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Bill Abner
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Johnstown
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Overview:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos continues to be a popular canvas upon which game designers continue to tread. From role-playing games, collectable card games, video and PC games, all the way to the tabletop – Lovecraft’s dark vision of ancient gods and corrupt and deranged humans makes for an ideal backdrop upon which to thrust gamers.

Arkham Horror, Fantasy Flight’s update to the 1984 game from Chaosium is set, as is the case with most Cthulhu games, during the unflappable 1920s. The quiet New England town of Arkham is under siege from creatures of the unknown. Winged Nightgaunts hover over the town; cultists, star vampires, and much, much worse lurk in the city streets as the Great Old Ones continue to slumber, waiting for the moment to once again rise and take their rightful place atop the food chain.

It’s this dark and mysterious setting that your all too human investigators are placed. Arkham Horror is a co-operative game where the players must work and band together in an attempt to rid Arkham of this terrifying menace. Your alter egos will travel to different worlds via strange gates, scramble like mad to close and seal these same gates through which horrific monsters appear, do battle with creatures of the Mythos, go potentially over the wall insane, and attempt to stop the Great Old One from waking – and gunning it down if necessary.

This is a game that relies heavily on its theme more than it does its mechanics or any real sense of strategy. It’s an adventure game first and foremost where the unexpected can and will happen and your best laid plans go awry through the unlucky turn of a Mythos Card or a poor roll of a six sided die.

It’s also a riot. There is an ongoing sense of inevitable death in the game that if you embrace provides most of the entertainment value. It’s simply a blast to see what baffling and hopeless situations your investigators get themselves into and how a base character archetype can turn into a killing machine. Few games allow one player to play a mobster with a Tommy gun while the other plays the role of a spell-casting devout nun – and both work together to fight a common evil.

While the game drips with theme, at times it doesn’t feel like you are playing inside Lovecraft’s world. Most of the stories surrounding the Mythos are more about fear, tension and investigation than it is about gun toting scientists. Arkham Horror is first and foremost a combat game more than it is a horror game. It’s not a subtle, eerie trip to New England – it’s a game where you’re going to be firing guns, whacking monsters with brass knuckles, and casting mind-loosening spells.

There are a lot of rules and you will most likely be checking the rulebook quite often the first few times you play it. Thankfully, the updated book includes an index because it’s certainly needed. It’s not a difficult game to learn, there’s just a lot of rules to remember and a lot of things to keep track of each round which can frustrate some players. If you stick with it though, you are rewarded with a hell of a good time.

The Bits:

The artwork is slick and the board looks very “busy” with multiple locations, streets, Other World areas, and various symbols scattered over the map. The investigators are represented by hard cardboard tokens rather than miniatures, but this fits the game just fine. The card quality is excellent. There is a ton of little bits in the box from clue tokens to skill sliders and sanity and health makers just to name a few so make sure to get a lot of baggies or the equivalent to store everything. Without carefully looking after all the bits you are bound to lose some stuff so you need to be ready when you open up the game.

The Fun Factors:

Mechanics:

Arkham Horror isn’t a game with “elegant” mechanics – there are a lot of variables, a lot to keep track of, and at times it can bog things down a bit. The game uses D6 die rolls to determine pretty much everything with fives and sixes needed to succeed. Investigators have ratings in various categories such as Fight, Sneak, Will, Lore, etc. The skill rating determines the number of dice you get to throw to perform a check – so if you have a Fight rating of “4”, you throw four dice, and so on. One of the interesting elements is the way that characters are designed and that there’s a ying and a yang to specific skills.

During the game’s Upkeep phase you can adjust your skills, but if you raise your Speed, you automatically lower your Sneak. By bumping Fight up a notch or two, you suffer from a lower Will rating. These ratings play off of one another and it forces you to make some tough decisions during the game. If you want to fight the Dark Young who has taken residence in the Arkham Library, you may need to raise your Fight rating – but a lower Will rating makes it hard to pass the initial horror check.

In fact, the game overwhelms you with things to do and choices to make, which is why verbally working as a team is crucial if you are going to stop the Great Old One from waking up and rampaging through Arkham. Do you hurry up and try to close and seal gates? Do you focus on killing monsters? Who is going to snatch up the clue tokens that are needed to seal gates as well as provide crucial re-rolls when you fail skill checks? There’s a lot to think about and the investigators who play their own way and who do not work as a team are almost guaranteed to be served as a snack lunch for Cthulhu.

One of the criticisms leveled at the game is that it’s a dice fest – in that you are throwing handfuls of dice at times to determine combat and skill checks. While it’s true that many skill checks involve a lot of dice, particularly when you add some of the more powerful weapons and magical items which add to your dice pool, this is a fuzzy gripe at best. Usually you only need a few successes to pass a tough check so even if you have ten dice to roll you’re only checking the successes and not tallying every number. It’s nowhere near as mind numbing when it comes to dice as a game like World of WarCraft.

