Reviews

Board Game Review – Eldritch Horror

“Mr. Rivest?”

“Who’s asking?” I didn’t look up from my drink. Didn’t ask the kid how he managed to find me in this rundown speakeasy. How wasn’t important and I already knew the why, though I swear I wish I didn’t.

The kid stammered a moment before he finally managed to spit out, “Courier, Sir. Got a package here for Kyle Rivest. I just need you to sign for it….” He trailed off.

I brought the glass up to my lips and held it there long enough to make sure I’d gotten everything it had to give. The barkeep scowled at me when I nodded toward the empty glass, but poured all the same. “Maybe I don’t want any package. What happens if I don’t sign for it?”

“D-don’t sign for it?” Judging by his confusion this was not a common occurrence.

“Kid, the best thing you could do right now, for me and for you, is take that package down to the docks and throw it in the river. Forget you ever saw me. Forget you ever touched that, and believe you me, you don’t want to know what’s inside.” I’m not sure why I was being so hard on the courier. To be honest, I’m not always sure of a whole lot anymore. It wasn’t as though he’d done anything other than try to do his job. Poor kid had no idea what kinda hell he was carrying in box wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string, neat as you please. He hadn’t seen the things I’ve seen, and if he’s lucky he never will.

He swallowed hard and turned pale. “Throw it in the river, sir?”

I sighed, starting to feel guilty. “Look, just–just put it down here,” I gestured at a mostly clean stretch of bar. “I’ll sign.”

The courier ran off so quickly after getting my John Henry you could almost wonder if he’d ever been there at all. Except for the package he left behind, of course. The return address didn’t have a name, just a city: Arkham.

Eldritch Horror box art
Eldritch Horror
Fantasy Flight Games

Eldritch Horror is the latest game inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos to come out of Fantasy Flight Games. Previously they’ve released a revised edition of the board game Arkham Horror — originally published by Chaosium in the late ‘80s — as well as Mansions of Madness, the Call of Cthulhu living card game and a dice game called Elder Sign. In most these games players take on the role of investigators attempting to prevent the awakening of an ancient evil which, if unleashed, would likely cause the world to descend into madness and chaos. As with much of Lovecraft’s works these games are set in the 1920’s in or around the New England city of Arkham. With Eldritch Horror the threat has become worldwide, requiring investigators to travel the globe as they seek to contain the Elder Gods threatening to enter our world and devour the minds and souls of all those unfortunate enough to survive their coming.

Full disclosure: I’m already a big fan of FFG’s various Cthulhu Mythos themed board games. So, while I’ll do my best to be objective, the fact remains that I am, at the very least, enthusiastic about FFG’s explorations of Lovecraftian horror.

Contents

The package sat on my nightstand unopened. Mocking me. I couldn’t say why I hadn’t simply left it in the bar.

I couldn’t say why didn’t dump the damned thing in the river myself. Some misguided sense of responsibility, no doubt. Just the sort of thing likely to get a person killed. Or worse.

I sighed to myself, tore off the package’s brown paper wrapping, opened it and spilled the contents onto the unmade bed.

It was mostly of  neatly arranged dossiers containing blurry photographs, newspaper clippings, documented eyewitness accounts of things too horrible to be believed unless you’d witnessed similar yourself. All that I was sadly familiar with already, though these were collected from all over the world not just New England. Along with the dossiers was a map of the world, locations corresponding to each dossier conveniently marked out. A passport, genuine so far as I could tell, as well as travel vouchers for various rail and passenger ship companies.

The final two objects hit the bed with a bit more weight than the rest. One was small book hand written in some language I was unfamiliar with, though the script was nauseating to look at. The other was a .38 revolver, which I quickly tucked into a coat pocket.

I almost feel like Fantasy Flight shouldn’t get credit for the quality of their game pieces because it’s pretty much a given at this point.

Eldritch Horror has one game board, a rulebook, a reference guide, four dice, sixteen Investigator and Ancient One sheets, two-hundred-fifty-seven tokens made from high quality cardboard and three-hundred-and-three cards. If you’re the kind of dork — like me — who gets excited about games with a lot of pieces who doesn’t mind the half-hour set-up required when you’re first learning to play, Eldritch Horror has you covered.

