Evil never gives up, does it? It seems like every day, there’s some new alien super creature trying to make its business on our little Earth.
Or are those aliens really evil? Maybe they are the true inhabitants of the universe, and we’re all just meaningless ants struggling to maintain our pointless existence in a reality that doesn’t belong to us. Ever think about that?
Maybe you shouldn’t think about it too much, or you’ll end up a cultist for one of the Great Old Ones. And I’m here to talk about Arkham Horror, 3rd Edition, which is all about teaming up with other brave investigators to uncover dark mystical activities and put a stop to them before it’s too late!
How It Plays
Arkham Horror (3rd Edition) is a scenario based game which tasks you the players with uncovering secrets and putting a stop to some grotesque horror threatening the world. Set in Arkham, Massachusetts, you’ll travel the city streets, face horrors, fight monsters, travel to other dimensions, gather clues, and hopefully save the world.
Each scenario has a setup card determining the board layout and starting components, and offers a brief introduction that gives you hints as to how to get started, without revealing your ultimate goal immediately.
On your turn, you choose 2 actions. You can move, attempt to remove Doom from the board, fight monsters, “research” clues you’ve found to add them to the scenario card, rest, and trade your items with other players. You can only do any particular action once.
After players have all taken their actions, Monsters on the board will move and potentially attack the players. Then each player will have an encounter, unless they’re engaged with a monster. Encounters typically feature a brief description followed by a skill challenge to avoid bad stuff or gain good stuff. If there are clues in the neighborhood, there’s a chance of your encounter giving you an opportunity to gain one of those clues.
Finally comes the Mythos phase. Players take turns drawing 2 tokens each from a bag. These tokens make monsters, Doom tokens, and clues appear, or could require the player to draw a Headline card and resolve its effect. (There are a few blank tokens as well). Once removed, the tokens stay out of the bag until the bag is empty, at which point all tokens are returned to the bag.
Once the Mythos phase is over, a new round begins. The game progresses based on directions from the scenario cards. Adding clue tokens to the scenario progresses the game toward victory; but Doom tokens tilt things toward defeat.
If a neighborhood ever has 5 doom tokens (or 3 in one space), an Anomaly appears. Once an Anomaly is on the board, all Doom tokens added to that neighborhood instead go to the scenario card. Also, any Encounter from that section of town is drawn from the Anomaly deck, possibly allowing you to shut down the anomaly.
Mythos tokens, monsters, and other game effects can all add Doom tokens, but the only way to find clues is to resolve their encounter cards. Scenarios may provide other actions you may perform or specific tasks in order to progress the story forward.
Death and Insanity To Us All
Oh, Arkham Horror. What have you done to yourself. Look at you, old fool. Trying to be one of the cool new kids.
There’s a trend in board game design in recent years to streamline, strip away, simplify. In many ways this is a good trend; a game with fewer rules is easier to teach, to learn, and therefore to get more people playing.
But not every game has want of being a slick, streamlined experience – and done the wrong way, this can kill the soul of a game.
Compared to the 2nd edition, Arkham Horror 3e is slick, modern-ish, clean. The board is modular. There are far fewer corner cases that require extra pages in the rulebook. There are fewer decks to shuffle (though still plenty). Many of the random elements of the game – like where gates appear – have been made more predictable.
But the end result of this stripped-down version leaves some gaping scars exposed.
Let’s walk through a turn: You get 2 actions, usually moving being one of them. You can try to remove Doom with a die roll. You can try to research with a die roll, if you have a clue. Probably fight a monster if there are monsters. It goes fairly quickly, although it can be frustrating when you just want to do the same action (like finish off that monster you gravely wounded).
This phase is overall fine. You have some choices, you can see the problem areas on the board, and it’s usually pretty clear what you have to do next even if you don’t yet know how to win the game. It’s unfortunate that simple die rolls can cause you to fail, but that sort of thing isn’t unusual in this type of game.
But from there, it’s all maintenance. You get an entire phase dedicated to moving the monsters, many of which have special abilities or rules that guide their movement and attacks. That’s going to take a few minutes – all of which is dictated by the game, not the players.
Then the encounter phase. If you’re not frustratingly engaged with a monster, you get to resolve an encounter card… which typically has you reading and rolling a die to see if you are okay. Rarely any decision making going on there, unless you get to buy something from a shop.
After that comes the Mythos phase, which is once again a series of resolutions the players must handle, but with zero decision making.
Following with me so far? You get 2 brief actions, followed by 3 full phases of reading cards and updating the board with almost no input from the players.
