Last year, my prayers were answered, in part, because Fantasy Flight delivered a game that has nearly the perfect mix of complexity, accessibility, and brevity, wrapped in a Lovecraft theme. Eldritch Horror has become the Lovecraft game, in my humble opinion. It’s s phenomenal design in almost every way: it delivers a game that, with four, lasts only about an hour and a half, and most importantly, it comes closest to delivering on the promise of a Lovecraft experience where players feel the dread and the hopelessness that embodies Lovecraft stories, or at least as well as I believe a board game ever can. What I mean by that last part is that most Lovecraft stories are about the characters themselves, their fear, their dread, and an unseen force. The “good guys” rarely win, and most of the time they either lose, go insane, or run for their lives. They are most certainly not about four heroes fighting off an Elder God directly, but rather the true conflict in the stories are about people realizing that there’s far more out there than meets the eye, an unseen force, and their ability to rationalize it and overcome their own horror. This is a systemic failure in the board game design community, if that even exists, because with a rich and prolific catalog of stories to choose from, Lovecraft-themed games always seem to revolve around this idea that there’s some heroes doing heroic shit versus an all-powerful evil entity.
It’s got to be hard to make an interesting game that has no real direct conflict, and that is more about trying to get the hell away from the realization that there’s something malignant in the universe and that it has a name. So, what we’re left with is a bunch of wankers trying to kill or banish something more infinitely powerful and eternal than the human mind can truly comprehend. I think one could certainly make a “Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective” type game that gets the theme truly right, but most people never read Lovecraft and think that “Mi-Go” is some reference to turn order. So, this myth that Lovecraft is about heroes beating up an Elder God seems to persist in the minds of players, and much to my dismay, with designers. But perhaps this is an argument for another day, so, I’m going to shut up now and get back to the review.
First, this game is co-operative, and if you don’t like co-operative games, unless you’re one of those people that has to win to have fun you should try this anyway, because it’s so tight of a game design that it may change your opinion. What makes it such a good design, in my mind, is that it is one of the few co-operative games that I’ve played that doesn’t become an optimization exercise. There’s a story being told, and you have a great many options on how to get from point A to point B. It’s far more Castle Ravenloft than Pandemic, and character development is front and center. It’s similar to Talisman in that respect, because you really need to spend the time buffing up your dude or you’re never going to win, but with the added pressure of bad shit going down all around you that requires keen management, unlike Talisman which is more “open world”, so to speak. I’m firmly convinced that co-operative game players all suffer from some sort of masochistic need to “see what bad shit happens to us next” as well as a manic hopefulness to “overcome that bad shit”, and this game delivers on both of those promises in spades, because there’s lots of bad shit happening, and lots of options on how to overcome it.
One thing worth mentioning here is that while the art is pretty much on par with Fantasy Flight’s other products in the Arkham Horror range, the components are really rather subdued by FFG standards. There’s no “extraneous plastic shit” in the box, and there’s really not even that many tokens and whatnot in there. It’s quite the experience to not have to go buy a 3600-series Plano box to load everything into, especially for an FFG game. I think it all points to their minimization of things, with making things smaller and better. The board, however, is not small by any standard. It’s a pretty massive affair, and instead of spanning a city as with Arkham, it spans the entire world. The board looks like an old map of some kind, with overlays on it, and I really dig the aesthetic they went for. It really does change the whole “vibe” of the game into a much larger, more expansive sort of feeling. All in all, everything’s really good, and it is so good, in fact, that it irritates the shit out of me that FFG seems to have discontinued their pre-painted “Arkham Investigators” series of models, which would’ve looked fantastic on this board. Anyhow, let’s talk more about the game’s merits beyond the physical, yes?
Eldritch Horror is a game that can be played solo, if you prefer that sort of thing, which is one of the only things that bugs me about it. If you can play a game by yourself and have mostly the same experience, then it leads to the question, “then why do the players matter?” This is a question I always ask myself when playing co-operative games, and I think from that perspective, co-operative games are simply a double-edged sword in that respect. Reading cards in spooky voices or in a faux-serious tone does not a good story make when you’re by yourself. White clad men and padded rooms may ensue if you’re ever caught. Still, if you’re looking for a story, this is the board game equivalent of reading a story, and your characters are the ones telling it, whether you do it alone or with friends.
