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Spooky month part 4: Eldritch Horror

Spooky month continues! If you're just joining us, welcome! I'm going to be referencing the last few reviews pretty heavily through out this one, so if you want to get the references, check out parts 1, 2, and 3. Alright, everyone ready? Let's dive in!

When we left off, Fantasy Flight Games had released two spin-off games for Arkham Horror: the luxurious Mansions of Madness, and the lightweight Elder Sign. Both are set in the same world as the classic Arkham Horror, but neither is an exact replacement. Arkham Horror, for all its flaws, has a spark of brilliance to it. The premise is solid. I still want to pull the boxes off my shelf for another game, despite everything I wrote in part 1. It's not that the game is bad, it just needs a remaster. And in 2013, Fantasy Flight unveiled that remaster:

Like Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition, Eldritch Horror is a cooperative game for 1-8 players. Once again, an otherworldly Ancient One is preparing to assault our world. It's up to a small band of brave investigators to uncover the clues that will solve the Ancient Ones' mysteries before it is too late. Sounds familiar, right? Well, that's because it is really similar. But there are a number of key differences.

Several changes immediately stand out when you start setting up the game. The board now depicts the entire world, instead of just Arkham. The character sheets have been simplified and shrunk a bit. Each investigator has five stats, instead of six. More importantly, the paired-stat slider system is gone. You just have the five numbers for the five stats. Teaching the game has already become much simpler!

Eldritch Horror set up for two players
It's big and filled with components, but at least it fits on my table better!

Another big change: there's no money! Instead of painstakingly tracking your cash, Eldritch Horror reduces shopping trips to a skill check where more successes let you purchase more expensive items. Taking the place of money in the small, rectangular token category are tickets. Since the board spans the entire world, you will need ship and railway tickets to navigate between the various locations. You can always move one space with a move action, but you can move additional spaces by spending a rail or ship ticket. You'll have to carefully plan your future movement to ensure you have the proper tickets when you need them.

The Mythos deck is very different now. In all of the Arkham Horror Files games, the Mythos deck creates new challenges for the investigators. But in the other games, the Mythos deck is just a random pile of cards that you shuffle up. Eldritch Horror replaces that hyper-random Mythos deck with a constructed one. The Mythos cards are color-coded into three groups: Yellow, Green, and Blue. One set will generally open gates, one set will generally spawn extra monsters, and one set will introduce rumors - optional challenges that the investigators can ignore at their own risk. Each Ancient One includes special setup instructions for how many cards from each group should be included in the top, middle, and bottom thirds.

This might not seem like a massive change, but it's huge. First, changing the makeup of the Mythos deck based on the Ancient One is subtle, but incredibly effective at making each Ancient One feel like a unique threat. An Ancient One that focuses on spawning lots of creatures will feel very different from one that relies on other methods for seeding chaos. Another important change: the investigators lose when the Mythos deck runs out. The investigators are on a tight timeline, and cannot afford to dilly-dally.

Cthulhu's ancient one card, and attending mystery deck
Cthulhu's ancient one card, and attending mystery deck

That's how you lose, so how do you win? One of the biggest weaknesses that Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition and Elder Sign share is that no matter which Ancient One stirs at the boundaries of reality, the objective to stop them is always the same. It's game-y and artificial, while the rest of the game tries to be immersive and thematic. Eldritch Horror modifies this in a creative way. At the beginning of the game, the Ancient One will be accompanied by a "Mystery Deck," a small deck of cards with unique objectives tied to that specific Ancient One. Once the players solve 3 mysteries, they win!

By printing the objectives on cards, Eldritch takes out two birds with one stone. First, the randomized objectives keep the game fresh every time. In Arkham Horror, you know you have to seal six gates. In Eldritch, you might need to collect X clue tokens, or travel to specific location on the board and have a special encounter, or defeat a particularly challenging monster. But not only are the objectives randomized, they are also unique to each Ancient One. So if you're trying to stop C'Thulhu, you may have to visit a specific location out at sea, while trying to stop Azathoth could require that you find and kill a certain number of mad cultists throughout the world. Each Ancient One comes with four mysteries, and you will see between one and three each game. After a few games with each, you'll develop a pretty good understanding of what you have to do to succeed, but you will not know the order you need to complete those tasks. You could try to meta game and prepare for a later mystery, but there's a decent chance that it will not even show up.

