Cardboard Children: Arkham Horror

By Robert Florence on October 23rd, 2010 at 1:26 pm.


Hello, youse.

This is the column that will see me looking at Arkham Horror, the board game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. It’s a column I only feel prepared to write after spending a few years with the game. You’ve been asking for it, and I live to serve.

I get asked about Arkham Horror all the time. When someone starts taking an interest in board games, it seems that Arkham Horror is a game that draws their eye more than most. I think I know why. People who like board games are probably a bit more likely to be geeky and into reading books than people who don’t. And many of those people will have read Lovecraft. A board game based on Lovecraft’s work is a very attractive prospect, partly because you ask yourself just how a board game could possibly capture the crawling horror and hopelessness of that world.

When I get asked that question – “Hey, man. How is Arkham Horror?” – I know now what to say. This column is that answer in long form.

Arkham Horror is a game for 1-8 players. Each player takes control of an investigator who is tasked with exploring Arkham, collecting clues, and closing the terrible gates that will call forth a Great Old One. No, wait. Let me go again at this. Each player takes control of a set of statistics, has the job of moving around a board picking up tokens that represent “clues”, and must visit spaces on the board that become important as and when a very mechanical card-based AI system decides. Both of these descriptions are simultaneously accurate.

As you visit locations in Arkham, your investigator will have Lovecraftian encounters, as the great scheme unfolds around you. Some of these encounters will test your investigator’s mettle. No, wait. Let me try that again. As you hit spaces on the board, you will draw cards that will describe loose and disconnected events, written by game designers in a “Lovecraft style”. These will sometimes ask you to consult your set of statistics in order to make a dice roll that will decide your fate. All of this is correct.

As the gates open, terrible creatures emerge from the worlds beyond. These creatures, these eldritch impossibilities, start to crawl and leap and bound around Arkham. Their goal is clear – they will send the investigators to the hospital, or the asylum. Actually, wait. Another go-over. As the game progresses, cards will decide when and where cardboard tokens featuring illustrations of monsters appear. These tokens also feature some statistics. Your set of statistics will battle against these statistics through the process of rolling some dice. Occasionally the dice will show unsatisfactory results, and will move your set of statistics to a space on the board that will increase one of those statistics so your game can continue.

Your investigators will stop the Great Old One from rising from its sleep if they manage to close all the gates, but if they fail in their task, if things in Arkham get out of control, the Great Old One will rise and either destroy the universe or engage the investigators in an almost hopeless final battle. No, actually, hold. One more time. Your set of statistics will share in a victory if you visit the mechanically chosen locations in an efficient manner, and stay lucky with a decent amount of dice rolls. However, if some poor rolls are made and you fail to visit the board’s spaces in an optimal way, you will most likely see out the game with a final bout of dice rolling against a set of statistics that is a far greater set of bastards than your set. And that’s the game. All of this.

I would never recommend Arkham Horror to anybody.

There’s a myth that circulates about this game. It’s a massive fucking lie. People say that “IF YOU LOVE LOVECRAFT, YOU WILL ADORE THIS GAME.” It is a crock of shit. Loving Lovecraft is no indicator of whether or not you’ll like this game. Hell, no. So I wouldn’t even recommend it to a Lovecraft fan. If a new gamer ever asks me for a list of games they might like, Arkham Horror wouldn’t pop up on that list even if that list was so long it could fill a Necronomicon. Is this game recommended? No. Let’s get that straight. Let’s give that its own line in the column, and underline it, and put it in bold.

Is Arkham Horror recommended? No.

So Arkham Horror is a bad game, then. We’ve established that. Right? We’re all on board with that now. Arkham Horror, the game that spawned a million expansions, is a bad game. We’ve nailed that down, right? Wrong. Wrong. Arkham Horror is a gaming treasure, a work of dark genius, a terrible unapproachable unfriendly beautiful bastard of a game. Arkham Horror is quite, quite brilliant, and I’m quite in love with it.

How can all of this be simultaneously true?

WHY BOARD GAMES ARE DIFFERENT

We’re on a PC gaming site here. We’re all guys who play computer games. Board games aren’t computer games, and not only because we play them on a table, and worry about someone spilling a drink on them. We often love board games for different reasons than we love computer games.

Sometimes, you’ll read a review of a computer game that might read something like this:

“I thought this game would be ACE! But, I was bummed (Always knew you were a bum! – Ed) out when I realised that there was no sense of immersion! Immersion means when you’re totally into something, and there was no sense of that! Immersion, I mean! I always felt like I was playing a game, because all that gamey stuff like life points and stuff were all so in your face! And the only thing I want in my face is Megan Fox’s bo**bs, know what I mean lads?! The mechanics of the game were so distracting! Mechanics means, like, the way the game works! (I wish you’d get some work done! – Ed (SNIP! – Senior Ed))”

Board games are different. Sure, while you might love a board game for the sense of immersion it provides, or the way the game lifts off the table and fills the room, you also might love it for how beautiful the mechanics are. It’s like looking inside a clockwork watch. That fascination, as you see how all the pieces fit together, how everything is timed to perfection, how balanced it all is. With a beautiful board game design, you can love it for that craftsmanship you can feel with every turn. Take Scotland Yard, with its beautiful hidden movement system. Or Pandemic, with its clever and thematic “shuffle and place back on TOP” mechanic.

