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Joshua Noe
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Wauwatosa
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Love live the Empress!
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Overview: A cooperative game, players are heroes in the town of Arkham, living out Lovecraft’s horrors as they try to save the world from the waking Old One.

Game Pieces: The game is made by Fantasy Flight, and as such, they do a wonderful job on the game pieces. The board is MASSIVE. Although it is definitely needed, the fact that the PLAYING SPACE actually is larger than the board itself means you will certainly need a large table. Our kitchen table was too small for this game. Best bust out your dining room table…with the leaves…or play on the floor. As with most of FF games, there are a TON of pieces. And you WILL use them.
The player pieces are difficult to put into their stands. I needed a screwdriver to pry apart the stands. Otherwise, the pieces are perfectly sized. The player cards (which give stats and special abilities) are large, which is good because you will be stacking things onto them. The equipment cards, however, are small…about ½ the size of a playing card. Unlike in “Ticket to Ride”, however, this is a GOOD thing, since you will not be holding these in your hand, but placing them in front of you on the table (takes up less space). The encounter and mythos cards are playing card sized, and easy to read with nice art work on their backs. The monster pieces, which are 1”x1” chits are perfectly sized, although sometimes hard to see on the background of the board. This can be tricky since you always have to count how many there are (upwards of 10), and they can “blend into” the board.
The 2 biggest disadvantages of the pieces: (1) You will need to provide a “Monster Cup”. A cloth bag supplied with the game would have been preferred. The cup, if you decide to use one instead of a cloth bag (I wouldn’t recommend it), needs to be pretty big. About 24 oz (if not larger, to shake it and mix the pieces) AND opaque. (2) All the cardboard pieces go into 1 tray when you are done playing. This makes set-up painstakingly long. Instead, they should’ve created more trays to divide the different pieces into. Still, plastic baggies work nicely. Trust me…you’ll need them.

Mechanics: This could be a very, VERY long section, but I am *not* going to re-write the rules here. Instead, I’ll provide an overview and explain pros and cons with each phase. It’s still going to be a bit wordy, so be prepared. The rule book is around 20 pages, but well written. About 1/3 of it is examples, which are illustrated, and make all the rules (including exceptions) easy to understand.
The Set-up involves giving each player a character (I’ll use PC from here on out) to play. Each PC has 6 stats coming in 3 pairs. In each pair, when one stat is high, the other is low. Each PC sets his stats for the beginning of the game. Each PC then gets a number of items (random OR assigned), money, henchmen/allies, and their piece is placed on their starting location.
This would be a good time to explain the board itself. It is divided into 3 sections. The largest is Arkham itself. This is where, for the most part, the players will spend most of their time. It is a “map” of town divided into subdivisions (aka areas) that are connected by central streets. Each subdivision has about 3 locations. Each street and location is basically spaces that players and monsters can occupy. The 2nd section is “The Other World”. These are extra dimensional places that have 2 spaces each. And the 3rd section is “everything else”. This includes an area for the outskirts of town (where monsters go once the town is too full for more monsters), the sky (for flying monsters to go to and hover), Lost in Time and Space (where you go if you get “stuck” in the Other World, waiting a precious turn to regenerate), & the horror track (how scared the townsfolk are).
Back to set-up: Players then choose an Old One, either randomly or picked. There’s about 10 (I think), and this will be the “boss monster” that is starting to wake up to wreak havoc on the world. Depending on the Old One picked, certain effects will take place during the game, so it changes each time. This is a nice mechanic, because not only do some of the monsters act differently depending on the Old One, but the LENGTH of the game can be determined by the Old One. Playing a game against Azaroth takes longer than, say, Yig.
The set-up, as stated before, does take a while. The first time I played, perhaps 15 minutes. You’ll have to use the manual to help you set up since you do about 13 things to get finally set up. Again, this would be easier if the pieces were divided ahead of time.
Now the game begins.
Each turn is divided into 5 phases.

Phase 1: Upkeep. Players accumulate money (if they have any affects that allow them this), check to see if they’re continuous effects go away, and (the biggest effect) adjust their stats.
-Pros: The adjustment of stats mechanic is beautiful. As stated before, as 1 stat goes up (example: Speed) its counterpart goes down (example: Sneak). Each PC can “slide” their stats a certain number of times per turn. So let’s say I have Speed=4 and Sneak=1, and my PC can only adjust 1 stat by 1 per turn. Taking me 3 turns to get to Speed=1 and Sneak=4. Others can adjust up to 3 per turn. This makes some PCs useful that they can “play the game by ear” versus other REALLY have to plan their turns well in advance.
-Cons: There’s a lot going on during this phase, and it is easy to forget to collect money, or to reset spells, or check continuous effects. Having the “1st player” do their job and make sure everybody does what they are supposed to do is key.

