From Doom to Cthulhu Wars: Sandy Petersen on 35 years of tabletop design, Lovecraft and leaving video games behind
“I got my toys!”
Sid Meier’s Civilization. Doom. Quake. Age of Empires. Sandy Petersen’s game design resumé is an impressive collection of some of the biggest, most important computer games of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Yet in 2012, he turned down a lucrative video game design job in India after his board game side project, Cthulhu Wars, began raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter.
“It was so big that I founded Petersen Games,” says Petersen. “Now I have a [board] game company.”
Petersen began his game design career writing for roleplaying company Chaosium and its popular fantasy RPG alternative to Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest. He eventually dropped out of graduate school to join the company full-time, leveraging his love of roleplaying and the then mostly unheard-of cult author HP Lovecraft for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, which features ordinary people in the 1920s working to prevent the rise of occult horrors and includes unique rules for tracking characters' dwindling sanity.
Call of Cthulhu became a huge hit for Chaosium, resulting in seven editions of revisions and updates over the decades, as well as spin-offs including horror board game Arkham Horror and a collectible card game, and introducing geekdom to the Lovecraftian horror genre.
“[Call of Cthulhu] was the first Lovecraft game. At the time Lovecraft was extremely obscure,” says Petersen. “I thought it would be a small cult game. But it starts seeping through the RPG and gaming geek crowd. Then in 1985 Re-Animator comes out and goes through the movie horror crowd, and together these things made Lovecraft well-known. But I did it first.”
Call of Cthulhu was a success, but fate had other plans for Petersen. “I was penniless at Chaosium,” he says. “The only game making a profit was Call of Cthulhu.” He also wasn’t a fan of the company’s management or business meetings, which involved toking up in the back room. (“Maybe it made them more creative.”)
In 1988 Petersen travelled across the country to video game publisher Microprose, where he was hired as one of the first true game designers in computer games. His video game career was as tumultuous as the industry itself, spanning no fewer than four game studios over two and a half decades.
I thought Call of Cthulhu would be a small cult game. But it starts seeping through the RPG and gaming geek crowd.
He came up with the idea for turning unemployed civilians into Elvis for Sid Meier’s Civilization at Microprose, designed the majority of the levels in seminal first-person shooters Doom and Doom II for Id Software, and balanced the many civilisations and factions in the Age of Empires series for Ensemble Studios. Today, he speaks candidly about managerial and internal issues at each company, including the untimely shuttering of Ensemble in 2009 after the release of Halo Wars.
Petersen then began a brief but meaningful stint as a college professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “I enjoyed parts of teaching, like the students and the salary, but I hated the grading and the bureaucracy,” he recalls.
Though Professor Petersen was still actively involved in game design via his students, he jumped back into full-time game design with local developer Barking Lizards, which had begun pivoting to mobile games. “It flopped, and I lost a bunch of money,” says Petersen. When a game company from India called to offer him a six-figure salary, he was all set to go.
Then, Kickstarter happened.
Two of Petersen’s game design friends introduced him to Kickstarter in 2012, the year video game studios like Double Fine were starting to fund serious multi-million dollar projects. Petersen began adapting his Cthulhu strategy game he had been working on with Barking Lizards (“It was like Advance Wars with Cthulhu”) into a board game.
When I was a kid I played with plastic dinosaurs. I always wanted to have monster figures, but there weren’t any. Now I made my own Cthulhu figures, and have made more than anyone else in the world.
“I wanted another revenue stream while I was in India,” the designer says. “During my first playtest with friends they asked me how long I’d been working on Cthulhu Wars. I didn’t want to admit only a week, so I said a couple of months. They said it was really polished.”
Cthulhu Wars launched on Kickstarter in 2013. “I called India and said, ‘Sorry, I can’t go, this Kickstarter is too big,’” says Petersen. “It was terrifying, I lost 20 pounds working on that Kickstarter campaign.” Petersen had hoped for a few hundred thousand in funding. The campaign made over $1.4 million (£1.1m). The results were life-changing. He bought out his partners and formed Petersen Games, and began immediately working on stretch goals and expansions with his then four-person company.
