Given how much time I spend staring at screens it’s nice to step away occasionally and venture back into the world of boardgames. They’ve become a staple of my life now, a regular occurrence that along with things like drumming, swimming and movies help combat the fatigue that can be accrued through playing videogame after videogame. Today I’m talking about a game that I’ve heard about for years and have always wanted to try; Arkham Horror. Alongside Robinson Crusoe it’s the heaviest boardgame I’ve featured here in terms of how complex it is. Don’t worry, though, because I do intend on countering this with a review of Arkham Horror’s little brother, Elder Sign, soon. But before then let’s explore a boardgame that really doesn’t like you.
Arkham Horror is the kind of game that is horrifying in both the right way, through its powerful theme that mixes elements of horror and light comedy that can stem from the mayhem, and the wrong way via it’s legion of cards, tokens and frequently confusing rulebook that aims to teach a complex and sometimes unintuitive set of rules, all of which manage to successfully hide that thematic strength for quite a while. Initial setup when you first take the game out of the box can take an age, and once everything is laid out in the table it becomes a daunting prospect, a vast web of tokens and cards that needs an entire kitchen table all to itself. Players have to be really willing to commit to Arkham Horror in order to uncover its brilliance. In many regards it feels like an RPG in disguise, one that can be unfairly brutal at times, willing to smack players around at the drop of a hat. Stick with it, though, and it’s incredibly compelling as both a solo experience and a group gathering.
At least, it’s compelling if you can actually find space for it. As you can see from the pictures this isn’t a small game when it sitting on the table, easily taking up every inch of space I had available. Be warned, gentle folk, that this isn’t worth looking at unless you’ve got some serious free space for it. There’s also a legion of small and large expansions for the game that add even more cards and boards, so if you find yourself becoming addicted, as you may very well do, then you might want to consider renting some form of industrial container and decking it out with some heating and a freaking big table.
Based on the legendary Lovecraft tales you take on the role of Investigators within the city of Arkham, travelling from location to location in a desperate bid to close and seal mysterious Gates to other realms that herald the awakening of a Great Old One, a colossal monster that will devour the world should it not be stopped, either by ensuring it never enters our realm or by fighting it directly if it does. Even if you’re largely unaware of Lovecraft’s sadistic writings if you’ve even spent a few seconds on the Internet you’ll likely be familiar with the name Cthuhlu. As you prowl the streets gathering clues to help seal the Gates forever you must contend not only with various random encounters in the streets of Arkham but also with the monsters roaming the city. Being a tabletop game Arkham Horror isn’t scary in any real sense, but through its encounter decks, monsters, investigators and mechanics it still manages to capture the feel of a good horror story.
Which is sort of baffling because when you get down to the nitty-gritty it’s all a bit stupid, really. You amble from location to location in search of Clue Tokens since they’re the primary method of sealing Gates outside of the much rarer Elder Sign cards, before heading off to whatever location a deck of cards has deemed as being important for no obvious reason on this turn. As you go you’ll have “encounters” at these various locales, all of which are again controlled by decks of cards that feature small snippets of text written in Lovecraftian style that nevertheless tell a completely disjointed, random tale where things frequently happen for no reason, and even more frequently involve the player getting smacked around through little fault of their own. As with any game where a sort of enemy AI is crafted using nothing but cards it’s very easy for the bubble to be burst and for players to realise just how clunky everything really is. No story would ever be written like this. Lovecraft would be baffled.
It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s brilliant. Truly. Despite having quite a few problems with the game’s design, and finding how damn long it takes to both setup and actually play a chore, I adore this game. It’s fantastic. At first you can’t find see the theme for the mechanics, but then you get a few games under your belt and how turns flow begins to come naturally. Suddenly it’s not longer a clunky set of mechanics trying to fool you into thinking there are monsters running around and horrible Great Ancient One waiting to destroy the world. Suddenly you see some alien presence controlling the game, making your life miserable. You go from trying to visit arbitrary locations in the most efficient manner possible to having an adventure, telling a story that’s yours from start to finish. It sucks you in with its gruesome tentacles and doesn’t let go. I might find it hard to convince many people to sit down and play this one with me, but damn it I’ll make sure Arkham Horror becomes a frequent thing for me.
