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Review: Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game (LCG) Core Set

Posted by Denny Koch on May 31, 2010

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Published in: 2008
Designers: Eric M. Lang, Nate French
Topic: Fantasy / H.P. Lovecraft Universe
Game Type: Living Card Game (LCG)
Contents: 1 rulebook, 140 faction cards, 15 neutral cards, 6 Cthulhu miniatures, 1 mounted mapboard, 24 Story markers

HFC Game-O-Meter: D


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 10
Rules:
6
Playability:
7
Replay Value:
6

Overall Rating: 7

Important! This review deals with the Core Set exclusively – and the question of how suitable it is as a standalone game played “out of the box”. It doesn’t rate the entire CoC LCG game system (Core Sets+expansions) or the general gameplay of the CoC LCG, only the contents of the Core Set “as is”!

PRO Introductory game for a LCG system that can be played “out of the box” without purchasing further cards, components are of a high quality, great artwork, Lovecraftian atmosphere, short playing time, 7 very different factions…
CONTRA …which cannot be exploited with the 20 cards per faction contained in the core set, no custom deck building, balancing issues with some combinations, official FAQ required (card errata, clarifications)

Introduction

Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game is an offspring of the Call of Cthulhu franchise. Initially, it was a Collectible Card Game where players had to buy random booster packs in order to build and improve their decks. In 2008, publisher Fantasy Flight Games decided to change the game concept into a “Living Card Game” where players still build and improve their individual card decks, but they don’t have to spend large amounts of money in buying randomized card packs with unknown contents in search for the rarest and most powerful cards.

Instead, the game is supplemented by the monthly release of “Asylum Packs” which contain cards for all seven factions as well as neutral cards. Their contents are fixed and public knowledge, so all players have access to all cards all the time. This provides for fair chances in deck building because there are no more “rare” cards as secret weapons and whether your deck is a success or an epic failure depends on your deck building skills and on how many Asylum Packs you buy.

If you want to start with Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game, you only have to buy the “Core Set” first, which serves as a starter pack. You can play it “out of the box” without buying further cards, if you want to get an impression of the game and if you want to decide whether you like the game concept. If you are a casual player and only want to play the game from time to time with friends or family members, you could probably be content with the Core Set alone, without ever buying any add-ons. It contains 20 cards for each of the 7 factions in the game, and 15 additional neutral cards which are divided between the two players. You simply choose two factions of your choice, combine their cards to a deck, add 7 neutral cards and you are ready to fight your opponent, who does the same. Combining 2 factions and fighting 2 other factions allows for 21 different decks with 105 different combat constellations.

This review deals with the Core Pack and how deep the gaming experience with the basic starter set – without any additional cards! – really is. It doesn’t deal with the “Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game” system in general!

If you are interested in more details about the Call of Cthulhu LCG, the game mechanics, Asylum Packs, and basic gameplay, please check out our introductory article: An Introduction to Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game (LCG). I won’t repeat the basics here, but concentrate on reviewing the Core Set and its value as a standalone game.

Presentation

Cthulhu, draining a domain….

The game is shipped in a large box – which is typical for Fantasy Flight Games. In contrast to other FFG games, for example Doom – The Boardgame or War of  the Ring, the box is rather empty. It only contains a rulebook, two small shrinkwrapped card packages, a folded mapboard and six Cthulhu miniatures which serve as domain drain markers. The box is definitely oversized, but the artwork is nice and you could use the box to stow your Asylum Packs later and probably that’s the reason why they published the core game in such a big box. If you don’t know what’s inside, you could certainly call it a bluff package, so be prepared for some disappointment if you blind-buy this box in your local game store while expecting the usual rich FFG contents.

The print quality of both the rulebook and the cards is high. The cards are printed on cardstock in poker-card quality, so that they are somewhat protected from tattering and staining. Nevertheless, since the cards will see a lot of shuffling and action, you should treat them with care, they are the heart and soul of a Living or Collectible Card Game. If you lose one of the cards of the Core Pack, you have to re-buy the entire pack if you want that card very badly, you won’t find any duplicates in one of the Asylum Packs.

The artworks are great; I like the rich card illustrations and the authentic 20s setting which is similar to the setting of Arkham Horror (FFG). Actually, Arkham Horror took most of its illustrations  from the CoC card game, but that’s okay – it provides for a nice recognition value. If you don’t have the time for setting up and playing Arkham Horror, but are in a Lovecraftian mood, the card game will satisfy your appetite for madness and monsters and the swinging 20s.

