They rose from the primordial miasma of the hobby. It seems that they have always been there; gigantic, eternal. There are none that have entered this world, that have not felt their presence. Their hulking mass, sometimes at the edge of hearing and at other times slathering into the centre to dominate and obscure all else by sheer size. You hear a guttural rumble, that could be a laugh, as your will to live is drained by the truly horrific prospect of having to roll two bloody D6s again to see if you can buy a shotgun from a shop.
H.P. Lovecraft created worlds. Some that strongly resembled our own and others of such cosmic infathomability, that readers are left breathless by the nihilistic inventiveness of the man (let’s not dwell too long on the space cats). Lovecraft envisaged a universe that, as far as it is aware of our presence, is totally indifferent to it. Lovecraft dispensed with the Judeo-Christian mythmaking that places us at the centre of this universe and replaced it with ‘the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth’ that is the nucleus of the cosmos and blindly dictates its will.
It is a shame then, that the board game analogues of this rich world of invention are so disappointing. The hulking Cthulhu offerings from Fantasy Flight Games evoke none of the bleak horror of Lovecraft and horrifically confuse chance for horror and randomness for helplessness.
It is fortunate then, that I’m not reviewing any of these games. I simply offer them as a counterpoint to the game I am reviewing: Fram R’lyeh. A one deck card game from Baka Fire, that utilises simplicity to convey the hopelessness of Lovecraft’s creation.
Players are deep sea treasure hunters exploring the stygian depths of the sunken city of R’lyeh, where ‘dead Cthulhu lies dreaming’.
There are piles of treasure of differing values, and each round players will vie over a new treasure, that has been discovered. The dealer gets to look at this treasure, which has a numerical value, and plays one of their cards face up. The rest of the players, prompted by this small amount of information that the dealer has provided, play a card face down. Then they reveal and the person who has played the highest card receives the treasure. This is a double-edged sword as they also retain the card they played that counts as negative points and if the treasure is worth less than the card played, well, that’s tough luck.
This continues until all the treasures have been won and the person with the highest points wins. Unless everyone has negative points. Then great Cthulhu is awoken and the person with the most negative points is the winner.
On the face of it this is a simple trick taking cum bidding game, but it is in its difficulty and its subterfuge that the theme is evoked. Scoring points is hard. Really hard. The game is an implacable edifice, that brooks no error and drags you, unfailingly, towards failure, ignominy and madness.
Then the parcelling out of information sows distrust and paranoia amongst the players. If the dealer plays a high card, is this because the treasure is valuable or are they trying to encourage you to take trash?
It is very easy, all too easy, to end up with negative points in this game and if you do manage to escape the cursed city with your faculties intact, it is by the skin of your teeth. The interplay between the difficulty of the game and the subterfuge of the players results in an experience that is tense and fraught, and all of this in fifteen minutes. Fram R’lyeh is simple. It can be picked up and played in no time, but the designer recognises that the spirit of Lovecraft lies in distrust and futility and this game delivers both.
There are no heroes in Lovecraft and once you’ve totted up your scores you will realise that there are none in Fram R’lyeh either.