So, this game was advertised to me as a "crazy mix of Forbidden Stars and deckbuilding with nonrandom combat and clear scoring".
Sounded intriguing, since I love FS and do enjoy my fair share of deckbuilding, so I grabbed the first opportunity to taste it.
I will do a short overview of gameplay and mechanics, to provide context for my opinions and conclusions.
Gameplay and mechanics overview
The goal of the game is to collect the most Victory Points by the end of the game. Unlike many other (ahem, euros) games, you do not collect VPs during the game. The board state at the end of the last round is the only thing that judges the winner.
As in Forbidden Stars, every round of play consists of two big phases - Planning and Execution. During Planning players take turns to distribute their Order markers among four locations of Arkham City, where the game takes place. After the Planning Phase, every location has its stack of Orders, and players proceed to Execution Phase, resolving those markers from last placed to first placed like a stack.
Unlike Forbidden Stars (or Starcraft), Order markers are generic. There are no specific "Build" or "Attack" or "Upgrade" Orders. They are all the same blank "Red Player's Order" or "Yellow Player's Order". Owner decides what to do with them when he executes them, not when he plans them. This is a very big change.
Blue wooden disks represent Dagon Cult Order markers
There are five types of actions your Order can be used for - Build things, Upgrade your deck, Move troops, Fight and, finally, Collect some resources.
Economy of the game has 3 types of resources - Green, Red and Blue. Blue (Influence) is used to Upgrade your deck by purchasing new cards for it and to Build things. Red is used to Fight. Green (Terror) is used to Dominate/Conquer territories, which is essential for victory.
At the start of every round every player draws 6 cards. Cards unused by the end of the round are discarded. Discard pile eventually is shuffled back into the deck. Round - again - starts with Planning your Orders, and ends when the last Order is executed. You do not refresh your hand after every Order.
When you execute a Build or Upgrade action, you need to pay with Influence. Upgrade fetches you up to two cards from a "market", and you place them in your hand (not discard!). There are two sources of Influence - cards in your hand, which you discard to gain Influence mentioned on them, and Blue Cultist tokens which work similarly to Gear tokens in Forbidden Stars - you have a bunch of those in your store and spend them as necessary. There is no limit to how many you can have at any given moment, however at the end of every Round you discard Cultist tokens until you have only 5 total among all colors.
As you probably gathered, there also exist Red and Green Cultist tokens. You can't buy anything with those, however - they are spent differently.
Players gain 4-5 random Cultists for free at the start of every round.
Collecting with Order allows you to take two Cultists of any color you prefer from common supply and keep them for future use.
First player marker, random Cultist dice and blue Initiate cultist tokens
Moving is pretty self-explanatory.
Fighting is rather complicated. When you resolve Order as Fight for Dominance, all rival cults that have monsters present will attempt to deny you that Dominance and combat will occur.
Combat is pretty important in the game, and is organically woven into its core. Combat is the main interaction between players, and is the main way to prevent someone from winning the game. It also often forwards your own victory plans, so, in general, Combat is fairly common.
Combat is a secret bid mechanic. All participating players make (partially) secret bids of Red resource in form of cards or Red Cultist tokens, then simultaneously reveal their bids to determine who has the most. If there is a clear leader, he wins the combat. All resources commited are lost. All losers' minions present die. In case of ties every participant is considered a loser.
If a player who initiated a combat wins it, he has an opportunity to conquer the current Arkham City district and place his Dominance marker there. Every Dominance marker on the board is worth 1 Victory Point at the end of the game for the owner. There are up to four Districts on the board (less with less players), and each of them has 2 or 3 slots for Dominance markers. If all slots are occupied by markers already, the winning agressor may replace one of the markers present with his Dominance marker, thus denying a VP for one of opponents - very big move!
However, simply defeating opposition in Confrontation is not enough - agressor also has to have enough Green resource aka Terror on hand to successfully exercise his power over local denizens. Amount of resource necessary is varied between 4 to 6 at the start of the game, and becomes more and more expensive as the game goes on - we've had some districts requiring 10 Terror to be Dominated. Considering the fact that Green is a very scarce resource - no cards provide more than 1 - successfull Terror attempts in the late game require a lot of setup.
Now, to opinions, observations and nitpicks.
