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Subject: The Coffee Table Out of Space--A Review of Arkham Horror rss

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David Matchen
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"O NASA, O UCLA, Etaoin Shrdlu!
O Escrow Beryllium! Pandit J. Nehru!"

--H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, first draft.[1]

Rising from the dead like John Travolta's career (three times, at last count), "Arkham Horror" came back into print shortly after the July 4 holiday, this time by the good folks at Fantasy Flight Games, who picked up the rights from Chaosium. This release is a substantial reworking of the 1987 original, with which, sadly, I am utterly unfamiliar, despite my long-standing interest in the genre. So, this review will stick to the current edition, and leave the comparative analysis to others.

Overview
Something is very, very wrong in Arkham. A strange tension grips the residents. Rumors abound of experiments gone horribly, horribly wrong among the Gothic parapets of Miskatonic University. The skies have darkened most unnaturally and an odd, green miasma inundates the abandoned Witch House in French Hill. Still stranger, sinister robed men carry off frightened townsfolk into black oubliettes and foetid alleys. The police are useless. The university faculty, baffled. And you, an intrepid Investigator, have sworn to get to the bottom of it.

Arkham Horror is a cooperative game, much like "Lord of the Rings" or "Shadows Over Camelot." The players must work together to stop the gibbering, slithering servants of a dark god before they can end their lord's slumber and unleash him upon an utterly unprepared world. You will explore other dimensions, fight tentacled horrors, obtain powerful artifacts, and attempt to seal enough of the proliferating gates before your delay costs Earth dearly...


Bits and Whatnot
This is what you get:
One gameboard, heavy cardboard, folded, single-sided
5 regular six-sided dice
16 character cards, cardstock
8 Ancient One cards, cardstock
16 clear plastic bases (for the character markers)
4 large sheets of counters, heavy cardboard, containing the following:
16 character markers
Elder Sign/Doom Counters
Sanity counters (in 1 and 3 denominations)
Stamina counters (in 1 and 3 denominations)
Money counters (in 1, 5 and 10 denominations)
Clue tokens
Monster counters
16 Gate counters
3 Explored tokens
3 Activity markers
6 Closed markers
1 Terror marker
1 "First Player" marker
Slider tokens
Various decks of cards:
* Investigator decks (miniature)
Skill deck
Spell deck
Common item deck
Unique item deck
Ally deck
Special decks (Curse/Blessing cards, Silver Twilight Lodge
memberships, Bank Loans, Retainers, and the Deputy of Arkham cards)
* Encounter decks (full size)
9 Arkham Encounter decks, 7 cards apiece, one for each of the
districts of Arkham (Downtown, Uptown, Rivertown, Easttown,
Northside, Southside, French Hill, Miskatonic U., Merchant Dist.)
1 Gate Encounter deck
* Mythos deck (full size)

As far as the components are concerned, there are some problems. The gameboard, for instance, is prone to curling, such that I found it necessary to place something heavy on it while folded in hopes of straightening it out. This was only partially successful.

There are also tons and tons of little counters, quite a bit more than is easy to keep track of. One or two came close to ripping while punching out, but overall, the counters are pretty well put together.
However, a minor act of God is necessary when dealing with the little plastic bases. The part that holds the character marker on is pinched together with the sort of tightness usually reserved for industrial vises and anything manufactured by that bebe company. Using anything less than a set of needle-nose pliers or some sort of wedge (I used scissors) to hold the business end of the base open while you carefully insert the marker risks serious injury to your little guys. Now, imagine repeating that, 15 more times.

As far as general attractiveness goes, however, the artwork is appropriately moody and foreboding. The board itself is pretty clearly laid out, but there will be a fair number of counters on it at any given time, and some players may find it a little "busy" for their tastes.

I am, by the way, not unmindful of how expensive little plastic figures can be, but I was somewhat disappointed that FFG didn't use them for the Investigators, at least--especially since the markers contain no character info. Hopefully, someone (FFG itself or a third-party vendor) will hit upon the idea of a miniatures pack for the game, but until that time, the little cardboard jobbies will have to do.

The monster counters, however, contain necessary information, and my regret as to the absence of cool monster figurines was balanced by the practical concern of accessing combat stats quickly--something which really can't be done any other way (unless you put the information on the base of the figurine, which seems prohibitively expensive, not to mention difficult). So, I was in a somewhat mellower frame of mind about the monsters.

