Judging by the amount of board gamers I speak to on forums and social networks, of all the copies Arkham Horror sitting in people’s collections, probably about half of them are sitting unplayed in cupboards. The most common reason – nay, excuse – that I hear for this is that, “it’s too scary”. Not in a thematic sense either; it’s that it is regarded as an impenetrable web of complication. Well to be fair, Arkham Horror is complicated but it’s far from impenetrable.
Set in the universe created by the early 20th century writer HP Lovecraft, Arkham Horror is a snapshot of a night in an imaginary city in Massachusetts in 1926. All Hell is literally breaking loose and players take the roles of “investigators” who have undertaken the near-impossible task of routing this invading evil to send it back from whence it came. The theme is rich, thick and very dark. Make no mistake; as soon as you play the first turn in Arkham Horror, it’s very clear that an ancient evil wants to consume your soul.
As your team of investigators roam around Arkham, A Great Old One is stirring from an aeons-long slumber, causing monsters and dimensional gates that lead to other worlds appear. To win the game, investigators must either close and seal six gates or defeat the Great Old One in a final showdown, and at the same time deal with the monsters and try to collect equipment, spells, clue tokens, unique items and allies to assist them in their cause.
So what’s all of the worry about? Well, there’s a lot of game to take in when you play and it’s very easy to get swamped down in rules. I’m certainly no expert in the game but I can comfortably assume the role as “experienced” and with that, I bring you only one piece of advice that you need to keep in mind as you play. This is: stick to the order of the five phases within each turn. They never change from start to finish – or at least until you face the final boss battle – and once you get a handle on them, the game becomes so much easier.
This review will break down each phase to give you a feel of what to expect from Arkham Horror.
Phase I: Upkeep – This is the phase in which everyone recovers from the previous turn and readies themselves for the next. If you’ve used items in your possession to fight a monster or defeat a gate (see phase V regarding gates) then they might have been exhausted. This is when you get to refresh them and get them ready for the next turn.
Players can also adjust their investigators’ stats, allowing them to mentally or physically prepare and plan for a specific task that they want to carry out in the coming turn. You might also have been cursed or blessed (these affect your dice rolls) in the last turn and this is where you’ll check to see if you remain that way for now. You might even have a bank loan or retainer that needs to be paid or cashed in.
Finally, this is where you can plan your next moves with your fellow gamers. Arkham Horror is a co-operative game and teamwork plays a big part.
Phase II: Movement – Evil isn’t going to change its mind, apologise for the disruption and clean up its mess as it totters meekly back to Hell. There are monsters roaming the streets of Arkham and even dimensional gates that lead to the Otherworld opening up in certain locations and you and your team must face each of these and deal with them if you are to win. This means you have to man (or woman) up and move your investigator around the city to face these abominations. This phase is split into two: Arkham movement and Otherworld Movement. First we deal with the former.
Arkham Movement: Each investigator has a set amount of spaces that they can move around the city per turn based on their stats. It’s in the refresh phase where you can adjust this skill but bear in mind; the higher you slide your move skill, the lower your ability to sneak becomes.
Some monsters are too powerful to face unless you’re armed to the teeth with spells and weapons and one of these beasts could be standing between you and the next area that you might want to tackle. Sneaking past these horrors might be the most sensible option. You don’t want to fight a dimensional portal to Hell when you’ve just been clawed into submission by a Witch.
If you’ve successfully sneaked or walked your way to a gate, then this is where you’ll be sucked through to the Otherworld. You can’t just approach a gate and shut it down; to defeat it, you must first go through it to the Otherworld, experience the horrors (or sometimes the succor) within, come back through the other side to Arkham and then close it down. What happens within the Otherworld is played out in the next phase but for now, the movement phase is when you travel to this location.
Otherworld Movement: The Otherworld is split into eight alternative planes of existence and each of those planes has two locations. Which of those planes that you visit on each excursion is determined by the type of gate you go through but once you’re in, you visit both locations in each plane (and in order) before returning to Arkham.
