Spooky Month part 6 - Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition

I began Spooky Month with Arkham Horror, and it's only fitting to end it with the same. I've written at length over this past month about all of the different Arkham Horror Files games, and after the last entry, it sure seems like we should be done. But there's one more game in the core series to review, and it was published just a few years ago in 2018. Of course, I'm talking about Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition.

Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition is a cooperative board game for 1-6 players. The investigators must solve the mystery before the Ancient One's agenda succeeds and they wreak havoc on our world. You might be wondering why I didn't just rope this review in with Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition, the way I did with mansions of Madness. Simple: this game is VERY different from the 2nd Edition.

Let's start with the objective. In the 2nd Edition, you must seal 6 gates, or close all the gates, or defeat the Ancient One in combat. Mechanical, repetitive, and bland. In Eldritch Horror, you must solve 3 mysteries, opening up the thematic space for your objectives, but still feeling game-y. Arkham Horror: The Card Game knocked this out of the park with the Act deck, and the 3rd edition adopts that mechanism to great effect. In this game, you won't have any idea of how to win the game when you start playing, but you do have a short-term objective to try and slow down the enemy.

Close up on the first two scenario cards for the game's first scenario.
Uh oh. Something's not right here . . .

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. If you play the game enough times, you'll probably learn the sequence of objectives. But I think you've already realized the problem: the only way that objective system can work is if the game is scenario-based like Mansions of Madness or Arkham Horror: The Card Game. And you'd be spot on. This game comes with four scenarios, each tied to a different Ancient One. Four scenarios might not seem like much, but some feature branching paths and alternate endings that you can discover as you explore the game. This is where this game distances itself from those other scenario-based Arkham games: instead of a preset Act and Agenda deck, or a prescribed narrative, this game has a special set of scenario cards. When either side fulfills an objective, the current scenario cards will instruct you to retrieve other scenario cards from the stack. Sometimes you will skip certain scenario cards altogether depending on your degree of success or failure.

One problem that both Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition and Eldritch Horror suffer from is that they depict the entire game environment on a single board, but in many games certain locations just won't be used. Either players won't have time, or wont have need, to go to part of the city or world. The 3rd Edition fixes this with its scenario-based setup. Instead of a large board, you'll find a bunch of hexagonal that you'll simply mix, match, and jigsaw together to form a unique board for each game. This tightens up the game space and ensures that all of the locations that show up will be relevant to the story. As much as I love the old Arkham Horror board, this is a brilliant solution to save space and tighten up the experience into a more coherent story.

Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition set up for the first scenario with 2 players.
Look at this! You can actually see the table! This is the first arkham Horror board game that comfortably fits on my table.

Once you have finished setting up the board, the game proceeds along a pretty familiar path. First, the players each take two actions. They can move, attack monsters, or gather resources (a.k.a. money). But this game introduces three new actions that are unique and interesting additions to the game. The first is "focus."

Focus has been a part of other Arkham games in the past, but I like this version best. When you focus, you add a "focus token" to one of your five skills. This raises that skill's value by 1, granting you more dice to roll on skill checks. Yes, skill checks are back and they still require you to roll a 5 or 6 on your dice to succeed. But now you can also spend a focus token to reroll a die. This is a huge change, and a very welcome one. You'll get to decide if you want to maintain your stat buff, or if you want to lose the buff to try and succeed at a check that you're about to fail.

Next up: ward. During the Mythos phase, you may be forced to spread doom tokens on the board. If too many tokens accumulate in the same neighborhood, an Anomaly will appear. While an Anomaly is in play, any doom tokens that spawn in that neighborhood are instead placed on the scenario card, which advances the enemy objective. The investigators can use the ward action to remove doom tokens from the board. This both prevents Anomalies from appearing, and can close existing Anomalies so they stop disrupting the investigators' plans. Warding doom is a skill check, though, so you never know if you'll actually succeed.

The third new action is "research." Just like in the other Arkham Horror files games, the investigators will uncover clue tokens during the game. They will generally need to spend these clue tokens to advance the scenario in their favor, but unlike other games, they can't just spend them freely. Instead, investigators must take a research action to move clue tokens from their possession to the scenario card. Thematically, you won't uncover the Ancient One's plan simply by finding a mysterious symbol on the ground. You need to spend some time thinking about it, asking for advice, and consulting written sources. The game abstracts this a bit by not forcing you to find a library or return home, but it still requires you to invest time in processing clues.

