Cultist Simulator is the latest effort from Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan, who you may know from their work on the Fallen London games, as well as the awesome mariner/horror mashup that was Sunless Sea. On the surface it’s little more than is a single-player card game, although calling it a card game would be like calling football a ‘grass game’, in as much as grass is necessary for the game to be played, but certainly not what defines it. That definition is very much in the vein of a Lovecraftian, narrative experience, in which you take a young occult enthusiast on a journey of academic discovery.
At its core, Cultist Simulator is a game of prodding and poking. You have a plethora of cards, all mixed up on a large board which makes up the whole of the playing area. Each of these cards has its own cryptic and often downright nonsensical description. Some of them are abstract concepts such as the notion of power, others represent your charismatic assets, ability to reason or display passion and mystique. Others represent people you know, items you hold or sometimes they can be objects that exist that you really want to get rid of, like damning evidence of your occult leanings. It’s confusing and hard to understand, you never really know what the hell you’re supposed to be doing, but at the same time you can’t help but feel that the answers are out there, somewhere in some elusive combination of cards and actions. It is, I imagine, exactly what it would be like to be a scholar of eldritch lore. Ever confused, slipping further and further away from sanity, but compelled to keep scratching away at the itch, in search of an understanding that will probably kill you long before you ever acquire it.
Considering the heights to which I would eventually take him, my first character’s origins were far from illustrious. I begin as a simple labourer in a hospital, picking up basic work and scraping by on a meagre wage. Pretty soon I become bored of this, and decide to drop the ‘passion’ card into the work slot, as opposed to my usual menial labour card. The slots, which are effectively representations of the various activities my character can engage in, are big, chunky squares with simple drawings on them, making it nice and easy to see what my options are. This diversion from the norm produces something called ‘a painting of the outer mansus’, which satisfyingly pops out and places itself on the playing board. This simple act of tactility begins a game-long obsession with the enigmatic ‘mansus’. What is it? Where is it? Does it even exist in the conventional sense? I needed to know.
I begin to throw various cards into the ‘dream’ slot. One of its main functions is to enable you to deal with sickness and injury by resting. You can even throw money on top of it to purchase medicine and simulate the process of recovery. However, putting certain cards into it may allow you to have profound and even prophetic experiences. In one such scenario I dreamt of the ‘way to the wood’ and acquired the relevant card. It describes a tangled web of vines and trees that surround the walls of the mansus, although it adds that the mansus actually has no walls. I keep throwing it back into the dream slot, hoping to gain access to the fabled mansus. The game tells me I can now walk the woods whenever I want, sometimes even when I don’t want to, but I make no more progress. Still confused, I cave and decide to look up ‘mansus’ on Google. Apparently, it’s a unit of land assessment in medieval France. OK.
Alas, I never did get to learn what the mansus is...or was, as my dark studies soon attract the attentions of one Inspector Wakefield. Foolishly, I push on with my work regardless, even forming a cult of my own, but despite my mounting wealth and increasing influence, I fail at every turn to stop the canny investigator from gathering damning evidence of my crimes against nature. I send several of my followers to assassinate him, hoping that by silencing the inspector I might discourage others from attempting to use something as insignificant as man-made laws to halt my divine vocation. Unfortunately, none of them return and they are presumed dead. When I’m finally called to answer for my crimes, there is no-one left to scapegoat. It is, ironically, the fact that I treated my colleagues as nothing more than expendable pawns that has left me with no more pawns to expend. I’m convicted by a kangaroo court and my game ends. This, I find myself thinking, is exactly what I deserved and I loved every second of my doomed journey through London’s 1920s occult scene.
Despite still being quite far from completion (there are many cards that still do nothing or have incomplete descriptions), Cultist Simulator has a remarkably deep narrative. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has played this duo’s earlier work, given that both Fallen London and Sunless Sea were packed full of awesome lore and bizarre characters. It is currently slated for a Steam release on May 31st, but you can grab the beta version here.