by Steve Jackson
The inspiration for both Cthulhu Dice and Zombie Dice came at PAX 2009 in Seattle, when the Mayfair Games crew showed us the (then-unreleased) Le Boomb. We all admired its simple components (one bomb, one die) and its ease of play. We were also horrified with ourselves for enjoying a "game" in which the players made no choices at all. That's right. In Le Boomb, you just roll the die and see what happens. People get blown up, and eventually it's over. Yet we had fun!
The reason it's fun, of course, is the fast play and the table talk. Le Boomb is a successful social pastime, even though you make no decisions! Okay, let's learn from that . . . and let's have a game in there, too.
We discussed this with a lot of energy at PAX . . . and on the plane to the ACD show that followed right on its heels . . . and, on and off, through the ACD show. Several things came out of that discussion:
- Fast. Fast play is good. Fast play is the whole point. Fast play and fast learning.
- And can we have some really cool dice? Because we are all dice geeks.
- But not very many dice, because custom dice cost money, and if this is a fast game, it ought to be inexpensive.
- And it should fit in your pocket! Which goes well with "inexpensive" anyway.
- Theme is important, to get people involved with a minimum of rules. We came up with several different themes that had promise. One of them, of course, was Cthulhu. Another was zombies. But that's a different story. Another one was pirates, and one of these days I'll get somewhere with that one. And, of course, another one was Munchkin . . . and that has some possibilities . . . but all our best ideas for a Munchkin dice game need a lot of different kinds of dice, which would not be cheap. We kept coming back to Cthulhu. We already had Cthulhu on the brain, between Chibithulhu, Chez Cthulhu, and the most evil dice bag in the world.
So. Cthulhu it was. Airlines being what they are, I wound up with some time to kill in the Madison airport after the ACD show, so I started writing rules. I decided arbitrarily to use a 12-sider, because the dodecahedron is pretty and doesn't get used very much. The pentagonal faces also have a lot of room for icons.
Icons! I started by making a list of Cthulhoid symbols. The Elder Sign and Yellow Sign were easy, and the tentacle was obvious. And, of course, we had to show Cthulhu himself! Four symbols didn't seem like enough, so I added the Eye of Horus. It doesn't have anything in particular to do with the Mythos, but it's occult-looking . . . and the eye is part of our logo. In-jokes for the win!
So what kind of story did I want to tell about the Mythos? The "players lose their sanity" trope needs no explaining to gamers . . . thanks to Call of Cthulhu, everybody gets that. To make it a competitive game, the players should be attacking each others' sanity. So let each one start with a very little bit of sanity, and take turns knocking each other down, and there you go.
That meant the die symbols needed to relate to gain or loss of sanity. I wanted the balance to be in favor of loss . . . when you're messing around with Cthulhu, a sanity gain should be a rare thing. But possible! In the beginning, I had one "no effect" result on the die, but that quickly revealed itself as Stupid And Boring.
All the die results mean the same thing whether the attacker or the defender rolls them . . . except for the tentacle. When the tentacle is rolled, the attacker on the turn gains one sanity from the defender . . . whether that tentacle is rolled by the attacker or the defender. In playtest, this sometimes caused a moment's confusion even to experienced players, but I decided it was worth keeping. I like it.
In my first conception, the game had two identical dice – one for the attacker, one for the defender. I quickly realized, "Whoa, if they're identical, why have two?" So we cut it down to one die, and made it a big one. We ended up offering the Cthulhu die in four different colors, because we could . . . plus two glow-in-the-dark variants that we sell only in Warehouse 23.
Our first real playtest was at dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I had my handmade prototype die in my pocket, and the rules in my head. We used sugar packets for sanity tokens. And it was fun! The game doesn't need a lot of space. We kept playing after the food came out, rolling between the dishes.
The last big rules change in the game happened during playtest. Originally, a player who lost all his sanity was out. Eliminating players in midgame is not necessarily a good thing, but in a game that lasts five minutes, it's not a bad thing either. But Randy Scheuenemann made the suggestion that players who lose their marbles stay in the game and keep rolling. They can't win while mad, but they can still attack other players. And that worked!
The last big component change happened after we thought we were through. We'd been assuming that the whole game package would be the pretty die, plus the rules. After all, everybody's got things around to use for counters. But glass stones turned out to be very affordable. That meant that we could throw in enough stones for six players, plus a ziplock bag, and the package would be a complete game. And if we included glass stones, the rules could say that you went insane when you lost your marbles . . . I don't even try to resist stupid jokes any more. I embrace them.
At any rate, I wanted a simple game that still has some strategy, and this one does. Not a lot, but enough to be fun. There's a bit of psychology in deciding who to attack, and when the "wild" symbol comes up, your best choice depends on the game situation. Sometimes you want to steal Sanity from another player; sometimes you want to take it from Cthulhu; sometimes you want to summon Cthulhu and cost everyone Sanity, even yourself.
And yes, Cthulhu can win. If a turn ends and no one has any Sanity left, Cthulhu wins. (If an already-mad servant of Cthulhu makes the roll that makes that happen, he gets bragging rights.)
Which is why our shirts say "Game Over – Cthulhu Wins!" We wore them for the unboxing/demo video. And in the second game, sure enough, Cthulhu won.
In the end, this is not a game that you will play all night. This is a game that you'll play a few times as a filler between other games . . . put away, and take out again the next night . . . show to your friends who aren't really gamers . . . worship the beautiful, shiny die by night on a hidden altar, to the sound of alien flutes . . . whoops, I didn't say that.
FAQ: Why "Cthulhu Dice" when there's only one die in there? A: It's still a "dice game." And we couldn't call it "Cthulhu Die," because everyone knows Cthulhu doesn't die.