Cultist Simulator is a confusing mess of a game, one that asks you to master an intricate, complex card game with no instructions, no clear victory conditions, and card descriptions that are intentionally obfuscatory. It is, in that respect, a complete and utter success.
The game comes from the warped mind of Alexis Kennedy (who we once interviewed, way back when), best known for creating the similarly deranged Sunless Sea at his old studio Failbetter Games, and now collaborating with his partner Lottie Bevan. The shared DNA with Sunless Sea is clear – the Lovecraftian influences, the roguelike design, the reams of pithily unsettling text – but Cultist Simulator is very much its own creation.
The aim – in as much as there is one – is to set up and run your own cult, recruiting followers, evading investigation by the Suppression Bureau, and dreaming your way to the hidden secrets and powers that underpin this world in the mysterious Mansus of the Hours. This all plays out in the form of a card game in which you combine cards with ‘verb’ tiles – drag your job card onto the work verb to earn funds, or drag a book onto study to unlock its lore. There are six main verbs – work, time, study, dream, explore, and talk – with more that pop up under certain conditions, and much of the game consists of juggling the various timers counting down on each.
As things progress you’ll have to combine cards into more potent combinations to progress, all the while staving off threats both mundane and arcane: investigations into your behaviour, workplace injuries, summoned horrors, and the slow creep of Dread. Cards come with a host of different types, aspects, and levels, some of which can be used on their own, and some only in conjunction with others, and all only with certain specific verbs. It’s a dense system that, seven or eight hours in, I still feel no closer to truly understanding.
“My first game lasted perhaps 20 minutes or so before I died, with absolutely no idea why.”
That’s in part because the game itself tells you next to none of this. You start off with the work verb, a couple of cards, and no instructions. Drag a card onto the verb and the timer starts. That’ll net you some more cards, and a new verb to play with. You might realise that picking a card up highlights which verbs it can fit, and you start to play around. The game slowly unpacks its systems as you go, but explanation and instruction are purposefully minimal.
My first game lasted perhaps 20 minutes or so before I died, with absolutely no idea why. I would later realise I’d allowed my Dread to creep too high, killing me off. On a later playthrough I would suffer the opposite problem: I was killed by Fascination (whatever the hell that is, it’s apparently lethal), and could have survived if only I’d kept a little bit of Dread around to stave it off. Kennedy’s card descriptions hint at these mechanics, but always obscurely: the sort of cryptic hints that only click into place with the benefit of hindsight, long after you’ve lost your mind to some Eldritch horror or another.
Cultist Simulator is a roguelike of sorts, as after each death you have the chance to pick a starting career that carries over to the next game, which can offer both benefits – more income, perhaps – and challenges – it might take longer to unlock certain verbs, limiting your options in the early game. More than this though, the roguelike element is really your own knowledge: what you carry over between each playthrough is a slightly greater understanding of the mechanics of the game and the workings of the world, a little more of an inkling of how to reach the Mansus of the Hours – or just stay alive, and sane, for a few more days.
It’s in this that the genius of Cultist Simulator really clicks maddeningly into place. In a game almost entirely about accruing occult knowledge, the player’s own knowledge is in fact the most crucial resource available. As the game’s frustrating, obscure systems slowly reveal themselves to you, so too does your character’s knowledge of the Mansus grow. Your understanding of the game and your understanding in the game are inextricably entwined.
“Your understanding of the game and your understanding in the game are inextricably entwined.”
This knowledge in turn changes the tone of your interactions as you progress. On your first few rounds, seemingly simple tasks like earning a living and exploring the city seem labyrinthine and obtuse, long before the occult rears its unsettling head. Make it through a few more iterations and those early challenges become routine as you move onto the real business of founding your cult, hunting down adversaries, and dreaming of darker things. But keep playing and even this slips into mundanity – just as your character becomes obsessed with stranger pleasures and deeper knowledge, so you too tire of playing the cards to head into work or manage your cultists, as you begin to lust for rites, and dreams, and the House without walls, esoteric combinations of cards with consequences you can only begin to fathom.
I don’t know if it’s possible to fully comprehend Cultist Simulator, but I know that I don’t want to. I hope that somehow, some way, its deepest secrets remain tantalisingly out of reach, its mechanics obscured by a haze of timers, RNG, and unexpected effects. There are some things that man was not meant to know, and this game is full of them.