Often when I introduce the game “Arkham Horror” to new players, their first thought goes to Batman. It makes sense, after all Batman is a little more mainstream and Arkham does happen to be the name of the asylum where most of his supervillain nemeses are kept.
So, quick lesson regarding literature: “Arkham” is actually the name of a fictional city in Massachusetts from a series of horror stories written by one H. P. Lovecraft. These stories feature a number of enormous, ancient, horrific alien monsters including the most well known Cthulhu. They also feature their main characters losing their sanity and/or coming to a gruesome and violent end. The Arkham in Batman takes its name from this city, and not the other way around.
Arkham Horror is set in the Lovecraftian world, and it’s aim is to capture the feel of being in one of those stories – that is, losing your sanity and meeting a gruesome, violent death at the hands of horrific monsters.
Fortunately, this is a cooperative game for up to 8 players. If you are not familiar with the idea of a “cooperative board game” this simply means that all of the human players are working together as a team to ‘beat’ the game itself.
Let’s get it straight right off: despite that “cooperative board game” might sound synonymous with “easy and boring game with limited replayability” the truth is the complete opposite. This game is hard. Excruciatingly hard. Painfully hard. In fact, if you don’t go into the game prepared to accept the fact that you are about to spend the evening fighting against impossible odds only to find yourself and all your friends consumed in the destruction of the world after 6 hours… you probably wont have any fun.
Wait a second, you ask. Impossible odds? Destruction of the World? 6 hours? Lose? How can this game possibly be fun?
Well guess what, friends, it is actually very fun, very fun indeed, as long as you know what you’re getting into.
To explain clearly, I’ll give an overview of how the game is played without going into every detail. There are a lot of rules, but it plays fairly straightforward. In addition, since it’s cooperative, as long as one person is familiar with the rules and quick to find things in the rulebook, that player can help everyone else make good decisions along the way without having to know everything themselves.
Each player controls a unique character, who has a number of starting items, a special ability, and a range of stats. There are 6 stats and they come in pairs – Speed and Sneak are together for instance. Each turn skills can be adjusted up or down within a limited range, but increasing a particular skill automatically decreases the paired skill, requiring some hard choices to be made.
Characters also have a maximum Stamina (like a health bar) and a maximum Sanity (self-explanatory).
Items include “Skills” which add permanent bonuses to a specific stat, phyiscal items (such as guns), magic items (such as an enchanted dagger), spells, and Allies. Skills and Allies are often the most helpful, as they provide permanent bonuses to stats, but are also the hardest to obtain in-game. Spells are easier to find, but when used take away some of the character’s sanity. Items, both physical and magic, are in the middle, but generally provide a bonus specific to a certain circumstance (such as fighting a monster) instead of a base stat. There are also certain monsters that may be immune to physical weapons or magical weapons.
The game is divided into 5 phases each turn. Upkeep, Movement, Arkham Encounters, Otherworld Encounters, and Mythos. During each phase, every player takes the appropriate actions before moving on to the next phase, which is a good way to keep things moving and not resulting in players waiting 30 minutes before their turn comes around again.
“Upkeep” is essentially “get ready for the next round,” in which all one-use-per-turn powers are reset, various skills for each player can be adjusted, and certain special abilities come into play.
“Movement” allows each player to move around the streets and neighborhoods of Arkham (or, if they’re stuck in an alternate dimension, to move towards the exit back to Arkham). This is also when players must fight or sneak past any monsters that are encountered.
“Arkham Encounters” occurs for all players that are in specific locations. Sometimes this entails drawing a card from a small deck specific to that area of town and reading the result, which can be a bonus item or a dangerous encounter. Sometimes the player can purchase items at a store, get healing, or trade in monster tokens from any monsters they’ve killed for special bonuses.
“Otherworld Encounters” requires any players trapped in one of the alternate dimensions to draw from a deck specific to the otherworlds and read the result.
Finally, the “Mythos” phase results in a card from yet another deck being drawn and revealed. This card contains an event, rumor, or environmental condition that affects the whole board, opens up a Gate to an alternate dimension somewhere on the board, and unleashes some new monsters.
The name of this game is “Crowd control.” In order to win, Players have to seal off all the interdimensional gates that keep popping up around the city before the Ancient One – one of several possible giant evil aliens bent on destroying the world, selected before the game starts – awakens. In most cases, if the Ancient One awakens players have a chance to fight it and kill it in order to win the game, but this is almost impossible. There is one Ancient One, however, that doesn’t even give you that chance – the game ends as soon as it wakes up.
