Coinciding with H.P. Lovecraft's birthday today, we review Necronomicon, a single player trading card game by Games of Cthulhu. If you're astute, then you could probably assume from either the game's title or from the developer's name that this trading card game is one steeped in H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos.
If you know what I mean when I write Cthulhu mythos, skip this paragraph. If you don't, read on. Back in the first half of the 20th century, science fiction/horror writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote a series of stories linked together by a hierarchy of monsters and gods that predate all other religious histories. At the very top of this hierarchy sat, or perhaps more appropriately, swam, Cthulhu, a giant octopus monster sometimes with wings and humanoid limbs. These monster gods seemed forever perched just on the edge of our reality, held at bay by the thinnest barriers of time or space or comprehension. Now, in the Necronomicon, you may harness their prowess to beat your opponent into submission.
You and your computer opponent each start off with a numerical value of health, and in order to win the game you must reduce your opponent's health to zero. There are several ways to do this. The principal method is by playing any number of direct attack cards but you can also taint your opponent that will slowly erode his life away turn by turn, or you can summon a monster to come to your aid. Monsters do not instigate attacks against your opponent, but any time your opponent hits you, the monster automatically hits them in return.
Be mindful, though, as this power comes at a dire cost. You are also assigned a value for sanity and most cards you play come with a cost to your sanity. If you allow your sanity to reach zero then you will become afflicted with any one of a number of mental diseases. Xenophobia prevents you from summoning monsters while agoraphobia allows you to use only two of the cards in your hand.
So take up your cards and prepare to climb up the ranks of the mystical and the terrifying. It may only cost you your mind and your life.
Analysis: Because trading card games attract their own purists, I think it fair to point out that there are a few things that enthusiasts may find missing. For one, there is no way to play other human opponents. Also, the library of cards is not vast and you can't construct your own deck. This could lead to more luck involved than is to the liking of veterans of the genre.
Despite these departures from the genre norm, Necronomicon provides a very well balanced and satisfying experience. Balance is achieved through the modest but suitable card library. Stronger cards tend to come with hefty costs to your sanity and the very strongest also tend to hold further risks for the caster. Meanwhile, weaker cards may be safer to play, but they will provide little respite when your opponent is hammering you for twenty points of damage a pop.
Further strengthening the gameplay is a three color system that affects your damage dealt (red), your defense (green), and finally taint (yellow—the higher your taint, the more damage you receive over time). This opens the door for so many strategic options as you must take into account both your own and your opponent's attributes before taking action. Should you hold onto the Mind Burn card until you can built up your arcane power some more? Should you cast Dispel to knock down your opponent's defense even though he still has an Invulnerable card left to play? Depending on the situation you can find yourself slowly bleeding your opponent dry or hitting him with a veritable blitzkrieg.
The opponent's AI also is fairly well done. It is challenging, and at times it might seem unfairly good, but over the long run what you have is a game that is difficult but not impossible. The one caveat to this is in the final two challenges where you may need a little help discovering the computer's weak spot.
All of this is encased in a very neat, albeit crude, aesthetic package. The lay out is simple, but the artwork on the cards is beautifully done and appropriate for the theme. The sounds, though not ubiquitous are also nearly perfect. The violin sting that precedes a match does a good job of getting the blood pumping and the gurgling noise when someone takes a big hit is visceral and gritty.
Overall, Necronomicon is an excellently executed trading card game. It is darkly beautiful, exceptionally balanced, and chock full of multiple strategies borne from a mixture of your own style and necessity. What it may lack compared to more traditional trading card games is exactly what makes it an excellent casual game that appeals to a much broader audience.