A Brief Introduction to Arkham Horror

(Note: post was started last weekend, so the dates are a little off)

As of a week and a half ago, I’m done with school. I took my last final, graded a ton of exams, and promptly got on with all of the things that I didn’t do because of classes. The most concrete of those was that I started work at Zanbato the following Monday, but more importantly, I’ve been playing lots of games. I played Magic: The Gathering for the first time in perhaps a year, and Friday night, several friends and I met to spend 4 hours losing horribly at Arkham Horror, yet absolutely enjoying it. It’s a slow game, but let me give you the pitch for why you should come by to play with me. Simply,¬†Arkham Horror is a cooperative, adventure board game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft where you fight monsters, close gates to other worlds, and try to avoid going insane before The Ancient One comes to devour Earth. Let me break that up.

First, Arkham is a town in Massachusetts that’s at the center of many of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. If you don’t know Lovecraft’s work, you are perhaps familiar with the Cthulhu, which has become part of pop culture since he was writing in the early 20th century. His style is somewhat hard to describe, but in his world, there are horrors beyond the ability of humans to comprehend, and the characters of his story often encounter extraterrestrial and fantastic creatures in the course of their adventures. My friends and I often joke about how unoriginal he is between his works, with his descriptions at best being as explanatory as “eldritch” or “non-euclidean”, or more typically of the “horrors beyond all description” variety. Even so, he developed a rich mythos that should capture your imagination and shouldn’t leave you scared out of your wits if that’s not your preference. All of his work is now apparently free and available online or in ebook format.

This mythos gets compacted into a board game, where the monsters you fight are all Lovecraft classics, and various encounters are pulled straight out of his stories. I played Arkham Horror before reading his work, and now having read it, I find the game much more amusing as I recognize the references.

Second, it’s a cooperative board game, which means that all of the players are working together to “beat the board.” Unlike many other board games that require you to go after and knock other players out of the game, this game has a common goal for everyone. This makes it easier to get into the game as there is no conflict of interest in players helping newer players to learn. Like in Craps, everyone around you is on your side as you roll the dice, and at the end of the game, there’s either a sense of shared triumph or shared humility.

Third, it’s an adventure game, so you play as an investigator running around between various locations in Arkham and temporarily through gates into other worlds. Every turn, new monsters appear on the board as gates open from Arkham locations to other worlds, and your goal as a team is to close all of the gates by traveling to other planes, hopefully before the Ancient One comes for the final showdown. Along the way, you have encounters at each location, typically inspired by actual Lovecraft stories. The game can be very capricious and is typically very cruel, where you must roll a dice to determine whether you receive the pretty bad or very bad outcome. Although the rules are quite complex, the actual choices can be made without needing to think too hard about it. On the other hand, it requires a lot of coordination of actions, and you’re welcome to strategize as much as you want.

Once, Arkham Horror might have been categorized as a serious board game, but I get the sense that it’s become a bit too mainstream for true board game snobs. But that’s probably for the best, and it’s at least a good vote of confidence in the accessibility of the game. The main downside to the game is that it is slow. Games can easily take 3-4 hours, especially if you’re either new or not playing particularly quickly. But even 4 hours of crushing defeat can be fun as a shared experience among friends. If you’re around, let me know if you want to try it out. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.

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