quelle horreur – encore encore

So, towards the start of this series, I wrote a blog post about Arkham Horror in which I observed it probably wasn’t worth getting the follow up game, Eldritch Horror, because they were sufficiently similar that you couldn’t really justify a place for both in your gaming collection. A little while after that, I wrote a second post in which I explained that I had, in fact, bought Eldritch Horror despite having Arkham Horror because I’d got sufficiently tired of Arkham that Eldritch felt it would be a whole new game. This will (I hope, although that might be optimistic) be my last post about the game and I’m going to use it to talk about, well, all the expansions. Because I have now bought all the expansions.

As with several of my other board game posts, I’m going to do the conclusion first. The Eldritch Horror expansions are definitely worth buying if you play a lot of Eldritch Horror. If you have a limited board gaming fund then it’s very hard to justify a set of expansions some of which, on their own, cost as much as a new, standalone game. That said, if you do have Eldritch Horror and are considering investing in expansions for it, here are my thoughts.

What I Said Before

To some extent, this post is going to start off fairly uninterestingly in that I more or less stand by some of the predictions I made in my last article in which I suggested that the core design structure of Eldritch Horror made it significantly more future proof than Arkham Horror had ever been. The new expansions add a host of new cards, some add whole new game boards, and of course they also add new characters, new mechanics and new Ancient Ones. But the game is designed such that it is technically against the rules to use all of the new stuff at once. I mean, yes you could decide to play a game with the Egypt and Antartica boards both in play but since those boards are tied to either specific Ancient Ones or specific prelude cards (of which more later) you’d either need to be flagrantly ignoring the rules or vastly limiting your game setup in order to do so.

This genuinely fixes about half the problems I had with the post-expansion Arkham Horror. And while it’s a bit weird to spend £50 on an expansion for a board game only to find that the rules tell you to use the key feature of that expansion one time in twelve it’s actually strangely liberating. The point of that kind of massive game is that you can’t experience it all in one sitting. But if you have the option to throw everything in together you usually feel like you should. Even though you, well, probably shouldn’t. A rules setup that forces you to ration the use of your shiny new toys for the sake of game balance actually means you get a lot more out of them in the long run.

I will say that Eldritch Horror isn’t completely without feature creep or expansion bloat. There are far more conditions to keep track of in the expanded game and the spell deck has a whole lot more chafe in it. And some of the new features sometimes feel like deliberate distractions in that there are a lot more things you can spend your turn doing that aren’t trying to solve the mysteries and stop the Ancient One. Of which more, well, now.

New Mechanics

Because I picked up the expansions pretty much in bulk (I blame Xmas) I’m not really capable of identifying exactly which mechanics are introduced in exactly which expansion, especially because several of them are introduced multiple times. There are basically four key new mechanics that get introduced over the whole of the—for want of a better word—expansion cycle of which two unambiguously make things better, one arguably makes things worse, and one is, in all honesty, a bit of a toss up.

The first mechanic that undeniably makes things better is focus. Basically, as one of your actions (as well as moving, shopping, buying tickets and so on) your characters now have the option to focus. This gives you a little token that you can spend to re-roll a die or, in response to board or card text, spend to receive some kind of bonus. People who’ve played either Arkham Horror or base Eldritch Horror will recognise that this is functionally very similar to the way clue tokens work. Essentially clues are a lot of harder to get hold of in Eldritch than they were in Arkham—they spawn more rarely, you have to have specific encounters before you can collect them, you can’t pick up more than one in a turn, and they’re often vitally important for advancing mysteries. As a result, the re-rolling dice and trading for snackies function of clue tokens is hardly ever used. It’s very rare that you’ll want to spend a clue token to roll an extra die on a test when you know you might need it to stop Cthulhu eating the world in three turns time. A focus token is basically a clue token that you can only use for the ‘nice to have’ functions that clue tokens could be, but in practice never were, used for.

