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10 best Cthulhu board games that aren't Arkham Horror

Cultist classics.

HP Lovecraft imagined a world of unknowable horrors from the depths of the ocean and beyond the stars with the power to break minds and bend reality. By virtue of being in the public domain, his works have inspired a huge number of books, TV shows, movies and games featuring flawed heroes risking their lives and sanity to confront hidden threats from the Cthulhu mythos.

Best Cthulhu board games

Richard Launius’ board game Arkham Horror first released in 1987 as a spin-off from tabletop RPG Call of Cthulhu, helping to popularise both Lovecraftian horror and cooperative board games. The game has since had two more editions and enough expansions to fill its own article.

But there are many other games inspired by the works and mythos of Lovecraft, ranging from complex narrative adventures to casual party games. Whether you’re teaming up with friends or fighting for terrible power, these Cthulhu board games will give you a taste of madness.

1. Mountains of Madness

Performing simple tasks becomes increasingly difficult and silly

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Mountains of Madness combines the horror of the Cthulhu mythos with the amusing antics of a party game.

Arkham Horror is a pretty long and complicated game involving a fair bit of setup and rules knowledge. If you’re looking for something lighter with Lovecraftian flavour, Mountains of Madness will make you feel like you’re really losing your mind.

Players take on the role of Antarctic explorers trying to pool resources needed to collect specimens and survive long enough to be rescued. Each person is suffering from increasingly disruptive madness cards that do things like make you pace around the table or only talk to people who are making mustaches with their fingers.

Since you only have 30 seconds to coordinate your actions each turn, you really don’t have the time to waste figuring out how to handle everyone’s quirks and often wind up failing challenges that should be simple because you’re dealing with so much chaos and pressure. Luckily losing a game has never been so hilarious.

Buy Mountains of Madness on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

2. Cthulhu Wars: Duel

Who would win in a fight between Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath?

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A compact spin-off from the hit Cthulhu board game, Duel sees two of the Old Ones go head-to-head. Whoever wins, humanity loses.

A slimmed-down version of Cthulhu Wars designed for two players, Cthulhu Wars: Duel has each player control a different Great Old One as they battle to take over Lovecraft’s version of New England. You’ll spend turns recruiting cultists, constructing gates, summoning monsters and occupying areas of the map to earn points and achieve objectives that allow you to unlock powerful special abilities. The map is small, meaning you’ll quickly come into direct conflict as you fight for territory, kidnap cultists to feed to your Great Old One and even have the cosmic titans go toe-to-toe.

Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath have entirely different abilities and unique ways of earning victory points. For instance, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young has an easier time spawning monsters while Cthulhu can submerge himself beneath the waves and emerge along with a small army anywhere on the map. Keeping track of the asymmetrical powers while plotting your own strategy means you’ll benefit from taking your time, though the game still moves quickly, especially once the fighting starts.

Buy Cthulhu Wars: Duel at Petersen Games (US) and Zatu (UK).

3. Gates of Delirium

Walk the line between sanity and madness

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Gates of Delirium tackles the classic Lovecraftian challenge of holding onto your sanity. Image: Renegade Game Studios

Many Lovecraftian board games feature investigators trying to maintain their grip on sanity. In Gates of Delirium, you’ve already lost the battle. Players alternate between being sane or insane, taking different actions based on their mental state. Sane actions involve setting yourself up for success in future rounds and racking up points, while insane turns are more aggressive and involve opening gates that hasten the apocalypse and the end of the game.

Every card has a different effect depending on whether you’re insane or sane when you play it. Because you can’t fully predict where your head will be in future turns you have to try to make the best out of the situation and what you have in hand. You also need to watch your opponents’ progress closely to earn points by positioning your forces in areas where gates are likely to open or at least stall their progress by stealing components they need. It’s a quick, quirky game made even better by the physical components, including the stylish gate cards that are stacked to form their ominous designs with a space in the middle for whatever horror you're unleashing.

Buy Gates of Delirium on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

4. Cthulhu: Death May Die

Gain power from madness, but try not to go too far

Cthulhu: Death May Die board game gameplay layout
Most Cthulhu board games see the players trying to stop an Old One awakening. In Death May Die, you're already too late - now it's up to you to defeat it.

If a Great Old One is actually awakened in Arkham Horror, you’re probably going to lose the game. In Cthulhu: Death May Die, you just need to fight it on your terms. This narrative, fully cooperative board game tasks players with disrupting a ritual to summon an Elder God so they can then kill it. Each episode has its own map and objective, with the monsters and cultists you encounter also determined by what Elder One you’re up against, which gives the game a high level of replayability.

You’ll run around fighting, investigating and sometimes literally putting out fires in an attempt to fulfill your goals and gather items and allies that will make the final confrontation easier. You’ll also start losing your mind - which isn’t a bad thing at first, since every significant decrease in sanity unlocks a new power for your character and gives you more dice to roll. Just don’t get too greedy as your levels of madness can quickly get out of control, particularly when the Elder One shows up. The real question is if you can go out in a blaze of glory before succumbing to insanity.

Buy Cthulhu: Death May Die on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

5. Eldritch Horror

When Arkham Horror isn’t big and complicated enough

Eldritch Horror board game layout
Eldritch Horror expands Arkham Horror's investigation of the titular town to cover a global fight against cosmic horror.

Eldritch Horror takes many of the same elements of Arkham Horror but expands the scope of the game by sending investigators across the world to gather rumors and solve mysteries while risking their health and sanity. Up to eight players can team up to face dire threats, sometimes taking on mysterious negative effects such as debt or dark pacts that will trigger and do something nasty to you when a card forces you to face a reckoning.

