It was my birthday this week, and from my wife I received Arkham Horror, a co-operative board game based on the classic role-playing game Call of Cthulhu – which in itself draws much of its content and vibe from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Set in 1920′s New England, in contrast to traditional western ‘horror stories’ (vampires, werewolves etc – all a bit pedestrian), Lovecraft’s world is filled with bizarre creatures and unknowable ‘Ancient Ones’ – slumbering horrors in the outer dimensions who threaten to wake and destroy the world, and the ‘Investigators’ the players control – which include doctors, archaeologists, flappers and gangsters – are trying to avert this outcome. If you have no idea what this is like, watch the first Hellboy, which draws a lot of inspiration from the same material, albeit with a more bombastic, humourous slant. Call of Cthulhu is a fascinating RPG to play simply because it’s so different to any other, and I was keen to play the board game interpretation to see what it was like.
The board game is set, like the RPG and most Lovecraft stories, in the fictitious town of Arkham, Massachusetts, where one randomly-chosen Ancient One is threatening to awake and break through to our world. Each Ancient One has slightly different effects on the game as it progresses and each is easier or more difficult to defeat if they eventually do break through (although if they do, chances of success are minimal). Dimensional gates are randomly opening in Arkham to strange other worlds, and it’s the players’ job to explore and close them, preferably sealing them permanently, in order to avert the final confrontation.
Each player draws or chooses an Investigator, each of which has particular traits and possessions which can help in the game. The board features a number of street regions, each surrounded by places of interest like the Miskatonic University, Arkham Asylum and the Black Cave. There are also a number of ‘other dimensions’, which the players must traverse through gates in order to eventually seal them. The players have to move around Arkham picking up clues, exploring gates that open, and avoiding or confronting monsters that emerge from the gates and wander around the town – all the while maintaining their Stamina (physical health, worn down in combat) and Sanity (mental health, worn down by ‘seeing too much’ and using spells). There are two ‘status tracks’ which rack up during the game to illustrate the growing threat in Arkham – the ‘doom track’ which is how close the Ancient One is to awaking, which notches up whenever a gate opens or sometimes through other special events, and a ‘terror track’ which represents how afraid the citizens of the town are, and causes some locations to become boarded up when it achieves a certain level (and ultimately, if the terror level reaches 10, the town is considered ‘overrun’ and there is no longer a limit to the number of monsters on the board).
We had our first game yesterday, and we were really impressed by the amount of variety in the game – there are so many variables in play: which of the 8 Ancient Ones is the main enemy, which of the 16 Investigators are being used, what items you have, where the gates open, and so forth. The rules are relatively complicated for a board game, but as pen-and-paper RPG veterans we didn’t really have any trouble following them, since they are much simplified compared to a traditional RPG. We knew it was going to take a while, particularly since it was our first game, and in fact from set up to completion it ran for a little over 4 hours with 4 investigators. By the end of the game we were much faster at it though, and I think we could have shaved an hour off that time, particularly as we were facing the weakest of the Ancient Ones (Yig).
It makes a change to play a co-operative board game too. If you play RPGs then this will not be a new experience, but it is nice to have a tabletop game which follows this model, and in fact it may be a ‘gateway drug’ to friends who perhaps think full RPGs are a little too daunting. Some people might not like the concept of there not being an individual ‘winner’ in the game, but rather that the players either win or lose as a group, but as a social game I think this works extremely well.
The game also accurately re-creates the Call of Cthulhu feeling of exponentially creeping doom, and of a desperate but almost certainly futile struggle against powers beyond human understanding. Things start off looking fairly manageable, but things begin to ratchet up pretty fast, as you realise the time it takes to close gates, and to gather the resources to seal them permanently – the only way to stall the increase of the doom track is to permanently seal gates, but you need to balance gathering the clues you need to do this, with positive action to actually do it. 80% into our first game, we thought we were doing pretty well as we started to make progress on the gates. But in the end, we realised we had left it too late to start tackling them in earnest and eventually Yig emerged and devoured us all. Oh noes!
Even though our first game ended in crushing failure and the doom of the world, we had a huge amount of fun. It’s probably an alien concept to some gamers to enjoy a game in which there is a pretty good chance that you’ll fail at the end – Call of Cthulhu the pen-and-paper RPG was ever thus, and yet it has a huge cult (no pun intended) following. In my opinion though, extracting fun from a doomed scenario is one of the greatest examples of gaming refinement – because it’s the playing that is important, not the winning. Modern gaming far too often concentrates on simply completion – finish the game, get this achievement, succeed!!! In reality, all that matters in a game is that you had fun while playing it. Arkham Horror, like CoC, achieves that in spades in spite of – or perhaps because – the end confrontation is not what you’re rushing towards, but what you’re trying to avoid, all the while running madly about with your fellow players just trying not to get eaten or go insane. It’s unique, and I love it.
Summary: highly recommended if you want to play a really interesting, very different social game with well-balanced friends. Just don’t invite the guy obsessed with winning, he’ll hate it