Alone in this chilly city with my useless education and my dreams. What now? Could I become something more?
This is how Cultist Simulator (CS) introduces you to the game’s setting. CS is a very original and interesting game that mixes a card game with crafting to tell weird and disturbing stories.
Tarots are a form of story telling that has ancient roots. It comes from South Italy’s card games and then started to become something more… a way to read the future. They survived until now and still they have some charm on our heavily rational and scientific society.
Cultist Simulator brings tarots on gamers’ desks mixing them with crafting mechanics to tell strange and disturbing stories.
You start as a common person with a common job and a boring life. On you table lies a card representing your job and an object labeled “work” that represent the action of working. The “work” object has an empty socket in which you can insert cards. If you try to insert your job card inside the “work” action, a timer will start to countdown. This is you going to work.
When the timer runs out, you gain new cards; money and passion, in my case.
Money are very important in this game. If you end up having no money, you eventually get sick from hunger and die.
Passion is a multi-purpose card. You can use it to do better your job, to concentrate on your emotions in activities like painting, or to just put in the heart while you do something.
You can combine different cards on different actions to accomplish tasks. New actions will unlock after you reach certain situations or as a consequence of some events or your own decisions.
For example, if you meet a person, you will unlock the “talk” action to interact with that person. If that person reveals you the position of a place, you will unlock the “explore” action so you can go to that place and spend money, talk to people or who knows what else.
In my game, I met mysterious person who started to talk me about a bookshop that had those very interesting auctions, in which you could buy ancient and forgotten books. I cannot help but follow my primal attraction for the supernatural and occult and spend all my money for a lorebook named “The Locksmith’s Dream: A Light through the Keyhole”. Once I read the book, something changed and a new lorebook was uncovered: “A Watchman’s Secret”. This one is a book that introduced me to an arcane mystic cult with which I started being obsessed. I tried to combine the book card with all possible actions trying to uncover the secret and build my own cult.
Crafting is a fundamental mechanic in Cultist Simulator and it’s the very heart of the roleplay itself.
You go on through your life combining cards and actions, trying to coordinate between a growing number of timers, your needs and your objectives. You eventually die and the story of your character ends.
Death is not the end for the game, though. In fact, just after that, you are prompted to a new character screen with a lot more options. You can now chose the new character’s job from a list that is different in size and content depending on how you lived your previous character’s life.
Once you jump in your second life, after some time you realize that the world is the exact same where your previous character lived and died: the game is now set after his death.
In my case, after passing a big part of my life searching for the truth about the Watchmen’s Secret, I managed to create my own cult based on that lorebook, the cult of the Light. I collected some enthusiasts, some madmen and weak-minded and I gave them a new hope for their wasted lives. They were my ears, my eyes and my mouth and helped me spread the word of the Light. But then… well I forgot how important is to always have health and money and died. *shrugs*
In my second life, I was a detective investigating on a weird cult spreading in the city committing crimes and frightening citizens. I managed to discover that the cult revolved around the cult of some light and apparently it was all written in a sort of holy book… Yes! I was investigating on my previous character’s cult and trying to know more about who he was and how he lived his life.
This is the quintessential of role play. You know everything, but your character don’t, so you have to put yourself in his shoes and act as you were living his own life.
Role play is what I love the most about this game. You totally immerse yourself in lovercraftian-like stories just by crafting cards, reading snippets and waiting for timers to run out. This is what I call a virtuous example of game design and gameplay. After my first game I realized that my 2 hours experience crafting cards left me with the same emotions that can give me reading an horror book or watching a thriller movie.
The game comes with nearly no tutorial, so everything you do, you do it without knowing what’s coming next or where this will take you. This is a very rare sensation that very few games give me right know. After more that 2 decades of gaming, I’ve seen things…
One of the biggest joys of Cultist Simulator is you learning new combinations between cards and actions and understanding how to make new possible plot twists for your personal story.
Cards and actions combining summarize very well the way people act and all the possibility life has to offer and as if this was a Buddhist simulator, the more you reincarnate, the more you understand how to get the most out of each of the lives you’re going to live.
While you grow your cult, you gain even more power to condition and manipulate people, but you will also increase your popularity attracting both new adepts and police’s attention. You will gain the ability to start expeditions with your adepts to uncover new and exciting details about your cult’s ancient lore, find new objects to study or just gain more power against your detractors.
Eventually you will end up with magic and esoteric abilities that allows you to interact with strange creatures and dimensions making your cult nearly incontestable and overwhelming.
The game takes place entirely on a table, with you combining cards and actions. But that’s enough gameplay for you to properly immerse in the game. The only problem I found in this system, is that the inclination of the table and the random position of actions can sometimes make you lose sight of some card or action. But then the game helps you out with the ability to move your point of view and zoom in or out from the table. A very little problem, in my opinion that can be ignored for some people or ruin the experience for some other people.
Concerning the soundtrack, CS offer a very appropriate set of music and sounds that help you even more to immerse in this fantastic and strange world set in 1920s London.
Alexis Kennedy took the ideas and setting behind his first game, Fallen London, and fine-tuned all the aspects providing us one of the most polished and creative simulations game made that gives us nothing less than narrative masterpieces like Sunless Sea.
Long Story Short
The magic in Cultist Simulator is that you get to really feel every story and decision and all the gameplay required to get those complex stories is to craft cards and actions. You will face both weird esoteric situations and personal issues stressing your heart and mind to the limit of human resistance. If you ever read books by Lovecraft, you would probably notice how neat is the resemblance between those books and the atmosphere in CS.