Thank you, Highwater Group, for sending us a copy of this game to review!
Delsynyn looked around the public square. The sun was barely up, and already a beggar sat near one wall, shaking his bowl and asking for spare coin. His eyes briefly lingered on the dusky-skinned woman with the red turban and large water jug. She looked up to the rooftop where Delsynyn sat and exchanged his gaze. He offered a slight nod as he continued to scan the crowd. He leaned against the wall as Shaman Gdrytth emerged from a side street. The bald man glanced upward, and Delsynyn offered a nod.
The three disciples needed to exercise caution. Delsynyn had heard from one of his contacts the day before that an agent from a rival cult had just arrived in Tomi, no doubt intent on stopping their efforts to convert the populace to their beliefs. Although discretion was essential to the life of a cultist, some activities required public exposure.
Assured that he would be protected, Shaman Gdrytth stepped onto the raised stage at one end of the public square. With a flourish, he pulled aside his cloak and extended his arm. In his hand rested a large, white block. In his loudest voice he bellowed to those who would hear him. “Behold, the power of Cheeeese!”
Cults and Daggers is a turn-based strategy game with an interesting setting. The game takes place around the Mediterranean Sea, in the time period time period between the death of Buddha and the birth of Christ. The game is divided into seven different phases, called “ages” in the game. The player competes against three opponents, and whoever wins the most ages wins the game.
At the start of the game, the player designs a cult by choosing an icon, coming up with a name (I chose “Cheeeese,” and will refer to that periodically in my review), choosing a “special power,” and the starting disciple. Once this is completed, the game goes to the map overview, which is where the game will spend the majority of the time. Each age lasts approximately 40 turns, or “months.” In the first age, each player will have up to five disciples to control. Each age adds one to this number, so by the final age, each player will have 12 disciples to control. The player can issue various commands to their disciples, including searching the city where they are located, killing enemy disciples, or preaching to the masses in order to get converts to their cults. The player also can indicate to build temples or other activities in the cities where he or she has disciples. The object is to try to generate as much “hope” as possible for your cult. Whichever cult has the most hope at the end of the age wins that age.
In addition to gaining hope through building temples in cities and controlling cities (by having the majority of the populace worship your cult), each cult can gain more hope by gaining faith points (by having worshippers) or occult points (by having your disciples dabble in the occult). Of course, hope points also can be lost by losing cities – either to rival cults or due to war – or because the player didn't sacrifice enough to the gods. If all of the player's disciples are killed, that player also immediately loses all hope points for that age (another disciple will appear out of the hills, though, so the player isn't immediately knocked out of the game).
If that weren't enough, the ages are one of the main keys to the game. The whole reason why the game is divided into seven ages is because, during those times, the “elder gods” have determined that “the stars are right” to destroy the world. Various spots will appear on the map where the elder gods attempt to break through into reality, and disciples need to travel to these locations in attempts to seal the breaches. If the elder gods cause enough damage to “the soul of the world,” then the game ends and all cults lose.
So that's the central focus of the game – you have to win ages, gain hope, spread your faith while trying to restrict or contain the other faiths, and prevent the world from coming to an end. Simple, right?
The game reminds me of a text-heavy variation of the Civilization series. There is quite a bit of strategy involved in playing the game, but also a considerable amount of luck. Every age, each cult receives a special bonus in addition to the special power chosen at the beginning of the age. Sometimes, this bonus can lead to an insurmountable advantage.
For a story of my personal experience, in one of the ages, one of Cheeeese's opponents, Cautopates, gained a power doubling the hope gained from the temples he had built. This meant that the cult gained at least 20 hope every month – in my best month, I gained 16 hope. I figured that the only way of winning that age would be to destroy all of Cautopates' disciples (and, hence, destroy all his hope). One of my disciples had been transformed into some sort of monster after sealing one of the elder god's rifts, which dropped some of his skills to 1, but elevated other skills to insane levels. His killing skill was in the 80s at the time, while the average disciples' killing skill is in the teens or 20s, maybe 30 at best. Whatever my little monstrous assassin touched, died. I sent it into the heart of Cautopates' main city Athens, and had him search for victims. Instead, he finds someone to love him, decides to retire from the cultist business and settle down with a family. I pretty much wrote off that age at that point. Sometimes there's nothing to do when luck is against you.
Speaking of luck, the game uses a random seed to generate names for disciples and elder god quests. It seems that the longer the game goes, the more erratic the seed gets, until names seem to be little more than strings of letters jammed together. For example, my aforementioned monstrous assassin had the name Nrtprtsyl – and that was the name he was given before his transformation. Some of the “elder god” names that popped up included “Eerati” and “Nnnm.”
