Friday, 3 January 2014

Arkham Horror, A Call of Cthulhu Board Game, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

A few days ago we made a start on our first Fantasy Flight big box review, taking a look at the box contents of one of their flagship games: Arkham Horror.  Now that we've given you lovely folk some time to let your Christmas indulgences work their way out of your collective systems, we're going to push on with our gameplay analysis and see just how well that plethora of gaming pieces mesh together into a tabletop experience.

Arkham Horror is a fully co-operative game, in which 1-8 players must work together to investigate the strange occurrences throughout the titular city of Arkham, and prevent the incursion of an Ancient One (colossal monster, to you and me) into our world.  As we demonstrated in Part 1 of our review, this game does feature a lot of components, and so the initial setup process takes up a fair amount of time and space.

Once the gargantuan game board has been laid out and the starting tokens and cards have been placed in their appropriate locations, it's time for the players to receive their investigator alter-egos with which they must tread these dark and dangerous streets.  This can be done by either randomly dealing out the character cards or by each player choosing their character from the set.  We personally prefer adding a semi-random element to the process, by dealing out two investigators to each player and then allowing them to choose which of the two to keep.  There are 16 investigators to choose from, so even in full 8 player games this still allows for a bit of variation from one playthrough to the next.
Whilst the various attributes of each investigator can be adjusted from one turn to the next (there'll be more on that later), each character in Arkham Horror does excel in certain areas.  In larger games this means that a team can be assembled to deal with almost anything the other worldly horrors can throw their way, whereas in smaller games it leaves players having to vastly tailor their strategies to accommodate their investigators' strengths.  Some characters are combat heavy, and can play a blunt force game, thundering their way across the board leaving a trail of dead monsters in their wake.  Some are good at evading trouble, and can sneak untouched across the city, preventing the Ancient One's incursion before it even knew it faced opposition!  Some are good supporting characters, keeping their fellow investigators both healthy and sane as they battle the forces of darkness.  And some are simply good all-rounders, excelling at nothing but having no overall weak spots.  If playing a solo game we'd thoroughly recommend hand-picking an investigator, as drawing a support character with no other characters to support is a fairly fast path to a devastating defeat.
Each investigator also starts the game with an inventory, containing some set items and some randomly assigned.  For example one character may start with the Tommy Gun, in which case it will need to be sorted from the Common Items deck, whereas one may start with two random Unique Items, which will simply be dealt off the top of the appropriate deck.

The only remaining element of Arkham Horror is the Ancient One itself.  With 8 to choose from these can also be either hand-picked or selected at random.  Seeing as each Ancient One presents different challenges throughout the course of the game, we've always preferred to hand-pick ours, allowing us to effectively set a difficulty level dependant upon how much of a challenge we want.

Vote Cthulhu for a quick and painful death!
With the Ancient One and investigators all selected it's time for the horror to begin!

Each turn of the game consists of 5 phases; Upkeep, Movement, Arkham Encounters, Other World Encounters, and Mythos.  The Upkeep phase allows players to refresh exhausted spells and items and, more importantly, to shuffle their investigator's stats around.

The bottom half of each investigator's character card is devoted to that investigator's attributes - there are some skills and items which can increase these, but the numbers on the card are that investigator's base value.  Each skill track is marked by one of the 0-shaped tokens, and these keep track of each stat's current value.  The character's Focus is shown above the skill tracks, and this dictated how far a player may adjust their skills during the Upkeep phase.  The character above, for example, has a Focus of 1, so one of his skill tracks can be moved one space left or right.  As you can see, skills are paired, meaning that as one stat is increased another is reduced, which means that players must plan their move ahead and decide just how they want their investigator to behave in the coming turn.  You may want your investigator to be fast on their feet, but the downside to this is that they're unlikely to sneak past any monsters with the amount of noise they're making!
The values on the skill tracks are used to attempt various skill tests as and when the game presents them to the investigators, and they follow a nice and simple mechanic which is easy to remember.  The skill value is the number of dice the investigator has to roll, and any dice which land on a 5 or 6 are counted as a success.  For example, the character above has to pass a Luck check.  His Luck value is 3, so he rolls 3 dice, and if any one of them lands on a 5 or 6 then the check is passed - it really is that simple!  Some checks will have modifiers, such as "Pass a WILL(-1) check", but they always work on the basis that 1-4 is a failure and 5-6 is a success.  This is a very good way of working skill checks, as it requires no memorising of complex stat tables - all that players need to do is read their investigator's stat line and roll that many dice.

After Upkeep comes Movement, and this is where players have to choose between fight or flight.  Any time an investigator ends their movement on a space with a monster or attempts to leave that space, they have to attempt to either evade or fight the creature.  Evading is usually the easier of the two options, but leaves the monster on the board to continue prowling, and once the number of monsters reaches critical levels all hell starts to break loose (literally!).  On the other hand, jumping recklessly into a fight can often end badly, sending the investigator to the hospital and causing them to lose much of their valuable inventory.
This adds further to the forward planning aspect of Arkham Horror, as players must toe the line between taking a full-on fight to these other-worldly terrors, and tip-toeing around the city in the hope of not being spotted.  In large multi player games it can often be worth loading one player up with weapons and sending them on the rampage whilst the others attempt to secure the win for the team!

