This week, I continue with my special quarterly series that chronicles the very best of the best in AT gaming. This week--what do you get when you take a Lovecraft theme, mix in a perfectly executed co-op element, and toss in some terrificly inventive adventure game mechanics? You get entry #2 into Ken B.'s Ameritrash Hall of Fame: Arkham Horror.
Join us, won't you?
How can one wrap up the awesomeness of a game like Arkham Horror? The game that smashes through every Trashdome we've ever had, the game that has sold a metric ton for Fantasy Flight Games, the game that has spawned countless expansions (and almost unprecedentedly...an expansion of expansions)...hell, it's a game so good, despite its complexity, rules density, and copious amounts of dice-rolling, it has clocked in the top 100 of Boardgamegeek continuously since its release in 2005.
Arkham Horror is actually a remake/re-release of an earlier version of the game by the same name, also designed by Richard Lanius, with co-design credits to Charlie Krank, Sandy Petersen, and Lynn Willis. I have not played the original, but reportedly it was a blend of co-operative and competitive gameplay. Remember, this was long before Knizia's Lord of the Rings made co-ops en vogue; so I'm sure in 1987 this was something pretty distinctive. Even when the reprint came out, co-operative games were just starting to get rolling--we're talking back in the days when you could count co-op games using only one hand.
Messenger of Fear in Sight, Dark Deception Kills the Light
It's probably harder to understand now, but it was the switch to a purely co-operative game, mixed with Arkham's overwhelmingly solid game design, that lead to its continual success.
You've got to think back also to the fact that in 2005, the "adventure" game was just starting to make a comeback. The heyday of games like Talisman were a distant memory, and the AT gaming revolution had only just begun to take off. Lanius and FFG proved to be ahead of the curve on that front. When people in the early days of our site and blog wondered why we spent so much time focused on Fantasy Flight Games, the answer was pretty simple--they were the ones leading the charge of thematic games that had been left for dead during the advent of Euro-mania. And it was a game like Arkham Horror that truly lead the charge.
Arkham Horror takes the adventure game framework but added its own unqiue mechanisms that meant that it played nothing like the same ol' roll n' move games. Instead of fixed stats and a focus purely on improving them individually, you had 'sliding' skills that allowed your character to be sneaky one turn, brash and combative the next.
There was also a drive to bring these characters to life not only with hard numbers but stronger backstories and different starting cards that could help define a character's strengths, assets, and levels of expertise.
Hybrid Children Watch the Sea, Pray for Father Roaming Free
Most adventure games to this point were pure race games, where the players were vying to be the first to reach an endpoint or defeat a big bad. With the co-operative aspect in full force, players are allowed to now do battle with the system itself. The pressure comes not from the luck or actions of other players, but the threats that the game itself throws in front of its players. In the face of world-devouring horror, it's silly to think that petty rivalries would cause players to act solely in their own best interests.
And unspeakable horrors are what this game is about. It's easy to overlook the fact that most adventure games up to this point were either the typical "warrior and elf" fantasy, or "space opera" sci-fi. Arkham Horror brings the Cthulhu mythos, with its ancient ones, multi-dimensional monsters, and world devourers--not to mention its 1920s setting. The protagonists aren't magic-slinging wizards but mere mortal humans, and they don't even have futuristic (or even "modern!") technology to help them.
Much has been made of the fact that the game deviates from its theme in the sense that it actually gives humans, with their tommyguns, pistols, and blades a fighting chance against the eldrich evils. Lovecraft purists have decried the idea that you can defeat Nyarlathotep by riddling the Crawling Chaos with mere bullets. Listen, I'll just say this--I played a couple of sessions of the old Call of Cthulhu RPG. It was a game that was admittedly true to the mythos, but frustratingly so, as you spent about as much time creating characters as you did adventuring...because just as soon as you did something even remotely interesting, your character would either be killed or driven insane, almost without fail. Lanius chose fun over strict fidelity in this case, and to me, that was the wisest choice.
