I was going to say that this post would be a slightly late, vaguely Halloween themed review of two sort of horror-ish board games, the games in question being Eldritch Horror and London Dread. But a moment of reflection on my past performance and history of writing blog posts led me the realisation that I would inevitably spend three thousand words wittering on about the first games and be forced to leave the second for a later post.
Given which, this is going to be a slightly late, vaguely Halloween themed review of one horror-ish board game, the question being Eldritch Horror. I’ll do London Dread some other time and, to be honest, I should probably wait until I’ve played it more than once anyway.
Embarrassingly, I was inspired to buy Eldritch Horror largely as a consequence of my own review of Arkham Horror in which I concluded that Eldritch Horror would probably not be enough of an upgrade over Arkham to justify the price of entry. I think, ironically, writing the review in which I concluded that I probably wasn’t going to buy Eldritch Horror caused me to think about my frustrations with Arkham Horror enough that I convinced myself I was probably never going to play it again. Which, in turn, caused me to re-examine my thoughts about buying Eldritch.
There’s actually a really interesting psychological / microeconomic phenomenon at work here and my original intention not to buy Eldritch Horror, even though I wanted to play it, on the grounds that I already owned Arkham Horror, even though I didn’t want to play that, was actually an instance of something quite well documented.
Consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario 1: you have bought a ticket to a movie for $10. You put the ticket in your wallet (or bag, or purse, depending on how you carry this sort of thing) alongside a $10 bill. When you arrive at the cinema, however, you discover that you have lost the ticket. You still have the $10 bill and could, therefore, buy another ticket if you so wished. Quite a lot of people in this scenario will choose instead to simply not bother seeing the film. Having paid $10 for a ticket once they have no desire to pay another $10, even though their initial expenditure is definitely lost.
Scenario 2: you go to the cinema, knowing that a ticket for the film you want to see costs $10. You put two $10 bills in your wallet but, when you arrive at the cinema, discover that one of them has fallen out, leaving you with only $10. Since this is still enough to buy a ticket for the movie you want see, the vast majority of people will consider the loss of the $10 irrelevant and decide to buy the ticket and see the film anyway.
What’s interesting about these scenarios is that while the background is different your situation when you arrive at the cinema is exactly the same. You have $10 and no cinema ticket and must choose between paying $10 to see a film or walking away, keeping your $10 and having a wasted trip. From a purely rational perspective, the fact that in scenario 1 you bought a ticket then lost it while in scenario 2 you lost $10 that you had not spent on at ticket should make no difference.
And basically this is the situation I was in with Arkham/Eldritch Horror. Because I’d already bought Arkham, even though I wasn’t actually playing it, I felt like buying a game another similar game that I would play was somehow wasteful, even though, in fact, my ownership of the original Arkham Horror made no real difference to the financial decision. Either I thought Eldritch was worth the money or not. The fact that I happened to own another similar game was, when viewed rationally, immaterial.
So, long story short, I bought Eldritch Horror.
Probably the best way to describe Eldritch Horror is that it’s like Arkham Horror would be if it had been released in 2013, rather than 1987. I mean, obviously it’s a board game and board games aren’t limited by technology in quite the same way that videogames are but you do get trends, fashions and, for want of a better term, realisations that tend to make more recently designed things more in tune with the sensibilities of people today, rather than people nearly 30 years ago (holy crap, Arkham is old, I didn’t quite realise how old).
What makes Arkham great is all of the cool stuff you get to have and do in it. You can go to shops and buy things and use the things to fight monsters. You can have encounters in places and get clues. You can visit other worlds and have stuff happen to you in them. The stuff is usually horrible but it still happens and is cool. What makes Arkham terrible is how unwieldy, arbitrary, random and bloated all of the cool stuff is, especially if you play with the expansions.
A lot of the gameplay of Arkham revolves around acquiring and using quite a small number of effective items and spells. You basically need a shotgun and someone with shrivelling, and elder signs are a massive game changer. But the decks you get these things out of were huge to begin with and the more expansions have been added the more the already gigantic decks have swollen to, well, Lovecraftian proportions. Instead of a relatively focused game, where you go to the general store and get a rifle, then go to the curiosity shop and get an elder sign, then fight your way past a ghoul in order to close a gate at Hibb’s roadhouse you wind up with a sprawling, confused game where you go to a general store and buy a used map of Innsmouth, because it the best useless thing available, then go to the curiosity shop and get a quest to betray all of your companions before fighting a creature with a bizarre list of immunities and special rules for movement at the train station while you try to get to Dunwich in order to stop some other monsters walking through portals because something something something something.