Each player has a character sheet, used for keeping track of stats and equipment. A rather interesting feature of the character sheets are three pairs of "adjust-as-needed" stats which are tracked by means of "slider" tokens. Each pair (Speed/Sneak, Fight/Will, Luck/Lore) consists of two stats, each of which are inversely related to the other. So, if you push your slider up during Upkeep to get the maximum Fight rating, your Will rating will suffer, and vice versa. This gives everyone's character a great amount of versatility and adds a good deal of tactical planning to the game, requiring you to plot out your turn ahead of time, lest you get caught with a low Sneak score and a pair of Nightgaunts between you and that gate.

Gameplay
I won't go into too much detail on the gameplay, because it is somewhat complex, and it's easy to forget particular rules while playing. But a general overview should prove sufficient for us.

The object of the game is to cooperate with your fellow investigators to close and/or seal enough of the gates constantly spawning around the board so as to prevent the awakening of the Ancient One, whose identity is determined before the start of play. The Ancient One has a "Doom Track" at the bottom of his card which fills up with Doom tokens as gates open on the board. When they're all filled up (or if there are too many gates on the board at once, or the game has run out of gate tokens when it's time to place one), then the Ancient One wakes up extremely cranky, and the Investigators have to go mano-a-mano with the scaly bastard, an almost surefire recipe for messy, slimy extermination.

The "board's turn" is essentially the once-a-turn draw from the Mythos deck, which places a new gate, spawns monsters, moves the existing monsters, and has one more effect that's often pretty nasty, most of which is designed to hasten the arrival of the Ancient One. Now, let me reiterate that letting the Ancient One wake up is a Very. Bad. Thing. So, the Investigators have to go exploring through these gates as they open, visiting the eldritch worlds on the other end, and then returning in order to close and/or seal the gate behind them.

The influence of the Ancient One is different, depending on its identity. Certain environmental factors or monsters will vary depending on who the Ancient One is, forcing the players to alter their strategies accordingly. The monsters themselves are brutally difficult, many of them not only damaging an investigator's stamina, but attacking his very sanity as well.

What's more, the game keeps track of the town's Terror Level, another nice mechanic. As the minions of the Ancient One begin to exert their influence, the townspeople get more and more scared, represented as a 0-10 on the track. If you let them get terrified enough, certain shops will close and potential Allies will pack up and leave town. Now, normally, there's a limit to the number of monsters that can be out on the board at once (determined by the number of players), and, thanks to the limit, a good group can keep things relatively under control. Let the Terror Level reach 10, however, and the limit disappears. Nice knowing you.

The gameplay is really where "Arkham Horror" shines. The sense of dread is really overpowering, which is perfectly appropriate for a Cthulhu-themed game. Even a skilled group of Investigators will find unexpected challenges around every corner, and there's a real sense of urgency to close all the gates before Hell comes knocking.

However, I'll also note that the events are card-based, and some are real player-hosers. For instance, the "Good Work Undone" card, should you fail the test it poses, removes Elder Signs previously placed, which can be devastating. Another one, The Terrible Experiment, places five monsters on the card and challenges players to come kill them, while it places a fresh one on the card once a turn. If you let a total of 8 accumulate there, the Terror Level jumps to 10, and all the monsters on the card get let loose in the streets. Still, a thorough hosing is a relatively rare event, and most cards of this type can be dealt with using a concerted effort.

Rest assured, "Arkham Horror" is a tremendously difficult game to win (particularly if you wind up with Cthulhu as the Ancient One), and time is of the essence. Wasting even a single turn that could be used to destroy a gate could doom our world to an eternity of torment. Keep a clear head and a focused strategy, though, and you might be able to pull it off.

The Rules
A quick word about the rules. The Rules, in certain instances, need a bit of errata work. For instance, one of the more notorious examples is a confusing pair of directives for how to manage the Final Battle against the Ancient One, once he wakes up. As the Investigators take turns attacking the Ancient One, they keep track of cumulative successes (i.e., 5 or 6 on a die). Once the number of successes reaches the number of players, you take off a Doom Counter (the object is to get the Ancient One back to 0), and the cumulative count resets to zero. The question is what carries over if you get more than the number of successes at once needed to take off a Doom Counter. Despite much tortuous reading of this rule and the accompanying sidebar (which adds some necessary or conflicting--depending on how you look at it--information), the general consensus on this point seems to be that nothing carries over. But then, certain pronouncements from the designers seem to imply that the opposite is the case. Another instance involves what to do with the monsters in the Outskirts holding box once the Terror Counter hits 10 (thereby eliminating the function of the Outskirts box). Again, the general consensus is that you put those monsters back in the pool (which I believe to be the correct rules interpretation), but it seems to me that, logically, they'd get set loose on the streets, which makes the rules somewhat counterintuitive on this point.

