When Fantasy Flight Games announced Eldritch Horror, a new game in its Arkham Horror line that appeared to be a simpler version of what had become a bloated shoggoth of a game after nearly a decade’s worth of expansions (including an expansion for all of the expansions), I was one of those people that scoffed at it. Who needs or wants a redevelopment of a redevelopment? Aside from that, at that point I was pretty much over anything to do with HP Lovecraft and the whole Cthulhu Mythos. I’ve been reading that stuff and playing games either based on or inspired by all of it for practically my entire life. In fact, one of the earliest stories I remember from Kindergarten was a book-on-record adaptation of “The Outsider”. Lovecraft fatigue aside, I’ve been burned out on FFG’s house style of flavor text-as-theme and endless piles of cards with overwrought illustrations on them for a couple of years now. If ever there were a game that I didn’t feel had a place in my collection, it was Eldritch Horror.
But it came up in conversation with some friends that spoke highly of it and they offered to bring it over so I could check it out. I grudgingly agreed to give it a shot, not exactly looking forward to the tired “whiskey-drinking nun on motorcycle shoots Great Old One in face with shotgun” type of Mad Libs narrative that Arkham Horror creates. I also wasn’t eagerly anticipating the assumed labor of playing a recent FFG design. While they started unpacking the card decks and sorting the tokens, I flipped through the two rulebooks (one to learn, one to reference) and buckled down for the worst .
Two hours later, I still had not participated in the creation of a story that resembled anything like what Lovecraft, Derleth, or any of their cronies would have written but at least I had played an absolutely fantastic adventure game. Eldritch Horror more or less banishes Arkham Horror and its unwieldy piles of expansion material to the sunken city of Obsoletion. More than that, it turns out that it is one of the finest co-op or solitaire games on the market today.
Let’s dispel some myths. This is not a “dumbed down” Arkham Horror. As is usually the case whenever that asinine term is used, it tends to indicate that the object in question has actually been “smarted up” to the chagrin of hardcore enthusiasts who believe that things are better the more byzantine and inapproachable they are. The rules weight, complexity level and depth are roughly the same as Arkham Horror but this is by far a more refined, streamlined game and it is the smarter and more accessible design as a result. That said, this is still a game with something like fifteen decks of cards on the table not counting discard piles, a few global effects occurring at any given time, and with players often managing seven or eight different item, spell or effect cards at a time. So it isn’t completely stripped down.
Eldritch Horror is also not some kind of Arkham Horror “Lite” or “Express” despite drastic reductions in administration and a greater degree of abstraction. It plays considerably shorter by design, but actually loses very little detail in its 90-120 minute time frame. In fact, it actually gains detail and the potential for more meaningful narrative connections between its disparate parts. The design approach is more economical, focusing on specifics such as unique mysteries and encounters for each Great Old One rather than fussing around with adventures where the net result is that you get a dollar. Less filler and more abstraction significantly reduce the bulk of the game across the board. Some of the abstractions are brilliant such as eliminating money and by turn silly filler like getting a job at the newspaper and tedious side-tracks like having to go to shops to purchase items. This time out, while you are in any city you simply roll your Influence stat looking for fives and sixes (in true Richard Launius fashion) and you get to buy an item with that cost in successes from a common display that covers, effectively, every shop in every city around the world.
Despite the bigger scope, leaner process and shorter playtime, there are some aspects that will be quite familiar to Arkham Horror veterans. Gates open. Monsters come out of them. Investigators go through them to close them. But instead of fishing the decks for Elder Sign cards to close gates and spending four or five turns to get the necessary roll to shut one down, more of your time spent in this game is spent trying to stop the effects of ongoing Mythos cards, venturing out on far-flung expeditions where you can draw from an encounter deck specific to those adventures, and solving mysteries unique to the Great Old One that is causing the world so much consternation. These mysteries are the heart of the game, and the goal is generally to solve three of them before the doom track winds down. For those of us that don’t particularly care for the extended denoument where you’ve got to go shoot the ancient alien god with a .38, Azathoth is again included and as usual, his appearance just ends the game.