Or Arkham Horror, with its million moving parts coming together to simulate a terrible alien intelligence.

THE GAME KNOWS

That’s what we often say when we play Arkham Horror.

“The Game Knows.”

In our last game, Joanne’s investigator was sent to hospital after an attack by a Gug. Suddenly, monsters who had stubbornly refused to move for the entire game started to head south, gathering outside the hospital gates, blocking Joanne in.

“The Game Knows.”

My character, a private eye, found a unique item. “Hey,” I said, foolishly. “If I take this unique item to the Silver Twilight Lodge, I can complete my plot!” The very next card we picked up told us that a gate was to open on Silver Twilight Lodge. Monsters spilled out.

“The Game Knows.”

The joy, strangely, is not in the theme. It’s not really about that. The joy is in how the game’s mechanics make the theme work. The joy is in seeing the cogs and wheels turning, spitting out monsters, making you believe that there must be some intelligence at work. How can the game know when the game doesn’t know? How have the designers made this game know? How have the designers made us know this game can’t know, but think it does? That’s where the beauty of Arkham Horror lies. That’s what you need to love, before you can love it.

You see, all that stuff I explained earlier, about what’s happening thematically and what’s actually happening mechanically, is the reason why you can’t recommend Arkham Horror to anyone who is new to board games. AH doesn’t deliver theme up front – it delivers heavy mechanics, and then those mechanics start to build the feel of the theme. It’s a weird dynamic. I hated the game when I first played it. I was chugging these pieces around, doing all this administration work for the game AI. Move this here, then put that there, then these monsters move down here, and these monsters move up here… The theme was nowhere. It was all rules and headaches and consulting flowcharts. But now, a long time later, with the rules down pat and the mechanics flowing quickly, I can admire that AI. I can listen to the hum of the engine. I can see how it delivers that Lovecraftian hopelessness not through flavour text on the cards, but through the elaborate tick-tocking of a clockwork terror machine, designed to break you the fuck down.

Some people, though, will never see past the surface of the bookkeeping and will just feel the clumsy clunk-clunking of an overly complex boredom machine. And that is perfectly understandable. Not everyone enjoys geeking out over the inner workings of something. It’s possible that some of these people love Lovecraft, and are looking for some instant horror, but only find the maddening dancing of Chekaroolz, the Mad God of How The Fuck Do You Close A Gate? Believe me, loving Lovecraft has nothing to do with whether this game works for you or not. Arkham Horror is a game for people who love board games. Its a game for people who love how board games work. The Lovecraft stuff comes later, much later, but then it comes hard and comes right. The game is alive, and thinks impossible thoughts.

So, that question…

“Hey, man. How is Arkham Horror?”

My answer?

“Ask it yourself.”

, , .

113 Comments »

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  1. TotalBiscuit says:

    I adore this goddamn game and you should all play it at least once. Good look resisting the urge to play it more than once.

  2. Nullkigan says:

    Never go into the kitchen when Azathoth is the monster of the week. Your desire for a drink will cause the world to end in your absence.

    That’ll be a brain and a dollar, please.

    • Coillscath says:

      Was Azazoth the giant multi-mouthed asteroid? Or the giant purple testicle that made little testicles grow on your face? My first game had the latter. Boy that was fun.

  3. JackShandy says:

    My love for this column continues to unfold it’s leathery tentacles ‘cross the darkened streets of my HEART.

    NOW I understand what the deal with this game is. Sometimes it takes a big new journalism tim rogers stream-of-consciousness splurge to really communicate the essence of a game.

    As a game design student, then, I’m definetly going to get this. Probably best to cut my teeth on a few less crazy board games first, but I’ll be back.

  4. Lack_26 says:

    Yes, but does it feature non-euclidean geometry? Actually, that would be one crazy boardgame.

  5. Gutter says:

    Arkham Horror is the board game where I felt like I was playing a video game the most. And I mean that in the best of ways, but also in the worse… Even without any expansions, you literally need a computer to keep track of everything.

    But there is tension, cooperation and enough to do to be kept entertained while crunching the numbers. And the flavor text is amazingly well written.

    • President Weasel says:

      Twilight Imperium is worse. Not to mention those railway games that always feel like you’re playing some crippled cardboard bastard stepchild of Transport Tycoon. I do agree with you though.

  6. President Weasel says:

    If anyone asked me to recommend columns about board games, this one would definitely be on the list. Even if that list were very, very short.
    As for Arkham, especially with the expansions it’s a little too vast and overcomplicated for me to really enjoy. There’s always the nagging feeling that we could have had more fun playing two simpler games in the same time, or had a good session of Call of Cthulu. My friends enjoy it, and I don’t hate it – it’s certainly very satisfying if you do manage to beat it and save the world from the Eldritch Horror of the Week.

  7. Brumisator says:

    Please forgive my ignorance, does Lovecraft’s arkham have any connection to the one from the Batman universe?

    • Helm says:

      Of course. Comic books took incredible amount of inspiration by their predecessors, pulp fantasy and horror magazines.

    • qrter says:

      On a related note – guess where the Necronomicon comes from?

      It’s fun to start reading Lovecraft’s work after you’ve seen a lot of films, played a lot of games, read comics and other books – you’ll be surprised how much is “borrowed” from/a reference to Lovecraft.

