As my blinking cursor eagerly awaits a deep dive into the white void of the page to fill it with my collected thoughts, a reluctant tug at my soul betrays my doubt. Who am I to pierce this mystery? Many have approached its gates in awe only to leave in discouraged befuddlement. This is not like your ordinary game. This game is a hopeless and tangled enigma, echoing with the chattery ravings of psychological squalor. You don’t win this game, you merely survive it. When you lose, it is not the game that beats you, but rather you have defeated yourself.
Within lies depths of horrors beyond horrors, predicaments of anguish, a cosmos of fever-dream hideousness which vies to blacken the vision of those stalwart enough to brave its Stygian depths. As the hours count down, the perils of this game universe become scissors honed to a surgical sharpness snipping away at the recesses of your mind. In the contest of this game, is not your skill that is on trial, but your sanity.
So if you haven’t twigged yet, this game has some heavy atmosphere. And no, I’m not done plagiarizing Lovecraft yet. I’m sitting on his coffin now as I type, matter of fact.
Cultist Simulator is the most original game ever made
Cultist Simulator is on Steam and Gog for around $20 as of this writing, though I swear on Cthulhu’s tentacle that I’ve seen sales. It’s also on mobile, more affordable, for Apple and Android, though I doubt the experience translates well; I recommend it on a full-size screen because of all the text and cards.
Cultist Simulator‘s reputation precedes it by a hound’s pace. On the one hand, the awards it has won could break a trophy rack: “Best Game Design,” “Innovation in Art & Narrative,” “Best Innovation,” including a couple of BAFTAs. Some critics have raved over it, others have been left tepid. On Steam, the reviews are mostly positive, but you have to admit, for once, that the poorer reviews are justified. Yes, the interface is needlessly fiddly sometimes, and the game is as obtuse as Klingon graffiti to figure out, but at this point we can’t tell if those are bugs or features. Real Life is needlessly fiddly and obtuse, too. Be glad there isn’t a bathroom function like in The Sims.
This game is not for everyone. LEAST of all, this is not a good game for people who have to describe games. It’s almost a complete reinvention of the concept of a game. But the people – like me – who get sucked into it will not stop raving about it, so there must be something there, right?
A taste of Cultist Simulator
At its base element, Cultist Simulator is a game where you attempt to rise from a mundane life to a cult leader, set in what appears to be the time period of the early 20th century. Lovecraft references are justified; as your resident Lovecraft expert (the man was a poop), I can tell you that H.P. Lovecraft wrote of cults and conspiracies throughout the body of his work. But the ways you do things in this game aren’t so straightforward. Frequently your actions have more to do with your mental climate than the outside world. You must manage your sanity, wisdom, happiness, health, wealth, and morals in a spiritual game. The way you navigate this universe will nudge you to examine your philosophies.
Here’s an example:
“Despair” is a rat gnawing my bones currently. Circumstances have generated numerous “Dread” cards which feed Despair, and while I hold them at bay, they’re overwhelming me.
I also have “Restlessness.” It’s on a timer and when the timer counts down, it degrades into another Dread card which will feed Despair. Three Dreads and I succumb to defeat.
Fortunately, I have made friends with “Sulochana Amavasya” – could these names be any harder to spell? Sulo is a great asset, because you can use the “Talk” function to have a conversation with her about literally anything. Furthermore, the topic of that conversation enters the dialog box itself, which freezes the timer on it. So I can Talk to Sulo about my Restlessness until my Despair goes away.
Isn’t that cute? The point is, this game is deeply rooted in matters of the spirit and mind. It does a fantastic job of simulating psychological effects. It’s an esoteric game that’s more like making up your own game out of Tarot cards.
The name Cultist Simulator is even a bit misleading. You can play through the whole game without actually leading a cult. You’re also not necessarily simulating being a cultist (one who is in a cult), but simulating founding your own faith and attracting others to your evangel. While simulating this all inside a solitaire card game. Even calling it a “card game” is a stretch; it’s more of a “clock game” with the cards being filler for the slots.
