Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Innsmouth Horror

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am also a role-player at heart and also a big fan of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, even to the point where I've eschewed tabletop RPGs and boardgames to don costumes and get involved in some Cthulhu Live LARPs at cons. Arkham Horror is also one of my favorite games and it sees a fair amount of game play with my core group (all of whom are also Lovecraft fans who, save for one, have also been known to LARP the mythos as well).


The Overview:

I will assume that you are familiar with Arkham Horror at this point, so this review will just focus on what the expansion brings to the game. Innsmouth Horror is a "big box" expansion for Arkham Horror. The expansion adds the city of Innsmouth as a region that can be traveled to in order to continue exploring the mysteries of Arkham. Innsmouth adds a number of dangers that fit into the theme of the Lovecraft Story, "The Shadow of Innsmouth". The expansion also expands on the backgrounds of all of the existing character from the base set and the expansions, giving them more personal dangers to manage and maintain while trying to stop the Ancient One.

So far, out of all of the expansions that have come out for Arkham Horror, this one best acknowledges the previous expansions and provides components compatible for the expansions' rules and at the same time does not needlessly water down item decks with unnecessary items.


The Theme:

Arkham Horror is already steeped in theme and this expansion adds to it in a number of ways. Now "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" isn't one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, but the elements of the tale that are brought into the game work exceedingly well. Innsmouth, for the most part, feels like a city that is already corrupted by a greater evil. Some of the encounters seem a little light compared to the elements in the original story, but working the risk of being arrested into moving around town adds to the theme of oppression.

Also introduced on the Innsmouth board is the Deep Ones Rising track. There are six spaces the Deep Ones Rising side of the track and six spaces on the Feds Raid Innsmouth side of the track. Whenever a gate does not open because of an elder sign on its location or from an investigator’s ability, a token is added to the track. Also, the Innsmouth board has vortexes on it similar to the Dunwich Horror expansion. If a monster moves into a vortex, a token is added to the track. If all six tokens are added, the Ancient One immediately awakens and the final battle begins. However, during their Upkeep, any investigator in an Innsmouth neighborhood can spend 1 or more of their Clue tokens to place a clue token on the Feds Raid Innsmouth side of the track. Once the sixth token is placed, Feds raid Innsmouth and all of the Deep Ones Rising tokens are removed. They can be added again, but it at least slows down the advance.

Perhaps one of the best additions to theme, however, is the Personal Story cards that are introduced in this expansion. Each character from the base game and each of the expansions is given a Personal Story, which expands on the character's background and history and further expands on their reasons for being in Arkham. Each story is different and character specific. Besides just the flavor story, the Personal Story cards have a Pass or Fail trigger on the card and you have the chance to resolve only one of the outcomes. The Pass triggers vary from "If you have 3 or more Gate Trophies" to "You may spend X amount of Clue Tokens at X location" to "If you are Blessed". However, the Fail trigger acts as the timer, meaning you have to achieve the Pass trigger before the Fail trigger comes up. Fail triggers vary from "If the Terror Level reaches X" or "If you are knocked unconscious or driven insane" or "If there are X amount of Doom Tokens on the Ancient One". Whichever result occurs first is the one you resolve. Achieving the Pass trigger means something good happens, and depending on the character, it varies in strength and power. However, if the Fail trigger is achieved usually a penalty occurs to the character, often times brutal, but sometimes manageable, depending on the character.

The effect of the Personal Stories, however, is not just a game effect and stat boost or penalty. The stories give flavor and a bit of roleplaying background to the characters you are playing. The other effect, however, is that you find yourself more attached to the character. Sometimes you make decisions to try to pass your story instead of doing the optimal move to stop the Ancient One. This is very thematic and makes the decisions personal. You may find yourself so close to recovering your lost sister, but the Fail trigger is one hand. The other investigators are urging you to ignore the personal story and jump into a gate to close it to try to stave off the Ancient One from awakening. So, do you sacrifice your sister and all you've set up to save her for the greater good? Or do you risk it and save her, but risking the destruction of the city in the process? It's harder to jump in and sacrifice characters now. The Personal Stories help in attaching you to the process of the story and makes the characters a little more real.


Learning the Game:

This is an expansion to Arkham Horror and there are very little rule additions here. The Personal Stories are a very easy mechanic to learn (especially for those who are familiar with Android, which uses the same mechanic). The Deeps Ones Rising Track is easy to understand, but can be easily forgotten in the first couple of games.