Endgame boardstate is the only thing that decides the winner. There is no way to collect a "safe buffer" of VPs earlier. This idea I like. I like it a lot more than muddy "collect 1 VP here, 1 there, this card is bonus 1, and that one is bonus 2" of Dominion, Tyrants of the Underdark, La Granja and a crapload of other games you can come up with yourself. Not only it provides constant possibility of comebacks, greatly reducing Lame Duck syndrome - it also makes the leader very evident and countermeasures very clear.
I'm a bit on the fence regarding generic nature of Orders as opposed to specialized as in FS/Starcraft. On one hand, you lost those beautiful moments of reading your opponent and anticipating his maneuvers by placing just the right type of Order on the bottom of Order stack. On the other hand, you no longer need to overanalyse those first Orders planned, leading to shorter downtime and more fluent gameplay.
I kinda appreciate that there are mere 5 monster miniatures that can possibly be deployed on the field. In FS/Starcraft player may have 10-20 pieces on the board, with several strongpoints and multiple angles for advancement. While not such a bad thing per se, it does add to complexity and leads to overanalysis and downtime. In Rise of Cults you have very few Creatures on the board, and your presence is very clear and explicit.
However, there is a price for that clarity. And that price is... strategy. Board in Rise of Cults is very small - mere 4 districts/planets/locations for four players, which are all adjacent to each other! And it's not just that - there is also a "Combat response" mechanic, which allows opponents to come running to you wherever and whenever you attempt to Dominate a district. Granted, it's only possible to react with one Creature this way, but Creature size is a small factor in battle outcome - Cards and Cultists are the major deciders, Creature just needs to be present for you to be able to participate at all.
Arkham City board with its four districts. Each district has space for 2 market cards, 5 creatures, 3 Dominance markers and Cult HQs. There is also purple-pinkish Investigator progress track.
Overall positioning is next to meaningless. If you have a Creature anywhere on the board - you can participate in any combat that happens anywhere. Sure, it's sometimes profitable to concentrate several of your Creatures in a single District to dissuade your opponents from opposing your Dominance attempts there, but that's a rather bland decision-making compared to that of positioning in Forbidden Stars with it's tens of planets.
Combat is rather bland. It reminded me of Scythe. All Creatures are basically the same, like Mechs in Scythe (bar 1-2 strength difference). There are no tactical decisions. Only strategic "how much Red do I throw away for this particular Confrontation". All Creatures are the same. There are next to none special abilities related to combat, and the couple that exist are also rather bland (like "pull a card from top of your deck and add it's Red resource to currect fight" or "pay 1 Influence to put a useless card in your opponent's discard"). Nothing that can hold a candle compared to the variety of Tactics in Forbidden Stars.
Cults are 100% symmetrical at start. I get that asymmetry is supposed to happen later in the game thanks to different cards acquired by people, but it suffers from Dominion malady - with any given market there usually is a rather clear and obvious optimal purchasing pattern, so everyone ends up with fairly similar decks. Some cards on the market are comparatively worthless, some are good as 1-ofs, and some are really good and you want to have as much as you can... And it's the same for all the players, so everyone ends up with similar decks. There is nothing similar to vastly different playstyle of races in FS, and I'm not even going to expatiate upon in-racial or in-combat variety of tactical options.
I like the economy. I like how you get 5 random Cultists at start and you have a couple of rerolls there, but abuse those too much and you risk rolling blanks. I like how you can conserve some resources between rounds to set up powerful moves. I like how all three resources in the game have a distinct niche and all are meaningful. Although Red and Green kinda go hand in hand - one is often much less useful without the other. I like how Green is scarce and cards provide at most 1 of it at a time. It makes every Dominance super valuable - you can't ever spam those.
However, designers just NEEDED to add a spoon of tar in a barrel of honey. Check this out... Your Cultist token reserves are HIDDEN from opponents.
Yes, you read it right. Obtaining Cultists is open information, while reserves of Cultists is hidden. What were we playing again? Children's game of Memory? Ah, so I'm supposed to take notes of all my opponents' token obtainment, right?
I get that they wanted to keep hidden the number of Red Cultists (aka Thugs) that you secretly bid during combat... but hiding the whole reserve to support that mechanic is just plain stupid - it promotes taking notes with pen and paper and needlessly dragging the game.
I like the Investigator mechanic. It makes interacting with board more expensive as time goes on and people execute Build orders, so economy does not quite snowball... Even the opposite, it actually slows down as the game goes on!
