23rd Oct2023

A board gamer’s guide to ‘Cthulhu: Death May Die’

by Matthew Smail

Since Gloomhaven came along, with its ridiculous depth, 100+ missions and near-to-zero-luck gameplay, it’s been tough for other dungeon crawlers to make an impact. With most games in this genre relying on dice-rolling, random encounters and a load of other random factors, it’s tough to be taken seriously. However, when Eric Lang and Rob Daviau teamed up to bring us Cthulhu: Death May Die back in 2019, the outcome was destined to swing the dial back in favour of the classic dice and dungeons model.

Cthulhu: Death May Die has now been Kickstarted two or three times – with the latest round of crowdfunding set to begin fulfilment around December 2023. This latest run is set to introduce a new core set (called Fear of the Unknown), a Season 4 expansion, new Elder Ones and several other smaller expansions (Animal Allies and such) as well as a load of stretch goals. For those who are new to Cthulhu: Death May Die, though, there is already a ton of content available at retail (and some extra content for those lucky enough to find it on the secondary market.)

We’ve recently been able to complete our collection of Cthulhu: Death May Die content thanks to our friends at Asmodee, and ahead of Fear of the Unknown fulfilling and beginning to hit retail, what better time than now to walk you through what is already out there? In this piece, I’ll examine each product available at retail, and I’ll even mention some of the larger Kickstarter exclusives – although don’t expect to find these for anything less than crazy money on your favourite auction sites.

Cthulhu: Death May Die: Core Game

In Cthulhu: Death May Die, players each choose an investigator from a roster of ten characters included in the base game. They then choose one of the six included episode boxes and one of the two Elder Ones (Cthulhu or Hastur). The latter two items here (the episode and the Elder One) are then combined to create the scenario – each episode brings two specific enemies, a map layout, two-episode specific actions and potentially some additional tokens or periphery. Each Elder One brings a huge miniature to represent the big bad, provides rules for a standard cultist enemy and also introduces a unique bad guy associated only with that Elder One.

Every Elder One has their own set of rules, as do their unique minion(s), and when these are combined with the rules and minions of an episode, the variability of Cthulhu: Death May Die really starts to ramp up. There are twelve combinations in the base game, but each of the ten investigators is also quite unique, so there’s scope to tackle each episode at least a few times with different teams. What makes the structure of Cthulhu: Death May Die really unique is that each combination of rules feels completely different – some have the players destroying secret labs whilst others might have them trying to identify a particular cultist who must be killed.

In each case, the mission must be completed in order to prevent the Elder One from being summoned – and when the ritual is broken, the Elder One is dragged unwillingly into the world, at which point the players will battle them through three stages, each of which is more dangerous than the last. This is when Cthulhu: Death May Die gets really exciting… Just imagine, you’ve already disrupted the ritual, you’re already weakened and half-insane, but now the game changes pace completely – the episode rules become less relevant and the Elder One rules come into focus, and every turn is an intense battle for survival.

Having said all this, I still haven’t covered the main hook in Cthulhu: Death May Die – which is that as players roll dice to deal (or receive) wounds, they also roll insanity. Insanity is good and bad, because as players gain it, they also gain new powers and abilities… However, if any characters reach maximum insanity, they will die and be eliminated from the game – if this happens before the ritual is completed, then all players lose – but if it happens afterwards (with the Elder One on the board) then the other players can keep fighting to try and defeat their greatest foe.

There are so many cool things about Cthulhu: Death May Die that it’s hard to even cover them all. For example there are also insanity cards, which are specific afflictions dealt at random during setup. Examples include co-dependency, where a player will teleport to the location of a named character whom they cannot be apart from – albeit at a cost of stress. There is the stress resource itself, which can be used to reroll dice just in case you miss, or roll more (or less) stress than you like. Then, there’s the most exciting thing about the characters, which is their unique abilities. Skills like Brawling, which allows more and more damage to be done, and then split between multiple enemies – or stealth, which allows players to escape spaces with enemies in.

Cthulhu: Death May Die: Season 2

In Cthulhu: Death May Die: Season 2, an additional 6 episodes are added along with a whole host of new enemies to fight across them; but perhaps the most exciting addition is the ten new playable characters. I was a bit surprised at first to hear that there were no new Elder Ones in this box, but given that both Yog-Sothoth and the Black Goat were released at retail around the same time, that’s fine really.

