General Cthulhu Wars strategy

This article outlines some of the non-obvious depths of the 2015 board game. You should have played the game before reading this. If you are not familiar with faction abilities referenced in the examples, please look them up, but the focus here is on general strategy, not faction-specific stuff.

Like the rules, this article treats the technical terms of the game as proper nouns.


Basic priorities

CW allows both collective defeat and collective victory. Collective defeat occurs when no player has six Spellbooks at the end of the game and is also known as the “humanity wins” scenario. Collective victory is better known as a draw. It occurs between players who all have six Spellbooks and the same amount of Doom points: more than the other players.

It is rarely possible to balance two players’ Doom points perfectly even if you wanted to, so a collective victory is not a viable player goal. Instead, each player strives for personal victory. To get there, you need to focus on four areas of activity, in decreasing order of priority:

  1. The Power economy.
  2. Spellbook development. This is faction-specific and not discussed further in this article.
  3. The race toward Doom.
  4. Leveraging the social sphere.

The first two steps can be thought of as investment in capital. The third step is the non-economic use of capital for personal status. The fourth step is large and infinitely complicated. Although it’s set here at the lowest priority, the social sphere should affect your actions before you try to leverage it for your own ends.

An introduction to the Power economy

In CW, you allocate limited resources toward multiple avenues of development, such as Units and Gates. Some of these generate resources. CW is therefore an economic game. Like most economic board games and unlike the real world, CW has two scales of wealth: One you can use (Power) and one you can’t (Doom). Like “victory points” in other games, Doom is inert and useless for all purposes except winning the game, so there is no Doom economy.1

Power is a currency: The “money” of the game, and more. You can invest Power into your economy to maintain and increase the rate at which you gather Power. You do this by recruiting Cultists, building and occupying Gates, hiring muscle to steal Gates from your opponents, and so on. As detailed below, this is even more important than it looks, so it should be your first priority in every game.

As an example, consider the first turn. If you manage to spend your 8 starting Power on moving two Acolytes and building two Gates in their new locations, you start the second turn with 12 Power. This is a 50% gain, enough to Awaken most Great Old Ones with room to spare. If you build two Gates but then lose one in the first turn, you start the second turn with 9 Power. That’s a 13% gain in absolute terms but a loss relative to other players, even if they only build one Gate and defend it, putting them at 10 Power for the second turn.

Basala figurtyper i Cthulhukrig. Från vänster till höger en akolut av standardmodell som kontrollerar en Port (grå), därefter ett vidunder (Tsathoggua) och ett monster (Oformligt yngel).

Cultists are capital in the Power economy. They cost 1 Power to Recruit, but they quickly recoup that cost by generating 1 Power in each subsequent Gather Power Phase. The turn after you recruit an Acolyte, you turn a profit. You can’t truly own Gates the way you can Cultists, but Gates are capital too. Costing 3 Power to build and producing 2 per turn, they reach their break-even point after a turn and a half, in addition to their other effects.

The Power economy is social in effect. The combination of a Cultist and a Gate is worth 3 Power per turn to you, and as much to your opponent: 1 for sacrificing your Cultist after Capturing it, and 2 for taking control of the Gate, with an abandoned Gate as a fluid intermediate state that gives you both 1 Power. Taking over Gates is the greatest source of economic volatility in the game, though it is not a zero-sum game while you can still build new ones.

The Power economy is not the only economy. The supply of Gates is unlimited but Gates require land and labour as resources, besides the Power to build them. They also produce more than Power: They are the most obvious means of turning Power into Doom, which may be worth doing even if you have to operate at a loss by spending more Power to build Gates than you expect to get out of them.

The parable of the bike

At first glance, even if your income is low, the Gather Power Phase seems to give you lots of disposable income. Think of this as a paycheck for a poor and desperate human being. It looks big, but you have to make it last.

Imagine you’ve saved up enough money to buy a bike, but not much more. The earlier you buy the bike, the more you can use it, which is good for you. You can commute more quickly and even get a higher-paying job on the other side of town. However, you have other uses for the money, the next paycheck is a long way off, and you’re not in good health.

