Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: Eldritch Horror (and Comparisons to Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness)


I am a huge fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and am able to look past many of Lovecraft's open flaws to really enjoy the stories he tells. I've enjoyed Cthulhu games in RPG, board game, LARP and video game mediums. While on the one hand I really enjoy the theme and setting, I sort of think that the overwhelming flood of Cthulhu games does diminish the quality of the mythos. It is sad to see a medium of sanity-ripping concepts boiled down and so adamantly described that there is no more real mystery left in them since everything is so defined in mechanisms and stats that, regardless of the game we are playing, a player can roughly calculate exactly -how- insane he may go by seeing a Deep One and react accordingly. 

That being said, Fantasy Flight has decided to add another game into the mythos universe and despite my reluctance to further define the mysteries, I greedily snatched up a copy as soon as I could. I also have and reviewed Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness. So I will compare and contrast the three games, summing up some of my more updated feelings on the earlier games since playing them many more times since my first reviews.



Gameplay:

Arkham Horror was originally our epic game and we loved it. The stories were wild and chaotic and we didn't mind the fiddliness and the bits because we ended up with wild narratives and stories and it didn't matter. We've easily played at least 50 games of Arkham Horror with its expansions over the years and it isn't until the last couple of years has it started to crack and fall apart for me. When the game works, it is a wild, fun ride. But when it doesn't work, it is a dreadful slog to get through the three to four hours until you finally can die and put the game away. The random and chaos can tell wildly fun stories when the stars are right, but they can also tell dull, boring tales of loss--not the desperate kind, but the slow, achingly drawn out kinds. I now have more games that are more competent at providing a compelling narrative, so my copy of Arkham Horror has started to collect dust.

I still respect the game and have fond memories, but it hasn't hit the table in a while. But overall, the mechanics rely so much on randomness--and not just from the dice, but rather from the decks as everything, from half of your starting equipment, to encounters, to combat, to rewards are completely random. Arkham is wild and chaotic and can create wonderful, memorable moments because of it. However, that randomness can also determine how much fun you have in the game. The Dilettante, Jenny Barnes, can randomly begin with a flamethrower, a .357 magnum and the Golden Sword of Y'ha-Tallia. Or, she might randomly begin with food, a bottle of whiskey and a warning mirror. Everyone is acting cooperatively, but randomness of card draws really determines who will contribute more than others. When it works, it is fantastic. When it doesn't, it is dreadful.

Mansions of Madness is a more personal narrative story telling experience than Arkham Horror. In Arkham, you are running around a town trying to save the world. In Mansions, you are running around a single house. While Arkham was wildly random and chaotic, Mansions was very tight and delicate--a single misplaced card in set up could break the entire game. The game also requires the Keeper to facilitate the story. A Keeper playing aggressively to win will. And it won't be fun. However, a Keeper playing to make things interesting and tense, will provide a good gaming experience, though not necessarily the most competitive one. I don't find this a problem necessarily, provided that the Keeper realizes his role and is fine with it.

Mansions gives everyone starting equipment. They have a choice between a couple sets of items, but everything is set. Mansions, however, isn't really that random. But it is like a play--the story and plot is set in stone. There is room for the actors to improvise a bit, but it is the job of the director (the Keeper) to make certain that the singular story is told. A good Keeper will see that someone is not doing much and intentionally bring them into the story to give them their moment in the spotlight, but ultimately, it cannot be played with complete malice. A poor director can ruin a good show.

Instead of wild randomness of getting items (available items are predetermined by the scenario, but seeded in random rooms), what Mansions did was introduce cards with mystery backings. I would cast a spell, but have to wait until I cast it to flip over the card to see what happened. Monsters were also variable and it wasn't until you attacked one did you find out if it was the tough one with a lot of health or the pushover. This was a fantastic compromise for the pure randomness, but still incorporating uncertainty.


Eldritch Horror finds a nice balance between the two games in randomness. While is still does incorporate randomness into its systems, it is not the scripted game of Mansions and not so wildly unpredictable as Arkham. It is a full cooperative game, like Arkham, where the players are trying to stop an Ancient One from waking, but on a global scale rather than just working inside of Arkham. Starting equipment is set and equipment is obtained through mitigated randomness. Four random cards are drawn as the equipment available for purchase and are laid out for everyone. As an action, a player can try to obtain an item through an Influence die roll. If successful, they take items from the display, replacing them with new cards If they fail, they can discard a card and replace it with a new one, thus giving players a chance to "cycle through" bad equipment lots.

