Thursday, 26 December 2013

Arkham Horror, A Call of Cthulhu Board Game, Part 1: Box Contents

Over the last few months we've had the opportunity to play a few of Fantasy Flight's big box games, but they've always seemed like such a colossal undertaking that we've yet to send any of them to review stage.  Well we've decided it's about time to do something about this, so we're turning our attentions to Arkham Horror, a co-operative game for 1-8 players by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson.

I do hope they remembered to take out wiffle-monster insurance.

Arkham Horror is a Lovecraftian game, so inside you can expect to find Cthulhu and other such wiffley terrors (or "Ancient Ones", as they're more eloquently known).  Players form a team of investigators, working their way around the city of Arkham as portals to other worlds open up in various locations, spewing monsters onto the city streets.  The aim of the game is to close up these portals before one of the Ancient Ones awakens, or, if that fails, to defeat the Ancient One in combat before they can go on to destroy the world.  The Ancient Ones are unspeakably tough though, and containment is usually preferable to a face-to-face showdown.

"Don't worry, lads. I've got me a bottle of whisky and a shotgun, I got this..."

This is a game which has been out for quite some time and is a staple of many gamers' personal collections, so let's push on and see what we thought of it, starting with the rather colossal box contents.

Welcome to Arkham Adventure Land, kids! You are here.
As is typical with a Fantasy Flight big box offering, the gaming board is something to behold.  It's glorious to look at, with a street map of Arkham itself, and the various other worlds which players will be traversing during the game.  It's very nicely presented and there's a lot going on, leaving you in absolutely no doubt that you're in for something rather epic.  However, the flipside of this is that Arkham Horror needs a lot of space to play.  On top of the game board there are also several decks of cards, the Ancient One's character card, and the individual players' character cards which must all be set up around the table.  As a result Arkham Horror has become a game which we're unable to play at Games & Tea HQ, and instead must make a trip to the 6'x4' gaming tables of our FLGS whenever we fancy a go.

There are 8 Ancient Ones altogether in Arkham Horror, all presenting various challenges to the investigators as they try to prevent their incursion into our world.  As well as being incredibly tough adversaries in their own right, each has an effect on the overall gameplay as they "stir in their slumber".  None present a particularly easy challenge, but some are noticeably tougher than others, which allows a bit of catering for either new or highly experienced players.

The great Dexter Drake - with a top hat this fine, how can victory elude us?
The other oversized cards come in the form of the 16 investigators' character cards.  The front side of these cards shows the name and a portrait of the investigator, as well as their base statistics, starting point on the board, inventory, and any special abilities they may have.  The rear of each card contains a short back story, giving a little more information about each character and their reasons for being in Arkham at the time of this otherworldly incursion.  This background information is in no way vital to the gameplay, but it's a nice little touch to give players more of a connection to their investigator.

Each investigator card comes with a matching token, featuring the artwork shown on the character card.  Again the artwork on these is very nice, but we have had occasions where one player has moved another's investigator due to the similar nature of some of the characters.

Pick a card, any card...
We mentioned earlier that Arkham Horror features several decks of cards, and here they are in all of their glory!  The standard sized cards shown on the left half of the picture dictate the course of events around Arkham and in the Other Worlds, setting up encounters for the investigators, determining the locations of new portals, the movement habits of monsters, and ongoing effects which take place across the city.  The smaller cards on the right are those which affect the investigators directly - being items, spells, skills and so forth.  As with the game board itself, the sheer scale of Arkham Horror is amply demonstrated in this card selection, and players must be prepared for a highly in-depth gaming session when they sit down to play.

There are a lot of tokens contained within the Arkham Horror box.  This can look intimidating at first glance, but on closer inspection there are actually mercifully few types - just a lot of them!  There are a handful which are used to track events throughout the course of the game, and so must be separated beforehand, whereas most of the tokens are expendable items such as money, stamina and sanity (anyone familiar with H.P. Lovecraft will know that sanity is expendable!).  The fact that there is nothing to separate the tokens once they're all in the box is a slight annoyance, and the set up for our first few games was slowed when we had to fish out the 14 setup tokens from the other 196 expendables!  We would highly recommend getting hold of a couple of resealable polythene bags early on, allowing separation of these tokens between games.

What's that coming over the hill?  Is it a Cthonian?  Is it a Cthonian?  ...oh wait, it's a Gug.  We're all screwed.

And last, but not least, come the monsters.  While the chosen Ancient One stirs in its slumber, these lesser creatures take to the streets (and skies) of Arkham to hamper the investigators' efforts.  There are 60 monsters altogether in Arkham Horror, some of which are a walkover and some of which are formidable in their own right.  These monsters move around the city, leaving investigators with the choice of either sneaking past them or engaging them in combat.  Sneaking past may seem like the smarter option, but as the number of monsters in the streets of Arkham increases, the difficulty of the task in hand goes up exponentially.  As an extra incentive there are also bonuses available for those brave enough to take these beasts down.

So that's the Arkham Horror box contents, and boy there's a lot of content!  This is certainly a game which leaves you feeling as though you've got your money's worth right off the bat, but it also seems more than a little intimidating at first glance.  Before we leave this article to move on to the gameplay side of things, there is one more item we'd like to cast a critical eye on: the rulebook.

Anarchy rules!

Obviously every game needs a rulebook, and there's nothing wrong with the layout of Arkham Horror's offering, but the issue we had here was one universal to Fantasy Flight's big box games: it's too damn big!  It certainly looks nice when you take the lid off the box of your new game and are greeted by a full colour rulebook the size of the box itself, but when it comes to needing to make quick references back to said rulebook then the size becomes impractical.  With the game itself taking up so much space already, having a rulebook that opens up larger than a sheet of A3 paper is more of an annoyance than anything else.  The rulebook clocks in at a mere 24 pages anyway, so we can't help but feel that halving the size and doubling it to a 48 page book would be a much more sensible option.  But perhaps that's just us.

So with that final rulebook-based note we're ready to move on to gameplay!  How do all of these elements come together?  Just how long does this game take to learn?  How does it work with varying numbers of investigators?  And just what happens when Cthulhu himself wakes from his slumber?  For answers to all of these exciting questions (and more!) check back in a few days for our overall verdict.

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