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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 16 of 21 Next

15. Arkham Horror

Published by Chaosium, later in a substantially modified form by Fantasy Flight Games

Type: One to eight-player cooperative adventure board game

Depth: Moderate

Designed by: Richard Launius

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: The horrible monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos are trying to break through to our world in the New England town of Arkham. The players take the role of the few ordinary people who know of them, who have taken it upon themselves to save the world. They do this by searching for clues, gathering tools, fighting monsters and sealing gates.

Play Summary

This one's a biggie. This description of the rules will be unavoidably incomplete, but are presented as fully as the space allows. This writeup describes the version currently published by Fantasy Flight Games; the original version has many differences.

A period of interdimensional instability has caused gates to other worlds to open throughout the various locations of the town of Arkham. Not only do horrible monsters come through these gates, but if enough of them are left unchecked they will awaken an Ancient One, a terrible alien god who will come through and threaten the Earth.

The Ancient One is determined randomly from an assortment that comes with the game before play begins, and each has special rules that affect the game both before and after it awakens. The players combat this by traveling around town, entering and exploring the other worlds, then closing the gates.

If the players can close all the gates, and have collected at least as many gate trophies (at one per gate closed) as there are players in the game, then the players win. If they are slow in their task, the doom track, which measures how close the Ancient One is to awakening, will fill up.

If it fills all the way, the players will have to engage in combat with it. All the Ancient One fights are unbalanced in favor of the monster; the fight itself is only intended to be a last-ditch effort to win the game, not a strategy the players can rely upon.

There are three kinds of "spaces" in the game players can move around, in order of interest: Arkham Streets, Arkham Locations, and Other Worlds. The monster movement rules cause them to cluster into the streets, and all locations require street travel to get to. Arkham Locations are color-coded to match one of the nine location decks, (yes, nine, and that's only about half the decks in all, because there are few games like Arkham Horror for cards) each of which additionally describing an encounter for every location of its color.

These can be good or bad. A few Locations have special events players can utilize instead of drawing, usually providing a basic bonus like refilling health or purchasing an item. Other Worlds are entered from the gates players are trying to close; they tend to have somewhat more damaging encounters than Locations. When two turns have been spent in an Other World, the player may emerge from any gate matching that world and attempt to close it.

Players have two kinds of "health," stamina and sanity. Running out of either causes him to lose half his items and immediately get sent to either the Hospital or Sanitarium spaces, wasting time. In order to regain more than a single point of either depleted value, the player must spend extra time and maybe money there.

If a player runs out of either in an Other World, he ends up Lost In Time And Space, which is sort of like the cosmic hospital, delaying the investigator for a short while before he returns to the game with a little of the depleted resource restored. If a player ever somehow runs out of both stamina and sanity at once he is devoured. The character is out of the game but not the player; at the start of the next turn he picks another character from those included and begins from scratch. (Once the final battle begins a lot more things cause devouring, and players don't return afterwards.)

One of the most interesting rules is the skill allocation system. Every player has a number of skill sliders on their character board. These are a list of six skills, paired into three groups of two: Fight/Will, Speed/Sneak, and Luck/Lore. Each has a row of matched numbers by it, numbered so that the highest values for each paired skill are at opposite sides of the slider. So, a character might have Fight that reads 6/5/4/3, but Will that reads 1/2/3/4.

At the start of play oval frame pieces are placed over one pair of numbers in the pair, defining what these skill values are. Because of the paired numbers, having a high score in one requires having a low score in the other. All the skills are important, but at different times. Sliders may be moved around a limited number of stops at the start of each turn. Part of the process of getting better at the game is to figure out which skills to focus on at which times.

Players collect money, items, allies, gate and monster trophies, and other benefits throughout the game, but the primary resource the players acquire is clue tokens, which begin scattered throughout the board and are gained by collecting them or through special encounters. Some encounters cost clues to take advantage of, and players may also spend clues to give themselves extra chances to make a roll. This may even be done after failing the roll, and continually, so long as the player has clue tokens to spend.

The most important use of clue tokens, however, is in sealing gates. After surviving an Other World closing a gate isn't hard, and grants the player a gate trophy, but leaves it to reopen later. Spending five clue tokens while closing a gate (or one of the special Elder Sign items that might be found during the game) will seal it.

