"This night, upon leaving the old ..."
"... and rumor-ridden brick apartment house ..." So begins the
tale of Horace Phineas Lovejoy, or any other protagonist you wish
to inflect a horror story upon. Dark Cults is a
storytelling game - specifically a horror story. Designed for two
players (though we usually play with more), one side takes the role
of Life, trying to keep Horace alive through story and card play,
while the other is Death, trying to ease Horace's troubled soul
into another realm.
Dark Cults is an ancestor to Once Upon a
Time. The latter game improves on Dark Cults
in some ways, but in other ways Dark Cults can be
the better game.
The game consists of 108 cards and the rules needed to play. The
cards have black-and-white illustrations of various situations and
threats, as well as an identifying letter and a separate group of
letters showing which types of cards may be played next.
The Basic Game
The 15 Pace cards are removed from the deck and shuffled
into their own stack. One player takes the scoring card. Find one
Start card and place it on the table with room for a row of
cards to follow it. The rest of the cards are shuffled and each
player takes one card to start his hand.
Life starts the game by drawing one card and adding it to his hand.
If he can, and if desirable, he plays a card, beginning the story
of the (hopefully) fictional protagonist. This really is a story:
each card has a picture and a phrase at the bottom of the card -
work these into the story. For example, one Atmosphere card says,
"terrifying screams." Not exactly the kind of card that Life wants
to play, but let's say he plays it. He might say, "As Horace left
his apartment building, heading to the convenience store for a
late-night snack, he heard terrifying screams coming from an alley
as he walked by. He looked in, but it was too dark to see anything,
and being a timid soul, he began to run to the convenience store
to phone the police."
But if Death were playing the same card, his story might go, "As
Horace left his apartment building, heading to the convenience
store for a late-night snack, he heard terrifying screams coming
from an alley as he walked by. He charged bravely into the dark
alley, hoping to come to the aid of whoever needed help." This
nicely brings Horace close to whatever danger is lurking in the
alley. Exactly what that danger is, we don't know until the next
card is played!
So the players alternate drawing and playing cards, telling a story
as they do so. Occasionally a player will be unable to play a
card, and must pass: slowly his/her hand builds up. Sometimes they
are forced to play before drawing a card, and if they cannot, must
play a Pace card. When all 15 Pace cards have been played, the
story segment ends. Likewise, the story segment ends with an
End (death) or Save (survive!) card.
There are ten kinds of cards, each with their own letter (or
Each card states which cards may be played after it. For example,
a Start card lists: "A D L T" - only Atmosphere, Danger, Location
or Threat cards may be played directly after a Start card. When
a card lists "E," either E1 or E2 may be played - likewise, C1 or
C2 fulfill a "C" requirement.
- A = Atmosphere (mood-setting cards)
- C1 = evil Character (very deadly)
- C2 = neutral Character (Life's way of calming a difficult situation)
- D = Danger (just like it sounds)
- E1 = End (death of the character!)
- E2 = Escape (temporary reprieve, but he's still outside...)
- L = Location (where Death's minions hang out...)
- S = Save (home safely!)
- Start = (begin a new story segment after an End or Save)
- T = Threat (somewhere between Atmosphere and Danger)
Once a player has a 5-card hand, his next draw is critical: if the
card itself cannot be played, the drawing player takes a 3-point
penalty. You can only rid your hand of unwanted cards when a story
Scoring is done throughout the game, and a running total is kept.
Different cards score different points, usually, depending on if
Life or Death plays it. For example, Life can be daring, hoping
to gain more points, and play a Location card: he gains 3 points.
But if Death plays a Location card, it's only worth 2 points to
him - it's where his minions hang out, you know, so it's not risky
A story segment ends if an End or Save card is played. The
game continues with another Start card, and a new protagonist if
an End card had been played. The game ends when the draw pile is
empty and neither player has a legal play from their hand. Highest
score at that point wins.
Pros and Cons
Dark Cults has a major advantage over its chief rival
in storytelling games, Once Upon a Time (OUAT):
players alternate turns. In OUAT, it's possible for
a player to run away with the game - keep playing cards, one per
sentence, while his/her opponents can do nothing to stop them.
However, the rigidity of requiring specific cards in Dark
Cults means poor luck is easily possible. Once you've got
five cards in your hand, you'll lose points every time you draw
until you get something you can play. It's easy to get Threat
cards - there are 17 of them - or Atmosphere cards (19), but getting
a Save (5) or End (5) isn't so easy.
Oddly enough, I accidentally stumbled on the perfect fix for this.
In the 1980s, I taught storytelling classes. I would occasionally
use the game to give a structure for developing storytelling skills.
Since the game is written for only two players, and my classes were
10-12 students, I simply had them sit in a circle and alternate
sides: Life, Death, Life, Death, etc. Oddly enough, this turned
out to be a better game than the two-player version! The reason
is obvious to me now (you've got more cards per side out there, so
somebody is bound to have one that'll play), but at the time
I thought it wonderful and new.
So now I recommend you play this game with at least four people.
You do need an even number of players, but otherwise I've played
with up to twelve people and we've all thoroughly enjoyed it. We
actually played once with an odd number of players - you simply play
it for the story aspect. (Which we were at the time - it was in a
The Pace cards are a bit lame - they're simply one word, such as
"Meanwhile..." or "Suddenly..." In fact, I think
the designer was aware of it, as I have a set of stick-on cards (O
= Objects) which I got in a newsletter sometime in the 1980s, and
was instructed to paste them over some of the Pace cards. (Objects
can be played after Locations and are worth 2 points to either
side. My thanks to Darrell Pavitt for providing that rule, as I
had cleverly lost the original newsletter!)
The worst disadvantage, it must be admitted, is the scoring system.
It's pretty luck-driven whether you happen to have a high or low
scoring card that can be played at any given moment. There's no
real planning you can do: you can't set up a given card that easily
because your opponent can quite possibly play something in between
that changes everything. So: no long-term planning, not much
control over the amount of points you get - it sounds bad until
you realize that the fun of the game is in the story, not the score.
If you don't like games like that, you probably won't like this
Overall, a fun game, especially with people who like to embellish
a story. If you are playing with gamers who simply want to place
a card down and say, "a dark alley," it's not much fun, and probably
should be avoided. But with the right group of people - and I do
find a group makes a better game than with two players - it can be
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