Review: Cthulhu Realms

Carmen D. Lade

I was always interested in horror stories and certainly admire the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the creator of the Cthulhu myth but it never really occurred to me that a deck-building game could borrow its theme from such a morbid universe. For those unfamiliar with the Cthulhu Myth, Cthulhu is a powerful, gigantic being, inspired by writer H.P. Lovecraft and first introduced in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in 1928. Its anatomy can be described as part octopus, part man and part dragon. Its name was given to the Lovecraft-created universe where it and its fellow entities existed, the Cthulhu Mythos. Being familiar with this universe, I was completely intrigued and eager to try “Cthulhu Realms”, a new game, created by Darwin Castle and published by Tasty Minstrel Games. The game’s artwork is created by Rob Lundy, well-known for his work in Dragonflame, Dungeon Lord and Harbour.

Cthulhu Realms is a language-independent, deck-building game for 2-4 players that lasts 25-45 minutes. The target of the game is to drive all other players insane by summoning Cthulhu’s unspeakable pals and also using mysterious artifacts and horrific locations. All players begin the game with the same initial deck of 10 cards, comprising of 2 Initiates, 2 Goons and 6 Followers. The cards can be of three types: Entities, Artifacts or Locations. During the course of the game, players will gain conjuring power so as to conjure more powerful Entities, Artifacts and Locations and use them in the best possible combinations in order to drop their opponents’ sanity level to zero while maintaining their own as high as possible.

t the start of the game each player is given a sanity level tracker that starts out at level 50 (actually the tracker goes up to level 55 in case a player gains sanity beyond the default value of 50). Whenever a player’s sanity level drops to 0, he/she is eliminated from the game.

By using the abilities of various cards in the game, you can either cause other players’ sanity level to drop or raise your own. As in all “Dominion” style games, the game will start by shuffling your initial deck of ten cards and drawing five as your starting hand (three if you are the starting player). On your turn, you will put cards from your hand into play and activate abilities on cards that are in play. A card may have more than one abilities and you can use any of them in any order you choose. That means that you can for instance use an ability of card A then an ability of card B and then another ability of card A. When you have no more abilities to use, you discard all cards played and all left in your hand, except for Location cards that remain in play until destroyed, and draw a new hand of five cards. When you run out of cards, you shuffle your discard pile and place it face down as your new deck. Now let’s get to the core of the game, that is how the cards work!

Cards come in 4 colors and as I said before can have one of three types (Entity, Artifact, or Location). Each card has a conjuring cost (cost to buy the card) and one or more abilities. Location cards work differently from the other types of cards in many ways. For starters, they stay in play and are not discarded at the end of the player’s round. Secondly, they also have a sanity level (are they alive????), which must be reduced to zero in order to destroy the card. Moreover, there are some special types of Locations that bear a shield on them and prevent opponents from applying loss of sanity to something specific: “Sanctuaries” prevent opponents from applying loss of sanity to you, until they destroy all Sanctuaries and “Nexuses” prevent them from applying loss of sanity to other locations that are not Nexuses, until all Nexuses are destroyed.

Some cards’ abilities may have prerequisites in order to use them. These prerequisites may be one of the following:

  • have in play another card of a specific color
  • have in play another card of a specific type
  • any player must have discarded a card from their hand this turn
  • a card must have been abjured from anywhere this turn (we’ll explain what abjure means right below)

There are six different kinds of abilities on cards:

  • Draw/Discard cards. You choose the player to do so.
  • Abjure a card. That’s a bit tricky. Choose a card with a conjuring cost of six or less from your hand, the discard pile or available cards in the center and remove that card from the game
  • Acquire an abjured card, removed from the game this turn
  • Gain conjuring power. You use this power to buy any number of cards from available cards in the center of the table.
  • Gain/Lose Sanity. If this has a positive value, you choose a player to gain that much sanity. If it has a negative value, you choose any opponent or a location of his to lose that much sanity or split the loss between the player and his locations.

