I'm not Batman: An Arkham Horror Review

Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Cthulhu, Azathoth, if you recognize any of these words with more consonants than a Welsh village you will know they are the names of the Ancient Ones; god-like aliens who look upon humanity as we look upon insects. You will also know that this game has nothing to do with Batman. Arkham is the name of the fictional town in Massachusetts in which HP Lovecraft based many of his horror stories. In Arkham Horror the fabric of space and time is falling apart and portals to other worlds are opening, spitting strange creatures onto the streets and one to eight players take on the role of investigators who must battle these monsters, close the gates and prevent the Ancient One from ripping a hole in the space time continuum and destroying the world.

The first thing you notice when you pick up a box of Arkham Horror is how heavy it is. This is a game crammed full of counters, cards, character sheets, Ancient One sheets and a huge board. Each one of these components is of the superior quality you expect from Fantasy Flight Games and the artwork is second to none. With all these bits and pieces you are going to need some time to set up. There are several decks of cards all of which need shuffling and setting up and then there are tokens for health, sanity, money and clues that need distributing.

Once you have finally set up the game players have to choose an investigator to play. There are 16 different characters in the base game and all covering various Lovecraft and 1920’s archetypes. There are artists, writers, mobsters, hobos and even an Indiana Jones inspired archaeologist complete with bull-whip and fedora. Each one has their own back-story and unique characteristics and abilities. These characteristics are represented by the skill sliders. Each of the character’s six statistics is grouped into one of three pairings. These statistics govern your character’s ability to complete various actions such as fighting, casting spells and sneaking past monsters. At the beginning of each turn, players can adjust their statistics based on these pairings. There is always a trade-off; as you raise one skill its opposing skill lowers. For example, the speed and sneak characteristics are linked so if you want to move further across the board you need to reduce your ability to sneak past monsters. This forces players to make careful decisions about their skills and to plan what they are attempting to achieve each turn. Skill checks are based on a dice pool mechanic, players role a number of dice equal to their skill level, minus any penalties for the skill check. Success requires a five or a six on a dice and some checks will require more than one success.

A fully set up Arkham Horror takes up a lot of space.
To explain all the rules and mechanics in the game would take a long time. To put it succinctly the game is broken up into 5 stages. The first is an upkeep phase where players can adjust their investigators’ statistics as described above. Player then move around the board in the second phase, fighting or trying to avoid the monsters. The third and fourth faces are the Arkham and Other world encounter phases; here players resolve the action on the space they currently standing on. This typically involves drawing a random card based on their current location and resolving the instructions on the card. The final phase is the mythos phase where all the nasty stuff happens; monsters move, clues appear and a new gate opens.

Skill sliders allow you to adjust your skills ready for the turn ahead, even then a University Professor isn't much use in a a fight.
The rules of Arkham Horror aren’t too complicated; as long as you adhere to the phase structure then the game flows relatively smoothly. The issue is the sheer quantity of rules to remember and layers of rules coming from various effects. Once you’ve learnt the basics you will then have to apply effects based on the Ancient One chosen, the mythos cards in play and spells and equipment that the players hold making it easy to forget about something. The rulebook isn’t quite as maddening as the dreaded Necronomicon but still isn’t an example of a well written rulebook. The order in which rules are quoted is sometimes nonsensical and the format of the rulebook itself makes it difficult to reference during a game (and during the first few games you will be referencing it a lot). A big oversight is the lack of a summary or crib sheet. Before playing the game I suggest printing out one of the third party summary sheets such as the excellent Headless Hollow game sheet, not only are they a handy reference to use during the game they also present the rules in a no-nonsense fashion making them easier to comprehend.

Azathoth stands ready to devour the world.
With Arkham Horror being a co-op game these problems with the rules don’t cause as many issues as they could in a competitive game. Unfortunately there are very few co-op mechanics built into the game. Players can swap equipment and spells if they share the same spot but they can’t gang up on monsters or combine their skills when attempting to close a gate. The other big issue is that players cannot swap clue tokens. Clue tokens are the major currency of the game; they take the form of little green magnifying glasses and represent knowledge of the occult and Cthulhu mythos. They can be picked up from the board, where they appear randomly throughout the game, or they can be gained via various encounters. They are used in one of two ways; players can spend one clue to re-roll a failed skill check or spend five tokens to seal a gate. Sealed gates mean that a gate cannot re-open in the same location and help slow down the onset of the Ancient One which is key strategy in the game.
Mini cards are used for items and skills your investigators can acquire during the game.

