I’ve been slacking off a bit on the old board game reviews, but I've got something special planned! For the next month, I’ll be reviewing a different spooky game every week. But not just any spooky games: I’m tackling the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft.
First, one quick note: H. P. Lovecraft was EXTREMELY racist. He regarded all people of non-Anglo-Saxon descent to be inferior, though he later expanded his acceptable circle to include anyone who behaved in a "high-class" manner. If you choose to read any of his stories you will encounter some awful depictions of marginalized peoples. But as reprehensible as Lovecraft’s social beliefs were, his approach to horror fundamentally changed genre fiction.
Lovecraft’s writing evokes a terror born of the realization humankind exists on an insignificant rock floating in an impossibly immense cosmos. His horrors lurk in the unknown corners beyond the reach of modern science. That fundamental fear of meaninglessness has only grown, and thus some aspects of his work are now more relevant than ever. In short, Lovecraft was deeply prejudiced, but his writing spoke to the truth about what it means to be human in the face of the ever-expanding sphere of scientific discovery. His work continues to speak to us nearly a century after his death. Fortunately, modern authors can simply focus on the fantastic worlds and horrific revelations while omitting the racist bigotry. The result: the C'Thulhu Mythos is now almost entirely divorced from its creator's prejudices. Everyone can enjoy the horror of the otherworldly cosmos without also exposing themselves to the mundane evils of racism. Hooray!
Now, lots of games slap C’Thulhu onto an existing IP and call it day. Lovecraft's works are all public domain now, making them prime real estate for game designers. I’m looking at you Munchkin C’Thulhu, Pandemic Reign of C’Thulhu, and Smash Up: The Obligatory C’Thulhu Set. But none of those games are particularly scary. They smile and wink at fans to say "hey, we like C'Thulhu too! See? Look at these tentacles! Isn't this great?!" And hey, if it sells copies, great. But I'm not interested in those games.
No, this month, I want to focus on the games in the “Arkham Horror Files” series from Fantasy Flight Games. These are games that try to recreate the creeping, gut-wrenching terror of the unknown. This month, I’m going to review them all. We’ll examine how effective the game is, both mechanically and thematically, so you can decide if it’s worth your time to dive in. And we’re going to start with the game that catapulted C’Thulhu into board game stardom: Arkham Horror, 2nd Edition.
Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition is a cooperative game for 1 to 8(!) players set in the fictional city of Arkham, MA during the roaring ‘20s. You’ll control an investigator as you search for clues related to the imminent arrival of an “Ancient one,” an otherworldly entity of such immense power and terrifying appearance that its mere presence would signal the end of the world as we know it. Your impossible task: stop the Ancient One before it destroys the world.
The standard gameplay is fairly simple. Each players takes it in turn to move their character to a street or location, then the players each draw an encounter card from the appropriate encounter deck. The encounters could be as simple as discovering a wandering monster to fight, or as complex as an NPC who asks for help conducting an experiment on an ancient artifact. Most encounters require the investigator to perform a skill check, which means rolling several six-sided dice based on your investigator's stats. If you get a 5 or 6, you succeed. Hooray!
After each player has taken their turn, someone draws a card from the “Mythos Deck.” This card will add a new twist to the adventure. Most Mythos cards open a gate to another world at an unstable location, spawn a clue token and move monsters around the board. Each card also has a unique effect on the game. One could report that a gang has mobilized and killed any monsters in a certain region of the board. Or it could describe a change in the weather that adds environmental bonuses or penalties to skill checks. In general, Mythos cards make life more difficult for the investigators.
The players can win in one of three ways: 1) Close and seal six otherworldly gates. 2) Close (but not necessarily seal) every gate. 3) Defeat the Ancient One in combat once it has entered our world. So many options! Except not really. I’ve played this game several dozen times. In all but a handful of games, we’ve won with option 1. Rarely, we'll win with option 3. In my experience, though, this game is rather easy. I've actually won more times with option 3 than I have lost outright. Go figure.
Unfortunately, closing and sealing gates is not simple. To close a gate, an investigator must enter the gate and survive two encounters in another world. Some of these, like the “City of the Great Race” or the “Dreamlands,” are strange but often harmless. Others, like C’Thulhu’s domain Rl’yeh or the frigid Plateau of Leng, will annihilate investigators who are not prepared. But if a player makes it through those two encounters, they will have enough knowledge to try and close the gate once they return to Arkham. In general, it takes three turns for an investigator to close a gate, and only one investigator can close each gate. But after each round, the mythos card will open a new gate. Staying on top of all of the gates is nearly impossible no matter how many players are in the game.
Once a gate is closed, it can be sealed by spending 5 clue tokens. Sealing gates is the most reliable way to win, so collecting clue tokens is important. But you can also spend clue tokens to reroll dice during skill checks, and that could mean the difference between life and death for an investigator. Once a gate is sealed, it can never open again. The players will have to decide for themselves when to save a clue token, and when to spend it.
