Monday, March 31, 2008

Review: Arkham Horror

My biases first: I'm a roleplayer first and foremost, so theme and story make my gaming experiences more entertaining, whether it be gained from a behind a screen or on a board. Next, I'm also a H.P. Lovecraft fan and have read all of his Mythos stories as well as a number of others written by other writers. I've also been fortunate enough (and geeky enough) to have both played the Cthulhu roleplaying game and participated in "professional" level Cthulhu LARPs at conventions. So I have some pretty heavy biases walking into this game, but knowing those biases is what prompted me to first purchase the game before I had read any reviews when I first saw it a few years back.


The Overview:

I don't want to get too heavy into the rules of the game because they are numerous and can be rather complex until you get the hang of them, so I want to keep this more on a review level of them rather than an explanation of them.

The nutshell version is that you are a character in 1926 in the fictional city of Arkham in New England. This is also the height and epicenter of supernatural occurrences where you are one of the few knowledgeable enough to be aware of the true horrors and monsters in the world and the fact that an Ancient One is on the verge of awakening or resurfacing in the world, which would be A Very Bad Thing. So, you and a handful of colleagues (the other players) in the know are the only hope in stopping a great evil being unleashed on the world.

So, this is a cooperative game in which the players play against the game itself. Each character is presented with a backstory and history as well as a varying level of stats that include Health and Sanity, as well as other traits that encompass Speed, Sneak, Fighting skill, Will, Lore and the catch-all of Luck. The first two are set amounts, while the latter skills allow the player a small degree of customization each round to alter them.

The characters (or investigators) move around the board to different locations where they draw a card which tells them what happens in each area. Here's what is important and will determine whether or not you will like the game:

When you arrive at a location, a card will read something along the lines of: "A silent man brushes past you on the trail. Your arm goes numb with cold from the brief contact, and you whirl around to look at him, but he has disappeared. Lose 1 Stamina and pass a Will check or lose 1 Sanity as well." Now, a player who reads the card to himself and simply announces to the others that he lost one Stamina and rolls to see if he lost Sanity will probably not enjoy the game. The player who reads that aloud to the group to bring the theme into the game and the players talk about the encounter in almost role-playing terms will love the game. Our group is obviously of the latter. Some of the more thematic cards have brought about discussions, jokes and setting. It's perfect when later in the game, you encounter something and the player is still bringing up or referring to something that happened to them earlier. And by that, I don't mean that they bring up "Remember how I lost 1 Sanity earlier", but instead bring up, "Even after that brush with the creepy man who taught me those spells and closed that gate to another world, Carl Sanford doesn't trust me enough to invite me into the Inner Sanctum. He must hate me for some reason."

Now, the game isn't just touring Arkham. You are wandering around the town for a purpose. Gates to other dimensions are opening, allowing horrible creatures from the otherworlds to enter into Arkham. The investigators are moving through the town to try to gain the knowledge (in the form of Clue tokens that are placed on the board via event or gained through encounters) and the equipment necessary to battle the monsters that have come through the portals and close the gates.

If too many gates open, the Ancient One awakens and the investigators immediately have to battle him directly. For the most part, this is a more difficult means of beating him for the investigators, so it is in their best interest to seal the gates, closing enough of them to bar the Ancient One from entering the world and winning the game.

Along the way, as I stated, monsters, cultists and alien races appear through the gates and further disrupt the city. Investigators can either fight them or try to sneak past them. Combat is a rather unimpressive mechanic in the game which involves rolling dice and trying to reach a number of successes, but again, it is the theme that should be attracting you to play this game, not a "realistic" combat simulation of a 1920's dilettante with the knowledge of how to cast a Shriveling spell who is wielding an axe battling the Colour Out of Space (or perhaps it is a realistic simulation as she will likely just go insane before she even swings the axe once).

Once at a gate, the investigator is drawn through it and is sucked into another dimension, where they have to work their way through otherworldly encounters to return back to Arkham where they can then try to close (or hopefully seal) the gate to push back the Ancient One's arrival. The other dimensional encounters are the weakest part to me. They seem too generalized and too random to really fit well into the theme and story that the Arkham locations seem to illustrate and tell. But again, a good group builds the story beyond the three to six sentences on the card and the skill roll and realizes that it is a piece of a story you are telling.

Through all of this, there are other mechanics that influence the game. There is a terror level that impacts the game. If too many creatures enter Arkham, the terror level rises and potential allies leave the game for good and some of the locations close (such as the general store... Though admittedly if an Elder Thing ever walked outside of my store as a small business owner, I'd probably forget about my bottom line and close down as well). Mythos cards are drawn each round which tell you where (and if) a gate opens (and more monsters appear) on the board and where new clues are to be found and how (and which) any monsters on the board move. Along with it comes more flavor and theme which can affect the entire board, either by aiding or hindering the investigators or influencing the monsters out on the board. Again, these cards can be viewed as simple stat affecting cards for the round, or can affect stats AND theme. If you are more likely to do the latter, you are more likely to enjoy the game.


