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Subject: Arkham Horror for Christmas: a review from an inexperienced board gamer! rss

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Banana Girl
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Up until early last year, the only board games I'd ever really played were the ones given to me as Christmas presents when I was a kid. This was in the eighties/early nineties, so these games were the likes of Mouse Trap, The Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs and Atmosphere.

Then around about spring last year, a work colleague mentioned he still owned The Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs and bought it in for us to play on lunch breaks. I was hooked! I ended up buying Survive: Escape from Atlantis, and the aforementioned work colleague bought Zombies. By this point, I'd been scouring the Board Game Geek website looking for ideas for new games and I thought Arkham Horror looked amazing- albeit it a bit pricey- so it went on my Christmas list. I'd been drawn between that and Mansions of Madness (swoon!), but because the average playing time on them both was quite lengthy, I thought it'd be better to get Arkham Horror as it could be played as a single player game. After all- I didn't know that many people who'd be up for spending 3 hours + on a board game, let alone one that was so genre-specific.

Christmas day came, and receiving the wrapped Arkham Horror made me feel like a kid again! The artwork on the hefty gift-worthy sized box looked exciting and mysterious- my other half had taped the Giant Squid expansion pack for Survive: Escape from Atlantis to the packaging which added to the excitement of unwrapping it! “It's the Atlantis squids! Wait, there's more beneath- it's... Arkham Horror. Yay!”

How the game works (in a nutshell)

The players represent characters who are working together to save the city of Arkham from the evil of one of ten randomly selected 'ancient ones' (for those unfamiliar with the Cthulhu mythos, the ancient ones are powerful, malevolent beings). For the most part of the game, the selected ancient one wont do much more than 'sleep' whilst the players wander around town trying to close portals and kill monsters. Every time a portal opens on the board, the ancient one will have a doom token added to its 'doom track'. When the doom track is full- or there are too many portals open/too many monsters on the board (this will depend on the number of players)- the ancient one will awake from his slumber. At this point, normal gameplay will cease and the final battle will commence- where the players have to directly fight the ancient one and then attempt to defend themselves against his attacks. If a player runs out of either of their health tokens (sanity and stamina) whilst fighting the ancient one, they are devoured and are out of the game. This means there is more pressure on the remaining players and every time the ancient one attacks, it becomes progressively more difficult to defend against him/her.

The final battle can be avoided by sealing all the open gates/portals on the board. This can be done by visiting the 'other world' that the gate leads to and on return, using five clue tokens to seal the gate. The game will begin with clue tokens dispersed at unstable locations (locations where gates will open up), and they can also appear when new gates are opened during play.

The interaction between player and game characters is based around skill checks where you roll six-sided dice (the number of dice depending on your player's points for that particular skill (speed/sneak, fight/will, luck/lore), with a 5 or a 6 being a success. Some skill checks require more than one dice being a success, and blessings cards will let your player have a success with also rolling a 4, whereas a curse will force your player to only have successes on rolling a 6. Skill checks are used for fighting monsters, defending against aggressive townsfolk and opportunities to win extra items for your character.

The rule book

Arkham Horror is a complicated game: your character can have money, clue tokens, weapons, spells, skills, allies- even bank loans. The rulebook is glossy with helpful photos and diagrams, but that's where the compliments end. The layout is extremely confusing, and I found I was having to flip back and forth repeatedly and re-read the instructions over and over. Luckily, the Arkham Horror Wiki had the answers to many of my simple questions, but I shouldn't have had to resort to looking online because of an unintuitive manual. I find explaining the game to new players quite frustrating (the manual is too unhelpful for them to use), and intend to make my own cheat-sheets to make doing so less painful.

Setup

Arkham Horror has lots of components- lots of different types of cards and tokens. It takes me less than 5 minutes to set up the board/shuffle the cards. Because both myself and the other players are quite inexperienced, we're all choosing our characters which can take up to ten minutes.

The gameplay

When Arkham Horror gets going, it is an excellent game. The descriptions on the encounters cards are atmospheric and often funny. Whenever anything really bad happens to another player- such as being cursed or losing all their items- their subsequent outburst is hilarious

The characters in the game feel very 'real' in relation to the theme itself- the smarter characters such as the scientist has more sanity than the likes of the gangster, yet less stamina. The drifter character starts with an ally- a dog named Duke, and the tougher characters come with weapons that suit their personalities.