Eldritch Horror strips it all right back. And probably the first thing I would say to anyone who’s played Arkham and is considering buying Eldritch is this: if you what you liked about Arkham Horror was the sheer volume of stuff (and I absolutely understand the appeal of stuff) Eldritch has less stuff. The items and artefact decks are half as thick, there are about the same number locations, although they now represent the entire world, rather than one small town in New England, there are only four Great Old Ones (or Ancient Ones, as they call them in the games, possibly because Great Old One is the term Chaosium uses in the RPG) in the box, which is something I’ll talk about later, and all of the other worldly portals now lead to the same place (or rather, they all to a generic otherworld and the place you’re in depends on the card you draw, rather than the card you draw depending on the place you’re in).
If it was somewhere between ten and twenty years ago and I was even more of a dick than I am today, I’m sure I’d be denouncing all of this as dumbing down for the noobs. It’s not, it’s streamlining for the people who actually want to be able to finish a game in an evening.
I think this is the point that I start having to use subheadings again. I apologise. Basically, I want to look in more detail at some of the structural changes to the game and I want to break them down (to pull a completely arbitrary number off the stop of my head) about three different categories. Those categories being flow, theme and future-proofing.
One of the things I was really impressed by with Eldritch Horror is that it took out a whole bunch of clutter without particularly making the game less deep or less thematic. For example, in the original Arkham half the locations were spooky places where you just had random encounters. Half of them were non-spooky places where you also had random encounters but could instead choose not to have a random encounter in order to do something useful. This useful thing would often involve turning in some kind of token, going shop or repairing your brain.
Eldritch simply takes all of the utility functions that in Arkham were restricted to specific squares on the board and makes them into actions that any character can perform at any time. It preserves the strategic elements that in Arkham came from managing your movement rate and trying to work out how to get from the shops to the cave to the woods in as few turns as possible with a simple two action gameplay model. Basically, on your turn, you can do two things. If you want to shop, great (as long as you’re in a city) you can totally do that but then eats an action you could otherwise resting, moving, buying train tickets or using your character’s special abilities. It’s all just very clean. In Arkham, you would spend a turn moving to the general store, then have an encounter phase general store, in which you would encounter the general store (which means go shopping) and you’d have to keep track of how much money you have and had to deal with a weird system where you have no idea what will be available in the shop until you’ve already committed to going there and encountering it, at which point you are explicitly forced to buy one of the three random items you are shown. (Seriously, shopping in Arkham was weird – people must go out for milk and come back home with a box of shotgun shells and a copy of The King in Yellow). In Eldritch Horror you spend one action to go shopping, then you roll some dice to see how much you can buy from the pool of items that are already face up on the table in front of you.
I mean, it’s just better, isn’t it?
And, again, to be fair to Arkham I can see that for some people the more RPG-like system of items being sold in shops that you have to actually go to on your turn and pay for with money, which is represented by like cardboard dollar bills, is a qualitatively different and more immersive experience. And I will admit that if you play Arkham Horror for those reasons you might not like Eldritch Horror as much. Although I might also say that if you play Arkham Horror for those reasons you might want to ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off just playing Call of Cthulhu.
The games also flows much better when it comes to going places and encountering things. Characters in Arkham moved quite fast which meant, on a given turn, you could probably access about half the board but had no particular reason to go to any bit of it. Unless you had some tokens to trade in or a burning need to get your brain put back in you would probably be limited to snaffling stray clue tokens or blundering into whichever location had the most advantageous looking encounter symbols. This final strategy would inevitably go wrong because the encounter symbols were lies.
I should unpack the encounter symbol a bit. A theoretical part of your strategy in Arkham was that every location had two little symbols attached to it that were supposed to indict the sorts of things that were likely to happen to you (and more specifically the kind of resources you could be expected to gain) if you had an encounter there. So, for example, some places would have a little magnifying glass, indicating that you could find clue tokens while others would have a little heart, indicating that you could get healing. But, in practice, nine times out of ten what would happen is that you’d just get arbitrarily fucked over. And, obviously, that can be fun but Arkham is not exactly short of arbitrary over fucking mechanism, and when part of the gameplay is supposed to be pursuing particular outcomes by having encounters in particular places it feels a bit pointless for those places not to reliably give you those outcomes. It gets particularly bad in the expansions. There’s a location in Dunwich, for example, where is there is exactly one possible good encounter in the entire deck. And all the others just screw you.
