GTM #167 - Twilight In Kingsport: Puzzling Out the Apocalypse in Cthulhu!!! Hastur La Vista, Baby!
by Patrick Kapera

It’s often said that game design is as much art as science. Case in point: Cthulhu!!! Hastur La Vista, Baby! This is Twilight Creations’ first adaptation of the Zombies!!! game system, and the first game that I worked on when I signed up with the company. It’s set in Kingsport in the 1920s and it diverges from most Lovecraftian games in that it’s not about nihilistic disassembly of the human condition or futile discovery of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Instead, the players take the roles of hard-boiled detectives and brazen gun molls fighting the Cult of Hastur in a desperate (and often very bloody) battle to save the city, and presumably the world beyond.

There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s baked into the game system. Zombies!!! is about a group of survivors escaping a nameless city during a zombie apocalypse. Players race to the helipad, slashing, bashing, and sometimes eviscerating their way through the undead horde along the way. They pick up a variety of weapons to help with this, and most importantly there’s a second, parallel game happening alongside in which the players screw one another over with card play, tile placement, and other decisions. Because as they say, when the walking dead are hot on your heels it’s not always important that you get the farthest ahead — merely that you get farther ahead than someone else.

Cthulhu!!! takes this model and adds a new element: an organized enemy with a goal. The cult of Hastur wants to summon its god, in the form of his best-known avatar, the King in Yellow. They’ve prepared Ritual Sites around Kingsport, and part of this game’s narrative is that the cultists are luring our heroes to their doom, leveraging the fate of the world as a means to draw the heroes into a cunning trap. The Ritual Sites are activated by innocent blood, you see, and that means the cultists have to slay the heroes on just these spots to bring about their desired end of the world.

The heroes stalk through Kingsport slaying cultists and their byakhee servitors, and claiming mythos tomes, sacrificial weapons, eldritch artifacts, and other relics of power they can turn against the enemies. Indeed, it’s by using these at the Ritual Sites that the players can turn the tables on the cultists, sanctifying the Ritual Sites and preventing Hastur from being summoned at all.

This is a sleek and elegant way of tossing the Zombies!!! play pattern on its side. Instead of one helipad that everyone is racing toward, we have five, each of which is a vital battleground that both sides need to control. In the game the first side to control three Ritual Sites — sanctifying or activating them — decides the fate of the city. If three Sites are sanctified, Kingsport and the world are saved, but if three players are killed on Ritual Sites Hastur is summoned and the stars finally come right, or start to...

This wasn’t always how the game played. When it was first conceived, the Ritual Sites were activated when cultists moved onto them and started their next move on the tile. Every turn the cultists would move — ever so slowly, like the undead in Zombies!!! — toward the nearest of the sites, while the players either cut the enemies down or took the same opportunity to sanctify (by spending a turn on a Ritual Site tile). This created several concurrent problems, and the fact that they were all happening in tandem was part of the reason it was initially difficult to see why the game wasn’t working.

For one thing the game was too easy to “win.” Ritual Sites came up in the tile deck, just as all locations do in Zombies!!!, and players could place them in any legal configuration. The obvious way to save Kingsport was to always place the Ritual Sites as far from the cultist “horde” as possible. Another problem was that there weren’t enough ways for cultists to appear on the board, and all of those were also connected to tile placement (cultists were placed on named building tiles, on the same spaces as the life and bullet tokens — again, just as zombies were placed on buildings in the root game).

Both these conditions made the game rather predictable and controllable, and as a side feature created a traffic jam in large named building tiles as the numerous cultists that were placed there all simultaneously made automated moves off the tile through a limited number of exits. It also made the victory condition rather anti-climactic, because it was merely about getting somewhere and waiting, rather than actually doing anything once you were there. Fortunately, we faced another issue that helped us solve the problem, and made the game far more fun and dynamic in the end.

This problem stemmed from the way that we identified an overall victor. In Zombies!!! that person is pretty obvious in and out of the game narrative: it’s the first player to get to the helipad and escape the city. That’s who survives. That’s the one who gets to thumb his or her nose at everyone else as they go down screaming under a lurching flood of reanimated flesh. In Cthulhu!!! it’s the player with the highest value in collected relics. That’s why the relics are in the game: you kill cultists and byakhee and collect those tomes and weapons and artifacts and so on, and at the end of the game you score them in sets. Larger sets earn you more victory points, and the player with the most points is the winner. Easy peasy.

