It all starts with H.P. Lovecraft. A weird fiction writer from the 1920’s, Lovecraft popularized what is known as Cosmic Horror, stories that deal with terrors from the great beyond, beings that are older than humanity itself and taunt us with relentless abandon. These tentacled and winged abominations are too terrifying for the human mind to comprehend, so many of the stories deal with protagonists who fight to retain both body and sanity, and live long enough to tell the tale.
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
Retail Price: $59.99
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As you already probably know, Cosmic Horror and Lovecraft’s popular Cthulhu Mythos has influenced various entertainment mediums. There are hundreds of books, movies, comics, music, toys, and more that prominently feature the Elder Ones and their mad machinations. And then there are games, both of the tabletop and video game variety, which task the player (or players) with defeating these slumbering Gods and their minions.
Arkham Horror is one of these games. Originally designed by Richard Launius and published by Chaosium, the recent revised editions are handled by Fantasy Flight Games, the guys behind the Android Netrunner card game, the Game of Thrones CCG, and more. In the game, up to 8 players band together to face off against terrifying, indescribable monsters, travel to unknown dimensions, and attempt to stop an Ancient One from awakening before it’s too late. However, is the race to stop Cthulhu and friends worth your time and money?
In Arkham Horror, players venture forth into the titular town of Arkham and face off against an awakening Elder One and its forces of evil. Players start off by setting up a very large and beautifully detailed gameboard, organizing a lot (I mean a lot!) of cards and tokens, and choosing both a character to play with and an Elder One (known as Ancient Ones in the game) to face off against. Each playable character comes with a small backstory, unique abilities, an assortment of items and spells, and RPG-like stats that’ll help a player take on legions of foes. Elder Ones, however, are just as varied, as each one comes with its own set of unique abilities that buff invading creatures, and come with a doom track, a time limit that doubles as a health meter and shows players how long it’ll take for the Ancient One to awaken. These frightening giants aren’t really a threat in the beginning of the game, but if everything spirals out of control, players will have to face them in the end game, and that’s usually very, very difficult, as these behemoths are definitively overpowered.
The main object of the game is to stop these big baddies from awakening, so in order to do that, players must close all the portals in Arkham or use Elder Signs to keep them at bay. However, things are not as easy as they seem (they never are when you deal with these creepy things).
Once initial setup is done, the first Mythos card is drawn, opening the first portal on the map. Mythos cards are pretty much the primary antagonists in the game. These cards open portals, which spawn monsters, and also dictate how these monsters move around the game map. They also can add buffs or debuffs to your characters and enemies, or even start Rumors, which are side missions that usually task players with completing specific objectives, like sacrificing spells to a mysterious individual or defeating a pool of monsters, at the risk of incurring very negative side-effects that raise the game’s difficulty quite a bit.
To close portals that spawn monsters, players must first venture through these and spend two turns inside them before they can finally return to Arkham and attempt to seal them. It might not seem like a hassle at first, but with the potential of having a portal open every turn, things can quickly spiral out of control and begin to feel helpless.
Combat is fairly straightforward, albeit with a Lovecraftian Horror twist. Before engaging a foe, players must first pass a horror check, rolling dice according to their Will and the monster’s horror modifier (which either affects the die positively or negatively). If a player succeeds, nothing happens. But if they fail, the horror they witness hits hard, taking a bit of sanity away in the process. Then players roll dice according to their fight numbers, equipped weapons and/or spells, and deal damage if they succeed with their rolls. If they win, they keep the monster as a trophy (or a gate if you defeat it upon returning). If they don’t, they must run away or the process repeats itself until one or the other dies. It’s very tense stuff.
Fighting and closing portals isn’t all you’ll be doing in the game though, as players will also go through Encounters should they end their turns in certain areas in Arkham or in the Other Worlds. These text-based encounters usually require players to roll dice according to their stats, and if these succeed they get nifty items or bonuses, and lose stuff if they fail. Selecting when or where to have encounters is the key to being successful in this game, as some locations offer the option to skip story encounters in order to visit stores and get items, heal missing health or sanity, receive blessings that improve your dice rolls, and more.
And then there’s the end game, which is the worst case scenario. Players take turn rolling accumulative dice in order to deal damage to the mad god, and then get attacked in turn. If you aren’t prepared for this tough battle, the Ancient Ones will flat out murder you.
While Arkham Horror really captures the essence of the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s also pretty difficult game to master. It is relentless in its assault against players, especially newcomers, and this can actually be a turnoff to some. The rules are initially pretty steep and hard to get a hang of on the first try, and there’s so much going on at such a quick pace that you really won’t know what to do when you first start. Should I go and kill a monster? Should I try to avoid it and go for the portal? Or should I collect clue tokens instead? Many of these questions will arise when you first start out, and you probably won’t have time to strategize as the game will quickly be overrun with enemies and portals, closed shops, and the screams of frightened residents. You’ll be meeting your demise various times before you finally manage to plan a sound strategy and stop the Ancient One in its tracks.
Once you do though, it’ll be a sweet, sweet victory. That feeling you get when you finally beat down an Ancient One and his horde, and survive some unbelievably crazy and close calls, is fantastic, making you a true believer in the game and its system.
Just don’t expect victory to happen that often. As Lovecraft’s stories are always sure to point out, those creepy Elder Ones always end up winning in the end.