So last week I wrote more than anyone could reasonably be expected to read on the subject of why Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is awesome (but also has a couple of minor problems). Today I hope to write slightly less (although probably still more than any reasonable person could be expected to read) on the subject of why Arkham Horror is … sort of really cool but also possibly no actual fun at all.
I’ve vaguely wanted these first few posts to highlight some things I think of as recurring features of board games. The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective post was primarily because someone was asking about 221b Baker Street. This post is mostly going to be about the two things I think undermine Arkham Horror, those being the contradictions inherent in balancing a cooperative game and supplement bloat.
Just to give you quick summary, Arkham Horror is a co-operative board game for one to eight players that, according to the box, can be played in 1-4 hours but, in my experience, clocks in closer to 3-6. Unless you lose instantly. You take on the roles of “investigators” who are attempting to save the fictional town of Arkham from terrifyingly otherworldly monsters by jumping through mystical gates and shooting things with tommy guns.
At its best, the game really strongly encapsulates the doomed and futile struggle of a Lovecraft protagonist as you stand helpless against a seemingly unending tide of horrible shit that rots your brain just by existing. At its silliest, the game strongly encapsulates the absurdity of any scenario that allows a waitress, an academic, and a stage magician to gang up and kill Cthulhu with shotguns. At its worst, the game just will not fucking end.
Anyway, onto those big themes I want to talk about.
Theme 1: The fuzzy nature of balance
In a competitive game, balance is fairly easy to define. And, boy, would that generalisation start an argument on board game geek. But, basically, a competitive game is balanced if, when it starts, every player as an equal chance of winning. Bonus points if a player’s chances of winning cannot be completely scuppered by the end of the first turn. But the “chances of winning” model of balance doesn’t really make sense for a co-op game. Everybody is on the same side and so how balanced the game is can only really be measured in terms of how likely the players are to win as a team. But, unlike in a competitive game, there’s no obvious optimal ratio. I mean, you can more or less agree that a game that’s impossible to win or impossible to lose wouldn’t be worthy of the name but, once you get past that, it’s all very, very subjective.
If I wanted to grossly over-simplify something that’s probably very complicated I’d suggest people’s attitudes to this issue fall broadly into two camps. Firstly, there are those (like, to some extent, me) who tend to feel that a co-operative game is “fair” if a group of players playing well will win most or all of the time. That is, the game is fair if you only lose because you made some kind of mistake or because the game is extremely difficult to be good at. The second group treats the game itself almost like the second player. They assume (and I should stress here that this is me categorising the opinions of people I don’t agree with, so please take this with a pinch of salt) that if the players play well their chance of winning should be exactly 50%. That is, they assume that the game has to be fair to itself as well as fair to them. To sum up the difference in a slightly less wordy way, the first group of players say “that game was so hard, it took me three tries before I could even beat it once”, the second group of players say “that game was so easy, I beat it in three tries.”
These two groups of people want fundamentally different things from a co-operative board game. The first wants a challenging but ultimately solvable puzzle and, crucially, a puzzle you can solve more or less every time, rather than a puzzle that might randomly become unsolveable for no good reason. The second wants the sense of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something you know you are unlikely to accomplish. I’d argue that Arkham out of the box pretty much appeals to the first type of player. Once you know the mechanics, it’s fairly straightforward to keep on top of monsters and gates, and get everything shut down before you’re forced to have an embarrassing and anti-climactic fist fight with a Great Old One. I mean, it still sometimes goes horribly wrong and if there was no risk of failure at all, the game wouldn’t be in any way interesting. But, generally, if you lose a game of vanilla-Arkham it’s because you either got profoundly unlucky or seriously took your eye off the ball.
I’m not sure but I think there was a consensus among fans of the game that vanilla-Arkham was too easy. I also think (and I’m also not sure) that part of the reason for this is the game’s Lovecraftian theme. And I do, to an extent, have sympathy with the position that there’s nothing terribly horrific about a game of struggling against unstoppable cosmic evil safe in the knowledge that you will almost certainly succeed. Retrospectively, the most fun I’ve had playing Arkham Horror was when the Fantasy Flight Games edition was released in 2005. Everything was new and unknown and thus scary but, crucially, the game was actually relatively forgiving and so the fear of confronting a nameless and unknowable horror never gave way to the frustration of playing a six hour board game and losing to an unlucky card draw. With hindsight, I suppose that magic was never going to be able to last and I can see why people who played the game more frequently and more intensely than I did began to crave ever greater and ever darker challenges.
Which brings me to my second issue.