I mentioned that some mystery cards require "clue tokens." In the Arkham Files, they either help you win the game (Arkham Horror) or they let you re-roll your dice so you don't die (Arkham Horror, Elder Sign). Eldritch Horror continues this trend. You can spend a clue token to re-roll one of your dice, or sometimes you'll need to spend them to solve the mystery. In Arkham Horror, they're rather mundane: they spawn on the board according to the dictates of the mythos card, and you pick them up by simply going to that location and ending your movement. Eldritch Horror looks similar on the surface: most mythos cards spawn clue tokens on various spaces on the board, and you'll have to go there to pick up the clue token. But claiming a clue token is no longer automatic. Instead of your normal encounter, you'll draw from a special "research encounter" deck. As an added bonus: each Ancient One also brings a unique research encounter deck. That means every time you try and find a clue token, you'll have a special encounter that is thematically tied to this game's Ancient One du jour. Now that's narrative consistency!

But even the parts of the game that are most similar to Arkham Horror hide subtle twists and turns. Just like in Arkham Horror, the players can use magic spells to aid their investigation. As before, you'll make a Lore check to see if you successfully cast the spell. But in Eldritch Horror, the cards are double-sided, and the number of successes you roll on the lore check will determine an extra effect. This makes casting spells far riskier than before, but also feels more in character within the C'Thulhu mythos. Magic is an otherworldly power that humans do not fully understand, so utilizing that power should come with some risk! The double-sided printing also makes it so that players cannot simply memorize the risks for the spells. Until you cast the spell for the first time, you won't know which version you have (unless you cheat and look at the back of the card when you draw it. And where's the fun in that?).

Close up on an investigator sheet
The investigator sheets are so much smaller and simpler in Eldritch Horror. Look at that: five simple skills, some health, and a special ability. It works a lot better than Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition

Fantasy Flight also used this technology with conditions. Instead of conditions simply causing positive or negative passive effects to investigators, they now have a passive effect as well as a trigger condition that instructs you to flip the card over. Anything could happen when you flip a condition over, so it's best to try and get rid of them as soon as possible.

So there you have it! Tons of narrative cohesion! Mission accomplished everybody, we now have a game where you can create endless Call of C'Thulhu-esque adventures without relying on a GM to painstakingly build the world, scenario, and encounters for you. What are you waiting for?

What's that, you want to know if they solved the other issues I brought up about Arkham Horror? Ah. I see.

Let's start with length. Arkham Horror can be a very long game. For inexperienced players, setup alone could take 15-20 minutes, and then the game will usually last 2 or 3 hours. I had one game run for six! With the right combination of luck and strategy, a group of players can keep a game of Arkham Horror going for a long time without winning or losing. Not so in Eldritch Horror. The Mythos deck serves as a hard time limit. Games will not last more than 18 or so turns, or about 2-3 hours.

So in that sense, Eldritch is also an improvement on that front. The downside is that, well, it's really frustrating to lose just because you ran out of time. A few unlucky dice rolls and painful conditions could ruin your carefully laid plans and render the game unwinnable. Another issue I've frequently run into is that many Mysteries require clue tokens. But not just any clue tokens, they have to be clue tokens that you have received as a reward from a Research Encounter that you've completed after that Mystery card has been turned face-up. But not every Research Encounter rewards the player with a clue token, even if you pass the skill check! So you could get unlucky and spend 3 or 4 turns trying to get one clue token simply because you haven't drawn the right type of encounter card.

Which segues nicely to my next point: difficulty. Arkham Horror eventually became too easy for me. The expansions mitigated this somewhat, but I still win most of the time I play. Eldritch Horror, on the other hand, is BRUTALLY DIFFICULT. I've only won this game 1/3 of the time, and most of the time that we lose it's because we ran out of time like I described in the previous paragraph. You can rack up painful conditions super quickly, and then a bad Mythos card might trigger all of them at once. Also, you'll often need multiple successes on skill checks, but find yourself just rolling 2 or 3 dice. You only have a 1/3 chance of a success on a die, so probability is not in your favor. There are ways to improve your stats and add more dice to your rolls, but if you spend too much time focusing on that, you'll run out of time to solve the mysteries and win the game.

Another contributing factor is that when your investigator runs out of physical or mental health, you don't just teleport to a hospital to recover. Instead, that investigator is defeated and you have to collect a new investigator to use. And trust me, you'll probably lose at least one investigator over the course of this brutal game. But one thing that stands out is that the defeated investigator doesn't just disappear from the world. Instead, their token stays at that location, and on a future turn an investigator can visit that location and have a special encounter with the defeated investigator. The back of every investigator's player sheet has two special encounters that enable a player to gain the defeated investigators remaining equipment, spells, and other assets. These encounters are some of the best written ones in the game, so at least the crushing difficulty adds some narrative intrigue to the experience.

The back of an investigator sheet
The left side of the sheet lists the investigator's starting resources, location, and backstory. The right side shows the defeated investigator encounters you can take to reclaim their stuff.

It's possible that I'm just not very good at this game. I haven't played Eldritch Horror nearly as many times as Arkham Horror, and I may simply be unfamiliar with the strategy. On the other hand, I haven't had this much trouble with any other Arkham Files game. But given a choice between a game that might take me 5-6 hours to win, or a game where I will definitely lose in 3 hours if I haven't already won or lost before that . . . I dunno. I'm torn.