Sealed gates cannot be reopened, typically; if a gate tries to open on a sealed location nothing happens: no gate, no monsters and no doom track advance. Sealing gates is one of the best things the players can do -- but five tokens is a lot, clues become less common as the game continues, and spending them to get a roll bonus is tempting.

At the end of each turn there is the Mythos phase, which is basically an automated portion of the game where the monsters get to move and special events occur. All of these things are decided by drawing a Mythos card, on each of which is printed a sort of package of events to occur. Each lists a special game event (some of which persist over multiple turns, and some quite nasty), a location for a new clue token to appear at, a location for a new gate to appear at, and a set of symbols that determine which monsters move.

The places on the board each have a black and a white arrow pointing from them; when a Mythos card with a matching symbol on it is drawn, the monsters with the same symbol move along the color arrow that matches the symbol's color on the card.

When a new gate is placed during the Mythos phase, a doom token is added to the doom track. When that fills up, the Ancient One fight begins and the game is probably lost. If there is already a gate there then no gate opens and no doom token is added, but there is a monster surge, where monsters pour from the gates. This may slow the players down, or it may be a useful opportunity to win monster trophies, which can be spent to gain advantages.

If a gate is closed, there is nothing to prevent it from reopening, so with some gates it may be more effective to leave them open; some locations turn up much more often in the Mythos deck than others, so closing gates there repeatedly is a recipe for disaster because a doom token is added each time. Gates in these locations are prime targets for sealing, since they usually prevent both new gates from opening and a new doom token being added.

What can we draw from this game?

The card-fueled monster movement system is elegant: partly random, partly deterministic. It is mostly a system for making sure monsters don't all pile up and cluster in a single space, but there is probably greater use other designers can make of the system. It is an effective and efficient way to automate quasi-randomized monster movement; if you've ever played the Munchkin spinoff Munchkin Quest, the monster movement in that game is basically an elaboration upon of the movement in Arkham Horror.

The game is chaotic enough that relating some useful strategies we've found might be helpful, as a way of noting which decisions end up being important in play. The Magic Shop Location has a special ability that allows drawing three items from the Unique Items deck and buying any one of them; the six Elder Sign items are all in this deck, and are extremely useful in sealing gates.

Players are allowed to trade any items they are carrying if they're on the same spot, so delegating authority tends to be effective; one player can focus on collecting money, another on clearing out monsters, another on gathering clues, another on closing gates, and so on.

The gate opening locations in the Mythos deck are far from uniform, and four locations only show up on two cards each: the Science Building, the Historical Society, the Silver Twilight Lodge, and Hibb's Roadhouse. If a gate opens up on such a spot, it is probably better to just close it instead of spending to seal it, since it has relatively little chance of reopening.

If it looks like preventing the Ancient One from waking up will be impossible due to a nearly-full doom track and a lack of means of sealing, a good last-ditch strategy is to load up on what items you can get from the shops, taking out a Bank Loan to fund them if possible since money is useless in the final battle.

One of the great flaws of Arkham Horror, in my opinion, is the variety of special cases the designers had to account for in the rules. In the most recent edition of the game there are a number of things that, if they happen, immediately result in the Ancient One awakening.

If a gate opens but there are no more gate tokens to place because they're being horded as trophies, the Ancient One wakes up. If a monster needs to be drawn but there are none in supply, the Ancient One wakes up. If too many gates open at once, the Ancient One wakes up. If too many monsters are on the board at once, the Ancient One wakes up.

Alternatively, if six locations are sealed at the same time, the players immediately win. It seems that some of these may have been added in recent editions of the game to plug holes players found in the design. It is a fun and rewarding game, but the variety of rules* coupled with all the special cases makes it all very hard to grasp for new players, not to mention lending the game a sense of arbitrariness.

*Rules I wasn't able to cover here: the Outskirts, the Sky, the Terror Track, Blessings and Curses, Rumors and Environment cards, Retainers, getting Deputized, the variety of Outer Worlds, the variety of Ancient Ones, the many kinds of monsters, the interesting skill check dice pool system, and more.

Article Start Previous Page 16 of 21 Next

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