The Theme:

Once again, I have to use the phrase: For me, the theme is the game. I stated that pretty much in the overview. If you are the type of gamer who plays simply to beat a game, you will not enjoy this game. You will miss the elements that really make up the game. It is a horror story that you are telling by playing the game. You are uncovering more and more information as more and more evil is unleashed upon the world and it is up to you and the other players to try to stop it even though the odds are overwhelming and against you.

The game does well in bringing in characters from Lovecraft stories and the theme is very fitting. The Ancient Ones are from Lovecraft's mythos and each has subtle influences on the game, which fits the theme of Lovecraft's stories. When it comes to the individual investigators there is variation in their starting stats and equipment, but it really is up to the player to either treat them as a collection of stats, follow the "theme" of the character presented on the card, or to alter the "theme" into one more suitable to the player's style and the draw of the cards. The randomness factor does also create a few thematic problems; however, as the university professor comes across and uses a flamethrower during the game.

Since there is little interaction with the other players (despite being a cooperative game), it is up to the players to embrace the theme. The game can be played as a collection of stats with stat rolls on cards, but then you've missed the point (and the fun) of the game. And as far as the cooperation goes: character interaction is based upon aiding one another by trading items and clearing the path of monsters by one player to let someone get by who is a worse fighter, but has the resources to close a gate. However, nothing is quite as satisfying heroic in a game than to have one player sacrifice himself in order to let another player win a key battle to save the world... even if it is just to stave off the horror for another couple of rounds).


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of this game is, unfortunately, high. The rules are rather scattered and are not easy to find to refer to something specific in the rulebook when you need to look something up.

The first time you play, the game will not run well. Our first time was with three Mythos fanboys (well, two fanboys, one fangirl) and by the end of the game, we were still too engrossed in figuring out some of the complex mechanics that the theme of the game was lost due to so many breaks to look up a rule or trying to determine what exactly was meant by something, only to discover that we've been playing with a missed mechanic for 6 turns now... At the end of the game, we shelved it and it wasn't suggested to play again for a little while.

The second time you play, the game will start to surprise you. The mechanics come easier and there are less breaks to look things up. The theme and story will start to surprise you as you finally begin to pay attention to it.

From about the third game on, you still may make references to the rules and still may forget a mechanic from time to time, but you can finally get caught up in the immersiveness of the game. Soon, you'll be devising strategies. Investigator X will try to fight off the monsters while Investigator Y will focus on getting clue tokens to seal the gates.


The Components:

They are overwhelming. The base set has 14 decks of cards to draw from and various cardboard tokens representing a wide variety of functions. Once everything is laid out, the board is not immediately intuitive to figure out what the pieces all mean. After a couple of times of playing, it makes perfect sense, but it is that learning curve that the number and variety of bits adds to.

Plus, I live with a boardgamer's nightmare: two cats and a toddler, each one curious and deceptively quick. I fear these things more than the Ancient One whenever we are set to play.


Playing the Game:

Despite the learning curve and the complexity and all of the bits, this game is a lot of fun. You cannot play it to try to simply beat the mechanics of the game. You need to play the game to try to play and appreciate the theme.

The game box says that the playing time is 2-4 hours. That is, however, an outright dirty lie. Games usually take 5-6 hours and sometimes more, but I suppose you could shorten that by trying to only beat the mechanics of the game (portions of the base game are predictable if you are familiar with it... you know where the majority of the gates will open, for example, so you know which spots are better to seal than to simply close).

The game is playable solo, but can also be played with 2-8 players. I've never played the solo game and it does not interest me. I enjoy the theme too much and I think that is something that is best shared with my group of fanboys (and fangirl). I've played an 8 player game and the game ended up being a bit dull compared to some of our games. This was the fault of the randomness of the Mythos card draws though. That is one of the faults of the game, the randomness. While most of the time, it is fine and works well, there is always that chance that the card draw will lead to a slow or sometimes oddly unthematic game. The majority of my games, however, have been 3 player and that, for me, seems to be the sweet spot. Turns move quick enough that there is no real boredom during other player moves and the challenge is definitely strong. The threat of losing is there and we have lost games (and nothing is more humiliating than realizing that three intelligent people have lost to cardboard and ink) and the times that we have won, it has usually been by the skin of our teeth.

One variation that I have been thinking about with our small group isn't so much a variation on gameplay, but I've been thinking about suggesting that instead of having encounter cards read out loud by the player of the investigator having the encounter, that one of the other players reads it aloud to them. This brings in someone else into the card's theme and storytelling and brings us all a little closer to our roleplaying/storyteller roots.