 A lot of the mitigation of luck plays through the game to "correct" some of Arkham's biggest flaws. You can move past locations with enemies now, so a bad draw for a non-combat oriented character doesn't mean fatality. Location decks are still used, and (until watered down with expansions) each location states what type of gains may come from the encounter. However, luck and randomness is still a factor because you do not know what kind of checks will be required for an encounter, so resolving anything from a deck is still somewhat blind. I may have an incredible Influence skill, but if the random card asks me to make an Observation check, I'm stuck with my random encounter focusing on something I'm no good at. The other downside of mitigated randomness is that you actually remove those strange, wonderful moments of laughter and elation when the completely unpredictable occurs. Arkham hit the table because of those crazy moments where things looked bleak and then you randomly drew a couple Elder Signs and a Motorcycle to pull of a surprising win.

Eldritch takes Mansion's system of cards whose effects you don't know until they are flipped. This is another wonderful way to incorporate uncertainty within the game without leaving it up to complete randomness. I was very happy to see how much this was incorporated into Eldritch.

Summary: Arkham Horror is wildly random and Mansions of Madness is tightly scripted. Eldritch Horror is much less scripted and mitigates all of its randomness, but almost to the point of there being very few surprises. The game is much more stable than Arkham, but at the cost of the fun when you actually reach a high peak on the Arkham rollercoaster.



Theme:

Arkham Horror's theme focuses on telling the story of the Investigators. Through all of the randomness, the focus is always on what happens to the Investigators. There are some slight variations depending upon with Ancient One is used, but for the most part, they only make minor changes. When an Investigator walks into the Bank in Arkham, you know that your encounter there will make narrative sense. You have a bank-related encounter. Later expansions even furthered the character focus by giving Investigators individual back-stories with goals which carry rewards or penalties depending on if they can solve their own personal crisis. If nothing else, Arkham succeeded in making you feel a part of your character's narrative arc because things happened to you.

Mansions of Madness has some focus on the characters, but its real purpose is to tell a single story. The actual, individual characters are less important than the story as a whole. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, the number of stories that are available in the base game make is a little disappointing. Telling the same story with a whole new group of Investigators will still produce roughly the same story and resolution. I like the storied approach, however, the tightness of how the stories are resolved can cause issues and make both replayability and the ability to make custom stories more difficult than what they are worth. Expansions have added more stories to the mix, but I still have reluctance to go back and replay stories that I've already played with the same group.

Eldritch Horror's thematic focus is on the Ancient Ones. Characters are static and begin the same with no choices on customization. Narrative arcs are broken and disjointed. In Arkham, when I walk into the Bank, I have an encounter in the bank. With the larger scale of Eldritch, you lose that narrative focus. When I have an encounter in Eldritch in San Francisco, maybe I enter China Town. Or maybe I got invited to a fancy party in some rich man's estate. Or maybe I just visited a local shop. I have no idea what I am doing in San Francisco until I actually read my card. The Ancient Ones, however, have specific, personalized encounter decks and each require them to be defeated in their own personal, unique way. There is a narrative, but it is pertaining to the Ancient One.

Summary: Arkham Horror's focus is on the character and their stories and build up through their adventures. Mansions of Madness focuses on telling an overall story, with the Keeper setting the pacing of it. Eldritch Horror's focus on uniqueness is based around the Ancient Ones. It is their story and not the characters. For me, this is the least appealing of the approaches of the three games. With that character disconnect, you can't rally behind the game as well. Arkham tells a story about these characters. Mansions tells a story that you are a player in. Eldritch tells a story about itself (the game mechanism that you are battling).



Learning the Game:

Arkham Horror requires a lot of rules references. Even as grizzled veterans of the game and all of its expansions, moments pop up where you have to try to cross reference how something should be resolved. Our first game of Arkham was miserable because of how many breaks were in it to look things up. Our next game wasn't as bad. But it is a slow build up in getting comfortable enough with the rules to enjoy the character building stories and every expansion adds so many more rules conflicts and unanswered questions. At its core, it isn't a hard game to learn, but so many minor rules and exceptions pop up making it impossible to play without the rulebook within arm's reach.

