Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 120 – 240mins
Play Time (Goof) 120 – 240mins
Producer/s: Fantasy Flight
Designer/s: Richard Launius & Kevin Wilson
Horror is one of those things I never really understood. Growing up I never thought of Zombies as scary, because they were just cannon fodder in the comics I read. Vampires were cool and I’d often have preferred to be one. Ghosts weren’t scary, I grew up knowing that Casper was a friendly ghost.
In my teenage years I had to pretend to be tough while my friends insisted on watching slasher films. As I reached adulthood (I forget I did that sometimes) I just sort of avoided horror in general. But there was the occasional film or story that drew me back to it. I’d love it a bunch and would try to go on a horror kick, which would quickly dissipate after the next film or two. It took me a few years but I think I finally understand what it is I like in a scary story. The answer is intrigue.
I’m not one for blood and gore. Those things have their place, but if you try to sell me a movie based solely on that I’ll get very bored very quickly (and probably very grossed out). But if you want to weave me a tale of mystery and suspense, if you want to throw me an interesting curve ball or make me eager to learn the next part of the story – I’m as keen as a werewolf is to a group of unsuspecting campers.
This is what I discovered when a friend of mine introduced me to the Cthulhu Mythos a few years back. These tales of ancient beings hidden in dimensions close to ours who were largely apathetic to humanity, but whose mere existence caused tears in the fabric of time and space. Monsters of madness and mayhem. The nature of human sanity and the truth about our existence. I fell in love with HP Lovecraft’s creations. And if you’re looking for a couple of reading recommendations I’d only be too happy to oblige.
Arkham Horror uses HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythology as the world your investigators are trying to save. Arkham, (no, not the Asylum from Batman) is an established city in the books, as are many of the other locations, characters and creatures. But don’t worry if you know nothing about Cthulhu or how you even pronounce such an odd word (you have to sort of cough it out); a lot of the Cthulhu Mythos is about the unknown.
I adore cooperative games. They take a little bit of that nastiness out of gaming. Normally that nastiness doesn’t bother me, but if you’re playing with certain people or if you’re just in the mood to all get along and try to overcome insurmountable odds, then a cooperative hits that nice spot. Having said all that, if I’m going to play a cooperative game then I demand that it be difficult. I’m not going to sit around a table with a group of people and just go through the motions. I want to be challenged. I want to devise strategies and use the limited tools I’ve got to make important decisions. Take a gamble or two and cross my fingers that it pays off. Arkham Horror meets those criteria in spades. It gives you several different Great Old Ones to challenge you, a ton of different ways to lose and continually beats you down until you’re struggling just to survive let alone win.
The game has so many different clever mechanics. I really like the multitude of characters with various abilities and stats. The fact that you can adjust your stats each turn is also something I really enjoy, as it makes you think about what you need to accomplish and whether you’re better off doing that straight away or over multiple turns.
The various common and unique items, along with interesting options such as blessings, curses, retainers, skills and allies make for some really interesting gameplay and feelings throughout the game. As you gain these resources and weapons you feel like you are accomplishing something. You have more ways to fight creatures and there’s a real sense of progression.
The spells however, I take issue with. When the game has Unique items that grant you the same or better magical attacks that spells do, but spells not only cost a sanity but may not work if you fail the casting roll and they just seem like there are too many downsides. Convinced I must have been missing something I attempted to play a couple of games focusing on being the team’s dedicated spellcaster but I just found that it was in absolutely no way optimal. What spells should have been, and indeed what they are in the expansions, is a tool that can be used to open up a lot more options. They should have been about versatility right from the beginning, with a few damaging spells so that a spellcaster was still able to take down the occasional monster or two if they needed to. As it stands in the base game, the spells we start the game with are usually the only ones that see play (with the exception of Find Gate). And the play they see is us using them as items we’re happy to lose over our swords and guns.
The game also gives you an option to take a bank loan. I know this sounds small but I really wanted to talk about this point. I’ve only ever seen this option taken once in the dozens of games we’ve played. Normally I’d be the first to argue that excess rules and concepts in a game is a bad idea. Games should be streamlined in order to encourage gameplay and enhance enjoyment. However this doesn’t detract from the game in any way. At most you read a couple sentences on one of the spaces and can usually decide pretty quickly if you want to do that or not. Instead this option serves to provide the players with variability and world building. In a game about trying to save your world the game needs to feel like a world in more ways than just theme. It makes you feel like you’re in control of your actions. You’ve made a decision out of all the various choices so winning or losing is collectively a part of that. I want to say that this option isn’t a bad one, most of us just don’t see it as a necessary risk.
I love that the game has you manage your sanity as well as your stamina. This means you have two vital resources that you need to manage in order to take down monsters, close gates and survive events. It’s a type of resource management through attrition. And if you ever get kicked too low then it can be a real struggle to get back into the game.
Having said that, every single game I’ve played has involved every player making important contributions. Admittedly we’ve had to sit back sometimes and think about who did what and how it contributed. It’s very easy to feel as though you haven’t contributed to the game when you’ve spent several rounds trying to limp to the hospital or being trapped at a location (did I mention this game is hard?). But by either killing monsters, closing gates, or providing important tools at the right time; there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to contribute.
There are so many random events in this game. It’s likely you could go a few games without seeing too many of the same ones reoccurring. This gives the game so much replayability. As does the amount of investigators and Great Old Ones. Even when you play against the same Great Old One, which each alter the game in some unique way, it doesn’t feel like the same game you played last time.
