Played on Windows.
Also Available on macOS, Linux.
I’m a fan of card games, whether it be Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, deck building like Dominion, or just as a piece in more complicated board games, like Agricola, card games are great. So I approached Cultist Simulator with excitement and hopeful exuberance. Sadly that hope wasn’t going to last.
I don’t mean to foreshadow troubled times, but Cultist Simulator is not a very easy game to approach, and the fact is, it doesn’t take the time to teach the player enough before it throws them in the deep end.
Graphically, I will say the game is rather well designed. It’s easy to see what almost any card is at a distance, and while they could have made the borders of the cards color-coded, it’s up to the player to keep his table in order so he can easily find certain cards.
At a glance though, cards can quickly be identified. Cards based on Health, have a red glow to them, whereas Reason has a cool blue tone to them. Cult rituals are color coded for their types, and much of the game has a vibrant look so players can easily see what’s going on.
Cultist Simulator is played on a table, with the “play area” able to be extended a little over the end of a table. It’s a relatively clean UI that allows the player to see what’s going on. Cultist Simulator becomes clearer once player notice shows minor assistance, like cards glowing and telling players which cards are selectable, and highlighting of the actions that cards can be applied to.
The graphics of Cultist Simulator are acceptable. While the game does rely a little too much on iconography, and perhaps it muddles it too quickly by not differentiating a number of indicators or explaining them, I believe it’s part of the game itself to be confusing. We’ll talk more about that when discussing gameplay.
The story of Cultist Simulator depends on how you start. There are a number of different starting situations, from having to do manual labor, to being a physician, to even being a police inspector. Each of these usually sets up a way to gather funds. Most of these starting cards are thematics, and just a way to earn money with some small story elements around it. The only starting situation that is significantly different is the Police Inspector, in that it allows you to chase cultists, rather than just become one.
These are a couple of the ways to start a new game.
I actually spent a very long time on the inspector capturing cultist after cultist assuming I would have some endgame by taking down the big leader of the cult. Sadly, that was not in the cards. There’s a simple “minor victory” for the inspector, to capture a cultist, but there was no overarching story for the inspector. He could either learn about the mystic arts or just capture criminals, a process I played for almost an hour since it was one of the few parts of the game I could easily understand.
Before long all the starting situations can learn about the mystic arts. This will happen within about five to ten minutes and it really shows that none of these starting points will change the game that much. The only major differences are how much money the player will start with, and potentially this will give a small leg up. The players will all have the same goals and ultimately the game becomes similar no matter the starting situation.
Cultist Simulator really focuses on trying to create a cult, practice unknown arts, and develop followers, and learn about the hidden world. This is all done through the card game, but there’s a great deal of writing in the game to develop the story and world. It’s an interesting experience, but not one that’s deep. While the story can work, it’s really the gameplay that holds back the entire experience.
The main gameplay of Cultist Simulator boils down to two parts. There are “Actions” also known as Verbs, such as “Work” “Dream” and “Study”. There are also “Subjects”, known as Nouns such as “Health”, ”Rituals”, and “Books”.
The game looks easy at the beginning of the game. Don’t worry the board will get more crowded.
The game starts by telling the player to “Explore. Take Risks. You won’t always know what to do next. Keep Experimenting, and you’ll master it.” It’s advice that leaves the player wondering what will come next, and I could imagine how Cultist Simulator could have worked, but ultimately it’s one of the biggest issues I come up with for the game.
Cultist Simulator doesn’t have a tutorial. Full Stop. There are a couple of clever moments in each game, where the game teaches the player how to use the work verb, and then from there, the player will experiment with the study and dream verb in some order. But beyond these initial moves, Cultist Simulator leaves the player in a wide open world without an idea of how to solve the puzzles.
Cultist Simulators has a number of traps or mistakes players will make and the game seems to sit back and let the player dig their own grave. The idea that the game doesn’t just hold the player’s hand and lavish rewards on them is good, but it’s in the discovery phase that I feel Cultist Simulator falls apart.
