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Cosmoctopus board game tackles cosmic horror without invoking Lovecraft

Grappling with Lucky Duck’s newest engine builder

A collection of purple miniatures from Cosmoctopus on the table. Photo: Dan Arndt for Polygon

One of the biggest launches at this year’s Gen Con is not the sort of game you’d normally expect to be as celebrated as it is: Cosmoctopus. Designed by Henry Audubon, the creator of the hit board game Parks, it’ll be released widely on Aug. 18. Polygon had a chance to play the game in advance of this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis, and we found it to be a surprisingly cuddly take on cosmic horror.

The game centers around the worship of the titular Cosmoctopus, an eldritch deity from beyond the stars whose tentacles reach through the inky darkness of space to touch those he deems worthy. Each player is a follower of the Great Inky One trying to prove their devotion to him through their works on Earth. You’ll gather cursed artifacts, read the forbidden scriptures, listen to his dark whispers, and study the sky itself in order to make the world ready for his return. The winner is the first follower to pull all eight of his tentacles through the nebula and into our world.

A render of the contents of Cosmoctopus, including plastic, wooden, and cardboard components. Image: Lucky Duck Games

The layout of Cosmoctopus itself is probably the most innovative part of this game. When you’re just learning the rules, you’ll use a simple three-by-three grid to move the Great Inky One around. But after you’ve become familiar with the mechanics, the game suggests more complex shapes, like an X, a circle, or a numeral three. An optional game mode adds in the Cosmic Bridge, two gates that can connect two Inky Realms. This can be used to teleport between two points on the grid. That feature alone has the potential to give this game a lot of replay value.

There’s four kinds of cards to use (scripture, relic, hallucination, and constellation) that each tie into the different resources (ink, coins, whispers, and stars, respectively). You only get cards and resources if the Cosmoctopus wills it (landing on a space to let you draw or select a card). Scripture offers permanent benefits when played, usually as discounts for the cost of cards. Relics give you an effect that kicks in when certain conditions are met, while hallucinations are single-use cards with more powerful effects — and higher costs — than the others. Constellations are unique since they act as a sort of mini side quest of their own as you place the right resources in the right order. But unlike the other cards, these always give you tentacles, and tentacles are how you win.

Constellations and some red cards are how you’ll get most of your tentacles. But if you hoard 13 of a certain resource, you gain forbidden knowledge and a “first contact card,” the former giving you two free tentacles and the latter a special new, totally free power to add to your arsenal. They’re major game changers that people will be working for from square one. The resources are limited in what you can keep between rounds, however, so it takes some planning to pull off.

The Cosmoctopus plush is soft, made of cloth, and has big friendly eyes. Image: Lucky Duck Games

Cosmoctopus is a game that chugs along quite nicely as something lighter than many other engine builders. It lacks some of the variety in those games, though. And the mechanics of the game limit the ability for your engine to be as intricate and complex as those as well. But the trade-off there is a higher degree of accessibility and the customization options mentioned above. And it’s just a blast. I think Lucky Duck is going to have a real hit on its hands, especially if it goes all in on the plushies I’ve been hearing about.

Interestingly, the game has all the trappings of a Lovecraftian horror game, just without the Lovecraft. Yes, you’re in a cult; yes, you’re summoning something with tentacles from far off. There’s plenty of obvious references to the eldritch all spread out, but none are explicitly drawing on the Cthulhu Mythos. In the board game industry, that is refreshing on its own, but doubly so if one is concerned about invoking Lovecraft in this day and age (and I’ll leave it at that). The titular eldritch being is downright cute and cuddly. For a game with the pedigree and depth this does, he kind of sticks out, while also being a bit of an attractant too. I mean, I’d like to be his buddy. Wouldn’t you?

Cosmoctopus was previewed using a pre-release copy provided by Lucky Duck Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.