Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: Arkham Horror

Summer has ended.  Not the season, of course, but the frantic days of vacation and adventure.  Stow the tents; cover the grill.  Take out a second mortgage to purchase school supplies for the rising generation of Einsteins, Shakespeares, and Churchills.  A return to school means a return to a schedule.  For me and my friends, a schedule means that we can reliably forsake homes and loved ones one night a month, abscond to a darkened basement and satisfy our craving for…board games.

Arkham Horror is on of my current favorites.  Not for the faint of heart, it finds its inspiration in the Cthulhu mythos of HP Lovecraft and his literary descendants.  It is a cooperative game of investigation, and otherworldly terror—you and your teammates play a group of intrepid investigators, bent on uncovering the dark creature behind ongoing weirdly happenings in the town of Arkham, Mass. 

It’s a bit like an role-playing game in that players choose characters with different abilities.  One character may be a sharp 84px-MichaelMcGlenMarker shooting mob boss; another a mentally resilient nun.  Victory over the forces of darkness doesn’t increase your stats, but you can use the victories to purchase limited upgrades for your character.  While it is constrained by typical boardgame considerations  (play is fairly linear, and there’s not a lot of incentive to deviate or innovate), it succeeds in setting a frantic pace for survival.  Within the first few rounds, even novice players get the feeling that this ain’t no Chutes-n-Ladders.  Maybe if the Ladders led to a dark forest lair, inhabited by Shubb-Niggurath, Goat of a Thousand Young.   Or if the chutes dropped you into Hibbs roadhouse, where the thugs may be as more than unwelcoming…they may be downright BACK predatory.  Monsters are generated quickly, and the locales in Arkham are decidedly non-urbane.  The overall goal of the game is to keep the Ancient Horror that slumbers beneath, above, or within Arkham asleep; failing that, it is to defeat the Abomination when it awakens. 

Gameplay is complex at first.  I’m afraid to say that it took me a couple gaming sessions to really understand the game.  The payoff, in my opinion is worth it.  Each game turn is divided into phases, which each player takes his turn with.  There are 5 phases which can be tiresome until the process is understood by all the players.  Once learned, the flow becomes much more natural.  There are a billion little pieces to keep track of; one wonders if the manufacturers owns stock in Cardboards-R-Us.

Another ding against the game: its manual qualifies as a tome.  The art is nice, and it’s written clearly and well, but there’s no escaping the fact that its a manuscript.  It can be daunting for new players.  I highly suggest that when you start out, get the PDF of the rules and keep a laptop nearby so that you can search for rules more quickly.

My final criticism of the game is this: the build-up to the Ancient One’s awakening is tough.  I mean, this is a game with the ability to make you worry about its outcome.  It’s emotionally perilous, even, and so successful.  You’ve been playing this character for an hour or two; you’re invested in his or her success, but the game is a beast.  Monsters and bad guys patrol the streets, and you’ve only barely scraped by with your health and sanity in check.  Then comes the Big Bad; you’ve failed in your attempt to keep it asleep, to safeguard reality from the onslaught of Cthulhu or Hastur, or Nyarlanthotep… the only thing to do is to mount a desperate attempt to beat back its influence.  Paltry hope!  Deadly foe!

Except…not.  To date, the Big Bad has been pathetically easy for my group to beat.  The rest of the game is a gauntlet; the Ancient One is a cakewalk by comparison.

Those things said, it’s still a successful implementation.  I’ll also note that there are a number of house rules and help available on the internet to mitigate all these problems.

So what are you waiting for?  Arkham and her horrors await…

--Scott M. Roberts

Fnagh! Eo waghet!  Cthulhu p’nang ano!

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