Phase 2 & 3: Movement & Arkham Phase. Players move (‘nuff said) if they want. PCs in Arkham then have an encounter. This consists of drawing a card from the corresponding deck (i.e. if you are in “The Docks”, you draw a card from “The Docks” deck). You then read it out loud and do what it says to do. Many times you will be required to perform a “check”. It consists of rolling a number of dice (six-siders) equal to the stat, plus/minus modifiers. Every 5 & 6 is a success; normally only 1 success is needed, but the card will tell you if you need more. If you fail, the card will tell you what to do. Should you encounter a monster on the board, combat is the same mechanic. First, you can try to sneak past it or simply fight it. If you do go into combat, you make a Will check to see if you lose Sanity by just facing the thing. Then you make a Fight check using weapons or spells (which act as modifiers). Should you die or go insane, you either go to hospital or the asylum and “recover”, wasting precious time and resources. Sometimes you have to go there to heal/gain sanity back before death/madness sets in to save your resources. Finally, in place of drawing a card some locations let you purchase things or “become” something. For example, you can go to the General Store and use $ OR monster trophies (you get these from killing a monster) OR gate trophies (you get these from closing gates) to buy weapons. Or you can trade in trophies at the Police station to become the Deputy (gets you a Police wagon, a special gun, and some other cool stuff).
Also during this phase, if you land on a Gate (see Phase 5), you go to the Other World (see Phase 3).
-Pros: This phase is very quick and easy to follow. Most of the time, this phase is done in about 1-2 minutes total, including combat. Since it is a cooperative game, and people don’t want to be sitting around, this is a nice mechanic. Also, the cards have a wonderful story/RPG component to them, so there really is a unique, well-done, developing story each game you play.
-Cons: Combat, although the same easy mechanic as any other skill check, can be a bit confusing because of all the modifiers on the chits. You have to worry whether you want to fight or sneak past the monster, about Horror checks, how much Sanity to lose, then to fight it, how much damage to do, and how much damage you take. Since it is all represented by symbols or unlabeled numbers on the monster cards, it takes a lot of referring to the manual for what means what.

Phase 4: Other World. Same as Phase 3, except draw a card from the Other World deck. These tend to be more dangerous events and skill checks. Speed doesn’t matter in other dimensions, so you only take 1 step per turn. Since there are only 2 spaces per location, you are only there for 2 turns, before you exit the gate. Once out, you can try to close and then seal the gate, which is the whole point of the game (see Strategy).
-Pros: Same as Phase 3.
-Cons: Same as Phase 3.

Phase 5: Mythos Phase. This is where the bad stuff happens. 3 things happen in the phase. Draw a mythos card, reading the story along with it, and:
(1) Open a gate at a given location and bring a monster through. The Old One stirs, which means that he is closer to waking (and ending the game). If there is already a gate at that location, then a monster comes through EVERY gate. Gaaaaahh!
(2) Move monsters according to the card. If you run into a monster, you must fight or sneak past it.
(3) Do the effect on the card. Sometimes this is a permanent effect, sometimes a temporary effect, sometimes a one-time effect, and sometimes an effect that can be canceled if players do certain things (like a “quest” in a fantasy-style game).
-Pros: This is where you really get the sense of impending doom. Bad stuff happens frequently early on, and late in the game. The middle is fairly quiet, and that mechanic really adds to the horror genre of the game. Think of your horror novel/movie: Bad stuff early, bad stuff at the end, creeping doom in the middle.
-Cons: Monster movement is tricky. Some monsters move normally, others move fast (2 spaces), others fly (moving any direction), others are stationary, others do special powers. It takes time, and again, the “1st player’s” job to make sure it is done correctly. This inevitably gets screwed-up at least once per game.

