Let’s get this out of the way, because I’m going to be talking about it a whole lot this post. My all-time favorite board game is Arkham Horror. Well, the 2005 version of Arkham Horror if you want to be that specific. Pedant. A deep, challenging, and thematic game loosely based on the Call of Cthulhu RPG which in turn is spawned by the Cthulhu Mythos/Yog-Sothothery created by H.P. Lovecraft and a whole host of others. I love that game. I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into it over the years, picked up every expansion set, and… well I haven’t quite gone down the fanfiction hole for it yet, but I’ve been tempted. It’s good, that’s what I’m saying.
Well, after the publishers released the 8th expansion for it, they seem to have decided, probably wisely, that it’d be counter productive to make the game any larger, so instead, Fantasy Flight Games had started making whole new games based on that originator. The Arkham Horror Files, a line carrying such games as Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness, and our little friend of today, Eldritch Horror. Children of the original Arkham Horror, all seeking to carry on the themes, atmosphere, and some of the aspects of gameplay that made the original so successful.
Suffice to say, when this game came to my home at Christmastime, I was pretty excited. A little unsure, however. I’d been playing the Elder Sign game and enjoying that as well, but that was designed by the same creator as the original Arkham Horror. Eldritch Horror was not. So how does it hold up? That’s what we’ll be talking about in today’s Tabletop Critique.
One of the best things about Arkham Horror is how deep and complicated it is. One of the worst things about Arkham Horror is how deep and complicated it is. It’s a game with literally thousands of little chits and cards, and at any given moment there are about a dozen little factors you have to keep in mind for any given move. Elder Sign cut both the depth and complexity way down while still keeping the feel and atmosphere of the original. All good, when that’s what you’re in for, but when I jumped into Eldritch Horror, I was really looking for some middle ground. Something approaching the mental gymnastics Arkham Horror called for but that didn’t require you and all your friends to set aside your entire afternoon if you were going to give it a go.
The game seems to be designed with that concept in mind, seeking to deliver a somewhat lighter version of Arkham’s gameplay for when you’re in that mood but have less mental energy. It succeeds, in part. Most of the mechanics are very, very similar to Arkham, just with less moving parts.
But before I get too much into comparing it to Arkham Horror, much as that experience was for me, we should probably take a look at the game on it’s own merits. I suppose if I’m going to right something, I should at least try to make it relevant for most of the folk who end up reading this after all.
Eldritch Horror is a cooperative board game in which the players travel the world to save it from the collective horrors that have sprung from Lovecraft et al’s minds. For a board game, there is a huge amount of automation there, with the individual components of the challenges your facing coming from the cards and other randomized pieces involved. It is plenty possible, even planned for, to play the game alone, although in my experience, it’s just a lot smoother and a lot more fun with a group of people on your side.
You start the game by picking a set of characters and the Great Old One who’s going to ruin your day. Each character comes with their own set of stats, which determines your dice pool for specific skill challenges, and a special ability, as well as a small set of starting equipment. This, in addition to the equipment you get along the way, determines your capabilities and likely their focus. The Great Old One you choose (in the base game, you get your pick between Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, Shub Niggurath, and good old Cthulhu, for those of you these names mean anything to) determines the complicating factors you face along the way, as well as what specific challenges you have to overcome. Keep them from being awakened into our world and devouring everything you love and also all the puppies, you need to solve their mysteries, which are unique to each one, but largely involve completing challenges in some sort of situation and expending of the reward in a certain way. All the while, you have to manage everything else that’s going wrong with the world, or you’re going to be finding them knocking on your door a lot earlier than you had planned.
This time around, evil isn’t just confined to your backyard. I know. I checked there. You really need to mow, you know that? Seriously. Have some pride. Instead, all your characters are going to be living the jetsetting playboy/girl lifestyle, going well beyond the New England setting endemic to the mythos and calling on Lovecraft’s exploration settings, visiting such exotic and deadly locales as the Heart of Africa, Antarctica, and, worst of all, Sydney, Australia. You’re going to travel in this game. The game draws you all over the place both hunting down clues, which you need to solve many mysteries and to give yourself a bit of wiggle room against the game’s challenges, and closing gates to other worlds, which are the main factor pushing your doomclock forward. That said, your characters aren’t all that mobile. They can only move one space per turn, naturally, which can be expanded up to three if you’s spent a few actions picking up train or boat tickets. That feels like one of the main resource management aspects of the game, dealing with your travel, and it can take some planning and hard decisions to make things work well for you. I’ve had some games where characters never ended up leaving their general starting area. Made the characters pretty well useless. Don’t do that.
Standing in your way are, well, a couple of things. You wouldn’t be trying to save the world if everything was all hunky dory, would you? For one thing, there’s monsters around. Lesser horrors straight from the works of Lovecraft et al. Well, lesser in the sense that they will only drive you mad and feed you your own head, compared to the Ancient Ones who will turn your entire reality inside out. You can punch them. In fact, I would recommend you do so. Everything’s an experience, right? Then, you have your encounters. Wherever you are at a certain phase, once per turn, you find something unusually Cthulhu-flavored that requires you to do sum bow id. Succeed in the ensuing skill check, and you’ll get some sort of benefit, up to and including getting to keep your brain inside your skull. Fail in the check, and something will go wrong, possibly landing you in an institution or a hospital forever. Which lasts for about four more turns before the world ends, at that rate. You’ve got an idea of what you stand to gain from these encounters in the major cities of the game. Everywhere else, it’s a bit of a dangerous crapshoot.
