With the current COVID-19 pandemic occurring at the time of this writing, it seemed appropriate to take a look at some games that prominently feature the end of the world as we know it, or at least the post-apocalyptic landscape of the time after. In this installment, we’ll be looking at Arkham Horror, a cooperative multiplayer board game designed by Richard Launius and published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2005.
Technically this is a review of the second edition, which is the copy I happen to own. The original was released in 1987 by Chaosium. A third edition, from the current published Fantasy Flight Games, was released in 2018. Each edition is significantly different from the others, so this review does not fully apply to the prior and newer iterations.
The apocalypse this week is the threat of the Ancient Ones, creatures from another dimension, threatening to invade our world. If you are familiar with the Call of Cthulu mythos, or the horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft, then you may well recognize many of the characters in this board game. Arkham Horror takes place in the Call of Cthulu universe, where cults dedicated to dark elder gods attempt to summon them forth to our world – presumably resulting in the destruction of mankind or a similar catastrophe.
The players each take up the role of one of sixteen investigators trying to prevent the summoning of these other-worldly threats during the 1920’s. Gateways to other dimensions are opening up around the town of Arkham, Massachusetts, and smaller monsters are crossing through to threaten the townsfolk. If too many gateways open, or too many monsters cross over, the fabric of reality will weaken enough for the Ancient One to appear.
Gameplay is broken up into turns, each consisting of five phases: Upkeep, Movement, Arkham Encounters, Other World Encounters, and Mythos. Each player takes an action during each phase, rather than each player going through all of the phases of a turn one by one. Upkeep is, as you might expect, where any per turn costs need to be paid or per turn usage items become available again. Movement is also fairly self explanatory, in that players get to move their investigators around the board.
The city of Arkham has several locations on the map where, if you end your movement at that location, you can draw an encounter card during the Arkham Encounters phase. These encounters vary widely, from a gateway opening or extra monsters appearing to gaining an ally or magical item. There are also locations where you can shop for items, heal, or trade in certain items to gain various rewards.
To deal with a gateway, an investigator usually must pass through it first, taking a couple of turns moving through an Other World location. While in these Other World locations, the player always draws an Other World encounter card during the Other World Encounters phase. These are fairly similar to the Arkham encounter cards, though sometimes with more extreme results.
The Mythos phase is where a Mythos card is drawn, which essentially lays out the upcoming turn. Typically some event will occur, such as fog causing a penalty to movement and a bonus to sneaking, a new gateway will appear, and the monsters in town will move. Similar to encounter cards, these Mythos cards can have detrimental or beneficial effects.
A large part of the game is rolling 6-sided dice. Lots of 6-sided dice. The investigators each have varying stats, which you can adjust during the upkeep phase, that allow you to try to deal with the various challenges in the game. Often times an encounter will require you to make a roll based on a particular skill type. This boils down to rolling a certain number of dice, based on your investigators stats, skills, and items, to try to get a certain number of fives or sixes.
There are eight different Ancient Ones, of which one is picked to be the antagonist for a play through of Arkham Horror. Each of these boss monsters has their own set of rules, which modify how the game is played and allow for variation in repeated games. If an Ancient One appears, your heroes can try to defeat them in a final showdown to save the world. However, one of the bosses negates this and the players lose instantly if it appears.
While the game technically supports 1-8 players, I personally feel that about 4 is ideal. On the upper end, you can have players waiting quite a while to get their chance to take a turn. However, it is a cooperative game, which in my opinion, is best enjoyed with a few friends.
While I’ve brushed over the basics of the rules, there are a lot more little details involved in playing this game. The rules are one of the weaker points here. Even with a large 24-page rule book, there are still plenty of situations where you will end up looking on-line to try to figure out how some things play out.
This is not what most would consider a casual game. Completing a run through can take several hours. The box recommends ages 14 and up, which I feel is probably fair considering the attention span needed for this game. The difficulty can also be fairly high, especially for new players. There is a lot of room to fail, but hopefully you still have fun trying to beat the game with a few friends.
For a group of board game enthusiasts who enjoy longer challenging games, with a lot of pieces, then this is definitely one to check out. The art for the game is well done and helps set the atmosphere for the game. The encounter text is occasionally odd, especially if you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Lovecraft’s characters, but the oddity fits in well with the atmosphere of threats from the unknown.
Overall, I enjoy a good session of Arkham Horror with some friends. Hopefully once this quarantine is over, we can get together and play board games once again. I give Arkham Horror a “B”, or 7.5/10 stars. This is a relatively expensive game, but you can get a lot of hours of playtime for the money.
There are also eight different expansions that were released for the second edition of Arkham Horror. Having only played with a few of them, I would say that they tend to ramp up the difficulty for players who may have mastered the mechanics of the core game. But, clearly, some people liked the game enough to make it worthwhile for the company to print more content.