WNG – Why I Never Play Arkham Anymore! or, An Arkham Horror Review [Cooperation Month]

Arkham Horror was one of the first “real” board games I played. Oh sure, I did the whole Magic: the Gathering (and every other CCG out there) thing, I’d done roleplaying, I’d kicked around Warhammer/40K, but, when it came to board and (non-collectable) games? I still thought of things like Risk, Monopoly, Life, and the like as what board games really were. Then some of my college suitemates, the cool kids that they were, opened my eyes to what else gaming could be.

Now, to be perfectly fair, Arkham Horror wasn’t really my first. I want to say that must have been like… Munchkin or something. But Arkham Horror holds a special place in my heart for showing me the sort of experience that board games could really be. I have a lot of fond memories of the game. I’ve introduced a lot non-board gaming friends to the game.

Yet, when the time comes to sit down at the table and pick a game, I don’t find Arkham ever coming out anymore.

Hopefully I’ll be able to, with the rest of Cooperation Month behind me, be able to describe exactly why that is and why I think it is so successful at bringing people into the world of board games.

Not quite all of Arkham, but certainly enough of it.

Arkham Horror (+most of the expansions) Vital Stats
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Players: 1-8
Playing Time: 2-4 Hours
MSRP: $59.95 (Base Game), $49.95 (Large Expansions), $24.95 (Small Expansions)
Official Website

Game Overview

In Arkham Horror, you and your friends will take on the roles of investigators exploring the city of Arkham, trying to uncover the town’s secrets and stop one of the many Ancient Ones from awakening and bringing doom and destruction to the world at large.

Summing up the rules of a game as large as Arkham Horror is going to be a bit difficult,  so bear with me for a moment.

There are three routes to victory in Arkham Horror: gate closing (closing all the gates on the board and having a certain number of gate tokens in your possession), sealing (sealing 6 unstable locations), and banishing the Ancient One (defeating the Ancient One if it awakens). The investigators lose if the Ancient One awakens and they are unable to defeat him.

Ph’nglui Mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.

At the beginning of the game, each player will choose (or be given) an investigator. These investigators have Sanity (durability against mind melting horrors), Stamina (durability against being torn asunder), and three sets of paired stats: Speed/Sneak, Fight/Will, and Lore/Luck. These stats are selected at the beginning of the game by playing the sliders over the pair you want. Depending on your investigator’s Focus, you will be able to adjust these sliders a certain amount every turn.

At the end of every turn, a Mythos card will be drawn. This mythos card will typically have some effect on the gamestate (either immediate or persistent), open a gate at some location on the board (which also brings the Ancient One a step closer to awakening… oh, and spawns some horrible monsters to wander around a town), and place a clue token on the board.

In sequence, each investigator will move to a new location (distance  is based on your Speed), then each investigator will have an encounter at their current location (Arkham first, then Other World), by drawing a card from the appropriate deck and then resolving the effect or by using the special ability specified at the location.

The main method of conflict resolution in is through skill checks. Simply roll a number of dice equal to your score in the relevant stat +/- any modifiers (from the skill check itself, items, spells, etc). So, if you have 4 Speed, an item that gives you +1 Speed, and the check is -3, you roll 2 dice. Easy peasy. 5/6 is a success, anything else is a failure. Typically you will only need one success, but some checks require multiple successes. These checks can be further modified with Clue tokens: tokens that you will collect throughout the game and can be spent to provide additional dice on skill checks.

Given the size of Arkham, there is obviously a lot more to the game, but that’s the crux of it. The players will explore the town, fight monsters, traipse through other worlds, barely cling to the vestiges of their sanity as they struggle to prevent the inevitable doom of their world, and throw a hell of a lot of dice.

The Good

Arkham Horror is an experience.