A close-up on a portion of the board and monster cards.
I LOVE the art on this board. The use of light and shadow perfectly evokes the tone of the game, and the switch to cards for monsters instead of tokens gives the art more space to shine, and higher fidelity.

Once all the investigators have taken their actions, the monsters get a chance to move and attack. Monsters also work differently in this game. Instead of a monster cup, like in previous games, the monsters are all double-sided cards arranged into a deck. Part of setting up the scenario is pulling out the thematically appropriate monsters, shuffling them together, and then waiting for their inevitable arrival. Since the cards are double-sided, you'll draw from the bottom of the deck, so it is always a surprise what will appear.

Then comes the Encounter phase, which should feel familiar. Each neighborhood has its own deck of encounter cards, and each card has a different encounter for each location. But in an intriguing twist, the rulebook recommends that another player read the encounter card for the active player as a means to build suspense. The player must make their decision without seeing the possible outcomes. This is a fun thematic element, but it also makes the game significantly more difficult. If a player is in a neighborhood with an anomaly, they'll draw from the anomaly encounter deck instead. Each scenario has a unique anomaly encounter deck, so when things start going wrong, they'll go wrong in a way that connects to the overall story.

Finally, we come to this game's biggest change: the Mythos phase. In a surprising twist, Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition eschews the standard "Mythos Deck" present in every other game in this series. Instead, you'll construct a "Mythos Cup" during the scenario setup based on the instructions. The Mythos Cup contains an assortment of Mythos Tokens, each of which has a unique effect. During the Mythos phase, each player draws two tokens from the cup and resolves their effects one at a time. Tokens will spread doom, spawn monsters, trigger gate bursts, spawn clues, or do nothing at all. Once drawn, the tokens are left outside the cup until the cup is completely empty, then all the tokens are placed back inside. This is a subtly brilliant system. It ensures that the ratio of Mythos effects is consistent over the entire sequence of the game, but the players generally don't know when exactly any specific effect will come up.

Close-up of the mythos token pool for the first scenario.
Mythos tokens. Sure, they look innocent there, but they're EVIL. PURE EVIL. Except the blank ones, those ones are ok.

But if all you do is draw a token out of a cup, how do you know where to spawn clue or doom tokens? The answer is this game's strangest, but also most intriguing, addition: the event deck. Each scenario comes with a unique event deck. Event cards share the same card back as scenario cards, but they serve very different functions. The event deck is shuffled and stored in the special event deck holder. When a clue token spawns, you draw the top card of the event deck but don't look at it. Instead, you place the clue token on the board in the event card's neighborhood, and then shuffle drawn event card into the top three cards of that neighborhood's event deck. This means the players won't necessarily get to have the clue encounter when they arrive at the location, but they will if they spend at least three turns there. While this makes the game harder, it also feels much more thematic.

Close-up on the event-deck holder.
The nifty new "Event Deck" holder. You'll have to assemble this before you start playing, but it fits in the box so you don't have to worry about putting it together every time. It also comes with handy icons so you know which side of the deck to draw from depending on the mythos token. Doom tokens draw from the back, while clues and gate bursts draw from the front.

Conversely, when you have to spawn doom tokens, you'll draw the bottom card from the event deck and flip the card over to see which specific location has a tentacle symbol next to it. You'll place the doom token at that location, then discard the event card face-up. But here's where Arkham Horror takes a page out of Pandemic. When you draw a "Gate Burst" token, you'll first draw the top card of the event deck and place a doom token there. Then, you take all the discarded event cards, shuffle them together, and place them on the bottom of the event deck. That's right, all the places that got doom tokens before will now get doom tokens again! And that will keep happening all game. The regions that were problem areas early in the game will only get worse, no matter how diligent the players are at warding away doom. Your only hope is to gather clues and solve the mystery as quickly as possible. But every clue you discover hints at something worse, and those locations that once held clues will start accumulating doom as well.

Once you're done resolving everyone's Mythos tokens, the cycle resets and the players get their chance to try and fix the terrible things that have just occurred. And I have to say, this is a great remix of the original game. Game design has come a long way since 2005, and you can see that this game embraces many of those new innovations. Arkham Horror trades pure random chance for a system gives players a bit of a glimpse into the future, and more of an opportunity to mitigate probability.