I really viewed this as a missed opportunity. This could have been an interesting, fun way to learn about mystery cults and pre-Christian faiths. However, aside from the cities and the artwork, there really isn't anything to tie in the feel or the history of the Hellenistic world. The game could have easily been set in modern times, with the players controlling Illuminati groups, in space with aliens battling for control of the galaxy, or a toy store with battles between teddy bears. Cults and Daggers could have been a great educational, edutainment game and piece of historical fiction. Instead, its setting is glossed over in exchange for a complicated, but interesting, ruleset.
The games in Cults and Daggers are extremely long. As it stands, I've put in eight hours so far, and am only halfway through my first game. There are multiplayer options available, but the manual advises to play only a single age because of the length of a full game. Multiplayer games can either take place as a “hotseat” format, or by passing turns between players through e-mail or Dropbox accounts. There isn't a way to play a multiplayer game through Steam or other on-line format. Because of the length of the games, though, only the most determined would be encouraged to play this multiple times. The pacing means the gameplay can get a bit dull after a while.
The music is decent and the sound effects minimal. The graphics are reflective of art styles of the time, consisting of still, black-and-white drawings of people and events. Many of the pictures do depict women's bare breasts, but these aren't shown in a lascivious or pornographic style. There are many scenes of violence and death, but aside from a skeleton that appears over the profile picture of defeated disciples, nothing too gruesome. One graphic oddity occurred when switching between fullscreen mode and windowed mode. In the minimap on the left edge, the city locations suddenly jumped to a spot behind a few other buttons on that side of the screen. It remained that way even after switching back to fullscreen mode. That wasn't the only bug I found in the game – it also is riddled with typos and grammatical errors that make it difficult to take seriously.
As mentioned above, the player can dabble in the occult. In fact, it would be difficult to win if this isn't done. The player can spend occult and faith points in order to cast world-altering “miracles” that give them a significant edge over the competition. While there aren't any specific real-world depictions of occult practices or entities, the game makes no aversions that dabbling in the occult taps into the evil of the elder gods and their attempts to destroy the world. One of the city options that the player can perform is called “blasphemy.” In it, the player's disciples desecrate the temples of other cults and tries to pin the blame on one of the competitors. While an effective way to remove enemies from a city (if successful, all of that cult's disciples in the city are executed), this could certainly be considered morally questionable by today's standards. The player also can bribe city officials to either strengthen or weaken the city's defenses, depending on what the player wants to do. Other moral issues include the use of the word d*mn once or twice (in an appropriate context, unsurprisingly enough) and, of course, the presence of and active worship of non-Christian deities.
All in all, Cults and Daggers in an interesting, but lengthy, strategy game. It had potential, but personally, I think the Civilization games have much more entertainment factor, primarily because of the real-world history found in the Civ series. The requirements of delving into the occult, as well as plotting and committing cold-blooded murder also ahould be factors to consider, especially from a spiritual standpoint, or determining if the game is appropriate for children. Cults and Daggers has a listed price of $29.99, but at that price, more entertaining and interesting options can be found elsewhere.
The beggar! Delsynyn cast his eyes through the crowd. The beggar had disappeared, his tattered cloak laying against one wall. The lookout stood away from the wall, scanning desperately. There! He spotted the man, dressed in dark green. Something gleamed in his left hand as he approached the raised platform. Delsynyn raised his bow.
Eoliphina reached the beggar first. The woman staggered under the apparent weight of her water jug, stumbling right before the green-clad figure. With a smooth, practiced motion, she set the jug down, pulled a small vial from the mouth, and brought it to the man's nose. The assassin staggered, overcome by the fumes. Eoliphina reached around and let the man slouch over her shoulder. She led him away, no doubt murmuring that she was taking her drunk husband home to “sleep it off.”
Delsynyn made his way down to the street. By the time he reached the plaza, there was no sign of Eoliphina and the green-clad beggar. Given her skill, there would be no sign of the man ever again... except for bits and pieces strewn about the city, which would appear over the next few days. She wasn't called “Eoliphina the mad” for nothing. Delsynyn shuddered at the rumors of the abattoir found under Carthage, where she had been stationed previously.
He pushed the thoughts from his mind as he reached the water jug. He lifted the empty jug and walked to the mouth of the alley, where the disguised beggar had sat. He set it down and moved aside the tattered cloak. Three silver coins rested in the man's bowl. Delsynyn scooped up the coins and slipped them into a pouch before kicking the rest into the alley.
A sizable crowd had gathered around Shaman Gdrytth. The elderly man handed out chunks of cheese to eagerly awaiting hands. The air filled with cries of praise to the cheesemakers. Delsynyn smiled – cheesemaking was a sacred art, but by making the product freely available to a starving public, the cult easily won over many hearts. He had heard that another cultist, Magda, would be arriving next month to speak with the nobles. Soon, the city of Tomi would bow before the cult of Cheeeese.
And then, the world!