Friday, February 16, 2007

Let's Redesign Cults Across America

In December there was a comment on Boardgamegeek that Cults Across America (from Atlas Games) might someday get a reprint. I have no idea if there is any solid evidence behind this rumor, but it started me thinking about how to redesign the game. I’ve taken the time to describe these ideas because I thought it might be interesting to demonstrate how abstract design ideas can be incorporated into concrete game design.

Cults Across America is not one of my favorite games. Frankly, I can’t remember anyone saying much positive about it. Probably the biggest thing it has going for it is that it is the only strategic Cthulhu Mythos game around.

What exactly is wrong with Cults Across America? Leaving aside the less-than-inspired artwork and production values (I realize that Atlas Games doesn’t have the resources of Hasbro or Fantasy Flight), the game is a huge luck-fest. Players get most resources, monsters, and Great Old Ones by drawing cards. The only way to get Cthulhu is blind luck.

So how would I go about redesigning this game? I would start by considering some of my favorite game mechanisms and design principles. Two of these mechanisms I have written about here on Gone Gaming: multiple currencies and multiple arenas. The design principle I am thinking about comes from Jonathan Degann’s Journal of Boardgame Design. The principle I’m thinking about is story arc.

Multiple Currencies

In the standard Cults Across America rules, players collect cash at the beginning of each turn depending on how many cities they control. They then use this cash to buy new units.

Let’s give the new game design three currencies: money, political points, and magic points. Money will be used to buy standard cult units, weapons, and equipment. Political points will be used to take control of police and army units and the President, and maybe ward off certain attacks by conventional law enforcement forces. Magic points can be saved up to summon various monsters and Great Old Ones, or to cast spells. Every turn, a player will collect a base salary of three points. He can divide these points up any way he wants among the three currencies. Extra points can be earned by control of certain areas.

Certain rare cards or units will allow players to convert one currency to another, but for the most part players will be stuck with the currency choices they make at the beginning of their turn.

Of course, multiple currencies won’t do much to mitigate the luck factor if players still draw cards randomly. I’d give the game five or six face-up cards that players can draw from every turn—provided they can pay for them. These cards would each have a cost that would have to be paid in the appropriate currency before the card could be picked up. This could create some interesting choices. Do I buy that Gug for three magic points this turn, or do I hoard my points in the hope that a Great Old One appears soon?

Multiple Arenas

While cities in CAA have varying values, there is little variation between the rewards players collect for controlling various pieces of real estate. I’d make things more interesting by creating multiple arenas on the map.

I’d divide the country into five to seven regions. Control or domination of each region would generate different kinds of rewards. For example, the region that contains Washington DC would generate extra political points for the player who controlled it. Control of the New York-New England region might generate extra cash. Control the Pacific coast might generate free cult members for the player who rules there. Of course, control of the Dreamlands will generate extra magic points.

It occurs to me that the game could treat the Great Old Ones as individual arenas, too. All we’d have to do is limit how many magic points can be spent each turn to summon one. For example, let’s say that Cthulhu takes twelve magic points to summon, but that a player is not allowed to place more than four magic points on him per turn. This would stop players from simply hoarding their points and grabbing the first GOO that shows up. The game would treat each GOO as an area-majority contest. Although players who placed their magic points first might have an advantage, there might be cards and units that could disrupt the placing of magic points and give later players a chance.

I hope you can see that multiple currencies and multiple arenas would force choices upon the players, but also offer new opportunities. One player might hoard political points in the hope of gaining control of a government armored division that dominates the Southwest region. Another might save magic points and wait for a Great Old One to appear in the draw line of cards. Another player might use cash to create the largest and most well-armed army of cultists which she will use to capture California and gain the area bonus which will generate even more cultists.

Story Arc

There don’t seem to be stages in CAA. The end of the game plays much like the beginning. As Jonathan Degann points out in his article in the Journal of Boardgame Design, games are more interesting when they have a story arc.

I’d give the game a Mythos track. Every time a Great Old One is summoned to the board, the track advances by one. Maybe other weird events (use of nuclear weapons or mega-spells) would do the same thing. The idea is that the world is coming close to collapse as the fabric of reality wears thin. At a certain point on the track the cost decreases to summon all creatures and Great Old Ones. At the same time, the political cost to gain control of army units goes down (as society becomes desperate to stop the extra-dimensional invasion). Once the Mythos track advances far enough, a die is rolled every turn to see if the world has ended. Players will have a rough idea of when the game is ending without being able to exactly pin point it. And players themselves will influence when the game will end.

This decline in cost would increase the number of powerful units running around in the endgame, and hopefully give it a different flavor from the beginning.


This little thought experiment isn’t complete. For example, I’m not sure how I’d make combat more interesting. And I think that each Great Old One should have special powers and not simply be a more powerful version of a conventional military unit—but I haven’t given much thought to what those powers should be.

And even if the game were re-designed along the lines I’ve indicated, there is no guarantee that it would be a great game. But I suspect that it would more interesting than the current design.

What are your thoughts on how to redesign the game?


Unknown said...

I've never played CAA - for all that I enjoy the whole Mythos shindig, the game just never grabbed me as it sat on the shelf. But your proposed changes sound really interesting.

dgilligan said...

Never played the game but I think your ideas to change the game sound interesting. Here is another thought about a mechanism for gaining control of the Great Old Ones, in this case a blind auction.

When a GOO comes up for grabs each player secretly bids a number of political, magic or money points to gain control of the GOO. This represents a sacrifice to Cthulu or whatever one happened to come up. Whoever wins the auction would control Cthulu and the others would get a consolation prize of some sort based on the level of sacrifice. Second player gets a powerful minion, Third gets something less and the last player gets nothing (hey, if you can't come to Cthulu with a virgin or two, don't bother!)

Maybe there are special cards or characters that increase the level of a particular sacrifice. Wizard adds two magic points, Arkansas Governor adds two political points, Federal Reserve Chairman doubles the value of a monetary sacrifice, etc...

The most interesting thing I have found not that I have returned to boardgaming is the wide variety of mechanisms available. If the mechanism matches the theme, even better!