Come on down to Arkham!

It’s time for Arkham Horror!

Yes, you knew this day would come. It’s a fabulous game, and well worth giving a try. Let me tell you all…

Arkham Horror

I first came upon the game about six years ago now, but only seriously got into it a couple of years back. It’s definitely worth spending some time with, something I didn’t do at first, lamentably. A bit like Runebound, it’s one of these games that takes up the entire table with all the bumph that’s required to play it:

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror is a co-operative game for 1-8 players, much like it’s younger sibling, Eldritch Horror, where you take on the role of an investigator to battle the evil of one of the Great Old Ones. There are eight of the Elder Gods in the base game, including Yig, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur and Cthulhu himself, of course. Over the course of the game, the investigators are tasked with preventing the Ancient One awakening, which will happen in a variety of ways, usually by letting too many gates to Other Worlds open across the board. If the investigators can seal six gates, they win; if there are either at least five gates open, or if the Ancient One’s doom track fills up, a final battle is triggered between him and the investigators.

Arkham Horror

At the start of the round, a Mythos card is revealed that will trigger several effects, starting with a gate opening to one of the Other Worlds that are arrayed along the edge of the game board. In addition, clue tokens are spawned around the board, which aid the investigators in their struggle. When gates open, they also bring monsters out; monsters have dimensional symbols on them that correspond with those on the Mythos card and, when revealed, can cause the monsters to move about the board. Finally, Mythos cards have an effect that can either trigger once, provide an ongoing effect, or else act as ‘rumor’ effects that force the investigators into a side quest before they cause something awful to happen. Generally, Mythos cards are awful, after all.

Arkham Horror
Mythos card, showing a gate token (top left) and monster marker (on the right)

The investigators start out with a sheet that displays their stats, most importantly stamina and sanity, which can be lost through various means. In addition, there are paired attributes that can be adjusted throughout the game through the sliders:

Arkham Horror

Throughout the game, the players investigate locations around the town of Arkham such as the Unvisited Isle, the Woods or the Witch House. Locations are grouped into neighbourhoods, and when the player arrives at a location he draws an encounter card for that neighbourhood:

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror

Each location on the board has a broad theme such as providing money, or items, or spells. However, as shown on the card above, investigators must test one of their attributes in order to gain the money, items or spells. The investigator sheet shown above shows Harvey Walters to have a Lore skill of 4, which means he rolls 4 dice when making a Lore skill check. However, if he were to be making the skill check as shown on the above card for Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, the Lore check is -1, so he rolls one less die. Successes are scored on a result of a 5 or a 6, but throughout the game the players may become either Blessed, which makes a 4 a success also; but also Cursed, which means only a 6 becomes a success. (The game actually comes with basic six-sided dice, but you can buy specialised dice sets that are really nice, and have elder signs on the 5 and 6 sides, denoting the successes, as well as Blessed and Cursed sets).

In addition to encounters, if an investigator encounters a Monster token, he can either choose to Sneak past it (a Sneak check, using the modifier printed on the top-right corner of the token) or fight it, in which case the token is flipped over to reveal its stats:

Arkham Horror

To begin, the investigator makes a Horror check against a modifier on the left of the token (although the above monster, a Cultist, doesn’t have anything), using his Will attribute. If he is successful, all is well. If he fails, he loses a number of sanity points, which can potentially drive him insane. If not, he goes on to combat proper and makes a Combat check against the monster, using his fight attribute plus any items that might help. The number of successes rolled is compared to the monster’s health value (the teardrop shape in the centre of the token), and if it equals or exceeds that amount, the monster is defeated. If not, the investigator takes a number of stamina damage equal to the hearts in the bottom right, and if he survives, they do it all over again.

Arkham Horror

If the investigator lands on a space with a gate, however, he is drawn through to the relevant Other World and encounters that place. Classic mythos locations such as R’lyeh, Yuggoth and the Dreamlands are represented. Each Other World is colour-coded, and the investigator draws cards from a Gate deck until he gets a card with the same colour border as his Other World, and follows the encounter from there (see above). The Other Worlds have two steps to them, so you have two encounters there before you return to Arkham and can then attempt to close and seal the gate. Either making a Fight check or a Lore check, using the modifier printed on the gate token, and if you’re successful, the gate is closed; if the investigator also spends five clue tokens to seal the gate, placing an elder sign token there which can prevent further gates opening.

Arkham Horror

As soon as there are six elder signs on the board, the game is over and the investigators have won, preventing the Ancient One from conquering the world. However, if there are ever too many gates open on the board (for a two-player game, eight gates), the Ancient One awakens and the final battle begins! In addition, whenever a gate opens, a doom token (the other side of the elder sign tokens) is placed on the Ancient One’s doom track, and if this fills up the Ancient One awakens.

