This was awkward in the 2 player game, because a lot of the Spellbooks require actions from the other players. In a multiplayer game it’s not an issue, because someone always fulfills the task. But in two player this is not the case. Take Windwalker for instance –one of his spellbook requirements is “another player has 6 spellbooks”. Well if his opponent is a dog in the manger, he could refuse to take his last spellbook, thus preventing Windwalker from ever winning. That sucked.
Our solution was quite simple – we removed the 6 spellbook rule. Now you didn’t HAVE to get all the Spellbooks to win. This had the unexpected side effect of making Spellbooks easier to get – now that you couldn’t actually keep your enemy from winning by holding out, players were actually much likelier to take actions that might score you a book, because it was no longer such a constraint. So the game became more fun AND more balanced.