Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Arkham Horror

I know I'm about eight years late, or actually more like twenty-seven, to be reviewing this game, but I only got it six months ago, so what are you going to do about that then? In any event, reviews are one of those things for which, much like jello, there's always room. So here we go. This is going to be my quick-fire review of Arkham Horror for the benefit of the unenlightened and the bored.

What is it?
It's a board game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his friends, collaborators and correspondents, which various people have welded together, for better or for worse, into the so-called 'Cthulhu Mythos.' The basic gist is that you move characters around a board representing the city of Arkham, Massachusetts,  collecting clues and having encounters with the various odd goings-on of the city. The aim of this is to stop the awakening of the Ancient One, a nigh-unstoppable beastie of the ilk of Cthulhu and his chums. This is achieved generally by sealing gates which are opening to other worlds, which the characters must pass through, having encounters in various alien locations. In the meantime, however, these gates are also unleashing monsters which must be dealt with if the investigators aren't to be severely impeded in their job.

This of course isn't one of your snakes 'n' ladders type board games with a bit of plasticised cardboard, some little single-coloured tokens and a die. This is the scary kind of 'nerd board game' featuring stacks of cards, a huge piece of plasticised cardboard, more tokens representing people and monsters and what not, and loads of dice. Encounters are all text-based, so every set of locations in the game need cards, as do the items and abilities of the investigators. It's a game that's slow to set up and often slow to play. It also has a certain amount of resource management and statistical adjustment in the style of a role-playing game. It's complicated.

Is it fun?
Ehh... sort of? This is a cooperative game, not a competitive game, so there are 'rules' designed to obstruct the players and assist, as it were, the game: rules which dictate how monsters move and fight, where gates open, and how tasks are achieved, usually with lots of dice rolling and the cruel caprices of statistics. Arkham Horror is a frustrating game. When things are going well it can clip along at a decent pace, but when things are going badly the game becomes not only irritating but slow and boring. It's also possible to lose - if all your investigators die - which can make it feel like you've wasted your time. Then again, victory is nothing but a meaningless feeling of satisfaction, followed by a long time of packing up, so it's neither here nor there really. The most irritating core mechanic of the game, I would argue, is that a 'success' for most 'checks' in the game occurs only on a 5 or a 6. Why only a 1 in 3 chance? What's that representative of? That's the problem with random number games and games which use six-sided dice especially, in my opinion: they become completely unconvincing when they're supposed to represent probabilities so incredibly likely or unlikely that the chance of the other thing happening is practically zero. There's nothing more tiresome than gathering up twelve dice so your character with a tommy gun and a high Fight skill can pump some defenceless alien-worshipper in a robe full of lead and somehow every dice rolls less than a 5 or a 6. What happened? Did he forget to brace or something? I've heard the argument that a lot of the randomness is meant to be representative of Lovecraft's chaotic universe, but say what you like about Lovecraft's writing, it's hardly full of spontaneous randomness, rather creeping horror and impending doom. Is there some way to more accurately represent that? Probably something involving losing control and dying.
Arkham Horror is most fun when you've got the hang of the mechanics and are able to swing probability sufficiently in your favour to make things manageable and decently brisk. It's also fun when it's most closely evoking the sense of weirdness and cosmicism of the original H.P. Lovecraft texts through the particular encounters. It's not fun when you're overwhelmed by the random appearance of difficult encounters and problematic monsters and you're constantly twiddling your thumbs as your investigators are lost in the vast reaches of eternity or are constantly being incapacitated and forced to slowly recover at the hospital or the asylum. The game itself is not much like any H.P. Lovecraft story in particular, however, which some might find disappointing. It's more a general tribute to the literature.

Do I recommend it?
I would get Arkham Horror if the following things are true: you have a reasonable amount of patience and a tolerance for failure; you're a fan of H.P. Lovecraft - it helps to be a fan of August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and the like too, because Lovecraft's own inventions can only be stretched so far, so plenty of their stuff turns up; you're likely to have a few hours to spare in which to play it; and you're not completely turned off by what are known as "American-style" board games with all their reliance on random chance. Its one advantage is that it can be played by any number of people, really, so you can still use it even after your friends have had a go and then never want to play it again.

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