Dark Cults

Board game review

gaming settings

Dark Cults by Kenneth Rahman was published by Dark House in 1983. It contained 108 cards, came in a plastic ziplock bag, and even got an extension pack later on. It's my all-time favourite game, not just for its clever mechanics but for its atmosphere and interactive creativity.

At the start of the game, you find you cannot sleep. Something beckons you from the comfort of your home, out into the night.

That's how it begins. You draw a card from the deck, and then narrate what your character sees and does in reaction to the subject of the card. Most cards are eerie or creepy but not directly dangerous. There are some cards that are clear threats, though. There are a couple of mechanics that provide possible escapes for your character, some that just get you by the threat and others that send you back home in fear ("A sudden feeling of weakness ends your nocturnal stroll").

In a multiplayer game, one player tries to keep the character alive, while the other player tries to kill the character. You each play, literally, as Life and Death, respectively. I've only ever played the solo variant of the game, and I love the solo variant so much that I've never really bothered playing the multiplayer version even when I'm playing with a friend.

There's no wrong way to play Dark Cults, I guess, because it's just so much fun. I can spend an afternoon just flipping through the cards, taking a moment with each to lose myself in the location it describes. The cards are simple, but evocative. You visit places like "The forboding cemetary", "The dreaded glade", "Overgrown gardens". You encounter things like a "Mournful train whistle", "Dreary cold rain", "Sky of haunting stars". And worse. You might encounter "A ghoulish cannibal" or "Possession", but it's up to you to decide what the threat actually is. Is the cannibal trying to eat you or are you witnessing cannibalism as you're affected by the horror of what you're seeing? Is some force attempting to possess you, or someone or something else? Or are you just thinking about possession because of something you read the previous day while researching an ancient culture?

In the solo mode of the game, the assortment of sub-decks influence the frequency of direct threats, and your chances for escape. It's a push-your-luck game, in a sense, because at any moment you can choose to go home. But the farther you go, the more you see, the more XP you earn. But the more you see, the more fragile you become, as your grip on reality and sanity slowly get forced away, maybe by the horrors you face, or maybe just by how you interpret everything around you.

Dark Cults can be your own journey through darkness, or it can be comedy horror, or whatever you make it. It is slanted toward the eerie and unsettling, so it's probably not for everyone. It would be easy to do a "remix" of the game using different prompts, and I did start that at one point but art is difficult to source and eventually I gave up on the idea. In honour of the original game, however, and because it's long out of print with little hope of being resurrected, I've recreated it and released my versions of the assets for free. My version uses Creative Commons art, so only the card text, the rules, and the card backs are used directly from the original.

Photo by Riho Kroll using the Unsplash License.

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