Arkham Horror is a great experience when it strikes the elusive balance between punishing difficulty and successful, rewarding progression.
One in a series of Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham Files board games inspired by the horror author H.P. Lovecraft, Arkham Horror is among the more action-oriented titles in the bunch. The games share some thematic and gameplay similarities but vary in their play experiences and content quite a bit in practice. I had no experience with the game’s previous editions, so I went in blind – save for general Lovecraft mythos knowledge – and got absolutely crushed time and again. I loved (almost) every second of it.
Arkham Horror is an action-focused board game that incorporates light RPG elements and card game mechanics in its torrent of cosmic horror. Every game begins by selecting a campaign, which dictates the possible story routes, game length, difficulty, and certain game mechanics specific to the campaign. Each part of the campaign-specific main story unfolds via meeting specific conditions, which usually involves accumulating a certain number of tokens – clues for positive and doom tokens for negative outcomes.
After selecting a campaign, the players pick their investigator characters – each with their own strengths and weaknesses – and try to form a team that works well together and fits the needs of the campaign. Adventuring across the city of Arkham, the players solve mysteries and fight off various Lovecraftian abominations by rolling dice based on various stats of the involved parties. Arkham Horror progresses in cycles of four phases (see image above) and the game’s difficulty shows especially in the Mythos Phase, where each player draws two random tokens which are likely to make the players’ life even worse. This is a game where the odds are always firmly stacked against the player and loss is a very real possibility.
The game creates an atmosphere of desperation where nearly every move feels like a last-ditch effort against an all-powerful enemy. This constant walk on the razor’s edge of presenting just the right level of challenge is both the greatest strength and drawback here. Arkham Horror works when you feel both vulnerable in the face of indescribable horrors and like your careful teamwork has real impact upon success. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. The game has a tendency for a snowball effect: if the negative outcomes keep stacking, they can easily become too powerful to reasonably overcome in time. The playing time often gets out of control as well – our longest campaign lasted well over six hours. These quips aside, I’ve been really pleased with the game. It forces you to utilize the characters’ synergies to the fullest and compensates player amount with increased difficulty, its race-against-time nature necessitates difficult decisions and prioritization, and it even manages to be very immersive despite its number-crunching core design.
Designers: Richard Launius, Nikki Valens, Kevin Wilson
Artists: Justin Adams, W. T. Arnold, Anders Finér
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Release Date: 2018
Number of players: 1–6
Playing time: 2–3 h
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