Strategy: Awesome. Hands down one of the best cooperative games I’ve seen. The Phase 1 mechanic proves this. You really have to plan turns ahead. If you want to go to the other world, and try to seal those gates, you need to spend time getting your Will up. Oh, but you may need to get thru monsters to get to that gate? Well, better boost your fight. Crappy fighter, you say? Well, best go buy some spells to boast your combat. Also, each player takes a role for the game that becomes more and more defined as the game goes on.
-“Hey, I’m going to seal that gate.”
-“Okay, I’ll guard your exit.”
-“Well, while you 2 do that, I’m going to dig for some clues so you CAN seal that gate successfully when you get out.”
-“Alright, gang let’s do it!”
Victory is achieved when ONE of the following occurs: (1) Close and permanently seal 5 gates. (2) Kill the Old One. The second of these can only occur once he wakes up, and I will just say it’s practically impossible. Less than 5%, easily.
The PCs lose if ONE of the following occurs: (1) the Old One wakes and kills the PCs. (2) Too many gates open (depends on # of PCs).
These situations add to the strategy since you may have to temporarily close gates, even if you can’t permanently seal them (a seemingly waste of trip to Other World). Also, as more and more gates open, more and more monsters appear. This drives the townspeople out of town, forcing certain important locations (like the stores) to close.

Does it work with few (i.e.1-4) players as well as more (i.e. 5-8) players?: Not as much. The game is better with 3+ people. It works with 1 player, and has altering mechanics for different number of players, but is best played with more PCs. There are 3 reasons for this. First, it’s better if you have each PC take a specialized role, rather than jack of all trades. Second, you *could* have each player take the role of 2-3 PCs. It is exceedingly difficult to do, since there is so much going on with each PC, including upkeep, items (can have 10 items/PC), effects, etc. Third, you lose the whole “different story affecting each player” effect you would get with multiple people, which is really what drives the players and this game.

Will my non-gaming spouse/friends like it?: No, unless they are a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan. There are just too many mechanics for a non-gamer to enjoy it. Not to say they aren’t amazing and appropriate. If you love, say, RPGs, this is a perfect way to spend an evening. But if you like Monopoly, this will be a MASSIVE step up. Stick to gateway games like “Settlers of Catan” or “Carcassone” for those non-gamers.

Good for kids?: No. Again, too many mechanics. The horror aspect, however, is not Wes Craven horror, but rather Edgar Allen Poe horror. That is, it’s all suspense and fear of the unknown, not gore, and this game does such a fantastic, keep-with-the-original-genre job, that do NOT worry about that affect on kids. But they will be overwhelmed with the rules.

Should I buy it?: It’s not cheap: retails for $49.95, which is average for most FF games, given the pieces. The criteria for buying this should be: (1) Can you get 3+ people together to play a 2+ hour game regularly? (2) Do you like suspense/Lovecraft? (3) Would you sacrifice simple mechanics for a game that delivers a powerful storyline as you play and a sense of impending doom? If you can say “yes” to all 3 questions, then buy it. I love this game, but find it difficult to find a group to play it with, since most of my regular gaming buddies are in the gateway-style category
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Joel Carlson
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Pepperell
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Awesome review; thanks for the clear and concise breakdown of who you would and wouldn't reccomend this for.
 
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Eric T
United States
Villa Park
Illinois
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Thank you, great review and helped my decision to go and get a copy!
 
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Ilja Preuß
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Two corrections:

- too many gates open awakens the ancient one, which the PCs then have to battle - they don't lose automatically

- PCs can't trade clue tokens - one cannot dig for clues so others can successfully seal gates. Consequently, the strategic decision would be "do I go close a gate now, or do I dig for some more clues so that I can seal it later?"
 
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Joe Casadonte
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Nice review. One counter-point, though: I think it works fine with 2 players. Yes, there's less story arc, but it's very frantic, in that fun sort of way. I do agree, though, that playing more than one character can be challenging. We do it sometimes, but most of our 2P games are with 1 PC each.
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Jon Padgett
United Kingdom
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Good review.
A couple of comments though. The game works perfectly well with only two players as it also does with 8. However, the more players you have, the easier it gets. Also, they include a large "monster cup" with the game.
- It's called a box lid.
 
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Jason Thomas
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Quote:
Also, they include a large "monster cup" with the game.
- It's called a box lid.


This is too bad. I hate it when someone puts a lot of thought and effort into a review and gets a flip, sarcastic response like this. Even though I'm sure the comment's author will defend it by saying "Can't you take a joke?", stuff like this never reads like it's a witty, clever attempt at humor. It just seems like a big, mean spirited "DUH!" to the poor reviewer.

That said, I wouldn't have minded a monster-sack, like in "Return of the Heroes". I found an old flour sack, and am soaking it in tea to give it an aged "found-in-the-woodshed" look. When it dries, I'm going to stain the bottom with some rust-red stuff. In the end, it'll cost about $.75 for the sack, and take about fifteen minutes of my time (not counting soaking/drying time).

If it turns out looking like the old, bloody sack I want it to be, I might upload some pics.
 
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Konwacht
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Really awesome review!

NOW I really MUST have this one
 
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