The game’s mechanics aren’t exactly streamlined but to get too upset by it is missing the point of the game. Luck, both good and bad, is a huge part of the game – in fact it’s pretty much the point of it. Arkham Horror is not a game to be taken too seriously, nor is it one to test your brain cells – it’s a game to be enjoyed with friends over a few beers. If you approach it as such you’re going to have a good time.

Duration and Downtime:

You simply need to know what you are getting into before playing. The game supports 1-8 players, but the sweet spot for our group is four. An eight player game is just too much and when playing a five player game with experienced players you are still looking at a minimum of three hours. Some games take longer than others due to the luck of the draw, but this is not a quick-play game so you need to schedule a nice chunk of time in order to play it. The game works as a solo game with one player controlling multiple investigators, but you’re really missing out on a lot of the game’s fun by playing alone. This is much less a game about winning than it is sharing the experience with your friends. Downtime isn’t a big problem, though. Unlike other dice-heavy games like Runebound or WarCraft, which both have a large amount of sitting and waiting, the turns in Arkham Horror move along at a nice clip.

Replay Value:

With numerous investigators and a large selection of monsters and Great Old Ones and literally a hoard of cards, each game of Arkham Horror, while it follows a similar pattern, feels different. There’s always something new to get your investigators into each and every time you play it.

Replay value is monumentally enhanced when you buy the Dunwich Horror expansion which is almost a required purchase if you like the base game. It adds more of everything: Great Old Ones, Investigators, cards, injury and madness traits, and even a small board addition (the town of Dunwich itself). If you do enjoy Arkham Horror, the Dunwich add-on is a must buy.

Conclusion

Arkham Horror is a wonderful game if you go into it knowing what to expect. This is not a game for the quiet, ponderous gamer who likes to study a board looking for a great strategy in order to win. It’s more of a die-hard gamer’s party game where insane and hilarious things happen to your team – from going nut ball crazy to gunning down monsters with a magical gun. It’s big, long, and full of fiddly rules and oodles of components, but if you have the time, and more importantly the right group of people to play with, Arkham Horror is a great way to spend an evening saving humanity.
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Dave Wilson
United States
Pleasanton
California
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Regarding the long, fiddly ruleset...

In my first few games, we consistently found some rule or other that we didn't play just right. Could have been the outskirts rule, or the effects of spending clue tokens to reroll skill rolls, or swapping clue tokens, or whatever. But it was also pretty consistent was that in spite of the "missing rule du jour", we still had a lot of fun. I think the game is pretty forgiving in that way.

That being said, it's also possible for the game to fail miserably if the players aren't into the concept. You have to want to play a shoot-em-up loosely in the Cthulhu milieu, or you're just not going to have fun.
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Bill Abner
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Johnstown
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Dave -- absolutely. I have played AH and the DH add on with several friends, all of whom I'd consider to be hard-line gamers and I'd say the success rate is about 70% with 30% not liking the game at all. I think it's a tough one to gauge whether or not it'll be a hit. The people that like it tend to *really* like it and the ones who don't would rather watch Gilligan's Island reruns. There is no middle ground with my group.
 
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Eric Clason
United States
Cedar Rapids
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This is the second review I've read that claims Arkham Horror is dripping with theme but doesn't have a Lovecraftian horror feel. I think this paragraph says it best:
wabner wrote:
Overview:
While the game drips with theme, at times it doesn’t feel like you are playing inside Lovecraft’s world. Most of the stories surrounding the Mythos are more about fear, tension and investigation than it is about gun toting scientists. Arkham Horror is first and foremost a combat game more than it is a horror game. It’s not a subtle, eerie trip to New England – it’s a game where you’re going to be firing guns, whacking monsters with brass knuckles, and casting mind-loosening spells.


The question I have is: If the games doesn't have a Lovecraftian horror feel, what theme is it dripping with?

I have yet to played this game. However a friend of mine, who has played it, was disappointed with the lack of Lovecraftian horror feel. I should add that there are several cooperative games that I like, but that my friend says are more like an activity than a game.

(Is Lovecraftian a word )
 
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Laura Alton
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I find that when we play this game we really need at least one rules guru or things bog down a lot. We also forget at least one rule per game, although it is still extremely challenging even when we accidentally cheat. I love the concept, I love that there are a lot of things to do - but the meta-game can get really confusing. When we first started playing we were dragging out the rule book every 47 seconds. However, it's getting smoother as we become more experienced with it.

Another aspect of this game that warrants consideration is the sheer size of the gamespace. You'll need a space that's about 4' x 6' - it wouldn't fit on my kitchen table at all.

And as for not having enough Lovecraftian ambiance - this game actually prompted me to read Lovecraft, and I was a bit disappointed to discover that even Lovecraft wasn't as 'Lovecraftian' as he was touted to be - much less scary than I thought. ^-^
 
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Thomas R. Moen
Norway
OSLO
Oslo
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Laura: I agree about the lack of horror in Lovecraft's writing, but he still manages to introduce at times a really interesting world with its own "workings".
 
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