Betrayal at House on the Hill and Mansions of Madness are two of my favorite games, especially Betrayal. They do a great job of getting you into character, making you feel like you’re really in the moment. They just ooze theme. They were a big inspiration for Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University, but I want to make sure CoC:MU is distinct, separate, and not really a replacement for/replaceable by either of those games. So in this post I’m going to discuss the similarities and differences between CoC:MU and BaHotH and MoM.
BaHotH and MoM are both about the players controlling a single investigator each, represented by a miniature, exploring a creepy building made out of rearrangeable tiles. One of the players is opposed to the others, and controls the monsters. The investigators and the evil dude have secret goals that the other doesn’t know about, and they move around on the board trying to accomplish them before the other can accomplish theirs. The main mechanic is ability score checks, which are of the form “roll some dice, did you roll high enough? If so, good, if not, sucks to be you”. No real choice involved there. Both have as one of the main mechanics turning over event-style cards and rolling to see what happens.
Okay, so that’s all the similarities I can think of off the top of my head, what are the differences? In BaHotH, you build the building as you explore it, whereas in MoM it’s set up in advance. In BaHotH, you don’t know who the traitor is until halfway through the game, whereas in MoM the keeper is chosen in advance (and also doesn’t control an investigator, just the environment/monsters). BaHotH has a lot more replay value than MoM, because once you know the secrets of a certain scenario in MoM, you can’t really play that one again with the same group, whereas in BaHotH you never know which scenario you’ll be playing, so you can’t really plan ahead, so even if you play the same one twice, that’s okay. MoM is also more strategic, whereas in BaHotH things are a bit more random-you never know what’s on the other side of the next door, which is really thematic, but also makes it so you can’t really plan your movement at first, it’s just sort of stumbling blindly. BaHotH requires almost no setup, MoM famously takes anywhere from half an hour to a full hour to set up.
Now how about CoC:MU? Like BaHotH and MoM, it has a board made out of rearrangeable tiles, and like BaHotH, they’re flipped over as you play. BaHotH has one building with three floors which are only connected via special, non-adjacent tiles, whereas CoC:MU will have multiple buildings, each with one floor, an indoors and an outdoors, which are only connected where the tiles are actually adjacent. It has one player vs the rest, but unlike BaHotH that player is picked at the beginning of the game, and unlike MoM that player is secret until partway through the game (and they control an investigator). The academics and the cultist have their own goals, and the cultist’s are secret, but the academics’ aren’t-except each academic will have their own private goal, which is secret. You pick a scenario at the beginning, like MoM, but then a random Cultist Card is chosen, which makes the way the scenario plays out unknowable in advance, which means it should have BaHotH levels of replayability. I’m hoping that the fact that everyone starts the game knowing what their own goal is will make the game more strategic and less arbitrary feeling, which I know is a common complaint against BaHotH. Like BaHotH and to a lesser degree MoM, one of the main things in CoC:MU is turning over Event cards. I’m trying to give players more control over what kind of events they draw, though, to make the game feel like it has more choices.
In terms of flavor, CoC:MU is closer to MoM than BaHotH. In terms of visual appearance, it’s closer to BaHotH. In terms of gameplay and mechanics, I think it will be its own beast. In large part, that’s because of the very different main mechanic.
The base mechanic for MoM, BaHotH, and CoC:MU is ability score checks. The way that works in MoM is that you have an ability score, say Strength 6, and you roll a single d10. If you roll below 6, you succeed, if not, you fail. In BaHotH, if your Strength is 6, you roll 6 of the special BaHotH dice, which are six siders with two 1s, two 2s, and two 0s on them, sum the result, and if it’s high enough, you succeed, if not, you fail (there are often varying degrees of success). Those mechanics work well enough, but they don’t really provide you with the opportunity to make any decisions, and so when designing CoC:MU, one of my main goals was to make the base mechanic be distinct from what’s come before, and involve actual decisions, but not be so complicated as to slow the game down. I came up with something that I think works well. It takes a little bit of explaining to communicate how it works, but once you do it a few times, it becomes obvious second nature.
There are three kinds of dice: Red, Blue, and Green. All are six siders. There are three kinds of symbols on them: Good, Weird, and Bad. (I’ll rename those in the final product, I expect). Red dice have 1 Good, 2 Weird, and 3 Bad faces. Blue dice have 2 Good, 2 Weird, and 2 Bad, while Green dice have 3 Good, 2 Weird, and 1 Bad.
Ability scores are of the form “X dice of Y color.” For instance, you might have a Brawn of Green Green but a Willpower of Red and a Finesse of Blue Blue. Ability checks, for instance on an event card, are of the form “W ability score, Z Fill.” A Fill is five dice in a specific order, for instance RRBRR. To do an ability check, you see what your ability score is, and then going from the left to the right, you take dice from the Fill until you have a total of five dice. So if the check is Brawn RRBRR and your Brawn is GG, then you would take GGRRB. Then you roll all the dice, pick two to reroll, reroll those, and then consult the results chart. Results always give something for 3 Good, another thing for 2 Weird, and another thing for 2 Bad.
Here’s an example. Say the event is “A bust tumbles from its pedestal. Brawn RRBRR. 3 Good: It shatters, and you find something inside. Draw an Item. 2 Weird: the bust has your own face! You are unnerved and want to get out of here. At the end of your turn, move 1 towards the closest exit. 2 Bad: the bust hits you as it falls, take 1 wound.”
You roll 1 Good, 2 Weird, and 2 Bad. Now you get to reroll 2 dice. You were moving towards a room you have to get to, so you don’t want to be forced to move back, so you want to reroll those Weirds. But you also don’t want to take damage, so you want to reroll those Bads. You could reroll 1 Weird and 1 Bad, but the odds they’d both come up Good are pretty low. Which do you choose to reroll? Your choice could also be affected by which dice came up with those faces; if the Weirds are both Red dice, then there’s a 50/50 chance they’ll come up Bad if you reroll them, so that’s worth keeping in mind.
You have a real, actual decision to make, with actual consequences depending on what you choose. And in true Lovecraftian horror fashion, none of the options are very good.
Another important aspect of it is that, while the Weird and Bad results happen immediately, if you get the Good result, you can keep the Event card in your hand, and play it later. Say you want to find the Necronomicon. That’s a Library only item, so you have to search in the Library to have any chance of finding it. You can only hold two cards in your hand, though, so choose them wisely!
I hope all that that makes Cultists of Cthulhu: Miskatonic University feel distinct and strategic. What do you think? Does that sound like an interesting mechanic? Does it sound too similar to Betrayal at House on the Hill or Mansions of Madness? I’m really curious to hear what you think. Let me know either in the comments here, or on twitter @SixpenceGames.