Cultistorm on The Black Aether Online H. P. Lovecraft Magazine

[The original interview in hungarian language is here.]

Cultistorm is an exciting Lovecraftian card game developed by a Hungarian team and it’s going to make its debut on Kickstarter this autumn. We’re asking Sandor Szucs, the game developer, about the game itself, the advantages and disadvantages of a Kickstarter campaign and of course about why would one back their project.

Could you tell us a bit more about Cultistorm? How should we imagine the game and who would you recommend it for?

Cultistorm is a co-operative game that uses cards and dice. The players are investigators who, by helping and supporting each other, have to prevent the cultists from gathering on certain place cards. If cultists reach a critical number, they open unknown dimensions. These are dangerous in themselves, but they also call forth Great Old Ones who are almost impossible to defeat.

For those who are not familiar with modern tabletop board games it might be a novelty that there are games where the players are playing against the game and not one another. They play together and their aim is to defeat the game’s “artificial intelligence” which is animated by rules, cards and dice rolls. The other main feature of Cultistorm is that players have to carry this out knowing that they very heavily depend on each other. Everybody has their own action card deck which they can develop during the game. The players have to make a decision about every card if they want to use it themselves or if they want to support the others with it. Of course there is a luck factor in the game, but it mostly depends on the co-operation and decisions of the players than on a few dice rolls.

How should you imagine the game? At the beginning of each round, cultists appear randomly in Arkham, Dunwitch, Innsmouth and other Lovecraftian cities – depending on certain rules. Then the investigators draw cards from their own action deck and based on their cards they discuss and decide who would be the most efficient and where in the battle against the cultists. Each investigator has unique abilities and they also have objects that help in their decisions and fight. After everybody has chosen their location, the players carry out their actions one by one: they can search for useful objects, they can heal in the hospital, resolve events, but most of the time we need to fight cultists. In the fight we use dark magic symbols, the investigators use these to cover the magical symbols of the cultists. If the players succeed, the cultist gets out of the game, if they don’t, the investigator suffers a mental injury. After the fourth mental injury the character goes mad and the game ends. If the fourth cultist appears on a location, a dimension portal opens which immediately sucks in the investigator who is there and teleports him to a horrible place, and in later rounds every investigator disappears here who failed against the cultists. A Great Old one also appears who begins his way towards the locations of this world and in every round he absorbs a cultist there, so that his strength gets added to that of the Old One. If the investigators don’t risk their lives by trying to vanquish the cultists before the Great Old One gets to them, then the Great Old one becomes practically invincible – although one of the investigators will have to take him on sooner or later.

The game is very difficult, but I think that only this anxiety and despair and the facing of the hopelessness are the features that can give a board game an atmosphere worthy of Lovecraft’s heritage. But you can of course win the game too. However, the first victory is just the beginning because there are many ways to make the game even more difficult, so it’s not just varied but also can pose increasing challenge to those who would like to play it regularly.

Who do I recommend it for? The game has two distinct target groups: the fans of Lovecraft’s work, stories, his world and the moods he created and the fans of co-operative, drama centred board games. We wanted to create a board game where the rules were simple, easily understood even by those who aren’t well versed in contemporary board games but what would still mean a considerable challenge and a big replayability so that people can try it multiple times. I also wanted to stay faithful to Lovecraftian mood and traditions by creating a hard game with a bit of hopelessness. I recommend Cultistorm to players who like challenges.

Where did you get the idea of the game? There are some other Lovecraftian games on the market, Elder sign or Arkham Horror, just to mention the most famous ones. What are the novelties in Cultistorm?

I became a fan of Lovecraft very early, I was around twelve and his world, style, mood became formative for me. I was writing Lovecraftian stories already as a teenager. When I became a gamer (in the board game sense) Arkham Horror was my first more serious game, and although it’s a brutally long and deep game, we played it a lot. Later when I started designing games, I wanted to do a Lovecraftian game above all else. I’m well aware that the market is saturated with “cthulhu” games, but I had a few cardinal points I wanted to make into “my own cthulhu” game and maybe these are reasons why I feel like Cultistorm could have its place among the existing great Lovecraftian games.

The first one is a completely fan reason: For me, Lovecraft represents first and foremost the cosmic horror, something timeless, inhuman, or infinitely beyond human and I’ve always had a “thematic” problem with the solution that Lovecraft’s cosmic Great Ones could just be killed in some street shooting with a simple colt or shotgun. In Cultistorm, the Great Ones are almost just consequences and the investigators are fighting the cultist because if the Great One is awoken, he is almost impossible to stop. The second biggest threat is the horrible locations that are opened by the dimension portals – certain locations are almost enough alone to cause the downfall of the investigators. In one word, I wanted to stay closer to the traditions and atmosphere of short stories, and I wanted to create a game which is not so much about “monster hunting.” The other two reasons are more technical. There are two types of “Cthulhu games:” either too complex with a thousand extensions and not only with Great Old Ones, but also with gigantic rule books, like Arkham or Eldritch Horror or the living card games by Fantasy Flight Games or too simple. I wanted to create a game which doesn’t necessitate a ten kilo box and a minimum forty page long rule book, yet it provides the players with a deep and satisfying game. On the other hand, I also wanted to create a cooperative game where everybody is needed equally, which can’t be solved alone by a dominant, so called alpha player by telling everyone what they should do – I think this is the biggest bane of cooperative games. The action game mechanics of Cultistorm doesn’t facilitate thinking for everyone in advance, so it really needs real and equal cooperation among the players.