I’m sure that at this point, you want to know why I think this is better than Arkham, the proverbial gold standard for Lovecraft games. Well, that can be boiled down to one sentence: It delivers a better experience, with less overhead, and a far shorter learning curve, in half the time. It, in my opinion, is tantamount to taking Arkham Horror, boiling it down until all of the detritus floats off, leaving only the meat and the fat (where the flavor is) left in the pot. It’s not so much a new game as a distillation of Arkham, to be sure. The good news is that they cut out the parts of Arkham that made it a slog, and they did so with the precision of a world-class surgeon. The result is a tight playing, fast moving adventure game with a Lovecraft theme that delivers plenty of tense and exciting moments, and stories that you will remember. It’s arguable that part of the reason Arkham is so popular and influential is that you have to make a significant time investment in it, and therefore the stories are more memorable because of the value you place on them, having spent so much time developing them. Well, my counter-argument is that you get the same experience, but in a shorter time, and with less time investment but you are left feeling satisfied just the same.
Now, the one major flaw in this game are the same flaws that most games of this nature seem to have: There are simply too few location-specific cards. In the first three plays of this game, I saw each and every card in the game’s decks that weren’t specific to the chosen enemy. Basically, each evil deity has its own deck from whence the main story comes, so it delivers a new experience every time you play against a different deity. That said, the locations all have cards as well but that are present during every single play, and thus as you travel around the board, you’ll soon find that you’ve met up with the same fez-wearing agent who said the exact same thing to you, but in different places, which hurts the storytelling quite a bit. Once you’ve played this ten times, you’ll have literally seen every card in the entire game, deity-specific and all, so then what? You either accept that you’re going to see the same cards and the same “non-player characters” every single time, or you’re going to need to buy an expansion. But even with expansions, you’re going to see the same original set of cards over and over. So, it’s quite the conundrum, and sadly, I think we all just have to accept that the medium of board games is very limiting in this respect. So, we just keep hitting that expansion “pipe”, hoping to get the same high as we did the first time, like with so many things. Expand, expand, expand.
So, as you might have guessed, the “Forsaken Lore” expansion is, in my opinion, an absolute necessity in order to not break your suspension of disbelief and to keep the game fresh, because it contains enough cards in it that you will be able to play three additional times without seeing every card. If I was the designer, I’d be putting out a veritable sea of small expansions for Eldritch Horror, and on an ongoing basis, because this game’s story is totally driven by them, and without a copious amount of them, the replay value is diminished greatly. If you decide to go get this game, don’t just play the base game. Include this from DAY 1. It doesn’t add any sub-plots or anything, it’s a true “expansion” that just gives you more of the same. What doing this ensures is that you will have a longer time between seeing the same card again, so you will not have that sinking feeling that I had when I saw a card the second time. It’s like delaying death, so to speak, and I am a big fan of delaying death.
Now that you know what I hate, ;et’s talk, for a moment, about why I love this game, shall we? The first thing that I love is that there is a huge risk-reward mechanic going on. There’s a great many instances where you’re faced with two options, one of which gives an immediate kick to the sack, and the other which will put you at risk of a bigger kick down the road. Whatever you choose sticks with you for at least a long while, or in some cases, the balance of the game, which is awesome because it feels like it delivers continuity and realism, in some ways. The main driver for this is in the “condition” cards, which is a set of cards that grant players bonuses or disabilities. That’s pretty novel, but what’s even more novel is how they work in practice: they have icons on them that have an effect during certain phases of a round, and so you can never be sure when the shit is going to hit the fan. Thus, you may think you’re being clever now by taking a condition card to avoid an immediate problem, but down the road, that very condition may be what causes the end of life on Earth, smart guy. The implementation is absolutely brilliant, and it is one of the main reasons I think it sets itself apart from both Arkham and other adventure games. It all makes sense in terms of narrative, such as being hit by a car that speeds away, so you can either end up with a broken leg condition card or spend a turn waiting in the hospital. You can lose your next turn, or you can take this broken leg card which limits what you can do, and might just kill you later. It’s a stroke of genius, in my opinion.
