Cthulhu in the Stacks: Kingsport Festival

The Game

Designers – Andrea Chiarvesio, Gianluca Santopietro
Publisher – Passport Games
Number of Players – 3-5
Ages – 12+
Playing Time – 90 minutes
Mechanics – Cultist Placement, Dice Allocation, Animal Sacrifice

I want everyone to repeat after me — Lovecraftian Eurogame. Let those words roll off your lips and drip onto the floor. Savor them. These words will embrace you. Hold you. Ensnare you. The Cthulhu Mythos is a staple of large, sprawling thematic cooperative games such as Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror. Cthulhu even dipped it’s appendage into the murky depths of word games with Unspeakable Words. It launched aerial combat in Hornet Leader: The Cthulhu Conflict. But Cthulhu rarely makes an appearance in the realm of the Eurogame….until now.  H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport Festival game comes from Italian designers Andrea Chiarvesio (designer of the light dice allocation game Kingsport) and Gianluca Santopietro (Santopietro designed “Letters from Whitechapel” which provides an amazingly immersive experience) and is published by Passport Games. The game is a mashup of a dice allocation, worker placement game along with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian fiction and prose. But does it work?

The full set-up. Watch my table bulge...
The full set-up. Watch my table bulge…

The Rules:

Kingsport Festival is a worker-placement/dice-allocation game where players assume the role of the leaders of dark cults worshipping the Elder Gods\. Each hoping to spread their specific brand of madness to bring about a return of the eldritch beings from beyond. But to succeed, cult leaders need to gather the resources of their sinister craft (Evil, Death and Destruction), gain spells (from the Necronomicon), invoke the gifts of the dark beings they serve, stay relatively sane throughout the process, and fight off these pesky investigators who hope to stop them. While most games of this type have you working cooperatively with several other investigators struggling against unseen evils from beyond time and space; in Kingsport Festival you work competitively against other dark cults to spread the most havoc. In order to do so, you have ancient spells, dark influence in locations around Kingsport, and the gifts of the Elder Gods themselves.

Kingsport Festival is played over 12 rounds. The central board shows the different locations around the town of Kingsport where your cult can gain influence and thus garner certain abilities. But one can’t gain influence randomly. Everyone starts at the same place and then you can sprawl out like the mindless, dimensionless being you are gaining stronger abilities for your influence. Additionally, there are 20 Elder Gods which surround the board. Players can perform secret rituals during the invocation phase in order to gain the blessings from the dark lords they worship. Resources (Death, Destruction and Evil) are placed near the board (for this is the currency of the Elder Gods). Spells from three different ancient tomes are prepared. Sanity and Magic is marked by two different tracks on the board and investigator raids are set up.

Speaking of the raids…during the setup of the game, a Scenario card is drawn which will add a few additional rules and determine when the investigators will raid your cults. For each raid location, one Event Card and one Investigator card is placed face dawn. One Event Card and one Investigator card is drawn for each Raid. A Festival card may also be included that will add an additional way of scoring at the end of the game.

Each round consist of 5 phases:

  1. A Turn Order Phase: At the start of each round, all players roll their dice and total them.  In order from the lowest sum to highest, players will place their markers on the turn order track. Players with the two lowest sums, while not able to summon some of the greater beasts in the next round, will get one or two Sanity points.
  2. An Invocation Phase: Now we invoke the Elder Gods! In turn order, players will take some/all of their dice and place them on the Elder God placard whose number matches the dice. Each can only be summoned once per round, with the exception of Nyarlathotep who can be summoned once per round by each of the players. Placement continues until all dice are placed or all players have passed. You have summoned your Gods! No you just need to wait to reap your rewards!
  3. A Concession Phase: Here are your rewards! Collect the rewards for your dealings with the dark and pay with your sanity. You may also gain the gift of foresight and learn something that may happen at the next raid. Knowledge is power.
  4. An Expansion Phase: Each Cultist may expand their influence by placing a disk on one location. There is a cost, a reward and and effect for each location. But everyone starts at the house and builds influence out from there. Locations have certain levels (1-4) that need to be completed in order. After a level 1 location is acquired, then level 2 locations are open and so on until the most powerful locations are open for influence.
  5. Raid Phase (not every round): Not every turn has a raid but it there is a blue marker on the Calendar, then a raid occurs. An event card is revealed and resolved and then every cultist needs to resolve the encounter with the investigator separately. Determine the cultist’s strength through spells, location influence and other modifiers as needed. If the Cultist is stronger than the investigator then the Cultist receives the rewards. If it is equal, the Cultist does not receive anything. If the Investigator is stronger than the Cultist, then the Cultist suffers a penalty.

This continues for 12 rounds. The Cultist with the most point wins.

With stands, the locations look like tombstones *and* can be read easily.
With stands, the locations look like tombstones *and* can be read easily.

The Review:

Kingsport Festival is very similar to Kingsburg. If you are familiar with the game-play of Kingsburg and like dice-allocation games, then Kingsport Festival will likely scratch that itch. But it is only an improvement on Kingsburg if the theme really speaks to you. If you have Troyes and Eldritch Horror in your game collection, then Kingsport Festival should probably be there too.