“Cthulhu Wars is a highly asymmetrical strategy game that moves quickly, with amazing figures,” Petersen says. Players take on the role of evil cultist factions waging war on an apocalyptic earth by summoning elder gods and minions, capturing planar gates, and expanding their dark spellbooks. In a fun twist, it’s possible for all the factions to lose if no player gains all six spellbooks by the game’s end; a win for humanity!
Petersen’s home office includes several large glass cabinets proudly displaying all the minis and figures from Cthulhu Wars, its many expansions, and his other mini-filled board games.
“When I was a kid I played with plastic dinosaurs. I always wanted to have monster figures, but there weren’t any. Now I made my own Cthulhu figures, and have made more than anyone else in the world. I got my toys!”
Cthulhu Wars, with its asymmetrical factions and achievement-like spellbooks, represented the perfect confluence of Petersen’s video game design knowledge, as well as his lifelong love of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.
“When I was eight years old I snuck into the basement of my house and pulled out a box of books that belonged to my dad,” says Petersen. One of them was Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. Young Sandy fell in love, devouring Lovecraft’s many horror and supernatural novels and short stories throughout his formative years.
For Cthulhu Wars, Petersen wanted to explore what came after. In many Cthulhu stories and games, the protagonists are working to prevent the Great Old Ones from rising up and destroying Earth - but what happens when we lose?
“You never get to see Cthulhu with all of his toys,” says Petersen. “With his telepathy blanketing the land, and mountains of protoplasm rising from the sea - I wanted to see that!” The only thing that could stop Cthulhu at that point is other elder gods, such as the King in Yellow or the Crawling Chaos. A game of titanic proportions was born.
Cthulhu Wars spawned numerous expansions, as well as spin-off games such as 2018’s Evil High Priest, which acts as a prologue to Cthulhu Wars, and a Cthulhu Mythos sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons 5E, based on Petersen’s original Call of Cthulhu RPG.
Petersen has dedicated much of his career, his fandom and large portions of his house to Lovecraft and his works, including large paintings of Cthulhu and a bust of Lovecraft. It’s no surprise that he gets defensive when I bring up Lovecraft’s overt racism.
“I get questioned by journalists like you all the time, otherwise no-one seems to care,” he responds. “I don’t think it’s fair to judge a person from the past with whatever the current fashionable sensibility is. Lovecraft was clearly racist. But he was also complicated. He develops his views over time and becomes more open-minded.”
Petersen explains that most of Lovecraft’s racism is found in his personal letters rather than his stories, and dismisses the infamous name of a certain cat as a not uncommon pet name for the era.
“I don’t have to be racist to love Lovecraft’s stories, and he’s not as racist as people claim,” says. “I’d rather look at that good things Lovecraft produced.”
Lovecraft has been good for Petersen, though he’s also developed a number of games outside of the Cthulhu Mythos. Glorantha: The Gods War, released in 2019, is similar to Cthulhu Wars with large chunky minis battling in the fantasy world of the RuneQuest RPG. Hyperspace, shipping in 2020, is a massive 4X sci-fi game with 25 alien civilisations - and one of the most challenging games Petersen’s ever designed.
“It’s been a long time since we had a good strategic sci-fi board game,” says Petersen. “Then just before we release it, Eclipse 2 [Second Dawn of the Galaxy] and Twilight Imperium [Fourth Edition] came out, and we were like - dang it!”
The tabletop industry is more like how video games were in the early ‘90s.
Despite an impressive career in video game design, Petersen has been more than satisfied shifting his talents to board games and tabletop RPGs - back where he originally began.
“I don’t think I’ll ever go back to video games,” says Petersen. “It doesn’t take 50 people to make a board game. There’s less money but also far fewer people to share it with. The [tabletop] industry is more like how video games were in the early ‘90s, where I knew 90% of the game designers.”
Today Petersen Games has expanded to 10 employees, including two of Petersen’s sons who have designed their own games, such as The Tooth Fairy Game and 8-Bit Attack. Sandy Petersen remains a voracious game designer, meticulously balancing and playtesting his games with multiple friends and gaming groups - a fundamental regiment learned from video games.
“Three or four evenings a week I’m running playtests with gaming groups - heck of a thing for a guy who’s 64 years old,” says Petersen. “My entire adult life has been as a game designer. But I don’t consider myself a creator looking down. I’m just a fan who’s lucky enough to design the games we love.”