(Author's Note: The official rulings from Fantasy Flight on both these issues are: (1) All successes against the Ancient One carry over. (2) Outskirts monsters go back in the cup when the Terror level hits 10.)

Scalability
"Arkham Horror" is designed for 1-8 players, says the box. This is true, but not in quite the fashion you'd think. Although the game is perfectly playable (and fun) with 1-2 players, in order to give them a decent shot at beating the Ancient One, I strongly suggest that each player be given more than one Investigator to play, because ground coverage is key to success. By the same token, I suspect a game with 6-7 players would be too easy for the same reasons. There's some attempt made to scale certain things (such as monster limits, number of open gates required to instantly awaken the Ancient One) to the number of players, but this doesn't extend to the Mythos cards, and the difference between one Mythos draw per 2 players and one Mythos draw per 5 players really stands out. Therefore, I'd say any permutation that allows you to field 3-5 Investigators is the best way to go with this game.

Time Commitment
Each game takes approximately 2 hours, give or take, depending on the Ancient One you draw.

Space Commitment
This game does take up a lot of room, with the character sheets, board, and all the counters and decks. Not as bad as Twilight Imperium, but bigger than, say, Settlers.

Learning Curve
Game Mechanics, Medium-High. There are a lot of little things to remember (for instance, the fact that a Doom token is placed every time a gate opens, or that you don't have to encounter a monster guarding a gate on the turn you get back from the Other World), and keeping track of a lot of them in your head is a bit like herding cats.
Strategy, Medium. Actually, that includes tactics. Finding the best combination of skills, and getting those gates closed and/or sealed
can be extremely tricky, but this is nothing on the order of, say, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, or anything.

Replayability
I see nothing here that would impact Replayability adversely, and the differing effects of the Ancient Ones provide enough variety to make replaying a no-brainer.

Conclusions
Lest you think, with all the nits getting picked here, that I hated the game, think again. "Arkham Horror" was an absolute joy to play, so much so that I really see these criticisms as "room for improvement" rather than "gamebreakers." An errata sheet for the Rules booklet to clarify some not-very-well set out rules, and you've got a classic, no doubt. Sure, there's a lot of rolling involved, but I think "Arkham Horror" is still a really challenging, fun, and frenetic cooperative game. A must for genre fans, a must-try for virtually everyone else.

(Author's Note: As of July 2006, the Arkham Horror FAQ has advanced to version 1.1, dated January 11, 2006, and contains copious rules errata and explanations, including a substantial revision to the Flesh Ward spell. Newer versions are likely, given the recent release of "Curse of the Dark Pharaoh," and the September 2006 release of "The Dunwich Horror.")

=====
[1] Okay, okay, so you caught me. This is actually from Bored of the Rings, by The Harvard Lampoon. Used to reduce me and my buddies to peals of helpless mirth when I was twelve, especially the pricing structure for the toll bridge (Peasant Haywains, 1 copper coin; Hearty Wayfarers, 2 copper coins; Black Riders, 69 gold sovereigns). You should really pick up a copy; I'm sure it's back in print. In any event, it has nothing to do with the rest of the review, but I couldn't help noticing the eerie similarity to the "Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhtagn!" quotes you normally see. Spooky, eh?
 
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adam neufeld
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A brief comment: the plastic investigator bases are, indeed, very tight. I found, however, that simply pinching the two ends together ever so slightly would allow me to slide the cardboard marker right in, without fuss.
 
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Joshua
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I jammed a dime in mine and used it to wedge the piece open.

Two of them broke, and I glued one using a 2-part epoxy.
 
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Phil White
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I had to bend the pieces apart with a spoon. laugh
 
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Brian Hazard
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Pawn Clips: Use your fingers!
I'm going to have to call foul on this whole thing about the character bases. I have the same plastic clip bases that everyone else has, but I had no problem at all fitting them in....