The Eldritch Horror board is a map of the world rendered in browns and tans and made to look somewhat weathered. Other than the few specific cities and bits of wilderness marked by their own unique full colour artwork, the board isn’t’t really all that interesting to look at. However, the muted tones also make it really easy to pick out the path or location you’re trying to find. Function rules over form in this case and it was the right choice. I can’t say how many times I’ve played Arkham Horror at this point, yet I still have occasional trouble quickly locating specific spaces on its more cluttered and colourful board.

As with other FFG board games,  all the tokens in Eldritch Horror need to be removed from their punchboard before you can play. Everything came out easily without requiring a blade to avoid tearing or otherwise damaging a poorly cut token. Almost all the tokens are brightly coloured and easily distinguishable from one another, even the two types of travel tickets. The only issue thus far has been with the Lead Investigator token, which is of a similar size and shape as the various character tokens thus making it easy to overlook if stored together.

All the cards are beautifully rendered with full colour artwork and easy to read. If they were mixed together, it would be annoying to have to separate all the condition and spell cards, as both only have text on the back and other than their rather thin borders are very similarly coloured.

My absolute favourite components in Eldritch Horror are the Investigator Sheets which are unique to each of the twelve investigators and made to look like passports. It’s such a fun, minor detail which really helps to communicate the theme of the game.

Gameplay

It was too late for me to do anything for the wretches in that church basement. Far too late. They’d long since given into madness. I’m not sure if I killed any in the fight to escape. Maybe that would’ve been a blessing. I just grabbed their idol from the altar and ran, firing as they tried to grab me. It’s a lucky thing I managed to get out of there at all, let alone in one piece. That sort luck doesn’t come often. I need to be more careful in the future.

Right now, though, I need to skip town. Those cultists will be looking for me.

The object of Eldritch Horror is to travel the globe collecting Clues and solving Mysteries. The game is designed for one to eight players working cooperatively against the game so that everyone wins or loses as a team. Solve enough mysteries — generally three — before the Doom Track reaches 0 and you prevent the Ancient One from arising and inflicting madness and destruction upon the world. If the Ancient One awakens  players still have a chance to defeat it and win the game, but it becomes much more difficult to do so.

Players choose from twelve unique Investigators. Each investigator has a range of scores in five skills which are used in a variety of Tests and encounters with Monsters. Investigators also have special abilities, unique possessions and each begins on a different location on the board. Finally, Investigators begin play with a certain amount of Sanity and Stamina tokens, representing their overall physical and mental health. As the game progresses, encounters will deplete an Investigator’s health. If either Sanity or Stamina reach zero, that Investigator is removed from play.

Each turn is divided into three phases, an Action Phase, an Encounter Phase and a Mythos Phase. The Action Phase allows players to travel between locations, acquire new possessions or rest, replenishing vital Sanity and Stamina. There are a variety of Encounters such as combating Monsters, collecting Clues, resolving Mysteries, travelling through other dimensions or even finding fallen Investigators. Finally, the Mythos Phase introduces special goals and challenges, causes new Clues appear, opens new Gates to other dimensions spilling Monsters into the world and changing the Omen potentially advancing the Doom Track.

Eldritch Horror is relatively simple to learn. The goals are obvious and well spelled out, making it easy for first time players to catch on. The most complex aspect of the game is the combat system, which is slightly obtuse and requires a bit more math than fighting Monsters in Arkham Horror.

The majority of Encounters involve Tests in which the player rolls a number of six sided dice equal to the score of the Skill on their Investigator sheet which correlates to the encounter. Results of 5s and 6s are successes. Generally the player only needs one success to pass the Test. The diversity of the Investigators means that some are going to find certain aspects of the game easier than others. Investigators with a high Lore Skill are likely to find Magic very useful to them, while those with high Strength and Will Skills are going to be the most adept at combat. While there are means to improve an Investigator’s Skills, the opportunity isn’t always available. Some Investigators are certainly better suited to support roles than others. Figuring out how best to contribute is an important aspect of the game.

There are four Ancient Ones, each of whom alters the set-up at the beginning of the game. Each Ancient One has four Mysteries which are the key to preventing them being awakened. Each Mystery is played one at a time and requires the Investigators to complete certain tasks before moving on to the next. Though the Mysteries are random, there are only four for each Ancient One and players need to complete at least three to win the game. Meaning that players are guaranteed to become familiar with the Mysteries with repeat games. If their history is any indication, Fantasy Flight Games will introduce expansions for Eldritch Horror, including new Ancient Ones and new Mysteries. But until that happens the game doesn’t have the same replay value as even the base-versions of Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness.