This is just a brilliant quality of life feature. Between resting, acquiring assets and focusing characters now always have a least two things to do on their turn, even if they need to remain in the same space in order to have another go at a gate, a clue, or a mystery. Prior to introducing the focus rule, I’d often found that characters were left with a spare action.  And now they aren’t. Which is great. In fact, I’d say that focus tokens improve the game so much that it’s worth introducing the rule even if you don’t buy any of the expansions. It’s trivially easy to substitute eldritch tokens, small change or jelly beans for focus tokens as needed and they just make the whole game run more smoothly.

The other mechanic that unambiguously improves the game (though it’s impact is substantially less than that of the focus mechanic) is the introduction of cards which advance the current mystery. You win a game of Eldritch Horror by resolving ‘mysteries’. Each Ancient One gets a deck of cards, and each card describes a spooky thing the Ancient One is doing that you are looking into. Once you’ve spent enough clues, or visited enough ocean tiles, or killed enough monsters or had enough special encounters, the mystery resolves and you’re one step closer to winning the game. The thing about this, though, is that pretty much anything you want to do that doesn’t directly advance the mystery is less useful than anything that advances the mystery. And, to an extent, part of what makes the game difficult are the various sticks and carrots it uses to try to distract you from the task at hand.

This can become problematic because sometimes advancing the current mystery will require resources that a particular character simply does not possess or have any practical means to access. The ‘advance the current mystery’ mechanic adds cards to the games’ expedition deck and to some otherworld and research encounters that simply ‘advance the current mystery’ (they have flavour text as well, obviously, otherwise it would be terrible). So if the current mystery is defeat a monster, those cards damage the monster, if it’s to gather clues, they give you clues and so on. This has the affect that if you can’t do anything about the current mystery (and I’m aware I’ve said current mystery a lot, that’s the downside of talking about game mechanics) you can at least go through a gate or on an expedition and have a small but non-zero chance of advancing the current mystery anyway. This makes those sort of activities feel more proactive and less like filler. Which is good.

The mechanic that I feel might make the game worse is called impairment. Basically, impairment is the opposite of improvement. One of the things I liked about base Eldritch was that your character’s stats tended to increase over the course of the game and you tended to have a certain amount of control over how they increased depending on which locations you visited. If you want to improve your influence stat to make you better at shopping, you can head to Istanbul and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have an encounter there that improves your influence stat. This remains more or less true, even if you play with all the extra cards from expansions, but there’s now a mechanic whereby some cards (and, most problematically to me, some location encounters) can reduce your stats instead. Part of me feels that this is perfectly fine. Playing this kind of game is, after all, about taking the rough with the smooth and having your character’s stats impaired is potentially more interesting than losing health or sanity or just getting killed outright. And I have no problem at all with impairment when it’s a consequence of, say, making a terrible pact with an eldritch being or leaping through a gate to another universe. I have more of a problem with the stat impairing encounters that occur on the named city spaces on the game board.

Previously, if my character didn’t have anything to do I could quite productively go to, say, Sydney and try to have an encounter that improved my body stat. Post-expansions, if I do that, there’s actually a non-zero chance that I’ll have an encounter which impairs one of my other stats and if I’m really unlucky, doesn’t improve my body either.  Now, in some ways I suppose this improves the flow of the game by making more risk-taking strategies relatively more attractive. If I can suffer permanent and lasting damage just by hanging around Buenos Aires then I might as well have a go at fighting that Hound of Tindalos or closing that gate to Yuggoth.  But the other side of this is that it means I get doubly penalised if I happen not to have a very productive turn. Not only do I have to spend a round moving to San Francisco just so I can get in position to go to the Amazon next turn, I also run the risk of suffering a permanent penalty to my willpower because, for some reason, I can’t change boats at the docks without getting waylaid by the medical examiners and forced to stare at a disturbing corpse.

