Wednesday, February 22, 2012

REVIEW: Arkham Horror - A Cooperative Board Game

My group's recent nerdgasm has been delivered via Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror board game. As with all Fantasy Flight games, it is a work of art. The box is heavy duty, the game pieces are built to last, the art work is top-notch and the flavor text associated with the game is prime.

It is a game designed for one to eight players, with four being optimal, in my best-guess opinion; however, we have been playing with three and have found it challenging, but not unmanageable; as a matter-of-fact, we have won both games we've played. I do feel that a fourth player would be better for game balance, but more then four, again my opinion only, may get cumbersome. I am curious to pick up my own copy and give solo play a try, but suspect the success rate of solo play would be about on par with my success rate with most Tunnels and Trolls solo adventures, in other words, non-existent.

The basic gist of the game is this: players take the role of an Investigator. This investigator can be assigned randomly, or selected. We normally select the investigator of our choice. Game play is broken into several turns which are played until either a victory condition is met, or the Ancient One awakes, which often leads to defeat. The Ancient One is either selected randomly at game set-up or chosen. Again, we choose our Ancient One. If the players are defeated, the Ancient One in play devours/destroys the city of Arkham.

Each turn is broken into five phases:

1. Upkeep, in which the players refresh abilities of their investigators

2. Movement, self explanatory, players move their investigators about the game board.

3. Arkham Encounters, in this stage any investigators in the city might have an encounter. Encounters can be combat in nature with monsters, or skill checks that may lead to a terrible fate or possible bonus.

4. Other World Encounters, this stage is run much the same as the Arkham Encounters phase, but takes place in the other worlds that open via gates.

5. Mythos. In this stage, a mythos card is drawn and its effects are put into play. This often includes the opening of another gate, which spawns monsters and brings the Ancient One that much closer to awakening. There are several other effects as well, too numerous to go into for the purpose of a quick and dirty review.

We have now played through it twice, and are eager for a third helping. When deciding upon a new game for my group and myself, one of my chief concerns of the game in question is, "is there replay value"? In the case of Arkham Horror, I whole heartedly say yes there is. In the base game alone, there are several choices of investigators to select from, each one has strengths and weakness that make each game a new experience. Also, there are several options of Ancient Ones as well, and each Ancient One brings its own changes to each game. Of course Fantasy Flight also has available several expansions that add new elements to the base game itself, such as more investigators, Ancient Ones and optional rules. All-in-all, Arkham Horror is well supported by Fantasy Flight and it appears that they intend to do so for some time. Support, especially if it appears long term, is another factor I look for in a game prior to investing, as to be honest, the average, quality board game will run a geek anywhere from $15 to nearly $100. That's a lot of rupees.

What impresses me most with the game is the cooperative way in which it is played. For those that do not know, a cooperative game means that the players, in this case one to eight, cooperate together to beat the game. There is a definite "us versus them" mentality.

Strangely, we had difficulties with cooperative play at first. It seems odd that we would as in the past, we have played lots of roleplaying games, which are cooperative by nature, even if that cooperative nature is only amongst the players versus the game master.

I suspect that difficulties with cooperative play in our group stem from our long history of playing board games together. One of our "go-to" games is Zombies! If you have never played then take my word for it, it is a very cut-throat, non-cooperative game. My group and I have developed a mentality of "if I can't win, then I will screw over as many of you bozos as I can"!

This attitude will not work in a cooperative game; especially not with Arkham Horror. As I stated, we have played twice and we have beaten the game both times. From reviews that I've read, our 100% success rate is unusual. Most players find a success rate of closer to 20% on average when playing Arkham Horror. We have done a careful review of the rules to make sure we aren't cheating, and our conclusion is that while we've made some minor mistakes, mostly during our first outing, we have not been bending the rules nor breaking any that would lead to our sound victory record. It appears, we are either just that damn good, or very lucky our first two outings out.

The negatives of the game are hard to find. The chief complaint I believe would have to be long game play. Our first game took an excess of five hours; however, our second game was finished in just under four hours. I would state that average game play is in the four hour range. Another concern is a long set up time. It has taken us about 15 minutes both times to set up the play area and this is common with many of Fantasy Flight's games due to all the chits and pieces involved.

The only other complaint, and I wouldn't even call it a complaint -- more like an observation, is that the Mythos of the game is derived from the Cthulhu Mythos developed by August Derleth and not H.P. Lovecraft. As I said though, this is not a complaint, merely an observation. I am solidly in the S.T. Joshi camp of Lovecraft fans and am not a supporter of the mythos as Derleth developed it, but I can put that aside for a chance to play a great game.

Arkham Horror is a great game.

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