The Cthulhu domain markers are detailed and they add nice chrome to the game. Actually, you don’t need them – you could drain your domain simply by turning the domain cards sideways (as in most other CCGs), but putting a Cthulhu figure on a drained domain is somewhat weird – appropriate for the topic.

Rules

The rulebook layout goes nicely with the game: good illustrations and headlines printed in old typewriter font

The Rulebook consists of 24 pages, is fully colored, and the artworks and layout are typical for FFG games. It explains the cards, the symbols, the card types, timing, abilities, and the Sequence of Play. It’s richly illustrated. One page is printed with a detailed flowchart which is helpful when deciding which actions can be taken when. Only the first 15 pages are the actual rules pages; pages 16+ are brief descriptions (ie. advertisements) of the Asylum Packs.

The rules are written in a clear and well-sorted fashion and once you learned the game, you don’t have to refer to the rulebook very often. Unfortunately, the rulebook contains some black holes which can only be filled by consulting the official FFG forum or the official FAQ. Downloading the official FAQ is mandatory because it clarifies many aspects not mentioned in the rulebook or which arise from playing specific cards. In addition, the crucial timing rules are far from being satisfying. You won’t be able to solve all questions by consulting the rulebook alone, the FAQ is really helpful here.

One important aspect isn’t explained at all, neither in the rulebook, nor in the FAQ, so we had to solve this question by consulting the forum: when does which character ability or action resolve and which action “beats” which action. If you don’t know that – during an action phase -, the forced response resolves first (active player first, inactive player second), followed by the response, followed by any other action, you could face serious troubles when both players want to resolve different actions during the same action phase.

In addition, the FAQ contains some card errata, for example for one of the story cards, which are really important. If you buy the game in a game store without ever consulting the internet or visiting the official FFG website or downloading the official FAQ, you will certainly have problems getting the game right “out of the box”. The rulebook is suboptimal as a standalone rulebook because it leaves too many questions unanswered.

One good advice for solving debates about what a card can or can’t do is: follow the card text as close as possible and concentrate on what the card allows – not on what it doesn’t mention! If a card states that “all characters get a wound”, than this includes your own characters even if you played the card, unless the card states “all opponent’s characters get a wound”. If you played Cthulhu who forces all players to discard a character each time a card is drawn, then you will have to discard Cthulhu if you don’t have any characters left – the card wording doesn’t state “other characters than Cthulhu”. This is generally a good advice for a novice gamer and will solve many debates. Nevertheless, some cards are so tricky (for example Cthulhu’s Ravager from the Deep) that we had to do some research before we knew how to play this card correctly.

Downloading the FAQ from the official FFG support page will help a lot and provide for a much easier introduction to the game, so download it before you start learning the game with the Core Pack!

You can download the rulebook here (PDF, 2.1 MB) and the FAQ here (PDF, 560 KB).

Playability

A typical CoC gaming table

In the Core Set, you don’t customize your own individual deck. The game is meant as an introduction to the CoC Card game system and provides for a basic card pool which will later be supplemented, modified, and customized by buying Asylum Packs.  The final goal of the game is to create your ultimate individual deck, consisting of one or more factions, and with your individual focus (rush deck, control, terror, combat, counter, burning cards, character destruction…). The Core Set introduces the 7 game factions to you and gives you a first impression of their strengths and weaknesses. Nothing more – and nothing less.

By playing the Core Set, you will learn which factions you like and which factions don’t support your individual playing style or meet your taste. If you are a competitive player, you will then choose some factions from the Core Set as “your factions” and use them for deck building and customization by buying Asylum Packs. If you are a casual player who only plays from time to time and who isn’t interested in deck building and customization at all, you could probably stay with the Core Set without ever buying an Asylum Pack.

The competitive player will only use the Core Set as his “starter card pool” (probably even buying 2 or 3 Core Set to have more copies of all cards), so this review won’t be of much interest to him anyway. The main focus of this review is answering the question: can I buy the Core Set and play with it exclusively for the rest of my life? In other words, is it suited as a standalone game?

First, Starters for Living Card Games are not designed for being played exclusively over a long time – they are designed to hook players on the game system and to seduce them into buying more cards. Nevertheless, the Core Set is promoted as being “suitable for standalone playing”, so we sent it into the HFC test lab where it underwent thorough examination.

We started by watching the introduction video provided by FFG on the official support page. The video gives a detailed overview over the game mechanics and rules and is great for learning the basic rules. After watching the video, we read the rules together while looking at the cards described in the rulebook. We then both randomly chose two factions and mixed them up for our first decks.