Mansions of Madness is a little more streamlined, but it takes a game or two to really feel how it plays since it isn't the most intuitive set up. You draw cards for combat, so maybe you have a shotgun and are incredibly accurate, but you instead unpredictably decide last minute to smack the zombie with your rifle butt with your miserable strength. But more than the non-intuitive approach and desperately complex, delicate and long set up time, the Keeper needs to learn the pace of the game before it can be enjoyed. A competitive Keeper will destroy the Investigators. But one who understands the pacing of the game will create a good story.

Eldritch Horror streamlines Arkham's rules and really makes everything so much more intuitive. However, I do need to point out that the rulebooks that come with the game are terrible. It comes with a 16 page, heavily illustrated, and example laden rulebook. It also comes with a 16 page, virtually illustration-free Reference Guide. Yes. The Reference Guide actually contains more rules than the rulebook. In playing our first game I spent ten minutes looking through the rulebook reading and rereading all the combat examples trying to find out if an Investigator could use two weapons. I found nothing. Eventually, I stumbled upon the Frequently Asked Questions in the Reference Guide and one of the questions was "Can I use multiple weapons during combat?" I can't help but think that maybe this question wouldn't have been so frequently asked if they just put it in the actual rules.

Summary: While Arkham Horror isn't really that complex of a game, it goes out of its way to make things as confusing as possible and most games have a few moments to pause as you try to work out how something works, or in what order it should be resolved. Mansions of Madness is a little cleaner, but the learning curve is on the Keeper to know how to provide the pacing of a story. Eldritch Horror is a fairly intuitive game, with the most complex portion being the Mythos Phase (which is good, because a veteran player can control it, allowing newer players the simplicity of their turns). However, Eldritch tries too hard to clean up the rules and exceptions to stream line it by actually removing the rules from the rulebook. Instead, simple answers need to be found in the embarrassingly long Reference Guide and FAQ.



Playing the Game:

Arkham Horror was the wild, "big game ender" to my early gaming days. We loved it, but we were also much more naive gamers back then. I see the flaws in the mechanisms now when I play it. I can still enjoy it, but I am experienced enough now to see when a game comes part and why. When it works, there is nothing in the world like a good game of Arkham Horror. However, at three to four hours and so many other games on my shelf now, there isn't a need to take that risk. But Arkham Horror is the old girlfriend in my collection. Occasionally I'll think back on our glory days and the good times. I'll forget about the arguments and insanity and tears it brought me and I'll be bored and maybe a little tipsy and think about reaching it down from the shelf. Sure, Agricola has always been there for me. She's been steady, reliable and consistent, but maybe I want something wild again. Just for one night. And so Arkham hits the table. We go through the motions and I remember her flaws and I sigh. We'll finish it up and I'll put it away and feel awkward about it in the morning and I'll try to make it up to Agricola again.

Mansions of Madness is a complex game that I don't mind introducing to new players. As the Keeper, I can make things as interesting or hard as they can take. I can involve them if they seem to be lacking something to do. It is a great way to introduce non-veteran gamers to something a little more deep and meaty, while still being able to control the situation well enough that a bad bit of luck ruins their experience and scares them off. I'll still play it with my veteran groups, but the long set up time and lack of replayability in stories makes it a hesitant hit to the table. If I get a couple of new scenarios, we may happily play them and then once they're all finished, we'll pack up and game and it'll collect dust until it has something new to offer again.

Eldritch Horror is also another game that I wouldn't hesitate too much about introducing to newer players. The gameplay is clean and the game's mechanisms are solid and interesting, but if I were introducing the game to a group of people who I wanted to get in some light roleplaying with, I would not choose this one. It is easy to sit back and admire the game's clever and clean mechanisms, but that character disconnect breaks what draws in many players--feeling invested in their character. Eldritch will also probably make its way to the table with my veteran groups, but not with the enthusiasm that Arkham used to in her glory days.