The neat thing about these mysteries is that give a much stronger sense of an overall story arc than anything in Arkham Horror was able to do. There were special monsters and other frills that were added for certain Great Old Ones, but in Eldritch Horror the entire game feels much more circumscribed by whoever it is you are up against. I like this aspect of the game quite a lot, and it represents an excellent refinement of some of the ideas already present but not brought to fruition in the earlier design.
I’m also especially fond of how the game handles statuses- both good and bad. You might botch an investigation into some child kidnappings in London and wind up with an injured leg. Or you might take on a debt. Maybe you’ve started hallucinating due to an other world encounter where you maybe saw a little too much. When the round-ending Mythos card is drawn, it may trigger an effect on those status cards where you have to flip it over and see what happens, and this usually results in some fun surprises that extend the specificity of these conditions. That dark pact you entered into get a copy of the Eltdown Shards? Guess what, time to pay up- you are devoured! The spell cards also use a similar mechanic wherein casting a spell is just the beginning- you also have to flip the card and roll a die to see what the aftermath of casting it is. More story, less work.
But when that internal injury you suffered saps all of your heart tokens away or when your paranoia finally gets the best of your mental well-being, your investigator isn’t just quietly placed back in the box. Instead, they actually stay on the board where they fell, and depending on whether they went out on health or sanity, there is a bit of text on the back of their card. Living/sane investigators can go there and encounter the KO’ed characters, getting all of their possessions and often earning clue tokens or other benefits. I love this concept, and again it is another feature that expands the scale and scope of the game. It isn’t just the politician, the martial artist and the librarian out to save the world. It’s the entire stack of investigators included in the game.
And you may go through a couple of them over the course of game, especially if the going gets tough. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, with gates open everywhere and monsters busting out across the planet. A prime skill for playing Eldritch Horror is being able to effectively plan a few turns ahead and triage the on-board situations in coordination with either other players or between however many investigators you are playing in a solo game (I recommend two). The difficulty level is not set to “are you effing kidding me” like it is in too many co-op games, but ultimately the challenge level is largely dependent on what cards are available in the game, what order they are drawn in and how certain factors work together. I’ve had games where it was literally skin-of-the-teeth and it could go either way down to the last die roll. I’ve had games where we’ve fought to keep our heads above water and halfway through it was clear that there was no hope. But I’ve also had games, like the last time I played against Ithaqua, where it was a total cakewalk. This could be a negative comment for some players who expect a more consistent difficulty level, but I actually like revealing the difficulty over the course of the game and working to either mitigate it or exploit it.
Replayability is already high enough with just the base game, but a few words are due on the expansions. I would regard Forsaken Lore as absolutely essential for anyone that plays and enjoys the base game. It is effectively a booster pack for every deck in the game, adding more encounters, more mysteries and clue cards for each Great Old One, more items, more spells, more content across the board. And as an added bonus for Serpent People lovers, it also includes Yig. Get this when you place your order for the base game.
I’m much less convinced by the recently released Mountains of Madness expansion, which does the right thing by adding more of all of the above but already shows some flab. It includes a new and quite indispensable focus mechanic that lets investigators spend an action to get a reroll token- this should have been in the base game from day one. I like the new Great Old One cards and there is definitely some great content here, but I’m chafing a bit at the Antarctica expansion board and some extra materials that go with it. They simply do not feel all that important to the design and in some games you won’t even use the board at all. In games where it is present, it often feels the same way that some of the add-on boards in Arkham Horror did- cumbersome, remote locations kind of stuck on to the side of the main board. There’s a couple of extra features like a pre-game card that alters setup that just feels like tacked-on junk. I like enough of it, however, thatI wouldn’t want to do without Mountains of Madness. But I wouldn’t necessarily miss if it were suddenly lost in time and space.
And honestly, if FFG never released another expansion for Eldritch Horror I would be completely fine with that. There’s a big enough game here with enough variety to last for many years for both co-op players and solitaire gamers. I’ve played the game 12 times in various configurations of players and content and I’ve not once said- with both expansions, mind you- that I wish there were more encounters, items, spells, and so forth. But let’s not kid ourselves, FFG will keep rolling them out because they simply cannot leave well enough alone and eventually, Eldritch Horror may wind up as bloated and sloppy as they allowed Arkham Horror to become. We’ll always have R’lyeh.