When a player has a run of bad luck with dice rolls, it can be frustrating for all parties involved. Especially if they're cursed or wasting clue tokens on re-rolling. In our last game, one player lost all of his clue tokens during a pretty pointless encounter, and then a few turns later was cursed all the way up to the final battle.

Aside from having to remember how the game phases work, there are other factors that affect the game- players/monsters/ancient ones all have special abilities that only factor in occasionally and can quite easily be forgotten.

The longevity

So far, I've played Arkham Horror five times in one month. Once as a single-player game, twice as a two-player game and twice as a four-player game. The four-player games are easily the best, but would have been even better with experienced players as the game can be overbearing for first time players who don't have time to read the manual and would prefer to be talked through the gameplay. In all the games I have played, I/we have never closed enough gates and have always ended up having to fight the ancient one. We've won two games so far- although both times we had been playing using physical weapons as magical weapons (once because we didn't know any better and the second time because it would have been too complicated for the new players to understand). I could easily play this game a few times every month, and I look forward to playing with experienced players.

Overall

I love this game. It may have taken me a while to get to grips with it, but that could have been because it's the first board game I've played that has had 'phases' this complicated. The expansions look fun, but I may hold off until I've mastered Arkham Horror completely as there's still some rules I'm unsure about. The story, the artwork and the complexity are pretty amazing, and I'd definitely recommend it to horror fans who can put aside enough time to enjoy the game. 9/10.

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James
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This was a fun review to read; thank for this. It's great that you've been able to get into the game so easily. It sounds like you're on top of all the challenges of learning the rules.

bananagirl wrote:
I find explaining the game to new players quite frustrating (the manual is too unhelpful for them to use), and intend to make my own cheat-sheets to make doing so less painful.

Don't reinvent the wheel, though. Universal Head has created some amazing player aids here.

Enjoy!
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A Brave New Geek
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Good review Bananagirl! Arkham Horror with the right people (4 optimal!) is a top experience. When everyone is up to speed with the rules it is like having a cardboard poltergeist in the room.
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Banana Girl
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Brother Jim wrote:

Don't reinvent the wheel, though. Universal Head has created some amazing player aids here.

Enjoy!


OMG! Thank you so much for the link! My fellow newbie players can now sleep in peace
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Banana Girl
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abravenewgeek wrote:
Good review Bananagirl! Arkham Horror with the right people (4 optimal!) is a top experience. When everyone is up to speed with the rules it is like having a cardboard poltergeist in the room.


LOL! I can imagine! At the moment, the other players are often like, "Hmmm, should I sneak or fight this monster? Um, someone?" instead of enjoying the game and going, "Arghhhh!!! It's a dhole!!!"
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Phil Crompton
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Great review. And what a kick always to hear of a new recruitee to our great club !! I love Arkham Horror. It was one of the first big games i bought when I re-discovered board-gaming. I love it best when I play it solo with a cup of coffee/wine (depending upon the time of day) and I just get immersed in the theme and game mechanics. Elder Sign is good to go as is Mansions of Madness although the latter works best with 4 good mates. Good luck in your gaming.
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Banana Girl
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Thanks Phil! I shall check out Elder Sign! How would you compare Mansions of Madness to Arkham Horror? Is it more complicated/exciting because of the tile layout?
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David Chapman
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abravenewgeek wrote:
Good review Bananagirl! Arkham Horror with the right people (4 optimal!) is a top experience.


And if you're playing solo or with two, you should play multiple Investigators to make the party size 4. It really is the sweet spot for difficulty.
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Sean P
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bananagirl wrote:

Thanks Phil! I shall check out Elder Sign! How would you compare Mansions of Madness to Arkham Horror? Is it more complicated/exciting because of the tile layout?


