Thursday, July 27, 2006

How Cthulu Ate Us All, or Arkham Horror is a Harsh Mistress (Arkham Horror x2)

We've played Arkham Horror a few times before, so I won't comment in depth on the game mechanics (North American-style) or overall production values (very good).

Arkham Horror is a game not to be approached lightly. In addition, if you have players who are not in the mood to play (as I suspect we did last night), do not, under any circumstances, try to force them to play. The game requires you to keep a brisk pace and make quick decisions on your turn or it slows into the morass of dullness that any North American-style boardgame can fall into (too many rules, too many exceptions, too many things decided by die-roll).

I fear that I dragged people into a game they didn't enjoy last night, which is my personal anathema for a game evening.

Arkham Horror is a game where a single card draw (especially some of the mythos cards like "Good Work Undone" or some of the more powerful Great Old Ones, like Hastur or Cthulhu) can turn what is usually a challenging game into a brutal one. This makes it difficult to justify the hour or two you might have already invested in playing being turned upside down by random chance. This, coupled with poor dice rolling, can make a gaming session singularly unfun.

I have had lots of fun with Arkham Horror in the past. Last night was average enjoyment for me, but from the reactions of some other players, terminally boring or frustrating for others.

I think I have learned a few things about Arkham Horror after one solo play and five multi-player plays.

1. Only play Arkham Horror when everyone is in the mood to play.

2. Only play Arkham Horror when you have a solid block of 3-4 hours in which to play it. Do not attempt to squeeze in a game if you will run out of time. You cannot finish a game in under two hours unless you are really lucky or have very few players (who are also game veterans). You can (we have, anyway) finish it in two and a half hours, but you have to be lucky and have people who've played before. I should have not tried to play the second round last night with only one and a half hours remaining. I realize now as I write this that when I made the decision to play the second game, I made a critical math error. We usually stop at 11, and it was 9:30 when we finished the first game. Somehow that made 2.5 hours in my defectively quick mental math.

3. The gate/other world exploration mechanic can be big drag on the game and should probably have been differently developed. You have two (and sometimes, with a number of cards that delay you in the other world, three or more) turns where you make virtually no decisions and random, mostly bad things happen to you in which your only reaction is to roll dice (this is especially bad if you were sucked in unprepared (no clue and no elder sign) and the experience will be for nought). One unfortunate player was stuck in Celeano for four encounters (!) as a result of two trap-type encounters last night. Coupled with the fact that gates are usually opening at a rate where you will lose in six (at minimum) to eight (average) turns (in a five player game) if you don't close a gate almost immediately, you will lose. The amount of time spent in other worlds seems overly much - given the few options available to the player. I actually remembered a rule incorrectly for the first few gate encounters - we should get sucked into the other world where we then have a other world encounter on the same turn, instead of waiting until the next turn. This made an important difference in our first run through last night, and I should have caught the mistake earlier. I believe it affected two gate exploration attempts. The effect of having no decisions to make and simply watching as things happen to you in a game (as can happen in the Other Worlds) is a "locked on auto-pilot" feeling that is the exact opposite of enjoyable gaming. I will have to think of other games where this occurs, because it is not exclusive to Arkham Horror.

4. The FAQ version of monster introduction rate (two monsters per gate with five or more investigators, and monster surges of monsters = # of investigators or number of gates, whichever is higher) should only be used with experienced players for a greater challenge. It seemed overly challenging with four experienced players and one rookie last night.

5. I propose that one possible aid to play is the ability to trade clues. Aside from a game mechanic point of view, I don't see why (thematically) investigators wouldn't trade clues. In fact, thematically, they SHOULD trade clues. If you cannot close/seal a gate unless you explore it, if you are sucked through a gate and no one has elder signs to trade, you are stuck with the option of closing the gate only. Another alternative is that you can close a gate with clues or elder signs if at least one investigator in the space has an explored marker. I don't know; this might make the game too easy.