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      Ah, yes, the Necronomicon. When I worked in bookstores, we had many teenagers wanting to buy it so they could open the gates. It seemed cruel to tell them it was a modern cash-in on Lovecraft and therefore doubtful that they would experience the ‘joys’ of communing with the Old Ones .

    • Mad Doc MacRae says:

      Indeed, qrtr. I read a Lovecraft anthology last year and it was awesome. Not only because most of the stories are chock full of creeping horror, but also because sometimes you can see what’s going to happen next. And then you realize that’s only because people have been borrowing techniques from Lovecraft, not the other way around.

  8. Premium User Badge

    c-Row says:

    We play this every now and then, trying to beat every Old One at least once. So far, it’s 2:1 for the investigators.

  9. pkt-zer0 says:

    Board games are different. Sure, while you might love a board game for the sense of immersion it provides, or the way the game lifts off the table and fills the room, you also might love it for how beautiful the mechanics are.

    I kind of agree and disagree at the same time. I like computer games for their mechanics as well, and that’s something they can actually do a lot better than board games, given that they’re not limited by the processing power of a bunch of human brains. Take the awesome Space Hulk, add an Intel 386 with 2MB RAM, and you get the even awesomer UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM).

    On the other hand, these days, PC/console games do seem a lot more focused on the spectacle, and less on the mechanics. And there’s also something impressive about doing a lot with very little, creating an interesting game just with a few simple rules.

    Basically, there should be more games on PC that play like a board game, without needing to screw around with a rulebook and dozens of cards and cardboard tokens and miniatures.

    • JackShandy says:

      I’d say he’s right. The difference that comes when you put in a machine to crunch the numbers and roll the dice is that you can conceal the rules from players. Ultimately, following down that path, you end up with a incredibly-produced artistic game like Ico, which has no indication that anything is run by numbers at all.

      OH OH OH speaking of PC boardgames: have you tried Armageddon Empires? It’s ace.

    • pupsikaso says:

      Armageddon Empires was horrid. You’d spend half of the game’s 20 turns trudging through empty hexes, occasionaly come across one or two with some resources on it, and then you’ll have the AI appear at your base with cards far, far superior than yours and then you lose.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      What Pup said, except: I loved trudging around the wasteland.
      Dying everytime I met the opponent got to be not fun.

      Does anyone know if you can set up a game with *NO* opponet?
      The only threads I ever see on Vic’s site are how to make it harder :(

    • pkt-zer0 says:

      Concealing the mechanics is an entirely separate deal (nor in any way mandatory for computer games). It isn’t necessary to understand the mechanics in their exact details to be able to appreciate the end result (quite the opposite: see Kieron’s Mechanic Spoilers article). Also, the way I read it, “the game knows” part was supposed to express precisely that even if you know all the rules, the workings of the game can still remain a mystery.

      As for Armageddon Empires, haven’t checked it out yet, but this article reminded me of doing so.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      Armageddon Empires is bloody brilliant. Somebody in this thread needs to be set on fire.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      Chance Pup has only played the demo (same as I)
      My experience was similar to his -though in turn I love the game, I am just no good at it.

      I like that the Solium Infernum AI is not as deadly :)

    • Harbour Master says:

      I very rarely fail in a game of Armageddon Empires nowadays although I still haven’t taken on a Cult game yet. That day will come and grown men shall weep. (I am a grown man, I shall weep)

      From the sound of the complaints here, people may not be making a good enough use of recon units to prevent surprises. It takes a few sweeps of the game to really get a grasp of its sweaty balls. Following a good tutorial on the web is recommended though – Bill Harris’ one is pretty much the go-to resource, but I’m thinking about making one myself.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      No, I get that there are better ways to play, it is more that I don’t want to play that way :)
      I just want to explore, have little fights and not suddenly find a great big person who is badder than me in every way.

    • Harbour Master says:

      Ah, T to Tei, I don’t think it’s the game for you then =( AE is designed to making you feel desperate for resources for pretty much most of the game and compel you to find your opponent(s) as quickly as possible so you can see – and thwart – what they’re up to. I love hobbling the AI with hit and run attacks until I’m ready to take on their base.

    • Quirk says:

      @Harbour Master: It took me about five minutes to come to the same conclusion. My first reaction was, “What? How? How can you lose to the Armageddon Empires AI? It’s -terrible-“. It’s generally fairly straightforward to beat the AI even with multiple AIs with high-point decks and higher-resource starts while playing a deliberately nerfed deck with no ubercards in. There are several reasons for this.

      1) Armageddon Empires is a woefully imbalanced game. Some units are hundreds of times better than other units for a resource cost difference that is maybe 3x-4x. This is largely because of the poorly thought out multiple coin-flip mechanic, which produces probabilities of success and failure which severely advantage larger numbers – but Vic appears not to have understood the impact of this when creating them, and so units which would already be ten times better if combat was to the first hit have oodles of hitpoints and sometimes special bonuses. The AI does not abuse these imbalances at all, while a human player easily can. However, this will make the game boringly easy to win. (NB: Solium Infernum is much, much better game-design-wise.)
      2) The AI uses recon very ineffectively. It makes no real attempt to keep track of your movements, at most using recon to try and find your base. Hence you’ll see it move the larger part of its forces out of its base for a little wander when your forces are close by, giving you time and space to sneak right past and wipe it out. This means the AI is not particularly difficult even if you’ve made a deliberately weak deck – as long as you’re using your own recon sensibly. It will send out speculative recon units early on, but if your recon units meet theirs, they won’t send out a force to destroy enemy recon units, and you will…
      3) The AI sends stacks of units lacking recon out for marches on what seem to be exploratory missions, when no clear target has presented itself. This leads to ill-defended bases.