Also, I don't think I've mentioned this yet, but Eldritch Horror only has four Ancient Ones in the base game. The mystery and research decks do a good job keeping those four Ancient Ones fresh, at least, but you'll be seeing the same faces over and over as you play. That's not a deal breaker, but it is disappointing when Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition and Elder Sign each come with eight Ancient Ones.

I've found that Eldritch Horror is a definite improvement over Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition in most categories, but it is certainly not perfect. The narrative is more consistent, but still pretty random. The game has a more consistent length, but also introduces much greater difficulty. I have more fun playing Eldritch Horror, and I enjoy the surprises, but I've also had a much harder time getting Eldritch Horror to the table than I did with Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition. It's strange, isn't it? By almost every metric, Eldritch Horror is a better game. So why don't people want to play it?

But wait, there's more. Between 2014 and 2018, Fantasy Flight released EIGHT expansions for this game! That's right, there's just as much, if not more, content for Eldritch Horror as there is for Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition. How's that for a flagship successor, huh? And so, it's time for me to review . . . most of them. I just haven't been able to get this game to the table enough to really explore the expansions, sadly. Still, I have some thoughts on most of them to share, so let's dive in.

Forsaken Lore - 2014

The first Eldritch Horror expansion comes in a small box and offers the simplest content: more of the same. You'll find a new Ancient One (Yig, the serpent god), some new monsters, a bunch of new encounter cards, new conditions, and most importantly more mysteries and research cards for the four Ancient Ones in the base game. And that's it. No major new rules or mechanical changes, just more of the good stuff that makes Eldritch Horror different. If you like Eldritch Horror enough to purchase it, this expansion is a no-brainer. You get to add tons of new content to your game without increasing the complexity. This is a slam-dunk of an expansion, and it's also the only one I own. The rest I played online or at a friends' house. B+

And speaking of the rest:

Mountains of Madness - 2014

At the Mountains of Madness is the seminal work that set the foundation for the entire C'Thulhu Mythos. Where Lovecraft's other short stories hint at greater cosmic powers in our universe, this story illuminates some of the ancient history. Deep inside the frigid mountains of Antarctica, near the dangerous Plateau of Leng, a group of polar explorers stumble across the remnants of an ancient race. They find evidence of an ancient war between these "Elder Things" and an invading force of alien "Star Spawn," led by a powerful being called "C'Thulhu." This novella is the reason that games like Call of C'Thulhu, Arkham Horror, and Eldritch Horror exist, and so it is fitting that it finally gets the attention it deserves as an expansion.

The main addition, as you might expect from my description, is a secondary board that depicts Antarctica in greater detail. Instead of a single space at the southern tip of the map, now you can visit all of the familiar locations from the novella. Mountains of Madness also introduces two more Ancient Ones, a host of new encounter cards, mythos cards, items, spells, and conditions, and eight more investigators for players to choose. Mechanically, it introduces two new things. The first are "focus tokens." As an action, a player may take a focus token, and then they can spend a token to re-roll a die. it sounds simple, but if you are sitting in one location trying to close a gate, research a clue, or draw a certain type of encounter, you may find yourself wasting actions. Focusing is an excellent addition to the game, and it really goes a long way toward mitigating some of the oppressive difficulty.

Another new addition are "preludes," special cards that add a little extra variety during set up. They represent the way the world as a whole is responding to the Ancient One's threat, and can provide some extra help or hindrance to the investigators. They may even trigger an "adventure card," which provides some extra narrative objectives for the players to pursue. Interestingly, the Antarctica side-board is only really used with certain Ancient Ones , or if you decide to play with a prelude that requires it. So you can use this expansion's mechanical additions without tacking on an extra board, which is great if you don't have a terribly large table!

In general, Mountains of Madness is a lot like the Dunwich Horror expansion for Arkham Horror: 2nd edition. It draws inspiration from one of Lovecraft's most well-known stories, but it barely changes the the structure of the game. It just adds more. I'd say you could skip it, but I REALLY love the focus mechanic. That one piece more than makes this expansion worth it, in my book. A-

Strange Remnants - 2015

This small expansion introduces new investigators, new monsters, new spells, new preludes, a bunch of new adventures. But the two coolest additions are special "Mystic Ruins Encounters," which allow you to explore places like Easter Island, the Great Wall of China, and Chichen Itza, as well as the new Anceint One: Syzygy. Prior to this expansion, every "Ancient One" in every Arkham Horror game has been some sort of cosmic entity. If things do not go well, that being will literally set foot on Earth and wreak havoc. But Eldritch Horror's Ancient One mechanics enable other options. Syzygy might sound like a made-up word, but it's actually an astronomical term for a conjunction or opposition, such as when the sun and the moon are on opposite sides of the Earth during a lunar eclipse. In game terms, instead of trying to stop an eldritch being from coming to Earth, the players have to stop a powerful magic spell that utilizes a particular alignment of planets and stars. Which is super cool! This expansion does not add much to the game, but what's in here is pretty fun. B+