Okay, does this game sound suspiciously like a tabletop roleplaying game at this point? Skill checks, wandering monsters . . . and I haven't even mentioned the character sheets yet! That's because designer Richard Launius created the Arkham Horror because he really enjoyed the “Call of C’Thulhu” tabletop roleplaying system. But getting people together regularly to play a tabletop RPG is hard. He wanted to scratch that itch even if everyone else in the group was busy. And so, in collaboration with Call of C'Thulhu's publisher Chaosium, Richard released Arkham horror in 1987. Tabletop RPG fans instantly fell in love with the game and the initial print run sold out, but it was never reprinted. In the early 2000s, Fantasy Flight acquired the rights to the Call of C’Thulhu roleplaying system and Arkham Horror. After some significant mechanical revisions, they released Arkham Horror 2nd Edition in 2005.
Basically, Arkham Horror simulates a tabletop roleplaying game by replacing the GM with a bunch of random encounter tables disguised as card decks. Mechanically, the game succeeds quite well. You have your own special character sheet, complete with an in-depth biography to help you understand your investigator's background and motivations. You have access to tons of items, NPCs, and spells. Every time you visit a location, you’ll get a new encounter, even if you go to the same place multiple times in the same game. And you get to face the terrors of the otherworldly locations hinted at or described in the C’Thulhu Mythos stories. Sounds perfect, right?
Unfortunately, that missing GM is really important. Games of Arkham Horror suffer immensely from the lack of narrative coherence. For example, let’s say you’re playing a game where C’Thulhu is trying to destroy the world. In the story, C’Thulhu’s minions are “the Deep Ones,” aquatic aliens who invaded the Earth centuries ago. But in the game, you'll usually draw random monsters from a "monster cup." You could get anything from a cultist to a shoggoth. Sure, it makes the world feel more interconnected to have any monster from the mythos show up at any time. But it makes no thematic sense for your effort to stop C'Thulhu to be interrupted by a wandering Dhole.
Similarly, you might randomly encounter an NPC who is friendly on one encounter card, and deranged on another. And don't forget the gates! C’Thulhu would be entering our world from Rl’yeh, but the investigators may stop him by closing gates to "Yuggoth," the "Plateau of Leng," and "The Great Hall of Celeanno." If your only exposure to the Mythos is this game, you won't care. Everything is just a strange name and a weird monster. But the more you immerse yourself in the cosmology, the less it makes sense.
Another issue is character sheet micromanagement. Each character has six paired skills: speed/sneak, fight/will, and lore/luck. The character sheet displays three skill tracks, and you use little sliders to track where each pair of stats currently sits. You also have a "Focus" stat that determines how much you can change your stat tracks each round. So if you think you’ll be fighting on your turn, you can bump your fight skill higher. Or if you really need to get to a certain space, you can adjust your speed skill to move further. But those increases will lower the paired skill. In theory, every turn you'll have to evaluate the risk and reward of adjusting your stats. Realistically, most players just pick one setting that they like and leave it there for the entire game.
Ultimately, Arkham Horror provides the mechanical trappings of a roleplaying game with none of the narrative appeal. Nonetheless, at the time it was released, it was quite successful. Arkham Horror promised an experience unlike any other on the market, and it delivered. How could anyone resist a game filled with so much content!?
Fantasy Flight is well-known for supporting their games after launch, and the C’Thulhu Mythos provided them with nearly endless material to draw from. They produced EIGHT expansions for this game! EIGHT! That’s so many. A normal person would space things out, maybe review one or two of these a week for a month. NOT ME! WE'RE DOING THEM ALL! LET'S GO!
1. The Curse of the Dark Pharaoh (2006, 2nd ed. released in 2011)
In the first expansion, an expedition to Egypt has just returned to Arkham, and their findings are on display at the Miskatonic University Museum. The expansion adds new encounter and mythos cards, as well as two additional mini decks. The first are special encounters that occur in the Arkham streets between locations. If you succeed in this encounter, you’ll get to draw a unique exhibit item from the second deck. These items grant special abilities and powers, like the Unique Item deck in the base game. However, the locals aren’t terribly thrilled that heavily armed people are loitering in the streets, and they may organize patrols that will get in the investigators’ way.
As an expansion, this one is fine. Abrupt sandstorms, swarms of locusts, and flooding rivers are just some of the events that make you feel like you’re in a city suffering from an Ancient Egyptian curse. And the new exhibit items are cool and thematic.
