As a board game reviewer, I have a tendency – and in some ways, an obligation – to always be looking forward. Recently, however, I’ve found my eyes have turned toward the shelf of games that I’ve elected to keep over the years. Looking Back is a series dedicated to personal reflection on those games; why I keep them, why I love them, and in some cases why I’ve decided to move on. These are not reviews – for that, check out our Shelf Wear series of game reviews after around 50+ plays.
It’s no secret that I love obnoxiously big thematic games. Twilight Imperium is my top favorite of all time; Android (the board game, not Netrunner or any of the sleeker follow-ups) was my first hobby-game gets beyond Catan. And Arkham Horror was probably the 2nd game to land in my gaming group shortly thereafter.
The Arkham Horror Files games are as big and obnoxious as they come, with thick rulebooks, piles of components, and cards filled with flavor text. Dice by the handfuls, too. They’re cooperative but thunderously challenging – I’m not sure I’ve won a single game of Eldritch Horror. There are a number of games under this umbrella, but they share a theme and often many similar mechanics. And each game has evolved from the previous version, often streamlining mechanics and tweaking story effects.
Yet, while I don’t know about the new Arkham Horror: Final Hour game, my most recent review of an Arkham Horror Files game – Arkham Horror 3rd edition – was less than positive. In fact it made me want to revisit the old bloated days of Arkham Horror 2nd edition whose rules were obtuse and extensive, but had a rough, immersive charm that exuded from all the wild situations you could find yourself in.
I haven’t had a chance to resurrect Arkham Horror 2e yet (as I yearned to do after playing the 3rd edition), I did recently revisit Eldritch Horror, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
Eldritch Horror lands somewhere in the middle of that old-school clunkiness and modern streamlined system. It’s almost a remake of Arkham, but it does create something different. Streamlined and faster-playing, while holding on to that feel that you’re fighting against impossible evil. It felt like an upgrade when it released, and in many ways it was.
Unfortunately, while my thoughts of Eldritch are still generally positive, this time around the cracks started to shine through.
Eldritch, like many of the Arkham games, suffers from the burden of dice. Too much of what you do – or want to do – is dictated by the results of what you roll, versus what choices you make.
Don’t get me wrong – Eldritch gives you choices to make as a player. There are always multiple threads to pursue, and most of the time you have freedom to pursue the ones you choose. While you may find yourself needed to take care of a monster before you can close that gate, or accrue a few train tickets to get across the map to reach a certain location, you at least have active player power to do those things.
But the most fun you can have with Eldritch Horror are in the moments you have to make a choice. Do you accept a loan from the bank to buy a valuable piece of equipment, knowing it could haunt you later? Do you accept a Dark Pact to gain a powerful artifact, with the chance that it could end up consuming your soul? These create tension and interest far more than rolling your influence to see how much money you get to spend in a particular round.
Most of the time, though, the encounter cards challenge you to roll a specific stat – something that requires no choice or thought on the player’s part. It’s not as egregious as the new Arkham Horror; you do, after all, spend time making choices to get to those encounters, and the time spent in upkeep is far less. However, the long term result is just not as engaging as it could be.
These rolls actually can be more interesting when you have a collection of items. Many weapons or tools allow one use per round, so then it becomes a choice; do you use a re-roll now, or save it for something that might be worse? The problem is, it takes lucky dice rolls to get those items, and you need to have a decent collection of them before you feel like you have any choices at all. Really, using items to provide “choices” in that way is more of a crutch.
Obviously Eldritch Horror and the Arkham Files series has had a lasting impact on the tabletop hobby, but the 3rd Edition of Akrham Horror was a move in the wrong direction – it embraces the worst parts of the games, not the most interesting. How much more interesting would a game of Arkham or Eldritch be if each encounter card required a choice. Maybe you choose between a lesser reward, or use your skills for a greater reward with a chance of failure – or in some cases a choice between a lesser consequence, or rolling a skill to avoid consequence altogether (and maybe gain something) but risk something far worse. Arkham Horror 2e – while still utilizing similar encounter cards – at least allowed you to adjust your character stats from turn to turn, and opt for alternatives to encounters in certain locations.
If we’re given more choices, the game becomes more immersive. If we’re given more items that we can choose to use or not – or that offer some effect for a penalty – that gives us more choices.
I’ll likely investigate Arkham Horror: Final Hour to see what that game has to offer. Is it streamlined in an interesting, choice-heavy way? Or does it condense things down once more with dice rolls?
Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy Eldritch Horror on occasion. Only, it could be so much more than it is with just a little bit of tweaking. The artwork, the design, the story – it’s very thematic and interesting. But when you start to realize how little you’re engaging with a game as a player and how much you’re simply a computer resolving card text and random number generators – well, the theme and the experience starts to wear thin.