8 Sep

Arkham Horror revisited

Filed under: Boardgames No Responses

I love how the board effectively portrays the town of Arkham, but I now realize that the sheer amount of text on it makes it quite overwhelming for new players.

We recently had the opportunity to play Arkham Horror again, not once but twice, in quick succession. The first one was a five-player session with three complete newbies to the game. The second one was just me, Shan and Sean, and Sean surprised us by opening his copy of Curse of the Dark Pharaoh for the occasion. I’m a bit pressed for time at the moment as I’ve leaving soon for an extended holiday during the Hari Raya, so here are some brief thoughts:

  • Playing Arkham Horror with unenthusiastic people who have no idea what they are in for is a bad idea. The game is so rules-heavy and takes so long to play that you just can’t waltz into it casually. I think by the time I was done going over the rules, the group at the other table were already on their second game. This is definitely not a case of the more the merrier. Much like Tales of the Arabian Nights, this game is better played by a compact group of players so everyone can keep track of what each other are doing and the game won’t drag on for too long.
  • Having the right mindset is important and being a fan of the Lovecraft stories helps immensely. This is definitely not a generic horror theme. Reading aloud all of the encounter text is also part of the fun. If you’re just skipping to the game effects, you’re missing the point. One QT3 poster suggested that you should really think of Arkham Horror as a highly structured role-playing game. At the same time, it’s probably best not to try to optimize your decisions too much. In our first game, one player took twenty minutes to decide whether or not to confront a monster, working out the probabilities and such. Not only does that annoy the other players, it goes against the spirit of the game as well.
  • On the other hand, it’s also important that the investigators actually try to win. Another player from our first session seemed to have given up on understanding the rules and simply wanted to do interesting stuff, such as trying to confront a monster when she obviously had zero chance of survival. When one player does stuff like this, it makes everything feel sort of pointless to everyone else. This is why getting a good game of Arkham Horror going is so hard as you need a very particular type of player.
  • Even if you get a good group, it seems to me that you still need just the right alignment of the stars to make it work. If a game becomes too much of a cakewalk, no one feels satisfied. If the investigators get horrifically bad luck, everyone quits in disgust. It’s a fine line to walk. Alternatively, you could also get a situation in which the investigators essentially cannot lose, but it would take a long slog for them to actually win. I guess that’s just something you have to put up with in games with lots of randomness.
  • We won both games rather handily though I forgot to spawn two monsters per gate for the first few gates in the first game. I tried to compensate by adding an extra monster to each open gate when I realized this but it probably did mean that the game was much easier than it was supposed to be. In the second game, neither the Doom Track nor the Terror Track posed much of a threat, though at one point, we did come close to losing due to the “too many gates open” condition.

A rewarding Graveyard encounter.

And some thoughts on the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion. It’s hard to get a good read as Sean simply mixed in all the cards, so there’s not much to go on:

  • Despite the claims in the rulebook about it making the game significantly harder, the Mythos and encounters we drew were surprisingly tame. One Mythos card literally deposited two of the new Exhibit items right on the streets of Arkham, free for the taking.
  • There’s a new type of gate encounter cards that can be really brutal however. If you draw one and you’re in the Other World named on the card, you have to fight the Ancient One associated with that world. Otherwise, you seem to get a generic “A monster appears!” encounter. We didn’t actually get an Ancient One, so maybe they’ve tweaked it to be statistically unlikely, but if you do get one, I can’t see how it can end in any way but a devoured investigator. Does the difficulty level really need to seesaw so dramatically?
  • The Exhibit cards seem to have strange effects that require creative playing to use well. Sean got one that let him make use of the special ability of several other specific investigators. I got one that gave me a +3 bonus on skill checks against all monsters of a symbol that I specify during the Upkeep phase and -1 against all other monsters. It was a pain to remember to choose a symbol every turn however, so I junked it when I went insane.
  • I didn’t realize at first that the Parchment of the Elder Sign from the expansion worked slightly differently from the original one. The new one eliminates the need for clues to seal gates as well but you still need to make a Fight or Lore check to succeed in exchange for not having lose a Stamina and a Sanity. Luckily, as the designated gate closer, Shan succeeded in her roll, thanks to a blessing from Sean, by the skin of her teeth, or the game might have dragged on for quite a while longer.
  • I guess the intent of this expansion is to inject a bit of Egyptian flavor to the game and make it a bit more varied to players who already know all of the existing cards too well. Notably, the base game included too few Arkham encounter cards, so you’ll often see repeats, which nobody enjoys.

Overall, I’d say that these two experiences have greatly improved my opinion of the game. It’s still too hard for most people and I can’t really see someone being able to grasp everything that is going on until after a couple of plays and it’s still not something I’d want to do too often, but I guess I can now understand why the game has such a devoted fanbase. I’m still annoyed that it has a ton of idiosyncrasies. What’s the point of the Silver Twilight memberships when they make almost no difference whatsoever? Why are some unstable locations so much more dangerous than others? You just need to put up with all this stuff in the interests faithfulness to theme.

We went for broke by blessing Shan and having my character give her all my money and items as she went to close and seal the final gate. It turned out that all of my items were unnecessary but the collection of stuff sure looks impressive!
Written on September 8 2010 and is filed under Boardgames. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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