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Co-op Case Study: Pandemic — Reign of Cthulhu

By this point, there have been a shocking number of Pandemic games. Some slightly vary the original formula, while others move increasingly far away. We expect to look at most of them over time, because variations to an an existing system are one of the most intriguing ways to examine the evolution of a game design.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.

Publisher: Z-Man Games (2016)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Set Collection


The players take on the role of various investigators who are trying to close four gates that are destroying the world. As in Pandemic (2008) they must balance removing  cultists and shoggoths (to avoid losing the game) and collecting sets of cards (to ensure winning the game). However, this is more than just a retheme, as Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu features a few new threats, such as Old Ones and a sanity die.

Challenge System

Reign of Cthulhu is built on the challenge system from Pandemic with a number of tweaks. Most obviously, there’s just one type of cultist, not four, and they don’t actually overflow when they replicate. Instead, a fourth cultist in a location generates an awakening ritual, which results in the appearance of an Old One.

Old Ones are a major new threat that introduce both environmental effects and a countdown to DOOM. As such, they’re a nice addition to Pandemic, because the varied environmental effects introduce interesting uncertainty and variability to the game.

And what’s that shoggoth do? It creates an obstacle on the board that will move toward one of the gates … where it will summon yet another Old One into the game.The “epidemic” cards of Pandemic have become “evil stirs” cards, and they’re also slightly different. Besides resetting the draw deck for where cultists appear (and adding cultists to a new location) they also advance the Old One count and add a shoggoth to the board.

The repeated use of Old Ones in the gameplay shows how to take a new mechanic and thoroughly integrate it into the game. In Reign of Cthulhu these Old Ones have practically become the main threat, because they can appear in so many different ways — though you can still lose the game by running out of cultists, shoggoths, or cards.

Challenge Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Simulation; Decay; Environmental & Removal Consequences; Task Threat.

Cooperative System

The cooperative systems of Reign of Cthulhu are almost identical to Pandemic with one major difference: the clue cards that you need to close the gates are now tied to general areas rather than to specific locations. This makes card trading much easier, and thus a more important part of the game.

The reason for this change may have been partially to simplify the game, but it also seems pretty important for balancing the increased difficulty introduced by the shoggoths and Old Ones.

Adventure System

Cthulhu games generally have great theming, and Reign of Cthulhu is no exception. In fact, it’s a great example of how to add strong theming to an otherwise abstract game. The Old Ones are the most thematic element, with strong art working together with special powers that reflect the monsters. However, the game’s relic cards and its investigators also show how to integrate strong theming with adventure game elements — primarily through colorful descriptions and evocative powers that match those elements.

Final Thoughts

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a mild revamp of Pandemic that shows how to link new mechanics to an existing system, how to balance difficulty, and how to introduce evocative adventure game elements. Though there’s nothing particularly innovative, it’s a good design.

Chuck D. Yager

Chuck Yager is a video game producer who also designs board games for fun. He’s obviously a Lovecraftian fan, as he previously produced Rise of Cthulhu (2015), a small press two-player Cthulhu card game. However, Reign of Cthulhu is his most popular game to date by far.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples