Have you ever felt like there was something other, something mysterious and eldritch guiding the world? Have you ever spent nights gazing into the abyss, knowing deep within you that it is also gazing back at you? Do you ever catch yourself meditating on the unknown powers that plague your dreams? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Cultist Simulator is the game for you. Coming from Alexis Kennedy, the writer behind the wonderfully literary Fallen London and Sunless Sea, Cultist Simulator is a digital card game real time strategy title, a weird but effective combination of tabletop conventions and digital innovations.
The world of Cultist Simulator is mysterious and unexplained. Your first few playthroughs will be daunting, as there is very little guidance as to how to proceed. However, because of the simplicity of the main game mechanic, it manages not to be as off-putting as this description sounds. On your screen you have a table on which to place your cards and a number of action blocks appear during which you can play these cards to carry out activities. Some of these are passive and require you to place the correct type of card in, whilst others actively suck cards from your deck. The most common of the latter form need feeding with funds, health, or contentment.
You have only one card to play when beginning Cultist Simulator: menial employment. This produces a small amount of funds before a bequest is delivered and the game really begins. To progress from here, you must study the bequest which rewards you with more funds and further writings to study. This starts to slowly open up areas to explore, characters to interrogate and potentially recruit, all while continuing the basic loop of working, dreaming, and studying. This might sound like a lot to keep track of at any given time, and to some extent it is, but everything can be paused to allow you to read the cards and prepare your next move. Every action or card played has an individual timer so that something is always happening.
The sense of dread and helplessness from the always ticking timers is one of the most striking parts of Cultist Simulator. Even when a game is going well and you have plenty of funds to pay for exploration or contentment to keep the wolves of madness at bay, it can only take one unexpected bout of illness or a nosey investigator to swiftly bring the world down around your ears. The amount of variables to be juggled and possible outcomes to be considered are dizzying, and it’s only after several unsuccessful plays that you begin to realise the depths of the game.
Upon your inevitable death, a choice of restart paths becomes available to you. Some of these are dependent upon how your previous game ended, whether you died of ill health, descended into madness, or were sacrificed to an Elder God. One of these paths enables you to begin with a large amount of funds, whilst another sees you cast as an inspector. These starting positions help you to make progress in different aspects and all go together to form a more complete view of what is happening in the world of Cultist Simulator.
This variety is to be welcomed, as the core mechanic of the game can feel repetitive and one dimensional. Part of this is inevitable given the card playing origins of the game, but I did feel that not enough was made of the digital possibilities of Cultist Simulator. In many ways this is a stripped back, mechanics only version of a digital RPG and the same game could be played out within a 3D world. The deliberate choice to present it as a card game is effective, but I often found myself wishing it was a tabletop card game. The timer aspect would not really be possible in a physical version, but the lack of a tactile feel to the playing of cards meant it all felt just too abstract and removed from my experience to fully engage me.
The writing here is of a really high standard, with cards and results displaying a suitably weird Lovecraftian flair. The overall atmosphere of uncertainty, madness, and despair is conveyed brilliantly and it is easy to get caught up in the world despite the very abstract nature of its visual presentation. I again found myself lamenting not having the physical cards to explore and examine outside of the game. Also, while the scope of vision available on a large PC screen is welcome, the actual gameplay loop would perhaps be better suited to a mobile game.
I was surprised by my experience with Cultist Simulator as it should have been a game that really grabbed me. The mood, the setting, and the pedigree of the writing are all perfectly in line with my interests, but I found the combination of the card playing and having to sit at a PC never truly gelled. The obscurity of much of what was happening became a little tiring as, aside from the basic loop, much of the rest relied too much on experimentation. Much like the Lovecraftian world it works within, if it does get under your skin then there is a huge amount of game here to explore that may just drive you to the brink of understanding, or the depths of despair. I applaud the design of the game, and can appreciate the form but, for me, this was a cult that I couldn’t surrender myself to.
Available for PC, Mac & Linux