The Horror! The Arkham Horror!

The Horror! The Arkham Horror! Hot

MattDP     
 
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Cthulhu

Cast you mind a good few months and hopefully you'll recall that co-operative games are al rubbish. So it might seem a bit of a surprise to see this piece on here authored by me, especially considering that Arkham Horror is probably one of the most talked about games around here. So what's the point in discussing it all over again? Well, this is what comes of everyone telling me I ought to write more reviews about Ameritrash games: AH is the only solidly AT game that I've played enough times to warrant a review that I haven't already reviewed. So here you go - and besides, I was smugly amused by the idea of comparing what I found in AH with all the problems I've previously documented about the co-op experience.

Given my intense dislike for the co-op genre it's pretty amazing that I ever bought a copy in the first place. I got into it because I went through a brief period of my life about a year back when I thought that all video games were dull and worthless and started experimenting with solo board games. The majority of my AH plays remain solo games, so that's probably something to bear in mind when reading the review.

Aside from the co-op aspect, the other thing that put me off buying AH was its legendary impenetrability, the endless succession of people saying that new players are always getting the rules wrong. I downloaded the rulebook myself and tried to read it, but it isn't the most thrilling literature in the world. I got there in the end, though and I have to say that I'm pretty perplexed about all the people who found it difficult. It's fiddly, yes, but once you appreciate that it's a flowchart game and you have a copy of that flowchart either in your hand or in your head, it should be pretty much plain sailing. Players move around an abstracted representation of the town of Arkham, trying to kill monsters and close gates before one of the big nasties from the mythos wakes up and eats everyone. During your movement you see if any of the locations you pass through contain monsters - if so you must sneak past them or fight them. If there's a gate at your destination you're sucked through it at draw from an encounter deck for the appropriate other dimension in which you find yourself. Otherwise you can either draw from the encounter deck for your Arkham location, or resolve a "fixed" action for the location in question - like getting healed at the hospital. Then there's a nasty mythos phase when a single card draw governs monster movement, the creation of new gates and almost inevitably some horrible event that the player have to deal with. Most actions in the game are resolved by rolling dice, with each 5-6 counting as a success, and it has to be said that in far too many cases you're only rolling a small number of dice, so successes can be hard to come by. And that's about it. Close or seal enough gates and you win. Or, if the big nasty wakes up you can engage in titanic combat with it to force it back in to slumber and you win. Otherwise you loose and get eaten, as does the entirety of Arkham and its surround.

One thing that should be pretty clear from that brief overview is that there's a lot of random in Arkham. You roll a lot of dice, since there are often multiple skill checks every player turn. There are a lot of cards in a lot of different decks. There's a monster bag from which you draw blind for a random monster selection, and the same goes for gates. Gaming orthodoxy states that this is bad. Too much random denies the players strategic choice. And for the most part, I agree that this is wise counsel, and should be heeded by designers and gamers alike, especially in long games. And at around 60-90 minutes per player, AH is certainly a long game, so it ought to fail this particular test.

But this is a co-op game. And that turns everything on its head. See, one of the problems with co-op games made in the modern paradigm of "random? bad!" is that it only takes one loud, irritating player who knows what they're doing and who isn't afraid to tell all the other players that they know what they're doing to remove any sort of strategic challenge from the game. What's the point in thinking of a strategy when there's someone around who'll tell you what it is and a largely predictable game engine which will obligingly fulfil his predictions with startling accuracy? There's a grim irony to be relished in the fact that the solution to this particular design problem is, in fact, as much random as possible. If the game engine is wildly unpredictable in what it throws at you, what's the loudmouth player to do in terms of instructing anyone else? He'll just have to shut up and pitch in with everyone in terms of figuring out a solution to there here-and-now instead of relying on a tried-and-tested strategy that he probably got from the internet in the first place. All that random in Arkham Horror works toward the game being about as genuine a co-operative experience you can get whilst playing against a rules engine instead of other players.

But doesn't it also mean the game lacks strategy? Absolutely, it does. But the genius is that the game replaces strategy with tactics, and there's a lot of tactical choice on offer. Split second response decisions in the game can mean there difference between success and failure. Witness the occasion when two players, one with a fast-moving character, one with a slow moving character met to trade items at the Roadhouse. The faster player had a speed-boosting item and they didn't want to give it up - which became an extremely hot issue when later in the game the slower character inevitably had to be somewhere in a hurry and couldn't make it. AH is certainly a random game, and it has the potential to be an immensely unsatisfying one at that, such as the time when we running out of time but had almost won and the character making the final seal drew three "miss a turn" encounters in a row and we lost. But it still offers the players plenty of meaningful choices.

