Pandemic is one of the most beloved table top games of the modern era. It’s spawned several follow-ups including a dice based version called The Cure and the instant chart topper Pandemic: Legacy. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is the latest installment in the franchise and it’s the first release to break the central theme of curing disease. Cultists are tearing up the streets of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport, gathering strength and followers to summon almighty Great Cthulhu. You’re the last line of defense and must stop the awakening before the world is plunged into darkness.
In terms of structure, Reign of Cthulhu is very similar to its forefather. You’re spending actions to bounce around a map and clean up the spread of Cultists (disease) before areas pop. You draw player cards from a deck with intermittent Evil Stirs (epidemic) cards that cause friction and dread to erupt. It’s that whack-a-mole formula that keeps you constantly in motion and weighing tactical options.
Where the design diverges is where things get interesting. In general, this game is much more frantic and pulse pounding. The map is tight and confined while simultaneously being more chaotic. Despite having fewer areas to traverse, it can sometimes be tricky when you need to make it to bus stops or take your chances flying through malevolent gates to get to your destinations.
To facilitate the geographical changes, trading and curing are streamlined. Instead of gathering cards to cure diseases of different colors, you’re matching cards to different colored areas–Arkham, Dunwich, etc.–that represent clues to close gate spaces within each section. Trading is now more common since you can give or take a card for the area you’re in. This is extremely useful when the game difficulty ramps up because it allows information and solutions to be shared. But you’re always under pressure with a tentacle around your throat.
The difficulty is escalated primarily due to the inclusion of Shoggoths and the sanity die. When a Cultist gets added to a space that already possesses three Cultists, a Shoggoth appears instead. This replaces the Outbreak mechanic in the original game and presents a fresh new challenge. The lumbering beasts will move towards the nearest gate, and it becomes a race to head them off. If they can make it to a portal they will throw themselves in, and one of the six face down Old Ones at the top of the board will be revealed.
Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.
Every time you cross paths with a Shoggoth, you have to toss that evil sanity die. This will either result in sanity loss or Cultists arriving at your location. If you lose all four of your sanity tokens, you hit rock bottom and have to flip over your character. Typically your special ability will be neutered, and you may have a negative effect attached. You also lose an action permanently. Good luck mustering up the cash to afford a head-shrinker in Arkham.
The sanity die really highlights what this release brings to the table: drama. While the central puzzle factor of sussing out the likelihood of which areas will drown in doom still persists, this is a more entertaining version of those core principals. You’ll have weird turns of fate where you may be trucking along and two Shoggoths break out, tearing up a furious path as they move through Lucy the Hunter’s space and causing her to adopt the fetal position. Other times, you’ll stumble across some crazy artifact that saps your mental fortitude, but allows you to blow up a portion of the board or even seal an Elder God in a small box.
Every session, you deal out random Great Old Ones with Cthulhu being the final adversary. These come from a large pool, and the order definitely matters. Each Elder God has a special rule associated with it, which is bad news for your motley crew. When you flip one of those cosmic terrors, you hold your breath and hope for the best. It’s like seeing a shark’s jaws coming down across your mid-section and hoping he comes away with only a small portion of your flesh. This mechanism gives a solid boost to replayability.
Amid that drama, the game imparts an actual sense of adventure missing from the original. In some ways, this feels like a very streamlined and loose spin on Arkham/Eldritch Horror. You’re popping around, trying to seal gates while confronting monsters. It will never give you that extreme narrative or compelling story, but it does offer energy and plain old fun.
While Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu doesn’t wildly diverge from its predecessor, it certainly boasts a distinct personality. It comes across as a cousin of sorts, sporting some similar looks, but boasting a mean streak. It has a bit more flair and a solid sense of adventure. It beckons you to put away the lab coat and beakers, and break out the pistols and stylish hats.
Do you have what it takes to defeat the ultimate evil? Tell us what you think of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu in the comments!