Before playing, we had downloaded and printed out the FAQ and we soon learned that the FAQ was vital for getting the game right. First, it fixes three cards from the Core Set. Then it is extremely helpful in clarifying game aspects which are only vaguely mentioned in the rulebook – or not at all. Despite using the FAQ and the rulebook, we had to refer to the official FFG forum several times during our first games, just to be sure that we understood all things right.

Ravager is committed to a story and then wounds all other characters committed to this story. So, if he is played by the active player, he would only wound his own companions, and the inactive player could then commit his own characters. If he is played in defense, he wounds his own companions as well as the opponent’s characters.

We soon learned that we misinterpreted some card texts and got the timing rules wrong, but after getting helpful explanations by seasoned players in the forum, we understood our initial problems. We also learned that you have to stick as close to the card texts as possible; even the slightest differences in wording make for a different effect (“all characters”, “other characters” etc.). Alas, some card texts are prone to being misunderstood and need further clarification. We had the problem with the “The Other Path” story card or the timing of the “Ravager from the Deep” Cthulhu card. We solved these issues by posting in the rules folder in the CoC forum, but generally, in a game where the card text has to be taken as literally as possible, these issues shouldn’t arrive in the first place. Most of the cards are quite clear, though, and all other questions could be solved by taking a close look at the card texts, taking every word into consideration.

In contrast to the “A Game of Thrones” starter set (another LCG by Fantasy Flight Games), all 7 factions are included in the CoC starter set. After randomly mixing up two factions we thought to be “cool”, we started our first games. Getting into the game wasn’t very problematic because we had both the rulebook and the FAQ, and after a short while, the Sequence of Play was internalized. For more details on the general gameplay rules and the Sequence of Play, check out our Introductory article to CoC: The Card Game and the tutorial video.

Certainly the most important part of the rulebook is the Flowchart on page 14. The phases (Refresh, Draw, Operational, Story Phase) are printed in green boxes. Players can’t play any action cards or trigger character abilities while they are still resolving the green boxes, except from disrupt actions which are cancellations or counter effects. All other actions have to be taken in the white “action boxes” which follow after each green box. Here, Forced Responses are resolved first (by the active player), followed by the Forced Responses of the inactive player. Then, the active player can play any Responses, followed by the inactive player. Last but not least, the active player can play any other action (named “action” on his event, support, or character card) and then the inactive player can play an action. To keep this in mind, and to remember the fact that the green boxes can never be interrupted by any card text named “Response” or “Action”, only by card texts named “Disrupt” is very helpful in the beginning. Unfortunately, this doesn’t become very clear by referring only to the rulebook.

After the first few games, the game is understood and players begin to concentrate on strategy and how to play which card – and when not to play a card at all.

We mixed various factions (human only, demon only, human/demon mixed decks) and set them at each other. There we learned that (at least in the core deck), human factions face problems when fighting monster factions because human factions are weak against terror. Only the Agency has some strong characters with willpower (who are immune against terror). On the other hand, factions like the Miskatonic University are strong at manipulating cards and the decks, and strong at investigation, but they have very few characters with combat powers and most of them are expensive. Monster-only decks, on the other hand, lack in investigation skills and can be rushed by investigation-heavy decks. We learned the strengths and weaknesses of all factions and tried to combine them with factions that counter or compensate for these problems.

Nevertheless, at least in the Core Set without the chance of adding cards to a deck which compensate for a faction’s problems, some combinations simply won’t work when facing other combinations. During our test games, some combinations were eaten alive without the chance of ever scoring a story card (getting three story cards is the victory condition of the game). Some combinations were rushed within minutes, so that the opponent scored all three cards within 10 minutes. Other combinations were quite balanced and games took about 30-40 minutes until one player managed to dominate the other.

Some decks were sent into several battles, especially the decks we thought to be extremely weak or vulnerable because we wanted to eliminate bad luck or a deck with weird shuffling. With some combinations, we didn’t manage to win at all, regardless of how often we sent it into battle. Examples are Cthulhu + Miskatonic or Yog-Sothoth + Miskatonic which were eaten alive by various combinations, mostly 3:0 or 3:1. Very strong decks who almost always smashed their opponents were Hastur + Miskatonic and Syndicate + Shub-Niggurath. Other combinations lost or won, depending on their decks and their opponents and we didn’t observe any trends with them.

Generally, combining two human factions in the Core Set is much more problematic than combining two demon factions. When you own Asylum Packs, you can supplement a “weak” deck or a human/human deck with cards that compensate for their specific weaknesses or which counter the most dangerous effects. But with the Core Set, you are forced to play with 20 cards for each faction and your only chance to win battles is to combine them with factions that don’t add to their problems.