What’s crazier is how you feel like the game damn well knows what’s going on. It knows all. You might wake up in a hospital with very little sanity and health left, and suddenly monsters start moving toward you. You may be heading toward a shop to tool up in order to tackle a gate only to find your way blocked by horrible creatures. You might get destroyed and try to retreat only for a Gate to open on the exact location you’re standing and suck you into some other realm before a random encounter within the deranged realm leaves you pretty much screwed. There’s an evil presence that lurks in this game, make no mistake.
There’s a lot of stuff to keep track of in Arkham Horror which makes it difficult to talk about, so we aren’t going to cover every rule and detail, otherwise this review would end up reading more like a Wikipedia entry written by someone that’s just returned from a seminar entitled The History of Plumbing and hasn’t managed to get their brain refocused from its “bored out of my bloody skull setting”. The game ships with no less than 18 different Investigators, each of which have their own stats vital for making various skill checks plus specified equipment taken from the numerous different decks of cards, as well as brief backstories explaining how they’ve ended up in Arkham. On top of that there’s 9 Ancient Old Ones to act as the game’s big baddie, too. Using the investigators speed stat you run around the board, heading to the various places that make up Arkham city, chasing down clues, tooling up at stores to tackle gates or just hoping to get lucky in an encounter. The city is split into various neighborhoods and whenever you end the movement phase on a location you grab a card from the correspondingly colored encounter deck and read the entry for the specific patch your character is standing on. Small icons at each location provide an indication of what’s most likely to appear, but otherwise encounters can be quite varied. You may end up trying to save lab students from a deadly fire, or perhaps you’ll wind up at the Asylum where all the inmates have started speaking the same, bizarre language, only to successfully figure out that it’s Sumerian and gain a clue. Amazingly in a game already brimming with cards and components the amount of potential encounters for each location is too small, and so it doesn’t take long to begin running into the same scenarios. There’s an absurd amount of hefty expansions available for Arkham Horror, but it would have been nice to see a few more cards per area included in the base game top help ensure a healthy level of variety.
Many encounters will ask Investigators to make skill checks, or in other words toss some dice in the hopes of rolling fives or sixes. This is where the game’s interesting skill system comes into play; each Investigator has three sets of skills, with two skills per set. Based on a characters focus rating you can move a slider up and down these three sets near the beginning of a round, letting you adjust stats on the fly based on what you need to do in the coming turn. The catch is that when you increase one skill in the set the other goes down, thus if you set your combat skills quite high then willpower will suffer, making your character more likely to lose some sanity when trying to do things like face down a horrific monster from some equally horrific realm. Likewise opting to move the slider to favor speed for getting around the board quicker means having a much lower sneak rating, handy for evading monsters. As for the final skillset, would you rather be knowledgeable in lore, or be very lucky? Each Investigator has slightly different stats and you can attempt to balance them out somewhere in the middle, but most of the time it’s best to focus characters where possible. It’s a neat system that encourages you to constantly examine what’s going on and adjust stats accordingly.
But back to the point; skill checks. You’ll run into these in a variety of situations, from battling beasts to evading falling masonry. The idea is simple enough; you take the specific stat listed, so for combat you take fighting or for dodging said masonry you take speed, and then add or subtract any modifiers listed on the card/monster or cards the Investigator has. These modifiers can include things like a rifle that provides a +6 fighting bonus or a negative listed on a card or monster token that makes the task more difficult. The final number you end up with is the amount of dice you can roll, with each 5 or 6 rolled being counted as a success. The amount of successes required varies from task to task, with tough monsters sometimes needing three or more. Clue Tokens also factor into skill checks, because while they can be used to seal off Gates forever, which stops them from reopening at that location, they can also be spent to add an extra dice to a roll, meaning there are times when you have to decide between spending valuable and often hard to get clue tokens to pass a skill check, or accept defeat and save them for a gate. Decisions, decisions.
And what about those Gates? Their arrival on the board is determined by the final phase of each round, the Mythos Phase. Here you draw a card from the Mythos Deck which displays where to place a new Gate, from which a new monster will also spawn and begin ambling around the board like a confused toddler looking for mum in the supermarket. Mythos Cards also control how and when monsters move. At the bottom right of each card there are symbols sitting on either a white space or a black space, while monster tokens also boast the same symbols. Any monsters with a symbol matching the Mythos Card will activate during this phase, and will then proceed to move one space along the black or white arrows depending on which color the symbol is located within on the Mythos Card. It’s simple stuff, really. These cards also include other affects like spawning Clue Tokens and potentially adding new monsters through small events or altering the rules, like covering Arkham with bad weather which effects skills.