While you keep your savings, you collect interest from the bank. Also, the longer you put off the purchase, the greater the chance you will find an an unguarded bike you can steal. Someone in a similar situation stole your last bike from you. Your neighbour had a better lock on their bike, and they got to keep it.

Another use for your money is to buy healthier groceries, which makes you feel more alert. Towards the end of the month, you’re back to slurping noodles and waiting for the next paycheck, with a risk of going blind. If you put off buying the bike until you get your next paycheck, your eyesight is saved, but the cycle begins again.

So it is with the Power economy. Like a bike, a Gate or a Great Old One is useful in CW and helps you more the longer you have it, but it’s expensive. CW encourages such investment when you can protect it, but CW punishes poverty relative to other players. CW also drives you toward poverty by forcing you to take Actions. It has an implicit “cost of living” mechanic where saving Power is difficult.

Frugality is rewarded because Power keeps you able to act. Don’t think of zero Power as simply being done with your turn. Think of it as a state of risk akin to blindness. If you don’t have Power, you are skipped in the Action Phase and don’t get to defend yourself, unless your opponent is kind enough to pay for a fight.

Figuring with executions

One of the great risks of Power poverty is that someone will walk up to your Gate and Capture your Cultist while you’re too broke to do anything about it.

It takes 1 Power to Capture a Cultist and 1 Power to Battle. On the face of it, the two actions look similar. You can indeed think of the Capture Action as a way to hurt your opponent with less risk involved. However, you should also consider it from the point of view of your own economy. A Battle doesn’t help you there.

When you Capture, you lend your Power to the bank. The reward of 1 Power upon executing your captive returns the cost of Capturing it, thus repaying your loan. There doesn’t seem to be any interest on the loan, since it’s still 1 Power. In fact, it still looks like you’re paying a fractional cost to Capture something, because you’re losing the difference in marginal value between 1 Power you already have in the Action Phase and 1 more Power later, in the Gather Power Phase.

As with money in the parable of the bike, having the amount early is usually better than having it late. However, if you play your cards right, you can profit from the process. The rest of the Power economy is sluggish. Capturing is the most agile part in the ground rules, and the only way to shift Power around from one economic cycle to the next. The one-time boost from an execution will often determine the First Player and leave them with enough of an edge to take more prisoners next turn, securing a meaningful advantage. To understand Capturing this way, you must first understand the initiative system and its opportunity costs.

The crux of the game

Though CW has only one typical currency in Power, there are other prices to pay, like land for a Gate. Ultimately, there is the cost of not having done something different with your resources. When your choice is suboptimal, that’s called an opportunity cost.

The ever-present, somewhat hidden costs of a choice are especially apparent when the sticker price in Power is zero. For example, the Great Cthulhu faction has Devolve, which costs neither an Action nor Power. Instead, it costs a Cultist, which moves from board to pool, and a Deep One, which moves from pool to board.

The loss of the Cultist destroys capital, hence future income. The placement of the Deep One figure, on the other hand, may not seem like a cost. It is the most common reason to use Devolve, but it is nonetheless a cost. It reduces the number of Deep Ones available for Summoning, and for further use of Devolve. When that pool runs dry, you lose important freedoms.

A figure in your pool is an economic resource. Its mere presence in the pool represents a value the figure would not have in the wrong place on the board. Thus you might use Devolve just to get a Cultist for Dreams. The state of your pool should factor into your decision to take one of these Spellbooks over the other, itself an economic decision.

Because there are no fixed exchange rates between the game’s resources, you will often be balancing one opportunity cost against another. In particular, the most important non-obvious features of CW flow from the rules that govern the use of Power. Every cost in Power has a hidden cost. That hidden cost is risk: The risk of running out of Power before your opponents do.

Having the most Power in the Determine First Player Phase of the game is good. It has the special effect of making you First Player. Being first is not always a good thing, but taking that position at the right moment can get you two Actions in a row, which can allow you to shore up the results of an otherwise unsafe Action at the end of the previous Action Phase. However, the Determine First Player Phase is when Power is least valuable.

