There Will Be Blood (And Tentacles): A Review Of “Arkham Horror”

This post written by Repairer of Reputations.

Vincent Lee’s hand shook as he focused on the gun he was loading.  He gave a shudder when he heard Sister Mary scream.  It was cut off abruptly by a sickening rip the doctor knew to be the tearing of flesh. That was followed by the patter of the nun’s blood raining down on the street.  Lee tried to steel his nerves as he crouched behind the car, but the serpent god Yig let out a roar that made Lee start to tremble violently.  He took a deep breath and thrust out his guns as he stood, unloading both barrels into the Ancient One.  The great snake howled in rage as the bullets struck, leaving a bloody pulp where its eye had been.  Lee saw his opportunity and started to hobble for a nearby doorway.  The beating the monster had already given him was starting to take its toll.  That was when something hit him square in the back and sent him tumbling to the pavement.  He froze when he saw Sister Mary’s head roll up next to him.  He screamed, a screech louder than the one Yig gave as it grabbed the insolent mortal and wrenched him to pieces.

…  And that’s why you never go against an Ancient One with only one stamina and one sanity.

Arkham Horror is a Mythos based board game released by Fantasy Flight Games that costs about $50.  The game has been around since 1987, when it was released by Chaosium as a board game version of their Call Of Cthulhu RPG.  It remained out of print until 2007 when Fantasy Flight bought the rights to the game and revamped it.

In the game, players take on the role of investigators.  Each player chooses an investigator that has its own unique advantages.  They then work together (this was one of the first cooperative board games produced) to stop an Ancient One (also chosen at random at the beginning of the game) from awakening.  The problem in, cultists all over Arkham are opening gates to other dimensions in hopes of drawing the Ancient Ones and their servants into our world.

Investigators travel around the various locations within Arkham.  Some locations have special attributes, such as allowing investigators to heal stamina or sanity points, make money, or buy equipment and spells.  Investigators can also have random encounters and get clue tokens.  As characters move, they fight the monsters that appear in town.  At the end of the turn, a Mythos Card is drawn which dictates where a new gate opens.  It can also give investigators extra tasks to accomplish, add or remove monsters, or make skill checks more difficult, among other things.

When a gate opens, a monster is placed with it that is loosed on Arkham.  Each gate leads to a random dimension (including R’lyeh, The Plateau Of Leng and The Dreamlands).  A token is also placed on the doom track, a numerical row on the Ancient One’s card.  Once the numbers are all covered, the Ancient One awakens and the rules change into an endgame scenario.

Investigators can close gates by first entering them, then having random encounters in the other dimension.  If the investigator makes it back to Arkham, they can spend clue tokens or an Elder Sign card to seal the gate.

The Ancient One chosen will also have unique effects on game play.  For example, Nyralthotep adds a special (and extremely annoying) type of monster to the game, Cthulhu permanently reduces every investigator’s attributes, and Yog-Sothoth makes it more difficult to close gates.

Should the Ancient One awaken, normal game play stops and turns become a back and forth of investigators attacking and the Ancient One attacking.  Each god has its own fighting conditions and does a different kind of damage.  For each success an investigator scores, a doom token is removed from the god.  If the last doom token is removed, the god goes back to sleep and the players win.  Players can also win by sealing six gates before the Ancient One awakens.

But you’re probably not going to win.  One of the things about Lovecraftians is that we don’t mind a little nihilism.  Some of us kind of like it.  Arkham Horror, like Call Of Cthulhu, perfectly retains the fatality of the Mythos.  More gates open, more monsters show up, and you see your chances of winning grow dim excruciatingly slowly, like you would if you were one of Lovecraft’s characters.

And, make no mistake, this is a game for Lovecraftians:  The mood, the futility and the carefully researched references to the Mythos are things only a cultist could love.  This is not the game to use if you want to turn a non-fan friend on to the Mythos.  It is largely inaccessible to people who haven’t read Lovecraft’s works.

But it’s not a difficult game.  The rules are well written and straightforward, with the exception of the section on the Terror Track, a mechanic used to reflect the growing unease of the citizens of Arkham.  I still have no idea if we were using it right.  The rules are quite explicit about what happens when the Terror Track progresses, just not how to make it progress (if you understand please, please, please explain it to me below).  The answers to all your questions except that are in the booklet.

