Who You Gonna Call? – Arkham Horror Review

Box cover

Boy, those new neighbors are weirdos...

I have not been in this hobby for very long. I only discovered The Settlers of Catan seven years ago in college, and it was at least another three years before I started buying other “designer” games. So I’m hardly what could be called an old hand. But I feel like in that period of time, my tastes have evolved drastically. You see, what first attracted me to board gaming was the prospect of playing some fairly strategic games without having to sink an entire evening into one session. We’ve all been burnt by too many unfinished 5-hour Risk-a-thons, so it’s understandable that we might be skittish around games that require more than two hours to play. And like some others, I was a little afraid of complexity in my games. A game that is hard to learn was not a game for me. I’d go to the game store just to ogle the shelves, and I would look at the rows of games by GMT and Fantasy Flight and think “why would anybody waste a whole evening playing one super-heavy game?”

But then a curious thing happened. I was lured into purchasing the rather long and complex (to me) Battlestar Galactica board game. Well, not lured exactly. I went there out of interest for the TV show, which was beginning to wrap up at the time. And its similarity to Shadows Over Camelot (then a favorite of mine) pushed me over the edge. I bought it against my better judgement, and I assumed I’d never get that game played because of its length and complexity. Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered that the game was easier to get to the table than I anticipated. So I went on a little bit of a binge. I tried a ton of longer titles, and many of them remain favorites to this game. But one remained outside my field of interest.

I had no interest in Arkham Horror.

Most of that was just blind prejudice. I have never had a ton of use for the work of H.P. Lovecraft. It always seemed just a little too grim and nihilistic for me, so I had no real desire to try the well-loved board game. It was only when my local game store provided an “Arkham Horror” day that I actually felt I could take a crack at the notoriously complex game. Again to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t completely understand how to play the game, or even how to win, but I had a lot of fun. The other players were good sports. I didn’t really do much to actively help the game, but I had a blast going around the board and just doing crap. I remember very distinctly that I became a tour guide to a foreigner at the train station. That particular detail was delightful to me.

I did not realize it at the time, but complexity and length in a game, used well, can really up the excitement and detail of a game’s narrative. Certainly Arkham Horror benefits in that very manner. The players take the role of various investigators around the city of Arkham. They will try to seal gates to other dimensions and worlds, before an enormous alien being awakens and ruins the town for everybody. Those gates barf up all manner of monsters into the streets. Players run around the city fighting monsters, gathering clues, and visiting buildings. If they get the right stuff, they can travel to another world and then hope to seal the gate when they return. If the players can seal enough gates, they win. If they don’t, the Great Old One awakens, and they need to duke it out. Players win or lose as a group, making this one of the first of the modern crop of cooperative games

As I write that right now, it sounds for all the world like the plot of Ghostbusters. And really, I think that’s what I like most about the game. It’s a serious game for dedicated gamers, but at its core, it’s kind of goofy. It’s not uncommon to have a character who is a mystery writer be armed with an axe and a tommy gun, have a flask of whiskey on hand, and become deputy of Arkham. It plays a lot less like creeping doom, and more like some silly serial. Not that I mind this. Like I said, Lovecraftian horror isn’t really my bag. But this game totally is.

Because of the intricacies of the game, there are a lot of different ways things can go off the rails. If the cards don’t work the right way, it can get out of hand in a hurry. That might get frustrating for some, but it’s actually not as extreme as it looks. When you learn the game, it becomes perfectly beatable. In fact, I think it might actually be a little too easy to beat when you know what you’re doing. There are eight expansions (!) available for the game, and I would recommend tossing the next one in whenever the game gets played out for you. My experience with them is pretty limited (I only have the base game and the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion), but I’m already ready to get another one, probably Dunwich Horror. I haven’t lost in a while.

At least a couple of the mechanisms bear mentioning. First of all, I am a big fan of the skill check system. Each character has a set of six skills. A card or event will call for you to use a particular skill to resolve an action. That means you roll six-sided dice equal to the number on that skill, plus or minus any modifiers. Fives and sixes count as successes. It’s a great system, because it allows you to assess risk right off the bat, and although you can load up a stat to kill a skill check, there’s always the possibility that it will fail. It’s a great way to inject tension into the game, and it’s a very quick system.

I also really like the combat system. It utilizes the skill check system to give you some really cool options when you face a monster. Don’t think you can take them? You might be able to sneak by them and avoid fighting altogether. And if you choose to fight, look out: it might be so terrifying that your mind breaks just a little. It packs the game with lots of tension and story-telling, and it goes a long way towards making the game fun, even in failure.

And I think the narrative is really what I like about the game most of all. It tells a very cohesive story. It reminds me a lot of the excellent Tales of the Arabian Nights, but with a much more fleshed-out game at its core. Still, that paragraph system is right there. It’s just tied to decks of cards instead of a huge book.

Complexity works for this game, but it’s also a very real hurdle to overcome. The basic structure of the game isn’t too complicated, but every different outcome produces a different set of things that need to be done. The game is loaded with housekeeping. Every turn requires you to adjust this and that, and every thing that needs adjusted has its own set of rules. I’ve read the rules through a couple of times, and they do make sense, but it’s really easy to miss something. There are a lot of player aids out there, including at least one or two flowcharts, that are pretty much necessary for the game. But the best way to learn is to have someone else who knows the game well teach you. That person can act as a de facto game-master, and simply take care of a lot of that housekeeping inherent in the design.

But if you can crack through that, it’s a very rewarding game. Not rewarding in the conventional sense exactly. It’s such a complex game that randomness can have a drastic effect on the outcome. There are a couple different ways to win, and a few more to lose, but you can’t really gun for any of them with much certainty. The different factors ensure that your plans will sometimes go awry. But even if you lose, you’ll have fun. It’s hard to not like a game that allows you to travel to another world and debate with some weird creature. I’ve never been allowed to do that in Power Grid.

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