Mansions is pretty different, but I wouldn't say more complicated. If you're the one buying the game and reading the rules, you'll end up being the "Keeper." It's a Keeper vs. Everyone else kind of game. Each game plays out a specific scenario inside of a house and yard. I think it's great, but Arkham is pretty much my favorite of all time. If your friends are enjoying it enough to play more, then soon they'll have that moment when it all comes together and the turns and game will speed along with everyone having fun.
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Banana Girl
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I quite like the idea of the keeper scenario, so may invest in Mansions. That said, I think I prefer playing with boards instead of tiles (I'm not totally sure why, but I'm sure that will change in time as I become less of a noob!).
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Dan
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I highly recommend you try to play Mansions before you buy it. If you can't play it, then I'd recommend reading the reviews carefully. I own it, I've played it only once. Based on that very limited experience I'm fairly certain that AH is a much superior game, or rather MoM is an inferior game, however you'd like to look at it. They are certainly different except in theme (and characters!).
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Banana Girl
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Ah! Unfortunately I don't know anyone who owns MoM at the moment, but plan to try and start doing some board-game socialising so hopefully I'll find someone who has it. It's still high on my 'to get' list because of the theme- I almost bought it recently but instead treated myself to Twilight Struggle as I didn't want only horror themed games in my collection (as tiny as my collection currently is )

Thanks for the heads-up- what was it that put you off in particular?
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Dan
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bananagirl wrote:
Ah! Unfortunately I don't know anyone who owns MoM at the moment, but plan to try and start doing some board-game socialising so hopefully I'll find someone who has it. It's still high on my 'to get' list because of the theme- I almost bought it recently but instead treated myself to Twilight Struggle as I didn't want only horror themed games in my collection (as tiny as my collection currently is )

Thanks for the heads-up- what was it that put you off in particular?


Please consider that I've only played once, which was a test run to learn the game. The things that put me off in particular were:

The game involves the players solving a mystery by moving from room to room searching for clues. The clues are pre-set in particular rooms depending on the scenario chosen (1 of 5) and the choices made by the keeper during setup (3). The first objective is for the players to find the 3rd and final clue. These clues are then obscured by the random placement of other object cards in all of the rooms, some of these are blank. There is a turn limit to accomplish the objective.

The result is that setup is long and complicated, perhaps the longest of any game I've ever played, and it also must be perfect. Making a mistake during the setup breaks the game and can make it impossible for the players to win, although this may not be discovered until a significant amount of time has been invested in play.

There is limited replayability without resorting to expansions. Unless I'm missing something it seems there are only 15 possible locations for the final clue and eventually the players will be able to quickly determine which scenario they are playing and head directly to the final clue.

The theme of the game and the atmosphere of the events is very spooky, which is good, however the aggressive time limit to complete the game counteracts this. It seems that the only possible strategy for the investigators is to run as fast as possible to the first clue room (which is indicated in the introduction) then run as fast as possible to the second room (as indicated in the first clue), then to the third, then try to complete whatever is finally revealed as their success criteria, again, as fast as possible. It quickly becomes clear that any monsters that ambush, intriguing rooms with clever locks, and anything else are just distractions designed to burn turns on the "doom clock". You will quickly begin to ignore monsters unless forced by the rules to fight them. You will run into the room with the monster, ignore it if possible to "grab the diary" or whatever, read the diary while the monster is hitting you, then run out of the room on your way to the next clue, hopefully with some hp left.

I found the mechanics of the Keeper actions and player movement to be awkward and frustrating. Players take their turns individualy and the Keeper has the option to take an action after each and every action of the player. This makes it impossible for the characters to stick together. If two characters are in the laboratory and they decide to move to the library, one character walks all the way to the library by him/herself, and after they arrive the second character follows on his/her own solo journey. At each step along the way the Keeper has the opportunity to ambush.

There were just some encounters and events that didn't make sense. Without giving too much away, in one scene we stumbled upon a gruesome corpse in a particular room. On the next turn, and event announces that the corpse animates as a zombie, but not in the room we were standing in, for some reason it's three rooms away. Just weird.

Lastly, it seemed the mechanics of picking up objects was awkward. During a fight we dropped a weapon. Based on our understanding of the rules, after the fight was over we could not pick up the weapon again without being forced to examine every other object in the space, one of which turned out to be an event which swung the game from a probable win to a loss. We could leave without the weapon, or we could pick up the weapon and process all the cards in the space. It was frustrating.

So as I said, please take all of this with a large helping of salt, it was one play while awkward with the rules. Your mileage may vary, which is why I merely suggest that you try it first if possible.

Cheers.
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Tomas Di Sansimone
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Welcome to the world of board gaming! I've been playing board games once a week for the last three years and I'm loving it.

The company that made Arkham Horror - Fantasy Flight Games - is excellent. I would recommend www.fantasyflightgames.com to find more games of this caliber.

I own a lot of their games and would recommend at least 10 or 20 of them.
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