|Beware the endless quarries|
The works of H.P. Lovecraft have spawned innumerable movies, games, books, and plays inspired by and based on the master of horror's catalog. Some of these spin-offs are truly amazing, using the depth of source material to create truly engrossing experiences whereas others are mediocre at best. Fortunately, Arkham Horror is a shining example of what a company can do when drawing from the depths of the Lovecraft library.
Arkham Horror is the first board game I have ever played that is cooperative as opposed to competitive. Instead of every player for his/herself, all of the players work together to try and stop an Elder God from coming and destroying the town of Arkham (and, naturally, the world). One of the major downsides with playing any competitive game is that a person can feel slighted which leads to them not enjoying the experience. With Arkham Horror you're all in it together, all the way to the end.
My initial reaction to the game was that it was a board game that desperately wanted to be a computer game. A player has to keep track of spells, items, skills, stamina, sanity, money, and stats at all times (done through cards and cardboard tokens). It's rather overwhelming at first, and requires quite a bit of space for the board as well as all of the stuff. Keep in mind that this game can have up to 8 players, so you'll need quite the large table.
Once you figure out how to handle the seeming information overload, the game becomes a strong mix between random luck and strategy. The strategy elements come from choosing where to go and what to do (should you spend a turn restoring your stamina or sanity, or try to seal a portal to prevent the coming of the Elder God?) and the luck elements come from the fact that everything in the game is decided by dice.
Every time something needs to be done, whether it's sneaking by the Sheldon Gang, attacking a monster, casting a spell, or sealing a portal, you roll the number of dice equal to the relevant stat. There are six stats in total - speed, sneak, fight, will, lore, and luck - which are paired off and inversely related. Different characters have different stat ranges, with the ability to build on this base with skills, weapons, or spells. Once you figure out how many dice you have to roll for your event, a 5 or a 6 rolled is considered a "pass." Most events just require one pass, whereas others - such as fighting difficult monsters - require larger numbers of passes. It sounds complicated, but once you get into the game it makes perfect sense.
Movement on the board is decided by the character's speed stat. The board itself is a map of Arkham, allowing you to go around town either shopping, having random encounters, fending off monsters, or sealing portals that might open up. Shopping is straightforward - you can spend money to restore stamina, sanity, or purchase items/skills/spells. You can also use your reputation (spending defeated monsters or closed portals) to get clues, blessings, allies, or get deputized. Getting any of this stuff will greatly aid you in the task of saving the world.
Random encounters are the meat of the game. These have a short description of an event, a possible dice roll, and the result. You never know quite what you're going to get, as portals can open, monsters can appear, you can lose sanity, or you can gain any number of the items discussed above. It's the Lovecraft-inspired event descriptions that keep the game interesting. My favorite random encounter is where your character gazes upon a seemingly endless quarry and loses a sanity point.
Besides basic movement around the map there are other aspects of game play, including the mythos phase, the doom track, the terror track, and others. The mythos sets up new portals and enemies keeping things moving along. The terror track judges how scared the town of Arkham is. The more frightened they are, the fewer shops are open. Finally, the doom track determines how close the Elder God is to escaping into the mortal realm.
I've been talking about portals. Portals are the key to the game. If too many are open at once, then the Elder God instantly arrives. If enough are sealed, then you win the game and the Elder God is forever banished. However, as portals are opening, the doom track is increasing. If the players don't seal enough portals before the doom track reaches the end then the Elder God is released.
When the Elder God is released an entirely different set of rules goes into effect. The board is ignored from here on out, and all players work together to defeat the Elder God. Each Elder God works differently, but needless to say defeating an Elder God in direct conflict rarely ends well. Think of it as a final boss; it's one last chance to save the day before you're doomed. However, you don't want it to come to that. You're much more likely to succeed via portal-sealing.
Arkham Horror is a game in which there is a lot going on. It requires solid teamwork among the players to stand a chance - while smart players will probably win, sometimes it's just not in the cards (or the dice). Another point of note, both a pro and a con depending, is the length of the game. The average game will take 3 hours to complete. It's really fun, and you don't even realize it's taking so long, but that's what makes it dangerous.
Of note is a slight variation of game play that is somewhat more Role-Playing themed. In standard play, the players can see where monsters are at all times regardless of where their character is. In the variation one person acts as game master and only reveals monsters when the player stumbles upon them. While it makes the game slightly more challenging it also makes it more fun.
In short, if you want many many hours of quality game play where you work with your friends instead of against them, then Arkham Horror is the game for you. When you and 5 of your closest friends seal the final portal stopping Cthulu from entering this plane it warms the heart a little. True, the learning curve is pretty steep and there's a lot to keep track of, but personally I think it's more than worth it. This game gets my personal Seal of Approval.
Written by Hyperion, 2006-03-03 20:42:24