Unspeakable spread: A roundup of Lovecraft themed virtual card games

Even as we digitize, there has been a boom in card and board games. Perhaps as things become more virtual, we are desperate to grasp something tangible–I have suggested this explains the pocket popularity of steampunk. Regardless, one cannot stop the digital onslaught, so in a twisted turnabout-is-fair-game sort of move, it is possible to find various card games in a virtual form. Which is fine by me, in a way. Look, I’m all about the tangibles sometimes, but my least favorite part of card games is other people. Electronic card games remove that nasty component, with other players faceless and miles away. And it doesn’t hurt that there are a few that are sort of free. Given my interests, it was only a matter of time before I found a couple that utilized the Cthulhu mythos. As it turns out, there are enough to justify a review.

The only completely free game on this list is “Necronomicon,” a browser-based game. Coupled with its lack of price, the game is quick enough to figure out, and it doesn’t get anywhere near tricky until the very end, so this is probably the place for people more interested in mythos than cards to dive in. Which isn’t to say that it’s the best; game-wise, “quick to figure out” translates to “lack of depth,” and the artwork ranges from kind of interesting to kind of silly. Curiously enough, there was once an earlier version of the game that had more serious looking artwork, but it’s largely disappeared from the Internet due to some copyright issue. Weird.

The game draws upon a pretty subtle selection of Mythos works for its cards, and there is a strong 1920s gangster thing going, so you’ll see plenty of Tommy guns and the like. More cards are added in the quasi-sequel, “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names.” In the game’s first form, cards were either single-use events or creatures; here, items, characters and locations have been added. Which does give the game legs while keeping it fairly simple. This is the kind of thing you can have on in the background at work.

If you’re after something a little more booster pack flavored, try Wizards of the Coast alum Darwin Kastle’s “Cthulhu Realms,” which is apparently a digital version of a physical card game…unless it’s a digital card game with a physical spin off. This kind of thing gets pretty swampy these days. The game’s main strength is its sense of humor. Mythos fans who can take a joke will be instantly entertained by the creepy-yet-cartoony artwork, which leans on an interesting buffet of Mythos tales. Readers will also recognize obscurer references to stories like “The House in the High Mist” and characters like Keziah Mason.

I downloaded a free version of the game on a tablet, which included the first half of the easy difficulty of campaign mode, as well as a tutorial and card gallery. Again, humor is the strongest thing here: The campaign’s story follows an IRS officer (and, yes, the IRS was newly minted in the 1920s, so points for historical accuracy) who becomes entangled in a war between Deep Ones and inmates at Arkham Asylum–his own sanity being guarded because his brain was trained to manage the maddening tax codes of the United States government.

I shelled out five bucks for the complete version of the game and was soon disappointed. The second half of the campaign was nowhere near as funny, and, for my fingers at least, the learning curve of the unlocked hard difficulty far too steep; I couldn’t tell if I was winning from skill or blind luck (hopefully both, but probably the latter). If you’re into stats, stats and more stats, maybe you’ll appreciate the brutal pace; for the more casual, comical or Cthulhu-esque card player, you’ll probably be fine with the free version.

Possibly the deepest of the bunch is French developer and digital big-man-on-campus Byook’s “The Moaning Words.” Sure, the name is terrible, but they’re French. You try creating a horror game in a foreign tongue and see how far you get. The gameplay itself is simple, a bit like tic-tac-toe with shoggoths, but this is the only game I’m reviewing here that lets you build your own deck, so there is a soft strategy to it.

Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, “Words” has a secret weapon: Alan Dean Foster. Foster is the king of movie novelizations, the most literate pulp writer since Richard Matheson. If you don’t believe me, go read his adaptations of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” And his adaptations of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies? Well…we all make bad choices from time to time.

Anyway, sticking Foster on the script not only gives this game serious cosmic horror cred, it means that the campaign mode is pretty well done. Which is great for someone like me who plays games for a well crafted story. I don’t know if Foster also wrote the biographies of the cards in the card gallery, whoever did deserves some praise as well. Some cards are given a special section of background notes, which always features a quote by a relevant author (obviously, it’s usually Lovecraft), which adds to the depth. And it also doesn’t hurt that the art on the cards is pretty nicely done (I also played this game on a tablet).

This game is freemium: You can advance basically for free by waiting around for various features, like chapters in the campaign, items in the store and different modes of play, to be unlocked by time or chance, or you can make in app purchases. Your call, but remember–the gameplay isn’t deep, so you will probably want those features unlocked sooner or later to keep things interesting.

Interestingly enough, Cthulhu is far less present than you would think in these games. Only “Words” has a playable Cthulhu card; “Cthlhu Realms” just showcases his shadow, and “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names” relegates him to an environmental element. He’s not even in the first “Necronomicon.” Seems like this Great Old One needs a better agent.

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