So winter decided to bite back a few weeks ago and, in the midst of a relatively anaemic January, hit my city with enough snow to give one pause. Not to be dismayed, two of my friends braved the winter winds and arrived for what would be a couple of hours of Lovecraftian fun. The adventure board game Arkham Horror has a somewhat storied history going back to the heady Chaosium days of the ’80s, but the 2005 relaunch by Fantasy Flight Games stands very well on its own feet.
The game is a cooperative endeavour where each player assumes the role of a resident of Arkham with just enough pluck, skill, or bad fortune to take on a host of otherworldly baddies. Being co-operative, the big challenge of this game is keeping all the moving pieces spinning so you don’t wind up cheating the invisible antagonist at the table. Luckily, the system is robust enough to handle the occasional fumble. In our case, any errors we made were instantly fixable and had no long-term ramifications which might have made the game less fun.
And the game is fun. Be it as a shotgun-wielding author, spell-slinging asylum-bound physician, or motorcycle-riding magician waving a copy of the Necronomicon at shambling horrors, we each had a chance to step into the foetid, tenebrous world inspired by and, indeed, peppered with HP Lovecraft’s writings. Even when the tone is stepped on by an odd confluence of game mechanics and lurid description, the cognitive dissonance only adds to the overall feeling of oblique humour.
Every turn, players go around the city of Arkham or plunge head-first into the portals that keep springing up faster than Wack-A-Moles. Either way, they encounter horrors, uncover clues, or engage in some light shopping. At the beginning of the game, the heroes only have to contend with a few monsters and things are only a little weird, but if they leave the portals open for too long, the city risks becoming overwhelmed and the peril mounts at an astonishingly fast rate. Wait too long and the Ancient Horrors awake and the heroes must engage in an epic final battle and vanquish or find themselves the eschatological equivalent of an hors d’oeuvre platter. The game comes with a lot of options not only for character types but also for the final monster so there’s a lot of variety in the game play and should that not satisfy you, Fantasy Flight has kindly offered several expansions, all available for purchase.
Given the number of moving pieces, it does behoove the players to keep a rulebook handy and brace oneself for moments of frantic thumbing to find the right solution to a given, unforeseen scenario. I especially find some of the movement and combat rules a touch confounding at times in how they intersect. All in all, though, the game manages to combine the fun, meandering, and leveling-up qualities of a Talisman or a Runebound with the panicky sense of impending doom of a Battlestar Galactica or Pandemic. It gets really nerve-wracking as time starts to run out on the very literal Doom Track and Azathoth or mighty C’thulhu stirs. In our case, we managed to lull the Ancient Horror back to its slumber which was a good thing as its final boss attack was “Eats the World.”