Saturday, 8 January 2011

Arkham Horror review, part II

Part I is here.

A friend said I should blog more and finish my AH review, so what the heck, here it is. I haven't thought this through before writing. You're getting the raw ramblings of my brain being poured straight into the blog post. (not that I usually proceed otherwise)

Vague impressions
Since I've first opened the box I've played four sessions of the game. One on my own (this is one of the very few boardgames that lets you play solo against the board) and three others with my friends (3-5). Let me unpack our experience a bit.

So how hard exactly is this game? I don't know. Since it's a cooperative game we were expecting something pretty tough (the Battlestar Galactica boardgame is a very hard win for the humans), but if I ignore the solo game I played and lost (there were two threats that happened at once and I couldn't handle them both) we won all the other three games. And pretty easily at that. There were very few moments when we were actually starting to get to the edge of our seats but never really felt the pressure.

This is due to a combination of various factors. We're a good team. We often talked about the situation on the board, sharing items, making optimal plans on who should do what and so on. The FLGS salesman that sold me the game said that you really need only one player that's concentrating on winning and the others can just "play the story" and I think that's true on a level. When we put our heads together and united forces we just kicked the shit out of the game. It wasn't super easy, but not very hard either. We probably needn't have tried so hard to beat the game.

Which brings me to the other thing..."story". Your character has a little background blurb on his sheet that explains how and why he or she is in Arkham and involved in the horrible mystery. It's a nice touch of fluff, but ultimately irrelevant if you're playing to win. There's almost always an optimal solution of how to resolve the turn. The game becomes a puzzle. You figure out what you need to do and how to do it. Then the random elements shuffle and change the situation, you figure the solution again, and so on. It's a boardgame, not an RPG, even if it has a large number of deceptively RPG-like elements. I can scarcely imagine what "roleplaying" or "playing the story" would be like, because the gamey elements feel so overwhelming.

(It's a thing I've been thinking about recently. There's also a nice Story Games thread about the hard-to-draw line between certain boardgames and roleplaying games.)

To put it short: all the rules in AH manage the interaction between hard, palpable, real-world things and elements: cards, tokens, dice, board. The emotional, the as-if, play-pretend, imagined ("roleplay" or "story" or "fiction") elements don't figure into what's going on.

This is of course only natural, because it's a boardgame. That's the whole point. It shows that not everything with "RPG elements" is automatically a RPG and teases the possibility of using the boardgame elements to play an actual RPG. (You can also use "RPG elements" to play a boardgame).


So the game, despite featuring some roleplay-like elements and a certain amount of fluff, is essentially a big puzzle. It reminds me of old computer games for some reason. Like Lemmings or The Incredible Machine or Sokoban. Games where you had to observe the large picture, the various moving parts, figure out how they function and interact and then devise a solution. If you haven't played the game, this is probably misleading. If you have played the game maybe this won't make sense either, but that's the vibe I got.

Rules and gameplay
So what's it all about anyway? Do I need to write this part? You've got a big board featuring a map of the city of Arkham and its locations and various "otherworld" locations of the Lovecraft mythos. Certain locations in Arkham are "unstable" and games to the other worlds can open there as a result of a card draw at the end of every turn. Gates spawn monsters, which is bad, the more gates open, the more monsters roam the streets and the greater the chances that the Ancient One will awaken, which means Bad Stuff.

Each game can have a different Ancient One, drawn randomly from a deck of eight. The Ancient Ones have certain traits that can affect how the whole game gets played, tweaking monster strength or tweaking rules a bit.

The purpose of play is obviously for the Investigators (each player gets a random one from a deck of 16) to close all the otherwordly gates before the Ancient One awakens. You can close a gate without sealing it, which is cheaper, but it means the gate might reopen. Sealing the gates means that location becomes safe and sealing enough gates means the players win the game.

If the Ancient One awakens it's game over. Well, almost. You still get a chance to beat him in a "fair fight" which is largely dependent on the player's status and the Ancient One in play. Azagtoth is simply Game Over, while Yig can be beaten fairly easily if you're ready for him. Cthulhu is a tough fight.

There are quite a lot of rules and a lot of stuff to keep track off, but it's actually rather simple. We quickly internalized most of the game's procedures (but then we do play a lot of Twilight Imperium after all). I can say with some confidence that after three sessions we have pretty much mastered the game. Not that that means the end of anything, because no two sessions are exactly alike, mostly thanks to the different Ancient Ones that can be in play. This game has a lot of replayability: there's a lot of random elements in the form of card draws that can twist things in unexpected but not overtly dramatic ways - there are both the location cards that you get if you "use" a location (have an encounter there is the technical term) and the Mythos cards which get flipped at the end of each turn, opening gates, moving and spawning monsters revealing clues and changing rules in small but interesting ways. If you consider that there are some seven expansions for the game available it becomes clear that this one is a long-lifer (life-longer? what the fuck am I writing?).

So that's that. The game landed in my top 3 favourite boardgames (alongside Twilight Imperium and Battlestar Galactica). I wouldn't dare say which one is "better" because they're all darn good.

The production values are very good throughout, except maybe for the character sheets which look a bit cheap. One thing that really bothered me during the game is the layout of the Mythos cards. Each mythos card has four elements. Going from top to bottom and from left to right, these are (A) the game event, (B) the revealed clue, (C) the gate and (D) monster movement. But watch out! The order in which you actually resolve these steps is C-B-D-A. That's just lousy imo. It's a minor minor annoyance which doesn't change anything about the game but I find it a poor design choice.

The rules are pretty sensibly written and although there are a few blanks here and there (there's some stuff that you mostly figure out from the context of the game, not from the written rules), they do their job pretty well. I don't really have any other criticisms to be honest. There's the questionable difficulty level but I think we need to play at least a couple more games to figure that out. And it's not hard to make the game harder or easier with a few small rules twists. (unlike some other games where changing rules a bit can have catastrophic consequences on the whole)

Fun, well made game without any glaring flaws. Resource-management puzzle-like cooperative play for 1 to 8 players. I give it four meese out of five.

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