That’s really the best way to phrase it and I do mean it in a good way. This is why, I think, the game has worked so well for introducing others to board gaming. Arkham is going to be different then anything they’ve ever seen. Its big, the components are all nice and shiny, there is so very much to do, and the whole concept of a game where the players play against the game is likely to be quite intiguing.

Of course, this stuff is going to be a bit of an old hat to more experienced gamers, but that doesn’t mean Arkham doesn’t have something to offer them.

See, as part of that whole “experience” thing, Arkham is a game that does a fantastic job of telling stories. Seriously, the game just oozes (an optimal word in the circumstances, I think) with theme. The encounters, especially, do a great job of not only making you feel like you’re deep in a Lovecraftian story, but they’ll also help you create stories all of your own. What other game could have your girlfriend stopping at the Unnamable to pick up a lucky penny, get sucked into a gate to R’yleah, and run into Cthulhu himself?

Helping your imagination along are the fantastic components included with the game. It is redundant to use “Fantasy Flight Games” and “Nice Components” in the same sentence, but still, it deserves a mention. The art is fantastic, pieces are durable, etc. My copy of the game has seen quite a bit of play (and travel), yet still looks pretty damn good.

I really want to emphasize how much I dig the art of Arkham Horror. There is just a lot of great stuff in it. I cannot praise it enough.

The Whatever

Arkham Horror is a big game. Setup/breakdown time for the game is notable (and added on top of the already lengthy playtime) and the game does take up a fair amount of table space.

Still, with a nice table, it fits pretty nicely!

These issues are severely exacerbated through the inclusion of expansions. Not only does the modular nature of the expansions make it enticing to keep components separate (significantly increasing breakdown time), but it also increases the space the game requires. Extra boards, extra card piles, extra tokens, Guardian sheets, Herald sheets… you won’t have table left if you aren’t careful!

This is probably a little over the top. You obviously don’t need to play with almost every expansion at once, but it does capture the size of the game nicely, doesn’t it?

Obviously this isn’t a problem with a big table, but you might want to be wary if you’ve got limited gaming space.

Continuing both on the theme of “this game is big” and “expansions,” it is worth noting that Arkham Horror now boasts a grand total of 8 expansions (4 big boxes, 3 small boxes). That is a lot of Arkham. Generally speaking, more options is never bad, but keep in mind that the quality of the expansions varies pretty heavily and, if you have a compulsive need to collect everything related to a game, Arkham is going to set you back.

The rules for the game are pretty dense, so I recommend actually making sure you sit down and read them closely. There are a lot of little nuances to the game that are easy to miss and make a huge difference to the gameplay. I think, way back when we started, it took… 3-ish plays to actually follow the rules. And we still occasionally mess something up.

Arkham is also chock full of the teeny cards. Your mileage may vary on these things, but I hate them. I hate them so very much. I get why they need to be this way, but it will not stop me from loathing them.

Oh, and Arkham also has an actual, honest to goodness box insert! Yay! Unfortunately, it kinda sucks. Boo.

The Bad

Arkham Horror is an experience.

And I mean that in a bad way this time.

See, the thing that I’ve learned about Arkham over the last several years is that it isn’t really a game. At least, not in the conventional sense. Your actual control over the game is pretty limited. Random mythos happens, spawning a random gate in a random location with random monsters! Then you go somewhere and get a random encounter where you roll dice and are rewarded with random items!

And that’s kind of the entirety of Arkham. Random stuff happens. You go somewhere. More random stuff happens.

Most of your tactical decision making will be picking a person or two to go kill monsters or hit a gate, and most of your strategy will generally revolve around camping certain locations for specific encounters or just generally gearing up. There are a lot of turns for players for many players that can be summed up as “just go do whatever.”

In addition, a fair chunk of optimal play in Arkham… is honestly kind of boring. You memorize where particularly good/bad encounters happen and treat those locations appropriately. If you have cash, you spend time at the shop digging for Elder Signs. You get a person or three equipped for combat/gate exploration and always let them handle it.