Closing Gates involves being sucked through them and travelling to a new realm known as Other Worlds, portrayed on the board by sending the hapless Investigator token off to the row of side locations you can see in the pictures. In these odd locales players draw from the Other World deck and follow the instructions on the cards, so in essence they’re just another form of Encounter but with even more of a supernatural flair. Like the regular encounters, too, they are frequently bad for the player but sometimes offer up something nice. Once sucked into a Gate you move to the first half of the area, and then onto the second half on the next turn before returning to Earth, assuming of course that no card effects lead to you becoming briefly stuck or that you don’t get the living snot beaten out of you. Or go insane. This means that if all goes well, or at least relatively well since Arkham Horror is far from an easy game then, closing a Gate will take three turns; one to get in and have your first encounter, a second to move to the next portion of the realm and have another encounter, and a third where you pop out back on Earth, at which point by spending Clue Tokens or an Elder Sign you can permanently seal the gate, meaning no more Gates can appear in that location. Hurrah!
Closing and sealing Gates is vital for a few different reasons. Firstly, they provide one of the three win conditions; sealing a set number of gates means you’ve managed to get control of Arkham and thus the Ancient One is defeated, or perhaps the term delayed may be more appropriate. You can also win by simply closing every open Gate on the board and having as many Gate Trophies as there are players, or you can defeat the Great Old One in combat. When a Gate pops up it also means you’ve got to add another Doom Counter to the Doom Track, moving you one step closer to the Old One arriving on Earth, so by permanently sealing the hotspots you’ll see less Gates opening as the game goes on. Furthermore closing a Gate also gets rid of any monsters with the same symbol, making it vital for managing the hordes roaming the street. Indeed, managing the creature count is important because if a Mythos Card tells you to open a Gate at a location where one is already active a Monster Surge occurs, meaning horrible beasts immediately spawn from every single open Gate currently on the board. Should too many enemies be in play you’ll bump into the Monster Limit, calculated based on how many players are in the game. Whenever you attempt to spawn a monster but already have too many on the board they instead go into the city outskirts space, and should the number in this zone also exceed the limit then the terror level goes up by 1. If the Terror Level exceeds 10 then the Monster Limit is removed entirely, meaning Arkham can become infested with nightmarish creatures if you don’t keep them in check. However, this didn’t happen very frequently when I was playing, and indeed the Terror Level ended up being largely forgotten about.
Battling monsters boils down to making skill checks as described earlier. To avoid getting into a fight you can always attempt to evade the foe, sneaking through their section of the board. In this manner it’s possible to enter a gate that has a foe guarding it. Fail to sneak past like a graceful ninja, however, and the beast will unload its full might upon you before entering into combat. Anytime you head into a fight you need to make a Will check, essentially meaning that these monstrosities are so gruesome and horrifying that your character has to steel themselves for the fight. Fail the check and you lose a few points of Sanity. Lose all your Sanity during the game and you wind up recovering at Arkham Asylum, having been driven temporarily insane by the forces you’ve witnessed. Manage to get through that and combat is as simple as making a Fight check, again paying attention to all modifiers, and rolling enough 5s and 6s to successfully kill the creature. Fail and it’ll smack you around like the Hulk bro-fisting Thor out of the screen. Lose all your Stamina and you’ll be sent to hospital. Both loss of Sanity and loss of Stamina have the same penalty; half your items and clues must be discarded, plus you’ll need to find a way to regain some health and bring yourself back from the brink of madness. Surprisingly given how difficult Arkham Horror can be actual death, known here as being Devoured, isn’t that common.
So far I’ve been sending a lot of love and praise to Arkham Horror, so what flaws does it have? Well, the game is a little too prone to grinding to a halt. Sometimes you just seem to get caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of annoyance and wind up playing for six hours before surrendering and throwing everything back in the box. Such games can be even more frustrating when one considers how Arkham Horror seems to enjoy being unfair, its myriad of cards frequently putting you in bad positions that you could never have seen coming. On the one hand it’s thematically consistent; Lovecraft’s work often focused on the idea that the characters were powerless, mere specks of dust in a universe filled with colossal beings that barely even register the existence of humanity or even understand the danger they pose to it. On the other hand this randomness that cards bring and the amount of things that feel unfair can make for a frustrating experience. To love Arkham Horror you need to be able to accept that bad things might happen that are far beyond your control. You may encounter setbacks through no fault of your own. It’s a fascinating mixture of luck and thoughtful play. Truthfully most of the time you’re simply seeking to mitigate chance, to swing the odds in your favor by tooling up at shops and carefully managing stats.
