Review: Dark Cults
Publisher: Dark House
Tagline: The horror story game
how we met
This one might be my all-time best score in terms of unlikelihood because of the scene, the rarity of the game, me stumbling onto a special game I had never heard of (increasingly more rare) and the price I paid.
We had stopped at a thrift shop in Madison, WI where you pay by the pound. If you have not been to one of these thrift shops before, they generally consist of giant bins of random things. They tend to be junkier because you are not buying a specific thing, you are digging in a bin of a bunch of things, taking what you want and paying based on how much it weighs.
As you can imagine, this is the worst place to find a game. If they have any games at all, the box is open and pieces are scattered every which way, occasionally amongst sharp objects and even broken glass. But here I was, looking across one of the bins, and I see a ziplock bag with what seems like a game in it! I’ll grab that. Oh and it looks strange. Awesome.
It probably cost ten or twenty cents, if that. I only found out later that Dark Cults is an (or the?) original storytelling game. And it is out of print, from 1983 and originally packaged with a magazine offering variants to play. I sure do love you, Wisconsin thrift.
how it plays
Dark Cults is a two player storytelling game where one player takes on the role of LIFE and the other player takes on the role of DEATH. Players score points by playing cards from their hand and adding to the narrative of the story using the cards and their own creativity. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins!
FUN FACT: Reviews I read encourage you to play two games back to back, switching roles in between. The player with the most points at the end of two games wins! This is because it is much more difficult to win as LIFE than as DEATH. I could not find this in the rules, but it could be there somewhere.
The game begins with a START card in place, showing our protagonist heading out of the apartment building for some to-be-defined purpose. LIFE goes first and sets the narrative for the protagonist.
The general deck consists of LOCATION, CHARACTER (neutral or evil), THREAT, DANGER, ESCAPE and ATMOSPHERE cards – in addition to the two different story-ending cards death and SAVE. Then each player has a scoring card that is different from each other. LIFE does not get the same points for playing cards as DEATH and vice versa. For example, LIFE is looking to play neutral characters, help the protagonist escape, things like that. Meanwhile DEATH wants to introduce nasty characters, general threats and the death of the protagonist. ATMOSPHERE cards do not award either player points but do help flavor the story. Points are collected as cards are played, by the player that played them (with one exception that if LIFE plays the END card representing death then points go to DEATH instead of LIFE).
Each player starts with one card in their hand and draws one at the beginning of their turn. Only one card is played per turn.
Cards have codes in the upper left corner to indicate what type they are. Most cards, including the START card, also have codes in the upper right corner to indicate what card types are allowed to follow them. For example the START card has A D L T in the corner, meaning only ATMOSPHERE, DANGER, LOCATION or THREAT can be the next card played.
If a player can’t or chooses not to play a card after they draw, they simply pass. For example if my only play would give my opponent points and me none then I might choose to pass and hope I draw something better or can play off a different card next turn. This works fine as long as I am under the hand limit.
The hand limit is five cards. When you have five cards in hand at the start of your turn, your draw at that point in time is called the LIFE OR DEATH DRAW. After this draw you are required to play a card if you can, even if it does not work in your favor. If you still can’t play then the card you just drew is discarded, any other cards you wish are discarded and you take a penalty of three points.
The same codes that indicate the card types and subsequent allowed cards also indicate how many points you receive when you play that card. Remember, the points are different by role so refer to your own scoring card or the instructions when deciding what to play and when scoring. This is particularly important if you are LIFE and you have the E1 END card in hand, which scores your opponent 5 points!
Some cards have a dot before the codes. If your opponent plays a card with this dot then you are required to play a card from your hand before drawing. Then you can draw a card as normal. If you can’t play a card then you must play the top card of the PACE deck, which includes words like “Then” or “Suddenly” or “Unexpectedly.”
Games will include multiple story segments. These segments only end with the death or saving of the protagonist. When a story segment is reset, players may discard as many cards as they wish to from their hands. Then LIFE gets the first option to play a START card and score those points. If they do not have one then DEATH gets a go. If neither has one, then just keep the one you were going to put in the discard pile and no one gets those points.
Play continues in turns until the main deck is gone and no one can play a card from their hand.
how it went
Bill and I are creative enough to enjoy a storytelling game, but not clever enough for the protagonists to not all be based on people we know. Including ourselves. We all died, and we were all taken out in darkly spectacular ways. So that was fun.
We got better at play as we went along. It is so critical in this game to keep your role in mind. LIFE should always be working towards saving a character and bringing about a cheery conclusion, and avoid playing cards that introduce an E1 END card as much as you can since your opponent may have one in hand and they are worth 10 points to DEATH.
LIFE gets a few perks during play but they are largely a measure of chance. It is harder for LIFE to win than DEATH, so the encouragement to play twice in a row switching roles in between makes sense. Then the winner would be the most points after both games. Bill and I played twice in a row because we were enjoying ourselves, but we did not switch (I didn’t see that suggestion at that point). I was LIFE and lost both times, although I lost by less in the second game when I was more aware of how to play. And it was Bill who pointed out during our first game how fucked I was as LIFE.
It is important to take advantage of the optional discard between story segments. For example, in our second game I was lucky enough to draw most of the E1 death cards. Those are not good for my own play as LIFE, but they score DEATH the most points so keeping them out of his hands is great. But that is only safe once I discard them and my LIFE OR DEATH DRAW does not force me to play one of them, which did happen once.
We had a lot of variation in the length of our stories, which I would think is normal. But it was not until we introduced a certain common acquaintance into the dark world that we went epic; that story segment must have had over 30 cards in play before this person met their untimely end. I kept waving my wand to help our protagonist escape, and they kept stumbling into more trouble.
I have never been a huge fan of Lovecraft’s work in general. I can appreciate the work as hugely influential and truly horrific, but the writing style was never my favorite. Some people love Lovecraft for the implied horror that he is famous for while others love him for the fantastical monsters he is famous for. The game is a good homage to both. And asks you to draw the bridge between them just like the writing does. Encountering oozing blobs when I can direct the story was a ton of fun. And I would be remiss not to mention that the simplicity of the black and white art suits the game, and the theme, perfectly.
I read quite a lot of feedback complaining that the Dark Cults rules need work. I mean, yeah, they probably do. But they all make sense and they all lead to a real game. The rules could maybe be more organized or bring more emphasis to important parts, but they are not broken.
Many of the Dark Cults ratings talk about emphasizing storytelling over card play while others emphasize the card play over storytelling. I feel like we approached it as both pretty equally, so we let our creative juices flow in the story but appreciated the direction and strategy demanded by the cards and the ol’ luck of the draw.
play or pass
Play for sure. Dark Cults is a special game, for many more reasons than its rarity and throwback feel with a nod to old RPG games. It approaches storytelling in a simple but directed way. That direction leads you to create dark, usually short vignettes based on the cards in play. Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it.
If you are interested in trying out Dark Cults but having difficulty finding a copy, you are not alone. Check out the BGG forums for the game to see what your options are. There is also a solo variant that seems to be quite popular.