Not to be Taken Seriously!

Review of board game Cults Across America by Pevans

Atlas Games, publishers of Cults Across America, are best known for their role-playing products and card games. This is their first 'proper' board game - and it comes in a proper board game-sized box (i.e. a Monopoly-style long and shallow box). Inside are a mapboard, two sheets of single-sided counters (˝" square), a large deck of cards, two dice and a sixteen page rule book.

Each player (up to six) in the game controls a Cthulhoid cult represented by cultist cells and High Priests on the board. To these can be added weaponry, vehicles, summoned creatures (right up to Cthulhu himself) and "personalities" - including such notables as the Pope, The Miskatonic University Marching Band and the Ambassador from Uruguay. The aim of the game is domination of North America and the defeat of other cults.

Each turn players move their pieces from city to city across the map of North America and "The Dreamlands" depicted on the board. Where they meet cells from other cults, they have the option of attacking them. The combat system is simple: individual units are lined up against each other, dice rolled, modifiers applied and one or the other (or even both) dies. As each unit attacks once, but may be attacked several times, the side with more pieces can keep on attacking to wear down the opposition. This can be long-winded and a faster combat system is provided if players want a faster game. The detailed combat mechanics give players tactical decisions to make and do add to the flavour of the game.

Moving units and fighting take up the bulk of most turns: each player moves and then attacks in turn. After this, there are various housekeeping actions and players get to build and buy new units. The key element I haven't mentioned yet is card play. Each player starts with a hand of cards, most of which can be played at any time. These do things like summon creatures, provide free equipment and mess up other player's positions and moves.

There are three ways of playing the game. The Standard Game relies heavily on the cards. A proportion of the deck is made up of "Victory" cards, which set targets for the players to achieve. These can be killing other cults' cells, controlling certain cities or getting a cell from East coast to West, for example. Achieving the target scores victory points for the player(s) and the first to get 12 points wins the game. It is also possible to achieve a "Cults Across America" win by having a continuous line of cultist cells from coast to coast - something I almost managed with my initial set-up in the first game I played.

The Bloodbath Game reduces the complexity - by removing the money rules and the Victory cards - and has the simple objective of eliminating all other cults. The bloodbath title is certainly appropriate as this provokes everybody into attacking each other from the word go. The Strategy Game is played over 10 turns. At the end of this, players score points for the cities they control and the most points wins. This is the most controlled and thought-provoking of the games. Players have to weigh up, for example, the advantage of spreading out to control lots of cities and grow versus the risk that their small forces will be attacked by other players. The big advantage over the Standard game is that you know what you need to do to win and how long the game will last.

What we have here is a straightforward wargame with bags of atmosphere and entertainment - particularly for Cthulhu fans. The wargame core provides tactical and strategic options and decisions for the players. The atmosphere comes in part from the special rules and pieces (how many games do you know that include the Pope and Cthulhu?), but mainly from the cards. In fact, I could make a case that this is a card game that uses the board and counters to keep score - particularly the Bloodbath game. The mayhem that you can inflict with the cards is great and often funny (reminiscent of GW's Judge Dredd board game of many years ago).

However, I have a major problem with the game and that is the length of time it takes. The publishers suggest it is a 1-4 hours game. I have played several times with five or six players and not reached a conclusion after four hours play - at which point everybody had had enough. Using the full combat rules, each player takes at least 5 minutes: that's over half an hour for one turn in a six-player game, meaning a minimum of five hours for the Strategic game. The other two games are unpredictable. In the Standard game, the duration depends on what Victory cards come out when - and the winner depends on who can take advantage of them when they do appear, which is something of a lottery. In the Bloodbath game, once all the players are reduced to a few units the game slows down as players have to build up strength and then corner a weaker opponent. Again, victory will probably depend on card play.

Finally, I must mention the production quality. The cards are reasonable quality and have been cleanly cut. The pieces are basic - the standard of board wargames twenty years ago. The board is printed on thin card, rather than being mounted, but is none the less effective. Strangely, the areas of the map appear to have been coloured in with wax crayons. This effect is obviously deliberate, but gives the board a distinctly amateur appearance.

Overall, this game is a mixed bag. It has sound basic mechanics and a good and entertaining theme. It is a lot of fun to play, but it takes a long time to reach a conclusion. The game is also rather ragged round the edges, both in terms of production quality and the detail of the game mechanics. It feels like it needs a bit of tweaking and a final polish: things that should have been done before it was let loose on the world.

Cults Across America was designed by Jeff Tidball and published (in the USA) by Atlas Games. It is for 2-6 players and takes 1-4 hours to play. Pevans rates it 6/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 131, May 1999.

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