      If the AI is turning up on your doorstep unannounced, you aren’t exploring enough. :)

    • DrGonzo says:

      I’m not sure I understand the point. Boardgames have more obvious game mechanics? Have you ever played Street Fighter? That’s very gamey. Say DOTA or Starcraft, they are incredibly gamey and rely on knowing various stats and that my number will beat your number.

  10. RogB says:

    this new hobby is proving way too expensive for me as a solo gamer. 45 quid seems the average of several picks so far and they never really drop in price. So I’ve found myself looking at cheaper card games.
    Before the inevitable ‘video games are just as expensive’ argument appears, the last bunch of games i’ve bought have been no more than a tenner each.
    To sate the urge I had to buy something like Agricola, Stone age or Puerto rico, I bought Anno 1404 for £6 on amazon instead. (fantastic bargain!).

    • Temple to Tei says:

      Which my pc can’t play (I know I know)
      You are right about the prices, anticipating this column last night I was thinking how many copies would something have to sell to come down to a real mass market price, say like Monopoly City which sells for anything from £12-£20.

      Unlike pc games every copy of a boardgame continues to cost to make and produce. An indie developer does not get the option of dropping old games prices to entice people into their latest.

      Maybe look at some print and play games if you have the capability to print off/make playable.
      I like the pretty bits, so have never been into them and cannot offer any recommendations. I do not even like self-published pen and paper rpgs as I want something in a hardbound shiny book.

      Some low(er) price things that might work for you.

      Catan the card game is good (except low marks on BGG)
      “http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/278/the-settlers-of-catan-card-game”

      San Juan (Card game of Puerto) I like as well (never played puerto)
      “http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/8217/san-juan”

      Race for the Galaxy (you can get lots of replay from this one, and then take it online or download the free program and play yourself)

    • RogB says:

      Damn, have you been peeking into my house? thats a mirror image of what im currently looking at! :)

      I’m currently on a PnP spree so thats keeping me busy at the moment – I do actually enjoy the craft side of it. My most successful effort at the moment is a half scale reproduction of the out-of-print ‘warhammer quest’ that uses counters rather than miniatures.

      I’m looking at SJ and RftG now – starting with downloading the rules and trying to learn it using the PC AI programs that are available. I didnt look too close at Catan as it doesnt look like it could be playable solo and thats a big thing for me.

      If anyone is after a solid solo thrill, Space Hulk:Death Angel is a star (if you can find it). I enjoyed a game last night even though I got annihilated in the last location (7 unblockable stealers either side of the last man? gulp). That was pretty cheap, and is fun even though the dice clearly hates me.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      I can’t buy every game I want so I have to view those in other people’s houses….

      On a different note, with the amount of big box games I have I should be able to throw together enough minatures and counters to have a ‘professional’ looking print and play game. Already when I open up the latest Fantasy Flight shiny box game I find myself re-using counters from other similar games rather punching out the new ones.

      Yep, no solo play in Catan. There are a couple like Galaxy Trucker and Boarding Stations that I would love to try if I had the people.

      I wonder about the difference between Space Hulk and Death Angel- not sure it is big enough to justify a purchase at the moment when I have other things on.

      Gf says I am allowed the table today, so it will be my first try of a solo play of WOW the board game :) WOW the adventure game worked well last week.

  11. qrter says:

    I just have to say, this weekly column has fast become my favourite bit of RPSery.

    I mean, I already knew mr. Florence could write, and I’ve been a longtime fan of Consolevania/VideoGaiden, but I’m blown away each and every week by how well these are written.

    Well done, mr. Florence.

    • Paul B says:

      Agree, before this column started I had no interest in boardgames. Let’s just say that after reading this for a couple of thinks, I’m extremely envious of those who play, and enjoy, them.

    • Paul B says:

      thinks = weeks ;)

    • Chris D says:

      Paul B

      Actually I liked “a couple of thinks” better. Weeks is slightly disappointing in comparison.

    • Mike says:

      I’ve spent 160 euro on boardgames in the last three-four weeks because of this column. It was just the right nudge I needed to get into this hobby.

      So, yeah, whoever of the hivemind had the idea to invite Robert to write was a genius. It really rounds RPS up as a certain kind of gentleman’s club for gamers, without the pretentiousness and other bullshit.

    • Howl says:

      I’m missing the DowntimeTown Videos. He hasn’t done one in forever and they are brilliant.

    • Quine says:

      I’ve just spent a happy weekend getting half my family into Warhammer Invasion due to these non-PC game writeups.

      They’re buying Chaos In The Old World next.

      Keep up the good work Mr Florence.

  12. jackflash says:

    Great review, thanks for writing. Have been on the fence with this one, but bought Battlestar and Ghost Stories on your recommendation, and have had a blast with both.

    I don’t believe you have reviewed Descent – Journeys in the Dark anywhere, yet. Can you? I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth the time and money.

  13. DeepSleeper says:

    I think this is the best article on the site right now. Told me exactly what kind of experience I would be in for, if I picked this up.