Use three fingers. Put your thumb on one side of the base, put your index finger on the bottom of the base, and put your middle finger on the other side of the base, so that the clip is sideways to your view.

Just squeeze your thumb and middle finger together very lightly. The pressure of your index finger from underneath will expand the clip, making it very easy to put the character in without damage to anything.

I didn't even know people were having troubles with them until I read it here on BGG. It didn't seem that hard to me. Not ripping on anyone, just defending this aspect of the game. I don't think its a downer of any sort.
 
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Andy Hunsucker
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Quik_Fix wrote:
I'm going to have to call foul on this whole thing about the character bases. I have the same plastic clip bases that everyone else has, but I had no problem at all fitting them in....

Use three fingers. Put your thumb on one side of the base, put your index finger on the bottom of the base, and put your middle finger on the other side of the base, so that the clip is sideways to your view.

Just squeeze your thumb and middle finger together very lightly. The pressure of your index finger from underneath will expand the clip, making it very easy to put the character in without damage to anything.

I didn't even know people were having troubles with them until I read it here on BGG. It didn't seem that hard to me. Not ripping on anyone, just defending this aspect of the game. I don't think its a downer of any sort.


Did you get your game recently? I noticed with my copy of Descent, which is a more recent release, the plastic bases are much springier and more pliable, which removes the problem. I'm assuming the new printing of Arkham contains the new bases as well.

The original Arkham Horror bases were terribly rigid, and could tear your character markers at the bottom.
 
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Steven Bond
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mangler103 wrote:
The original Arkham Horror bases were terribly rigid, and could tear your character markers at the bottom.


I seem to have the same problem with DOOM. I've been using other props for doors. I've torn two doors trying to get those blasted bases on. angry
 
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Brian Hazard
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I do have a recently purchased copy of AH... that may explain the lack of problems with the base clips. I would like to think that my little system would still work, though. Then people will consider me wise and shower me with praise and gifts.
 
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Richard Would
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geobaldi5 wrote:
mangler103 wrote:
The original Arkham Horror bases were terribly rigid, and could tear your character markers at the bottom.


I seem to have the same problem with DOOM. I've been using other props for doors. I've torn two doors trying to get those blasted bases on. angry


I think you've got it spot on here. My Doom ones I daren't take off the doors in case I can't get them back on! But both Descent and Arkham Horror (only acquired yesterday; won in a tournament ) have no such trouble.
 
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David Matchen
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Quik_Fix wrote:
I'm going to have to call foul on this whole thing about the character bases. I have the same plastic clip bases that everyone else has, but I had no problem at all fitting them in....

Use three fingers. Put your thumb on one side of the base, put your index finger on the bottom of the base, and put your middle finger on the other side of the base, so that the clip is sideways to your view.

Just squeeze your thumb and middle finger together very lightly. The pressure of your index finger from underneath will expand the clip, making it very easy to put the character in without damage to anything.

I didn't even know people were having troubles with them until I read it here on BGG. It didn't seem that hard to me. Not ripping on anyone, just defending this aspect of the game. I don't think its a downer of any sort.


I should note, for the record, that this was the very first thing I tried, and it was utterly ineffective. Needlenoses, or use D&D Minis.

Yes, it is possible this was addressed in later printings. Mine was bought first week of release, and those things were virtually inflexible.
 
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David R.
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The plastic doo-hickies that came with my version of AH were also impossibly rigid. It was ridiculous. We were all fired up to play the game, when we found the damn things impossible to pry apart to insert the investigator's markers. Also, for some reason we missed the part about the plastic dealio's being only for the investigators, so we started sticking the monsters into them as well. Then we realized there werent enough of them. Then the next game we played, we tried different investigators, and had to pry some of the monster's out of the damn things which we had previously in the evening wasted a half hour inserting into them... But, I'm definitely in agreement with others who've posted on here that those things were a real pain to pry apart. Oh, my brother and I finally ended up using a screw driver to wedge in there and twist to pry them apart, which worked well enough to get the job done. I had a nightmare vision of one of us slipping and cutting ourselves while doing it. Haw haw! That've been something. Anyways, sounds like they've got this problem solved with the newer ones their making, so thats good.
 
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ruvion .
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I wish FFG would just replace the plastic bases with the bases similar to the LotR: Confronatation Deluxe. A simple slide in base and it looks better too...but it probably costs a lot more to including them rather than the cheap pry open bases.
 
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