The rules specify that you should shuffle all of the Dark Pharaoh cards into their respective decks. I found that this really dilutes the expansion experience. Instead of focusing on this mysterious expedition, it feels more like a background event contributing to Arkham's strangeness. I prefer to place the expansion encounter cards on top of all of the relevant decks, though that might mess with the game balance a bit. I give this expansion a C+: it adds cool new stuff, but barely changes the core gameplay. And it does little to address the narrative incoherence.
2. The Dunwich Horror (2006)
The second expansion is a large one, and that’s because it includes an entire extra board. The Dunwich Horror story takes place in a remote village far from bustling Arkham, and so this expansion provides an extra board to showcase those locations. Investigators will need to catch a train from Arkham to Dunwich to explore its mysteries.
Aside from the board, the expansion comes with a ton of new cards for all of the existing decks. It adds a few new mechanics as well. In the base game, if an investigator runs out of physical or mental health, they black out and reappear at the hospital or asylum. The Dunwich Horror expansion adds new “trauma” cards that leave your character with an ongoing physical or mental penalty. It makes the game harder, but it also makes the penalties for failure feel more real. That Shoggoth didn’t just knock you unconscious, it also broke your leg. Now you have to deal with a speed penalty for the rest of the game while it heals.
Dunwich Horror also adds new monsters, new Ancient Ones to challenge, and new investigators. Like the Dark Pharaoh expansion, I prefer to stack the new encounter cards on top of the deck instead of shuffling them in. Unfortunately, this makes the game much harder. Dunwich introduces new “Gate Burst” mythos cards that will force a gate to open even if the location has been sealed. Putting all of these cards on top makes it much more likely that a sealed location will burst back open, which makes it that much harder to win by sealing all the gates. Another new feature is the eponymous Dunwich Horror track. Various events may advance that track, and once it fills up the Dunwich Horror itself (a very powerful monster) will appear in Dunwich and wreak havoc until the investigators defeat it.
In general, though, Dunwich is just more of the same. The new location is a fun addition for fans of the story, and the higher difficulty level is nice for experienced players. But you won't feel much of an impact during standard turns. I'd give this expansion a C- except for the trauma cards. The modular nature of Arkham's expansions means you can easily incorporate some or all of an expansion into games with any other expansions. If you have this expansion, you should be using the trauma cards in every game you play. Period.
3. The King in Yellow (2007)
The King in Yellow is another small expansion with several modular components. A major addition is the new “Herald” variant. Heralds are like lesser Ancient Ones who make the game harder. They can be used in any game, but they receive a power-up when paired with a specific Ancient One. This game includes the eponymous “King in Yellow,” which is bad enough on its own but makes the game very difficult when combined with Hastur. After releasing the King in Yellow, Fantasy Flight updated the Curse of the Dark Pharaoh expansion to also include a new Dark Pharaoh herald, who pairs with Nyarlathotep.
"The King in Yellow" is a mysterious play that is critically acclaimed but always seems to be followed by misfortune. Many spectators are driven made by the performances, but the production continues to sell-out every show. The investigators will need to uncover the truth of this play to stop the Ancient One from wreaking havoc on Arkham. The expansion includes thematically related items and spells, new encounter cards, and new Mythos cards that loosely tell the story of this play.
This is the only expansion that includes rules for playing the game with all of the King of Yellow cards placed on top of their decks rather than shuffled in, though it warns that this will result in a much more challenging game than normal. I enjoyed this variant because I could really feel the impact of this show upon life in Arkham, though it was admittedly very difficult. You can still just shuffle the cards into their various decks, but that makes the play seem more like a touring production that has stopped briefly in Arkham while everything else is happening.
While I appreciated the attempt at narrative coherence, it still doesn’t land. Like, in my last game with this expansion, I finished setting up and drew the top Mythos card: “Intermission.” Really? Intermission, right at the start? Sure, I could make up a reason for that, but it would make more narrative sense to build up to the intermission, not lead with it. But the deck is random, so there's no way to control the way the story flows. I give this expansion a B+: it tries, and nearly succeeds to improve the narrative coherence while also providing cool new stuff.
4. The Kingsport Horror (2008)
This is the only expansion that stems from a story I am completely unfamiliar with, so the plot is a bit of a mystery to me. This is also the expansion I’ve played with the least. Like The Dunwich Horror, it’s a large box expansion with an extra board depicting the coastal town of Kingsport. Over time, Mythos cards will trigger extra-dimensional rifts to appear in Kingsport. These rifts will spew monsters onto the board for a few turns, so the players have to do whatever they can to prevent these rifts from forming in the first place.
Kingsport also adds new monsters, new investigator cards, new investigators, new Ancient Ones, and a slew of new encounter cards. It also adds two new Heralds to make the game more difficult, but it also adds a special “Guardian” variant. The Guardians are also powerful otherworldly beings, but these ones are well-disposed towards humans and will provide support to the players. There are three Guardians you can incorporate into your games: Bast, Hypnos, and Nodens. These make the game a tiny bit easier. Once you add a couple expansions into the game, you need all the help you can get, so these are greatly appreciated.