Shub+Miskatonic, committed to a story

Figuring out which factions cooperate nicely with other factions and which combinations suck most of the time is what the Core Set is about. Once you found “your” combination or a “killer combo”, you can set this combo against other combinations, but as soon as both players found their favorites, they will feel the urge to “power up” their decks and supplement them by more cards in order to get more variation for their games. You can try out 21 different combinations in the Core Set, but not all of them will work “out of the box” against all other combinations. You when you are playing with the Core Set alone, you will be reduced to a certain number of deck combinations which are balanced enough to face an opponent while other combinations won’t be played again, unless you are feeling experimental or adventurous.

Since you don’t build your decks on your own, discarding drawn cards as resources doesn’t hurt as much as when you play with a customized deck where each and every card is part of your overall strategy. All Core Set factions contain some uninteresting and weak cards, which you would never choose in a custom deck, or cards which don’t fit into your individual strategy, so discarding is somewhat easier than with a custom deck. Playing with the pre-built Core decks, on the other hand, is more difficult because of the balancing issues and because you can’t compensate for the specific faction problems.

Nevertheless, the Core Set is a good introduction to the overall game system and gives a good first impression of all 7 factions and what they are about. You can imagine how each faction will profit from new cards and special effects and you can imagine other cards which counter your opponent’s most dangerous effects.

In addition, CoC is a good “in-between game” because gameplay is fast and most games take between 10 -30 minutes. If you are in a Lovecraftian mood but don’t have the time to set up Arkham Horror, this game is a nice alternative. Because of the short playing time, the game is somewhat unforgiving and obvious playing mistakes (for example wasting an important card by mis-reading the text) can easily lead to your defeat.

Replay Value

The story cards are an important part of the strategy. Alas, there are only 10 story cards in the Core Pack.

If you are a very casual player who only plays once in a while, on a family game evening or with friends who aren’t interested in buying Asylum Packs and in building their own decks, then you could be content with the Core Pack because it takes some time to figure out the best combinations and to play them several times against various opponents. You will have to play a faction combination repeatedly if you want to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and there is enough opportunity for experimentation. Unless you play 20+ games in a row (as we did in our test lab), but only play now and then, the Core Set will offer enough Replay Value for you to occupy you for a long time.

If you are a competitive player, you surely won’t be content with just playing the Core Set. The Core Set is required for getting into the game because it serves as the “starter set”, and it is sufficient for learning the rules and getting to know all factions and figuring out good combinations. But if you play regularly and often, you soon will have exploited the opportunities offered by the Core Set. In addition, knowing that there are various Asylum Packs outside which supplement all decks and provide them with more cards, more possibilities, great effects, and counter measures against other decks, will be too tempting. Another important aspect of buying Asylum Packs is that the more cards you have, the more combinations become playable because you will be able to counterbalance problems and weaknesses. When you have enough Asylum Packs, you will even be able to build solo decks, consisting of only one faction – which is an appealing and challenging alternative. You could even consider buying another Core Set to have more copies of the best cards for your deck. Supplementing the Core Set with more Core Sets and Asylum Packs will put you in a position to play all combinations, even the most weird ones – all combinations are played by competitive players on tournaments and there is no combination which is officially labeled as a “no-go”. It’s all a question of your deck building abilities and the number of Asylum Packs you own.

This means, that the Replay Value of the Core Set as a standalone isn’t too high for the competitive player. It’s a good introduction and you will play it for a while to learn the game and the factions, but you won’t be satisfied on the long run.

You  have to decide on your own in which of the two groups you belong. The Replay Value will differ depending on whether you are a casual or family gamer, or a competitive gamer who wants more.

Creativity

4 Domains and a Hastur/Cthulhu-deck

The game concept isn’t new, neither is the artwork which is recycled in various FFG Call of Cthulhu games. The “Living Card Game” is a welcome distribution model because it protects players from burning their money on their hunt for the rarest cards – as in Magic: The Gathering or other Collectible Card Games. Changing Call of Cthulhu, A Game of Thrones, and Warhammer: Invasion into LCGs was certainly a smart move.

The game mechanics haven’t changed, though, only the distribution model. The game uses the same basic concept as most CCGs and LCGs – resources, card exhaustion, characters, special abilities and so on. So Call of Cthulhu – The Card Game didn’t re-invent the wheel. You will most certainly feel at home immediately if you know other CCGs or LCGs.

