The Call of Cthulhu
*flash back to two years ago*
I bought Arkham Horror. I played it.
I was underwhelmed.
I tried it again. I was still underwhelmed.
I couldn’t understand my reaction. I should have loved this game but my first few trips through the terrifying town of Arkham were about as exciting as a Sunday walk in the park. Some of my favourite games at the time – like Fury of Dracula and Doom: The Boardgame – shared many of the same qualities: they all involve co-operation among players and convey strong narratives based on existing horror franchises. Those other games generated real emotional responses from me. I’d feel tense or gleeful or amused by what was developing through our actions and through crazy random happenstance. So why wasn’t I having any fun with this one when all the signs indicated that it should deliver an equally thematic and enjoyable experience?
This wasn’t Lovecraft as I knew it…
I discovered Arkham Horror through BGG. I had never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft before, but the basic theme of playing as hapless townsfolk facing the end of the world at the hands (or claws) of unfathomable (and unpronounceable) monstrosities lured me in. I knew I had to have it. I pored through a collection of Lovecraft’s stories to acquaint myself with his mythos so that I could fully grab hold of the flavour of the game. I loved the sense of psychological terror and inescapable doom that saturated each of his stories. The horror was cerebral rather than gutteral, which was fresh and exciting, even though his works were written many decades ago.
And so I eagerly played Arkham Horror. And I soon found myself playing as a deputized magician chucking a bundle of dynamite at a zombie inside a diner. Huh?! This wasn’t Lovecraft as I knew it. There was nothing insidious or terrifying about the experience. I wanted something authentic and what I got was B-movie cheese. It felt as false as adding Poochie to the Itchy & Scratchy Show.
Cthulhu’s scared of me
A co-operative survival horror game must be challenging. More than that. The players should feel like they truly accomplished something when they win… that they faced certain destruction but through sheer will and cunning managed to thwart an Elder God and its many beasts and minions. Forget balance. The good guys should suffer defeat on a regular basis.
Arkham Horror is simply too easy. We lost our first game, mostly because we were scrambling around town with little rhyme or reason to our decisions. Even then, it was a close one that came down to the wire. We then won every one of our next nine games! I’m not scared of Cthulhu; Cthulhu’s scared of me. Since it was so easy, very little tension ever developed. A game like this needs to trigger an emotional response or its going to fall flat. This one often fell flat.
Moreover, each game tended to get easier as it progressed past a certain threshold of open dimensional gateways (which investigators must travel through and seal behind them to save the town by keeping the Great Old One in a state of slumber). So, rather than building up a sense of terror, all anxiety deflated like a farting balloon as the players predictably mopped up the remainder of the game over the course of an hour or two.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
Arkham Horror takes a lot of work. The rules are relatively tricky to learn due to a lot of ifs, ands, and buts, it takes a long time to set up due to the numerous stacks of cards and chits, each game involves a lot of modifier checks, dice rolls, upkeep, card shuffling, etc., and, when it’s done, it takes a while to pack everything up.
I didn’t feel like the fun I was getting out of the game was worth all the effort. I could see my copies of Fury of Dracula and El Grande sitting in my bookshelf while I’d play Arkham Horror at my kitchen table and I’d sometimes wish we were playing one of those instead. They seemed to reward us a lot more for the work we put in. My main problem was that Arkham Horror was playing us rather than the other way around. We were mostly being herded by the random events of the card draws or performing the straightforward strategies of collecting clue tokens and sealing gates. I saw little point in applying ingenuity when I could just follow the same simple formula with the occasional interruption from a particularly nasty mythos card.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Arkham Horror
Normally I’d probably let a game collect dust after being underwhelmed by it the first few times around, but Arkham Horror hit the table quite frequently. For one, I really like the presentation of the game, from the aesthetics of the board and tokens to the incredible amount of colourful flavour text. For another, it’s been my girlfriend’s favourite game from the very beginning. She absolutely loves it and I’m not one to turn down the request of a pretty lady. After a while, I realized that I had come to love it, too. This somewhat surprised me, because I’m a stubborn and jaded bastard. But I did have to tweak my expectations, as well as the game itself, to get to this point.
A new kind of Lovecraft
So this doesn’t accurately capture Lovecraft’s writings. Big deal! Neither do the movies The Evil Dead or Re-Animator but I’ve never held that against them. Arkham Horror delivers an infinite number of pulpy adventure stories with the Cthulhu mythos as a loose backdrop. How did I not appreciate a deputized magician chucking a bundle of dynamite at a zombie inside a diner before? That’s awesome! No other game that I’ve played can generate the surprising, the unpredictable, and the bizarre like this one can.
I’m now scared of Cthulhu
I had to tweak the game to fix the lack of difficulty. Firstly, I started using StormKnight’s variant, found in the BGG forums. This simply and superbly switches the pace of the game so that it becomes more challenging as the game progresses. The last third of the game is now a race against time instead of a waste of time.
Secondly, I added Arkham Horror - The King in Yellow Expansion and Arkham Horror - Dunwich Horror Expansion. The introduction of the herald and blight cards in particular have made it a true challenge. Cthulhu now kicks me squarely in the balls and leaves me whimpering on the floor, just like he should.
This isn’t work, you pansy!
I’ve now dipped my toes into some deeper pools and have come to realize that this isn’t as intensive a game as I first thought. Besides, the effort involved is due to the incredible variety that the numerous bits enable. Playing it is an event and events do take a little effort.
Nevertheless, there are some aspects that I think could be culled to make the game more effortless and user-friendly with little or nothing lost, such as the sliding character traits. A friend of mine recently picked up Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game and I have a feeling that will hit the table more often now. Both offer pulpy horror narratives but LNoE is more streamlined and accessible to new players and casual gamers. Having said that, I think gamers who aren’t put off by “fiddly” components and rules are fully rewarded for the work they put in.
I do still recognize that the draw-a-card and roll-some-dice mechanics are basic and repetitive but I’ve come to accept this. This isn’t a grand strategy game. It’s a system that provides the tools for some great active storytelling. In this respect, Arkham Horror is a complete success.
The Call of Cthulhu
*flash forward to the present*
I play Arkham Horror.
I am overwhelmed.