Now let’s see how the game scores in our usual scoring categories:


Cthulhu Realms hasn’t a big variety of components. It’s just cards basically, plus special sheets / sanity trackers and tokens used on sanity trackers to mark your level of sanity. That is not a bad thing however, because it means that the designer and graphic designer could focus on making these few components really attractive. But did they succeed in that? Well starting off with the card artwork, I must say that it’s certainly exquisite and maybe not what one might have expected from a Cthulhu-based game. Designers of the game decided to lighten the theme a little by taking a very fun approach on the cards art. Despite their horrific names, cards feature hilarious images and you can see below a characteristic example of that.

his approach makes the game accessible to a bit wider audience that seeks fun and not only Lovecraft fans. I, personally, would prefer a more dark and serious approach but I can perfectly understand the designer’s intensions.

Apart from the images of cards, another issue I’d like to mention are the symbols printed on cards. Most icons can be clearly distinguished on cards but some are not. More specifically, the symbols for the prerequisites of using an ability are rather small and if their color is similar to the color of the ability they are pretty hard to see. The same applies to the abjure symbol with an arrow, that some abilities have below their icon. This arrow is so small that one must get accustomed to its existence and watch out for it. Still, people with eyesight problems may have some trouble distinguishing these symbols and may get a bit frustrated about it.

Sanity tracker sheets are made of thick cardboard. Each place on the sheet has the shape of a head and on the right, there is a handy chart of all symbols in the game along with an explanation. A welcomed feature, as, at least during your first few games, you will need clarifications on the symbols. Sanity tokens are made of even thicker cardboard in the shape of a head and fit right in the spaces of the sanity tracker.

ll in all, components of Cthulhu Realms are very nice and intrigue you from the first glance to indulge in the game. 7/10


There are many deck building games out there and more seem to be on the way, so to design a successful game of this kind, one should make a great effort to offer something different from the bunch. Let’s see what this game has to offer and if that is enough.

First of all, Cthulhu Realms has an interesting theme that has not been touched before, in terms of a deck building game and this can attract many fans of the Cthulhu universe on its own. Secondly, some abilities on cards are quite unique, work in a different way from other games and give the game a more strategic feel. Cards may have prerequisites, an element that makes you focus more on building a deck with a lot of synergy. They can also have multiple abilities, which can be used in any order you choose. That means that you must be extra careful, in order to play abilities in the right order. I guess that is good or bad depending on how much you and your gaming party are prepared for some analysis-paralysis. The good thing is that you can think all about it during other players’ turns, thus reducing the lag on your turn.

Another original element of the game is the location cards, that stay in the game after being played and can be used every turn to your benefit. Some of them also provide protection for you or other locations, which is extra cool. Another major difference between Cthulhu Realms and other deck building games is direct confrontation and interaction. In most other games, the goal is to gather victory points or work together towards a common goal but that’s not the case in Cthulhu Realms. Here the goal is one and very clear: Elimination! As a fan of player interaction in games, this goal is much more exciting for me. Considering all of the above points, my conclusion is that there is a lot of innovation in this game that differentiates it from other deck building games.

Another point that I liked in Cthulhu Realms is the way the game works for 3 and 4 players. A lot of thought must have been spent in making the game equally challenging for any number of players between 2 and 4, which doesn’t seem an easy task considering the direct confrontation element between players. The changes that are applied for 3 to 4 players are as follows:

  • Instead of a single line of 5 available cards, 3 cards are dealt in between players who are next to each other. In this way, players may conjure only the 6 cards that are next to them. When a player is eliminated, available cards between the player and his neighbors are abjured and his neighbors become neighbors with each other. 3 new cards are dealt between them.
  • When assigning loss of Sanity, it is applied to both of your neighbors. As normal, the loss may be split between players and locations.
  • When selecting a player for an ability, you can only choose from your neighbors or yourself

With the above alterations, a game with 4 players, becomes a direct challenge between a player and his 2 neighbors, but eventually the best player of the 3 will confront the 4th player. I found this way of playing pretty intuitive and I think it makes the game more focused and prevents havoc that would occur if every player confronted all other players right from the start.