Summary: Arkham Horror has outlived our group, though we still have fond memories of it. Mansions of Madness is a good introduction to deeper story games for newer players with a good Keeper. Eldritch has a bit to offer both newbie and veteran, but ultimately, it feels sterile in some ways. In Arkham, I would shout out, "I don't believe that just happened!" In Eldritch, you nod and say, "Hm. That's pretty clever how that happens."



Overall:

Eldritch Horror is a difficult game to review. Its most fitting comparison is with Arkham Horror. While it fixed every single problem that I would have said that I have with Arkham, it also took away a lot of what I liked about it as well. You no longer focus on the narrative arc of your doomed investigator in a desperate battle. Instead, you follow the interesting mechanics and personal story of how the Ancient One awakens. I would have loved this if the stories were still there. Travel is long and you rarely share locations with another player since it take so long for global travel. This is fine, but even that removes some of the team building story dynamic. Instead of randomly passing by Sister Mary who hands you off the tommy gun she picked up, you make plans to meet in three turns to hand someone something that is probably almost as good in their hands anyway.

Mechanically, the game is beautiful. Everything happens for a reason and the Ancient Ones do have a bit of a unique feel to them due to their own personalized Encounter Decks. The wild randomness is gone, but it is not tightly scripted play, so easily broken by a misstep or a misunderstood clue.

But I cannot forgive the lack of character focus. That is what made Arkham Horror great. We played the game as roleplaying light. Anyone who will excitedly tell you a story about Arkham Horror invariably is telling you about something amazing his character pulled off or failed spectacularly at. But our games of Eldritch Horror have instead resulted in outbursts with confused faces saying things like, "Wait a minute. China Town? What the fuck am I doing in China Town?"

I never loved Arkham Horror for its mechanics. I loved it for the wild ride. I don't mind the wild being lessened for the consistency that Arkham didn't have. But instead the ride is solid and stable, but the most marveling comes from the landscape of the mechanisms you pass instead of that desperate battle with dynamite or suddenly finding yourself up against Cthulhu by yourself while in another world, or Silas Marsh embracing his destiny and what he truly is.

It is a beautiful game of interesting mechanisms and fixes to Arkham Horror. But, sadly, our characters are no longer the focus. And, for that reason, I doubt it will make a lasting mark in our game history like Arkham once did. And none of this is even to mention that the name just sounds like a terrible mash up of a random Lovecraft Mythos term + Horror.

5 comments:

  1. Strange how our first EH game was memorabile exactly for the opposite reason: how we created a story around our investigators using the encounters and battles the game gave to us (BTW we are lifelong RPGamers and love HPL novels)... :)

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    1. More than any other thing I reviewed, I think that Eldritch Horror is my most "out of line" review with many people. Possibly I was just hoping for more. But anyhow, I recently acquired the Yig expansion, so it'll be hitting the table again and maybe it will win me over more and I'll have to report on it again.

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    2. I, too, have had games that were memorable for the investigators. With that said though the story is rarely knitted in the same way you experience with Arkham Horror. The bottomline is in Eldritch the designers solved the issue of having to shuffle content in and out of decks by making ancient one specific research decks and now adventure decks. And that's awesome but it does come at a cost to content and how it weaves in and around the story. IMO Arkham is the better game if you're willing to take the time to set it up and make it happen. Otherwise Eldritch can fill the gap if you just don't have time for that. Both games are great in their own way. Eldritch has better mechanics, Arkham tells the better story.

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  2. I agree 100% with your review and still prefer Arkham. Eldritch to me feels just as tedious and the card encounters often are bland and rather lazy. The expansions are just adding more and more decks of cards, following the same path as its predecessor.

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  3. I think this review is spot on. I started with Eldritch and then later discovered Arkham. Arkham usually tells a much better story for sure. While I do prefer Arkham I also still play Eldritch as each satisfies a different itch. My biggest complaint with Eldritch are as you pointed out the vanilla encounters (non research) but also the Mythos. In Arkham the Mythos are a part of the story. They talk about the King in Yellow play or the cult that is kidnapping people around town. It adds theme to the game. In Eldritch all games pull from the same pool of Mythos so they are often disconnected with the overall story. In Arkham the Mythos build theme and in Eldritch it seems it's just a lucky or not so lucky draw of how to screw the investigators.

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