17 September 2010

Arkham Horror [boardgame review]

”A gate and a monster appears”  - CRAP!

Arkham Horror is one of my favorite boardgames if not THE favorite game I have in my collection. It has to be said that it is a huge game – both in terms of content and how much space you’ll need to actually play it with the board, dozens of card stacks, investigator cards and whatnot. It’s easy to get lost in this fantastic and pretty atmospheric Lovecraftian game.

This game is based on the universe of weird horror tale writer H.P. Lovecraft, readers of his novels will be familiar with the main setting – the city of Arkham which makes up the board of the core game. Readers will also be familiar with characters, monsters, elder gods, abilities, items etc – there are so many references to his work that you really get a feeling that you are playing one of his novels. Really, the game and the boxed contents are so overwhelming that I have to really break this up in small sections to make it easy to understand for anyone unfamiliar with either this game or Lovecraft.

So let’s take a look at  ”Arkham Horror”
The story, we have the town of Arkham, a fictional place located in Massachusetts. A lot of the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft start out in or around Arkham. Thus it is a natural starting point for Fantasy Flight Games to make the core game set in Arkham. In the novels humanity is always in great danger without knowing it, dark forces, elder gods, evil cults etc are plotting against humanity and we always have one or a group of adventurers that delve deep into the madness of the truth – most often going mad, getting themselves killed or they successfully retreat to safety but forever scarred with the knowledge they’ve gathered.

The story in the game Arkham Horror – is that portals to other dimensions are opening all over town as an old monster God is trying to breach the veil into our dimension and it’s up to a handful of investigator characters to prevent this from happening – or if the shit hits the fan – try to kill the monster God.
The game when stripped to the bones, is all about gathering “clue tokens”, moving investigators around Arkham to pick up clues and interacting with different locations. You will need clue tokens in order to close those gates to other dimensions. To close a gate you need to move one of your investigators into a gate marker when it appears on the board, travel to the other dimension and investigate it and in the following turns return to Arkham and with your knowledge about the gate try to close it – and even better (if you have enough clue tokens) “Seal” the gate and make the area where the gate had appeared “safe” preventing further gates to open in the same place.

In the meantime the elder Gods are awakening from their deep slumber, for each new gate that opens you have to place an “awakening “marker on the monster chart. Once you fill all those empty spaces with “awakening” markers the game comes to a halt and it turns into a final battle between your gang of investigators and some mighty elder god. You pretty much want to prevent this from happening, thus speed and timing is of the essence, allowing gates to open without closing them or allowing too many gates to be open at one time will lead to the inevitable showdown. The game ends once you have sealed enough gates, there are no open gates left or if you kill the elder God.

So the game is pretty straightforward and simple – what makes it interesting and gives it a high replay value are the components – and there are a LOT of those.

First of all Elder Gods: the core game comes with a bunch of these. Each Elder god has his own stats, special triggers, amount of wounds, followers, special rules etc. If you want a quick game pick an Elder god which awakens easily – these also tend to be easier to beat. If you want a longer game pick one tough old bastard that takes a while to awaken but will probably beat your gang of merry investigators to a pulp once he appears and also make your struggle to close gates a hell because of his special rules making the game harder. Switching Elder gods really makes for a different game experience every time.

Investigators: As with the Elder gods you get a pile of Investigator cards to pick from. These range from scholars, regular inhabitants of Arkham, adventurers, law enforcement, criminals etc that join forces to stop the threat against Arkham. Each investigator has his own set of special rules, skills, an unique backstory, specific starting location on the board. Picking investigators is often where you set the difficulty for yourself. Some investigators are brawlers, tough and with lots of wounds, maybe even have weapons in their starting inventory. Other characters may be weak scholars, more inclined to use magic objects, pass Lore checks and may be more resilient to losing their Sanity when being attacked by some freakish monstrosity.

The Core game comes with 9 decks of “district cards”. Each district has its own color, French Hill district cards have blue edges, Miskatonic University have yellow edges etc. When you walk into an location in search of Clue markers you may often get the option to either directly interact with the location if there is a little box describing available actions – or most often – you will draw a “district card” with the appropriate edge color and read what happens in your particular current location.

Furthermore we have “Other dimension” cards, these too have “color codes”. When an investigator moves into a location in Arkham that contains a gate token you will be sucked into the gate and end up in one of the other dimension printed along the edge of the board. Each other dimension has a color code – meaning that you will only use “other dimension cards” with the correct color to determine what happens over there to your character.

