I love elegant design: small boxes, precisely targeted to do one thing really well, just the right amount of mechanics tied to a strong theme. I will always champion this kind of game. In much the same way I love beautifully directed films, human stories lovingly told. These are the things that bring me hope, satisfaction, and joy. However. Sometimes you need something, big, brash, and noisy. From time to time you want to turn your brain off and revel in action packed, explosion filled blockbuster. Sometimes you need to break out Eldritch Horror.
Eldritch Horror is the spiritual successor to the expansive Arkham Horror, the boardgame that arguably kicked off, the non-RPG, obsession with HP Lovecraft. Arkham Horror is one of the earliest co-op games and to this day has fans all over the world.
I was introduced to Arkham Horror with the, famously intricate, second edition by Fantasy Flight Games and I can’t say I was overly impressed. It took too long to play, was a bear to teach, and just didn’t feel very fun. Eldritch took that core idea of investigators fighting against unspeakable horrors and streamlined it. Not only that it eschewed the origins of the game being about strange goings on in one place and took the action global.
The game itself is pretty straightforward. Pick an Investigator, choose an elder God, take them on with both fists blazing. As the game progresses the players will have to fight fires across the planet as monsters break out, strange rituals are conducted, and all manner of horrors befall the populace. One of the things that Eldritch does do better than it’s predecessor is allow you to check out the board state all at once. It’s easy to take a look and see how you are doing and exactly where you need to point your extinguishers. If you do manage to take down the god before it awakens, then all is well with the world. If they do awaken then sometimes you still stand a chance to take them down, but everything just got a lot harder.
All of this terror is driven primarily by cards. Cards reveal the mysteries you need to solve to bring down the elder god, the gear, spells and artifacts you can collect to help you on your journey, but most importantly the stories you will tell along the way. Every turn, no matter where you are, and assuming you haven’t got a monster in your way, you are going to have an encounter. Pulling a card from the deck your investigator is sent on a mini-adventure that could be anything from helping out with a police investigation to stopping cultists and strange encounters with mysterious people.
The encounters range from the sublimely horrifying to the stupendously ridiculous. That is ok though, because Eldritch Horror is a game that does not lean into the creeping horror of its source material. Instead it embraces the pulp stories of the 1920s and onwards, and is all the better for it. I would strongly recommend, and it is still odd to me that this is not in the rules, that you get another player to read you your encounter cards. Not only does this up the amount of player interaction, but it also allows you to hide the outcomes of player choices adding just a little bit more of a frisson to the proceedings. I don’t usually recommend house rules in a review, but this one doesn’t really change the game, just makes it a bit more dramatic.
Every time I’ve played Eldritch Horror it’s the stories that come out that I love. Maybe I travelled to the moon on the back of space monsters, or helped take down a cult in china, maybe both! My fellow investigators travelled the globe to solve a particularly nasty problem in Antarctica, allowing the rest of us to get on with taking down Azathoth. Investigators will come together to solve a problem, then go off on individual adventures to help the greater cause.
Mechanically the game is much simpler than its predecessor but there are still a good number of moving parts and so many cards that the occasional interaction can throw up rules queries that aren’t always easily answered with a quick check of the rulebook. It’s true that some investigators are just better than others and the game is in no way balanced, with a huge amount coming down to the role of dice, and the luck of the draw. From a critical standpoint, I know it isn’t that great and I much prefer Arkham Horror LCG over it.
That being said, sometimes I need to cater for large groups and I have tried many coops, including Arkham Horror 3rd Edition, to do so. Eldritch Horror is just the best solution I have come across and the feeling of taking down an Elder god at the last moment, of coming through the trials and tribulations that the game has thrown at you, have yet to be matched. This is pulp story and action on a grand scale, divorced from concerns of subtlety, meaning, and cosmic horror.
A slight warning before we wrap this up. The core box of Eldritch, actually doesn’t have enough cards in it. I know, what a twist. If you are going to pick the game up then I would strongly recommend picking up the first small box expansion Forsaken Lore which is just more cards for every deck, providing more variety for your plays. It’s a shame this was not put in the core, as it really does feel a bit light on replayability with just that on its own.
As to the other expansions, they all mostly just add more stuff, more variety. Some to introduce extra game boards as you journey into the deserts and cold poles, but they are smartly handled, not overwhelming you with too many extra things to think about as could be the case with its predecessor.
The sound of two fists punching
Eldritch Horror is a loud, brash design that as more modern games goes is clunky, arrogant, and not very well thought through. That doesn’t matter, as like I said at the top of this piece, sometimes you just want to turn your brain off. As a vehicle for getting together with your friends, picking up your shotgun, and heading out into the strange, weird world of the extended Lovecraft Mythos, it succeeds on every level.