There is a bit of a problem with the base game, however, such as too many of the gate pop up at a small number of locations. If you seal a gate, no other gate can open there. This means, if the right locations are sealed, you can go through many turns before a gate and monster appear, leading to a more dull game. If you are aware of those spaces, you can play against the mechanics to better ensure a victory by sealing those locations, but this also causes (in my opinion) a much more dull game. The Dunwich Horror expansion does correct this problem to a degree, as with that expansion, there are cards that can "burst" through a sealed location and that strategy may backfire at unexpected and inopportune times. However, it is a problem with the game if there is a mechanic that really only flows once an expansion is added.

Another problem is with the characters themselves and the randomness of encounters. When you raise one trait, you lower another. Such as to raise your Lore, you lower your Luck and when you raise your Speed, you lower your Sneak and the same goes for Fight affecting Will. This is fine when you are preparing for a battle or know you need to sneak around a monster. You can ready yourself for the fight or prepare yourself to be as stealthy as you need to be. But when you enter a location and draw a card, there is no preparation for it. It is the random draw. The encounter card may ask for a Luck roll or it may ask for a Lore role. Perhaps I'll need to make a Sneak roll or perhaps Speed. I may be required to make a Will roll or lose Sanity or a monster might appear and I'll need my Fight skill maxed out. This is the difficult part where the randomness of the mechanics sometimes takes away from the theme a bit simply because you cannot be prepared and the skill adjustment in a round is done well-prior to drawing an encounter. For the most part, with the locations in Arkham it does not bother me. You should be caught unaware some times. But most of the time it is relatively intuitive... Go to the Library and you will more likely want to have your Lore skill raised. Go to the Silver Twilight Lodge and you will more likely want a higher Will than Fight. But when it comes to the Otherwold encounters, it really seems like it is completely potluck what you will have to roll. There is no sense in adjusting your skills in the Otherworlds, except to prepare for your departure when you return to Arkham and have to close a gate.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play a lot of games without her, but I really enjoy when she joins us at the table and can get into a game. She's less a strategic player, but really enjoys a good theme. With that said, she is always willing to play Arkham Horror. It is among her favorite games that we regularly play (she's the Lovecraft fangirl I kept referencing). Like everyone in our group, she's gotten to know the rules well enough that she can appreciate the theme of the game before anything else and likes that aspect of it. She also likes the cooperative aspect of the game. In our small core boardgame group, she believes herself the least strategic player of our group (though if you read my review of Dune, you'll see that she undersells her devious nature) and shies away from games where strategy makes or breaks you completely against heavily strategic or veteran players. Here, all players are working for the same goal, so you can offer or ask for advice and the only tension comes from the game itself trying to beat you.


The Pros:

*Heavy, well-produced theme that is true firstly to the Cthulhu RPG universe and secondly to Lovecraft's stories
*A challenging gameplay
*A fun cooperative game, where levels of expertise does not unbalance gameplay
*A great game for 3 players (our easiest core number of players to obtain without much notice)
*Although not my style, it is a game that you can play solo. And based on the reviews I've read, it is not uncommon to play and enjoy the game in that manner
*The Arkham-side theme is among the best I've seen
*The players are responsible for bringing in the theme and this can lead to some intensely fun gaming sessions with the right players


The Cons:

*The players are responsible for bringing in the theme and this can lead to some miserable gaming sessions with the wrong players
*The Otherworlds is the least thematic portion of the base game, which, considering that you are traveling to other dimensions and planes, such as the Abyss, it is a little disappointing
*A few randomness quibbles that can take away from theme from time to time
*Equipment and spells vary in power to the extent that, depending on the distribution and what is obtained from locations and encounters, the old codgy professor who ends up with the Tommy gun ends having the best combat roll, while the gangster might be the one drawing an assortment of tomes and books. Though, only a minor con, since as a cooperative game, you can trade the items to whomever it would benefit most and, as a thematic game, you could decide that what you've found has "changed" your character who now has a new outlook on how to solve problems
*A couple of mechanics that can lead to experienced players knowing where to focus their efforts and sealing gates in those locations which, in effect, can create a slower, more dull game even though it is a good thing to do tactically. This is corrected with the Dunwich Horror expansion, however, but this is a review of the base game.


Overall:

Arkham Horror is an excellent game with lots of theme. Despite the learning curve, the massive bits and tracking markers and few quibbles that I have, this is one of my favorites. You need to want to play the theme to enjoy the game. Playing to beat the mechanics would lead to a lessened experience. It does not flow easily at first, but after a few games, you can involve yourself in the setting as the mechanics do soon become intuitive. I have not (and am likely would not) turn down an opportunity to play the game. It is a game that actually plays a little better with the expansions. I would give the base game a 8/10 with expansions.


7.5/10

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