The board and art work are amazing. I love the central board and the artwork on the Elder God placards. Space on the board can be a bit tight with higher player counts and having standees for the location tiles is recommended (and I really wish came with the game). The Elder God placards feature some amazing artwork but since there are twenty spread across the board, they take up too much room and they really (really!) need to feature at least the name of the creature on the front. The flavor text is fine on the back but it was frustrating the first few games trying to get immersed in the theme but having to flip over the cards constantly. This may be a middling complaint. Actually, it is a middling complaint but Cthulhu demands theme and immersion and, dammit, we are going to get it. However, seriously the placards are far larger than they have to be to hold, at most, 3 dice.

The Spell cards really make the game for interesting. The Spell cards come in three varieties — some let you collect more resources, some allow you to modify dice rolls, and some let you bolster your defence against investigators. They can be a bit flighty though and often you end up with spells that you can’t or don’t want to use. The flavor text on the cards were a nice touch and appreciated.

This game is the definition of overstaying it’s welcome. The game really tends to drag along. This isn’t simply an issue with the length of the game. I am fine with a two hour game but the pacing of the game is consistent throughout the game and that can get tedious. The only thing that ramps it up slightly are the raids.

The scariest part of this game is the graphic design. I appreciate all the falvor text provided in the game but the design really hampers any immersion in the game. For example, I have very little interest in marginalia in a rulesbook. It is nice to have some bios and supplementary text but when it makes learning the game difficult, it becomes a problem. Once you get the rules down, this issue disappears but it prevents a roadblock for new players. And that typeface used! I have no words for how much that made elements of the game and flavor text, nearly impossible to read.

As I stated before the location tiles are a mess. They need standees so that everyone can read the information on them. Otherwise, locations get crowded, people lose track of where they are and when they need to revisit a location’s ability, they practically have to dig it out. A reference guide would have been wonderful. Why not print this information on the board itself and not bother with the location tiles at all? It only prolonged set-up.

Notice that none of my complaints are about gameplay? The gameplay is smooth, fluid and consistent, almost to a fault. If only it ramped up a tad later in the game to keep players fully engaged.

For a fairly simple game, it certainly takes up a lot of table space. Was my kitchen table big enough? No. How about my large coffee table? Nope. I had to borrow a table large enough to play on…from my parents. It is those blasted Elder God placards. I swear there was another option for them and they feel as if they were solely a vehicle for the art…which is amazing. My only other comment about the components is not necessarily a criticism but something that needs to be commented on for people looking to play for the first time.

Lots of randomness…which is fine. It totally fits. The primary mechanic of the game is rolling and then allocating dice so you will probably expect some randomness. This isn’t a criticism though. The randomness is well balanced out over the expanse of the game and it does reward careful planning and tactical agility. Kingsport does have some Euro bones after all…

Our cult was raided by a drunkard. This says very little about our security.
Our cult was raided by a drunkard. This says very little about our security.

The Rub:

Despite some issues with the pacing and graphic design of the game, Kingsport Festival is a solid dice allocation/worker placement game for those select few that prefer a bit of thematic immersion along with their Eurogame fare. The theme isn’t tightly integrated into the game but it is much more than just pasted one. It has a tendency to wear out it’s welcome by the second half of the game but once players have the gameplay well understood, it moves a bit faster. The additional scenarios and and diversity of investigators provides enough variability to remain interesting. If you are looking for something a bit more strategic than Elder Sign and shorter than Eldritch Horror, give Kingsport Festival a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Ok. I’ll let you in on a secret…I love games where dice are used as workers. You can give me Troyes, Kingsport Festival, Euphoria, alien Frontiers,  or even Waggle Dance and I’m in! If you love dice as workers, then this is an easy buy.

The spell cards are loaded with flavor.
The spell cards are loaded with flavor…and horrible typefaces.

Would you rather?

Play Kingsport Festival or Kingsburg? Kingsport Festival. I just prefer the Cthulhu theme over the medieval theme.

Play Kingsport Festival or Elder Sign? Both have dice. One is cooperative and one is competitive. One takes up an entire table and the other has too many bits and pieces. It is a draw. Elder Sign is a dice chucker while Kingsport is a more of a careful placement of dice so the feel of each game is so different. I guess it comes down to whether you like playing the bad guy or the good guy…

Play Kingsport Festival or Eldritch Horror? If you want a story, go with Eldritch Horror. If you want smooth mechanisms, go with Kingsport Festival. Two completely different beasts here. Although, if I had 2-3 people, I’d play Eldritch. 4-5 people, I’d play Kingsport Festival.

Play Kingsport Festival or Lords of Waterdeep? If we are strictly going on the “loosely themed worker placement” category then I’ll take Lords of Waterdeep any day. It is simply a better, more engaging, satisfying game.

2 thoughts on “Cthulhu in the Stacks: Kingsport Festival

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