I suspect that part of the problem here is that I personally respond much better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Even though on a rational level I understand that getting minus 1 to something is the same, in the long run, as losing the opportunity to get plus 1 to it, I don’t like to feel I’m being penalised. It isn’t fun (or perhaps I should say, it isn’t the sort of fun I’m interested in having, or more succinctly it isn’t fun for me) to have something taken away. I do appreciate that mileage varies massively here and that for a lot of people the fact the game will sometimes randomly screw you is genuinely part of the appeal.

The last mechanic is unique items. Unique items are somewhat unfortunately named since quite a lot of them are specifically not unique (for example, a square on the Antartica board gives you access to the dogsled unique item. There are enough of these for everyone to have a dogsled). Essentially this provides a way for the game to give you specific named resources and allies without those resources and allies being able to show up randomly in the assets or artifacts decks. This is a fairly low impact introduction. It adds a small amount of extra fiddliness because you’ve got a few new decks of cards to keep track of but with the benefit of giving you shiny new toys to play with. There is a slight peculiarity in that the unique assets that represent named characters tend to be strictly more powerful than the allies you can find in the asset deck while some of the other unique assets, especially the ones you can reliably pick up from the Antarctica board, are no better or occasionally worse. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that but it might offend some people’s sense of neatness.

Gosh, I went on about that for a long time, didn’t I? I should probably say something about the expansions themselves.

The Expansions Themselves

There are, at time of writing, five expansions available for Eldritch Horror. Three of them are cards-only expansions (Forsaken Lore, Strange Remnants, Signs of Carcossa) and two are big expansions that come with an extra board (Mountains of Madness, Under the Pyramids). Because I’ve played with all the extra mythos and encounter cards from all the expansions shuffled in together I can’t give a full separate review for each set but I can give an overall impressions based on what I’ve played and what I remember being in each box.

Forsaken Lore focuses on Yig who, honestly, I wouldn’t have predicted as the first God to get the expansion treatment, although I think they actually made a quite a good call in that one of the strengths of Eldritch is that each ancient one feels interestingly different to the others. And snakes everywhere is a fairly obvious theme. (Thinking about it, I might be inclined to remove the Forsaken Lore encounter cards the next time I play a non-Yig game because they’re often quite explicitly snakey). Perhaps the most important feature of FL is that it adds extra mystery cards to the Ancient Ones from the main box (it is also the only expansion that does this). This is quite important because the Old Ones in the base game only have about four mysteries each and you need to solve three to beat them, so you’ll have seen all their mysteries after you’ve encountered one of them two or three times. FL not only adds an extra Ancient One for you to fight, it also extends the lifespan of the base game. I’ll also add that pretty much all of the expansions add extra encounters to the location decks, meaning that if you pick up any one or two of them you’ll be much less likely to cycle through any given deck, even if you spend the whole game hanging out in central Europe.

Mountains of Madness is the first big box expansion and introduces two new Ancient Ones (Ithaqa and Rise of the Elder Things) as well as the Antartica game board. It also very importantly introduces the prelude mechanic which is almost a meta-mechanic for managing expansions, which is why I didn’t mention it in my run down of the mechanics above. Basically, at the start of the game you can draw a “prelude card” which will change the setup in some way. Maybe everyone gets the opportunity to take an injury in exchange for a clue, or to improve some stats and impair others, or something. One (and only one) of these cards tells you to set up the Antartica side board. If you don’t draw that prelude, you don’t use Antartica, unless you’re facing the Rise of Elder Things Ancient One or, y’know you really want to. While I’m on the subject of the Elder Things, one of the, um, things I really appreciated about MoM was that one of the two Ancient Ones it introduces isn’t actually a mythos deity at all. It’s the collective action of one of the minor mythos species (specifically the Elder Things, although I’m assuming you could have worked that out from the title). Toward the end of its run, the Ancient Ones in Arkham started to feel like a mostly interchangeable set of tentacly blobby things with mildly differentiated mechanics. And I was pleased to see that Eldritch stepped firmly away from this by giving you the option to play a game where you face, essentially, an alien invasion rather than a big squoogly god monster.

