Did You Learn Nothing From Evil Dead? – Arkham Horror Review

In case you don’t get the reference, basically it’s well known that the best way to survive in the Arkham Horror universe is to not read anything you find! That also includes demonic looking giant books covered in barbed wire with “Do Not Read” etched in blood on the title!

So here we are! The first stage of Arkham Horror Month! As stated before I am going to do a separate review of every part of Arkham Horror throughout the whole month. But of course I need to explain how the base game works by itself first as that’s going to be your starting point. Now there is A LOT that goes on in Arkham Horror so the rule overview is going to have to be a little generalised, so bear with me, but hopefully you’ll get a general idea of what the aim of the game is and what mechanics are in operation.

"Things in this mirror don't SEEM to be larger than they actually are - they're really THAT big!"

Designer: Richard Launius (2005) 
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
# of Players: 1-8
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 180-240 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #83/7.54
Dice Tower People’s Choice Rank: 11
Category: Co-Operative Horror Game

The Year is 1926 . . . and the Ancient Ones are Approaching!

The game takes place in Arkham, a setting made famous by H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories. The board is made up of several districts of Arkham with their own unique locations as well as a row of “Other World” locations – essentially alternate dimensions. 

"The board is colourful, detailed and there's some really cool artwork in the locations."

Each player takes the role of an investigator with unique starting equipment and special abilities as well as adjustable attributes that you can alter on each turn.

"Indiana Jones makes an appearance! - Right down to the authentic tea stains on the sheet"

During the game, you will move your investigator around Arkham, examining locations and picking up Clue tokens, which are used to help fight against the Ancient One’s arrival as well as augment dice rolls. The Ancient One is not present at the start; essentially you’re hoping to stop him arriving at all costs. Upon examining a location, you will draw an Encounter card unique to the district and follow the instructions given, which will take the form of a short storytelling paragraph and usually a reward or hindrance and possibly a dice roll.

"This is just 4 districts, look at the board, there are cards for EVERY district, all of different colours"

You can obtain special items, weapons, spells and unique skill upgrades at these locations which will aid you in your investigation. In addition you can recruit allies and obtain blessings which make life easier when rolling dice.

"Again, very colourful, but expect to be reading a lot of text"

At the end of each turn, a card is drawn from a Mythos deck which in a similar fashion to the Encounters contains a short story paragraph which incurs a temporary or permanent effect on the game and cause Other World gates to open, which spawn monsters in Arkham that need to be dispatched before they overwhelm the area. Once the gates are open, an investigator can travel to one of the “Other World” locations in order to explore it. This works in a similar way to the Encounter cards, but the stories tend to be more freaky and the consequences more severe, whether good or bad.

"Again a lot of text, but read the stories being told - you are writing your own novel as you play"

After a couple of turns when the investigator has fully explored the Other World, he can spend clue tokens to try and seal the gate, which can banish monsters off the board and take you one step closer to winning the game.

"Leng apparently has an Ancient One that likes spiders. . . . .ok I'm staying away from that one!"

This is all taking place with a time limit however. Every time a gate opens, a Doom Track on the Ancient One’s character card is updated which represents a time limit to when the Ancient One arrives. Ideally you are trying to seal enough gates before this happens, but as a last resort, you can battle the Ancient One in combat to try and take him out properly – however this usually results in multiple fatalities and eventual game loss!

"Round of applause for the Great One himself! Watch out for his cultists!"

The monsters that spawn out of the gates roam around Arkham dictated by the Mythos cards drawn. Investigators can choose to evade them (sometimes an extremely wise move!) or fight them in melee or ranged combat with weapons and/or spells. Each monster has its own damage and health rating, but in addition to this, the investigator has to pass a Horror check, representing the loss of sanity that may occur from encountering the hellish creature – let’s face it if I saw half of these creations in real life, I think I’d be long gone!

"What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster. . . . .holy hell it is, RUN!!"

Dice checks are based on the investigators attributes and items/weapons held and a success is measured by a 5 or 6.

The game carries on in this fashion until the investigators seal enough gates to stop the Ancient One from arriving or with any luck, defeat the Ancient One in combat. If the Ancient One arrives and wipes out the investigators, they lose.

The Inability of the Human Mind to Correlate all its Contents

Whew, that took a lot of writing! As you can see there is a lot to do in the game, and that wasn’t even a detailed overview of the rules. This level of abundance is also apparent with the components you get in the box. Now I’m one of those people who like to take care of their games. Granted I can’t stop wear and tear on box corners, but I accept that, but internal cards and pieces I like to keep in as good a condition as possible, hence I sleeve whenever possible. Whenever Tom Vasel does a component drop, I cringe a little inside – I can’t imagine how long it would take to drop everything in this box!

The game includes a lot of pieces from Encounter cards to Mythos cards, to items, weapons, allies, spells, skills, investigator sheets, Ancient One sheets and a variety of tokens. There’s plenty to manipulate and in general the quality is high across the board with good artwork present, particularly when depicting investigators and Ancient Ones. The tokens themselves are sturdy and made of thick cardboard so will stand the test of time well. The variety of colours from all aspects makes this game so striking it can't help but pull a crowd.

There is a lot of text and thus a lot of reading involved – the adverse side effect of this is that you don’t get any cool pictures on the cards themselves (bar the backs of them). In all fairness though, with the amount of variation and storytelling involved, if you included pictures as well, we’d need a box twice as big to hold it all.
But that is keeping in line with the H.P. Lovecraft novels in general. The Necronomicon book for example that my friend has lent me to read, has very little illustrations within, but is highly descriptive and thought provoking.

