tabletop

Top Of The Table – Eldritch Horror

by Matt Miller on Oct 31, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Longtime board game players likely need no introduction to Arkham Horror. The original version released way back in 1987 and was designed by Richard Launius, with a new version produced by Fantasy Flight in 2005. That newest edition has been a staple of many game libraries for years, offering up horror-themed cooperative adventures that provide a challenging (and challenging to learn) evening of entertainment. Eldritch Horror is a brand-new game inspired by Arkham Horror, but with its own distinct and streamlined mechanics and style. After a number of sessions playing the final game, I’m confident that Eldritch Horror can sit confidently beside its predecessor.

In Eldritch Horror, players take on the role of an occult investigator and world traveler as he or she seeks to unravel a selection of mysteries threatening the world. Move too slow and you risk an ancient evil from beyond time and space emerging onto Earth, resulting in the planet’s destruction. Along the way, players work together to close gates to other dimensions, fight otherworldly monsters, and reach distant wilderness expeditions. Each game plays out differently as heroes go insane, others acquire dangerous pacts with the darkness, and still others fight on through crippling injuries. The potential for narrative depth is enormous, and all the world is yours to uncover as the game unfolds.

Getting Started

Eldritch Horror supports up to eight gamers playing cooperatively to uncover mysteries and prevent the rise of one of the Ancient Ones. Game times scale up the more players you have in the group, and while the game mechanically supports larger groups, my favorite sessions have been with groups of four or five, during which I was able to complete a game in between two and three hours. 

The attractive board is large and detailed, showing off an old-fashioned sepia-colored map of the world from the early 20th century. Major sites call to mind pulp movies and novels of the period, like the Pyramids, the Heart of Africa, or the Amazon, as well as familiar cities like Tokyo and London, and the fictional Arkham, Massachusetts. 

Players choose their investigator, each of whom has distinct abilities and stats, as well as their own backstories. The group also decides which Ancient One is threatening the world; four Big Bads come in this base game, including Lovecraft mainstays like Cthulhu and Azathoth. Each Ancient One offers their own challenges and mysteries to solve, lending lots of replay value, since different foes present different challenges. 

Eldritch Horror utilizes a number of card decks to show off the story events you encounter, other worlds you visit, and items and allies you pick up along the way. As a result, set up can take some time as you shuffle and place the numerous piles of tokens and cards. When possible, I recommend doing as much of this shuffle work before your gaming group arrives to cut down on initial down time. 

As the game begins, things are already getting bad in the world. Before the first turn, some gates open up in the world (represented by tokens laid on designated board locations), and monsters begin emerging to threaten destruction. In keeping with the Lovecraftian theme, the players feel like events are conspiring against them from the very start. 

[Next up: Details on what sets Eldritch Horror apart from its predecessor]

Gameplay

Players familiar with the classic Arkham Horror will identify a number of similar elements in this new game, but Eldritch Horror uses its own mechanics and plays very much like its own game. In this new title, the central goal involves the solving of one mystery after another, which mechanically manifests as a particular goal that all the players are working toward, like collecting a certain number of clues, or defeating a specific powerful monster who has spawned in the world. Solve enough mysteries before the Ancient One emerges, and you win. If your foe does emerge, some Ancient Ones offer one final mystery to seal them away again, but it’s a long shot. 

Play moves quickly around the table, and a number of game features have been refined to be more streamlined than previous Fantasy Flight Arkham universe games. Each player is first given the opportunity to take actions on the board, such as purchasing train or sea-liner tickets; trying to acquire new weapons, items, or allies, or traveling to a new location. Afterward, every player has an encounter on their space, no matter where they are. In most cases, players get to choose a type of encounter based on their location. For instance, an investigator could find herself on the San Francisco space while a clue is present there. She could resolve a research encounter to gain the clue, a San Francisco encounter to try and improve her observation skill, or a general city encounter for an unspecified reward – the choice is hers.  Finally, at the end of the turn, players draw and resolve a mythos card that helps to advance the story, usually with sinister and unfortunate events that transpire across the planet. 

Encounters and fights with monsters are resolved with a simple dice mechanic in which you roll a number of dice equal to your skill in the task at hand, and any fives or sixes count as successes. 

It’s the incidental stories that arise as you complete your turns that makes the game memorable. One investigator may fall into a pit in some distant dimension and gain amnesia by hitting their head. Another character may be forced to take a loan from an unknown benefactor in order to get an item they need, only to find later that the loan came from the very evil forces the players are working against. In one game I played, an investigator sacrificed herself to defeat a monster and solve one of the scenario’s central mysteries. Afterward, another investigator found her in a hospital and saved her from a fate worse than death.