The mutual chase versus the spree

As an illustration of the changing value of Power through the Action Phase, consider the case of Rhan-Tegoth or some other Great Old One harassing Great Cthulhu’s Cultists while Cthulhu itself is in play:

It costs 1 Power to move Rhan-Tegoth into an area with a green Cultist, but Windwalker cannot immediately Capture the Cultist, as this requires a separate Action. It costs 1 Power for Cthulhu to enter the same area as Rhan-Tegoth, but without all six Spellbooks, the Great Cthulhu player cannot immediately Battle their opponent. With Great Cthulhu’s Cultist protected from Capturing by the presence of its GOO, but Rhan-Tegoth vulnerable to a Battle, the situation is unsatisfying, so Rhan-Tegoth moves again, threatening a new green Cultist.

It’s a mutual chase until either party runs out of Power. As such, it is mutually destructive to both players and therefore beneficial to their shared enemies. Compare the “after-hours” Capture spree:

Having used Hibernate to store Power from the previous turn, Windwalker then waits until Great Cthulhu is out of Power. At this point, Rhan-Tegoth moves unopposed into green territory, capturing two or three Cultists and disabling their Gates while ignoring any Monsters. Even if they did have all six Spellbooks, Great Cthulhu could neither trigger a Battle to slow Rhan-Tegoth’s progress, nor move Cthulhu around to block it from Capturing units.

The store of Power is the main factor in a conflict between two Great Old Ones. In general, any player with a GOO and a monopoly of half a dozen Power can do serious damage to their opponent’s economy, because a monopoly on Power is what it sounds like. The question is how to gain the edge.

A more complete picture of Capturing

One of the incentives for the after-hours Capture spree is the quadruple effect of Capturing a Cultist that controls a Gate:

  1. The victim loses Power income from the Cultist and the Gate.
  2. The victim loses Doom income, doubling that loss in case of a Ritual.
  3. Because it doesn’t go straight into the pool, a Captured unit is denied to the victim even as a resource unto itsef, though this is no longer important when the victim is already out of Power.
  4. In the execution, the perpetrator gains a boost in the Power economy for the next round.

This is all true even if the perpetrator does not install their own Cultists and Monsters in place of the victim’s. The boost of Power is especially significant: It widens the gap left by the opponent’s loss of income, so it increases the perpetrator’s ability to repeat the maneuver in the next turn.

Förstaspelarmarkören i Cthulhukrig.

This is why, in the final analysis, the act of Capturing a unit is a valid economic speculation. It can be profitable for the perpetrator even relative to opponents other than the victim. When the Power gained in an execution is more valuable than the Power you spent to Capture the prisoner, your loan to the bank has been repaid with interest and the speculation has paid off.

A late Capture spree thus illustrates a lot of the main strategic concepts in CW: The Power economy, the trading of Power for Doom through Gates, the initiative system, the Unit hierarchy outside of Battle, and the social sphere where leaders will be targeted for sprees and can prevent them by maintaining an edge in Power, running out last to control risks.

The rising value of Power

The Capture spree is not the only use for late Power, but almost every faction in the game can do it and some can do similarly devastating, more exotic things to the powerless at the end of the Action Phase. As a consequence, in economic terms, the marginal value of each unit of Power increases geometrically.

The inherent tradeoff of spending Power is especially salient when you have the opportunity to spend some extra Power on your initiative step: Moving multiple Units at once, Battling as an Unlimited Action, chaining Actions as Yellow Sign, Summoning multiple Monsters as Black Goat, etc. Generally speaking, don’t do that.

Decisive action is not normally rewarded in CW. For example, a Gate is equally useful regardless of when in the Action Phase you build it. Building it earlier in the turn does not help you. In fact, building it earlier is more dangerous, because it brings you closer to zero Power faster than opponents who spend less.

Power is both “money” and “action points”, rolled into one. In this game, the conservation of Power by cheap Actions is an important strategic speculation and often preferable to decisive action. It will raise the value of Power, but it can require sacrifice.

Timing as a compromise

Decisive action can be the only way to avert disaster, or the cheapest way to steal a Gate momentarily left abandoned by Battle. In that case, don’t hesitate. Just remember that an early expenditure has the cost of later freedom.

