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On the Table: Arkham Horror


While I adore video games, I'm equally fond of board and card games. On the Table is a weekly feature of my cBlog that examines some of these analog entertainments. If you have a suggestion for a game to appear in this column or suggestions on how to improve it, please let me know.

This week's review has been requested a few times from community members and ranks among my favorite games from the last few years. I'm all too happy to oblige, but the game itself is so detailed and complex that I've decided it will require three weeks of posts to do justice to it and its expansions. So, after last week's coverage Do You Worship Cthulhu?, I've decided to devote the entire month of May to Lovecraftian games. Without further ado, I give you Arkham Horror.

Arkham Horror is a cooperative board game best played with 3 to 8 players (though you can play it alone, if you so desire). The game takes place in Arkham, Massachusetts, one of the fictional locales from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories. Players must work together to defend the town from ancient forces that wish to break through the veil of time and space to achieve their own, unthinkable goals.

Every player takes on the role of an investigator in Arkham, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and special abilities. Some characters are more combat-oriented, while others have mystical talents or other gifts. Investigators have a card that details how much health and sanity they have, equipment they start with and three pairs of coupled traits that can be adjusted at the beginning of each turn in anticipation of their necessity.

The heroes are not the only ones who have variety. Before play begins, an Ancient One is selected at random to threaten the peaceful citizenry of Arkham. This Ancient One represents the primary villain of the game, the enemy which the investigators are working against. All of the Ancient Ones affect gameplay in different ways, with some providing benefits to their cult worshipers or making certain types of skill checks more difficult for Investigators to succeed at. They also, in their way, determine the length of time the game mya last, as some can more easily come through to our world than others.

The board is laid out as a map of Arkham, with locales grouped together in districts. Each district shares a "street" space that locales can be entered from and these streets connect to one another. Locales are taken from both commonplace city features (a bank, police station, etc.) and specific places from within Arkham as it is described in the Cthulhu Mythos tales (such as The Witch House, Arkham Asylum, Miskatonic University). Monsters roam through these streets and impede player progress as they travel from one location to another.

Other features of the board include the Terror Track and the Other Worlds. The Terror Track is a representation of the current level of fear amongst Arkham's citizenry. As the fear level rises, some monsters may become more difficult to defeat and some valuable locations will close their doors forever. Other Worlds are terrifying domains the investigators must traverse in order to stop the Ancient One from accomplishing its goal.

Each turn operates in four main phases: Upkeep, Movement, Encounters and Mythos. During Upkeep, players have the opportunity to make adjustments to their skills. All skills on an Investigator's sheet are paired with another. Raising your character's speed will result in a reduction in their ability to sneak and so forth. Once everyone is satisfied with their stats, the movement phase begins and characters may travel to new locations within Arkham. If their path crosses a space where a monster is located, they must either stop moving to fight or hide from the beast, or they can attempt to sneak past it.

Combat in Arkham Horror follows a few steps. When encountering a monster, the first thing a player must do is check to see if their character suffers mental trauma from being exposed to its presence. Many of the monsters in Lovecraft's fiction (and, thus, Arkham Horror) defy mankind's logical perceptions of reality and merely gazing upon their hideous visage can drive people mad. Provided they can prevent themselves from going insane, they then have an opportunity to attack. Weapons and other items can provide bonuses to die rolls, while monsters give a negative modifier and have a number of successes that must be rolled for them to be defeated. Successfully defeating a monster allows the investigator to claim it as a trophy and trophies can be exchanged in some locations for powerful benefits.

After all players have finished moving, the Encounters phase begins. Every investigator who is in a locale within Arkham draws an encounter card from the deck appropriate to the district they are currently in and must follow the instructions written there. Some encounters allow investigators to acquire new items or powerful allies to assist in their fight while others bring only pain and misery. Certain locations offer the opportunity to purchase items or perform other actions in lieu of having an encounter. Once encounters are resolved for characters in Arkham, every investigator who is currently in one of the Other Worlds then has an encounter of their own, with similar results but drawn from a completely separate deck.

Finally, when all encounters are concluded, the Mythos phase begins. While the effects of cards in the Mythos deck can vary wildly, they most frequently serve to further degrade the barriers holding back the Ancient One by opening dimensional gates into the Other Worlds. Roughly half of the locations on the board have a chance of a gate opening
within them, bringing a monster along for the ride. These gates are the key to keeping Ancient Ones at bay and must be closed for the investigators to be successful. Every gate that opens brings the Ancient One a step closer to victory. In addition, if the number of open gates in Arkham ever crosses a certain point (determined by the number of players in the game), the Ancient One immediately crosses the void and must be faced in a final showdown.