So, you play optimally and the game ends up being kind of dull because you are going out of your way to avoid all the cool/exciting/hilarious stuff, and if you play to encounter all the cool/exciting/hilarious stuff, then you are pretty much playing Tales of Arabian Nights or Betrayal at the House on the Hill, except the game takes 3+ times as long, and involves about a billion times more setup/breakdown work.

I do want to note here that the expansions do help with this, providing additional things to worry about during the game, giving players more options for things to actually do. Of course, in turn, expansions bring their own issues (primarily deck dilution, which makes those special things the expansions bring less prominent), but it is important to note that there is some mitigation of these problems in the expansions.

Beyond that… as per standard for Fantasy Flight Games, the rules are kind of hit and miss (the FAQ for all of Arkham Horror, expansions included, is 43 pages long). Some of the most egregious issues were corrected in revised printings of the game, but it is worth noting that you will likely need to dig out the FAQ from time to time. Again, expansions exacerbate the issue severely, so be aware.

My Final Verdict

Arkham Horror… is kind of the summer blockbuster action flick of board games. It is big, it is loud, it is bombastic, it is shiny, but, ultimately, there isn’t that much to it. It is a lot of random stuff happening, while giving the players just enough input to make them feel like they have some control. Which is fine, of course. There are a lot of fun, substance-light games out there! Not every game needs to be a Dominant Species or Games of Thrones. There is room out there for games that are just all about watching shit happen! There are tons of people who absolutely adore Tales of Arabian Nights or (from what I’ve gathered) Agents of SMERSH!

The problem with Arkham, though, is that the game is just too big for what it is. I will fully admit that, in setting up for these pictures, I suddenly wanted to play a bit of Arkham again! Then I had to to actually put the game away and that urge suddenly went away.

It just doesn’t seem worth the hassle to me anymore. If I want a lighter, goofier experience/game, then I can pull out Cosmic Encounter or Betrayal at the House on the Hill and play 3+ games in the time it’d take to do a single Arkham game, and I’d have more fun and do less setup/breakdown work. If I want a tough, mindbending experience, then I can pull out Ghost Stories (ha, you thought you’d escape a reference!) or Flash Point and, well, see the above again.

That said! Arkham Horror is still a lot of fun! If you’re into the sort of experience that Arkham Horror offers, and you aren’t worried about the effort involved? Go for it! If you’re trying to introduce some friends to board games and this sounds up their alley? Give it a shot! The game will be something big, loud, new, and exciting! If you aren’t that much into light games though, or you like light games but heavy set-up and long play sounds unappealing? Definitely give Arkham Horror a pass.


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  1. #1 by szendroib on January 31, 2013 - 3:42 pm

    Arkham is in a little tricky position with me. It is without a doubt one of my favorite boardgames because of the experience, I even love to play it with solo. But as you mentioned, it doesnt really hit the table anymore, because it takes 30 minutes to set up the game, and as I got older, I don’t really have as much time as it would require to play the game. However if FFG would ever release a PC version of the game that eliminates setup and lets you save the game (you cant really leave the real game on the dining table), I would probably play it a LOT. It is true that everything is random, but I like that you have to solve the problems with what little things you got. I have played the game a lot, and I know there are optimal strategies, but I never tried to find them, or utilize them, I find it that it is more fun to go with the flow, visiting random locations. Because of the random nature of the game sometimes really enjoyable things can happen this way.

    Oh and I think you didnt mention the single most important thing playing the game: never let anybody in your playgroup to “cheat”. Lot of players want to reroll dices, move ability markers in the middle of the turn, etc. since there is no real enemy sitting in front of you, and they want to avoid the bad situations. It happens in a lot of coop games, but i find its worst in Arkham, however it destroys the point of the game. In addition usually these bad things balance out in time or lead to good things (even if an investigator dies, the new one could be a much greater asset).

    PS: Sorry if my english isnt perfect:)

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