There is an ill voice on the wind, a voice that portends doom for the world. Few can hear that voice, but those that do know that a great evil is coming. These people must seek out clues and uncover mysteries while traveling the globe, gaining tools and meeting allies. As the crisis intensifies, otherworldy monsters pour out of dimensional rifts, and the awakening of ultimate evil draws closer, will you and your comrades discern the truths and stop this great evil from happening? Or, will you and the whole world with you simply be devoured?
This is the world of Eldritch Horror, a board game set in the same universe as Arkham Horror.
How It Plays
Eldritch Horror draws upon the popular Cthulhu mythos – if you don’t know that means, it’s referring to a world created by author H.P. Lovecraft in the early 1900s through a series of short stories and novels. The world is much like our own, but threatened by ancient and immense alien creatures whom some even consider gods that, when awakened, will devour the earth like it’s a tasty afternoon snack. In the meantime, horrifying creatures begin roaming the earth. There are monsters, magic spells, people going insane, and gruesome death.
While the stories usually do not end well for their protagonists, Eldritch Horror gives players a chance of survival. Each game, one Ancient One (or Elder God – the terms are interchangeable) is chosen for the players to face off against. Each Ancient One has a series of mysteries that must be resolved in order to be defeated.
Rounds are divided into 3 phases. Each phase, all players take their turns before moving on to the next phase.
In the first phase, players get to perform a few actions, which can involve moving around the map, purchasing items, resting up for healing, or performing one of any number of actions from character or item abilities.
In the second phase, each player has an Encounter, based on their location. Encounters range from generic City/Wilderness/Sea encounters, to more specific city encounters (such as London or Tokyo). There are also Research encounters, which are specific to the Ancient One, Expedition Encounters which usually involve travelling to remote, exotic locales, and Gate encounters, which take place in alternate dimensions.
Each encounter presents a challenge, and a specific skill to overcome that challenge. Players roll dice based on their skill value, and will get different outcomes based on the success of their rolls – a reward for success and usually a penalty for failure.
During the encounter phase players may also meet various monsters in combat, and risk insanity or death when they do so.
The third phase, or Mythos phase, requires a card to be drawn which advances evil. A variety of effects could activate that this time, such as a surge of extra monsters, more clues added to the board, more gates opening, and special “reckoning” effects on cards and monsters being activated.
Some of these effects activate a “doom track” which, when it reaches 0, awakes the Ancient One forcing a desperate, final battle that players will probably lose.
In order to win the game, players must complete 3 Mysteries, which are specific tasks that must be completed – possibly defeating certain powerful monsters, or collecting a certain number of clue tokens, or something to that effect. When 3 mysteries are solved, the Ancient One is sealed in its own dimension and players are victorious (although not necessarily unscathed).
Along the way, players will collection items, powerful artifacts, and magic spells. They will also get stuck with special Condition cards when bad things happen – such as physical or mental injuries, bank loans, or Dark Pacts. Condition cards are actually double sided, and at certain points of the game the flip and have a different effect. Even cards of the same type – say, two Back Injuries or two different Bank Loans – can have different results when the card is flipped, so players never know for sure what they’ve gotten themselves into.
If players solve 3 Mysteries, or if the Ancient One awakens and they defeat it, the game is lost. If the Ancient One awakes and defeats all investigators, the game is lost.
Heroic Efforts or Devoured Fun?
Eldritch Horror belongs to the same line as Arkham Horror, and there are many similarities between the two games (you can read our review of Arkham here). However, while Arkham players will find familiarity in this new game, Eldritch is not a simple copy or expansion. It makes many changes to the core gameplay that streamline the experience and add a whole slew of enhancements, the end result of which is a much superior game.
Now, Eldritch is definitely an “ameritrashy” game. Theme is front and center, with plenty of complex rules and a focus on story elements over management of resources. If you don’t like the theme, you probably won’t like the game.
Yet Eldritch does not set gameplay mechanisms, resource management, and true mechanical challenges aside. Sure, you’re rolling dice and that will often dictate success or failure, but player choices weigh heavily on the outcome of the game. Do you rush in to combat and rely on luck for success? Or will you spend time collecting resources in order to make that success much more likely? If you spend the time collecting resources, you risk not having enough time to tackle the main challenges, but if you rush in too soon, luck may not be your ally.
As sidequests pop up, you’ll have to weigh and balance the penalties and rewards. Is it worth the time to pursue the monster down in Antarctica? Will that distract too much from solving the main mystery? Or will the damage resulting from that monster be too great over time?
The Condition cards are a fantastic element that enhances the thematic elements of this risk-vs-time balance. When something bad happens, it doesn’t destroy you right away – it increases risk of bad stuff happening over time if you don’t deal with it. Get a back injury? Sure, you might end up sleeping it off, but it could also end up sending you to the hospital paralyzed, so maybe you should spend a couple turns getting that healed. Or maybe you’ll just push through and risk it.