Simulation Value

Well, this is a Living Card Game and not a consim, so the designers didn’t want to portrait reality as accurately as possible. Nevertheless, the topic is dealt with in an authentic way, the “20s” atmosphere and general Lovecraft world is nicely portrayed by the characters, the Ancient Ones, the weird events, insanity, locations, and stories. Ancient Ones are threatening, game effects are generally harsh and brutal – generally, the game does a good job in “simulating” the world of H.P. Lovecraft.

Solitaire Playability

Next to none. You could probably play alone to test your new deck and to check whether a certain effect or strategy works, but only from the scientific deck-building-point-of-view. Not knowing your opponent’s deck and being surprised by his cards is part of the fun. Knowing his deck, knowing his hand and applying his effects isn’t very interesting. A human opponent is strongly recommended.

Can be compared to:

Other Living Card Games by FFG, for example A Game of Thrones or Warhammer Invasion. CoC – The Card Game was a Collectible Card Game before FFG changed the distribution model, so the game can also be compared to other CCGs out there, for example Magic: The Gathering.

Denny Koch’s Resume:

First of all, changing Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game into a Living Card Game was a good move by Fantasy Flight Games – I was never interested in burning my money by buying random booster packs in order to get a working game. Now, with the Asylum Packs and without the hunt for the rarest cards, the dueling card game universe became more attractive to me.

But this review doesn’t deal with the entire CoC: Card Game – but with the Core Set which serves as a starter. In my opinion, the Core Set is a good starter, but more cards would have been somewhat helpful to provide for more long-term replayability for players who aren’t interested in buying Asylum Packs. The game is advertised as a game which can be played as a standalone as well as serving as a starter for jumping into the world of CoC: The Card Game. It’s quite clear to me that competitive players or players who are interested into the deckbuilding aspects of a dueling game won’t be satisfied on the long run. But how much value does the Core Pack has for the casual game who is looking for a fast-paced alternative to Arkham Horror?

First, the rules aren’t optimal, especially not for casual gamers who buy the game at their local store without ever checking the relevant resource pages on the internet – boardgamegeek.com and the FFG supply pages. They definitely will have trouble getting the rules right and the game is problematic without the FAQ. People who don’t know that the FAQ exists and where to post their questions will most certainly face problems when confronted with the black holes within the original rulebook. They probably will never know that they play cards and timing wrong, but most certainly, they will encounter questions sooner or later. With the FAQ, learning and playing the game is quite easy. It doesn’t protect you from specific questions though (timing and certain card effects), but the FFG forum will help you in answering them. Nevertheless, the rulebook isn’t very good as an introduction to the game. Layout, print etc. are great, but it simply leaves to many black holes.

The card artworks create a nice “golden 20s” atmosphere. This artwork was taken from Arkham Horror. Steve was a Miskatonic character in the original CCG game but joined the Agency in the LCG due to a printing error.

You will spend some time testing the 21 deck combinations and if you only play a game once in a while, this will be sufficient to entertain you for a long, long time. Unfortunately, you will have to play the factions “out of the box” without any chance of changing their decks or countering their weaknesses, except by adding a second faction which supplements the first faction. This leads to some balancing issues because not all of the 21 deck combinations are equally good. Some combinations are significantly stronger than others, and some combinations are significantly weaker. Human-only factions with their limited terror tolerance face serious problems when played exclusively with Core Set cards.

The Core Set offers enough Lovecraftian flair for a gamer who is interested in a fast-paced alternative to other (longer) Lovecraft games, for example Arkham Asylum where the setup alone can take hours (depending on the number of expansions you integrated into the game). It’s perfect for the quick Lovecraft fix and as an in-between game if you have 10-30 minutes to spend and are looking for some fun with the Ancient Ones.

If you are planning on playing the game regularly, for example with a gaming group, then you will reach the game’s limits sooner or later. If you only play once in a while with a friend here and there, then you could be content with owning only the Core Set.

In the end, I cannot give a recommendation whether the Core Set is a good standalone game or not – it depends solely on what you expect from the game and how often you will play it. The casual gamer with an occasional game here and there who isn’t interested in deck-building could be satisfied with the Core Set.

As soon as you want to delve deeper into the game, want to find out good faction combinations, experiment with the strengths and weaknesses of the factions, you will feel the urge to buy Asylum Packs sooner or later. Since you can’t do any deck-building with the Core Set, you should be aware that you don’t play the “true” Living Card Game if you restrict yourself to the Core Set  because deck customization is part of the fun – building your own deck, optimizing your cards, developing strategies and then finally throwing your deck into the battle against other player’s individual deck.

If this isn’t your main interest and if you are only looking for a quick Lovecraft game once in a while, you could certainly try out the Core Set – but don’t forget to download the official FAQ, whether you are a casual or a competitive player!

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