  14. Drakkheim says:

    This is my favourite game of solitare ever. (which is a great way to learn it so you can teach your mates and get them up to speed fast)
    There aren’t a lot of board games that let you play single player and living in the boonies, it’s incredibly hard to find anyone to play with for such an extended period.
    Oh yeah Mr. Florence seems to have forgotten to tell you how long the game is.
    I think the shortest game we’ve pulled off was 3 1/2 hrs and that’s after 30 min of getting set up before anyone showed up.

    Love the game, wish I had more time for such marathon sessions though.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      How many investigators do you play in a solo game?
      Heard that the more you play the easier it is.

  15. Jason Lutes says:

    Great article. I owned the original back in 1987, didn’t much care for it, and bought the 2nd edition when it came out in hopes that they’d improved on the stuff I didn’t like. I’m a pretty hardcore boardgamer, but I shelved it after a couple of plays, because it felt like an overly-mechanical tabletop version of whack-a-mole (and exactly as un-Lovecraftian as that sounds). Your article has made me want to pull it out again and try it with my current game group, just in time for Halloween. Maybe I’ll get some enjoyment out of it yet.

  16. malkav11 says:

    I found the original version of Arkham Horror pretty bland and uninteresting. Somehow, when Fantasy Flight got ahold of it, they worked magic. Arkham Horror is simply, unquestioningly my favorite boardgame. It has some drawbacks – the rules take a while to sink in properly, the game takes longer than many people want to spend playing a boardgame, and at this point if you own all the expansions the amount of related stuff becomes massively unwieldy. But it captures pretty much everything I loved about Talisman (weird comparison, maybe, but there it is) and goes a few miles further. Every game of it is different. The interlocking of investigators (with their individualized stats, starting gear, and potent powers), Ancient Ones (who alter basic functions of the game, boost the abilities of certain pet monsters, and oh yeah might come out and eat you), the random results of the encounter decks and the Mythos deck…all this turns into a huge amount of replayability even before the endless parade of expansion content.

    I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the tightest or most immaculate of Fantasy Flight’s games. That might very well be Chaos in the Old World. But I don’t mind it getting a bit messy.

    • Chris D says:

      I see what you mean with the Talisman comparison. They are quite similar concepts in some ways, even down to the expansions with extra boards.

      The problem with Talisman was that it could feel quite aimless at times with not being able to control your moves or have any idea what was under the next card. Arkham, takes the idea but gives you more meaningful choices. None of them good of course. It also adds a ticking clock. And tentacles.

  17. Chris D says:

    I picked this game up a couple of weeks ago. (Curse you, Florence, that’s four now since this column started. I have PC games to think about as well you know.)

    I’ve tried to solo it a few times. Most times it flounders as I realise that I got one of the many rules wrong, or I forgot to move the monsters last turn, or put a gate in the wrong place. Really I should just get over it and play on but it seems that the feeling that the game is now not what it should be is enough to break the spell and I stop.

    It’s also really demanding. It flows better if you control just one investigator but then you draw a card that say “A bunch of monsters show up and if you don’t deal with them right now more will keep showing up until they break out and flood everywhere.” This is hard enough to deal with on your own but all the time more gates are opening and there’s never enough time, or sanity.

    I’ve tried teams of three as well but that becomes really hard work trying to keep track of all of their abilities and equipment as well as planning any kind of strategy.

    But It has been getting better as I become more familiar with the rules and I have actually finished a game. It started out quite well. We were able to seal a gate quite quickly and seemed to be off to a good start. But then a series of events forced us to burn clue tokens to stay alive. One investigator was hemmed in by a couple of particlularly vicious monsters. The best fighter was sucked through a gate that opened on top of him. He got back and closed the gate but didn’t have enough clue tokens to seal it. The following turn another gate opened on top of him again. And then the gates kept opening relentlessly, a new location each time.

    Thats when Nyarlathotep showed up. Two investigators were devoured instantly. The third battled on valiantly to pull of a valiant last ditch effort. It was a heroic final victory. Until I checked the rules and discovered that you need successes equal to the original, not current, number of investigators to wound him. So he never really stood a chance either.

    Still, I claim a moral victory for actually finishing a game and not fluffing the rules too badly. Next time.

    Rab is right. I couldn’t recommend this game to anyone. But I don’t regret buying it. I think I’m going to give it another go now. This time Cthulu. This time!

    • Chris D says:

      Curses! Typo in the last line. I blame the sanity loss. That and it being basically unpronounceable without the correct number of tentacles.

      While I’m here, I’ve linked to this before but I think it’s worth another one.

      Eben Brooks’ Hey There Cthulhu

      Also now I have the Fantasy Flight catalogue I’ve been eyeing up the Call of Cthulhu card game. Can anyone tell me if it’s worth a look?

    • Sunjammer says:

      but it seems that the feeling that the game is now not what it should be is enough to break the spell and I stop.

      I recognize this feeling, and it’s miserable. My first victory against, haha, Yig, came out of misunderstanding the rules. But it’s really a problem only when soloing it or being the only person knowing the rules.

      It’s important that every player knows the rules, and that the first player token is moved between players as it should be. When every player knows his or her understanding of the rules is under “scrutiny” by the other players, it becomes a matter of *play* to play the game correctly.

      It’s a very complex game that results in very complex behavior. It’s a game designed to be a near vertical struggle, where final victory is as much about luck as it is deft play. The complexity of the rules preserves the mystery of the “intelligence” you are fighting, to the end.