Well, pros are cool but what about cons? I must admit to my enjoyment, that I didn’t find any particular flows in gameplay that I could mention. All works well and the game runs smoothly and fast enough even with 4 players if all use other players turns to think about their play. 9/10

Learning Curve:

Cthulhu Realms is a game with moderate to easy learning curve. The essential thing to learn is the different symbols and their meaning, which can be a bit confusing during the first few turns. A common question during your first game will be: “Sorry, what did you say this symbol means? Please tell me one more time!”. The explanation of symbols in each player’s sanity tracker certainly helps towards remembering the meaning of symbols. Still, talking from my experience with a number of different players, some concepts, especially “abjure” will take some time to be fully understood. All in all, the game actually requires some turns to familiarize with, also depending on the overall experience of players in board games and deck-building games in particular. 7/10


Having played the game a few times, I always feel eager each time to play it again due to the challenging gameplay. There is a lot of experimentation to be made, trying to figure out what combinations of cards work best with each other. With Cthulhu Realms, as in most deck-building games, each game is different because available cards at the start of the game are different. One other field that requires to be mastered is to play the most out of each card, since many of the cards have more than one abilities that can be used on the same turn but in any order you choose. The game is quite easy to learn but not so easy to master and that guarantees its replayability. 8/10


What a challenging aspect of a board game, trying to tie it to a certain theme as closely as possible. In reality, I think pretty few games are being able to fully make you feel the experience of actually living in the situation and circumstances supposedly happening within the game. And Cthulhu Realms is no exception. However much I like the theme, I can’t really say that I feel close to it while playing. Many questions come to my mind that can’t be answered in the rules or throughout the game. For example, why are you trying to drive other players insane and why are they trying to do the same? It’s obvious that no one among you is Cthulhu, because if that was the case that would make some sense. And how exactly do you use locations, people and artifacts in order to achieve your purpose? Do you send your opponents to these locations? Do you arrange for them to meet certain people? Apart from the artwork of the game which is gloomy enough to support the theme, everything else is so loosely based on the Cthulhu myth that most of the time you will just focus on the strategic aspect of the game and ignore the theme which is kind of sad. Nevertheless, I still like the theme and would prefer it from many other options. 6/10


The essence of every game! Direct confrontation and player interaction on its own is a great source of fun for me as is trying to figure out the best combinations of cards to include in my deck. Moreover, I find fascinating the process of trying to play the cards’ abilities in the most efficient way and make the most of each one. The artwork of the game, other times gloomy as the theme suggests and other times hilarious, also makes me enjoy this game. What sometimes may take away some of the fun, especially with 3-4 players, is the lag time between turns, if players overdo it with thinking their actions. The overall experience of Cthulhu Realms makes me have a great time in general. 7/10

Final Verdict:

Cthulhu Realms is a great game to add to your collection, either you are a Cthulhu Universe fan, either you like deck-building games. It certainly is not just another deck-building game, but has original and fresh mechanics that will challenge your brain. Apart from choosing the right cards for your deck, ones that will have synergy, it’s essential that you learn to use them properly as well. Some cards stay in the game even after you’ve played them and you can use them each turn. Some of them even protect you or other cards in play. If you are looking for player interaction in a game, Cthulhu Realms won’t leave you unmoved. Your goal is plain and simple to eliminate other players from the game. The artwork featured in Cthulhu Realms is quite unique. At first it will seem like regular Cthulhu-related art but with a closer look, you will find that in most cases the theme is approached from a fun and comic side. The game is loosely tied to the Cthulhu universe and none of its gameplay features makes much sense if you start questioning their deeper purpose and meaning but that doesn’t seem to take away much of the fun. I would recommend this game for regular board game players. Novices may need a little more time to get accustomed to the style and mechanics of the game, but once they do, they will appreciate it too.


  • challenging gameplay with original and advanced mechanics
  • great artwork
  • balanced and clever design for any number of players (2-4)
  • a Cthulhu game!


  • no deep connection between gameplay mechanics and the theme

Recommended for: Cthulhu universe fans, deck-building games fans, strategy games fans

According to our scoring system, scoring categories have different weights. Components have 15% weight, Gameplay 35%, Learning curve 5%, Theme 5%, Replayability 25%, Fun 15%. According to this system and the above scoring in each category, overall weighted scoring of the game is:

Overall: 7.90

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