The Great Old One you’re battling changes the objectives of the game and the sheer number of cards in each location-based deck also ensure playthroughs feel different. There’s also a huge number of expansions that add extra zones to the map, Great Old Ones to confront and even a campaign mode to link games together. This is definitely the best option for fans of Arkham Horror looking for a fresh challenge.

Buy Eldritch Horror on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

6. Shadows Over Normandie

US soldiers fight Deep Ones and Nazi cultists

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World War II wargaming and horror roleplaying combine in this alternate-history strategy game.

A fusion of the Heroes of Normandie wargame and the Achtung! Cthulhu tabletop RPG, Shadows Over Normandie lets you skirmish in tactical battles that combine tanks, magic totems and swamp monsters that can drive your soldiers insane. The rules can be pretty intimidating to learn considering the sheer number of troops, vehicles and terrain with their own abilities, but if you master them, you’ll be rewarded with complex battles where you’ll need to bluff and outmanoeuvre your opponents.

You’re welcome to design your own armies for battles on various maps, but it’s best to start with the campaign book which provides you with a series of increasingly complex scenarios to help you learn the gameplay mechanics. Players have different objectives for many of the missions and their success will determine the situation their forces are in for the next battle. The scenarios start off with just US soldiers and Deep Ones fighting, with the Nazi occultists joining later to add even more complexity.

Buy Shadows Over Normandie on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

7. Evil High Priest

Deploy cultists to conduct dark rituals and break Elder Signs to summon your Great Old One

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Join the forces of evil for once as you fend off pesky investigators as a cult leader.

Rather than playing an investigator trying to disrupt the activities of cultists, in Evil High Priest you’re a cult leader trying to ensure meddling investigators don’t mess with your plans while getting them to attack your rivals. The worker-placement game involves sending your forces to collect blood, magic and money needed to break the Elder Signs that provide you with points and bring the game closer to ending. But all of your resources must be stashed in your sanctum, where they can be stolen by would-be heroes.

The result is you have to split your attention between gathering and protecting what you already have through filling your base with traps and summoned monsters. The more cultists you have active and the more Elder Signs have already broken, the more determined the investigators will be to smash through your defences. You need to watch your opponents closely to try to predict when the next raid will be triggered to ensure you’re in the best position while still playing aggressively to seize your advantage when possible. Expansions make the game even better by adding different boards depending on what Great Old One you serve, along with unique monsters and investigators that add more variability to the raids.

Buy Evil High Priest on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

8. Unspeakable Words

Forming big words can hurt your brain

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Form words carefully - or spell your doom.

The Hounds of Tindalos lurk in corners, and apparently also in the angles in letters. In Unspeakable Words, each player takes turns trying to make words with a hand of seven letter cards, with the point values determined by how many angles are in each letter used rather than some rational concept like how common the letter is. Forming the biggest word isn’t always the smart play, since you’ll have to roll a d20 and lose sanity if you roll under your word score.

The first person to rack up 100 points wins, though you can also be knocked out if you lose all your sanity. When you’re hanging on the edge of madness you can make up any word and still score points - a precarious position, but one that’s better than wasting a turn drawing all new cards. A few special cards spice up the basic formula by letting you restore your own sanity or forcing players to make words with a specific letter or go mad. The best part of this quick and simple game is the art, with adorable cartoony illustrations of Cthulhu mythos horrors for each letter from Azathoth to Yog-Sothoth.

Buy Unspeakable Words on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

9. Lovecraft Letter

Try to maintain control or embrace insanity

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Lovecraft Letter introduces a sanity mechanic to the hugely popular card game of player elimination.

There have been plenty of variations on fast-paced social deduction game Love Letter, but none add as much to the mechanics (or have as snappy a name) as Lovecraft Letter. Each of the cards has both a sane and insane version. When you’re sane, they have the same effects as cards in the base game, such as letting you try to knock out another player by guessing what’s in their hand or protecting yourself from being attacked that round. Insane cards can be more powerful, but they come with a price.

Every turn you must check if you’ve succumbed to madness by flipping cards equal to the number of insane cards you’ve discarded. If you draw another insane card, you’re out of the game. Wins are also tallied based on whether you were sane or insane at the time, meaning you want to try to stick to a strategy across games. Sometimes you don’t really have a choice though based on the cards you draw. Even if you haven’t played Love Letter before, you’ll get to know the variations on all the cards in Lovecraft Letter quickly considering each round takes just a few minutes.

Buy Lovecraft Letter on Amazon US and Zatu (UK).

10. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

Gather clues and seal gates to stop the spread of madness

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Goodbye, disease cubes. Hello, nightmarish creatures from another dimension.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu pretty much plays like a fusion of Pandemic and Arkham Horror. As in Pandemic, players will be travelling around different zones of the map carefully allocating their actions as they try to keep the situation under control. Rather than treating and curing diseases, they’ll be defeating cultists and Shoggoth and sealing gates to prevent the emergence of Cthulhu.

Randomly determined Great Old Ones will arrive throughout the game, causing a mix of immediate negative effects and ones that will put you at a disadvantage for the rest of the game. You also need to manage your investigators’ sanity, since if they get knocked out you’ll lose precious time you need to contain the threat. Like the original Pandemic, Reign of Cthulhu doesn’t leave much margin for error - you’re more likely to lose than win if you don’t both play well and get lucky with the draws and dice rolls.

Buy Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu on Amazon US and Amazon UK.


Samantha Nelson avatar

Samantha Nelson

Contributor

Samantha Nelson has been writing about tabletop gaming since 2013 for publications including The A.V. Club, Waypoint, Polygon and Escapist Magazine. She is also a member of the Critical Hit actual play podcast and met her husband at a Vampire: The Masquerade LARP.

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