Don't Mess With Cthulhu is a secret identity team game, in the same vein as BANG, The Resistance and The Message: Emissary Crisis. It is a social deduction game, in which you need to deceive and outguess your opponents. The game supports 4 to 6 players. I've only played the 6-player game, so I will describe how it works based on the 6-player game.
There are 4 investigators and 2 cultists. Their identities are kept secret until the end of the game. The aim of the investigators is to prevent Cthulhu from coming to the world by finding all six elder signs to seal off the portal. They need to do this within four rounds. The cultists win by making sure the investigators fail, or by directly summoning Cthulhu to this world.
Investigator on the left, cultist on the right.
You have a deck of 30 cards, most of which are useless rocks. Six of them are rocks with elder signs, and one single card is Cthulhu itself. If the Cthulhu card is revealed at any time during the game, Cthulhu comes and the investigators immediately lose. At the start of a round, all unrevealed cards are shuffled and dealt out evenly to every player. You look at your cards, then shuffle them and lay them out before you. So you know how many cards of each type you have, but you don't know exactly which is which. The start player picks another player and reveals one of his cards. This player then becomes the active player and must reveal one card of another player (which may be the first player). This continues until six cards are revealed. If the game has not ended, all unrevealed cards are retrieved and reshuffled, and they will be used for the next round. This continues until the end of Round 4. If the investigators have not found all six elder signs by then, they lose and the cultists win.
The two cards on the left are the elder signs. The third card is a rock. The Cthulhu tokens on the right are used in the variant game. If you feel a single game is too short, you can play the campaign mode. Every time a game ends, the losers take one Cthulhu token each. Once a player collects three tokens, the campaign ends, and the player(s) with the fewest tokens win.
The rules are very simple, but when we started the game, we weren't sure what to say to one another. We made rather vague statements, which were not very helpful. Eventually we settled into the practice of declaring how many elder signs we had, one after another. I wonder whether this is normal and what other norms other game groups settle into. Declaring the number of elder signs gave the investigators some leverage to work out who the cultists were. It also gave the cultists an opportunity to lie and mislead. It is best for the cultists if they can remain unrecognised. If the investigators know who the good guys are, it is much easier for them to find the elder signs. They know who they can trust and who not to trust. In this game you can't reveal your own cards, so you are forced to listen to information provided by others and you must make your own judgement on who is trustworthy.
One stroke of genius is you only know your own card distribution but not their exact position. I can tell everyone four of my five cards are elder signs, but if the person who reveals one of my cards finds a stone, my credibility will go down the drain. A cultist can make use of this game element. If he doesn't have any elder sign, he can still claim that he does, hoping to waste the investigators' actions. When the investigators reveal a stone, he can simply say it is bad luck. In fact he should convince them to try again because the odds of finding the real elder sign have increased.
The Cthulhu card is another very clever element. It's a time bomb that can go off anytime. The original Japanese version of the game was actually called Time Bomb, and the time bomb setting fits the game mechanisms much better. Due to this instant lose condition, investigators will always have some doubt before revealing a card. What if that player is lying and I'm about to reveal Cthulhu itself? Fear leads to doubt and distrust. No matter how many elder signs have been collected, as long as the last one is not yet found, the investigators can suffer a sudden loss. The investigators can't help being at least a little paranoid.
The game naturally escalates towards a climax. As more and more cards are revealed, the likelihood of finding Cthulhu increases. The difficulty of finding elder signs also increases. The number of rounds is a countdown timer. For the investigators, it is a race against time to seal the portal. They lose if they fail. So there is a mounting sense of doom that they may not make it in time.
If you are a cultist, you don't need to lie all the time. It is better to stay low key, and only lie at the crucial moment. Go for the long haul. There was one game in which I was completely fooled by Ivan. He played investigator very convincingly for most of the game, and I was absolutely sure both he and Jason were real investigators. I was one myself. I measured the statements made by others against those made by Ivan and Jason. Any inconsistencies made me suspicious. I was very surprised when the cultists won and Ivan was one of them.
