On Saturday we had some friends over and we tried the recently released board game Eldritch Horror from Fantasy Flight Games. This game is the heir and “streamlined version” of Arkham Horror—also from FFG—which I’ve mentioned a few times here. Game Informer has an excellent and detailed description of the game, so I’ll give you my own impressions.
Like its predecessor, the game is about brave investigators shutting down inter-dimensional gates to prevent Elder Gods from erupting into our reality and eating it. It’s a very Lovecraftian setting, except that it’s possible to win. Not easy, mind you, just conceivable enough that it’s worth playing. Instead of concentrating on Arkham and its surroundings, it goes world-wide. The rules feel familiar but you have to build your sense of what is likely to happen in any given location or mission all over again.
The choice of investigators is very good and I am pleased about the gender balance and good-faith attempt at diversity (though on the latter point I would like to see yet more progress). They are relatively “durable” in the face of monsters and horrors, but once they go down to zero on either health or sanity, that’s it, they’re out of play. On the other hand, there is a new mechanic added to give them an epilogue, get a chance to recover whatever progress they had made and the gear they had accumulated, and even set back the Doom track thanks to this epilogue.
The rules are well designed to always give your investigator something to do, even when you can’t get to your next goal in one turn. Clue tokens are still used, but now they are a sort of currency to solve problems, not primarily to seal gates as in Arkham Horror. Money is no longer used to get equipment and other useful stuff, it’s all based of a stat called “Influence.” For each game session you choose one Ancient One as the foe you must prevent from rising, with its own set of player goals and its own particular cultists; and you draw Mystery cards that give you missions to accomplish in order to access the final confrontation stage with the Ancient One.
As in Arkham Horror there is a Doom track and it’s much more difficult—but still possible—to stop the Ancient One after that track has reached zero. There is also an omen track (signs in the night sky) that provide variable effects when certain linked monsters, gates, or conditions are in play.
By and large, I felt that Eldritch Horror provided much the same flavour as its predecessor and was surely ripe for the same kind of expansions, both official and fan-made; I also expect a lot of fan-written crossover material to import good stuff from Arkham Horror. The components are of high quality and the visual design is excellent.
We had five players and it was everyone’s first contact with the game, except for one solo session for the game owner. We were all at least middling to rabid board gamers, and I don’t think I would recommend this for casual board gamers due to the level of complexity. It also helps to be at least passingly familiar with the Mythos.
Three of us have had several fun sessions with Arkham Horror and other cooperative games in the past and we are very good at cooperative game together. The two others are more used to competitive play, and in fact one is, as I understand it, not a great fan of cooperative play.
We made a number of mistakes in play that we rectified as we discovered them, but I feel a nagging suspicion that some errors were still floating. One investigator seemed so outrageously heads, shoulders, and down to the ankles above every other that I think the player was still making errors in combining effects that should have been either mutually exclusive, variable, or one-time effects, but I was not able to read the cards to check.
Perhaps because it was our first game we were quite slow and the scenario, pitting us against Yog-Sothoth, stretched on for about five hours. As in most of our AH games, it was a nail biter and although we lost, we came very, very close to stopping the Ancient One.
I find it interesting that the game is described as story-based. I guess it’s true-ish, but I didn’t really feel it more than in Arkham Horror. I mean, I like the narrative component of games, but the two versions felt comparable to me.
Randomness, Adversity, and Cooperation
My husband made an excellent point to me after the game regarding the effect of luck-based inequalities in games. When you roll a bunch of dice and draw a bunch of cards with variable effects in a game, the players are going to spread along a normal curve representing their luck. Sometimes they are going to be tightly grouped, i.e., have relatively similar luck, but sometimes one or more are going to be sitting in either tail of the curve, representing horrid luck and complete blessing of the gods.
In competitive games, a player who pulls ahead (whether due to this luck effect, to skill, or both) is the signal for others to temporarily set aside their differences and gang up against the leader. A player who trails thanks to horrible luck is usually simply left alone until or considered fodder for the sharks.
In cooperative games, however, splendid luck and awful misfortune are both signals for the group to pull together and reallocate effort and resources. A cooperative game that is properly balanced to provide suspense and challenge—like Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror, Pandemic (Z-Man Games), Forbidden Island (Gamewright), Mice and Mystics (Plaid Hat Games), or Vanished Planet (Vanished Planet Games)—requires everyone at the table to pull together and work against the system as one team.
There is no such thing as doing your own thing in such games if you hope to win, because they adjust scenario difficulty for the number of players. If you’re not playing as intrinsic part of a team, you’re not pulling your weight. So as is suggested in some discussion threads on Board Game Geek forum, if you have a big tough monster-killer investigator and a puny, scholarly investigator who is good with Lore, the tough guy should kill the monsters and the scholar should jump in to close the gates after that. If you have one investigator who has high Influence, then that investigator should spend time in cities acquiring Assets (equipment, allies, etc.) and distribute them according to usefulness to the rest of the team.
Thus, any time you see wide disparity in luck or effectiveness between investigators, you should ask yourself if you, as a team, are using that investigator properly. It’s possible that there is duplication between investigator abilities, or you were just globally unlucky (or one player is inept, but barring that); but an ineffective investigator costs your whole team, not just that player.
Conversely, an investigator that is acquiring vastly more Assets than others, hugely more skill increases, and so forth, ends up having more than can be used at any one time and the rest go underused. If it’s feast and famine on your team, you should do some strategizing so “those that hath” open the way for those that hath something else.
If you like Arkham Horror, then you will probably like Eldritch Horror as well. Just think of it as a world-wide jump for the story. It’s a great game for cooperative players who don’t mind nail-biting suspense since in both games it’s supposed to look like you’re doomed. Don’t quit before the end, because it’s possible to salvage a victory at the very last moment.
But it’s not a game for casual gamers who are flustered by a lot of components and tactical options, nor people who prefer to pit their wits against other players rather than against the system.