This game will drive you to madness, and that is only right and proper. Lost in R’lyeh is a 2-6 player card game in which your goal is not to “win” (nobody wins against Cthulhu), but simply not to be the last person out of R’lyeh, and hence trapped there forever.
You begin the game with five random cards dealt to you face up; these are your Escape cards, and will be the last cards you play in the game as you try to escape R’lyeh. You add one card from your play hand secretly to them, face down: your “Ultimate Escape” card, which will be the very last card you play.
Play consists of each player playing a card or cards from their hand onto the stack in the middle of the table. Cards are either Horrors, with a value from 1-10, or Events, with no value. You can always play an Event for its printed ability. When you play a Horror, you must always play one with a value equal to or greater than the top Horror on the stack, and there are two twists: first, you can play multiple copies of the same Horror, and second, if you are playing a duplicate of the top Horror(s) on the stack, you may count those Horrors as if you played them. Why would you care about playing duplicates? Because the more you play of a Horror at once, the more powerful an ability it has – changing the turn order, forcing your opponents to take cards, clearing the stack, or otherwise helping to set up your escape. After you play cards, you draw from the deck back up to your maximum hand size (which depends on the number of players). If you were unable or unwilling to play any cards, you have to take the entire stack of played cards and add it to your hand. But, sometimes, you might want to do this to give you better options next turn.
Once the deck and your hand of cards are empty, your escapes begin. You may play one of your face up Escape cards on your turn, still following the normal rules for play, but only that one card. If you are later given the stack to put in your hand, you must finish playing through that hand before you can go back to your Escape cards. Finally, once it is the last card left, you may play your Ultimate Escape to leave the game. The last player left to have not played their Ultimate Escape is considered the loser and trapped in R’lyeh forever.
The game is very counterintuitive. You would assume, from reading the rules, that your goal is simply to empty your hand as quickly as possible so that you can empty the deck and start escaping. But because the deck empties for everybody at the same time, you don’t gain anything on the other players by burning through cards faster than them. Instead, everything from the first half of the game before you start escaping is really about setting your opponents up to have handfuls of useless cards when the deck finally empties. But the game doesn’t really tell you that, and it’s not inherently obvious as part of play; you have to discover it for yourself, and the gameplay feels very arbitrary and random until you do. Additionally, some players may be turned off by the “no winner, only a loser” aspect of the game; as long as you are not in last place, you have technically “won” by escaping R’lyeh.
The Cthulhu theme isn’t quite as pervasive and natural as it is in a longer, moodier game like Arkham Horror, but the playing time is also only 45-minutes. The art is very good, and the cards are Atlas Games’s typical high quality. If you like the hand-emptying aspect of something like Uno, but want a little more strategy and less randomness, then Lost in R’lyeh will be perfect for you. On the other hand, it still isn’t a highly tactical game where you have a great deal of control over what you do and what happens to you; the “screw your neighbor” factor here is high. If you are a collector of Cthulhiana, or just light card games that are easy to pick up and play, then you might very well find yourself Lost in R’lyeh.