Another clever bit is that there is no player elimination in Eldritch. If your investigator is killed or driven wild-eyed, bat-shit crazy, you simply flip the card and pick a new one, starting from scratch. The penalty is that you are mid-game, gates opened everywhere and demons spewing forth, and you’re no longer this hardened investigator with lots of experience, you’re this n00b asshole who is way out of his depth. This is a huge change from Arkham, where if you’re devoured, you get to sit and watch other people play the game for two more hours. Granted, it’s uncommon, but it happens, and when it does, it sucks. Now, there are some who would argue that just dipping into the breadbox and picking a new investigator breaks immersion, and I’ll grant that there’s truth to be had there, but I’d far rather have a momentary reset in my suspension of disbelief and then go on to play with another investigator than have my suspension of disbelief be destroyed by the realization that I’m not actually an investigator, I’m dead, and I’m now sitting watching other people have fun. Sadly, board gaming as a spectator sport is sorely lacking in almost all cases.
Speaking of board games as spectator sport, there are very few things which irritate me as the old-school designs that force players to sit with their dicks in their hands for ten minutes PER PLAYER whilst awaiting their turn. That’s not a game of anything but attrition, and I can’t abide it, despite liking games that err on the side of complexity when needed to make the game more interesting. With Eldritch, you get the best of both worlds; the game is relatively complex, delivers the ability to create more complex strategies and rewarding smart long-term thinking, but the turns are blazing fast. This is not a case of “the obvious move is X, and it’s always obvious” as much as it’s about there being unlimited choices but all of them taking only 10 seconds to perform. It’s much more about clean design and about players mitigating risks than it is about obvious moves and optimization. It’s brilliant in this regard.
I really could go on and on about what I like about it, such as how player stat buffs are handled, how locations work, how the board is laid out (which is truly the dog’s bollocks), how movement is handled, and how buying items works, but I reckon you can go read the rules yourself if you’re so inclined. The fact is that I’ve been waiting for this very game for quite a long time, and FFG finally delivered something that’s just shy of perfect. It’s even possible that the Christian Petersen Plan is to make a bunch of card expansions, or even large expansions à la Arkham, both of which would be fine by me, and both of which would fix the one problem that I think keeps this from being the perfect game of its kind. As of this writing, there’s the Forsaken Lore small expansion I spoke of, and the Mountains of Madness large expansion which I just got off of Amazon as I was writing this and that I can’t wait to play.
If you’re already bought into Arkham Horror and you’re a fan, hey, stick with that. This is a better game, by far, but with a thousand dollars into Arkham, it would be stupid to start up on Eldritch and begin the money pit cycle again. They are relatively similar in terms of gameplay, and if you’ve already bought the whole Arkham collection, you’re comfortable with the rules and fiddly bullshit that goes along with playing it, so this isn’t going to buy you anything but a couple hours per game. But, if you hated Arkham for whatever reason, found it too hard to learn, too hard to play, and want a similar experience in a tighter, cleaner package, this is absolutely the way to go with it. We all really loved it, despite one of the players being so stoned out of his head that he could hardly figure out when it was his turn or not, which could have soured my first experience with the game as it has with so many others.
Why Eldritch Horror Is The Stuff Of Legend:
– Great components and art, without component overload, make this beautiful and simple
– Condition cards are a brilliant mechanic that should be in virtually every adventure game, ever
– The game is complex in its scope but not at the player’s level, making it interesting but brisk
Why This Game Is A Horror, Sans Eldritch:
– Like all Lovecraft games I’ve played, it’s too focused on conflict instead of existential horror
– The replay value of the game with regard to the story is limited substantially by too few cards
As far as Lovecraft-themed adventure games go, this is the one for me. It does everything I liked about Arkham as well or better, and it takes out all of the things I hated, like remembering when and how to move monsters. The scope of the game feels larger as well, since it’s not limited to a city, making it feel more “epic”, more like an Indiana Jones film, than Arkham. All in all, I believe that over the years, this will replace Arkham in all but the true believers’ hearts.