The game appears overwhelming at first from all of the pieces and for the first couple of games, you’ll find that the setup time is quite long and you’re going to need a lot of playing space, but you have to go into this game knowing it’s going to be a lengthy venture and probably your only game to be played that night when you meet your friends for a session. Also you might want to leave a spare evening to punch out all the tokens and unbox the game, but it’s going to feel like the best Xmas ever!

You can mitigate this issue with the space requirements if you get very “arts and crafty” with the box inserts or acquire storage boxes with compartments for the tokens. I have done a bit overhaul of my boxes using advice taken from “Cruorangelussilicis” of You Tube fame and I hope to get a video up during this month which will showcase what I’ve done. Of course you’ll only want to put in the effort if you really like this game.

"Sneak preview - if you live in the US, you can get PLANO boxes which are very popular - in the UK look around your local fishing tackle shop or arts and craft store"

The rulebook is not as good as I would hope unfortunately. It looks nice and has some good pictures for aid, but only in select setup areas. Some rules are a little hard to decipher and the order in which it’s written in the book seems very random. The back page has a reference aid which helps, but again doesn’t contain everything that’s useful to know. I would strongly advise maybe running through a solitaire game going through the rules in detail until you’ve absorbed them well. Getting a rule wrong can have a dramatic effect on the difficulty of the game!

Finally the game comes with boring white dice, which is the only bug in the quality components - pimp up your game with the authentic Arkham Horror dice and see how it looks so much better!

The Piercing Together of Dissociated Information Could Open Up Terrifying Vistas of Reality

One thing I like to do with a game is bring myself into the experience as much as possible, particularly with any kind of thematic game. Arkham Horror hits the nail with its horror theme and with the stories being told by every Encounter & Location card in the game, it is incredibly immersive. It just puts you there in Arkham and you really feel like the stakes are high, the odds are against you and that the creatures you are facing are horrific indeed and thankfully it doesn’t need some lame soundtrack to attempt to do so (yeah I’m talking to you Last Night On Earth!)

The game reminds me of those adventure books I used to read as a kid before I got into role playing games during my college years. Those books where you read a page of story and then it tells you to make a die roll or make a decision, before turning to the appropriate page/chapter to discover the consequences of your actions. They were brilliant weren’t they? That’s the vibe I get from this game on every encounter – it’s almost like you could piece the cards together into one big book and treat it in the same way, except in my opinion the H.P. Lovecraft universe is more interesting.

Some argue that the inclusion of dice detracts from the theme somewhat, but I don’t see how you could have really designed this game any other way. And in its defence, it does raise the tension when you’re reduced down to a single die to slay the monster that’s threatening to devour you, and even when you’re chucking enough dice to rival Warhammer 40K (providing you’re not playing Orks and I know this from experience) you can still potentially fail so you never feel like you’re immortal.

The game can also be played solo, simply by taking several investigators under your control. This is an enjoyable experience as well, mainly thanks to the immersion as I find many other games that offer solo play fail to live up to multiplayer standards. Of course despite this, a multiplayer game is still preferable to solo, but don’t go mad. You can technically have up to 8 players, but only do that if you have the whole day to spare! I find 3-4 players is a good sweet spot for the time investment. You have to know that this is a long game and this can put people off who prefer games that can be picked up and played within a couple of hours max. If you can play a 3-4 player game of Arkham in two hours or less while getting immersed in the game, either you have failed or you really know what you’re doing!

A Hell of Revelation too Sudden and Insidious to Escape

In terms of difficulty, the first few games you may find yourselves getting slapped by the game as you adjust to the rules, particularly because as I stated before, the rulebook is not the easiest to follow.

However some players find that the game becomes easy once you have a firm grasping of what to do and when, but I would never say it ever becomes a pushover. Depending on the items you collect or the monsters/encounters you face, the games are never the same and even a bad die roll here or there can dramatically change the outcome of the game. Even the choice of Ancient One has a major effect as even though FFG have tried to balance them all out, I would suggest that some are easier than others to overcome – but that being said, the variety of strategies will differ. For example some players will actually prefer to face the Ancient One in battle when he arrives, but you can’t do that with Azathoth as when he pops out, he effectively “nukes” the world and you die instantly, so sealing gates becomes the priority (if it wasn’t already!).

There should be plenty of life available in the base game, however that being said, the expansions do a good job of ranking up the difficulty for those who find it easy, particularly when Heralds start making life harder for you. The Black Goat expansion in particular has cards which vary the difficulty even more, but I’ll get on to those in another review!

“Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn”

Obviously you knew I was going to give a positive review overall, having succumbed to the Cult of Cthulhu and acquired all the expansions to this game. But I stand by my opinion despite the flaws in the game and the extended play length. It’s such an immersive experience with wide variety and that’s just the base game alone. I do believe however that some expansions are a must-have due to the added variations or rules that they offer, but even if you just held on to the base game, there’s plenty on offer. 

You will have to accept that learning the rules will take some time and occasionally in the first couple of games you may miss some critical points out. I pride myself at being a fast learner, but even I kept missing the odd point with regards to timings and exploring gateways. Once these are overcome though, it becomes that much easier to implement expansions at a later date.

If you’re looking for an immersive co-operative game, or even just a solo experience to fill the horror genre, I can highly recommend this game. And as shown by ranking #11 on the 2012 People’s Choice for The Dice Tower – it’s shared by many others.

Do the expansions improve the experience or merely clutter up the game with unnecessary rules? You’ll find out throughout October!