The way to win at Arkham Horror is to seal the transdimensional Gates which are cropping up across the city, and to do this players need Clue tokens (as shown above).  Once players have gathered enough of these they can head through a Gate and attempt to close it.
Depending on whether they are in Arkham or one of the Other Worlds, the players then have an encounter, which is determined by the appropriate deck of cards.  Some of these will require skill checks to prevent the loss of health or sanity, some simply involve a monster appearing which the investigator must then deal with, and some will reward investigators with Clues, items or allies.  One criticism of the Arkham Horror base game is that there aren't a great deal of cards for encounters within the city of Arkham itself, so in larger games players will see the same cards coming out on more than one occasion.
Following the two Encounter phases, the turn ends with the Mythos phase.  The Mythos phase determines the location of the next Gate, the movement of monsters already on the board, the appearance of new Clues, and events which will either be instantaneous or long-standing.

The opening of a new Gate has two effects on the game; first of all it spawns a new monster into the city, and second of all it brings the Ancient One one step closer to its awakening...

Each Ancient One in Arkham Horror has a Doom Track along the bottom of the card.  Each time a Gate opens inside of Arkham, a Doom Token is placed on the next available number on the track - if the final number is ever covered up then the Ancient One awakens, and the board is abandoned as the investigators dedicate themselves to the singular task of defeating this abomination.  If they succeed then they win the game and can give themselves a firm pat on the back, but when the Ancient One does come out then the odds of success are extremely long!
The turns continue as such with the first player being passed around the board; players move, collect Clues, have encounters, and then allow the horrors to take their turn in the Mythos phase.  The game only ends when the final Gate is closed, or the Ancient One is defeated in combat.
All in all our impressions on Arkham Horror have been mixed.  To prevent this review from turning into an epic of Tolkien proportions we've stripped down the gameplay to its very basics, but we have to emphasise that this is the most complex board game we've ever played.  Most of the games we've learnt in the past generally involve one tutorial playthrough with the rulebook open, and then subsequent playthroughs usually run pretty smoothly with minimal rules consultation.  With Arkham Horror it took roughly 2 months of regular games to fully get to grips with the complicated ruleset, and this degree of commitment to a single game may put off a lot of potential players.  That said, once we'd got our heads around it we did find it very enjoyable, and it's nice to have something that we can throw ourselves into for a whole afternoon.
The second issue is that of space.  With so many components, Arkham Horror does need a lot of space to set up and play, and gamers who don't have a great deal of space at home may struggle to play.

This is a 4 player game set up and ready to go, to give an idea of the amount of playing space needed!
The final issue we had was that Arkham Horror is not a well-balanced game. At all.  The ease of the game is directly related to the number of players involved in our experience, with 1-player games verging on being impossible, 2-players being extremely difficult, and 3/4-player games presenting a decent balance.  We've yet to try out games with higher player numbers than this, but it does point to a trend of more players meaning easier games.
Negative points aside, we have enjoyed our experience on the streets of Arkham.  There are enough variables to keep the game from going stale (aside from the previously mentioned issue with  the Arkham Encounter cards), and it's an extremely intricate and involving game.  It's also a big box game which doesn't break the bank, which makes a refreshing change.
So let's break it down and see what the final verdict is...

The Good Points
  • Arkham Horror is a very involving game, allowing players to lose themselves in a single campaign against the other worldly monsters for an entire evening.
  • It's a beautifully presented game, with nice quality artwork throughout.
  • The skill checks work off a nice simple D6 system, preventing the need for complicated skill tables.
  • As a game for 1-8 players, this is something that can be played by a gaming group of pretty much any size, and can also be practiced alone to help gain a better understanding of the rules.
  • With 16 investigators and 8 Ancient Ones, there are enough variables to prevent playthroughs from becoming too similar.

The Bad Points
  • Arkham Horror is very complicated, and so it will take a long time and a lot of commitment for players to have a firm grip on the rules.
  • It takes up a lot of space, so players living in small apartments may not have room to set up and play the game.
  • The game could do with more Arkham Encounter cards, as these will be quickly re-used in larger games.
  • It's very poorly balanced, with the ease of the game increasing with the number of the players.
Recommended Number of Players: 3-4
Whilst Arkham Horror is advertised as being for 1-8 players, 1-player mode is really a waste of the players' time, as they'll be unable to keep on top of the Gate openings before the Ancient One awakens.  The flipside of this is that with lots of players on the board it's easier to run around and keep on top of things from one turn to the next.  In our experience 3-4 players presents the best balance, forcing players to keep their wits about them without becoming too difficult.
Average Game Time: 3 hours
That's right, we weren't kidding when we said that Arkham Horror would take over your evening.  With such a complex ruleset and deeply involved game turns, a playthrough of Arkham Horror clocks in at roughly the 3 hour mark.
Replay Value: Medium
Arkham Horror does have a lot of variable elements, with the stack of Other World Encounter and Mythos cards, and the selection of investigators and Ancient Ones.  This helps to give a random element to the game which can prevent it from being too samey from one playthrough to the next.  However, the Arkham Encounter cards will be exhausted very quickly, and the extreme length of the game may put some people off coming back for more.
The Future: Bright (if Cthulhu doesn't devour you)
Arkham Horror is one of Fantasy Flight's flagship games, and as such has been blessed with a wealth of expansions.  These add extra sections onto the game board, new investigators, new mechanics, new items, new encounter cards... basically everything needed to refresh the base game.  There are currently 8 expansions to choose from, but it's a safe bet that Fantasy Flight aren't done with the franchise just yet.
Price: £35
For a big box game, Arkham Horror carries a refreshingly small price tag.  Most games of this size will set you back around the £50 mark, but Arkham Horror comes in at roughly £35.  As one of Fantasy Flight's biggest games it's widely available, with a lot of FLGS carrying it on their shelves as standard fare.  For those that don't, however, it should be very easy to order in.
Tea consumed during this review: PG tips with milk and 2 sweeteners... it went cold before drinking.  Brew rating 5/10

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