These cool and surprising events show up thanks to a fun system of acquiring cards that only flip once particular conditions are met. Players may make the questionable choice to take on a dark pact for a short-term benefit, knowing that later in the game the card might flip and result in horrible consequences. A leg-injury card might be acquired through a bad roll of the dice, but if you don’t take time to rest and get rid of the card, it might later get infected and cause even more problems. Similarly, when a character loses all their health or sanity, their character card flips, and another investigator can come to that space to have a unique encounter with the defeated ally. I love the suspense of waiting for the other shoe to drop when a card flips, and the laugh-inducing (but often gruesome) story nuggets that result. 

Eldritch Horror does an admirable job of communicating an impending sense of doom. Every turn, things seem to get worse as investigators slowly go insane, gates pop open across the world, and the Ancient One creeps slowly toward emergence. To the credit of the developer, this pervading sense that “we’ll never win” is at least in part an illusion. Eldritch Horror is in fact well-balanced and winnable, so long as players work together to capitalize on their characters’ strengths and confront the mystery at hand. 

[Next up: Creating your own story in Eldritch Horror]

Theme And Story

More than anything else, Eldritch Horror is a story game. The luck-based dice-rolling mechanic that determines success or failure is often a shot in the dark, but both success and failure bring with them interesting advances in the story. The meaningful choices in the game come about through how you choose to spend your time in any given turn. Are you a designated monster slayer, having gathered up a wealth of weaponry and spells to do battle? Or do you use your potent influence with the movers and shakers of the world to acquire new assets that you then share out to your fellow investigators? As the world gets closer to destruction, how willing are you to risk allying yourself with dark forces or engaging in a dangerous trip into another dimension, knowing you are likely to go insane in the process? Tension mounts in any given game, so that the final few turns of the game are usually the most exciting, just like the climax of a great Lovecraft story.

The game’s characters, art, and mechanics are all in place to support the pulp-horror theme. Whether you control the martial artist from Shanghai born to confront evil, or the shell-shocked soldier from the Great War who has seen too much, each investigator offers opportunities for storytelling. Art for the monsters and Ancient One cards is filled with tentacle monstrosities and horrors hidden in shadow. The game even tracks the omens visible through the stars in the sky, and each omen can lead to different events on a given turn, including deadly reckonings in which everything seems to go wrong at once.

As a cooperative, narrative-focused game, Eldritch Horror works great for friend groups and families who want a challenge and don’t mind some frightening imagery and threatening situations. Players who have a problem with major issues of success or failure turning on a dice roll may get frustrated by the game’s reliance on luck. Come for the storytelling opportunities, and you’ll be rewarded.


Mystery cards offer different objectives each time you play

Complexity

Eldritch Horror has a number of card types, tokens, and miscellany to keep track of, but as a whole the system is simpler to learn than its inspiration, Arkham Horror. Part of that is due to streamlined mechanics; for instance, once monsters emerge, they usually stay in place on the board where they first showed up. However, the developers at Fantasy Flight have implemented another smart idea that helps to ease beginners into the game: a reference guide. In addition to a well-organized 16-page rulebook that includes setup and gameplay rules, a second separate pamphlet book includes an alphabetized list of terms used in the game, making it easy to answer your own questions when they arise during gameplay without a painful slog. I’d love to see more high-end tabletop games adopt this approach, which greatly eases the transition from beginner to experienced player. 

What else do I need to know?

Eldritch Horror isn’t out quite yet; you can pick up your copy of the game in late November. But if you’re itching to learn more, you can check out the official site from Fantasy Flight. You can also pre-order at your local hobby and games store or through online retailers like Cool Stuff Inc..

Eldritch Horror is a worthy successor to Arkham Horror, but plays differently enough that many gaming groups are likely to keep both titles in rotation for years to come. This new game continues the legacy of strong Cthulhu Mythos titles from Fantasy Flight, with the focus squarely on cooperative play and narrative. The international setting, along with new mechanics like the mysteries or reckoning effects, lend suspense and varied objectives to the experience.  Since each Ancient One provides different goals, players can look forward to the challenge of altering the play style for each new session, and that same system assures that the inevitable expansions can dramatically expand gameplay variety. Given its pedigree, I expect Eldritch Horror to have a long life ahead of it, and I can’t wait to see how Fantasy Flight grows the game as the years pass. 

For more of my recommended tabletop games, check out AscensionTannhauserCastle RavenloftYomiStar Trek: Fleet CaptainsAgents of SMERSHA Touch of EvilMage WarsThe Adventurers: Pyramid of HorusDixitStar Wars: Edge of the EmpireLords of Waterdeep, or Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Check back next month for another game to tackle when you’re ready to take a break from gaming adventures in the digital sphere.