Within a few turns gates and monsters are popping up everywhere and players have to start managing the game.  Arkham Horror is a game that plays you. A lot of the game is random and there’s no way that you can prepare for every eventuality.  This can also make it extremely difficult, especially if the players don’t work together. These issues nicely fit in with the theme and can make the game more interesting and more rewarding when you do actually beat the old one. However, some players will find the randomness frustrating and may not get on with the games difficulty. Arkham Horror also has some issues with momentum. It typically takes three turns for a player to go through the requirements of closing a gate. That’s three chances for more gates to open. With this many gates opening quickly the initial part of the game always seems very hectic. As players start sealing gates locations the rate at which they appear slow, this means that the middle of the game can feel a bit of a drag and the pace lessons as players feel they’ve managed to control the game. Its only when the doom track, the mechanism for controlling the when the Ancient One awakens, nears its end that the pressure is ramped up again.
There are tokens for health, wealth, sanity and clues.

If players don’t close the gates quickly enough then the Ancient One will rip a hole in space and time and the players will have to battle it. In the majority of cases this is an extremely difficult fight as the Ancient Ones are incredibly tough adversaries. Most investigators won’t be able to accomplish this task and it often feels like a futile effort and adds extra time to an already long game. If Azathoth is the Ancient One then this fight doesn’t happen as the game is automatically lost when he awakens and one speculates whether all of the Ancient Ones should be treated this way.

Flying monsters can swoop down and antagonise your investigator if you're daft enough to stand in the street.
If you’re going to play Arkham Horror make sure you set aside plenty of time. Fantasy Flight suggests this game takes two to four hours but a rough guide of over one hour per player is more appropriate. However, the random nature of the game means that this value can vary widely, sometimes the game can be set against you and it takes six hours for a four player game, other times you may be lucky and finish a game in as little as 30 minutes! This randomness, although often frustrating is what gives Arkham Horror its uniqueness. The game is a story that you are creating and its shared adventures will bring you together as players. It will also create unique moments that you will find yourself discussing long after the game has finished.

It is worth pointing out that Arkham Horror is based on the Cthulhu mythos as seen from the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. This means that it is not just based on Lovecraft’s writings but also those of writers such as August Derleth and Zealia Bishop.  The game is subsequently full of theme. Allies are based on characters from Lovecraft’s stories, the Ancient Ones are taken direct from his writings, every monster in the game can be traced back to a particular story and even the dreaded Necronomicon makes an appearance. Readers of Lovecraft’s writing will love to find all the little nods. However, if you’ve not read a Lovecraft story many of aspects of the setting are left unexplained.  This doesn’t exactly hinder the game, in fact knowing nothing about the other worlds or indescribable monsters that emerge from them fits nicely with theme but it would be nice to have some of the thematic elements explained in more detail.

Encounters in the other worlds are generally bad.
Arkham Horror is a lot of fun but it is also a game that doesn’t hold up well to critical analysis. If you take apart the concepts of the game you are left with a series of random events held together by theme. It’s a like a beautiful looking garment of clothing that, when you pick at the loose threads falls apart and you’re left with some random squares of cloth; you’ve ruined the item and it’s your own damn fault for picking at it. The same is true of Arkham Horror, looking too deep at the mechanics or peeling away at the corners of the theme and you’re going to spoil that enjoyment you could have had.
If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise.

Arkham Horror is a beast of a game, it’s unforgiving, its rulebook is messy and badly written and it takes a lot of investment to play, in understanding the rules, in setting up the game and play time. It’s a cruel game that throws everything it can at you to confound, disorientate and cripple your will. Which is what makes this game so rewarding, when you do defeat the Ancient One you’ve experienced a shared victory and mutual struggle. It’s definitely not a game for the faint hearted and those players who love mechanics over theme will hate this game. However, if you are a fan of theme driven games then this is the very definition of its genre and even with its difficulty and frustration you can’t deny just how much fun this game is.

•    Great fun, in-spite of all its flaws
•    RPG -like rewarding gameplay
•    Plenty of variation in characters, adversaries and events
•    Dripping with theme

•    Lots of rules and no summary sheet
•    Difficult and unfair
•    Playtime fluctuates and can take anything from 30 minutes to 8 hours. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
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  1. There is a crib sheet, it's on the back cover of the rulebook.

    1. I do concede there is a crib sheet on the back of the rulebook (available here if anyone is interested: http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/ffg_content/Arkham_Horror/AH_Rules_internat.pdf), but in my opinion I find it lacking and find the Headless Hollow sheet superior.