There was a point where I was able to “Explore” a “Sanitarium”. As I was doing so, I sent my follower in, and then paid a decent sum to enter the adventure, throwing more money at it because the “issues” that came up were not clear. The game talked about needing more funds and needing “Knock or Moth” abilities. I had the right lore cards, but the Explore verb that was constantly ticking down only could take the “funds” or “followers” cards.
I still struggle to find new followers, so I funded the expedition about five times, before realizing that this just extended it. Instead the game intended me to just wait until the funds ran out, I only prolonged the end.
You’ll also need to avoid lose states, like too much dread or fascination.
Of course, this brings up a rather annoying part of the game. Everything in the game is timed. If you want to work with your “health”, you’ll wait 60 seconds, and get 1 or 2 fund cards. There’s a timer on the verb that shows how much time you have to wait. On the other hand, if you start it and suddenly want to change to something else, you’re out of luck. You’re forced to wait the same amount of time and get the reward or penalty.
There are no early exits, there are no fast endings to each action and often tight windows for supplying additional cards (30 seconds). This sounds like you need to make deliberate moves, but quite often I found myself struggling due to the fact the game would require a decent amount of planning for any move.
Are you trying to combine two equal level rituals? Well, you’ll probably need 2-3 cards from a set of Reason, Passion, Glimmering, or Erudition cards. Those Glimmering and Erudition cards only last for 180 seconds once they’re created, which only makes this whole process more frustrating, and because it’s a random choice from the set, you might need 3 glimmerings. Meaning you’ll need to have them ahead of time if you want a good shot at the combination.
There is a pause button, but because everything is a timed system, you’ll be limited to what happens after each time segment, so pausing only allows planning, not execution.
The issue I have is that the planning isn’t the same as understanding. I have explained how that system works, but the planning uses such a strong dose of RNG that I’m not sure if I’m getting unlucky, failing to set up something right, or just doing it wrong.
The bigger problem of the game is that the equal level rite combination is pretty clear. It’s obvious what the game expects of the player, and gives them the opportunity to do so. Many systems in the game feel deliberately obtuse.
It doesn’t help that the board quickly gets filled up. This isn’t even that packed.
Going back to the example of expeditions, I didn’t understand what the expedition needed to pass the test, the answer was followers trained in specific arts. I struggled at that for about 10 minutes, then looked online, finding out what the little icons were on the bottom of the verb. I then wanted to get more followers and struggled with that piece as well, the game doesn’t give a clear way to gather followers. In fact, I would say the game doesn’t give a clear way to do much.
Quite often the game gives you a desire such as gathering more followers but then makes it hard to understand the steps to get there. In one case, it appears that I should be “talking” about the rites but when I had done that previously, I only earned notoriety after multiple attempts. As such, I thought that talking about the arts was not what the game intended me to do. The game taught me the wrong lesson. Similarly, I would send my cultist to kidnap a follower, which is also the wrong choice.
In fact, I’m still not sure that I am right or if the information seen online is correct. Perhaps they got lucky, perhaps I wasn’t using a certain combination at the right time. I honestly don’t know. And that is what frustrates me about Cultist Simulator.
I think about the game Doodle God which also required the player to experiment with elements. In a lot of ways it was similar to Cultist Simulator but without RNG luck it was always clear that what you had done was wrong or if you were making progress.
Cultist Simulator doesn’t have similar feedback. The player is constantly given a chance at certain rewards but Cultist Simulator seems to often give bad results while only hinting at better results.
What’s worse the game will often be unclear with the results. When talking to an acquaintance when you want to convert him into a follower, the game will say “You have begun to establish your cult, it will need a little more before you can recruit followers” and my initial reaction is to continue to talk to them to found the cult. But this is actually untrue. Instead, the game will spawn a different action that will be required to convert the acquaintance.
With all these struggles I found myself having a constant need to look at a wiki or search for these concepts on Google. But I often found people saying that the information found in these concepts were in themselves spoilers. But without the online assistance, I struggled to get any farther in the game.
You can get a number of cards per successful action.