I like how starting decks are not filled with trash cards "1 coin" or "1 sword". Many starting cards are actually pretty valuable. The fact that all the crappy "1 sword" cards in starting deck have a built-in "Trash: gain extra Red in combat" ability to promote early fighting is a nice touch.
I like how easy it is to thin your deck. You get a free "trash a card from discard" every time you Upgrade your deck or Move your Creatures around the board. Having intermediary cards for this core deckbuilder thing always seemed clunky to me.
I disliked the clunkiness of Rules and abundance of exceptions. Despite the fact that we're a very hardcore gamer group, we still got a number of things wrong even after a couple of playthroughs. I.e., Upgrade allows you to purchase two cards in the district you resolve that Order. BUT it can't be two copies of the same card. BUT you have to have a Cult HQ present at the district where the card is up for sale. BUT Creature is actually also enough for this purpose. Or, i.e. you play a City Event card every round. BUT you don't play it during the first round.
There are also no clear one-stop rules for the simple act of playing a card. The general rule is one sentence "When this phase happens, you can play cards that refer to this phase". Yeah, it works for cards with triggers like "Recruitment: blahblahblah" or "Mobilization: blahblahblah". BUT cards that read "Confrontation: blahblah" work differently, you have to discard them for their Red resource during combat to trigger the ability... and that SUPER IMPORTANT bit of info was hidden in some very obscure place in description of Confrontation resolution mechanic, literally several words in a small font within a wall of text. We also never quite agreed upon functionality of "Terror: blah blah" trigger. On one hand, Terror is a distinct sub-phase of Dominate action, on the other hand Terror is often an aftermath of Confrontation, so maybe it could be used similar to "Confrontation: blah blah" cards after all? We ended up replacing all "Terror: " cards from market with something else.
+ Clarity of presence, clarity of scoring. No noisy bullshit gazillion sources of VPs.
+ Very interactive. People can and will try to screw with your plans!
+ Decent economy, nice mechanic with resource dice.
+ Interesting "natural" slowdown of economy in Investigator mechanic.
+ Jumpstart deckbuilding with good starting deck.
+ Built-in deck thinning without intermediaries.
+ Successful import of Order stack mechanic.
+ Fairly low downtime for a game of this genre.
+ I liked the art and design of components. Tips on player pads are helpful and clear.
= Absence of specialized Orders, streamlining gameplay and reducing downtime but losing cool maneuvering specialized Orders offered.
= Small number of game pieces. Less noisy board, but at a price of a very small board.
- Almost meaningless strategical positioning. You can be everywhere at once when needed.
- Very bland and boring "secret bid" combat. No tactical decisions.
- Full symmetry, predictable developing patterns.
- Low variance. I anticipate that games will feel same-ish after first 5-7 plays.
- Mess of a rulebook. A lot of clunky mechanics with exceptions.
- Absolutely unacceptable hidden information rule of Cultist Reserve. Fortunately, you can homerule to ignore it and keep your reserve open info, concealing only your Thugs during Combat.
An interesting hybrid of a board-centric deckbuilder with Order Stacks. It gives me more of a Scythe or Blood Rage vibe than FS vibe due to boring Combat though. A solid 7 out of 10 overall.
Would I play it again?
Yes, if offered. Would not suggest it myself though.
Would I recommend a purchase?
Probably not, since I only recommend stuff that's truly outstanding - shelf space is at a premuim
However, if you enjoy Cthulhu theme, lack Blood Rage or Forbidden Stars, if you enjoyed Tyrants of Underdark and want to dabble in more hardcore strategical games or maybe want a bit of a deckbuilding twist in your strategy - you might want to get a box of Rise of Cults. Otherwise, just get that out of print Warhammer beauty while there are still some copies floating around the market.
Good review! It sounds intriguing. I haven’t played the games you’ve referenced.
Any idea how it scales?
Glad you enjoyed it Rereading now I find a lot of wobbly language here and there, duh :\
I've played 3/4 player setups, and it scaled well. And before you ask - yes, there is diplomatic/kingmaking element as in any multiplayer game with direct conflict.
However, Rise of Cults is quite decent at combatting kingmaking with it's comeback dynamics. For instance, in one of our games the guy who had the least points in 5th round almost won the game by the end of the 6th round. Only last couple of moves of last couple of players in the very last round sometimes degrade into clear kingmaking, which is better than majority of field.
I don't have a solid opinion on duel in Rise of Cults. Mechanically it seems to scale for two as well as for 3 or 4, but we did not test it explicitly.