Eldritch is a lot more civilised about this. Every major location (which is to say every major city—only named cities get unique encounter decks) has one thing that it tells you that you will get from encounters there. So, for example, it tells you encounters in London will spawn clue tokens. It tells you encounters in Sydney will improve your strength or body or whatever they call it. It tells you encounters in Istanbul will improve your influence. And the cool thing is they actually do. Like more than half the time. I mean, you sometimes have to make a roll, which you can still fail, and there are one or two encounters were something else happens. But whereas in Arkham you’d go to a location labelled with money and clue tokens and mostly get beaten up or attacked by monsters, finding some money or a clue token perhaps one time in six. When you go to London in Eldritch you spawn clue tokens virtually every time.
This has a surprisingly subtle knock-on effect on the game. Because you can actually be pretty sure that, for example, visiting Arkham will give you spells then you can say to yourself “I need spells, so I’ll go to Arkham.” This gives you a clear idea of where to go and, because you get two actions to move with, you have to plan more carefully how you’re going to get there. This makes the movement stage of the game more engaging and interactive. It also makes the world feel bigger, which contributes to a sense of immersion.
I’ve played games of Arkham where I’ve genuinely said to myself “well, I don’t really know what I should do so I’ll guess go here and hope for some money or go to the shop and hope for a good item.” I’ve never had that in Eldritch. There’s always somewhere you want to explore, some way you want to improve yourself, or some calamity you want to avert.
So one of the things I mentioned above was that Eldritch has fewer Ancient Ones in the box than Arkham. And it’s a fair few fewer (if that construction isn’t awkward). To the best of my recollection, vanilla Arkham Horror ships with: Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Yig, Ithaqa, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth and Hastur. Basically it’s got all the really archetypal ones, plus Yig and Ithaqa for no good reason. Eldritch by contrast only includes Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth. And, honestly, when I opened the box that did feel a little bit disappointing. I mean, I’d have liked Hastur and Nyarly at the very least.
Once I started setting up and playing the game, however, I realised why there were half as many Ancient Ones in Eldritch. That reason quite simply was that there was twice as much work put into each one.
The Ancient Ones in Arkham basically provide global rules modifications. Cthulhu, for example, reduces everyone health and sanity by one (which is devastating but also, um, not very interesting). Azathoth has no impact on the game at all but you insta-lose if he wakes up. Which is, honestly, kind of a mercy because punching Cthulhu in the nose is the least interesting and certainly the least dignified part of any Arkham game. By contrast, the Ancient Ones in Eldritch have wholly unique encounters and win conditions, right down to the fact that there are decks of cards which are only used for some investigations associated with some specific gods.
In Arkham you win the game by collecting a lot of clue tokens (which are always the same and which you pick up by walking into places, like you’re grabbing a power up in Mario brothers), then handing them in to seal gates (which are, again, always the same). In Eldritch you win by solving three mysteries chosen from a deck of four mysteries unique to the Old One that you’re fighting. Furthermore, clue tokens (which are often specifically needed to solve these mysteries as well as having the traditional use of enabling a re-roll in an action) are no longer picked up by contact but have to earned through encounters and, again, these encounters are described in decks of cards specific to each god.
This makes each game of Eldritch very, very different from other games of Eldritch against different Old Ones. When you’re facing Shub-Niggurath, for example, you find yourself having to fight hordes of dangerous monsters that spawn all over the world and investigate mysteries that almost exclusively pop up in wilderness areas far from civilisation. Against Cthulhu, you spend a lot of time going mad on remote islands and investigating the blasphemous activities of Cthulhu cultists. These things feel genuinely different. If you fail to resolve your three mysteries by the time the doom track runs out, the Great Old One awakens and you flip over their character sheet to find out what happens next. This leads to a bespoke final confrontation which is sometimes a knock down, drag out fight (for, example, if you fail to stop the rise of Shub-Niggurath she appears in the heart of Africa, surrounded by Dark Young, and you have to go and kill her, which is really, really hard). If you fail to stop the rise of Yog-Sothoth then a bunch of terrible stuff starts happening but you just have to keep investigating the mysteries because, while Shub-Niggurath is a very physical, fighty, punchy deity, Yog very much isn’t. Obviously, if you fail to stop the rise of Azathoth you just lose instantly because world destroy because seething nuclear chaos.
