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Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: Arkham Horror - Cthulhu fhtagn

In his house at R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming...

Have you read Call of Cthulhu?  If not, go ahead.  I'll wait (and, by sheer coincidence, Ruth recently dedicated a post to the Mythos).  Arkham Horror is a board game for 2-8 players (and you'll want as much back-up as possible) set in H.P. Lovecraft's world of mind bending horror.  You take on the role of an investigator as you attempt to close the portals that open between our world and the terrors of the night.  You'll fight monsters and cultists, equip your character, explore other-worldly areas, and try to prevent an elder god from taking over.  

Unlike most board games, Arkham Horror is a cooperative game.  Meaning, the players are all on the same team against the board.  You all win together, or you all lose together.  In my experience, playing Arkham Horror means we all lose together a comfortable majority of the time, but the challenge is what makes this game so enjoyable.  

The Basics.   Arkham Horror is very rules heavy.  It'll take several reads through to get all of the rules right, and expect to refer back to the rules pages your first few times playing the game.  All of the monster movements, attacks, and the like are controlled by player rolls or indications on the board.  Thus, when and where the monsters go, as well as whether and how much they attack for, is out of the players' control for the most part.  

You take the role of an investigator who has been touched by the Mythos in some way.  There are a dozen or so different characters to choose from.  You can select, or pass them out randomly.  My particular group likes the random feel.  You then also select, randomly, an old god that is trying to burst through into Arkham.  Good luck with that.  All of them carry horrible powers that change the game up.  There are no good elder gods.  Every single one of them will make you and your group cry.  Pro tip: get someone else to make the random selection so that you can blame them when a bad one gets picked.

From there, you equip your character.  They get starting supplies, and usually some random additional mundane items, money, or mystical artifacts.  You also get to decide what your character's stats are (from a pre-arranged list on the character sheet).  Hmmm... stats, items, character sheet?  Sounds a lot like roleplaying.  And, it actually recreates that feel. 

Each time you move into a new area, someone draws from a random deck of cards (segregated out by area) and you read the event on that location.  Think of them as random encounters.  Some are good, most are bad.  Some are really bad unless you make your skill check, and then are moderately pleasant.  Getting into the mood and enjoying the RPG aspect of this game is really key.  My group will have someone other than the acting playing read the card.  If it calls for the player to make a choice, the reader will say, "Do you open the rickety cabinet?"  That way, the acting player will have to make the choice without knowing the consequences.

During the game, portals to other worlds start opening up.  R'yleh is just one, but several others show up.  As investigators, its your job to close them.  Too many portals open, and the investigators lose the game.  To close them, the players will often have to travel through them and risk significant loss of sanity before making their way out and closing the portals.

When closing a portal, a player has the option to "seal" it by expending clues, or to just close it.  Sealing it means that no more portals can open at that location.  Closing it means the next time a portal opens there, you start all over at that location.  At the end of each round of actions, a card is revealed that tells you which monsters move and where, the location of the next portal, and any rule changes that screw with you.  Sometimes, they will include onerous additional tasks that keep you from closing portals.

Meanwhile, every time a portal opens, the elder god gets one step closer to breaching into Arkham and destroying everything.  So it's a race against time.   When the elder god enters the game, its pretty much game over. 

So, how do you win?  There are three major ways: (1) seal 6 portals (our usual method of victory); (2) close all portals on the board, and every player has a portal token that he or she has closed (possible, but very difficult); or (3) defeat the elder god in combat after he shows up (lolwut?).

You lose when the elder god emerges and inevitably eats you up.  For some reason, the players seem to be the first thing extra-dimensional beings love to eat.  You can enter combat with the big bad guy (and at that point, its really all you can do), but if you felt overwhelmed before, you will see yourself crushed by the elder.   

This game tends to be extremely difficult to win, especially for new players.  Once you get into the swing of things, a few strategies start to open up and the players can really work as a team.  Even then, there is no guarantee of victory.  It's a difficult endeavor, but did you really think that banishing an incomprehensible creature from a mind-flaying world would be easy?

Components: 2 of 5.  The game pieces are pretty average.  The players are represented by little cardboard pictures that slide into plastic stands.  The monsters are cardboard discs with pictures.  The cards are on good stock, but about half of them are very small, which makes them difficult to shuffle.  The artwork on the monsters and on the outer worlds is decent, but not extremely exciting.  But, what the components lack in impressiveness, they make up with sheer quantity.  Little cardboard dollars, little rings to keep track of stats, clue tokens, health and sanity tokens, monster tokens, world tokens, and on and on.  Be sure to clear a nice big table if you intend to play Arkham Horror. 

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3 of 5.  Since there are only three ways to win, there are relatively few effective strategies.  You can either close gates as fast as possible, try to seal gates when you can, or prepare for the final battle.  The strategy in the game comes from how well you can deal with the bad luck you inevitably receive.  Many cards have ill effects that persist throughout the game (or at least until another bad card with another ill effect replaces it).  Luck plays a strong role, but there are very few "good cards," so really, the luck is about getting the least terrible draw. 

Mechanics: 3 of 5.  Once you have several plays under your belt, the rules become very clear.  The tokens have symbols that inform you of their health and potential sanity cost.  But, the rules are a bear to get through the first time and are generally not intuitive.  Once learned, they have a nice consistency, but expect to keep the rulebook nearby for the first several games.  

Replayability: 2 of 5.  Arkham Horror does tend to be the same game each time.  The portals pop up randomly, and a different elder god will impact the game differently.  But it's the same basic process.  Plus, the lengthy set-up, and the many pieces that have to be brought out and put back are, I've found, a barrier to playing this game more frequently.

Spite:  0 of 5.  Spite is a non-issue in this game.  It's a cooperative game and hurting your fellow players, to the extent its even possible, is to everyone's disadvantage.

Overall:  3 of 5.  Despite its steep learning curve and its samey game play, Arkham Horror still makes it to my table now and again.  It's a great mood piece when we really want a horror game.  It also provides us with a great challenge, and can re-establish friendships that have been broken in a play of Munchkin or Diplomacy earlier in the evening.  It also has a semi-RPG feel so that you can do a little bit of role-playing without committing to a character over the next several months.  And, if you're at all a fan of Lovecraftian literature, I'd recommend picking up Arkham Horror.

You can get it from BoardsandBits here.

You can also get it form FunAgain games here

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  1. Perfect. I've been trying to remember the name of this game for a while. Don't know where I first ran across it, but it was somewhere random and I didn't write it down, bookmark it, or anything. It's something I'd like to play sometime, when I can get a group together. And when I can get the $$.

    I think the cooperate element is one of the things that makes this potentially more fun than board games. I'm not incredibly competitive, but I enjoy slaying stuff w/friends. :)

  2. The cooperative play is a big plus, in my book. Its very refreshing to all get together to take down a bad guy - and even the usual DM gets to take part as a player, which is nice.

    I've been keeping my eye on a similar cooperative game, Pandemic, about stoping a disease outbreak. But, really, people have immune systems to deal with diseases. Only we investigators can stop Cthulhu!

  3. Great review! One note... when you close all gates, the investigators must hold, in total, a number of gate trophies equal to the number of players in order to score a win... each player does not have to have a token.

  4. I would just add that if you are Lovecraft fan, you should add +1 to the final result. Rules are a bit too many and setup time is a drag, but once you get to play in the Lovecraftian world, you'll love it.