You beat both of those, and most any other encounter you face, and in fact most challenges of the game, by partaking in skill challenges. Every character has stats in the specific skills at play in this game. Those stats along with any modifiers at play tell you how many dice you get to roll when that skill comes up. Any of those that roll a 5 or a 6 count as a success. Aside from fighting monsters, you only need one success to win it. It’s the exact same system Arkham Horror uses, and I find it a pretty handy way of making stats super important while still allowing enough randomness at play for the dice to completely screw you over at exactly the worst opportunity. It’s great. You will learn just how much random chance hates you, in this game. I have a special set of Arkham Horror-styled dice that I swear to God legit roll better than the basic black and white dice you find all over the place, and even they kept making me fail over and over again. You can augment your stats and get some special abilities by picking up equipment and winning encounters, but that’s about the basics of it.
It all comes together rather strongly. The game is solid. Perhaps the biggest factor, it always seems to be moving. A big danger with the Arkham Horror mechanics that all of these spinoff games areadopting elements of is that you can get into situations where you’re clearly screwed and there’s nothing you can do that won’t make your situation worse, but you still have to sit it out for quite a while before it reaches any sort of conclusion. Eldritch Horror seems to largely avoid that. I’ve had games that have gone down like a meteor crash, but I’ve never really run into that situation where you’ve got no option but to give up and let the game play itself. The game places its actions and choices well. Not all of your possibilities are always viable, but there’s always something you can try, and always a way out of whatever situation you find yourself in, dice willing.
Moreover, once you get the rules and whatnot down, the player turns just feels smooth. It gets sticky again once the gamemind starts taking its own actions, and those can get overwhelming, but when it’s your time to move? Things are easy. You’ve generally got a decent set of information with which to plan your activities, so you’re not pitching yourself entirely into the void unless you’re choosing to do so, and your stats tend to make it clear what may be the best option in a given situation. Your activities require a bit of thought and planning, but not so much to bog the game down. It strikes a pretty good balance there one that always keeps things moving but is never entirely on automatic, and the player still has enough to work over that it’s always meaningful.
As in Arkham Horror, successful gameplay is equal parts doing the stuff you’re “supposed” to be doing, you know, pursuing those challenges, and in developing your character. You’re given a lot of resources to do that with, from spells to phat loots to stat boosts. So heavy is this a factor that this game gives you about as perfect information as it’s possible to get in these mechanics. You always know what items you may pursue, you know what locations are likely to give you the stat boosts and spells you’re looking for, and you do have some small guaranteed resources to help you along the way. It’s a good way to really make you feel the development of the game, you’ll be getting stronger as things get more serious. Given that when a character runs out of health or sanity you just replace them, it’s the big factor putting weight on your activities, too. Unless you get really into the roleplaying part of the game like
me some nerd, you won’t normally be too torn up by the mere sight of a fire vampire sending a character to the asylum, but the pressure of losing all that work you put in turning them into some great beast pimp, that’s where the sweats come in when things get tight.
Eldritch Horror also does some fun things with managing mystery. You’ve got a certain set of cards, namely your spells and conditions, among some others, that well, you know what they are on one side, but there’s not telling what’s on the other. So yeah, maybe you need to go into debt to buy that sweet, sweet lady shotgun, but then, when certain circumstances come into play and somebody comes to collect, you don’t know if it’s the mob trying to strongarm you, the police just coming to check things out, or some great wizard who apparently has nothing better to do in the 1920s than try to kill you over $2. Gives things a little bit of magic, where you know what things can do on the surface but not what they’ll turn into. It’s like opening presents on Christmas morning. Except the presents are going to totally ruin your day. So, about like Christmas at my house.
I am really disappointed in the games handling of it’s lore. Arkham Horror, because it’s time to start with the comparisons I guess, performed this without peer. It felt like you were right there in Lovecraft land, facing down the horrors unimaginable and losing your mind in just the same way as a character in his story. Arkham Horror told a story throughout, the challenges had a lot of flavor, and everything added to that. Eldritch Horror… well, it tries. The flavor is still there. It’s just not as good. Doesn’t feel as complete, somehow. I don’t get wrapped up in the world the way I did with Arkham Horror. It’s not easy to quantify, the fluff writing’s just… not as good as I want it to be. There’s a quality there that’s lacking. Honestly, this is about my biggest complaint with the game. For truth or lie, American board games are generally regarded as having a huge amount of weight on the flavor of the game, and Eldritch Horror does make a definite try at filling that expectation, it just doesn’t quite take it home.
And yeah, since we started this, lets go with the comparisons here. Is Eldritch Horror as good as Arkham Horror? I say no. Of course, I’ve got a lot of sentiment for Arkham Horror, and I can’t look at this objectively, but for my time, given that Eldritch Horror takes about as long to play as Arkham, I just enjoy Arkham more. Not to say that Eldritch Horror isn’t good, though. It may not make any changes to the time involved, but it did successfully make a less complicated game that still delivers on the mechanics. Those mechanics are sound, Eldritch Horror adds its own little tweaks on it, and the games both a lot easier to pick up and easier to parse as you go along, too. It’s good. Maybe you’ll like it.
And if you do, maybe you’ll want to come over for game night sometime? Got lots of these Arkham Horror Files to play.