Compare this to the 2nd edition, which had a movement phase (similar to the action phase) and Encounter phase, but condensed the Monster and Mythos phase into a single card draw resolved by one player that handled global effects, clues, gates, and monster movement.
Looking back, there’s a lot from 2nd edition that I miss in this game. The “Focus” ability, for example. In this 3rd edition, Focus is an action that allows you to add 1 to one of your abilities. In 2nd edition, you had sliders for your skills which you could adjust every turn, but would raise one skill up while lowering the other. Speed vs Sneak, for example. So as you looked ahead to the turn to see what you needed to do, you could make adjustments. It was fun.
While the encounters are similar in that you don’t have a lot of choices, you just resolve an effect and sometimes roll a skill die, 2nd edition had location abilities you could resolve instead of drawing an encounter, making it possible to gain items, spells, and healing if you went to the right place.
Monsters filled the streets in 2nd edition, meaning you had to sneak or fight to get past them and go do your stuff. It was dangerous business to end your turn outside, but when you got some place you could still do what you went there for. Here in 3rd, Monsters are everywhere, interrupting your encounters and causing a lot of frustration. You can’t get clues or gain items without encounters, so a Monster in the way can be a real nuisance.
I think gates were more interesting too in 2nd edition. Each gate led to a different dimension with its own encounters and a unique depiction on the board. Yeah, it took up a lot of space, but it sparked your imagination and made you feel like you were on a unique journey. In 3rd they’re no longer gates but “Anomalies” with random encounters, maybe more tied to your scenario, but there’s a loss of an interesting vibe there.
The Doom token mechanic is relatively clever, except that it’s taken straight from Pandemic and there are a lot more dice rolls getting in your way.
And yes, 2nd edition was clunky and unwieldy, with lots of specific rules to handle the many many mechanics you had to deal with. There were frustrations; monsters could become roadblocks in getting from one place to another. Rolling poorly could result in a series of failed encounters through no fault of your own. Setup was a beast, there were too many decks of cards, and you spent a lot of time in the rulebook. But you also created stories. You played in a sandbox. You found ways to get around the roadblocks. You became deputized and drove the car frantically around the block to pick up your friends and close the last gate on the turn before Azathoth awoke. You laughed as someone got kicked out of every building they tried to enter. You gained items and equipment that allowed you to do more things as the game went on and the situation became more desperate.
In 3rd edition, you roll dice to remove doom tokens. You read a few cards and do what they tell you. The scenario advances one way or another in the way it is prescribed, taking some imagination away from the players. It is streamlined and mechanical feeling, but somehow it has lost some of its soul.
I will admit there are even some cool, interesting ideas here. I don’t hate the Doom token system, even if it is a riff on Pandemic. The anomalies ripping open as mysterious activity piles up in one part of town is possibly the most thematic part of the game, and it allows players insight as to where to focus their efforts.
I appreciate Fantasy Flight attempting to delve into new storytelling territory. The branching possibilities allows for some discovery, at least the first time you play a scenario, but I think the game needs more branching and less specific story to allow player imaginations to fill in the gaps and to make the scenarios less tedious once you know what’s going on.
Even the Clue system, which mixes the Clue encounter card at the top of a neighborhood deck giving you a chance – but not a guarantee – of finding the clue there has potential. It’s just that with all these mechanical changes, the encounters need more player choice. Risk/reward, or choose between two bad but different options. You can’t strategize if your main role in the game is to roll the dice when told.
The Mythos phase? Well, I get what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to make it feel like all players are involved in the bad stuff instead of there just being an upkeep phase resolved by a single card draw. But this is one of the biggest fails of the game, because it does nothing but make the upkeep take 5 times longer. I guess there is some excitement in the token pull when you don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’s not like there’s a huge variety – and you’re going to draw them all after a couple player turns eventually. So it just doesn’t work.
The board is the coolest element. The puzzle-style design allows for different arrangements. It doesn’t create drastic differences, but it can make certain neighborhoods more isolated or change the time it takes to travel around the board.
The board gaming hobby has changed a lot since the 2nd edition of Arkham Horror released. As more people get into the hobby, designers and publishers are looking for ways to make their games accessible, playable by a wider audience. This 3rd edition makes such an attempt by streamlining mechanics and reducing components, but a lot of those changes either stripped the soul from the game or just downright didn’t work. Maybe Arkham Horror didn’t need a reboot. Maybe this game should have started on a brand-new platform instead of trying to change what was already done, and just left all the baggage behind. All I know is, even as I was writing this review, I felt the draw to play Arkham Horror again – but not the 3rd edition. The 2nd. I guess that says a lot.