      I would recommend AH to anyone who enjoys a tough game and enjoys complexity. You’re lucky if you have enough friends that fit that description to play a proper game of AH, but there you have it.

    • Sunjammer says:

      yay, closing tag not closing. Victory! I have beaten the system!

    • Chris D says:

      Sunjammer

      Alas, I think this one may be a tough sell to my group. Firstly there’s the time commitment. Then I don’t think everyone’s going to be down with the theme. And after that there’s the complexity issue. As I’m the one with the gaming addiction usually it’s my job to explain the rules and keep everyone right.

      I will try to get them to play it though, it will be good for them, probably. I might have to recruit some new friends.

    • pkt-zer0 says:

      @Chris D: Worth a look, at the very least, I’d say. I posted a bit about the CoC card game before here.

    • malkav11 says:

      I’m not wild about the Call of Cthulhu card game. For starters, it seems wildly unthematic. It’s a Lovecraft skin on a game that’s more about flinging monsters and shit into combat than exploration or uncovering forbidden truths, etc. It’s not actually Magic: The Gathering, and has a few interesting ideas, but the other two Fantasy Flight LCGs are much better. Secondly, I may be somewhat biased because it’s the second Lovecraft-based CCG – the predecessor, put together by Chaosium, was called Mythos and was much, much better at both theme and unique gameplay. The goal there is to complete “adventures” by encountering specific places, people, things, events and monsters. Because each turn is a single action and only after a round ends can you redraw cards, there’s a lot of thought put into what you’re doing. Situations get pretty crazy, and while there’s a minor element of combat, it’s not the focus and should be engaged in sparingly because you may well actually -lose- by driving opponents insane, as it ends the game and tallies up points then and there. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the following that Magic and its ilk did, and while a couple of expansions were printed it ultimately failed and has gone out of print.

    • Chris D says:

      Thanks for the replies

      @Malkav

      I remember Mythos, I still have some cards kicking around somewhere. I didn’t get to play it a lot but is seemed like fun. Being swamped by Magic is the sad fate of many CCG’s, quite a few of which have actually been better.

  18. Sunjammer says:

    I love Arkham Horror, in all its pain, so much so I started making custom shit for it a while back to spice up games and give them a personal edge.

    If you haven’t checked out the Strange Aeons tool yet, prepare to be blown away.

  19. Sunjammer says:

    Oh while we’re plugging Lovecraft stuff, check out the HP Lovecraft literary podcast for some of the best insight into *every single lovecraft story written*, by the guys responsible for the excellent black and white Call of Cthulhu silent film. It’s amazing stuff, easily my favorite podcast.

  20. Pod says:

    RAB

    STOP UPDATING HERE

    AND UPDATE YOUR OWN SITE

    PLZ

  21. Thysane says:

    Finally, someone who understands my crazed ravenous obsession with this evil, twisted hell-beast of a game. Sure the rules can be a slight barrier to new players, but once you’ve all got a game or two under your collective belt it all just seems to slot into place.

    As an aside, I should really visit the ol’ RPS a lot more often. I love articles like this, and this column in particular is a neat little addition.

  22. pupsikaso says:

    This man needs to write about games. Or rather, more people writing about games should write like this. The love and dedication to board games permeates every sentence of this article.

  23. TooNu says:

    I had a seriously shite day at work, it was terrible. I need food, so I have my dinner in front of me and I’ve eaten it while I read this and I’m in a much better mood.

    I won’t play that game though, sounds like a monster to learn.

  24. ashoit says:

    “the way the game lifts off the table and fills the room,”

    I think you may be confusing board games with angry, swarming bees.

  25. Barry Wonten says:

    What a nice written article! I love your meta-gaming-take on this game. You’ve really captured the essence of what boardgames as a whole, are to me. Exactly this: The fascination of the bare mechanics.

    Same reason why people buy an expensive mechanical watch, instead of a precise digital watch. The fascination of the machinery!

    It’s like reading something from Eckhart Tolle. It all seems so fresh, yet you’ve known it all along. Thanks for putting everything boardgames are to me, into text! This is deep!

  26. Billzor says:

    Review one of those funny train boardgames, please. I like trains.

  27. tomwaitsfornoman says:

    Morrowind had some crazy non-Euclidian geometry. Always freaked me out a lot more than the stupid Oblivion gates.

  28. Shadram says:

    So Dora the Explorer is a Dark Old One… Explains a lot. How do you fit the miniature back in the box, though?

  29. Chris D says:

    I just broke out the box again and attempted to solo through again with a single investigator. On the first turn I drew the “The stars are right” card. This adds another token to the doom track each turn until you sacrifice an ally. Allies are not easy to come by. It also opened a gate right on top of me, sucking me into another world.

    By the time I get back more gates open, and I spend more time managing the monsters than I do my own character. I get out but don’t have enough clue tokens to seal the gate.

    As I return I am immediately attacked by a Hound of Tindalos, the exocet missile of unnameable horrors man was not meant to know. I fend it off with a bind monster spell, fortunately sanity loss is reduced to zero by an environment card.

    Because of the way the clue tokens have fallen I am able to pick up quite a few in a couple of turns and despite the alarming rate the doom track is advancing I start to think that perhaps there is the slimmest of chances that all is not lost.

    Another gate opens on top of me. At least this time I have enough clue tokens to seal it but “the stars are right” is killing me.