Theme 2: Supplement bloat
Holy God is there a lot of Arkham Horror. As one review on Shut Up And Sit Down (and I’m aware I mention these guys lot) points out, Fantasy Flight recently released an expansion for Arkham Horror that’s actually just an expansion for the expansions. That is, the stuff in it doesn’t only need the base game, it needs expansion content. Back in the day, I did play a few “all the expansions” games of Arkham, at least all the expansions that were available at the time. They … basically made the game … worse? Okay, that’s subjective. They made the game less suited to my tastes. The thing about expansions for board games is that very often they’re just more. And sometimes this is great but sometimes it’s the last thing you want. Arkham is already a game with a lot going on. And because it uses a lot of little decks of cards it relies very heavily on getting the right thing out of the right deck and not getting the wrong thing out of the wrong deck. The more things you put into the decks, the less likely you are to get the things you need, and the more likely to you are to get something completely random. Or, given the trend towards sadism Arkham expansions tend to display, something that will totally screw you.
For example, one of the decks of cards in Arkham Horror is the other world encounters deck in which you get flavourful and sometimes spooky encounters that occur on the other side of gates. The first cards expansion (Curse of the Dark Pharaoh) added an encounter to the other world encounters deck which is simply “you must fight Cthulhu.” Now, yes, this card could only come up if you were in Ry’leh and, from a certain point of view, it’s cool and thematic (although from another point of view it’s nonsensical and totally anti-thematic as getting into a punch up with Cthulhu is just not the sort of thing that happens in a Lovecraft story) but it also just arbitrarily hoses you and there’s nothing you can do about it. And I’m sure there are some people who enjoy the feeling that the game could just shaft you at any moment but, well, I’m not one of them.
Actually, let me put that another way. I absolutely am one of those players who loves the feeling that the game could shaft you at any moment. But I only love that feeling if the game does not, in fact, shaft me at any moment. What I enjoyed so much about Arkham Horror when I first played was that it created a sense of danger without creating any actual danger. And part of me feels like the supplements are, in essence, a doomed and futile effort to recapture that initial rush for an increasingly jaded audience.
The new stuff you get in a new an Arkham expansion tends not to be designed improve the game or make it more interesting per se (with the notable of the injury and madness cards in the Dunwich Horror that make dying interesting rather than a sucky resource loss), rather they’re designed to engender a sort of feeling of scared excitement when you hear about them. Probably the best example of this is the gate burst. There are several ways to win Arkham Horror but, in my experience, the only sensible and reliable one is to seal six gates. Sealing gates is different from closing gates in that it requires the expenditure of relatively rare resources and comes with the advantage of preventing other gates opening at that location. A gate burst is a gate that will open at a location even if that location is sealed, destroying the seal, thereby setting back your victory condition and also creating a new problem for you to deal with.
In theory, the gate burst sounds awesome and terrifying, and I remember when I first found out about them being awesomely terrified. Oh my God, I remember thinking, this is going to change everything, it’s going to shake up the dynamics of the game and mean that you can never feel truly safe, even if you have five seals on the board, and the scientist with a dimensional stabiliser.
In practice, they just suck. It turns a situation in which you are two turns away from winning a game that you have already been playing for four hours into one in which you are no longer two turns away from winning but, crucially, are not two turns away from losing either. Essentially, it just sets the game back by the equivalent of about half an hour of play time just when you’re really looking forward to the thing finishing. Also it makes the situation noticeably worse right when you’re lowest on resources, but not in a way you can really plan for. It makes the game longer and harder, but not any more interesting or engaging.
The thing is, there is a part of me that still really loves Arkham Horror. I’m just not sure I like playing it any more. What it does really well is create the sense that you are fighting against an indifferent and arbitrary enemy that cares nothing for you or your kind. If it wasn’t for the fact that you can headbutt Yig to death at the end of it, this would be a triumph of thematic game design and it is, in many ways weirdly appropriate that the game itself has essentially grown into this Azathoth-like, world-devouring monstrosity: an amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles in the centre of your board game collection.
Basically, you should buy Arkham Horror if it sounds fun to spend an evening (and it will be an evening) watching a bunch of playing cards do arbitrary, horrible things to your friends while you try to achieve a never terribly well explained goal. The first few times you play it, it will probably be a genuinely amazing experience. Having just said that, it’s also worth pointing out that Fantasy Flight have since released Eldritch Horror which, as far as I can tell, is basically the same game but with some of the kinks worked out (and set across the whole world, rather than just in Arkham). This puts me in a slightly difficult position because I’ve not played Eldritch precisely because my understanding is that it’s so similar to Arkham that it isn’t worth buying both. But I also don’t really want to recommend Arkham when I strongly suspect that the other game is a strict upgrade over it.
As a final note because I know a lot of people play games with their partners, and Arkham plays pretty well with two. I’ve also heard it plays okay with one, although I’ve never tried.
As a final, final note a lot of people suggest you should buy the Dunwich Horror expansion as well because it adds some mechanics that make the game run more smoothly (the aforementioned injury and madness cards). The problem is that everything else Dunwich adds makes the game run less smoothly and, while you can use the injury and madness cards on their own (which, actually, we do) you’ve then essentially invested in quite an expensive board game expansion just to get two decks of cards which, by all rights, should have been in the main game.
Yeah … maybe best to go with Eldritch.