All the world’s a stage for Eldritch Horror

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The conventional wisdom about Eldritch Horror is that it’s more streamlined than its predecessor Arkham Horror, which was Fantasy Flight’s sprawling, finicky, shoggoth-esque co-op monstrosity of investigators rolling dice to make combat checks and evasion checks and counting how many monsters are out and, oh look, we’ve just lost horribly to some Ancient One or another because we’re at ten, no, nine monsters on the board so let’s keep going, oops, no, ten, I forgot to count the sky box. And it is. Eldritch Horror is far more streamlined, partly because Fantasy Flight hasn’t yet turned it into a mule for their inevitable add-ons.

But there’s something more important at work here. Eldritch Horror is so much better than Arkham Horror for a reason much bigger than mere streamlining.

After the jump, he’s got the whole world in his claws.

Eldritch Horror plays out on an expansive board, full of empty space. Arkham Horror’s board is crammed with the detail you’d expect in a town of dark streets and narrow alleys and haunted houses. Make your claustrophobia check. It’s a board of dusty corners and patches of light besieged by gnawing swarms of squirming rat-like detail. But Eldritch Horror’s board offers plenty of room to drop gates, monsters, and clues without everything getting swallowed by detail. It’s wide open. In fact, I almost wish the Eldritch Horror board included some sort of printed reference in the extra space, like the turn order or maybe a list of the mythos card icons. Wait, no I don’t! It happens pretty quickly that I learn the icons, that I can zip along the turn order, that I know the four stages of resolving a reckoning action without having to look them up. Eldritch Horror is indeed more streamlined than Arkham Horror and it happens much sooner that I don’t have to look stuff up anymore. So I’m happy for all the extra room on the board, for all that space to stack up monsters, to move investigators, to easily spot the clue tokens I need to collect and the gates I need to close. There aren’t many boards this generous with their real estate, this willing to give you the negative space needed to make the detail more important. With Eldrtich Horror, Fantasy Flight demonstrates that sometimes good production values can also be discreet rather than loud or busy. Here the Pacific is as wide as the Pacific should be.

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And that’s what this map is all about: the world. The wide open world and the yawning gulfs that separated its cities in the early 20th century. Taking a few turns to get from Easttown to Uptown in Arkham Horror doesn’t really mean anything to me. Here I am, walking down the street. Walk, walk, walk. But the travails of getting from Shangai to London are part of what makes Eldritch Horror a perfect period piece for Lovecraft’s mythos. The Heart of Africa wouldn’t be the heart of Africa if it weren’t hard to reach. And don’t get me started on Antarctica. Eldritch Horror gives you reasons to go to remote places and it forces you to contend with its gameplay systems to get there. Geography horror isn’t what it was in the old days. Eldritch Horror is the old days.

But my favorite thing about Eldritch Horror’s board is how it immediately establishes and constantly reminds you of the stakes. Arkham Horror took place in a single town, with add-ons stitching other town boards to the side like some unholy districting golem. Elder Sign — you want to talk about streamlining? — was only a single museum. Yeah, sure, the world ended if you failed those games, but it was completely extrinsic to the action. You had to read some flavor text somewhere to know the world had been devoured. But now that the world is laid out before you, it is both the stage and the stakes. This is where you’re fighting. This is what you’re fighting for.

And it’s a fantastic map for how it flows. The Arkham Horror board was a squat tree of arbitrary relationships. Ma’s Boarding House is adjacent to the Historical Society. Arkham Asylum is one street over from Velma’s Diner. You’re ping-ponging around from one place to another, often looking at what you can reach in one turn and shrugging. “I suppose I might as well go to Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. No, wait, the Silver Twilight Lodge.” There you are, walking down the street.

But in a geography horror game like Eldritch Horror, movement is an important part of the gameplay. The differences among rail lines, shipping routes, and paths into the wilderness play a big part in what you do every turn. Can you reach Istanbul in time to close the gate before the stars turn in the sky? Furthermore, certain investigators, monsters, equipment, and events have unique relationships to different types of locations, or even to specific locations. For instance, the sailor Silas Marsh gets an extra die roll on sea locations. A police crackdown will only take effect in cities. The Cthonian always appears in the Heart of Africa. Serpent People will draw investigators towards the Amazon. Rail lines will get you around America, Europe, and Russia, but it takes ships to travel the southern hemisphere. Arkham Horror felt like a collection of connected boxes. Eldritch Horror feels like an actual world with meaningful locations.

Each city, for instance, has encounters that focus on one aspect of the game. London is the place to go if you want to bring out more clue tokens. Head to Shanghai if you want to improve your character’s lore skill. Arkham and Buenos Aires each teach you a different type of spell. Tokyo will help you clear monsters off the board. Arkham Horror did something similar, but without as much focus. Each location could do a couple of things, but was also likely to do something else entirely. The city encounters in Eldritch Horror aren’t so random. Here’s hoping Fantasy Flight doesn’t dilute this with their inevitable add-ons. They’ve brought a map of the world to life with gameplay. It’s theirs to kill with their business model.