It is those ticking clocks that make this game so suspenseful and entrancing. You will gnaw your fingernails racing a problem counting down with a solution you threw together that is scheduled to complete in just enough fewer seconds. At the same time, this is much more like an Interactive Fiction genre game. God knows, you can make choices that steer the game in dozens of different directions and get dozens more outcomes, which is far more branching paths than your average IF game.
One more thing: This game has no tutorial, and very little documentation. In-game, you have tiny wisps of flavor text and sometimes blunt explanation for general mechanics, but no clear view of what’s going on. The game is deliberately designed to be this way; the splash screen urges you to experiment and figure it out.
Or you can say “nuts to that; I have a deadline,” and head for the butt-saving Wiki. Or pursue a decent quick overview on the /r/weatherfactory subreddit. Trust me, you won’t spoil the game getting some hints up front. There’s still plenty to enjoy here even after you figure out basic mechanics. Although admittedly, some of the payoff in this game is figuring out things yourself and being proud of how clever you were. If you’re one of those kinds of people, don’t let me stop you.
This video is also an excellent beginner tutorial:
Now then, I am far, far, FAAARRR from mastering this game at all. I haven’t won yet. But so far I have some basic tips assembled for those of you completely lost at the threshold of Cultist Simulator‘s murky depths:
Basic Cultist Simulator tips (non-spoilerish):
“Good Timing” is the most important game skill
The “Pause” button is your friend. Use it liberally and the game becomes more of a turn-based strategy. Even though you have to experiment the first few tries, take note of your losses and later you will see the important strategy element of not doing an action willy-nilly. There is no ‘cancel’ or ‘undo’ here. For instance, you don’t want to tie up the “Dream” function if you’re about to receive an affliction or injury, because you need that function open to heal.
Most of the cards count down and either degrade or disappear too, so “use it or lose it” is very much in play. You don’t want to go through a complicated process for something like hiring a minion only to have nothing for them to do and having them expire, wasting your resources. Even though the game requires you to experiment, most of the time as a beginner you’ll end up with a card expiring on the table because you would need to have other resources to use it, and won’t have that opportunity until much later. Don’t panic, anything “easy go” is “easy come again.”
All actions are “free”
This may confuse veteran RPG players, so I thought I’d point this out. You can pause the game, activate Work, Study, and Dream, and unpause it. Now watch all three clocks run concurrently performing all three actions. You don’t have to wait until you “get home from work” before you “study,” assuming you have the resource cards to do both.
Build up your stats!
In the beginning, you do not need to touch any of the cultism stuff. Focus on stacking up your stat cards in the order of: Funds and Health, then Passion and Reason. Funds take care of themselves in the opening of most games.
To gain extra Health:
Study Health twice, get two Vitality cards
Study the two Vitality cards together to get an extra Health and “Skill: a Stronger Physique”
Repeat step 1; this time it will produce “Vitality: a Lesson Learnt”
Repeat step three, now you have another lesson learnt
Study Skill: a Stronger Physique together with the two lessons; you get another Health card and an upgraded skill
You can keep doing this but with three lessons and then four, although by that point it becomes difficult to get all this finished before the first lessons expire, along with the other hassles you have to manage in the game
The pattern is the same for building up Reason and Passion. At the least, you want to get 2 of each, preferably 3 Health, before venturing further with your progress. Health is important, because an illness can strike at any time forcing a loss when you’re barely getting started. Building up all your stat cards also lets you exhaust one Health, Passion, or Reason card without being SOL.
One more tip: The quickest way to regenerate a fatigued Health is to Dream on it (rest up!).
Try alternative sources of income
If you followed the previous tip, you now have two alternative ways to “Work” besides a day job; you can use Health to engage in manual labor, or you can engage your Passion to paint. Both of these have side benefits:
Health labor generates its own source of Vitality, useful to combat illnesses and injuries or to build up more Health
Passion painting produces a stream of “Mystique” which foils any investigators
Painting also calls for a subject, into which you can slot almost any card, which helps if you have a card about to go “poof” and want it preserved, or have a card you want to hide from another damaging effect
You can also do Commissions and auction off items later. In Legacy games (unlocked after finishing any Aspirant play-through), you have the “Bright Young Thing” which gives you a windfall inheritance shortly after starting, and “Physician” which gives you solid, reliable income you can’t lose. The Inspector is not recommended for novices.