Single Player

The rocking motion of the train and clatter of its wheels against the track did nothing to help me sleep. Of course, I’d barely managed to sleep a wink since Istanbul. That thing… Even now, days later, I still couldn’t tell you what it was. It’s there, on the edge of my thoughts, but I can’t make it out. Probably better that way. It didn’t like the words from the book though, that’s for certain.

Where before it turned my stomach to just be near the thing, the book has become a comfort to me in recent weeks. I can almost make out the words now. Just a bit more research.

My train is headed south. There’s going to be an expedition in Antarctica which might provide insight into the Ancient One’s weakness, but I don’t know if I can spare the time it would take. I get the feeling that it’s running out, and Antarctica could be a fool’s errand. If there was someone I could trust to look into things while I was gone, that would be a different story, but so far as I know, it’s just me.

I don’t often exercise the single player option when board games provide it. Board games are a very social experience for me, so generally when one can be played solo, I only do so as way to learn it for myself so we’re not all stumbling through the rules when I introduce my friends to the game.

Eldritch Horror tailors the difficulty to the number of players in a given session. So during solo play there are much fewer Monsters than there would be with eight people sitting around the table. Conversely there are also fewer Clues to collect, which are often integral to solving Mysteries.

Though the rules state that you’re supposed to choose the Investigator you want to play as, when testing Eldritch Horror I picked mine at random — a habit picked-up from Arkham Horror. I learned fairly quickly that playing the right Investigator is really important in a single player game. It’s not so much that any given Investigator is “better” than another. Some are highly specialised making them really good at one aspect of the game, but a fairly obvious weakness as well. There are also Investigators which have been designed to play a support role, providing other Investigators with tools to make their job easier. In a multiplayer game, support and specialisation are huge advantages if played properly, but they’re somewhat less robust on their own.

During the Mythos Phase, quite frequently, the player designated the Lead Investigator for that round of play will be the subject of a special event. Occasionally the consequences of this event are beneficial, but more frequently they’re not. In a multiplayer game, the players choose who the Lead Investigator is each round, but for solo play you’re the Lead Investigator every round. A string of detrimental Mythos Cards can be a huge setback.

Multiplayer

The woman handed me back my map with a new location marked in red ink. “According to my research, that’s where the island will appear sometime within the next six days. I’m sorry, but that’s all I have to offer. I’ve been on the run since San Francisco. You should avoid travelling there if you can.”

“No, this is good. This is enough,” I tried to assure her. Her findings only confirmed the rumour I’d already heard. With the location of the island, I was actually allowed myself a moment of relief.

She hadn’t given me her name and I hadn’t asked, but in her eyes I saw a kindred spirit. Someone else who’d been dragged in over their head and was fighting just to stay afloat. She hadn’t asked for this life any more than I had but we were both in it now. Still, I hesitated a moment before reaching into my pocket and producing the amulet I’d been holding on to. “Here, I found this in a trinket shop,” I said as I pressed it into the woman’s palm. “The shop keeper charged me way too much and told me it would ward off evil. Maybe the damned thing will work better for you than it has for me.” She gave me a weary smile then we finished our drinks and parted ways — it would be dangerous to be seen together again.

As the number of players increases, so too does the challenge. Solving Mysteries requires more Clues though more Clues do appear. More Monsters spill forth from Gates to harass the investigators. Perhaps most importantly, there are simply more Gates.

Each Gate has one of three Omen symbols on it. Every time a Mythos Card indicates, the Omen changes. Players count up the number of open Gates with the corresponding symbol. For every open Gate matching the new Omen, the Doom Track advances one space. Now, even though there are more Gates, there are also more Investigators who could potentially be working at closing Gates before the corresponding Omen occurs. The problem is that, unlike Arkham Horror, closing Gates doesn’t contribute to victory unless required by a Mystery. It can be very easy to focus on trying to solve the current Mystery and neglect the Gates until a new Omen appears and suddenly the Doom Track jumps several spaces.

