Designed by Kenneth Rahman, with classy art by "Eymoth", Dark Cults - the horror story game is a two-player card game, first released in the USA back in 1983 (long before card games became "collectible"). The ziplock set consists of 108 good-quality cards (print and illustrated in black & white), plus a rules leaflet.
Two players assume the opposing roles of Life and Death. Together they weave the story of an unnamed gentleman in his solitary nocturnal walk around a quaint town. The narrated story unfolds as cards bearing Locations, Characters, Threats and such are revealed upon the table, alternately by both players. The goal of Death is to build a story (that is, a sequence of cards) which culminates in, well, the unfortunate man's demise... in a horrific and usually uncanny way. Life, on the other hand, must provide a way out (perhaps an Escape card...) at possibly the climax, saving the poor soul. This being an obviously Lovecraftian game, Life's work is much harder than Death's... but a complete game requires that two hands be played, with contenders alternating between the roles of these quintessential forces. The player who better does both jobs wins.
The story so woven always starts at the gentleman's house, as he prepares for a walk. What will happen then, not even Fate may tell. Though neither H.P. Lovecraft nor the literary Cthulhu Mythos is explicitly mentioned in any single card, there's no mistaking the sheer oppression and dark card art, done in realistic black ink, and especially the words lining each card -- reminiscent of Lovecraft narratives. Some cards could even be used as visual aides by "Call of Cthulhu" gamemasters. Lovecraft is arguably portrayed as the protagonist gent in a handful of cards, and thus the whole game could be considered a well-thought out tribute. (An example of play in the manual starts thus: "Horace Phineas Lovejoy, age 42, lives at...").
Cards are worth points when brought down on the table. Each card represents a given moment in the story, and the next card must logically (and most important, narratively) follow the last one played. This requires imagination and not a small amount of storytelling flair -- experienced role-players are obviously at an advantage here. The player builds his interpretation based on the guideline words printed below the card illustration, and on the illustration itself.
Letter-coding, print on all cards, makes clear which card types can follow a just-revealed card. For example, a Threat card (T) must necessarily be followed by an Evil Character (C1), a Neutral Character (C2), a Save card (S), or another Threat. So as to not dwell on specific mechanics/exceptions/special rulings, we'll sum it up by saying that this sequence lasts until the Protagonist is either fleeing, returning home, or dead. Gameplay emphasizes narration and story building, with card labels appropriately inspiring. Some revealing examples: "Fiendish tracks" (a Threat), "Slithering mass of revolting black ooze" (a Danger card), "Horrifying screams" (an Atmosphere card), or "A sudden weakness and feeling of fainting end the nocturnal walk" (a Save card). Most likely the Death player will try to place Dangers and Evil Characters on the path of the Protagonist, whereas the Life player will seek to circumvent a tragedy with things like Neutral Characters ("a horror-stricken priest") and Saves.
Points are scored by a player every time he puts a card on the table. The score so obtained varies according to the card and whether the player represents Life or Death -- a Danger card will award more points to the latter, for instance. Many cards award points only to one of the roles, but all types can be played by both contenders. The objective, after all, is to build a convincing story, even if one you'll try to bend to your interests.
All in all, a game preceding Atlas' "Once Upon a Time" by a few years, with a convincing horror theme and a general tone that clearly tries to further the practice of storytelling, even if in a closed setup that for some might prove repetitive with recurring play. Still, I'm always tempted to try to save (or kill) that eccentric gentleman one more time...
Solid idea, great development, lovingly-crafted components. If you see this game lying around (probably in a used-games store, and with such drab packaging it's not very noticeable), pick it up and try it out. If horror role-playing is your fare, I doubt you shall be disappointed.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)