Lay low if you’re being investigated
“Weary Detective” is inevitable. He will appear even when you’ve done nothing at all. His primary chow is “Notoriety” and “Mystique” cards. Basically, Notoriety are the only cards he can actually use against you, so when a Detective (or any other random Hunter character) appears, cut out the cult activity until he goes away.
Even when he has enough Notoriety cards to do something, all he will produce at first is “Tentative Evidence” followed by “Damning Evidence.” If he gets through a successful third investigation with a Damning Evidence on the table, you lose.
Evidence will degrade if given enough time to cool down untouched.
Using Passion in Work to produce paintings will generate a stream of Mystique cards. It’s easy to have eight or more Mystique on the table this way, in which case you can produce a Notoriety or two with impunity while the Hunter wastes time consuming the Mystiques.
You can also get rid of the Hunter in other ways later.
Bottom line: Weary Detective is a low-level threat, despite his persistence.
The Temptation cards are really there just to hassle you
The “Temptation” cards are baffling. They appear early on and signify your ambitions. “Exotic Cravings” will pop up periodically, snack on your ambition, and then leave you with a “Restlessness” card which degrades into “Dread,” which is trouble as I mention above. There’s little you can do about this except to manage to produce “Contentment” to head off Dread with the Dream function.
You’re not doing anything wrong, it really is just there to be irksome.
You’ll never get anywhere with just one Principle
Most games get you a “Lore” fragment early on, e.g. “A Watchman’s Secret,” “A Sexton’s Secret,” “An Occult Scrap.” They correspond to one of nine possible Principles which form aspects of belief systems – one of which you pick as the base belief of your cult. Many items and characters will carry Principle aspects as a trait as well. You usually get your first Lore either from Studying your first book, or from other interactions.
You gotta learn your way through the Lore system on your own, chump, it’s half the main point of the game! I’ll say this much: You’ll likely get more than one Lore scrap and end up with a small collection. This is intentional, as different Principles associated with these Lores do different things. In other words, don’t think that just because your Cult has to pick one founding Principle Lore means that you’re shut out of using the other Principles. Collect them all, use them all, it will be necessary.
Make more friends, get more help
Whenever convenient, keep scoping the town and talking about Lores as much as possible. Getting character cards this way are your chief resource in the game. Later on, trying to do something yourself is much more trouble than sending a flunkie through Talk or Explore. Not every character is an automatic cult member, but even casual drop-ins have their purpose. You’re running a cult for a reason, after all!
Remember that your alignment defaults to “Evil”
You’re also apparently at a high “charisma” stat by default, since one conversation with you is all it takes to turn a casual acquaintance into a radical fanatic willing to put their life on the line to do your bidding. Anyway, there are very few “nice guy” ways to finish this game. Most of your options revolve around committing some kind of mayhem. Quit looking for the goody-two-shoes solution to most problems, ‘cuz it ain’t there.
Read the text, use the hints!
The text isn’t all opaque literary references in fluffy flavor text. There’s lots more useful information in there than most players give this game credit for. Also:
Dragging a card will highlight the actions where it can be used
Right-clicking an empty card slot in an action will make the cards that can fit there sparkle briefly
Clicking any card will bring up a dialog with some text, and some icons along the bottom signifying the card’s aspects. Clicking those icons will breed a smaller dialog explaining that aspect.
Clicking a slot in any action will also produce a dialog hinting at what you can do with it.
When you drag a card to a slot in an action that doesn’t work, the card will fall out and a dialog will pop up naming the specific cards that can go there.
Conclusion for now…
Cultist Simulator is, hands down, the most original game I have even played in four decades of gaming. Even though the game has its flaws and annoyances, and need I say again, is NOT for everybody! It is still a staggering achievement in imaginative gameplay. Count on me to be back for an in-depth guide after I’ve whupped it a few times.
This was part 1 of my review / guide to Cultist Simulator. Part two here, part three here.