It’s when you accept this that Arkham Horror becomes something special. Some people may never be able to get past how random the game can be at times, how its unforgiving nature is commonly reinforced through unfairness rather genuine tactical challenge, and that’s understandable. For people like me, though, who can take Arkham Horror for what it is, a diabolical beast that may actually have a genuine alien intelligence behind it, there’s a beauty here that has been matched by few other games in my estimate, although as somebody relatively new to the world of board games that is hardly saying very much. There comes a point when the game stops being a jumble of sometimes unintuitive rules and bookkeeping and starts becoming a story. That elusive theme from emerges from the mechanics and it’s stunning. Everything starts to come together, and then you’re having an adventure, battling unthinkable odds in a desperate bid to keep something supremely powerful at bay. No wonder bad things can happen in an instant, you’re a tiny human trying to stop something so vast.
It can also be a fairly anti-climatic game at times, too. If you’re playing well then the frequency of new Gates appearing tends to slow down as time goes on, and thus the finale of the game can feel like a letdown as you seal a final Gate and achieve victory. That randomness discussed earlier also means that for every anti-climatic, easy game you play there’ll be another one where everything crappy that could possibly happen happens.
Let’s get this out of the way, too; the lack of reasonable storage is a pain in the ass. The box contains one large compartment and three smaller ones to house an onslaught of cards and tokens and other bits and pieces. It’s just not enough. The decks of larger cards manage to fit in two of the smaller compartments, but only when mixed together, while the small cards don’t quite fit correctly in the compartment that seems to have been designed for them. The piles of tokens have to just get thrown into the box in a mess. There’s no even any small plastic bags included. IN other words, the crap storage makes setting up the game take longer than it really should, adding time to an already pretty lengthy process. If you buy this game get your hands on some tupperware or some such as soon as humanly possible. Seriously.
But at least most of those cards and tokens and other bits and pieces are all of good quality, as is the general rule when dealing with FFG games. Everything comes packed in a seriously weighty box with a truly beautiful lid that shows off the game’s visual style. This doesn’t quite carry through to the cards, though; many of them feature nice rears (hehehehe. Sorry) but the front tends to be dull, a side-effect of cramming so much text onto most of them. Likewise the board itself doesn’t catch the eye or do much to bring that classic Lovecraft style to the fore. Meanwhile Investigator tokens get plastic stands but monsters don’t, and there’s a mere five dice, which is somewhat insulting in a game where rolling 10+ isn’t all that uncommon. Still, the splashes of artwork that do adorn some of the tokens and cards are wonderful, and the quality of the card used is top-notch.
I was also impressed by how well the game scales, feeling brilliant both solo and with friends. admittedly there are some hiccups; when playing alone you’ll really want to take at least a few investigators, which equals a fair amount of items and things to keep track of as you play. If you opt to play with just one or two it becomes damn near impossible to manage Gates since closing one takes a minimum of three turns, by which point a further three have usually opened up. It’s possible to share items between Investigators, but that’s largely it. Clues can’t be passed around and there’s no way to help a fellow player in combat. Sure, with a group of people round the table there’s reasonable room for discussion who should be doing what, but for large periods of time it can feel like everyone is sort of doing their own thing. Regardless, however, playing Arkham Horror with a good group of pals is a genuine joy. Likewise playing on my lonesome was one of the more satisfying solo boardgame experiences I’ve had.
For all of my praise, though, Arkham Horror isn’t a game I’d recommend to a lot of people. It’s complex and lengthy and can be frustrating at times. A love of Lovecraft will certainly sway you toward picking this up, but it’s far from vital. A simple love of adventure and good boardgames will suffice. I struggle to think of my friends I’d actually recommend it to, though, as most of them would find it awkward or become enraged at how the game can punish players on a whim. Like Pandemic, one of my favorite games ever, there’s a sense that Arkham Horror really doesn’t like you. You’ll probably lose as often as win, and come out feeling like it was a struggle either way.
It therefore earns the full recommendation sticker from me, because as you all know it’s for any product that is exceptional, or that boasts admirable traits that make it worthwhile. Arkham Horror isn’t, however, for everyone and before buying you should stop and think about whether it’s really for you.