Investigator selection is just as important in the multiplayer game as it is for solo play, though it becomes more important to recognise your role so you can work as a team. If the player whose Investigator is well suited for fighting monsters wants to spend all his actions acquiring Assets despite having a really low Influence Skill, the group might run into some problems. Though it might be tempting for every player to choose the most well rounded Investigators — the ones you’d want for a solo game — the advantage of picking a team of complementary specialists and support Investigators might be the easiest route to victory.

Theme

I took another pull from the bottle, hoping to dull the whispers. The book was calling to me again. If I closed my eyes, I could see its pages on the back of my eyelids. The words came unbidden to my mind any time focus slipped.

Too much. It was all too much. My leg wasn’t healing well from the injury I’d taken in Buenos Aires, if my fever was any indication, it was likely infected. But there was no time to rest. If what I was hearing was true, cult activity was escalating. Riots in Rome. A horrific beast had apparently washed ashore in Sydney. An expedition to Tunguska, all killed except for one of the party, and the lone survivor had clawed his own eyes out and refused to say what they’d found. A report came over the wire that a woman matching the description of the one whom I’d given the amulet to had been found murdered in Tokyo.

At this point I know we can never truly stop the evil from awakening. I’m no longer even sure we can delay it.

An important aspect of games which have a theme element is how well the gameplay communicates that theme through its mechanics. For a Lovecraft inspired horror game like Eldritch Horror, major elements are going to be overwhelming oppression and inevitability. Though that might not really sound fun in concept, the idea of struggling against impossible odds to prevent an unspeakable horror from devouring the world does hold a certain appeal.

Eldritch Horror finds a really good balance of being challenging without being so difficult that there’s no hope of success. As the game progresses, the board fills up with more tasks that need to be addressed. Players need decide what needs to be dealt with right away and what can potentially wait until the next turn before it becomes a real problem. Attempting to solve the current Mystery while slowing the advancement of the Doom Track can pull players in different directions. Poor decisions can prove to have dire consequences while a string of success makes victory seem not quite so impossible.

The investigators are obviously a big part of the game. Players familiar FFG’s other Lovecraft themed titles will likely recognise several of the Investigators, as they’ve all appeared in Arkham Horror and its expansions as well as the Call of Cthulhu living card game. The continuity between games doesn’t have much real impact on gameplay but seeing familiar names and artwork on the Investigator sheets was almost reassuring. Along with their Skills, starting location, Special Abilities, and Possessions, each Investigator sheet also has a few short paragraphs about who the Investigator is and their back story. Again, not much impact on the game, but it makes the Investigators more than just game pieces to move around the board.

Also on the Investigator sheets is a special sort of Encounter should they lose all their Sanity or Stamina and be defeated. One of the aspects of Arkham Horror is that when an Investigator runs out of Sanity or Stamina they lose a turn and some Possessions then end up in either the asylum or the hospital. With Eldritch Horror, a player whose Investigator has succumb to madness or injury is required to pick a new Investigator. It’s a much more effective means of portraying the consequences of battling the Ancient Ones and their minions. Though you can still have one Encounter with a defeated Investigator, claiming all their Possessions and perhaps even reversing the Doom Track advancement that occurred when they fell, tthey’reno longer available for player use.

Final Thoughts

I stare up at the stars and am aware of my own insignificance. The universe is a cold and cruel place, unconcerned with our little hopes and dreams. Our little lives.

I’m not fully sure what day it is. To be honest, couldn’t even say where I am. It’s all such a blur. None of it is important. The book whispers to me and I know that I’m about to make my last stand. All the omens confirm it. At midnight, the planets will be aligned, and the enormity will be unleashed. Though I have no delusion that I’m going to save the world, I refuse to go give up without a fight.

Eldritch Horror is a lot of fun. The game pieces are well crafted and feature some striking artwork. The mechanics are designed to convey the feeling and tone of the source fiction. Though I do have some concern about the game’s replay value over the course of several sessions due to the seemingly small number of Mystery cards associated with each Ancient One, it doesn’t detract from the game the first few times through.

If you’re a fan of Arkham Horror or a fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the other authors who’ve contributed to the Cthulhu Mythos, or even a fan of comics inspired by the Mythos, like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale, you would not be remiss in adding Eldritch Horror to your game collection.

About the author

Kyle Rivest

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