|Components & Design
For a game as steeped in pop culture as Smash Up, involving the Internet’s favorite Great Old One was really unavoidable, so the title Obligatory Cthulhu Set is spot on. Alderac didn’t have much of a choice, it had to be made. If you don’t know Smash Up, you might want to check our review of the base game, but the core concept is this: you pick two decks of cards, like Ninjas, Pirates, Zombies or Dinosaurs, shuffle them together and send your resulting Zombie Ninjas or Pirate Dinosaurs into battle to win base cards and be the first to score 15 points that way.
Just like the previous expansion Awesome Level 9000, The Obligatory Cthulhu Set adds 4 decks to the game that can be shuffled up with each other or any of the existing decks. Unlike the previous expansion, however, the four decks in this one all share a common theme: H.P. Lovecraft. It’s not one deck of Great Old Ones and three unrelated others, there are four decks with different factions from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror Mythos universe, all equally likely to drive you insane and eat everyone you love, but all in their own, charming way. Being driven insane by the realisation how insignificant mankind is compared to the things lurking in the vastness of space is the most important theme in all of Lovecraft stories, and this carries over into Smash Up as a common game mechanic for the four factions: Madness cards. Each deck has its own way to use those cards, but they always have the same effect: when you have them in your deck, they are worth minus half a point at the end of the game, but playing them from your hand lets you draw two cards. Not a bad deal for some of the factions that are chronically low on cards. But even with Mr. Lovecraft large collection of stories, is there really enough there to make four decks with distinct personalities? Lets have a look.
Minions of Cthulhu
The Greatest Old One himself lies sleeping in his house in R’lyeh, but his earthly servants are busy preparing the world for his return. These guys exemplify the old saying that with great power comes great insanity, and they want all of it for themselves. Cthulhu’s minions don’t deal Madness cards to other players much, they draw them themselves in return for powerful bonuses. Cthulhu’s Chosen get a power bonus before their base is scored – in return for drawing a Madness card. The Corruption action lets you destroy any minion – at the price of drawing a Madness card. Or simply score a point for a Madness card, it’s still a 0.5 points gain. And the list goes on. You don’t have to be mad to serve Cthulhu, but it certainly helps. But you’re not entirely without ways to get rid of Madness, although the other decks have an easier time with that. The Star-Spawn of Cthulhu allows you to give one of your Madness cards to another player every turn, as long as you can keep him around. The Cthulhu Crew also has the ability to play extra actions and get action cards back from the discard pile, but they lack some decent minions, so you want to look for those when choosing your second deck.
Long before life evolved here, long before anything else arrived here from the stars, the Elder Things ambulated the Earth. Calling what they do for locomotion walking would be too much already, we’re talking about the original starfish aliens here, the ones that you only have to look at to go mad. The Elder Things can use Insanity to force all other players to draw Madness cards, but more fun are their other abilities: first they force the other players into madness with cards like the Mi-go that lets them draw a card for every other player that doesn’t “voluntarily” draw a Madness card, and then they follow up with cards like The Price of Power that increases one of their minion’s power for each Madness card the others currently have in hand. It’s not easy to pull off in that combination, but very satisfying when it works. And in terms of raw power, they can summon one of the Elder Things themselves. To do that, they have to sacrifice two other minions, but the Elder Thing with its 10 Power is the beefiest minion in Smash Up so far, and it’s also unaffected by opponents cards. The Elder Things are not the quickest, so they work well with speedy decks like the mages.
Come to Innsmouth! This lovely town on the sea has everything you want, provided all you want is fish. Fish to eat, fish to run your hotel, fish to serve you at the restaurant – because here, the people saying that man did not descend from apes are right. The Innsmouth people descend from things living deep down in the ocean. The Innsmouth people don’t deal in madness, they only have two cards that do anything with the Madness deck. They rely on the power of their mob of Locals. They have more copies of their work horse card The Locals than any other deck has copies of the same card. Ten of them, out of twenty cards total. And those fish-eyed freaks rarely come alone, with each one you play you may search your deck for more Locals. The remaining ten cards help you bring the Locals to the table quickly – like the Sacred Circle that lets you play an extra minion with the same name as a minion already present – and buffs them into quite formidable opponents – The Deep Ones gives one extra power to all minions of power two or less, you get one guess what the Local’s power is. All those support cards don’t call the Locals by name, they work on cards of the same name as other cards, or cards with power two or less, so Innsmouth works pretty well with other decks that use small minions of the same type. Innsmouth Zombies are pretty scary, but Innsmouth Robots are my personal favorite. Just make sure your bots are waterproofed.
Miskatonic U is the world’s foremost center of Elder Lore, a place where people can study the Necronomicon and discuss it with their fellow madmen. These studies can drive the best person mad, but unlike everyone else in this expansion the University employs mental health professionals, giving them many ways to discard Madness cards again. They can use the Gate to Beyond to summon extra minions at the cost of drawing Madness cards, and then the Professor may discard those again to play an extra action or another extra minion. Some other cards like Librarian and Psychologist discard Madness, the Researcher lets you draw Madness without any additional effect. Unfortunately, most of those cards are not very interesting, drawing and discarding Madness without any other effect just isn’t fun. Miskatonic University are the least interesting deck in The Obligatory Cthulhu Set, but they do shine when played together with the Minions of Cthulhu, gaining Madness for bonuses first and then discarding the Madness cards again.
With that problem, Miskatonic University shows up an issue with The Obligatory Cthulhu Set: Madness ends up not being very interesting. The different ways to use the cards in this expansion are fun enough, but they fall short in the game as a whole. When you’re playing a non-Cthulhu deck against an opponent playing one or even two of the expansion factions, then you have this whole new game element that you don’t interact with. Madness cards may show up in your hand, especially when playing against the Elder Things, but they ultimately don’t do anything interesting for you, they are just some negative score that lets you draw cards when you want to. Maybe part of my disappointment is that the cards are all the same. After all, Madness is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results, maybe Madness would be a lot more interesting if the cards had different effects. As it is, despite me loving Cthulhu as much as the next geek – in a purely platonic way – and despite many good ideas that did go into it, The Obligatory Cthulhu Set just falls short of the mark set by the base game and Awesome Level 9000.