You have to spend a lot on Great Old Ones to meet Spellbook requirements and get crucial perks, such as the ability to perform a Capture spree against your opponents. Be aware, then, that the high cost of a GOO is even higher than it looks. Simply by spending Power faster than your opponents, you are promoting their freedom and their ability to hurt you.

Conversely, spending Power more slowly than your rivals has one of the advantages of earning more Power than they do. If you earn more and spend it more slowly, without losing capital to enemy actions, you are well on your way to winning the game. Without looking at faction specifics, a dual advantage in Power and initiative is safe and easy to convert to a comparative advantage in Spellbooks and Doom over your closest competitors.

In summary, the crux of the game is the constant compromise between the rising value of Power and the fluctuating value of each occasion to act as the initiative moves around the table in the Action Phase. The correct compromise is good timing.

When you understand the duality of Power, you see why Cthulhu resurfacing with Submerge is like Black Goat Summoning only one of its two Ghouls when they’re free, and like Yellow Sign getting a Spellbook by granting a rival 3 Doom. These are Actions that cost no Power, which is practically a positive effect unto itself, until you alone can act. From this perspective, Sleeper’s Lethargy is a highly strategic Action. Its only cost is the occasion to do something else.

Well, in print, these would have been sidebars.

A word on Doom

As in most economic games with victory points, one of the decisions you have to make in CW is when to flip your priority from enlarging the Power economy and gathering Spellbooks to producing Doom. The most visible fulcrum here is your first Ritual of Annihilation.

Doom comes in two flavours. The regular flavour is public and therefore has what economists call symmetric knowledge, like CW in general. Private Doom is latent on Elder Sign Trophy tokens, which feature asymmetric knowledge: One of the reasons why it’s hard for an alliance to win the game collectively, it’s also one of the reasons why the game rarely sees a kingmaker who determines the outcome but isn’t able to win.

Markörer för Insegel: Tre avslöjade med de olika värdena, plus ett dolt.

Though the race to gather Doom is a non-zero-sum game, it is bounded by the two game-ending conditions: The “Game Over” space on the Doom track and the “Instant Death” space on the Ritual track. Timing these conditions right is a step toward victory. For instance, Great Cthulhu’s long-term prospects are bleak compared to Windwalker’s, so as Cthulhu, try to hit 30 Doom with Elder Sign Trophies before slower-growing and richer rivals get their last Spellbooks.

If you’re behind on Gates, reveal your crucial tokens in the Action Phase. If you make it to the Doom Phase because you can’t hit 30 with your tokens, and you’re low on Power, use your humble place in the turn order to your advantage: If one last Ritual gets you to 30 Doom, let it be a surprise, so the other players prefer to keep their Power and miss their chances. Conversely, if you’re playing a slower-growing faction, keep your eyes open for such dirty tricks.

A word on the military

Like most games in the genre of “dudes on a map”, a.k.a. Risk clones, CW has a military aspect within its social sphere, and it shouldn’t be ignored. In CW, Battle is an equalizer where capital-intensive Units like GOOs can be destroyed as easily and as randomly as the most humble Ghoul. If you’re thinking economically, that should be scary.

The military sphere is subject to the Power economy. Summoning Monsters, moving them en masse into enemy territory, collecting them after a messy retreat and even starting a Battle requires a substantial amount of Power: So much Power that it’s rarely done without special abilities involved. Don’t stage a war with your Monsters; this almost always comes with a high opportunity cost and is therefore a bad idea.

The main use of Monsters as a category lies in protecting Cultists from other Monsters and intimidating enemy GOOs with the threat of Battle. Intimidation works only while you still have Power, and is therefore brittle. Focus on your economy first.

That said, keep in mind that the attacker in a Battle has some slight advantages in the order of events. This sets the Hobbesian trap and can shift the cost of actually starting the Battle to the party that’s being invaded. An invasion is also distracting. Defenders often lose sight of their strategic goals and start spending Power as rapidly as the attacker, mainly to the benefit of neutral parties.

