Game Review: The Goofy Fun “Chez Cthulhu” Card Game

chez cthulhu card game - box - steve jackson gamesAs if having roommates isn’t enough hassle, now you have to worry about whether Cthulhu is encroaching on your living space. Man, what a hassle. And are the Old Ones going to pay rent and do their share of the chores? In the wacky card game Chez Cthulhu you and up to four of your friends are drinking and harassing each other, I mean, living together, worshiping Cthulhu, and being massive slackers. The most slack slacker wins, dude!

Chez Cthulhu is from Steve Jackson Games, a company with a long history of nutty games going back decades. If you know of the great Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson 80’s trilogy The Illuminatus (and seriously, who doesn’t?) and have played SJ Games most famous title, Munchkin (and, again, who hasn’t?), then you’re prepped for this completely wack and not-really-kid-friendly take-that competitive card game.

As the game proceeds, you play Activities, invite People to come over to visit you, buy Items, and play Whenever cards on everyone else to try and gain the most slack and win the game. Like I said earlier, ya know? Pay attention, please.

The game consists of 101 Life cards (a combination of Activities, People, Things, and Whenever cards), 9 Jobs cards, a bunch of tokens, and a single 6-sided die. Oh, and instructions and a box because it’s hard to have it all in the bottom of your backpack without things getting pretty gnarly pretty quickly!

Here are examples of the four different types of Life cards:

chez cthulhu game review - life cards

Since I know that squinting and reading them is tough, here’s what they say:

Hang Out At Cafe – Activity – Worth 2 Slack – While a Cafe card is in play, there is no cost to play further Cafe cards (though it still takes free time). “Can I just have a glass of bleach?”

Disturbing Plush Toy – Thing – Worth 2 Slack – Gain 1 Madness at the beginning of each turn in which the Disturbing Plush Toy is in your room. “My bed used to be covered with stuffed bears. One by one, they vanished…”

Live-In S.O. – Person – Worth 1 Slack – Whenever you play a Nookie card, you can either roll for Slack as usual or take an automatic Slack of 3 for that card. You may not have more than one Live-In S.O. at a time. “Sweetie, you’ve got to clean the ritual knife before you put it away.”

Mandatory Cult Donation – Whenever – Play on another player. That player’s next income is reduced by 3, though this cannot make it less than zero. “Couldn’t you just take a kidney or something?”

Yeah, you now have a sense of the humor and maturity level of the game. It’s really about those halcyon days of college when you shared a dingy, rundown apartment with more people than the landlord allowed, and argued about whose moldy leftovers were stinking up the fridge. Yeah, I did that too, except for us it was the gallon bottle of Price Club Taco Sauce that consumed a meaningful amount of fridge space for the entire year, without anyone ever consuming any of it!

Scores are tracked with tokens. Purple are madness tokens, red are slack tokens, yellow are negative slack – Dude? Why are you up soooo early? And what’s with the tie? – as shown:

chez cthulhu game review - slack madness tokens

The entire game is heavily inspired by the game Chez Geek, a long-time favorite among college-age gamers who might or might not be under the influence or something or other. Chez Cthulhu adds the whole concept of madness, however. Some activities add madness to your already fragile mental health (I mean, you are playing this game, after all) and if you have just a little bit of madness, it’s not good, that’ll subtract from your slack score and lessen down your chance of winning. Collect a lot of madness, however, and it’ll help you achieve your goal and win! It’s madness, I say!

Everyone starts out with a randomly selected job and five secret Life cards. Here are a couple of those possible jobs:

chez cthulhu card game - sample jobs

I lucked out and scored the job of Sanitarium Guard, which means I have 2 Free Time (e.g., two actions per turn) and a per-turn income of 4 to buy cool Things and pay for any Activities that cost money. My opponent was the Morgue Janitor, with less income, but more free time. Important to notice is that I have more income but my Slack Goal is higher: 20, versus her 18. Neither of us, fortunately, is the Lackey: Lots of dough, but a huge slack goal too. Suckah.

Each turn has five steps: Draw up to 6 cards, Roll the die if needed (some jobs have variable income, some activities change per turn), Call People to invite them to your pad, Spend Free Time, and Discard down to five (or further if your cards stink).

Here’s my starting hand, a decent mix of stuff:

chez cthulhu card game - starting hand

You can buy as many things as you can afford during your Free Time (any unused income vanishes, there’s no round-to-round accumulation, so why not spend it?) and each Activity counts as a single Free Time move. As the Sanitarium Guard remember that I have Income 4 and Free Time 2. Cool, I spend my money and do other stuff.

After a while, I’m doing pretty well with my Live-In S.O. (woo!), Hang Out at Cafe, Computer Games, and even some Unsanitary Tentacles. All told, I’ve got 5 slack points towards my twenty. (well, six, because my SO is worth another one, but it snuck out of the below photo for some inexplicable and undoubtedly evil reason)

All good? Nope. My opponent plays Unspeakable Manifestation against me, which removes all people from my pad – ciao bella! – and gives me 1 madness point:

chez cthulhu card game - unspeakable manifestation

Well, Okay. Good news, though, because I have the Re-Animation card and play that immediately! Ha!

chez cthulhu card game - reanimation

That lets me recover my long-suffering Live-in S.O. from the discard pile (what an ignominious fate!) and bring her back to my pad. Sweet.

A bit further along and I’m doing really well, way better than my Morgue Janitor opponent:

chez cthulhu card game - full game on table two players

As you can see, each player needs space to track all their played cards, there’s the Life deck, discards, all the tokens off to a side, and an undisclosed beverage almost completely off camera. ‘nuf said about that, my friends!

A bit closer on the cards I’ve played at this point:

chez cthulhu card game - points

Just so you can see what’s what, in the above photo I have played two Things, five Activities, and have one Person in my pad. That’s given me a total of 12 slack, with 2 madness points, MADNESS POINTS, I SAY! MAAAAAADDDDNNNEEESSSS PPOOOIINNNTTSSS!!!!!!!!

sorry, I’m back. all is well.

I’m doing pretty well, that’s 12 towards my goal of 20. Do I win? Does it matter?

Seriously, a game like Chez Cthulhu is all about the playing, just like all of the gazillion Munchkin variants on the market. If you’re playing to win you’re doing it wrong, dude!

And so, at the end of the game, is this actually fun? Yes, you need to be with the right group and everyone needs to be in the right frame of mind (possibly inebriated or otherwise in a state of profound relaxation) but it’s pretty hilarious and a solid option to play at the local pub or bar. The biggest gripe I have is that there’s no good way to track income. Yeah, I know, it only lasts until your turn is over but as the game gets more complex, it’s a bit confusing to know what you’ve paid and what you have left. That’s right, 4-2 = um, uh, are you keeping track? I forgot!

There are a lot of these sort of lightweight, fun, silly bar games but if you like the Cthulu mythos, this is Chez Geek with a fun extra aspect. If you don’t like Cthulhu, well, then get Chez Geek and enjoy that instead. They’re both good fun, and doubly so if you can stop being so obsessed with your ten-move-ahead strategy and just have a good time with your pals.

Chez Cthulhu, from Steve Jackson Games. Artwork by John Kovalic. $10-$20 at eBay.com, if you can find it. Good luck, it appears to be out of print. Such a downer.

Disclosure: Steve Jackson Games sent me a copy of Chez Cthulhu for the purpose of this review. Sweet.

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