The rules are also forgiving of game play missteps, which is very good in the case of Arkham Horror.  I would very much recommend that new players play with someone who has experience with the game.  Otherwise the first couple times you play will be rough.  Not because of any game or rule difficulties, simply because there’s so much stuff going on, you pretty much have to screw it up a few times to cinch it all in your head.  But the rules themselves are set up so that, if one thing is forgotten or done wrong, it’s not going to ruin the game.  You don’t have to spend a huge chunk of time rolling everything back and remembering every little thing everyone did.  You can just say, “next turn, we do it right,” and it won’t have a huge effect of game play.

The game comes complete with everything you need.  The cards are made of durable material (read:  They’re stiff as heck and can be difficult to shuffle but won’t get damaged) and have wonderful, full color artwork, as do the sturdy counters (and have plenty of baggies on hand because there are a lot of counters).  But players should be warned:  The game is huge and needs a very large playing surface.  Another warning:  The box says the game takes 2-4 hours to play.  This is in no way, shape or form true.  I have yet to play a game in less than four hours, even with very experienced players and would recommend you set aside six hours and take a pizza break in the middle, just to be safe.

There are four small expansions (each priced at about $25 each):  The King In Yellow (the reviewer’s personal favorite), The Black Goat Of The Woods, The Lurker At The Threshold, and The Curse Of The Dark Pharaoh (the favorite of the reviewer’s gaming group).  There are four large boxed expansions, which include a new game board (priced at around $50 each):  The Dunwich Horror, Kingsport Horror, Innsmouth Horror and Miskatonic Horror.  Most expansions create new mechanics (such as heralds for the Ancient Ones, corruption from the things you tamper with, benefits and detriments).  The Miskatonic expansion also allows you to play as many of the other expansions as you like in a single game (for those of you feeling particularly suicidal).  But these expansions should not be added until you’ve got the basic game mastered.  They make the game more complicated and can make it infinitely more difficult to win.

This game was very much sought after when the initial print run sold out in 1987, and it’s easy to see why.  What Lovecraftian doesn’t want the chance to lose their minds in an epic battle against an extraterrestrial god?

You can buy Arkham Horror here.

This post written by Repairer of Reputations.

9 responses to “There Will Be Blood (And Tentacles): A Review Of “Arkham Horror”

  1. I love Arkham Horror, and my friends and I have played it (and lost, much to our masochistic delight) on a great many occasions. My only real beef with it is it takes too damn long to finish at times. Anyway, to answer your question about the Terror Track, the rulebook states it explicitly on page 18:

    If adding a monster to the board would bring the number of monsters in Arkham above the monster limit (a value equal to the number of players plus three), the monster is placed in the Outskirts area instead. Monsters in the Outskirts remain there until the Outskirts become too full. When the number of monsters in the Outskirts exceeds this limit, return all of the monsters in the Outskirts to the monster cup and increase the terror level by 1.

  2. I disagree that the game is inaccessible to non-Lovecraft fans. I wasn’t familiar at all with Lovecraft when I played the first time, nor had I played the RPG. But I still found the game interesting and fun to play and I would add that it’s a good game for RPG fanatics who are skeptical about board games.

    • I guess I’ve been playing with a non-ideal group, as all I got was “what is this? Why do you like this?”

      • What’s not to like? For a few hours you get to do battle with an ancient god and his minions and prevent the world’s destruction (or not) at the cost of life and sanity. Not a bad way to spend an evening if you ask me. And then there’s playing the game like these guys:

  3. I’ve played the game with people were were completely unfamiliar with Lovecraft, and they had a lot of fun. The extreme number of cards and tokens to keep track of is my only complaint with this game, though I will say the INNMOUTH HORROR expansion is not as seemless an addition to gameplay as the KINGSPORT and DUNWICH are, and the MISKATONIC HORROR expansion does not provide enough new material to justify its packaging or cost.

    In all, this is easily my favorite board game. And yes, 6 hours is a better estimate for gameplay than 2-4.

  4. As Wendy, I disagree with only the Lovecraft fans catching the theme. I played this game with many different people, and every game was enjoyable. We’ve even won a couple of times! :) And worth mentioning are the other Lovecraftian games from FFG: Mansions of Madness and Elder Sign (which can be even played solo). Lastly, visit BaordGameGeek.com where you can find additional rules, if you find the games too easy… ];-> Have a nice play!

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