They doubled down in this approach to the Ancient Ones, in the next expansion, Strange Remnants, in which the Ancient One isn’t an entity at all: it’s a cosmic alignment.  Your characters run around the world poking at ley lines and messing about with Stonehenge. The last small expansion, Signs of Carcossa, goes back to the big named deities in that it pits you against Hastur and I honestly don’t have much to say about Hastur. I’ve only played half a game against him and, partly because we decided to try playing two player, it wound up being brutally difficult.

The last big box expansion (so far, anyway) is Under the Pyramids.This sees you going to Egypt to fight either Nephran-Ka or Abhoth. This is probably super nerdy of me but I was interested to notice that Nephran-Ka (to the best of my understanding, and this is mostly RPG canon, rather than actual story canon) is technically an avatar of Nyarlathotep which suggests to me that, rather than making Nyarly one of the Ancient Ones you fight they’re going to include several different masks as independent options. Which makes a lot of sense to me and also explains why he wasn’t in the core box. It seems fairly clear that, by this point, they’ve got their core mechanics sorted in that UtP basically doesn’t introduce anything that’s not in MoM.

Final Thoughts

I think basically you probably already know if you want to own all the Eldritch. I suspect that the only undecided people reading this might be those who had the base game, were considering buying the expansion but were worried about overcomplicating things. If I had to recommend any one of them, it would probably be Forsaken Lore simply becausae it expands the base game more directly and, as I mentioned earlier, I’d strongly recommend house-ruling in the focus mechanic even if you don’t have Mountains of Madness. It’s interesting to note that, having gone back and checked the rules, the impairment mechanic (the mechanic I was least enthusiastic about) only appears in SoC and UtP so if you want to avoid getting arbitrarily hosed maybe move those expansions down your pick up list.

I think I have, on the whole, been really impressed with the expansions for Eldritch because they go to a lot of effort to put a lot of detail into quite small parts of the experience. I mean, yes you only get one Ancient One in a small expansion, and two in a big expansion, but each individual Ancient One comes with three or four custom decks of cards (Abhoth, for example, has one just for the Spawn of Abhoth, which replace cultists in his games). And it’s that attention to detail that I appreciate the most about the whole Eldritch Horror experience. And that keeps me coming back to play it when I’ve long since tired of Arkham.

Anyway. Thanks for reading. I promise I’ll write about something other than Eldritch Horror soon.

Although The Dreamlands expansions is coming out later this month so, err, maybe not.

people & cardboard

3 Responses to quelle horreur – encore encore

  1. Pam/Peejakers says:

    It’s probably weird that I so enjoyed reading this amazingly deep & complex analysis of expansions to a game I’ve never played! I think I just like reading your amazingly deep & complex analyses in general 🙂 Also your turns of phrase, I particularly liked “interchangeable set of tentacly blobby things with mildly differentiated mechanics” 🙂 And forgive the immaturity, but I was unreasonably amused by taking things out of context like “I can suffer permanent and lasting damage just by hanging around Buenos Aires” and “I could quite productively go to, say, Sydney and try to have an encounter that improved my body stat.” I’m so sorry *is 12*

    Anyway, I actually also did find it interesting, the like, actual things you’re saying I mean 😉

    I’m so old-school, about games, since I’m err, kinda old, and haven’t really played in ages. The idea of having house rules that don’t officially exist in the game seems like, revolutionary, man! Haha, yet when I think back, I guess we did *sort of* do this, unconsciously and not explicitly, back when I played games with my family. More in terms of having unwritten rules that we didn’t do things that seemed “mean” though, I think 🙂 But I like this idea, of introducing the focus thing as a house rule even without the expansions, it seems like a simple but cool way to improve the game experience.

    I would probably substitute Hershey chocolate kisses for the focus tokens. But then I’d eat them. Which wouldn’t be good 🙂

  2. Lennan Adams says:

    I have basically no idea what you are talking about but I love your game reviews sooo much anyway. I really look forward to them. You are so cool and I’m sorry you were forced to look at a disturbing corpse. ^^

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