The fact is I gave up on this game after about 6 hours but I felt the need to see more of the game to properly cover it. So in a last ditch effort, to figure out what people liked about the game, I broke a rule. When I’m enjoying a game, I try not to watch other people play a game that I am covering nor do I look at other people’s reviews to avoid possible contamination and to ensure I give my full opinion of the game. I also like to believe that I review the game as it stands not the support of the community around the game
In this case, I looked for tutorials for the game as well as walkthroughs and did a deep dive for anything anyone would say that they were calling spoilers, just to see if I could understand the game. The end result, after about 2 hours of concentrated searching, is that I still don’t understand it.
In addition, I’ve seen a number of reviewers talk about the game, but I also don’t see them claiming to have “won” the game, and it makes me wonder how far reviewers are getting in the game, before concluding it’s a “great” game. Is finding the confusion or frustration enough to call it a “Great” game and then move on to other games that interest them more? The struggle here is real and anyone going beyond the initial concepts probably would talk about the confusion at some later point.
Many early concepts that I do completely grasp are taught but the later concepts, those eluded me at such a rate that I couldn’t continue playing. It takes so long to teach these concepts that I found full tutorials of the game taking in excess of 2 hours. I just don’t know if that’s acceptable to have a game that is so complex that it takes over 2 hours for the main mechanics of it. It’s frustrating because the understanding of the game is such a lengthy process but so filled with frustration that players feel the pull to give up the effort long before understanding is complete.
As many of the concepts that I finally learned were heavy spoilers, I am not sure how it was intended for me to understand the feeling that other people had. On the other hand, I felt that I was just learning recipes to get to the end game. And once I had a full understanding of concepts, it would just be a series of steps to complete the game.
In fact, I wanted to see how the game would be played and wanted to see a walkthrough and found speed runs of the game being played with a world record of about 90 minutes. That’s not very long but watching the walkthroughs as they played the game, I started to realize how little gameplay was involved. It’s mostly adding a few cards together to attempt to get optimal results.
The biggest issue for me comes down to how the game wants to teach itself. I understand the developer’s idea that discovery is the key to the game, and that tutorials might ruin it. I’ll accept, the problem is that the discovery of the game is placed in a massive sandbox, and I think that is the piece that ruins the experience for me.
There are a few pieces of information the game teaches early on, but not many.
There is a game called Desktop Dungeons which has a similar philosophy. Once you fully understand all the pieces and rules of the game, there’s an optimal way to play and the key is to remember all the steps. This is similar to how Nethack and other roguelikes operate. However, Desktop Dungeons teaches the player by taking smaller snippets of the game and offering them to the player as “puzzles”, which when solved allows the player to understand the concept in a controlled environment, as well as test further hypothesis.
Cultist Simulator doesn’t have different modes or puzzles. There is only a handful of starting points for the game and each run headlong into the full gameplay loop before long. There are “minor victories” which can be unlocked in 10 minutes, such as getting a job at a new place of employment or being content with capturing cultists, but these are false flags to make the player feel like they have made progress. The true victories will take hours of concentrated effort, and a deep understanding of the depths of knowledge, whereas the minor victories are the shallowest part of the game. Cultist Simulator has very long and drawn out paths to get a “true victory”.
The problem for me is that they’re paths I still can’t find and stopped caring to find. I wanted to find out how to play the game, I struggled with it, and eventually gave up the hunt. Even when looking for all the information I found myself not that entertained by what Cultist Simulator had to offer. There are interesting ideas in the game and the Action, Subject style of gameplay, but without more than just “Discovery” at its core, I found myself getting more disappointed the longer I played.
I gave up the game three times, each time thinking I needed to return due to reviewing the game, and then after more struggle, gave it up again until I finally was forced to decide that I had played enough. So no, dear reader, I didn’t complete this game, and perhaps that makes me unworthy to judge it, but at the same time, if the barrier to understanding is so high for a game, and yet the game doesn’t find a way to make discovery more appealing to the player, I find it difficult to continue to play it at all.
I give Cultist Simulator a
Oh, Cultist Simulator, I don’t like you and yet I feel I should have. I just don’t know if I failed you, or you failed me, but clearly, we weren’t a match.
Final thoughts: An interesting card game focused on discovery of the rules as part of the game, however without an easy way to explain the rules, players can quickly find themselves stymied by its impenetrable logic.
Stats: 7.7 hours played 9/68 achievements