Classics: Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror Boxfront

Back in 2005, when gaming was ruled by dry Euros (at least, the BGG rankings were), what was missing was adventure.  The kind that could suck you into another time and place.  The kind that could create a temporal vortex and leave you wondering where the last few hours just went.  Enter Arkham Horror.

It took up huge amounts of table space, had a lot of clunky mechanisms, enough randomness to scare away most Euro gamers and it was long: the time on the box said it could take 4 hours (and those are usually conservative to the point of deceit).

I loved it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Euro, but Arkham Horror provided something I’d rarely experienced in a boardgame.  Like being brought up watching documentaries and then seeing Indiana Jones for the first time, it was extraordinary.

Over a decade later and it is still one of my Top 10 Games of All Time.  Let me tell you about it…

The first thing that struck you back then was that it was co-operative.  This was before Pandemic made co-operative games so fashionable.  You grabbed a few adventuring companions, picked some characters and delved into the occult goings-on of the small American town of Arkham in the 20s.

This was also before every other game had a Cthulhu version: the Lovecraft mythos felt fresh and different.  What were these strange, deformed monsters that kept appearing all over town?  Where were they coming from?  How could we fight them and stop this evil from encroaching into our world?

AH - Sealed Gate

Before Pandemic popularised the co-operative format of taking actions to stop the spread of bad things followed by a turn where more bad things happen, Arkham Horror created a sense of suspense and impending doom as the Old One (demon-god from another dimension) gradually advanced their malevolent plans.

Your character was anything but the all-powerful hero and at the start of the game even the weakest of monsters posed a serious threat to your health or sanity.  You had some starting equipment and had to sneak around town investigating, gathering clue tokens and using them to seal the other-worldly gates that were spawning monsters.

There were a wide variety of different locations that you could visit on the giant board, many of which had interesting special actions that you could take such as buying spells from the magic shop, borrowing money from the bank, becoming a deputy at the police station or dissecting monsters for clues at the university.

There were objectives, but it felt like more of a sandbox game.  Particularly at the start when there were no immediate threats, you could go pretty much anyway and just see what happened.  The game contains huge decks of encounter cards, equipment cards, blessings and curses (even before adding in any of the many expansions), which provided lots of variety each time you played.

AH - Monsters

Another aspect that I really appreciated was the flavour text.  It wasn’t an afterthought.  There was lots of it, which encouraged you to read out each encounter card as it happened, immersing you in the world like a good novel.  It provided immersion and escapism on a level with a good computer game, which is a rare feat for a boardgame.

To add atmosphere, we always play with an appropriate soundtrack.  A few years back, Tristan Hall (designer of Gloom of Kilforth and 1066, Tears to Many Mothers) added a bunch of sound effects (wind, rain, monster sounds, etc.) to 1920s jazz music and stuck it on his YouTube channel.  He designed it specifically for the Cthulhian mythos and it fits perfectly.

I realise at this point that I haven’t really explained many of the mechanisms in the game, but honestly, they’re not important.  Nobody plays Arkham Horror for the mechanisms; they play it for the experience.  People who care about clever mechanisms and don’t get the theme will get bored very quickly.  Arkham Horror isn’t for everybody by any means.

AH - Dice on boardHaving said that, there are a couple of mechanisms that I like.  Firstly, each character has several competing skill scales (each with a slider) on their character sheet.  For example, one scale pits speed against sneak.  At the start of each round you can adjust where the slider is.  If you move it towards the speed end, your character will be able to travel further on their turn (they’re faster), but they will find it hard to sneak past monsters.

You constantly have to adjust these skill sliders to make the most of the situation you’re in.  If you’re faced with a particularly tough monster and you have no hope of defeating it, you could try sneaking past it, but your sneak skill will have to be high to manage it, which will make you slow.  You can’t run away from a monster sneakily!

The other main mechanism that runs throughout the game is the idea of testing these skills.  It’s very simple: you roll a number of dice equal to your skill level and each 5 or 6 counts as a success.  Certain tests will require a particular number of successes in order to pass.  Equipment, spells, blessings, monsters and hero special abilities can all modify these tests, increasing or decreasing the number of dice rolled or the number of successes required.

You spend a good chunk of the game rolling dice, but you roll so many dice throughout the course of the game that the luck factor tends to balance out.  It’s remarkable how invested you can become in the outcome of a critical die roll though!

As I said, Arkham Horror isn’t for everyone, and by now you will probably have a good idea whether it’s for you or not.  If it piques your interest though, I highly recommend giving it a go if you get the chance.  I know several people who got into gaming via Arkham Horror.  I would never describe it as a gateway game, but for the right kind of person, it’s a magical recipe.

Do you think its time has past?  A dinosaur from a bygone era?  Or does it hold a special place in your heart?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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