In another game, Jason announced very early that he had Cthulhu among his cards. I was an investigator, and I had Cthulhu among my cards. So he was clearly lying and he must be a cultist. I quickly called him out and asked everyone to be wary of him. The investigator team eventually won that game. After the game, Jason explained that he had lied so blatantly because he wanted to lure the real investigator with the Cthulhu card, and then accuse him of lying. Unfortunately for him his acting was not convincing enough and he ended up exposing himself. I guess such a strategy is too risky.
In Don't Mess With Cthulhu you do need to act and to lie well, but I think it is easier than in Templar Intrigue. In Templar Intrigue, if you happen to be a regular Templar Knight, you need to be proactive and claim that you are the Traitor, and that you know who the real Templar Grandmaster is. You need to think fast and collaborate with your fellow teammates in order to confuse the King. In Don't Mess With Cthulhu, playing cultist is not as difficult. Sometimes you can be honest to buy trust. It's an investment. After all, the time pressure is on the investigators. They need to find all elder signs before time runs out. Also, as long as they have not found all, there is always the fear of sudden death hanging over them - the moment Cthulhu is revealed, you win.
One thing I like about Don't Mess With Cthulhu is how unrevealed cards are reshuffled and dealt out all over again at the start of every round. The situation changes from round to round, creating both opportunities and risks, and allowing interesting situations to arise. You get different cards every round, and you can be making different statements every round.
The first time I played, I did three games back-to-back. I experienced playing both investigator and cultist, and both factions have won. Playing investigator is more straightforward. There is less need to lie. Playing cultist is trickier. You need to pick the right time and the right lies.
Ainul, Ivan, Jason, Dith. You get all sorts of expressions in this game.
We organised our cards this way. The upper row are cards revealed in the current round. The lower row are cards revealed in all previous rounds. The elder signs need to be arranged neatly so that we can keep count. The rocks from previous rounds are all dumped in a pile since there is no need to keep count of them anymore.
I found the game very interesting and decided to make a copy using the original theme (time bomb) to teach my colleagues. The game has only 37 cards so it's quick. When playing with my colleagues, quite a few funny situations came up. In one game, Edwin was a cultist and he had declared that he had no elder signs. I was an investigator, and when my turn came, there was no remaining clue that helped me pick a player to reveal his card. I was a little suspicious of Edwin at the time, and since I had nothing better to do, I decided to test whether he was honest. The very card I revealed was an elder sign! He still had five cards unrevealed, and he only had one elder sign among them. He turned red with embarrassment at being caught red handed. In another game, both Xiaozhu and Ruby claimed that they had elder signs, so they spent the round revealing each other's cards, going back and forth between them. Xiaozhu claimed that he had two elder signs, but as Ruby revealed card after card, they all turned out to be rocks. Things became very awkward when even the third card was a rock. Xiaozhu had only two cards remaining, and it was not easy for him to convince us that those two were elder signs. We all laughed. He looked desperate and helpless. The round was ending, and we had no more turns to prove whether he had been truthful. Eventually he turned out to be a genuine investigator. It was Ruby who turned out to be a cultist. She was very lucky (from a cultist perspective) to have not picked any of his elder signs.
My colleagues enjoyed playing cultist more. They were mostly hoping to get the cultist identity card. Playing cultist is more thrilling and challenging, and also more satisfying if you win.
Don't Mess With Cthulhu is a party game. It's easy to teach and it works well with non-gamers. The rules themselves are simple, much more so than BANG or The Message: Emissary Crisis, but the tactics and psychology are not simplistic by any means. There is some meat to this little game. There is paranoia, suspense and deceit. You do need to think a little about how to lie, and how to identify your enemies. The game design is compact and clever. The game can work as a filler for regular gamers, be it entree or dessert. A game can be completed in 15 minutes.