It seems like social deduction games have more or less taken over large player count social gaming, party games, if you will. In fact, there seems to be so many of them being published at the moment that it’s pretty difficult to turn around in your average gaming store without tripping over one.
I love a good social deduction game (even if I’m not very good at them) and so you’ll find Coup, Resistance, Secret Hitler, Werewolf, Spyfall, and a few others in our collection.
However, a lot of social deduction games only really come into their own when you’ve got at least half a dozen players, and some don’t really shine until you’ve got even more than that. These games are designed for parties, and they’re great in that environment, but they can be a little difficult to get to the table on a day to day basis. At least when you have as much difficulty syncing calendars with your gaming friends as I do.
So today, I’d like to take a moment to talk about my favourite social deduction game to play when you’ve got half a dozen or less people at the table. It’s my non-party party game, and it’s about saving the world from Cthulhu (unless you’re Suzanne).
A lot of the features of Don’t Mess With Cthulhu will probably seem pretty familiar if you’ve ever played a social deduction game before: players are divided on to two teams, the objectives of each team opposes the other, and no one knows which team anyone is on.
One team, the investigators, is probably larger, but they’ve got the tougher objective: they need to discover all of the Elder Signs (one per player), without waking Cthulhu.
The other team, the cultists, are probably outnumbered, but they’ve got a much easier job: either stop the investigators from finding the Elder Signs, or wake Cthulhu up.
Of course, it’s how both teams go about achieving their objectives which makes Don’t Mess With Cthulhu an amazing, agonising, betrayal fraught experience, but one that’ll have everyone at the table laughing out loud and wanting to deal another game afterwards rather than destroying friendships the way that, say, Diplomacy, does.
The game starts with each player being dealt a character card, which will determine their allegiance for the game. One player will also receive the flashlight, and responsibility for making the first investigation (we’ll come back to that). Once these cards hit the table, the game breaks down into four rounds, each consisting of a number of investigations equal to the number of players.
At the start of the first round, each player gets five cards dealt on the table in front of them. These cards depict either fruitless investigations, Elder Signs, or Cthulhu, which is presumably the ritual which will awaken the Sleeper of R’lyeh.
All of the players look at their cards, without rearranging them, and then the player with the flashlight announces to the group the number of Elder Signs and the number of Cthulhu cards they have in front of them. Players then go around the table announcing how many Elder Signs and Cthulhus sit on the table in front of them.
Of course, no one is obliged to tell the truth. In fact, players are allowed to say anything they like at the table, save for describing the artwork on their character card (which would probably give the game away to an experienced player). This means there’s a certain amount of strategy in what you announce.
Do you tell the other players that you have Cthulhu, so that they’ll avoid investigating your cards? Is it worth the risk of a cultist knowing where to guess to win the game?
Regardless of how much deception you decide to employ, the player with the flashlight then chooses which card to investigate by placing the flashlight on a card in front of another player. Everyone holds their breath. Then the card is revealed. If it’s Cthulhu, the cultists win immediately, otherwise the investigated card gets placed in the center of the table, either a waste of the investigator’s precious time, or an Elder Sign that will bring them one step closer to victory.
The person who now has the flashlight then selects a card to investigate until there’s a number of cards equal to the number of players in the middle of the table. Then the remaining cards are gathered up, shuffled, and four cards are dealt in front of each player.
The start of round ritual repeats itself, and this time, hopefully, the players have a slightly better idea about who they can trust.
After four rounds (if Cthulhu doesn’t ruin everything prematurely), either the investigators have discovered their Elder Signs, and they win, or they haven’t, and they lose. Either way, everyone reveals their identities, laughs are had, someone fetches a round of beers, and you shuffle up the cards and start over.
If you’re going to take only two things from this review, the first one is this: Don’t Mess With Cthulhu is a great time, and I’ll give you the ironclad Josh guarantee that you’ll play it more than once each sitting.
I feel secure providing that guarantee because although Don’t Mess With Cthulhu probably sounds like a pretty simple game, and I guess it is, it’s responsible for so many great moments at the table. The game is just long enough to let you get invested in your victory, but short enough that no one’s feelings are hurt when you’re horribly betrayed. In fact, this compact beauty is responsible for my favourite gaming moment of this year, and possibly ever.
We were playing games at our local bar on my birthday, and one of my dear friends, Ben, had the flashlight in hand. He was waving it around as he talked and, pointing it at Suzanne, as if to blind her, said “I don’t know that I trust anyone else at this table, but I trust you.”
Suzanne nodded at him, and tilted her head to the left, and Ben set the flashlight down confidently on the card at the left end of her row.
Naturally, the card was Cthulhu. The table erupted, some cries were elated, some defeated, but everyone was laughing loud enough that the bartender gave us a look that told everyone present that we should settle down.
Which, I guess brings me to the second thing you should take from this review: Suzanne is always a cultist.
If you haven’t tried Don’t Mess With Cthulhu yet, and you’re even remotely interested in social deduction games, you owe it to yourself to do so. It’s the party game that’s actually strong enough to hold up to a proper party, but which you can also drag out on a regular game night as a palate cleanser in between rounds of big box games.
Just don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll play just once.