One of my biggest concerns with the game when I first started playtesting the early prototype was that the relics didn’t serve any other purpose. They didn’t offer you any special abilities, you couldn’t spend them for anything, and they didn’t help tell the story. They were just something you collected, which only really left your possession when you “died” and were sent back to the starting tile (at this point you lost half of them of your choice, as an arbitrary penalty for getting stabbed enough by cultist daggers or slashed enough by byakhee talons). There were one or two cards that affected relic possession, and even then only in the most oblique ways, and none of that felt significant or integral enough to me.

Tomes and other objects in mythos stories matter — they always serve a purpose — and I was concerned that we were missing an opportunity by them not having the same importance here. I also really liked having them as a resource that could be spent, such that throughout the game you were forced to balance your race to victory with immediate or short-term gains. I liked the idea so much that I proposed that we incorporate the option heavily in expansions, and fortunately that was something Jonathan and Kerry Breitenstein, the game’s designers, felt was a good idea. It didn’t address the current needs, of course, but it was something we could do in the long run.
Eventually we decided that one of the ways to incorporate relic resource spending in the core game was to make it the process by which players sanctified Ritual Sites: get there, discard a number of the items (a set number of your choice), and physically collect the site to identify that it’s been sanctified. The actual tile scored a number of victory points on its own at the end of the game. This was easy to balance, and it made story sense as well: investigators in mythos stories frequently collect knowledge and items of importance to use against the adversaries of mankind. Perhaps not in the volume our heroes collected, but nonetheless the idea holds water.

This also refocused our attention on the Ritual Sites and the problems with the board’s automation, which led to the most important shift in the game’s mechanics: bringing things back to what makes Zombies!!! work so well. There again, you have a game in which players are all focused on one destination, and all doing the same things along the way. Tiles are placed entirely according to what seems most interesting, with a side order of what makes life most difficult for the other players, and the whole experience is about that singular goal of being the first one out of the city.

It was this line of thinking that spawned the idea that the Ritual Sites should be placed “fully loaded” with cultists (plus one byakhee for good measure), along with the subsequent decisions not to let enemies leave that tile. We also returned to the long-standing (and much less monotonous) Zombies!!! rule of moving only one die roll’s worth of cultists on each turn (as opposed to all of them every turn), and we also increased their speed to 2 squares each. In part this helped reduce the time between combats, but it also felt more appropriate for fully ambulatory, breathing enemies.
Suddenly everything clicked. It didn’t matter where the Ritual Sites were placed, at least not anymore than it matters where the helipad is placed in Zombies!!! If you happened to pull a Ritual Site you had the luxury of placing it next to your hero, which is how luck of the draw is supposed to apply. The cultists could win as easily as the players “losing” three times — dying on a Ritual Site and thereby activating it with spilled heroic blood.

Best of all, players were all headed to the same destinations (though in this game we had the added dynamic that multiple players might be headed to different destinations at the same time). These locations were often difficult to get to, nearly always difficult to seize, and offered players the chance to play all those wonderful screw your neighbor cards on each other as they tried to get there. Everyone at the table was focused on the same things at the same time, exactly as they are in the flagship game.

From there the rest of the design came together in a shot. We tweaked refocusing some of the cards on the split race to sanctify the Ritual Sites, plus getting more cultists into play and letting players steal a few relics from each other every now and again. We tweaked the relic expenditure to sanctify a Ritual Site (to one of each type, which leveled out the sets each player had collected). Everything else worked as we had it, and off we went to save the world! Or rather you did, and the process to get there worked pretty well.

It just goes to show that sometimes the best solutions to problems with a game’s design are the ones sitting right in front of you. It also goes to show that sometimes you make the problems you’re facing, and the best way to get past them is to take a step back and look at what’s worked before. In this case Zombies!!! wasn’t just the inspiration and the baseline but the guiding light throughout. It wasn’t broken before, and there was really no reason to fix it here.

Ia! Ia! Zombies!!! Fhtagn!