SACRIFICE YOUR LIFE AND SANITY INCULTIST SIMULATOR
A simple card game opens the depths into diverging cult strategies
“CULTIST SIMULATOR LOVES ENCOURAGING YOU TO STRAY FROM THE PATH, BUT SELDOM LAYS ANY BREAD CRUMBS LEADING YOU BACK”
Time is money. It earns funds and consumes them. More of the former than the latter, if you play your cards right. Cultist Simulator is a digital tabletop game of cards in which the clock is always ticking. Madness and illness, both eventually fatal, are rarely more than a few carelessly spent cycles of time away. Cultist Simulator’s often obscure directions create uncertainty and anxiety while the marching clock forces the player to keep several plates spinning at a time. It deals in just the right amount of anxious energy for its subject matter, but uses too heavy a hand in obscurity.
Cultist Simulator immediately drops the player in front of the digital table with only two items: a token called ‘Work’ and a card named ‘Menial Employment’. Combining the two adds a ten-second countdown to the Work token, after which it produces a Funds card and a Health card: two valuable resources. Another token appears with the name ‘Recall My Dreams’ which runs a 20-second timer without any external input.
Though the Menial Employment card was consumed, a bit of experimentation reveals that Health can be played with Work to produce additional Funds. It takes 60 seconds to produce one Funds card and be returned the Health that was invested. It’s an inefficient solution for staying alive, but the only one immediately available. After the ‘Recall My Dreams’ token finishes running, a third token appears: ‘Time Passes’, which consumes one Funds card every 60 seconds. Without Funds you’ll be dealt Hunger and eventually An Affliction, a difficult fate to return from.
Staying alive and founding a fledgeling cult carries on in the same manner as the opening moments. More tokens unlock as you progress, always in the form of action verbs.
Cards, always nouns representing resources, ideas and people, are combined with the verbs to produce new cards, and so on. Time always passes, guzzling up meagre Funds. Even after recognising a few patterns and reliable ways to earn Funds, you may find yourself dying of random sickness you don’t have enough Health to fight off, or existential dread, which can only be staved off with the scarce Contentment cards.
The struggle to remain barely above the omnipresent threat of poverty and depression highlights a clear division between what Cultist Simulator does well and the thing it does worst. Encouraging you to explore new combinations is its natural talent. When picking up any card, the verbs it can be played with to produce interesting results are highlighted in purple. The ones that will be ineffective are white. The system rewards curiosity with new cards and possibilities.
Cultist Simulator loves encouraging you to stray from the path, but seldom lays any bread crumbs leading you back. The Vitality card, when clicked, gives a clear reminder that ‘Vitality can be used with Study to gain Health’. Other cards give less obvious tips. Many lack guidance at all. Contentment, a key ingredient for neutralising lethal Dread cards, gives only the phrase: ‘I’m happy, I think.’ If you’ve forgotten how you happened upon Contentment in the first place, there’s no clear indication of how more might be produced. Cultist Simulator could benefit from additional guidance to return players to an effective strategy loop without sacrificing the difficulty already inherent in the system.
Cultist Simulator’s subject matter, founding a cult and exploring the mysteries of your own dreams, is dark, but retains a wry levity in its judgement of your actions. The early section of the game can become an uphill battle, as founding a cult takes a back seat to the mundane task of simply remaining alive and healthy, but breaks into an absorbing mid-game full of diverging possibilities – if you have the patience to look up a guide as you play. Although Cultist Simulator could stand to better direct players through the basics, the underlying conceit of paring player input down to nouns and verbs is an approachable system that partners well with the esoteric ideas of cult spirituality.