One of the issues with Arkham Horror is that if the Ancient One awakens, the game just devolves into simply chucking dice back and forth until either the Ancient One or all the players die. Kingsport adds a special “Epic Encounter” deck that you only use when the Ancient One awakens. You'll draw the top card at the beginning of each round which adds some extra spice to the dice rolling. I find that it gives the players a slightly better chance to succeed, while also giving the Ancient One more variation in how it counterattacks. The expansion also includes several unique Epic Encounter cards for every Ancient One released so far, including the ones in the Dunwich Horror and Kingsport Horror expansions.
Ultimately, though, this expansion does not quite land. The Guardians, Heralds, and Epic Encounters are great additions to the game in general as they offer fun ways to modify the overall difficulty level no matter which expansions you decide to use. But the rest suffers from the same issue as the other expansions: too generic and narratively unfocused. The rifts look really cool, but mostly they just add more complicated things to track. In both games I’ve played with Kingsport, no rifts even spawned. I give the modular components I listed above a solid B (especially the Epic Encounters, you should use these in every game if you can), but the rest of the box comes in at a D.
5. The Black Goat of the Woods (2008)
In the outskirts of Arkham, a mysterious cult worships the “Black Goat of the Woods” and her 1000 young. Townspeople are being kidnapped and the police completely befuddled. The players must investigate the dark woods and bring the dark cult to light. But are all the investigators truly working to eliminate the cult’s threat to Arkham?
The Black Goat of the Woods adds a bunch of monsters to the monster cup to drive home that the Black Goat’s young are spreading throughout Arkham. It also includes new encounter cards that might tempt you into joining the cult itself. Maybe you can bring them down from within. But watch out, the longer you spend in the cult, the more likely you’ll be exposed to “Corruption cards” that will wear down your humanity and willpower. Eventually, you could be fully converted and turn against your fellow players!
Aside from this, the expansion adds a new herald, The Black Goat of the Woods herself, and several special “difficulty cards” that provide codified rules for increasing or decreasing the game’s difficulty. These cards can be used with any combination of expansions, making them a useful tool even if they are not narratively relevant in any way. And then, as usual, the expansion adds more encounters cards, investigator cards, and mythos cards.
To give this expansion credit, it certainly tries to do something different to change up the formula. The issue is that most players will simply avoid joining the cult and focus on winning the game normally, which means that most of the cool new stuff in this expansion just sits off to the side. The players have to actively decide to try and join the cult, and risk losing the game, in order to see what this expansion has to offer. It’s a cool concept, but it just doesn’t work. I give this expansion a D- for effort.
6. The Innsmouth Horror (2009)
Up the coast from Arkham lies the depressed fishing community of Innsmouth. Innsmouth is constantly wreathed in fog and filled with xenophobic locals. Outsiders are grudgingly welcomed to the town’s commercial center, but visitors rarely stay long. More observant visitors may notice that may locals look a bit . . . odd . . . .
The Innsmouth Horror is the third expansion to add an extra board to the game. Unlike the previous two, the Innsmouth board exchews extra portals to other worlds. Instead, the citizens of Innsmouth are all supporters of the Ancient One, and they are actively working to bring it to this world. The Innsmouth board displays a special “Deep Ones Rising” track where the other worlds would normally sit. If the track fills up, the Ancient One immediately awakens and the players must fight it off in combat. Investigators in Innsmouth can spend clue tokens to report the suspicious activities to the authorities. Once the report track fills up, the Feds will raid Innsmouth and wipe away all progress on the Deep Ones Rising track. The Investigators will have to balance using clue tokens to seal gates and managing the Deep Ones track.
Like the other expansions, Innsmouth adds a bunch of monsters, encounter cards, Mythos cards, investigators, ancient ones, and investigator cards. It also adds two new heralds depicting C’Thulhu’s children: Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. You can include these heralds separately, or use them together for a real challenge. Another addition is the “Innsmouth Look” deck. Some encounter and Mythos cards may force players to draw from this deck. Most of the cards have no effect, but there is a chance that the player is secretly a Deep One Hybrid, and at that moment their hidden heritage will come to light. It’s abrupt and shocking, and it can really interfere with the party's plans.
But the best addition from this expansion is the deck of “Personal Stories.” This deck includes two cards for every investigator from every Arkham expansion, as well as the base game. No matter which investigator you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about the character through some extra flavor text, and you’ll have an added bonus objective to try and complete. If you succeed, you’ll get a small bonus for the rest of the game. But there is also a fail condition, and if that triggers, the player will have an added penalty to carry through the rest of the game. This is a fantastic addition as it provides a little extra guidance to the player for what their player should be trying to do over the course of the game.