Crawling Chaos Underground, Cult has Summoned Twisted Sound
One of my favorite things in Arkham Horror is one that I don't always hear mentioned directly is the brilliantly done 'mutli-purpose' adventure cards. Most adventure games have you drawing a card from a deck and doing what you're told, whether it's battling a dragon or finding a potion. However, once you churn through the deck, you've seen it all fairly quickly unless the designer just packs tons of cards in there. Yet Arkham Horror has small 7-card decks for each area in the base set. Seven! Via 'divided' adventure cards though, suddenly you've introduced the variance and unpredictability of a larger deck, in a compact, efficient number of cards per area. Instead of one static deck that cares very little for where you are, you get lots of smaller decks that still manage to provide plenty of opportunities for adventure--all with a small number of cards per area.
And good thing too, because if Arkham has something in abundance, it's cards. In fact, Arkham Horror is bits overload, something else that's often near and dear to many an AT fan's heart. It might not have any plastic figures in the base game, but you get literally hundreds of cards, tokens, and markers. You get 8 Ancient One sheets, each providing a different challenge and changing some of the fundamental rules of the game. Truly, in terms of content and replayability, Arkham Horror is an embarassment of riches.
Out from Ruins Once Possessed, Fallen City, Living Death
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Arkham is how broad its appeal is, and how so many gamers will play this who would otherwise shun such a dense, rules-heavy game. Sure, Ameritrashers embraced such a complex game with cards and dice with ease (if you've met Richard, you know that his game philosophy is "draw some cards, and roll some dice!", and you'll do plenty of both here.) But I constantly hear stories of wives playing it. Staid Eurogamers playing it. Wargamers playing it. In fact, the ability for such a complicated game to appeal to such a wide audience is initially baffling. It is, until you start thinking about how the game smartly melds rock-solid gameplay with a theme that isn't "dorky" dwarves and wizards. No matter how 'mainstream' gaming becomes, pointy-eared Paladins will always put off a chunk of the market. These are heroes who are a lot like us...they may be from the 1920s, but gamers can much more easily identify with them.
The other thing to consider is the game's cooperative gameplay. Like it or not, complex games will be offputting to certain segments of the audience. No matter how much preaching we do about how awesome games with 40-page rulebooks are, there is definitely a barrier there. I personally feel that this barrier is worsened in competitive games. There's a genuine fear of embarassment, either from looking bad or the inability to process and learn all the rules. In competitive games, other players won't always point out "bad" play or other errors, so what you're soon left with is a flustered gamer who swears to never again try a game so complicated.
With Arkham's "we're in this together" gameplay, suddenly that player is no longer ostracized. Sure, there's still a fear of embarassment, but your fellow gamers are much more likely to help you, to explain rules, to demonstrate good strategy, to provide advice.
To go along with this, my personal experience is that Arkham suffers much less from the "Alpha Dog Syndrome"--that tendency in co-ops for one player to take full charge of the game, dictating what everyone should be doing. I think there's enough to do in Arkham, enough tasks or "leaky dams" to tend to, that while cooperation and discussion is frequent, it's rarely bossy or domineering. This leaves players free to have their own mini-adventures, to tell their own smaller stories in the context of the larger one.
I'll give you an example. In one game we played, my brother spent so much time at the Roadhouse getting into fights, we were calling him "Dalton" before game's end. I found a magic sword and went through the streets, brandishing it at every monster I could find. Another player, no matter what he seemed to do, kept washing up on the shores of Innsmouth. And we had yet another player going on bizarre otherworld adventures, where other players would read aloud and offer the choices, but not the consequences. It was a lot of fun, and players had a lot of leeway to do whatever they felt was most helpful at the moment. With their own characters, lots of cards, and the ever-changing board situation, I think the game manages to escape the Alpha problem nicely.
Not Dead Which Eternal Lie, Stranger Eons Death May Die
Arkham Horror is an intensely fun, thematic ride. It gives AT gamers everything they could ever want...theme, adventure, horror, stacks of cards and loads of dice. It brings a fresh theme to a game that never plays the same way twice--and I haven't even gotten into the myriad expansions!
It's a game that deserves to be in print for years upon years to come and an easy choice for my personal AT Hall of Fame. It's influential, inventive, and tells a story that is worth the time. Its appeal is far-reaching, and is just a pleasure to play from a thematic and gameplay perspective.
Drain You of Your Sanity, Face the Thing That Should Not Be...
That's going to do it for this week's "Next of Ken". Tune in next time where I'll be reviewing the Summoner Wars Master Set (hint: awesome), two new Summoner Wars Reinforcement Packs (also awesome) as well as We Didn't Playtest This at All (did I mention Summoner Wars was awesome?) I'll see ya in seven.