The game also contains a deck of “Mythos cards”. These cards are drawn at the end of every turn, and usually contain the information of where new clue tokens will appear, where a new gate to another dimension will appear, how monsters on the board will move this turn and sometimes information that affect the gameplay – like severe weather.

Your investigators will be able to arm themselves and fill their inventory with a handful of different types of items. Common items, Spells, Unique Items, Skills and Allies. These cards will boost your stats, skills, give you special rules, make it easier to kill enemies etc.

Common items are really just “common items”. Stuff produced by humans and nothing special. In this category we have different sorts of food, guns, whips, lanterns and such. Unique items are really rare artifacts, magical weapons, healing stones etc. Spells are magical spells and ancient tomes of valuable knowledge. Skills are rare and far between. Some characters start out with one or more skill cards. You may also obtain skills during the game through various encounters. Skills boost your primary character card stats, sometimes allow you valuable rerolls for hitting with weapons or when you use Clue tokens. Allies are inhabitants of Arkham that will join your quest to stop the evil elder gods. These characters don’t really take part in the action but act as passive followers that boost your skills and actions. 

We also have monster tokens, monsters appear out of gates most of the time. Whenever a gate appears a monster appears at the gate location and may start moving if the monster symbol is on the Mythos card. Monsters may also appear through various action you perform at locations, killed monsters may be traded for money, allies or bonuses such as “Blessings” at the St Mary church. Monsters range from easy to kill minions to some really tough opponents that you may wish to avoid rather than to pick a fight with. Some monsters may also affect the gameplay, thus making it crucial to kill them as soon as possible no matter the risk. Many of the monsters are familiar faces from Lovecrafts stories, some are generic “horror” monsters such as vampires and zombies.

As you see this game is full of cards, counters, markers and tokens. It may get a bit overwhelming the first time but you have to see it as a semi RPG experience – each adventure is completely different from the previous one. Either you will fight a new Elder god, or you will have a different set of investigators, or you will have different items, skills and allies at your disposal. There are so many variations of the content that it really makes this game – at least in my opinion – stay fresh even after repeated playthroughs.

There are a few more points I need to bring up. First of all, get the expansions!  Maybe not at once but add expansions to your collection over time. You will get more of the good stuff, additional regions on separate boards, new monsters, new gods, more locations, more cards, tokens, investigators – new set of traits, skills and objects etc. The best way to get to know Arkham Horror is to get the core game ,play it a couple of times until you get the hang of the rules and then get an expansion (be it a small one with only cards – or one of the large ones with an additional board). The core game is essentially “the basics” and though enjoyable it can get a bit easy to beat for veteran players after a couple of games.

This game is about co-operation, and can also be played solo if you like (which works since the investigators are all working towards a common goal). If you play solo I would advice on 3-4 investigators. It's not as fun as playing with more people but it is a good way of learning the rules.

The expansions really turn up the difficulty with additional rules and events. Those expansions that have additional boards require you to split up between Arkham and the new town to prevent two events from happening at the same time rather than focusing on one. The expansions are also strongly themed after individual H.P.Lovecraft novels such as the Dunwhich Horror and A Shadow over Innsmouth. These expansions are meant to be played individually along with the core game. It will be pretty much impossible to beat a game where you add 2 additional towns to the core game. But if you have more than one expansion you can always play with another expansion each time you pick up the game for your game nights.

This game has so many components that your boxes won’t be enough to contain all of the contents in good order once you get 2 or more expansion. It is thus advisable to make your own “card& tokens” box to make it easy to separate the contents that are specific for each expansion, and the content that is “generic” and work with all expansions and the core game.

I will review the expansions currently in my collection (Dunwich Horror, King in Yellow, Innsmouth Horror) over the weeks to come, thus going more into detail on how each expansion contributes to the core game, and what the story and specific style each expansion adds to your playing experience.

In conclusion, Arkham Horror is an excellent boardgame that act as a portal into further Lovecraftian gaming and Weird  horror experiences. It may also spark an interest for H.P. Lovecrafts works , in which case you will become even more familiar with the setting and the contents of these games which in turn makes the whole experience even more enjoyable. Highly recommended!

You may get this game at GameManiacs if you live in Sweden, or directly from Fantasy Flight Games.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nice Review. As we have only played the base game, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the expansions.

  3. I will post reviews of the expansions starting next week :-)
    They really do a lot to enhance the experience.


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