Board Game Overview: Arkham Horror
What do you think of when you think about board games? Is Monopoly the first thing to come to mind? Candyland? Don’t worry, that’s completely normal. Until recently, that’s just the kind of thing board games were: simplistic fare. Kids stuff. The landscape, however, is changing.
It all started in 1995, with the release of a German board game by the name of Settlers of Catan. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a resource management game played on a modular hex board. You and the other players attempt to settle an island, with the winner being the person who creates the biggest civilization. If it sounds simplistic, it is, but that doesn’t mean it lacks polish. It’s a game about negotiating with your opponents, and making the best of the meager resources you’re given. Besides that, it was also wildly popular, with over 15 million copies sold to date.
This was by no means the first board game targeted at a more mature audience, nor was it the first popular board game out of Europe. But for whatever reason, it is the game that opened up the industry to a wide variety of new games, with brand new styles of gameplay. Before Catan, a quick glance at a store’s gaming shelf would show you the same games your parents, and likely your grandparents played when they were young. Now, however, there’s likely to be a wide variety of titles, with new, high-production value games coming out every month.
Where does this get us? A lot of places, but I want to start with one of my favorites, a huge beast of a game called Arkham Horror. The game was originally published in 1987 by Chaosium, the makers of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game (with which this shares its Lovecraftian theme). It sold out quickly, and when reprints failed to materialize, the game became a highly desired collector’s item. Fast forward ten years to 2005, when board game megapublisher Fantasy Flight acquired publishing rights to the game, along with the services of the game’s original designer, Richard Launius. Launius took the opportunity to streamline and modernize the rules, as well as strengthening ties to existing Lovecraft fiction. What resulted is a truly unique experience.
Players in Arkham Horror (the game supports 1-8 players, but I find 4-6 to be the sweet spot) take the roles of various Investigators, people from all walks of life whose encounters with the Mythos have brought them together in the dreary New England town of Arkham, Massachusetts. Together, they must roam the streets of the city, battling monsters, aliens, and cultists, all in an attempt to keep some terrible Elder God from beyond space and time from rising up and destroying civilization as we know it. This is a co-operative game, one of the first of its kind. This means the players are all working together against the game itself, rather than competing against each other to determine a winner. This may be an early deal-breaker for some, but I find it’s good for game nights that are more about relaxing and hanging out than cut-throat strategy. More on that later, though.
Before we get too far into the mechanics, a word about the board itself: it’s enormous. Possibly the largest board game I own. It can easily take up an entire dinner table, and that’s before you consider space for everyone’s Investigator cards, the Location decks, the Item decks, the Mythos and Gate decks, the Monster cup, the Gate cup…in a nutshell, make sure you’ve got a big, empty table; you’ll need the space (note that the image here shows the board along with two expansion boards. Not what you’ll be starting out with, but what you may work up to).
Setup is, understandably, a bit of an involved process, what with getting all the pieces out, all the decks shuffled, ect. Also at this stage, players each choose their Investigators, which all have unique backstories, special abilities, starting equipment, and stats. Additionally, Investigators’ stats can be altered somewhat during gameplay, adding another bit of strategy, and really helping replayability. Do you want to play a bruiser? A versitile spellcaster? Or someone quick who can sneak past monsters to accomplish objectives? Lastly, the Elder God is chosen from a deck of options. Each Elder God has a different persistent effect on play, as well as buffing certain monsters that may appear on the board. If it comes down to it, the players may have to fight this monstrosity, as well.
Once play actually starts, players take turns working through a variety of steps. They will move around the board (governed by their Investigator’s current Speed), fight any monsters they may run into (and that they either can’t or choose not to avoid), and finally have an Encounter at the location they end up at, which entails drawing from a color-coded deck and reading it aloud, which usually describes (along with some fluff) a skill test, monster attack, or random help/setback. Finally comes the Mythos phase. This is where the game itself, represented by the Elder God and its forces, gets to strike back. The group pulls from the Mythos deck, which describes several things. First, the ‘event’ for the turn, which could be a temporarily persistent game effect, a sidequest, or any number of good/bad happenings. Next, the board is seeded with Clue Tokens, a currency used to buy re-rolls. Finally, a Gate to some terrible dimension opens up, and spawns monsters out of it, followed by existing monsters on the board moving around seeking out Investigators to attack. The round then starts over from the top.
There are several ways the game can end. If the players can get every Gate on the board closed at the same time, they win! If they can get a number of them sealed (permanently closed), they also win! The last way is often the trickiest: under certain circumstances (such as too many monsters on the board, or too many open Gates), the Elder God itself will awaken, forcing all the Investigators into a huge battle. A win here means a victory overall for the players, but this can sometimes be quite challenging (especially if you’re using the Hard Elder Gods variant, which you should be).
If this all sounds a bit complicated, well, it starts out that way. Certainly, your first game or two is going to be a bit overwhelming, but after a few goes, you’ll see that the rules (for the most part) are pretty intuitive, and flow together fairly well. Still, googling for a flow chart to help with the round structure and some of the little edge rules is a good idea to help you learn things. One other potential downside for some people is that the game is fairly long. As someone who has the hang of the rules (and plays with others who do so as well), I’d put the average game length at about 2-3 hours. That’s using expansions, mind you, but it’s still quite a long game. If you’re the type of group who prefers quicker moving games, or likes to turn in early, this may not be the game for you.
So why do I like it so much? Well, for one thing, as I said before, taking away the competitive element takes away some of the stress of the evening. Sure, my group also likes more intense competitive games like A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica (both topics for other posts themselves), but some nights, after a long day of work, you want something you don’t have to pay quite as much attention to. You’re just collaborating and discussing. No backstabbing, no treachery. On top of that, the strategy isn’t too complex. You’re trying to get into Gates, get them closed, and make sure there’s not too many monsters running around. Combine that with the fact you’ve got the rest of the table also working to plan routes of attack, and you find the group as a whole tends to take some of the weight of decision making off of you. Lastly, there’s the storytelling element. From the Investigator sheets themselves, to the Mythos cards, to each and every Location card, flavor text abounds. Your character is going to be having a wealth of experiences during the game, and they add up. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll find lots of shout-outs to various stories, and even things like the Call of Cthulhu RPG. If you’re not a Lovecraft fan? Then you’ll get some laughs over how (unintentionally) funny the stories can be. There’s almost always one investigator that’s going to spend the night falling down stairs, getting abducted by byakhees, and getting hounded by Deputy Dingby’s incompetence at every turn. Is it what the game’s creators had in mind? Probably not. Does it ruin the experience? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect cosmic terror from a board game in the first place, so I’d say ‘pulpy antics’ are probably the next best thing.
If you’ve been paying attention, you should know already this ends with me recommending it. No board game has hit my table quite as often as this one has, and I can see it continuing to do so for some time. One last word of warning: after a half a dozen games or so, you may start to figure out some strategies that seem to make the game too easy. That’s where the expansions come in. But that’s another post.