A last very important point: from the very first moment I wanted Cultistorm to be more than a simple board game. Since I write short stories myself it was very important to me to add a short story collection to the game and if we are at it, let us have music and an art book and let’s try to make the book itself as extraordinary as possible. My aim is to surround, to embed the game into a Lovecraftian atmosphere and world but more deeply than a few flavour texts on cards. The game will be unique in this respect; I haven’t heard about a game which had a dedicated short story collection of literary quality or which had a musical album created for it.

Is it your first game or do you have other experience in game design?

I started designing games in 2014 and I won the first Hungarian game design competition advertised by Piatnik game publisher and JEM magazine (a Hungarian magazine dedicated to board games) in that very year. I’ve designed almost a hundred games since then, our aim is to publish as many of these as possible. We created Purple Meeple Games publisher company with my friend, Zoltán Aczél who might be the most prominent figure of Hungarian board gaming life. He has three decades of experience in game design and publishing, he is the founder of Gémklub and he represents multiple international publishers in Hungary. He has immense professional background and knowledge that helps us a lot in the development and publishing of Cultistorm and or other games.

What were the difficulties you encountered while designing the game? What were the parts you found quite easy?

Creativity is my life force, my whole life, my work is influenced by it. I come up with a new game idea almost every day, but I also write, compose music and channel my creative forces in many ways. Coming up with games is not at all difficult for me, it’s almost frighteningly easy and common. However, the road from game idea to the finished product is very long and winding. Just to remain with the example of Cultistorm; I’ve been developing the game for two years, this is the fifteenth game version. When I first presented it to others it was just a sixty-card, “simple” card game. If we manage to reach all the stretch goals during our Kickstarter campaign, the game will have almost 500 cards and many other elements, two independent extensions and three modules. The two versions are very different and not just because of the quantity of game elements. The really big part of creating a board game is the development phase – the continuous perfection of rules, the constant testing, the letting go of ideas and elements that we have grown to like but which proved to be pointless, finding a solution for problems and shortcomings that weaken the gaming experience and finding the perfect balance. At one point the creative work becomes product development, in case if we want to deliver an indeed outstanding game, and this is a lot of hard work.

Creating the visual world is also a huge work. I work with a very talented young illustrator on Cultistorm, it’s very interesting to look over our archives to see the course a picture has taken; to see how a verbal instruction became a sketch, and how the sketch became a digital painting. There are several pictures we had to modify five, ten, twenty times until every tiny detail fell into its place. Despite all this, the creative process itself is incredibly excitement and uplifting.

Speaking of the master of weird and horror stories, why Lovecraft? Do you have a favourite short story from him?

I’ve already mentioned that Lovecraft was the first and most influential author in my life, and I’m saying it so that in my rather unique course of life there were almost seven years when I read a full book every day. I’ve reread Lovecraft’s short stories at least every year since I was ten, sometimes multiple times. Again and again. Naturally I know a lot of other authors as well, but when it comes to tormenting terror (and not being scared) classical weird stories or cosmic horror as a literary genre, then it’s obviously Lovecraft for me.

I don’t really have a favourite because I don’t really like setting up orders or making lists, almost every story is a “favourite” for different reasons and according to different criteria. I’ve really read all of his short stories many times, but with Lovecraft I don’t have what I do with other writers, he doesn’t have stories I read more frequently or more willingly than others. I haven’t thought about this before: I could tell you immediately what are my favourites from Stephen King, Verne, or István Fekete, but for me Lovecraft doesn’t have better or worse stories, I have never been picky with his stories, I just opened one of the big compendiums randomly or I just read the stories one after another. If I really had to name “one favourite,” I’d say “Mountains of Madness.” It’s not better than the rest, but it’s the one I would recommend first to someone who has never read Lovecraft.

Why did you decide to do a Kickstarter campaign? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of financing?