Pros: +Challenging, +Choices, +Replayability, +Items, skills & allies, +All players contribute
When I started reading stories on the Cthulhu Mythos, one of the most frustrating things I encountered was not knowing which order to read them in. I spent hours scrolling through online trying to make some sort of sense of it all. Eventually, I gave in and just started reading stories that sounded interesting. While the stories I read where mainly standalone, a few interesting themes crossed over and I started to connect the dots. What I couldn’t have realised at the time is how I had become involved in an unintentional roleplay. The stories are written as though they are journal entries or reports. You’re reading through these stories and learning about the world in a similar way as the characters in the stories are learning about it. You search far and wide for the stories, much like they do. It’s an intriguing interaction, and I absolutely adore it.
A few of the concerns I’ve heard leveled at this game is that the events can be somewhat disconnected. I really don’t understand that. While it’s true that not all the events form a coherent narrative that weaves into one another; the books don’t do that either. There are connections that may not be initially clear, or oddities that merely exist in the world due to the Great Old Ones. The game feels very thematic. There’s so much crazy in the world. And as the town becomes slowly aware of what’s happening, people flee and stores close. It makes me think of playing games like Dark Corners of the Earth.
Being able to shift your skills is really interesting thematically. I don’t see it as you getting better or worse at something, but rather that what you’re focusing on is changing. Given that what you’re using to shift your skill is called ‘focus’, I don’t feel like I’m taking too large a leap. Say for example you need to sneak past a witch; well you’ll have to move slower so of course your speed will take a hit. The one that doesn’t seem to fit this as well is your lore or luck. But I’ve heard it philosophised that luck is merely the ability of a person to recognise an opportunity. So maybe you’re either thinking about academia or you’re more observant in the moment? I dunno…I’m going with it.
With all the different locations and flavour in the game, it feels as though you really are exploring the city and uncovering just enough about the intriguing secrets to make a difference. While a few cards really feel like they took the easy way out with very little flavour, that’s definitely the exception and not the rule.
I really dislike the fact you can fight majority of the Great Old Ones if they awaken. This feels like a huge breach in the cannon of the game. They are supposed to be these enormous ancient creatures that if awoken will spell doom to the human race, but we’ve had strategies that involve stocking up on weapons and waking the thing up from its nap in order to smack it down and win the game. That’s just such a huge breach in theme to me. What should have been the case is a very small number of them should have been fightable, but commonly they should have more significant effects while they’re sleeping and immediately punch your mortal ass into oblivion if they wake up.
You know… something bothers me about the end of this game. It feels very anti-climactic. Normally this will involve a roll to close that final gate. But as hard as the game is, you usually know you’re going to win in the next two or three turns. And when you do it’s like “yep. We’re done.” Maybe some kind of storyline script at the beginning and end for each of the Great Old Ones would have helped to tie that in a little nicer.
Pros: ++Flavour, +Theme fits source material, +Skill focus, +World building
Cons: –Fighting GOOs, -Anti-climactic
The artwork on each of the investigators is awesome. It has that real 1920s feel, while each character also feels fresh and unique. So much so that my gaming group enjoys dressing up as the various investigators during a game. The artwork on the Great Old Ones is probably where the design section of this game shines the most. Each look so bizarre in their own unique way
The artwork on the backs of the cards is clear and lends itself to old timey horror. The colour scheme they’ve gone for has that cracked vintage feel. I’m very happy that they decided to go this route, because if the decks had inconsistent art or they’d slapped on a colour scheme without any thought at all, it may have significantly detracted from the feelings this game gives you, and if you’ve noticed a trend in this review so far it would be that everything seems tailor made to work together to elicit those unsettled feelings.
I know I’m normally an advocate for simple rules in games, and that this comment seems out of place in the production section of the review. However, the complexity of this game is not an issue. The game’s complex, sure, but it kind of needs to be and it does so well enough. What’s missing from the core game is a damn reference card. With so many concepts and important things to keep a track of it seems fairly obvious to me that a reference sheet is not only helpful but almost a necessity to keep gameplay fluid.
As much as I love the concept of shifting your skills to what you need for that turn, the fiddly cardboard pieces you use are a nightmare. A slight bump and they go everywhere. Which is frustrating when you have so much to keep track of. There is an overwhelming number of components in this game, which means you’re going to need a large play area. It can be a real pain, causing us to have to drag in smaller coffee tables to hold the event and item decks just to give us enough play area. This also led to the components largely being cheap cardboard pieces, but you always have enough you don’t run out of anything.
The board is quite beautiful. Again, the colour scheme and the layout seems particularly designed to add to the overall feeling of the game. The iconography is easy enough to understand (a reference sheet still would have helped) and the different locations do a really good job of feeling like neighbourhoods such as the docks, industrial area or university district. Every single game we get confused about why Downtown is at the top of the board and Uptown is at the bottom, but I guess they wanted the neighbourhoods in a very particular configuration.
Pros: ++Artwork & colour scheme, ++Beautiful board and unique neighbourhoods, +Synergy, +So many components!
Cons: -Lack of reference sheet, -Required table space, -Component quality & skill sliders
Arkham Horror is my sort of scary. It’s got the intrigue, the weird and the bizarre. It’s really fun, so long as you understand that the game is incredibly unforgiving. Like…brutally unforgiving. Like “hi I’m Cthulhu so the fact you have three stamina makes me laugh” unforgiving.
I give Arkham Horror:
So thank you for investigating this game, which in this metaphor makes me the one who’s writing the story, and probably going insane (well… I think we knew that). Once again HP Lovecraft has brought us together in a strange and wonderful way.
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