The Otherworld movement phase might also bring you back to Arkham via the gate you entered and this is your chance to close it. This “fight” takes shape in the form of a dice-based skill check and if you succeed, the gate is closed and its token is taken as a trophy that you can spend on certain items. If you happen to have five clue tokens in your possession (you gain these by completing tasks or exploring certain areas) or even the unique Elder Sign item then you can seal it, securing the location against any other gates opening there.
It’s in the movement phase where investigators may also fight against monsters. Again, this is a dice roll that is modified by the weapons or spells used by the investigator depending on any weaknesses or resistances that a monster might have. Much like fighting a gate, if you win then you can keep the monster’s token to spend at specific locations for items to help you out.
Phase III: Arkham Encounters – If you’ve decided to stay in Arkham and not to travel through a dimensional gate in this turn then this is when you’ll have an Arkham Encounter, depending on the location you’ve moved to. There are 25 locations in Arkham city, each hosting a number of activities that can provide you with clue tokens (used for a number of things), loot, allies, a monster or even a combination of the four. There are nine decks of colour-coded location cards which are shuffled each time you draw from one of them, keeping things unpredictable. You can even shop for weapons, spells and even take out a bank loan during the Arkham Encounter phase.
Phase IV: Otherworld encounters – Much like Arkham encounters, events in the Otherworld can either help or hinder you. Much of the beauty of the game is that you really don’t know what you’re going to be faced with every time you draw a card. Faced with overwhelming odds, one card can change everything for your investigator and either boost or crush your plans for the current turn.
Phase V: Mythos Phase – This is where the game takes its turn and causes more cracks to appear in Arkham, allowing more gates and monsters to spew from the bowels of Hell. To do this, players draw a card from the Mythos deck and, in order: a new gate appears (which brings the awakening of the Great Old One one step closer), a new monster will appear, monsters in Arkham will move, a clue token will appear and conditions for the next turn manifest themselves, such as movement penalties (often paired with sneak bonuses) or even more monsters fouling the streets of the city.
One more thing about the Mythos Phase. Each time a new gate opens, a token is added to the “Doom Track”. Fill this track up and the Great Old One awakens, forcing you to either fight him or worse: to lose the game. Not only that, but there’s a limit to the number of monsters that can roam the streets of Arkham. If this gets too high then the “Terror Track” starts to fill. Let it go unchecked and potential allies start to flee and even the equipment shops will begin to close down. In short, you can’t allow too many gates to open without intervention and you need to indulge in some monster culling to stop things getting a little too hairy. Arkham Horror might not scare you, but it will definitely raise your stress levels to a delicious level of gaming discomfort.
A word on clue tokens. These are an invaluable currency in the game. As mentioned before, they’re used to seal gates but not only that, you can spend a clue token if you make a bum dice roll. Some skill and combat checks require you to throw multiple dice to determine if you succeed or not. As an example, in some cases you might have to throw three successes out of five rolled dice and if only two come up trumps, you can use one of those clue tokens to re-roll the one dice that could change change everything. The only problem is that they’re in very limited supply in Arkham…
It’s been said that as much as Arkham Horror is a cooperative game, ultimately it plays like everyone is on the same side but they face everything alone. To an extent this is true but at the same time, players must rally together to plan actions, trade equipment, and help out in any way they can. For example:
Player 1 needs one more clue token before trying to face and seal the final gate for the win. There’s one lying in Ma’s Boarding House in Arkham but there’s a Cultist and a Vampire standing in the way. Player 2 has a shotgun and agrees to take out the Cultist to try to make things easier for Player 1. The Vampire’s resistant to physical weapons but Player 3 has a tasty Enchanted Knife tucked up his sleeve. Everyone has a job to do that will help in the big picture and it’s up to the team to use the the investigators’ strengths most effectively to get the job done.
If you plan on ever digging Arkham Horror out of your cupboard, or even if you’re going to buy it then rest assured that you’re going to get a whole lot of game to play. In your first couple of play-throughs you’ll make mistakes and forget rules but don’t let that dishearten you. Don’t be afraid to stack the game in your favour to win either: take more starting items and weapons than you’re instructed to, reduce the number of gates that have to be sealed to win to three and even allow everyone a free mulligan per turn when they throw the dice. Once you get the rules memorised then you can start to follow them to the letter. Just get it on the table and start having fun with it because it’s one of the richest games out there.