Let’s start by quickly summing up what a Kickstarter campaign is, there might be some of the readers who don’t really know what it is. Kickstarter is a crowd funding platform where everyone can present their project and their prototype and they can raise money through an introduction campaign to help funding the realisation and mass production of the project. After the realisation of the project, the backers get a honorary copy of the game.  The backers practically pre-finance a project that interests them through Kickstarter. Why is it worth it? For the designers because they don’t have to hoard up enough money in advance, they don’t need to ask money from the bank and they don’t need to produce superfluous amounts of game they might not even be able to sell. For the backers, because the more people back a project, the cheaper its production becomes and the developer can use this money to give more extensions and extras with his product, this way the product’s value can be many times more than the one they original backed. It’s a real win-win situation which is also completely safe both legally and financially.

I believe in the power of communities and I believe in crowd funding. I spent a lot of time looking into it, I’ve been following and systematically analysing the workings of Kickstarter for more than two years, paying special attention to the board game segment and I’m convinced that this mentality and platform will become an increasingly important part of economy in the future, since it optimises demand and offer with the pre-financing system. Furthermore, it gives the opportunity to basically anyone to enter into the market, while twenty years ago you would have needed tens or hundreds of millions of capital to do so. It opens wide the possibility of innovation and creation for everyone. Kickstarter does it in a business model that is favourable for both parties: the designer gets a chance to realise his dreams, while the backer gets a product which is worth much more than the financial contribution he actually offered.

I am a big Kickstarter fan myself, I use it actively, mostly to back board games, a good part of my game collection is from Kickstarter actually. I haven’t been disappointed in any projects I have backed so far, but it has happened multiple times that what I got was much more, both in value and in gaming experience, than what I could have bought one year later in shops (if in the end the game entered retail.)

You also plan a short story collection which would verbally illustrate the mood of your game world. What can you tell us about it? How did you come up with the idea and what kind of short stories will you have in it?

As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of the collection was born at the same time as the game, I wanted it to be one of the unique selling points of the game. I wanted to give something more than just the flavour texts on cards, especially that I write short stories myself. It was the enormity of the task and the cutting back of my ego (or my writing ambition, if we want to be nicer) that made me renounce the task of writing the whole thing alone. One of my short stories were published in the Black Aether magazine ( a Hungarian magazine dedicated to Lovecraft and his heritage) that I still read with much pleasure, so I thought that I would try to ask them to cooperate with me on a short story anthology. József Tomasics was happy to join the project and we decided that we would publish a call for submissions because although we have some stories ready and in-progress, we still have place in the volume. We created Purple Meeple Games with the aim to be able to help the games of Hungarian designers to have an opportunity to be published internationally, similarly, if we have already created a board game for the international Lovecraftian subculture, we wanted its anthology to help Hungarian writers to make an international appearance. If our game is successful, it’s not impossible that we could publish the anthology to a wider audience than if it was published by a publishing house. For my part, it’s a great honour and joy that we not only publish a game, but also a quality literary creation as well. Furthermore, we help the awakening Hungarian weird literature with it.

Beside the short story anthology and the wonderful illustrations, you also plan to have a soundtrack written especially for the game. Who is the composer and what do you hope to get from this complementing, atmospheric element?

Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question just yet. We asked a very talented, Lovecraft-fan composer, but sadly such serious illnesses happened in his family during the summer that he had to step back from the project. We have been in talks with a foreign group who are well-known in Lovecraftian circles, but until we don’t have a definite and positive answer, the question is still open. I promise that once we find the creator for our musical album, we are going to publish it on every platform

Last but not least, what exclusive and bonus content can the backers look forward to?

We’re preparing with a lot of bonus content. For example, during the pre-campaign we offer a dice tower and a bonus card set for those who join us – you can do it on the website. There will be a so called Early Bird promotion in the first 72 hours of the campaign, we are preparing for a very cool gift which would bring a smile to every Lovecraft fan’s face, but let this remain a secret for the moment. We designed two extensions which would bring in totally new game modes and also many smaller modules which would add new game mechanics, events, possibilities, actions to the base game and of course we would like to augment the numbers of each card types as Stretch Goals in order to augment replayability and variety.

I would like to mention that we will have a Kickstarter Exclusive upgrade for the short story collection as well: if we have the required number of backers, we’ll change the conventional cover into a very Lovecraftian, unique and quite extreme artificial leather cover. We’re doing our best in order to be able to give a book with a “look” that the backers have only seen as a handmade artefact before, it will be so novel and important that one of the biggest Hungarian printers are working on the printing technology enabling it for our special request.

Lastly, in the case we surpass every limit we dreamed up and announced and if we gave out all our thirty planned Stretch Goals, we have further ideas such as making a short film from one of the stories from the anthology as a sort of a visual short story and we would make is available for the general public on Youtube or developing a mobile version of Cultistorm. It would be great to reach all these bonus goals during the campaign.

Thank you very much for your answers and I wish you good luck with Cultistorm!

Thank you for the interview, it’s an honour to present Cultistorm to your readers and I hope many of them will be inspired to back our project. You can find every further information on our website both in Hungarian and English:

Fanni Sütő
The Black Aether Magazine