    A lucky encounter gives me a Find Gate spell, which might buy me a precious turn. It is at this point that I draw the “No one can help you now” card. No gates can be sealed while this is in play. The doom track is now on 8. Out of 11.

    At this pointI decide this game really isn’t balanced for a single investigator. Dexter Drake decides there’s no way he can prevent Ithaqua from awakening and buys a train ticket out of Arkham. He keeps riding without looking back till the stars go out and the world is entombed in ice.

    • malkav11 says:

      FWIW, spells -cost- sanity, rather than causing a sanity -loss-. This is an important and semi-confusing distinction that makes the Professor character substantially less potent as a spellcaster than my group initially thought.

    • Chris D says:

      I thought Harvey Walters seemed a bit good at magic. In this case though, it was a planetary alignment card (all spells have a Sanity cost of 0) so at least that part was right. Not that it helped any.

    • Sunjammer says:

      AH really isn’t playable with less than 4 investigators. Like you said, cards like The Stars Are Right just outright fuck you if you don’t have a few dudes with a few assets already.

  30. CoyoteTheClever says:

    I really think Robert Florence should be put on full time staff for RPS. These articles are a real treat, and help expand my breadth of knowledge in a hobby I really don’t know much about. Even if you aren’t interested in playing board games, it is hard to deny that these articles don’t make you want to just a little.

    • Spineless Leap says:

      Completely agree, but I prefer the longer weekend column form to a week peppered with short updates (if that’s what ‘full’ membership means.)

  31. BrettW says:

    I’m torn about Arkham Horror. The mass of rules and tokens makes the bookkeeping the biggest part of your game time. Every character has sanity tokens, stamina tokens, tokens specifying focus, tokens for money, cards for weapons, spells, skills… There are things on the board, off the board, effects that may remain for a long time, some monsters that move fast, some slow, some fly… Goddamn. I just wish there was a laptop/iPad program to help automate all of the bookkeeping, at least on the character side of things.

    But then again, I love the artwork. I love that the money is little cardboard notes. I love how your characters fall over/stand up when incapacitated. The game *feels* great, but it *plays* boringly.

    If someone could port Arkham Horror to Microsoft Surface or something like that, it’d be at least five kinds of awesome. I think you’d appreciate the “AI” of the game a lot more if you could see it flowing rather than the stop-start of “WTF is the rule for red guys again?”

  32. Arglebargle says:

    Enjoying these Cardboard Features a lot. Got me to pick up a copy of Ghost Stories already.

    Very nice to see the Arkham Horror feature here, as I playtested and worked on the original game some those many moons ago. It has obviously changed a bunch, but it obviously still strikes with its own Eldritch cleaver! Have been passing on reccomendations to the local game store as well.

  33. Moth Bones says:

    I’d love to try this, but the chances of anyone I know being into it are less than zero – the odd game of Scrabble is as far as they go.

    All games should have a “No one can help you now” card. In Scrabble it would replace all your tiles with a mixture of Zs and Qs.

    • Temple to Tei says:

      Saw Scrabble Twister today.
      Has things in it like ‘Steal you opponents last score’, so maybe it could be a bridging game
      Unfortunately I am not serious there, there are simply some people who will never get boardgames.

  34. Xagarath says:

    Nitpick, but while Lovecraft was an influential and original writer, he did not invent the fundamental formulae and plot of horror fiction.

    • Kast says:

      No, but he is the archetypal author of weird horror, which is the sub-genre which was pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe and into which Lovecraft’s his works fall.

  35. apa says:

    Thanks for this. I thought I wanted to play or own Arkham Horror but now I realise that I really don’t. I like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Space Hulk and modern RPGs (not D&D fig-based strategy). Running the game engine and handling a million rules at once are not what I want. You just might have saved me a few euros :)

  36. Micah S says:

    I would probably play 2 to 4 investigators if you are playing solo. When my wife and I play we usually play 2 each. It’s not any harder then playing one and it makes closing gates before you are horridly overwhelmed much easier.

  37. Premium User Badge

    jaheira says:

    I didn’t even know about solo board games. RPS is edumacational.

    How would you wise people rate this as a solo experience? Worth buying just for that?

  38. Hastur says:

    Well, I can’t stand Arkham Horror. I guess I’m one of those who just can’t get past the mechanics. The few times I’ve played, the games felt too long, and we were just worn out by the end (in a bad way).

    But I highly recommend another Lovecraft-themed boardgame, Witch of Salem. Still difficult to win, but much more streamlined, and it keeps the theme of close-the-gates-ohmigod-here-they-COME. Do check it out if you get the chance.

    • malkav11 says:

      Ugh. Witch of Salem. It’s certainly much more streamlined, in that it removes everything that makes Arkham even remotely enjoyable.

  39. Hallgrim says:

    Descent is better than Arkham imho. I was never able to see Arkham as anything but a tedious hack-and-slash where 50% of the time you can’t get decent wepons. Descent is made by the same guy, but designed to be hack-n-slash. I’ve played a dozen sessions of vanilla Descent and vastly prefer it. The Road To Legends expac is also worth looking at. I would also consider the Ravenloft game that was reviewed here a few weeks ago… one of the downsides to descent is the need for 1 player to assume the overlord role vs. the rest of the players.

  40. JoeX111 says:

    Now do Android. I’d love to hear what the theme and mechanics of Android did for ‘ya.