Arkham Horror

During the final battle, the investigators attack first, using the modifier printed on the left of the God’s sheet, with every success removing one of the doom tokens from the track. Once they’ve all had a bash, the Ancient One himself makes an attack as detailed on the right of the sheet. The Great Old Ones have one or two effects that last throughout the game, some of them affecting Cultist monsters, some of them affecting the game in other ways – for instance, Cthulhu reduces the maximum sanity and stamina of investigators; Yog Sothoth affects the difficulty of closing gates; Hastur demands more clues for sealing gates, etc etc. In addition, there is a Start of Battle effect that can sometimes cause investigators to be eliminated, such as Yig, who Curses every investigator, and those already Cursed are devoured. Should the investigators manage to remove all the doom tokens, they win; if the Ancient One defeats the investigators, the space-time continuum ruptures, the Ancient One is unleashed, and all of mankind suffers for the investigators’ failure. 

Wonderful stuff!

Arkham Horror is one of the classic greats of boardgaming, and frequently cited as the archetypal “Ameri-trash” game. That is, a game that emphasizes theme over mechanics. Basically a dice-fest with lots of cards and tokens, I love such games! Arkham Horror was originally published in 1987, with the current third edition published by Fantasy Flight Games from 2005. Sold as “The Classic Game of Lovecraftian Adventure”, the game plumbs the depths of the Cthulhu mythos, not confining itself just to the works of HP Lovecraft alone. While the investigators are invented archetypes (the doctor, the professor, etc), the Ancient Ones and allies and whatnot all stem from the writings of Lovecraft and the stable of writers who contributed to the mythos over time. The game is set in 1926, with lots of period stuff in the items, and a whole host of eldritch artifacts including the dreaded Necronomicon.

Arkham Horror

Something I particularly like about this is the theme. I’ve mentioned it before, of course, but I’m a really serious theme player, and this game has got theme in spades. A lot of effort has been put into tying everything into the whole, so that you can really immerse yourself in it all. I appreciate a lot of the small things, from the fact that the currency of the game is actual dollar-bill tokens, the fact that item cards have a “hand limit” (shown in the bottom left of the cards), showing how many items you can use at any one time. While the investigators are ‘made-up’ characters, the allies come from some of the stories, including John Legrasse from The Call of Cthulhu and Thomas Malone from The Horror at Red Hook. The investigators allow for greater RPG-style playing, too, seeing as how they are not essentially a part of the mythos.

If I were to make any criticism of the game, it would be that it tends to be a bit too formulaic. You need five clue tokens (usually) to seal gates, and you need to seal six gates to win. So you basically need to charge around the board collecting clues, then dash off through to the Other Worlds and come back. There is very little in-built interactivity for a cooperative game. All of that said, however, the level of mechanics involved does actually help to tell some really good stories in the true RPG style, as once you’re familiar with the rules of play, you can sit back and concentrate on telling the story of what’s happening rather than constantly looking-up rules. Don’t get me wrong, I still play with the rulebook close at hand, but after a couple of games you don’t need it that much. One of the great myths of these sorts of games – particularly, in fact, of Arkham Horror – is that they’re far too complicated and not worth the aggro. While it is to an extent true, as evidenced when I call this one of the more serious of “serious games”, it isn’t really difficult to pick up after a game or two. The constant fluctuations of the six attributes of each investigator can sometimes make things confusing, as the amount of dice you rolled to make a certain test last time might not be the same as the amount you roll this time, etc. But the cooperative nature of the game can mean that help should always be available. The fact that the gameplay is formulaic is therefore a positive and a negative.

There have been a number of novels published by Fantasy Flight that are set in the Arkham Horror universe, featuring the investigators as major characters. There are currently eight such novels, though I’ve only currently read the Dark Waters Trilogy. There has been some unfortunate criticism about these novels as being sub-par, but I thought they were really good! Well worth getting hold of.

And to be honest, the entire line of Arkham Horror products is worth picking up. There are a whole slew of expansions for the game, and while the last one came out three years ago, they’re still pretty much kept in circulation. A mix of big-box expansions that bring new investigators, Ancient Ones and new boards; and smaller boxes that bring new cards around a specific theme. I’ll be looking at these expansions over the coming months, so you can look forward to lots more blogging as the weeks and months go by!

Buy it from amazon:
Arkham Horror
The Curse of the Dark Pharaoh
Dunwich Horror
The King in Yellow
Kingsport Horror
The Black Goat of the Woods
Innsmouth Horror
The Lurker at the Threshold
Miskatonic Horror

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