By Marius Hartland
A long time ago, a tome called "The Lang Codex" revealed, chapter by chapter, arcane knowledge on the Call of Cthulhu Card Game. The time has come to blow the dust off this infamous tome, go back to the source and try to discover why the Call of Cthulhu Card Game is more then just any other Customizable Card Game, and why the evolution to Living Card Game (LCG) isn't that much of a leap. Thankfully, Eric Lang, with prophetic foresight, took some time in the past to shed some light on things that are occuring in the present.
In the first half of the 1990's a new genre of games was born; As it often happens, when there is a need, invention follows. The need was for a game that could be enjoyed in quick bursts, so gamers had something to do during the downtime between RPG and War Gaming sessions at gaming conventions. Aimed at gamers that are used to solve their problems with sword and fire, the genre started off with a battle simulation, player versus player style, where the last one standing is the winner.
The Best of Both Worlds
Eric Lang designed the A Game of Thrones Card Game, which came out in 2002, and after that worked on the Call of Cthulhu Card Game which launched in 2004. Both games were based on stories from books. Instead of trying to follow the exact events of each property (simulation), these games were made to draw the players into the respective universes and tell their own stories (evocation.) Call of Cthulhu brings another design philosophy to the board and marries this to the initial concept of a customizable card
game: it took elements of the philosophy behind the European Board Game and added this as an extra layer onto the existing genre of card games, taking advantage of the best both styles of design have to offer. From that, Eric says the Story Deck and the domain system were born: "What I was going after at the time was a Eurogame-esque randomized strategic setup for a CCG." The three random Story cards in play are the game board on which your pawns (character cards) make their moves. "I wasn't trying to design a (pure) Eurogame, although I was inspired by some of modern Eurogame theory and put some thought into applying it to the very American-style CCG."
One of the aspects of a Eurogame is that, unlike a simulation game, the theme of a Eurogame is often merely suggestive. So, again, we have the idea of evocation instead of direct simulation. The Cthulhu Mythos thrives on suggestion, so that makes for a good match.
Also, Eurogames lean towards economic rather than military themes. Although the Call of Cthulhu Card Game does have its skirmishes these are a means to an end. The real objective is the journey of discovery on the Story Cards, building up a case. The War Gaming part is that your Shoggoth can eat that pesky investigator, or drive him insane – the goal however remains unraveling a mystery and advance a plot (or thwart it.) The same is true about the domain system. "The resource system is sort of euro-ish," Eric explains, "I pitched it as '3 action points of variable strength.' and the idea of a resource-based game that was developed strategically rather than tactically was appealing." - meaning that planning ahead and looking at the big picture is pushed over taking short term decisions.
Three Isn't A Crowd
Another prominent characteristic of Eurogames is the lack of player elimination. While it's possible to eliminate a player through 'decking' them (Or by getting eliminated by Azathoth – The Blind Idiot God but that one generally only happens to cultists crazy enough to actually summon the Deamon Sultan, so they can blame themselves and be reminded that they are playing a Horror game) the primary goal is to win 3 story cards, and until that happens, players stick around.
The Innsmouth Threat
Eric goes further into the design of the Story Deck: "The original story deck was not designed as a collection of single cards, but as a full mechanic divided into ten parts." The composition: "half of the elements would be triggers for a particular strategy, and the other magic bullets." What card is what is a matter of perspective though, since the desire that causes one side to trigger their strategy, the other side would experience as a magic bullet. One Story Card, designed as a magic bullet worked unexpectedly well in play testing though: The Innsmouth Threat. Eric: "This was a redflag for a rush strategy. Of course, during playtest it proved far more impactful - especially since none of us were top tier tournament caliber players." What Eric and the other playtesters learned was icing on the cake: "It quickly became obvious that people were claiming stories to 'turn them off' instead of to activate them ... which was, ironically, quite flavorful."
Traditionally, CCG's are block designed. I asked Eric how this worked with the rotating Story Deck idea. When was this idea born? "About five seconds after designing the first ten cards,” Eric replied. So when Eldritch Block came about, it was time to put this idea in motion.
Beyond The Doors Of Sleep
"Then Eldritch came, and it had a new version of the same card, but this time it had the "Day or Night" clause added. It was actually a remnant of a much larger Day/Night mechanic in the story deck. Eldritch morphed significantly during design -- there was originally a much larger Day/Night arc, which was very cool, but ultimately too much, so it had to go."
The traces of this can still be found in the Eldritch edition cards, though. The "unlimited copies" cards Ravenous Hunting Horror and it's day-time counterpart Grim Avenger are sill a testimony of the theme, allowing for a 100% pure Day or Night deck. Eldritch moved out of Arkham and the story became global, also allowing it to be day and night at the same time. The set spawned two expansions: Masks of Nyarlathotep and Forgotten Cities.
Eric gleefully mentions: "I got a few employees of [a major card game company] into Cthulhu some years back." Still, uncertain times were ahead for the Call of Cthulhu Card Game. Like all living things, at some point it needed to adapt, especially in dark times. Then, the night was over and the new day brought us the Asylum Packs.
Conspiracies of Chaos
The last Call of Cthulhu Card Game project Eric Lang worked on as designer was Conspiracies of Chaos. One of the main worries at the time was the prolific number of rush decks in the environment, and the new Conspiracy card type encouraged the use of decks that rush in with lots of cheap characters even more. Having a card like The Innsmouth Threat or Beyond The Doors Of Sleep around as the only way to tame these wasn't enough. Eric had included a card to combat this issue: Beneath The Mire. In playtesting this card got shot down quickly; It was too similar to a card from the previous Kingsport Dreams Asylum Pack. Not discouraged, Eric came up with a new design – The one you can find in the printed version and presented it to the playtest group saying: "This should fix everything." That Vaughn, huh?
Nowhere To Hide
Still, there is a need for the ultimate horror. A plot twist so strong it made all progress before meaningless. This time around there were other possibilties for a n “escape” clause again, perhaps replacing the Day/Night thing with a an exception for players who control a Conspiracy Card. The final decision, however, fits with the aptly named card, and looks upon the pure horror of everyone losing out, urging players to stop the effect before it's too late. You can weave your conspiracies, lurk in the shadows of the night, or forget your worries standing in daylight. But whatever you do, run at this story, because in the Call of Cthulhu Card Game, there is Nowhere To Hide.
With this story card, we can see an old mechanic in a new context. This time it's the reversal of The Other Path and maybe the only way of stopping Success Token sensitive cards like Realm of Ice and Death and Jim's upcoming championship card Descendant of Eibon. The effect mentions Story Cards, so even though hiding is impossible, the tokens on the Dunwich Denizens version of Wilbur Whateley remain unaffected – Having the “All-In-One and One-In-All” in the family certainly has it's advantages.
And Eric Lang? "Well, the Song of Ice and Fire adventure game isn't a secret anymore... But I did finish another really cool game [for Fantasy Flight Games] which will be announced very soon..."
So, keep your eyes peeled and your pseudopods ready. And next week we'll enjoy an exposition on decomposition with Rotting Away.