A close-up on a new investigator: Calvin Wright
Another thing to mention: over time, Fantasy Flitht has gotten better and better about diverse representation in their investigators. Arkham Horror 2nd edition's base game only had white male and white female character choices. The 3rd edition includes a much wider array of investigator backgrounds covering an array of racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, and socio-economic backgrounds. These new characters provide fascinating new motivations and perspectives on the Cthulhu mythos while also making the game more accessible to a wider audience. Keep up the good work Fantasy Flight!

This is also one of the most accessible games in the entire series for new players. Fantasy Flight has learned a lot about writing rulebooks over the years, and Arkham Horror 3rd Edition has one of the best. The learn-to-play rulebook clocks in at a mere 10 pages, most of which just feature pictures of game components as visual aids. Where Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition's rulebook is a dense morass of complex interactions, the 3rd Edition learn to play rules are a light romp. But just like other modern Fantasy Flight games, the 3rd Edition also comes with a "rules reference." This is where the dense, rules-lawyer-friendly specifics live. There is no need to read this book cover-to-cover, but it is available for when questions arise. I have been a big fan of this two-rulebook trend since I first encountered it in Star Wars: Rebellion, and they have outdone themselves with this one. This is the first Arkham game that I learned by reading the rules, rather than having it taught to me by an experienced player, and I found that worked quite well. Much better than the other games, certainly!

Of course, the one downside to this game is that the base game suffers from a shallow level of content. With only four scenarios, there is some replay value available, but not as much as in Arkham Horror: The Card Game or even Eldritch Horror. Never fear, Fantasy Flight is always ready to deliver when a game doesn't have enough content! At time of writing, there are 4 expansions available for this game. And, uh, I haven't tried any of them. I actually haven't had much success getting this game to the table because my friends like Arkham Horror: The Card Game so much! Three of these expansions are traditional boxed expansions that offer tons of new cards, new locations, and 9 total new scenarios to investigate. The fourth is a print-and-play expansion that provides alternate versions of base game investigator cards. I'm intrigued by this concept, and happy that it's essentially free.

So where does that leave us? Well, Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition is hands down the best Arkham Horror board game ever made. It fixes all of the issues with every other game in the series, from the narrative inconsistency of the 2nd Edition and Elder Sign to the excessive difficulty and randomness of Eldritch Horror, to the prohibitive cost of Mansions of Madness and (potentially) Arkham Horror: The Card Game. I generally do not focus on price in my reviews, but it is worth mentioning that at $40 retail, this game compares favorable with many other premium board games. The card game may be cheaper initially, but you'll spend a lot more on expansions pretty quickly if you want to enjoy the full experience. The 3rd edition, however, provides four full experiences right in the box, each of which offers a decent amount of replay value.

Still, this game isn't perfect. There are some base game scenarios that I still haven't managed to win, and that's because this game is not easy. Some of that difficulty comes from the dice. You're going to have times where you need to roll just one success on six dice, and you still fail. It's all part of the game, but that high variance may be frustrating to players accustomed to cooperative games that are more of a puzzle than a story. This game borrows from Pandemic, but it is definitely not the same type of game. And while the scenarios provide a much better narrative than other games in the series, they cannot hold a candle to Arkham Horror: The Card Game's lovely campaigns. The stories in the 3rd edition aren't bad, they're just much shorter and simpler than in the card game.

Close-up on the encounter cards, investigator cards, and ancient one sheet.
The Ancient One scenario, encounter cards, and investigator cards. Looks downright manageable compared to the 2nd Edition and Eldritch Horror, honestly!

Ultimately, though, you should play Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition. This is the game that fulfills the original promise of Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition: an opportunity to play a meaningful Call of C'Thulhu style roleplaying game by yourself, or at least without a GM. I don't think it is the best game in the series. That title goes to Arkham Horror: the Card Game (with Mansions of Madness following as a close second). But this is the game that best balances length, complexity, narrative, and cost into a single product. The designers at Fantasy Flight have iterated and improved on this game over time, and the current product compares favorably with other thematic games on the market today. This game is worth your time.

Whew! Six massive games in just four weeks, that was quite a run! Thank you for joining me on this journey. It's worth mentioning that Fantasy Flight is continuing to produce new games in the Arkham Horror universe as we speak, with Unfathomable (a reskin of Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game) releasing later this year. I have no doubts that they will continue to improve upon their designs, and release even better interpretations in the future. I'm going to take a bit of a break for a while now, but if you have any suggestions for what I should cover when I return, please let me know! Thanks again for reading!

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