It’s pretty hard to walk through a game story and not see a game with at least some tangential relation to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Fantasy Flight Games has practically made a cottage industry out of it, releasing no fewer than five game based in the fictional universe, most of which are pretty much variations on the same theme (investigate, find unspeakable horrors, try not to die or go insane). It’s gotten to the point that Smash Up, one of my favorite games, released an expansion only half-jokingly called The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion. Lovecraft’s creation is definitely compelling, but it’s threatening to reach a saturation point where a game based on it will draw rolled eyes rather than excitement.
Which is why A Study in Emerald didn’t draw much interest from me at first. Despite being designed by the renowned Martin Wallace and based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, the idea of Cthulhu being mixed with another property that’s verging on over-saturation — Sherlock Holmes — had me wondering if this would bring anything new to the table. I was unfamiliar with Gaiman’s story, but one of my gamer friends saw this and, as it hit four of his sweet spots, immediately purchased it and insisted we play. A week and two games later, and I think there might be life in the old shambling horror yet.
First of all, Gaiman’s story provides a fantastic setting. The basic premise is that some five hundred years before the game takes place, Cthulhu and his buddies secretly took control of the world. They’ve insinuated themselves into every city in the world, slowly driving mankind insane and feasting upon our terror. Jump ahead to the time of Sherlock, and there are two sides locked in struggle: Professor Moriarty’s Loyalists, who think a little insanity is a small price to pay for all the progress the Elder Gods have brought us, and Holmes’ Restorationists, who would like nothing better than for the gods to hoof it back to whatever horrible corner of the cosmos they came from. And in the game, players are on one of these two sides, trying to either bring about the revolution against their oppressors or kicking off World War I and really making all the quivering monsters happy.
But this isn’t a simple matter of us vs. them. The twist comes in that each player’s allegiance is a secret. Certain actions — assassinating other player’s agents for the Loyalists, assassinating Elder Gods for the Restorationists — can tip off what side you’re on, but you could also be bluffing. You have to be careful not to come down too hard on someone, as they might end up being on your team. Which is important, because when the game ends, the side that has the player with the lowest score is eliminated. So you can’t just race out to a huge lead and win; you’ve got to make sure nobody on your team is in last place. Without really knowing who’s on your team. Paranoia, suspicion and confusion abound. But in a good way.
The game mechanics will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s played a deck-builder or a worker placement game. You can place influence cubes to claim control of cities for victory points, or claim card that go into your deck and let you perform more actions. Meanwhile, your agents are moving around the board, helping you claim cities and cards while knocking off other agents and monsters. There are even ways to turn agents into vampires and unleash zombies on the unsuspecting world. What seems like a crazy melange of elements comes together so elegantly, and offers plenty of strategic depth. And since cubes used to make claims leave the game temporarily until you retrieve them, you have to carefully manage your resources and plan your moves in order to be in a position to do what you want.
What really sets this game apart from some of Fantasy Flight’s more cookie-cutter Cthulhu games is the sense that the odds aren’t against you. Yes, a big theme of Lovecraft’s writing was mankind’s hopeless insignificance in the face of these cosmic horrors. The problem is, too many Cthulhu games want to bring across this sense of hopelessness, which might make the games adhere to the theme, but also makes them not much fun to play, since every card drawn or space landed on seems to be some new permutation of doom to deal with. You don’t play the game, you endure it. With A Study in Emerald, the Cthulhu mythos is the supporting structure for a compelling game, not the sole reason for its existence.