Not-So-New Review – Arkham Horror

On occasion, instead of looking at a relatively new release, I’ll talk about a game that has a special place in my collection. These won’t be a traditional review of the game, but more of a look back at why it’s important to my collection or the tabletop gaming world at large. First up, one of my favourite games…

There’s a point for some people when a hobby suddenly goes beyond a mere interest and develops into a passion or even an obsession. Those people can usually pinpoint the event that made this happen for them. For me, it wasn’t the first games I remember capturing my attention –  the original “Survive!” and “Stop Thief!” (which subsequently have and are being remade) which my parents owned that fascinated me as a child. Maybe I had something for exclamation points?  It wasn’t even the first non-mass-market game I purchased either, which was Age of Mythology to which I often subjected my confused and drunk roommates. No, the moment my interest in tabletop gaming overflowed was a little over a decade ago when I decided to pick up Arkham Horror.

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I had seen that distinctive green box several times while browsing the shelves at my local game store, with a stylishly dressed gangster type man and woman hanging out of a roadster while battling a monstrous tentacled evil. Despite having been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and his associated works since playing the original “Alone in the Dark” on PC, I was always very hesitant to purchase it. At the time the pseudo-war between the so-called “Ameritrash” and “Eurogame” camps was still running high, and Fantasy Flight’s prolific output was the very definition of the former. It was also somewhat more expensive than other popular titles, and I was worried that it would once again be too complicated for my playing group to enjoy. Finally, and not without some hesitation, using a birthday gift card, I finally relented and bought it. All the apprehension faded from the moment I unboxed the game and settled into the rule book. I was enthralled. I couldn’t wait to bring this to the gaming table and share it with my group.

Arkham Horror is a re-implementation of the ideas and mechanics of the 1987 original Chaosium game. It was remade with some higher quality components and streamlined rule set, and ironically more RPG elements than its predecessor. Set in the late 1920s players take on the roles of normal people who have, in various ways, encountered and are aware of the Mythos, the horrible truth of the world around them, and are all drawn to the town of Arkham, Massachusetts to investigate it. In the process, they stumble onto a plot to bring to our world the wrath of one of the various Ancient Ones, otherworldly beings of great power often mistaken for gods. Portals to other dimensions are opening all over town bringing with them strange, horrific creatures. Further, the overall taint of the Mythos is affecting the citizens around them, driving them mad. Players must work together to close the portals and prevent the arrival of The Ancient One or if they fail to stop its arrival, stand and fight against it.

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From a mechanics perspective, Arkham Horror blends the slower, more deliberate pace of a pen and paper RPG into its distinct board game elements. While dice rolls play an important part in deciding conflicts, the way the players adjust their statistics on every turn impacts the results and requires some forethought and planning. Do you sacrifice your ability to sneak by an enemy to move quickly across the board? Do you improve your defences against attack or boost your ability to deal damage? These choices, along with the diverse capabilities of all the investigators, encourage planning dialogue between all players at the start of each turn. Turns follow with each investigator taking their actions: moving, fighting or evading the monsters on the streets of Arkham, or experiencing an event based on their location. The events are printed on location specific cards and give some flavour text along with skill checks or decisions that can lead to good or ill. Finally, there is the Mythos Phase where the eldritch effects can be felt on all the players, while the monsters move about the town bringing a climax to the conclusion of every turn. Of course, it would not be an Arkham game if it was an easy or forgiving experience. Many investigators will fail to make it to the end of the game as the challenges become harder and harder to overcome. By default, successes are on a roll of a 5 or 6 on a six-sided die, and while your stats affect the number of dice you roll, the odds do not start in your favour. Equipment and spells above the starting set need to be gathered for your team to have a chance, but sometimes it’s not the successes that are the most important part of the game.

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Arkham Horror made me feel very similar to when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school, without much of the overhead associated to a tabletop RPG. It was easy to get people involved but still had that same casual feel of sitting around the table with some snacks and drinks while, as a group, you planned your next move. What I love the most about each session are the stories that develop during the game. This is very much a
“journey over destination” philosophy. During the game, and for months afterwards, we would reference moments and memories, “like that time we were saved from the Gug barricading us in the diner by a shotgun wielding, motorcycle riding psychiatrist”, or “the final show-down between the Ancient One and the dual enchanted Tommy-guns of the magician”, and of course “the time we all narrowly lost when our best investigator failed crucial back-to-back skill checks and was lost in time and space when attempting to close off the final portal, everyone leaning over the dice tray in rapt anticipation”. Ask anyone who enjoys this game, and they will have a handful of unique and memorable stories to tell you, but ask them about the outcome of the game and chances are they won’t remember.

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Ultimately it’s the ‘moments of the journey’ that make the game so unique and what has inspired hard-core fans to create elaborate alterations to game components, schedule theme dress up nights, and even create fan-made scenarios. There is truly a culture that has built itself around Arkham Horror, unlike any other board game I can think of. The one element that can amusingly detract from this experience is the lack of continuity in a session. Your character can be angrily thrown out of the Curiosity Shoppe in one encounter only to return the next turn and be greeted warmly with a discount. Granted, a solution to this would be difficult to manage in card form and could be chalked up to the overall instability and insanity settling over the town.

Like most Fantasy Flight products from the day Arkham Horror had a bevvy of additional content in the form of smaller, more focused story-based expansions and larger, board based expansions that included new investigators and new game wide mechanics, all based on specific Cthulhu Mythos stories or characters. Personally, I find the smaller expansions to be the best, especially when it comes to delivering the ‘journey’ experiences I mentioned above. The King in Yellow is my personal favourite, with elements of the eponymous play and character woven into the regular Arkham Horror narrative. The larger expansions do have some entertaining content, but most times we found travelling to the other boards a chore that didn’t add any value to the overall game. They’re still recommended for the new investigators and additions to the gameplay such as the wounded and insane statuses that now usually default in the Arkham games.

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15 years after its release Arkham Horror has unfortunately been surpassed by its own series. Eldritch Horror is essentially its spiritual successor, if not an outright sequel, refining the overall mechanics and themes into a globe-trotting adventure. Elder Sign, a dice-based game, delivers a similar experience all while taking up less space and time, especially with its more focused story-based expansions. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a Living Card Game with a progressive story campaign mode that manages to be more structured than the board game it is based on. And of course, Mansions of Madness, whose recent app integration has made it one of the more complete Gothic horror experiences you can have in table top form with a variety or stories and gameplay types from combat heavy encounters to sprawling mysteries. If Arkham Horror wasn’t certified classic at this point, and Eldritch Horror wasn’t quickly replacing it as the flagship Arkham title, I would have imagined that Fantasy Flight would have rebooted it to a second edition. I do hope that, at least, better and more comprehensive app integration could be developed. While a companion app was released on iOS helping reduce the footprint of the game on a table top, it was a bit anaemic compared to some of the new app offerings from Fantasy Flight and could really use a revamp. A full featured app could help with some of the continuity issues as well, either have structured stories to tell, or at least tracking relationships with locals and events with particular locations.

While it is hardly a perfect game, Arkham Horror holds a special place in my collection, my memories, and my heart. Fans of the Lovecraft Mythos, Gothic horror and thematic co-operative games either already own this one or owe it to themselves to get it in their collections.

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