Coming away from these games, I still feel like I want to play again. Oh, I forgot to mention - we were all devoured by Cthulhu in the first game (lost by a long shot - we didn't have a chance), but we made decent headway in the second against Hastur. I feel that with many repeated plays, you might get a situation in which you feel you've explored all possibilities, but I haven't reached that level yet after six games. I almost feel like I want to play this game two or three times in a row with a dedicated group of players to fully appreciate it, but I don't think that will happen with this group. Arkham Horror requires either dedicated North American-style game afficianados or Cthulhu-mythos fans to be a frequently revisited game. Our gaming group does not match this description (3 Mythos fans, one of which is a North American-style game fan, so only 60% of the group)

As a final side note, I find it interesting to note that the two players who appeared least enthused about the game were also the ones most distracted by comparisons of which illustrations had the sexiest women (Jenny Barnes, "cleavage girl" (forgotten her name) and the Witch) and also happened to be the youngest players (well, still well over 25, but...). Low attention-span blipheads! Can't you see the importance of focusing your attention on a board game based on the lunatic/paranoid writings of a semi-racist New Englander* for three hours? I blame MTV. Kids today... *mutter mutter grumble*

* Yes, yes, I know. His views on miscegenation and racial purity changed over his lifespan, and toward the end of his life he had changed many of his viewpoints. Doesn't change the fact that a lot of his early work was undoubtedly racially prejudiced.


  1. I think you are being too hard on yourself, Kozure!

    There will always be games one of us prefers over the others. I'm happy to play the ones you like because you return the favor when it's my pick (El Grande, anyone?).

    That said:

    I'm not a huge fan of Arkham Horror, and last night's games did nothing to change my mind. There are just WAY too many fiddly rules, all happening at the same time, many of them not adding anything significant to the experience (in fact, I found myself constantly pulled OUT of the experience due the the amount of concentration necessary to keep up with the mechanics of the game). I find the layout of the monster tokens (forcing us to flip the cards constantly+ refer to rules to understand what they do) and the layout of the mythos cards (forcing us to read in a different order than it's presented) to be particularly unacceptable.

    As I mentioned last night, the rule which awakens the Great Old One after a set number of portals have opened doesn't seem to work mathematically. With 7-8 players, the trigger is 5. It takes 4 turns JUST TO CLOSE A SINGLE PORTAL (I think... I had a hard time following the rules regarding the timing of otherwordly travel). Therefore, unless there is a portal within 1-2 turns of the starting position AND unless that character doesn't get held up AND unless he somehow starts with the necessary clue tokens/ elder sign the game is over before it has begun! (I suppose there is a chance that a portal won't open on a particular turn, as well). Either way, the odds seem stacked towards automatic failure.

    The odd thing, though, is that BoardGameGeek is full of commentary regarding Arkham Horror being far too EASY... particularly with large groups of players. I must be missing something!

    By the way, you were fishing for other games which can suffer from predetermined decisions. The first game which sprung to mind for me was Shadows over Camelot. It's quite easy in that game to know what you are doing for 4-5 turns down the line, and just have to wait for it to happen. Just another reason why my opinion of that game has really fallen.

    I suppose that means that Lord of the Rings remains my favorite cooperative game! (simmer down, Shemp, simmer down)

  2. I enjoyed reading your post although you certainly didnt' enjoy your session. I agree with most of your comments. It certainly requires dedicated players ready to play for 3-4 hours. At least one of the playrs should be thorougly familiar with the rules. It also helps if all of the players are Cthulhu fans.

    About the difficulty of the game. I have playte Arkham Horror approxiamately 10 times. We only lost the second time that we played. So yes, I do think it's too easy and I don't consider myself a very good player or anything like that. I believe that the key element is cooperation. If player cooperate effectively the game is easy otherwise the GOOs have a great time devouring humanity! But effective cooperation requires that most of the players are familiar with the game mechanics.

    Enough with my rantings. I can't wait for the expansions to come out.

  3. I've been blog ignoring so this is a late comment, but I'm with Easy - you are being too hard on yourself, Ko-daddy. I always enjoy Arkham Horror, but that first game there was a lot of bad luck. I know that personally, there wasn't much I could do, and was just waiting to get lost in time and space. Which ended up happening.

    Anyway, it seems with AH that sometimes things will be easy, sometimes tough, and sometimes fairly balanced. I can live with that -- it's not like the game takes 10 hours or anything.


    (just for you, Easy, just for you)