One of the many, many problem I had with Arkham towards the end was that it wound up being a game that felt anticlimactic to win and anticlimactic to lose. Because the game’s default goal of sealing an arbitrary number of inter-dimensional gates had no real thematic connection to whichever Great Old One you happened to be fighting, winning felt dislocated and ultimately like a bit of a let-down. On the other hand, because (with the exception of Azathoth) failing to seal the gates in time always led to the same pointless punch up with whoever the villain was this week it, again, felt decontexualised and, in many respects, farcical. Eldritch avoids both of these problems, presenting you with a game that is both genuinely fun to win and fun to lose. When you defeat the cult of Yog-Sothoth you actually feel (well, actually within certain parameters) like you’ve overcome a brain-bending from beyond time and space. When you lose again Shub-Niggurath it really feels like you’ve failed to stop the rise of a blasphemous fertility goddess from beyond the stars.
Which is good.
I’m setting myself up for a fall here because I’m now I’m going to talk about how well I think Eldritch will handle expansions, despite never actually having playing Eldritch with expansions.
The problem with the expansions for Arkham Horror was that, while in theory they were designed to be modular, in practice the game was built with and pitched on the philosophy that more is better. If you had The Curse of Dark Pharaoh expansion but didn’t use The Curse of Dark Pharaoh stuff it felt like a waste. But if you did use it and used the Dunwich stuff and the Innsmouth stuff and the Hastur stuff and the stuff that’s just expansions for the expansions stuff the game got huge, and overblown and creaky. It also made the thematic elements of the game get more and more diluted because you could find yourself fighting Yig as your main villain, while the son of Yog-Sothoth terrorised Dunwich, the spawn of the Dagon worshiping Deep Ones overran Innsmouth, Nyarlathotep (in his aspect as the Dark Pharaoh) caused chaos at the Ancient Egypt exhibit at Arkham Museum and you spend half your time stumbling through gates to Carcosa and Yuggoth.
And, obviously, there’s still elements of this in Eldritch (it’s not like you only fight starspawn if you pick Cthulhu as your Ancient One, for example) but the game is built with a much stronger assumption of modularity from the outset. In fact, the game starts off with the assumption that you aren’t even going to use all of the components that come with the core box. Like in Arkham, at the end of every turn you draw a card from the Mythos deck in order to discover how the uncaring Lovecraftian universe has fucked you over this time but, unlike Arkham, the Mythos is carefully customised before you start play. Instead of throwing in every card you own, you put together a pre-determined (and Ancient One specific) mixture of event, rumour and environment cards that form quite a small deck, which itself provides a secondary time limit on the game.
What this means is, that even if you add more expansions you’re never going to get the same bloat you get with Arkham (assuming, that is, they keep to this formula). True, the time and artefact decks might be a little bit thicker but they’re quite thin to begin with and, unlike with Arkham, they don’t contain as many must have items that could get buried underneath expansion bloat. Perhaps even more interestingly, from reviews I’ve seen it appears that the game does have expansion that include additional boards but that these boards are tied to explicit ancient ones. So, for example, I understand that there’s an Antarctica expansion (and, for what it’s worth, Antarctica has really bad luck in the games we’ve played—it’s been completely destroyed in at least half of them) but the Antarctica board is only used if you’re playing against Ithaqua. In which case you’re basically doing Beyond the Mountains of Madness and going to Antarctica makes sense.
I seem to recall that my conclusion to my article about Arkham Horror was that, if you like the sound of Arkham, you were probably better off buying Eldritch. I pretty much stand by that. And virtually everything else I said in that article about who the game is suitable or unsuitable for applies to Eldritch just as much as it does to Arkham. They’re very similar games but, in my opinion, Eldritch is a flat upgrade.
The slightly thornier question I suspect is whether Eldritch is worth buying if you already have Arkham and aren’t bored of it. And there I’m a bit more hesitant. I do think that if you find Arkham is losing its shine, then owning it shouldn’t really factor into your decision whether or not to buy Eldritch (see that whole thing with the cinema tickets, right back at the beginning of this post). I might also say that if you were planning on buying the next couple of very pricey Arkham expansions you could maybe put the money towards Eldritch instead because I think it might wind up being a better investment long-term. If, on the other hand, you’re satisfied with the Arkham you have, then I don’t quite think Eldritch has enough in it by itself to justify the price of entry. Which is more or less where we came in.