The Components:

The expansion introduces the same quality components as in all of the Arkham Horror series. Specific components for the Ancient Ones and Deep Rising Track are included as well as expanding on a number of existing components. What that means is that besides introducing an additional board to the game, Innsmouth Horror also adds the following:
*A New Expansion Board for the city of Innsmouth
*16 New Investigators
*8 New Ancient Ones (plus the corresponding Ancient One Plot Cards)
*2 New Heralds
*42 Innsmouth Location Cards (for 8 New Locations in 3 New Neighborhoods)
*36 Arkham Location Cards (for the Original 26 Locations in the Original 9 Neighborhoods)
*36 Mythos Cards
*26 Gate Cards (though no new Otherworld Locations are introduced)
*48 Sets of Personal Stories Cards (2 for each character from the base and all expansions)
*32 New Monster Markers (5 Ancient One related markers not added to the cup, 2 Mask Monsters, 5 Markers of Monsters introduced in older sets (4 kinds), and 20 Markers for new Monsters (7 kinds)


Playing the Game:

The additions to Arkham Horror mechanic-wise are minimal and easy to manage. However, what this expansion adds is theme.

It is very amazing how much the Personal Stories have added a life to old characters that we have not touched in ages. However, the rest of the game feels the touch of Innsmouth.

I strongly suggest that to really enjoy the game that you remove most of the components of the previous expansions, including the monsters (this gets a better ratio of Aquatic monsters into the mix). One of the ongoing issues with the expansions of AH is that adding too much waters down the experience of each of the expansions, killing a lot of the theme. I've also taken out all of the Arkham Encounter cards from each of the expansions as well. We've kept the Dunwich Horror and Kingsport Horror items and spells in the decks, but have removed almost everything else from those expansions (except for characters, Ancient Ones, Injury and Madness cards and the Ancient One Plot Cards).

Once you find the mix for you (again, I strongly suggest that you consider less is better), you will find the theme and pressure of the Innsmouth experience very strong and very fulfilling.

I also suggest not reading through the Personal Stories until you have the characters in play. Then, only read the first card. Only take and read the Pass/Fail effects after you’'ve achieved one of them. This way, you don’t know if you are sacrificing a lot for a small gain, or inadvertently crippling your character's abilities by not heeding the story close enough.


Scalability:

Innsmouth Horror keeps the same scalability of the base game. While some expansions (such as Kingsport Horror) tend to favor large groups, Innsmouth fits most ranges. My wife and I have played with one investigator each and found it to be a good fit. And we have played with a total of four players with one investigator each and found no problems in the scalability. Innsmouth does not require one player spending all of his time up there as Kingsport did. The only issue that I found that Innsmouth suffers from with fewer investigators is that eventually sneak checks are required to move around in Innsmouth or else the investigator will be arrested. The problem that this poses is that with a smaller assortment of active investigators, you had better plan ahead to make sure that at least one of them has a good sneak skill. Otherwise, Innsmouth will be too brutal in the second half of the game.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. That being said, Arkham Horror is one of her favorite games (probably in her top three). Innsmouth Horror has revitalized our AH play more than any other expansion that has come out previously. Whenever we would sit down to play, she would usually grab one of her two favorite characters (Rita Young or Daisy Walker) and never think of playing anyone else. Now, she’s taken a new character in each game, curiously uncovering their personal stories and finding a whole new experience with otherwise forgotten and unused characters.


The Pros:

*The most thematic expansion to date.
*More location cards, making them more variable.
*Adds a lot without watering down the base games equipment cards any further.
*Personal Stories revitalizes old characters, balancing some of the "unbalanced" characters by the effects and costs of their stories.
*Consistently good components.
*New mechanics introduced are easy, flowing, seem natural and are easy to track (unlike portals in Kingsport Horror).
*New Mythos Cards only have gate bursts in Innsmouth, creating a threat and a natural reason to keep going there.


The Cons:

*Requires expansion and deck management to really get a good experience.
*More bits in an already bit heavy game.


Overall:

Innsmouth Horror is a must have expansion for a great game. I almost wish that it game with another set of Injury and Madness cards so that I could fully endorse this expansion as the first one to get instead of Dunwich Horror (really, Injury and Madness cards are all but necessary fixes in the game, but are found in just the one expansion). No other big box expansion has done as a good job of keeping a consistent theme and feel throughout. Even though we still spend most of our time on the Arkham board instead of the Innsmouth board in game, the theme and presence of Innsmouth is strongly felt. Innsmouth Horror is our group's favorite expansion and it is one that is necessary for any fan of Arkham Horror.

However, if you are looking for your first expansion for AH, Dunwich Horror has some key game fixes. If you feel that the base game is a bit broken, grab this game. But if you think it plays fine, but want more theme, grab Innsmouth Horror and make Dunwich your second grab.



9/10

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