Closing gates requires that Investigators follow a sequence of events. The first step is to travel to the location where the open gate exists and pass through it. Once the Investigator arrives in a location with an open gate, the Other World it connects to is revealed and the player moves there. On subsequent turns, the Investigator travels from one end of the world to the other, having encounters, until they re-emerge back in Arkham where they can then attempt to close the gate by making a skill check. If the investigator has gathered enough knowledge of the Mythos (represented by "clue tokens" gathered by visiting locations in Arkham or having encounters) and is successful in closing the gate, they may then place a seal on the location, preventing any gate from opening there again.

Should the investigators fail to stop the Ancient One from coming to Arkham, all is not entirely lost. They are given one last chance for victory in an epic battle against the Ancient One itself. Every battle with an Ancient One works differently. While combat works essentially the same for the players, in terms of making skill checks, the number of successful rolls required to defeat an Ancient One can number in excess of a hundred in some circumstances. Meanwhile, Ancient Ones typically whittle down Investigators slowly, forcing them to discard vital equipment or other collected items. If at any time a character lacks the necessary items (whatever they may be) to defend against an Ancient One's attack, they are devoured and eliminated from play.

Obviously, facing an Ancient One head-on is usually the worst possible scenario, so it's important that everyone work together and coordinate their efforts to prevent this situation from even occurring. The odds of defeating an Ancient One in combat are exceedingly low (though it is possible).

To be frank, as lengthy as this description of play has been, I've really only scratched the surface of the intricacies of Arkham Horror. This is not the sort of game that casual players are likely to enjoy unless they have the assistance of a seasoned tabletop player. The rules aren't all that complex once you become familiar with the turn sequence and mechanics, but to a newcomer they can be daunting at best. As there is also a large quantity of materials required to play the game, between the character sheets, chits and assorted cards, the game can take up a considerable amount of real estate on a table, which can make the game a challenge for some to play and keep organized.

Speaking of packaging and components, Fantasy Flight has really done a top-notch job. Character and Ancient One sheets are printed on heavy cardstock and the many assorted chits for keeping track of sanity, health, monsters and so on are thick, durable cardboard. The artwork is phenomenal and provides a stunning representation of what is probably the most epic horror setting ever written. While the box supplies a plastic tray for keeping cards organized, I find it to be rather insufficient. Instead, I recommend picking up a craft box, such as the ones people use to keep beads or tackle organized, to store all the assorted chits and item cards.

As if the main game wasn't sufficient, there's a wealth of player-generated content available for Arkham Horror. From new scenarios and Investigators to variant rules, the base set alone could be played for years and years. One particularly excellent contribution from the fan community is a program called Strange Eons (named from the classic Lovecraft quote, "that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die"). This utility eases the creation of new Investigators and Ancient Ones, using basic rules extrapolated from examining how all of the characters in the game are designed. While it will never tell you outright that a character you've created would be invalid for play, it does provide recommendations based on what you've input to help maintain game balance.

Arkham Horror is amazing. I'm honestly having a hard time coming up with any other way to say it. The variety is so strong that no two games should ever play the same way. It's so intense that players will be on the edge of their seats in anticipation of each new Mythos card that could spell their doom in any number of ways. And the challenge is just difficult enough that players could easily lose if they don't plan properly but not insurmountable for a group that does. There's no amount of recommendation that I could give this game that would be sufficient. If you like horror or modern board games, this is the game to be playing.

Next week, I'll be discussing the first major expansion, Dunwich Horror, which adds yet more stellar elements to this already exceptional game.

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About Conrad Zimmermanone of us since 2:14 AM on 12.06.2007

An avid player of tabletop and video games throughout his life, Conrad has a passion for unique design mechanics and is a nut for gaming history. He can be heard on the comedy podcast FistShark Marketing (fistshark.com) and streams video games often on Hitbox (hitbox.tv/ConradZimmerman)

Twitter: ConradZimmerman
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Old Cblog Features

On the Table

RetRose Tinted

Death by Cartoon

About Rodney Dangerfield:

The mere inclusion of Rodney Dangerfield can vastly improve anything. Films, music, toasters, anything. In particular, the force of Rodney Dangerfield could elevate video games to the level in which they are accepted by the mainstream as a true art form, bringing together people of all races, creeds and tax brackets in peace and harmony.

RIP Rodney.
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