Failbetter Games’ founder Alexis Kennedy is no stranger to the power of storytelling when it comes to world building, and was the lead designer behind both Fallen London and Sunless Seas. Since leaving the studio to form Weather Machine, he has had a successful time on Kickstarter, Itch.io, and now Steam, with his latest work Cultist Simulator.
One part tabletop experience, and one part descent into madness; there isn’t anything quite like it, but this is not a game for everybody.
Cultist Simulator operates entirely from a simple table that begins barren. You’ll always start with a job card and the “Work” action. Actions/events are represented by squares that take cards to do something.
As you start performing actions, you’ll discover additional actions and begin to get mysterious cards. Play your cards right, (no pun intended) and you’ll gain the knowledge of otherworldly elements and found a cult to uncover them.
From there, the game challenges you to balance performing actions that will either further your goals or enhance your skills, while dealing with timed events like needing to eat, avoiding insanity, keeping the law off of you, and so on. You have four key resources: Health, Funds, Passion, and Reason. By performing actions to unlock certain cards, you can use them to increase the respective resource.
These resources can be used to move forward in certain events to help you out. However, other events can come up that will either drain one of your resources, or grow worse without the right card to satisfy the event. If those events aren’t treated, you will have one last chance to complete it or you will fail your game.
A lot of the heart of Cultist Simulator comes down to the writing that accompanies each card, action, or event. Everything is written in detail to help your mind imagine what’s going on.
The use of the tabletop aesthetic fits perfectly within the game design present. As you perform certain events or make progress, the table graphics may shift to represent something happening.
What can make Cultist Simulator frustrating is that just like the mysteries of the universe, a lot of how the game operates is hidden under the surface. No doubt you will fail your first game, but the game tries to mix things up with some persistence.
Win or lose, when you are ready to start a new game in Cultist Simulator, you will be given a choice of three intros. Each intro represents a different profession or life that can head down the path of the occult. The big difference is that each intro starts with a different resource, and a different way of earning money and discovering cards.
While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, these legacies can have big impacts on your strategy. The doctor intro gives you a risk free job, but it doesn’t pay as well or give you enhancement aspects for upgrading your stats.
In a sense, the various intros are kind of like choosing a starting condition and rules, but your overall goal remains the same. All these events add up to a game that feels like a choose your own adventure book, but in tabletop form. While Cultist Simulator has unique advantages to it, it has its own share of issues.
Cultist Simulator is a tough nut to crack. The game purposely doesn’t tell you how everything works which leads to a rough start. Many of the advance events will require specific cards or resources on said cards, but will let you put in any card that has a specific resource, but could be the wrong type. The game really needs to only allow actually viable cards to be highlighted, and not any card with the respective resource. There are also various aspects that determine success rates for different events; again, not explained by the game.
The game features so much lore that I almost felt that a section dedicated to the background of the world would be useful. This would also help with having a legend for what the different symbols mean on cards.
Actions like upgrading your followers, completing events, and even the acts of winning and losing the game, aren’t really explained well. The different conditions for advancing the story seem to be dependent on what cult you found and your drive, but the game gives no explanation as to what’s different. This is further compounded by two weaknesses of the aesthetic.
As you begin to explore all the actions available to you, your board will quickly fill with cards that are randomly placed all over. This can lead to cases of you missing resources, or having them stacked on top of one another; with many of them attached to a timer. I think I would like to have the ability to click on a card and have it select or organized all copies of said card. There is also a lot of repetition of performing work and having to insert the same cards over and over again. The game definitely needs one big quality of life pass.
The different events that can pop up can easily overwhelm you with their ticking countdown. What’s worse is that depending on how you have your board organized; it is entirely possible to miss an event popping up before it’s too late to interact.
And that takes me to what could be a big killer of the game for people: The Pacing. Cultist Simulator’s pace seems to ebb and flow between being overwhelmed by multiple actions, or sitting there with the fast forward button on waiting for the next event to move the story forward.
Most actions have a 60 second timer before you can do something else. While fast speed does take it down to about 20 seconds, the dead time easily adds up over the length of a single play.
This also creates a problem of different plays beginning to all feel the same. Since the intros are the only things that dictate starting resources and choices, it leaves you with a lot of time repeating the same actions.
Due to the random nature of events popping up, and the success/failure rate of some, there is a lot of RNG present. Get a bad event while you’re working on something else could lead to lost resources, or even begin a fail state that you can’t recover from.
This reminds me of a problem that happens a lot with rogue-likes. That an action can have good and bad results, but if the player only gets the bad ones, they will be conditioned not to use it.
The game wants you to explore the cards and options that you have to uncover how things work, but at the same time it’s holding a metaphorical gun to your head with timers and fail states all around you.
Case in point: Performing cult-related actions will create notoriety cards on the board. Have notoriety out on the board while an investigation is going on will build up evidence that can eventually lead to you being arrested. There are no ways (at least in the early game) to remove notoriety from the board at any cost. Doing actions to try and get rid of investigators can create more notoriety, and the game doesn’t make it easy to even figure out what said actions are.
I feel that there should be more alternatives for not only progressing, but for dealing with fail states. One suggestion could be having emergency actions that would make you worst over the long run, but will allow you to get by. With game lengths easily in the 20+ hour mark according to the developers, there is way too much to lose for the sake of exploration.
Cultist Simulator is one of the most unique games to be released this year. Like I said in the video, this is definitely not a game for everyone due to the design.
A game like this needs more in terms of choices, events, and actions, to prevent things from growing stale, and they have already promised more DLC in the works. If you’re looking for a story to sink your teeth into for hours on end, then this is the game for you. For people who want to be fighting monsters as much as reading about them, then this is one adventure that you can ignore.