I had a fantastic time at Metatopia, the game designer’s conference. Thank you for inviting me, Jacqueline and Ben! I demoed Professor Pugnacious a number of times, sold two copies and gave one away to a reviewer, would have sold more if I hadn’t brought only 3, demoed Save the Singularity once and got some excellent quotes for marketing it (“I think it’s really fun. It’s a lot more interesting than it looks. I was engaged the whole time, even when it wasn’t my turn. It feels really intense. It’s a really good cooperative game,”-Curt Covert, designer of Cutthroat Caverns), attended a bunch of panels that pretty solidly confirmed what I had been suspecting about running kickstarters (reach goals are more of a pain than they’re worth unless they’re something you can do literally for free, also, never sell things to foreigners because shipping is far too expensive), and I got to play a whole lot of beta tests of games.
The breakaway hit game that I played, by far the most innovative, was Ker-Thulu! by Curt Covert. A combination of Kerplunk, which I had never heard of before, and the Cthulhu mythos, it’s a game about investigating unspeakable horrors without losing your marbles. Literally.
The centerpiece of the game is an opaque, hollow black tower with wooden skewers going through it. The skewers are removable (with the outside bit being done up to like a tentacle). A bunch of marbles are dropped into the tower, and are held up by the skewers they land on. If you remove a skewer, some unknown number of marbles will fall out the bottom of the tower.
The game plays like this: we are each investigators, cooperatively trying to get through a series of locations, but also competing to be the “hero”-the one with the most points at the end of the game. On your turn, you roll 5d6. You select at least one to keep, reroll the rest, select at least one to keep, repeat until you’ve kept all 5. If you don’t keep a 1, 2, and 3, then you have to pull a skewer. If you do keep a 1, 2, and 3, then the sum of the other two dice is your score for the round. Everybody does this, and then the player with the highest score gets to keep the location card for the round, and gets its associated points. Draw a new location card and keep going.
That’s a fine push your luck dice game in itself, but where it really gets interesting is when you fail to get a 1, 2, and 3, and have to pull out a tentacle. This releases some unknown number of marbles. There are a lot of blue, a lot of white, a medium amount of red, and 3 green marbles in the tower. The blue marbles are worth points towards victory at the end of the game. The white marbles are spells: you draw a spell card from the deck for each one you get. The red marbles are madness. If you get four red marbles over the course of the game, you go mad. More on that below. Most importantly, if all three green marbles fall out, Cthulhu appears! The game ends and everyone loses.
I really like H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. I hate it when it’s combined with cutesy stuff. When I read the description of the game, I thought “I’ve never heard of Kerplunk, but it sounds like a children’s game. This is going to completely miss the point of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and is going to be terrible.” I could not have been more wrong. Staring at that unknowable black void of a tower, knowing that it contains our destruction but not knowing when it will arrive, dreading the sound of the marbles falling, breathing a sigh of relief when no green ones come out, looking at the ever-dwindling number of skewers holding up our remaining sanity, feeling the dread grow when a green one does drop-it evokes cosmic horror better than any other Cthulhu themed game I have ever played. It’s incredible.
Beyond that, the game has one last twist that I love. If you get four or more red marbles, you go insane. This isn’t just a loss condition or anything boring like that. Instead, it changes what your win condition is. Instead of rolling the dice each turn, you pull out one skewer. Your goal is no longer to have the most points, instead, you want to summon Cthulhu and bask in his terrible majesty as he destroys the world!
This game is fantastic, and I really hope that it makes it to production. It looks like it would be incredibly expensive to make, but I would back that Kickstarter so hard. That, combined with playtesting a new expansion for Cutthroat Caverns, has turned me into a big fan of Curt Covert. I’m definitely going to go looking for his games now.
I also met the fine folks of Everything Epic Games, who are making a game called Secrets of the Lost Tomb. It’s a sort of Betrayal at House on the Hill meets Indiana Jones. It looks like they independently invented a lot of what I’m doing for Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University. The games look similar enough that if you like one you’ll probably like the other, but distinct enough that neither one would be a replacement for the other. Mine is traitor centered horror, theirs is completely cooperative adventure. They’re going to be running their Kickstarter in a few weeks, and you’d better believe I’ll be backing that.