Tao Plays: Cultist Simulator
Repeat after me...
What an interesting game. Not a difficult one to describe really, but hard to pin down exactly what makes it so moreish. Apart from seeing lots of colourful tableaus of cards in screen-shots, I didn't have any idea what to expect going in. It starts mysteriously, with a little introduction for each character that teaches you the principles of the game: drag and drop cards on to action buttons, wait 60 seconds and see what happens.
Each card is filled with a little nugget of story, and this story is really what you're after. The different cards at once represent your cult and your character, with your secret hideout or disciples being dragged and dropped in the same way as memories or attributes. Each card is really pretty, and I found myself having to resist a 'collect them all' mindset. I hoarded cards and resisted playing them for fear I might never see them again. I took way too much pride in their careful arrangement. A fairly sheepish cult leader, then.
The game is upfront about the necessity of taking risks in order to advance, but the price of failure is repetition. Thinking I was playing it safe on my second game, I dedicated myself to making enough money to not have to worry about the costs that my cult expeditions and books were incurring. Smart, I thought. Unfortunately, I settled a little too comfortably into the day-job. I was told I was happy enough scribbling away in my office, and the game ended. Humorous, no doubt, and I hadn't advanced far enough for reassembling my cult to be too frustrating. In hindsight, this ending is clearly meant as a warning to conservative players that their turtling mindset has no place here. Perhaps I should have taken the hint and retired to the office indefinitely, because it had the opposite effect on my play. I doubled down on being careful, determined that I wouldn't be burnt a second time. I think it worked?
As is often the case with tricky games that penalise failure, mystery unravelled into mastery, and I found myself with a sizeable cult and a substantial fortune. My dark table was bursting with underworld bric a brac. The struggle of the early game was over, and yet I still felt compelled to optimise. I read every dusty book and scroll I could lay my hands on, despite having stacks of unused esoteric knowledge, madly watching as the timers ticked down in my study. My cult operated with impunity. My disciples ransacked every castle and monastery they could find efficiently and without risk. The authorities were no match for our guile, and we smothered any small evidence that could be found against us before it could be taken to court. In short, we were prosperous. At this point, 10 hours in, I didn't want the game to end, but neither did I want to continue playing. I was happy with the followers I had gathered, and did not want to risk even another pawn to a painful ritual.
Cultist Simulator captures the mood of its subject so well. I haven't mentioned the quality of its writing, because I was too focused on dragging and dropping rather than reading and reflecting. The truth is I had to force myself to read all of its lovely snippets of flavour text. Each unique disciple has their dark personality conveyed wonderfully through just a few lines. These mini-bios are updated as they become more and more involved with the cult, and I loved reading about their descent into madness.
Despite this, I felt the game itself only had me unearthing the occult as a means to achieve stability. Once I had achieved this, its shine quickly diminished. The maze of cards certainly provide a clever and original way to run a cult, but ultimately this endeavour is undermined by the game's own uncompromising systems. At least, for a cowardly cult leader like me this is what happened. I felt no great desire to delve deeper into its world, even with the great wealth and knowledge I had amassed. I quit the game content as a petty cultist.