PCB Game Night: Arkham Horror

Eliot HochbergBoard Games, GamesLeave a Comment

First up, before I start, a little self indulgence: this is my first review on Pop Culture Beast, and I want to say “hello” and “thanks” to Garon for welcoming me on board.

(yes, I actually just said those two words aloud.)

Most of my reviews will be about tabletop games, and perhaps eventually I’ll give them a catchy collection title, like “Doing It On a Table”, or “Let’s See What I Can Play With in my Closet”, or “Rolling What Your Mama Gave You For Your Birthday”*.

(ok, maybe I’m also a little sexually frustrated. But only girls are supposed to admit to that in print. So let’s just forget I wrote that.)

(also, yes, I like using parenthetical interruptions. Maybe it’ll be my “style”.)

Anyway, that’s more than plenty about me, this is supposed to be about games, and this entry’s game is Arkham Horror.

Get ready to lose your mind and be devoured!

For those not in the know, Arkham Horror is a cooperative semi-roleplaying game set in a Lovecraftian world in which the game is trying to kill you. Sounds fun, right? It is, but if I stopped there, it wouldn’t be much of a review.

Designed by Richard Launius originally for Chaosium in 1987 and later updated for Fantasy Flight Games, the game itself is lushly produced, featuring high-quality cardboard pieces, gorgeous artwork, and engaging writing. As it should be, since this big box game costs upwords of $60 even online. And that’s just for the base game. There are 8 expansions (big and small box) that add numerous additional locations, rules, game mechanics, and pieces.

A note about pieces: this game has a lot of them. One friend of mine calls it a “bitsy” game, because it has a lot of bits. For Eurogame fans, this is par for the course, but for those of you just starting to explore the world of very involved games, it can get overwhelming. On the other hand, if your significant other just loves punching out bits of cardboard, the 30 minutes it will take to get all the parts out and ready will be heaven for them.

I bet you just can’t wait to pop out all those… pieces.

(you’d be surprised how many people find punching stuff out of cardboard to be their thing.)

It also helps if you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Discussing that author could take forever, suffice to say, if you’re already a fan, this game will have lots of appeal for you. If not, you might still get a kick out of it if you like properties derived from Lovecraftian works: Ghostbusters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Evil Dead all come to mind. Most important thing to know: you’re dealing with monsters, ghouls, and great big god-like entities that will either kill you, eat you, or drive you insane. Sanity is in fact an important aspect of Arkham Horror, and sets this game apart from many semi-role playing games you might encounter. And no, Arkham isn’t a Batman reference. It’s the other way around.

That’s a lot of pieces: over 700!

Setup is fairly involved. There are a bunch of card decks to set out on the fairly large board which represents the city of Arkham: items, location encounters, Mythos cards (which set the stage for how the game will try and kill you this turn), characters and the dreaded Great Old One. Yes, you have characters, so this is essentially a role playing game, which is reinforced by the fact that dice play a large part in deciding whether or not you succeed at tasks and battles. The Great Old One is the Big Boss who you want to try and avoid, because if you face it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to die (or, in Lovecraftian parlance, be “devoured”). Be prepared to set aside at least 30 minutes just to set this game up. It’s a big ‘un.

You’ll care about Sister Mary,
but a bit less than your battle
mage from junior high.

Oooo. Pretty Eldtrich Horror from another dimension…

Gameplay is also fairly complex, although not impossibly so. If you’ve played Dominion or Battlestar Galactica, it’s about the same, in my experience. There are a number of stages of play in a particular turn. Adjust your attributes. Pick a Mythos card, open what are called gates, which are basically doorways to other worlds from which monsters spew and wander around the board. Decide where to go on the board. Will you go after that monster? Buy some gear at one of the shop locations? Try and gain some clues at the Library? Enter a gate so you can seal it?

After you’ve made your moves, you then get to read cards that tell you what happens to you at the locations you and your friends have selected. Usually you have a choice as to how to respond to a card, or else you roll to see whether you survive or go insane.

The mighty Cthulhu doesn’t mess around.
And could you pass him a beer?

Gameplay continues this way, with the goal being to prevent those pesky gates from staying open too long. Seal enough of them, and the horror that is The Great Old One is avoided, and everybody wins. Fail, and you take The Great Old One on. Your odds are almost always much lower. One of them even automatically kills all players when he appears. So, you know, don’t do that.

In my experience, Arkham Horror is a great game for people who really love board games, but think the experience just doesn’t last long enough. If you’ve ever said “I’d prefer to play for at least six hours”, then this is the game for you. In other words, it’s not for the faint of heart, and really, it’s better for experienced board game players. Anyone who says “Monopoly takes too long” will probably not enjoy this game.

The cook is working on
your order. Would you
like insanity with that?

People who will enjoy this game are those who are looking to immerse themselves in a world of horrific monsters and events for six hours at a time, but who don’t want to make the commitment of creating and falling in love with a character whose face they’ve drawn in a little box on a character sheet.

If you like D&D, if you like complex sci-fi or fantasy shows like Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, or the aforementioned Buffy, and you have a friend who owns Arkham Horror and invites you to try it, give it a shot. It’s a very well thought out, involved and complex game that you will probably lose. But you will oh-so-enjoy the process if you’re the type of person it was designed for.

Should you buy it? I say try it first. You’ll either fall in love with it, or be overwhelmed. Which, it turns out, is also thematically appropriate.

Arkham Horror

1-8 players, approximately $60

rating: 7 Elder Signs out of 10 (for limited audience due to length of gameplay and rules complexity)

*Edit, 3-9-13: Changed the rating (because I was being too generous) and now, this series has an actual name! It’s PCB Game Night. Which is only sexual to you if everything is sexual to you.

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Eliot HochbergPCB Game Night: Arkham Horror