The other important trick that AH pulls on its unsuspecting audience is that it supplements the importance of decision making with story telling. There are very few other games that get away with this, but AH manages it. Because this is a game you're not just playing for the challenging decisions, or just the fun factor of watching dice tumble out of sweaty palms, but to actually write your own mythos story in your head. And it manages to worm a narrative into your head with considerably ease - it's so easy to turn an abstract looking board and few decks of encounter cards into a coherent plot that it's untrue. I have found that sessions of this game remain vivid in my head for days after the actual play, something that no other game has managed. Not only does this emphasis on storytelling comfortably make up for any shortfall in decision making, but it also neatly solves many of the ongoing problems with co-operative games. Because frankly, who cares if there's someone bossing you around? Who cares if there's no competitive challenge to the game? Who cares, in fact, if you win or loose? It's the story that matters here - the group collaborates to create the story as much as they do to play the game. It's as much performance art as it is play. And as such, not only is it good played co-operatively, but it's good played solo too.

However, there's an important caveat that Lovecraft fans need to be aware of as regards this sort of storytelling. The stories that emerge are good, engaging stories. But Lovecraft they 'aint. No-one should be entirely surprised by this - after all the depression, insanity and casual racism that are Lovecraft’s' stock-in-trade are hardly likely to translate into a solid game experience. But it's still somewhat unfortunate that the game pushes the envelope so far in the other direction that it becomes more like Buffy with mythos monsters. Nuns ride motorcycles and shoot zombies in the face. Gangsters wade in and blow up Dark Young with sticks of dynamite. Rich young socialites go mad, get top-dollar care in Arkham Asylum and come roaring out to deliver sharp pointy death to unnameable horrors with a magical sword. I appreciate there has to be action and adventure in a game of this style, but please. Ubarose is fond of lumping AH in the adventure game category, an idea which I found strange at first, but as time has gone on, I find myself agreeing with the classification more and more: as well as exploration and character development there's every bit as much hack-and-slash here as there is in something like Runebound.

The absolute epitome of this problem with the game is the "last ditch" win condition which can see the investigators square up against the great old one, guns in hand and spells at the ready, to try and take it down by force. I understand the design logic at work here: the idea is to put in place a final obstacle to overcome for victory, in the hopes of guaranteeing an exciting end to the game even if fate has conspired to make the main part of the play a misery. But it is so out of line with Lovecraft that I find the idea laughable: these are extraterrestrial monstrosities beyond the understanding of mankind and to simulate pumping one full of revolver bullets is simply absurd. It's made worse by the semi-arbitrary nature of combat against the different great old ones in the game, which differ so greatly in power that I'm forced to wonder if this aspect was even play tested. Against Azathoth, you have no chance at all as he allows no final fight. Cthulhu is nigh-on impossible to beat, even if you've got the biggest guns in the game. Nyarlathotep, on the other hand, is so trivially easy to take down that the best "strategy" you can employ against him is to ignore the usual win conditions and spend your time tooling up to take him down. If the level of challenge had been roughly equal, pitched maybe somewhere on the level of Cthulhu, then this might have worked. But as it is not only is it hugely un-thematic, but the mechanics are a mess. For my part, I always ignore the final fight and count the great old one awakening as a loss.

I can't really write a review of AH without mentioning the expansions. There are a lot of expansions. All of them add extra rules, cards, and play time. A few add extra boards. But there's not a whole lot I can say about the expansions because I've never played any of them. And this, perhaps is the most important thing to say of all: in spite of the number of expansions, and all the cool stuff they add, you don't need any of them to have a thrilling experience of Arkham Horror. I'll probably buy one soon. It'll probably be Dunwich Horror since there seems to be near unanimous consensus that it's the best, and I like the fact that it ties in directly with one particular mythos story. Of the others, only Innsmouth Horror does the same and that's not had wide enough exposure yet for a consensual opinion to emerge, but early signs are that although good, it's not best used as a stand-alone expansion to the game. But I've reached 11 plays of the game without feeling the need to get an expansion, and I feel there's still stuff to explore in the base set. There's plenty here to engage you without the need to go shelling out for expansions. And unlike many games, where there can be a feeling that you need to play with the expansion from the word go to get the most out of it, there's no doubt that AH expansions can be added incrementally as and when you feel the need, increasing the fun for your group and the longevity of the game itself.

In the end, the irritation factor of the un-thematic nature of all the fighting in the game is a pretty minor niggle. This is a great game. I bought it as an afterthought to fill some empty afternoons. A short while later I was listing it as one of my favourite games ever. But don't get me wrong. Co-operative games are still rubbish. This is the exception that proves the rule. And it manages to do so by breaking conventions - not only the conventions of the co-op genre but the conventions of what the experience playing a game ought to be about. It's a breathtaking audacity when you stand back and look at it, but nevertheless, the game succeeds. And what greater praise can I find for something than that?

The Horror! The Arkham Horror! There Will Be Games
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