The Season 2 expansion contains some very fun missions, including the very first one – Strange Bedfellows – which introduces the player(s) to a host of Chicago mobsters. In this mission, the players must disrupt the ritual by collecting loot, paying off gangsters to join them and then breaking into the bank vault where the cultists are holed up. It’s a fun, thematic story, and when you meet a gangster and can’t pay them, you’ll instead become “marked” which has negative consequences when certain cards are drawn. The other five scenarios are just as interesting, and as always the new monster miniatures are huge, amazingly sculpted and often terrifying!

Cthulhu: Death May Die: Yog Sothoth Elder One Expansion

With Yog-Sothoth also comes Wilbur Whateley – a terrifying minion who uses Yog Gates (a special and unusual spawn point) to pop up in the places where you least expect him. Annoyingly, regular enemies can also appear from these gates as well, so the net result is that Yog-Sothoth will spawn gates and enemies, often right in the active player’s space – and that’s never a good thing. Both the Yog and Wilbur miniatures are large and very well detailed, with Yog himself a particularly large, terrifying beasty. Wilbur is tough and relentless – hunting the players mercilessly – whilst Yog focusses as much on dealing insanity as he does actual damage.

It’s worth noting that Yog-Sothoth is available at retail, but is also included in the Unspeakable Box (should you be lucky enough to get one.)

Cthulhu: Death May Die: The Black Goat of the Woods Expansion

The Black Goat of the Woods is perhaps my favourite Elder One in the game so far. This box contains a lot of value, with one huge miniature (The Black Goat) and six very detailed smaller (but still large) miniatures known as the Dark Young. These minions are some of the nastiest in the game, being fairly tough in their own right, but also having the ability to cause more Dark Young to spawn if one of their kin is wounded but not killed. The Black Goat himself riffs off this by being harder and harder to defeat depending on how many of his Young he has around him. I really enjoy this expansion because there’s a need to manage the Dark Young directly, even though you’ll be reluctant to do so!

The Black Goat of the Woods Expansion is available at retail and is not included in any other box.

Cthulhu: Death May Die: Unspeakable Box

Now, I won’t say too much about the Cthulhu: Death May Die: Unspeakable Box because you can only buy it on the secondary market now (or as an add-on to the latest campaign, which has now closed) however it is worth a mention because it adds some interesting things. Firstly, inside the box you’ll find two Elder Ones – Yog-Sothoth (which is also available at retail) and Dagon (who is not available anywhere else), six new episodes and then ten new characters. You’ll also find some plastic overlay trays for your character mats, and in my opinion these don’t help much since they slide around just as much as the base game pieces anyway.

Dagon is quite interesting however, and he brings a rather unpleasant set of enemies in the form of the Deep Ones. Over the course of each game, Dagon may transform the player characters into Deep Ones, which can result in a game loss if more than half the investigators have transformed – whilst also weakening them in various situations when facing their new “master.” The lost episodes are also fun, including one which uses all of the new investigators in a nightmarish birthday party scenario where one or more of them has turned to the dark side.

The Unspeakable Box contains good stuff, but it’s not available at retail and never will be, and is not worth the £150-250 that you’re likely to find it for on popular auction sites.

Cthulhu: Death May Die: Comic Book Extras and Exclusive Julia Investigator

Similarly to the Unspeakable Box, the Comic Book Extras and Julia Investigator are no longer available at retail and I can’t add much detail because I don’t have either. The Comic Book box seems to contain around six investigators who all look quite cool, but more interestingly it includes a graphic novel which I would love to read to expand my immersion into the Cthulhu: Death May Die universe. Julia is similar really, in that she is an extra investigator who has some nice new moves, but I haven’t used her in my games and therefore can’t speak specifically about her.

Wherever you decide to dive in on Cthulhu: Death May Die, there is a ton of content available. With the new core box coming in December (roughly) there are two options to start with, and a lot of ways to expand your experience regardless of your budget. Cthulhu: Death May Die is a fantastic dungeon crawler that can be set up quickly, expanded and varied easily, and is just as thematic and exciting with anything from one to five players.


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