This game is all about desperation. It’s about fighting a losing battle, together, with your friends. It’s about going down as a team. It’s about going against impossible odds and getting destroyed again and again. Did I mention this game is very hard? It is ridiculously challenging to win.
But you know what? That fits the theme of the game. It makes for a very tense, very immersive feel. The ‘story arc’ – limited story as it is – builds up perfectly. It all starts out slow. It seems like it wont be too bad – you just have to close a couple gates and you’re good. Then, all of a sudden, the gates are opening everywhere, monsters are flooding the streets, and the bad weather is making it hard to get anywhere useful.
You really have to work together with everyone to succeed at this game. The game continually pushes, HARD, towards the awakening of the Ancient One. Every monster on the board threatens the game – if there are too many monsters, the “terror level” increases and eventually awakens the Ancient One before its time. Even though only one gate and one monster get added in a normal Mythos phase, various effects and conditions can result in a surge of monsters that can quickly overwhelm the players.
While there is no player elimination (always good to not have that) the players face plenty of danger along the way that impedes their progress. Players that fail to kill a monster get hurt by that monster, and if they lose all of their “Stamina” before killing said monster, they ‘die’ which entails losing half their items (a good reason why Skills are so valuable – along with Allies, they do not count towards the “item” total to be discarded) and sent to the hospital. If the monster proves too horrifying, the investigator may lose their sanity, which has the same effect (losing 1/2 your items) but gets you sent to the Asylum instead of the Hospital. Going down to 0 in either of these stats while in an Otherworld lands you on the “lost in time and space” square, essentially losing a turn while you try to find your way back.
Monsters come in plenty of variety – from simple cultists to vampiric monsters to flying creatures. There are fast creatures, creatures that cause all players to lose sanity. Unfortunately you need to fight and kill monsters, as they are often used in trade to receive more powerful abilities, items, or allies. You also have to keep the monster population under control or the Terror level will rise, causing Allies to leave, areas to become locked off, and ultimately the end of the game.
If the Terror level reaches maximum, or enough gates open, the Ancient One awakens, resulting in a final, climactic showdown. At this point, you can no longer gain any items or restore any health or sanity, unless you have an item that does so. In fact once the Ancient One awakens the main board is no longer important, and you simply begin alternating attacks. First the players, then the Ancient One. In my experience, it is essentially impossible to win at this point. At least, we never have without accidentally breaking some rules. Ancient Ones are overwhelmingly powerful, and steadily drive the Investigators to death or insanity. It should also be noted that in this stage, any player that reaches 0 in either Stamina or Sanity is devoured and eliminated from the game. Fortunately the game does not last much longer after this, still, it is a little frustrating to watch your friends fight desperately with a monster while you can do nothing. In fact, this hastens the death of the other players, as the game is scaled based on the number of players involved, and does not scale back when any player is eliminated.
Arkham Horror has some turn offs that may keep away certain kinds of players. For one thing, there are a lot of complicated rules, and we often forget a little detail or miss a key element that would help (but more often, just make things harder). Fortunately, since everyone is working together, a single person familiar with the rules can guide the other players without ruining competition or game balance. However, The horror/cthulhu mythos theme does not appeal to everyone, so non-gamers who might be willing to take part in, say, Pandemic, might not be so interested in Arkham Horror.
If I had one major criticism though, it would be this – Investigators can’t team up with each other to fight monsters (with the exception of the final Ancient One, who is generally better to be avoided at all costs.) Many times it is not really a huge deal – an investigator can often take out a decent number of monsters without being killed. However, there are situations that arise in which it would be most productive (and most logical) for two or more investigators to take on one powerful monster that just keeps getting in the way. After all, if you were in the middle of a city in which strange portals to alternate dimensions were ripping open, releasing horrendous creatures into the streets, you would probably travel with a friend. Unfortunately, the way phases are set up (and because, when fighting a monster, it’s either all or nothing – you kill it or it takes no damage) – it is impossible for two players to work together to succeed. If there was some way to do this, it would be most helpful, and I don’t think it would break the game balance (though you would have to decide which player gets the Monster Trophy for killing it.)
Being a Fantasy Flight game, the parts, the cardboard, the art – all very high quality. Monsters are suitably creepy and terrifying, the city map is well layed out, and pieces are clearly identifiable as to what they mean.
It’s definitely a tense, desperate game that you will probably lose 9 out of 10 times that you play it. However, the fun comes from fighting an impossible evil with your friends. You stand together, you fall together. Just be prepared for a 4-6hr experience, and bring lots of snacks.
One final thought – this may be a good game to teach uber-competitive people that games don’t have to be all about winning. They can be fun just for the playing and enjoying the time with friends.