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ARKHAM HORROR

Reviewed by Frank Branham

(Fantasy Flight Games, 1-8 players, ages 12 and up, 2-3 hours; $49.95 )

 

Fantasy Flight is on an interesting tack. Not only do they create their own totally non-Euro massive adventure games, but they have started on a journey to resurrect a lot of classic 80’s and 90’s adventure games. This is the sort of stuff that people are paying literally hundreds of dollars for, copies with limited art, die-cut cards with perf edges, paper maps, and die roll event tables. Do you even still remember die roll tables?

The old Arkham Horror was an odd little game, mostly fondly remembered for its inclusion of Lovecraftian critters, its fully cooperative gameplay, and its horrifying difficulty. I fondly remember unnameable alien entities roaming freely through the streets of Arkham, and jumping repeatedly up and down on my chest. I also remember the frustration of being unable to do absolutely anything for an hour, and having to roll dice repeatedly to randomly move each and every monster.

The new Arkham Horror, reworked by original designer Richard Launius along with Kevin Wilson, has been vastly remodeled, although there does appear to be an Usher-like crack in the foundation that permeates the entirety.

The production is amazing. The art is recycled from Fantasy Flight’s extensive art collection from their Call of Cthulhu CCG. The number of components is simply staggering. There is an oversized board, tons and tons of counters, and a brick of several hundred cards. The game in play has the giant board in the middle surrounded by 6 or 8 piles of counters and something like 19 different decks of cards.

The tables are all gone. They are scattered among the 19 decks of cards. You no longer roll to move the monsters. There is a deck for that which tells you exactly how to move the few monsters that move. The game is quite a bit easier. (Is that a crack?)

In spite of the daunting terror of that rulebook, the core of the game is simple. You move up to your Speed characteristic, and then encounter whatever you meet. Monsters you fight; events make you draw a card. Much of these involves building up your arsenal to deal with monsters and gates. After the players take turns, the monsters get to move. A new gate to the other dimensions opens, and a monster pops out, the monsters move a bit, and an event happens. When you collect enough clue tokens, you can jump through a gate, spend a couple of turns drawing event cards in the other dimension, then pop back through the gate to try and close it. Once a location is sealed, any gates that try to open there are ignored. (Was this crack here a moment ago?)

The rest of the game is all flavor and there is a ton of little mechanisms to deal with the various aspects. Some monsters fly, some do not move, some are immune to things. There are townsfolk who can help you out, but die off. There is a “Big Bad” that adds an overall event to the game, and you actually have to fight in a massive battle if too many gates open.arkhamboard

The game does move at a decent clip. Monster turns move incredibly quickly, and the cooperative nature means that every player is trying to work out what the team should do during every aspect of player turns. There is even a passable amount of strategy: knowing what sorts of weapons are in the decks, and roughly what sort of things you can find at the locations (these are even marked on the board) let you effectively work out what you and your team need. Healing and new weapons are easy to come by (unlike the original game where healing took FOREVER, and getting a good set of weapons was difficult at best.)

And the game as a whole is kind of easy. We’ve never lost. Actually…we’ve never even come close to losing. We’re starting to look at Fantasy Flight’s suggestions for making the game more difficult.

Most cooperative games are on the hard side…at first. Because the game is one-sided, a lot of the fun comes from being brutally slaughtered on the first outing and then slowly figuring out the best ways to deal with the challenges the game puts in your path.

In Arkham Horror, there are two ways to win, kill the big bad or close the gates. Sealing the gates is where the problem occurs. There are 8 places in which new gates can spawn but the distribution for these is quite uneven. The first gates that appear are more likely to be in only 3 locations and, once a couple of these are closed, new gates and monsters appear very infrequently. The start of a game can be rough, as you are ill-equipped and there are quite a few monsters, but as you get more powerful, the number of monsters actually tends to diminish, because new gates are opening only every 2 or 3 turns.

This flaw really does seem to affect things throughout the design. The Horror Track, for example, is a way of keeping a manageable number of monsters on the board at one time. Whenever the monsters go so far over a limit, they go into a reserve box. When the reserve box fills up, it bumps up the Horror Track. This kills off townspeople and closes stores as things get worse. This adds tension to the game in other ways instead of just having legions of monsters roaming around. In our games, I think it went up once (maybe twice) early in one game. There weren’t enough monsters, and our investigators pretty much owned the streets.

This new reworking took a game that was mired in 80’s tedium and streamlined all aspects of play, making for a game that feels less like work. But after about the third game, Arkham Horror stopped being addictive and fun. While I have enjoyed my early plays of the game, now all I can see is that horrible crack in the foundation. I really am of two minds about this. In its current form, Arkham Horror is not worth playing more than a handful of times. I SO want there to be a simple change that will fix it, because there are tons of clever little elements and balances that you find within the cards and events as you play. There is a wonderfully evocative adventure hiding within the game, and with a few tweaks and adjustments, perhaps it can be resurrected. – – – Frank Branham


 

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Fall 2005 GA Report Articles

 

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