  41. Premium User Badge

    Coren says:

    Thank God. I feel much better about myself now.
    I have Arkham Horror sitting on my shelf. I had this “let’s get into board games” rush a while ago, during which I bought a few games that came recommended by the all-knowing Internets. This included Arkham Horror.

    My wife and I enthusiastically removed all the tiny cardboard parts from their frames, we set up the board, took out the manual, and started figuring stuff out. After an hour of two, the enthusiasm was all gone, replaced with frustration and disgust. This wasn’t fun at all, it was just mechanically moving bits of cardboard around in confusing ways. So we packed it all back up and played Ticket to Ride, which is much easier and immediately satisfying, even though it doesn’t have all the pretty graphics and the Lovecraftian theme.

    Since then, we haven’t actually dared to try again, and I’ve been feeling guilty that that 50€ game is just sitting on that shelf there, and that I’m too lazy to learn to play it.
    Turns out it’s not just me.

    So thanks, rab, for taking away some of the weight of this heavy burden. And I do kind of feel like trying it again, now. Maybe I should just play it on my own until I got the basics down.

  42. Tei says:

    Seems theres a boardgame that is strong in the inmersion thing. I don’t know how is called, is about simulating the cold war.

    • Tei says:

      A “Arkham Horror” game with my friends is long. From 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM. Here is the real reason is called HORROR.

    • dogsolitude_uk says:

      Do you mean ‘Diplomacy’?

      That can get really nasty :)

    • Lendemain says:

      @Tei

      I’m fairly sure the game you’re thinking of is Twilight Struggle. Of course, Diplomacy is also great for immersion, as everyone will want to declare war on each other even after the game is over.

  43. dogsolitude_uk says:

    Thank you very much for that review!

    My girlfriend and I were discussing what to do for Halloween, and this looks like a real option now, with a few friends and a bottle or three of Rioja.

    Oh, also, Lovecraft Audio Books are available now too on Amazon. They do Poe as well. Has anyone tried these out?

  44. Barts says:

    Tim Rogers is the reason we can’t have nice things.

  45. Chris K. says:

    I resisted.

    Now I’m more a RPG player than a board gamer (but I have played my time in AH games and Euro games, at cons and at friends houses.)

    Arkham Horror, as with Android (which I’ve also only played once and will only play again under significant protest) is a game with too many mechanics, both feel like multiple board games all mashed together and shellacked with a theme. Both would be significantly improved if some of the mechanical elements were removed to streamline the core (with Arkham, the ever-increasing threat; with Android the noire cyberpunk investigation [dropping the whole “puzzle” mechanic, for example, which definitely felt “glom’d”].)

    I’ve heard Arkham’s better with an experienced person running the game, perhaps I’ll try it at a con. But probably not.

    Take Pandemic (a game with similar “everyone against the rising tide of doom” cooperative play) slap Cthulhu terms over it, and you’d have a much better theme/gameplay match.

    • malkav11 says:

      There is a significantly streamlined version of Arkham Horror – the original 80s version. It’s a dramatically inferior game. The pile upon pile of Arkham’s mechanics is what defines and creates it as an experience.

  46. G-rad says:

    This is pretty much the perfect review of Arkham Horror.

    I love Arkham Horror, but it’s not without its problems, even once you get past the accessibility. The pacing at the beginning is pretty hectic, but the closer you get to winning, the slower it gets (because once you’ve sealed some gates, they don’t open as often), so often the outcome (either winning or heading to the final battle) was known several turns before it happened. Some of the expansions add rules that occasionally break seals, and that helps the late game pacing somewhat.

    The game says it works with (I think) 2-8 players, but it doesn’t scale that well. We found it works best with 4 or 5. With 7 or 8, there ‘s usually someone who has nothing useful to do and so runs to the woods to get beat up by the Sheldon Gang. People run for any clue token just to feel useful, which usually means everyone has 2 or 3 and nobody has enough to seal a gate. The turns also take a little too long. 3 players is (just barely) doable, but you can’t afford to waste any turns. I’ve never tried 2 players, but I think you’re better off with both players controlling 2 characters in that case.

    One complaint I don’t understand is the length; after you get a handle on the rules, the game lasts at most about 3 hours (and usually closer to 2). For us, the 3-hour games usually happened when we played a short (1 to 1.5 hour) game and figured we had enough time to play a second one. The Game Knows, indeed.

  47. XuaXua says:

    Here is what I figured out about Arkham Horror.

    You can take all the Lovecraft theme out of the game system, slap a generic space opera about trying to stop an alien onslaught of various planets and dimensions on top of it, and pass it off as that. Of course, then you wouldn’t appeal to the Lovecraft crowd, but it’d be the same damn game.

    • Chris D says:

      Wait, you’re saying if you change the theme but leave everything else the same you’d have exactly the same game if you don’t count the theme?

      That doesn’t seem entirely unexpected.

  48. Hybrid says:

    So my $50 for this game wasn’t wasted it seems. I finally got around to punching out all the fifty two million pieces about a week ago and still have to set aside time to actually finish reading the rules and start a game, but since I also bought Castle Ravenloft… that might be delayed.

  49. RogB says:

    regarding ‘there should be more boardgame like games on PC’ – has anybody tried this?

    http://www.gamersgate.co.uk/DD-GOG/guardians-of-graxia

  50. Kanneh says:

    I *thought* that sounded curiously familiar.