Leveraging the social sphere

CW is a highly social game, not “multiplayer Solitaire”. Outside of the one-minute timer for negotiations, it puts no limits on talking, and talking can be useful, with the understanding that personal victory is everyone’s natural objective.

Played without negotiation, CW is a quick and fairly random game. It can even be casual. Played with negotiation, CW is slower, less random and more fair, yet the rules are the same.

In highly asymmetric, highly social games like this, your ability to influence the minds of the other players is the last major aspect of a good strategy, whether you take the time to negotiate or rely on silent intimidation, tut-tuts and surprise attacks.

The significance of monsters

The social sphere encompasses every facet of the game. When the other players choose to perform a Ritual early, it is relatively safe—but not necessarily wise—for you to tag along, and if you’re the one who starts that trend, you save a little Power for being so nice. When the other players Awaken their Great Old One in the second turn, you probably need to do that too, or else you risk a Capture spree from one of them in the next turn.

You all set the tone of the game together. A particularly peaceful outing might end in the fourth turn, while an all-out war can drag on to turn 8 or 9 as each favourite to win is wiped from the map. Neither scenario is better, and once a tone has been established, the optimal strategy will leverage it rather than regress toward the mean.

Though the terms of victory are set in stone, you can think of every other value in the game as socially determined to some extent. For instance, the strategic value of a Monster is a function of its social environment, not of its Power cost or Combat rating. Your military should be intimidating enough that your neighbour targets your rival instead of you. Being more intimidating than that signifies a poor investment of your resources.

Being just intimidating enough to divert hostile action is one way to leverage the social sphere to your benefit and to the detriment of multiple rivals, i.e. both the perpetrators and the victims of an aggression that doesn’t involve you directly.

The need to intervene

The classic way to take the lead in CW is to have more Gates. Because the number of Units that can defend a Gate is limited by the size of one’s pool, an expansive leader’s hold is naturally tenuous. Expansion invites Capture sprees as well as numerous special abilities like Dreams, Avatar, Ghroth, He Who is Not to be Named, The Beyond One, They Break Through etc. Even the high cost of sending a conventional army to war is offset by an overexpanded target’s poor defences.

The difficulty of relying on Gates to maintain an obvious lead illustrates how the game is balanced by the social sphere. Though a solid Power economy translates well into the ability to gather Doom, your opponents will react, and may be doing better still.

By design, factions like Black Goat, Yellow Sign and Tcho-Tcho are inherently better than some others at gathering Doom when left to their own devices. They must be prevented from exploiting their advantages by the active intervention of opposing players, whose corresponding advantage is their ability to intervene and interfere more cheaply. For example, Great Cthulhu can use Submerge to stop another player by force, standing to gain an Elder Sign Trophy for reawakening Cthulhu if it’s killed in action.

The prisoner’s round table

It is in the leader’s interest to avert an intervention by packaging it as a prisoner’s dilemma where the intervening player helps some other rival too much just by saving them the trouble. Promises of sharing the burden can indeed be broken, and Tcho-Tcho can point to Soulless, Martyrdom and its “Great Old One is Killed in Battle” Spellbook condition to discourage an attack. It is the same with Yellow Sign, where the army of cheap Undead, Passion and Hastur’s Vengeance all discourage the necessary intervention. A prospective partner in such an intervention may renege and stand to profit from it.

As in any game where the social sphere involves trust but obstructs a collective victory, CW players have an extraludic or “metagame” incentive to be honest. Dishonest and abusive behaviour will be punished in the social sphere of the next game, if not before. As in the iterated version of the prisoner’s dilemma, being mostly trusting and honest is better in the long run, even for selfish purposes.

Shouldering the burden of an intervention in a fragile alliance may feel like a game of Nash’s “So Long Sucker”. However, as players get better at the game, they are more able to judge the progress of their opponents and will more carefully allocate and pool their resources toward the suppression of major rivals, sparing weaker foes who tend to be destroyed in the crossfire of beginners’ games. This is why, on the whole, mutual skill and diplomacy make the game more fair and enjoyable. Thus it is in every player’s interest to consider their strategy.

  1. Exception: With certain neutral-creature expansions to the game, you can spend Doom, but the distinction stands as a rule of thumb.