Dark Pacts are a condition card that are often central to the end result of the story of a game. Taking a Dark Pact is usually optional – it can get you an immediate boost or bonus, or save you an action or two. Taking this shortcut can seem worth it at the time, and you may not even see it come into play before the game ends. But if it does, the results can be devastating. Normally I dislike card effects that simply and immediately DEVOUR you with no recourse. (In Eldritch, dying or going insane forces you to pick a new character, but it leaves your old character on the board with all of her equipment that can be retrieved, especially if you had something valuable. When you get devoured, your equipment gets devoured with you. You still get a new character but your stuff is gone). But in this case, YOU made the choice. You took the risk. It was luck that resulted in the Dark Pact being activated, but it was choice that brought the Dark Pact into play in the first place. When a die roll determines the entire fate of the game, there is a whole line of player choices, actions, and events leading up to that moment.
The rules of Eldritch Horror feel much more streamlined compared to Arkham, but not oversimplified. Phases are condensed, encounter rules are consistent, and unnecessary elements are removed. There is also a lot of thematic chunkiness that has been toned – in Arkham, many encounters result in nothing happening that moves the game forward – players being thrown out on the streets randomly, without getting to do anything about it, for example. Streets in Arkham also rarely had encounters, which were the primary way of gaining anything or, again, moving the game forward. Streets were also more dangerous and you could get stuck there fighting monsters. Thematically it made sense but from a gameplay standpoint, you would end up getting stuck in a useless location or waiting several phases unable to participate in the action – high risk, low reward. In Eldritch, every location has a potential encounter so you never have to sit out a phase, and every encounter can get you something useful if you pass the challenges presented to you. You can still try to get to specific places for specific items – the major cities offer specific boosts to various skills or other game elements, Gates give you a chance to close, y’know, gates, and expeditions give you a chance to recover rare and powerful artifacts, but at least you’ll still be accomplishing something on your way over. It keeps every player involved in every phase and every turn.
Now, components are up to the standard of a high-quality Fantasy Flight game, which means great cardboard, good cardstock, and excellent art. The game also does a great job storing information “in the world” – once you master the basic mechanisms, the cards have the details you need to handle a wide variety of interesting situations. There is iconography but not overdone – mainly used for skill checks and monster stats – and a lot of text to read, but for the type of game it is, that works fine. Those exciting condition cards and spell cards with text on the front and back work extremely well.
Now, I need to dedicate a section of this review to the rulebook, because Fantasy Flight Games tends to put out less-than-stellar rulebooks. Now, to some degree I think they get a bad rap – every rulebook has typos sneak through and most rulebooks have a few flaws. FFG games are more complex than most and have a lot of rules to cover, and so their rulebooks tend to be thicker and harder to mull through. But still, those thick rulebooks are not easy to get through and are often overloaded with unnecessary or muddled information, and they are definitely hard to reference in the middle of a game when you’re looking for a specific rule. Eldritch Horror has a fantastic set of rulebooks – yes, rulebooks. One rulebook is meant to be read through from front to back, with details on game setup, components, and stepping through how to play. The second rulebook is designed to be a reference document, with game concepts listed in alphabetical order (including an index) and detailed rules for those concepts spelled out.
This method is a brilliant solution to the rulebook problem. There’s no avoiding that in a game with a lot of rules, you’re going to end up checking up on something. The two-rulebook system works perfectly to allow one to read a learn the game in a logical manner, but also have an easy-to-reference book to find those obscure rules that tend to get lost in the former kind of rulebook. Well done, Fantasy Flight. I never thought I’d say this, but this game has one of the best rulebooks out there, especially for a heavy, complicated, thematic game.
So if you like thematic games, or Cthulhu, or horror, or if a description of Eldritch Horror sounds appealing to you in any way, you will probably like it. It’s a great game that keeps you engaged and managed to put player choices at the forefront of thematic gameplay. It’s not going to convert euro fanatics or people who can’t stand the more complicated rules, but this is ameritrash gaming done right. It will take a couple hours to play – and I wouldn’t recommend playing with more than 5 players (the game lasts probably about 45 minutes per player and with 6 or more the game starts to overstay its welcome), but for a night in with your gaming group taking on a horrific monster, Eldritch Horror is a great choice.
I’ll even say that this game does well solo – its not quite as fun without the camaraderie of facing overwhelming odds with at least one other player by your side, but solo play is still challenging and exciting.
There are some who will still play both Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, and the games do stand on their own – Arkham is a single city with different goals and tactics required while Eldritch is a global adventure. But for me, the games are similar enough and Eldritch did such a great job of streamlining the rules and enhancing the fun that I will always choose to play Eldritch Horror over the older game.
Take that for what you will.
- Fun, thematic gameplay
- Keeps player choices front and center
- Players stay involved the whole time
- Condition cards are a fantastic mechanism that really enhance the game
- Great components
- Though it supports up to 8 players, it really slows down with 6 or more
Having played it with 7, I agree that it’s not very good at the higher player counts. I think the sweet spot is 4 players and if you play with less than that, you might consider having someone play more than one character. Otherwise you’re always too far from where you need to be and you spend a lot of the game moving around.
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How does this compare to Elder Sign? I’ve heard that ES condenses the experience even further to the point that the gameplay feels completely disconnected to the theme.
Elder Sign is definitely a condensed, simplified experience. I find it enjoyable but I like rolling dice.
Eldritch Horror definitely retains a high level of thematic immersion. It streamlines many rules but the end result is a smoother experience, not a dumbed-down game.
I also like rolling dice too haha! But, as you’ve said, it does seem like this is closer to a true Arkham Horror experience than Elder Sign. I’d like to try both though. 🙂