Under the Pyramids - 2015

The second large expansion also includes a board, this one focused on Egypt. Like the other expansions, it adds new investigators, Ancient Ones, conditions, spells, mythos cards, and monsters. There's also some new adventures and preludes. But, frankly, that's it. This expansion doesn't add new mechanics or change the core gameplay in new ways. If you want more Egyptian themed stuff in your Eldritch Horror game, or just want to change up the game a bit, this isn't a bad expansion. But it's one you could certainly skip. C

Signs of Carcosa - 2016

Sorry, haven't played it. I'll have to skip this one, which is a shame because showcases a fascinating Ancient One named Hastur. Hastur is an Ancient One whose power causes people to question their perception of reality. Oftentimes the proper strategy for tackling other Ancient Ones will not help you against Hastur, and I'm curious if that still applies in Eldritch Horror. Guess I'll need to try it sometime.

The Dreamlands - 2017

Okay, time to come clean. I played a game with this expansion, but only in the most technical sense. We were using three other expansions as well, and this one just sort of fell into the mix. We didn't use the special Dreamlands side board filled with strange locations, nor did we use either of the new Ancient Ones for this set. I can't say much except that it exists, and it adds more stuff to the game.

Cities in Ruin - 2017

This is another expansion where we included the components but didn't focus on the new elements to the game. Despite that, the major new mechanic has a profound impact on the game that changes it entirely. Massive environmental disasters can reduce cities to rubble, alter coastlines, and more. It's terrifying, stressful, and a fascinating addition to the game. I would love to play more games with this expansion! A

Masks of Nyarlathotep - 2018

I haven't had the chance to try this expansion out yet, but I like what I've seen so far. This expansion adds the usual extra cards, investigators, and ancient ones, plus relevant preludes, adventures, and more. But it also introduces my favorite mechanic from Arkham Horror: Personal Stories. At the beginning of the game, you receive a unique card that provides some extra background about your investigator, and then has a success and fail condition listed. If you fulfill the success condition, you get a small bonus, while if you fail you'll be hobbled for the rest of the game. I've always found this to be a really fun and thematic way to make the characters feel more alive, and I really want to give that a try in Eldritch Horror. This expansion also provides rules for a campaign mode where the players must face 6 Ancient Ones in succession. In case, you know, you haven't had enough of the game yet! Still, this seems like a really cool expansion, and one I want to try.

And that's all of them. More than anything else, these expansions add more. More cards, more investigators, just . . . more. You're not going to find huge mechanical changes in these expansions, just different places to explore and relics to find.

There is one last point I'd like to address: Eldritch Horror is a lot like Mansions of Madness in that setting up the game can be fairly time consuming. It's more than just shuffling a bunch of decks and sorting the tokens. Building the Mythos deck is a fairly precise process, and messing that step up can ruin the experience. I have one friend who played a game of Eldritch Horror where they just shuffled up all the Mythos Cards, like you would in Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition. Without that key in-game timer, the game lasted over five hours, which is just too much. So if you're going to play Eldritch Horror, the owner needs to take 20 minutes or so to set up the game while everyone does something else. On the other hand, Eldritch Horror promises a more robust and coherent story than Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition. In general, I think that trade-off is worthwhile.

Ultimately, Eldritch Horror is a challenging cooperative game that offers a far more coherent narrative than Arkham Horror: 2nd edition. You will literally feel like a person barely clinging to life as you try and stop an impossible horror from destroying the world. For that reason alone, Eldritch Horror succeeds. After writing this review, I'm actually kind of sad that I haven't played this game more. Despite the challenge, I think there are a lot of cool things to discover, and I think it would be really fun to incorporate more of these expansions and try out the different preludes and adventures. Even the absurd campaign introduced in the final expansion sounds kind of fun! But I think the most important thing is that Eldritch Horror respects your time as a player. Your games will generally always last about 2 or 3 hours, which is definitely on the long side, but not unreasonable for heavily thematic game like this one. You should play Eldritch Horror.

In 2013, it seemed like Eldritch Horror was the ultimate successor to Arkham Horror that we needed. It fixed Arkham Horror's worst problems and streamlined the overall experience. And yet, there was still something missing. It still felt more like a disjointed series of random encounters. Thematically linked random encounters, but still randomly organized. Then in 2016, Fantasy Flight released a new game that changed everything. Join me next time when I review Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

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