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I also like how much personality the monsters have. A shoggoth isn’t just something that’s tough to beat. It’s something you have to beat in one whack or it might heal itself up before the next turn. You don’t fight the color out of space, which always darts away to Tunguska when it appears; you just hope you get lucky before it drives you crazy. Is there any creature as hated and then adored as a mi-go? It flies around the world, devouring the precious clues you need to beat the game. But when you finally kill it, it drops a powerful artifact. Oh, mi-go how I hate/love you.

The map also plays differently based on which of the four Ancient Ones you choose as your overall goal. Each of these gods has a different set of rules and objectives, a different overarching structure for your game. Here, too, the map is important. Cthulhu will present madness-based challenges from the sea, whereas Shub Niggurath sends you to wilderness locations to fight monsters. Four Ancient Ones might not seem like many, but there’s plenty of variety and randomness for each god. They all have their own decks for resolving clue tokens, and they each include four objective cards (three will come into play for any game). Furthermore, two of the gods have entirely separate decks associated with one of the four objectives.

The bigger issue for Eldritch Horror getting repetitive is the mythos cards. You resolve one mythos card each turn, and they’re drawn from a fairly small pool. These are more prominent gameplay beats than the cards for the Ancient Ones, because they show up in every game and one is resolved every turn. They drive many of the game’s systems. Yet the mythos cards start to repeat too quickly. If there’s one area where Fantasy Flight failed at replayability, it’s the small number of these cards. But to their credit, here is another example of how the gameplay is more carefully tuned than it was in Arkham Horror. In Eldritch Horror, as you’re setting up the game, you seed the mythos deck with different types of cards at different intervals. This metes out more carefully the random disasters, the negative effects, the flow of monsters, and the clues necessary to beat the game. There’s still plenty of randomness. It’s just tuned randomness.

The different Ancient Ones are also distinct for how they focus on different gameplay concepts. Yog Sothoth drinks magic and therefore plays out as a game about spells. Azathoth is mostly about dimensional gate management. It seems like every other Shub Niggurath encounter involves some demonic goat-like creature offering you a dark pact. Which always seems like a great idea at first. So if I take a dark pact, I can get rid of any monster on the board? Or if I take a dark pact, I can draw an artifact? Or if I take a dark pact, I can move the doom marker back one notch? Awesome. Sign me up!

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Dark pacts are a perfect example of how Eldritch Horror uniquely handles negative conditions. In Arkham Horror, a curse or an injury or a madness effect would always have the same effect with the same resolution. It was just another die roll with a known set of outcomes. But the negative conditions in Eldritch Horror involve a degree of uncertainty and even discovery. When you’re afflicted with a negative condition, you take a card from the stack without looking at the back of it. There are several versions of any given effect, so you won’t know which one you’re getting until it comes time to flip the card. For a simple madness effect, that means failing a will check. For an injury, that means failing a strength check. For a dark pact, that means rolling a one on a six-sided die. That’s never going to happen, right? I mean, really, a one? What are the odds? Of course you took the dark pact.

It’s not until you flip the card that you discover the true nature of your malady. Maybe your paranoia means you just lose a point of sanity and discard the card. Big deal. But maybe it’s the version of paranoia where you attack a nearby investigator or murder one of your ally cards. Ouch. I’ll leave you to discover what’s on the other side of the dark pact cards. It’s not pretty. Are you prone to rage-flipping the table during a boardgame? Don’t take a dark pact. Trust me.

Spells work similarly, which is a really cool expression of magic. A gun or dagger is always going to add the same value to a combat check. But magic isn’t nearly that consistent. You won’t know the price of your spell until you cast it, at which point you flip the card and find out which version you got. Sometimes it means spells work better than you expected. Other times it means they’re duds. Or, worse, backfires. What a great way to model magic as something other than +2 to your attacks.

Eldritch Horror is as good a co-op game as you could ask for, so long as you’re up for rolling a lot of dice and spending a few hours doing it. There are important gameplay changes that make it better suited for co-op play than Arkham Horror. The player order never changes, but players can decide who will go first before the turn begins, which also determines who gets afflicted — or blessed — with effects specific to the lead investigator. Furthermore, each player gets to do two actions in a row on his or her turn. Some of the actions can even be performed by another player. This means every turn has an interactive puzzle quality as the group tries to work out the best way to proceed. First, you come over here and give me the shotgun, then I’ll go over there and fight that nightgaunt so she can close that gate. Or I’ll roll to buy equipment, but then you come over here and help me out if I get into debt. Or you go first so you can try to get me out of this jam with the local authorities from last turn. Arkham Horror had a touch of that, but Eldritch Horror is designed for new types and degrees of player interaction. Does it slow the game down? Perhaps. But it’s the good kind of slowing down. Slowing down to make group decisions is almost never a bad thing.

Of course, this is also a wonderful solitaire game. Other players add to the social element, which is its own kind of value. But if you just want to fire up an engine that cobbles together Lovecraftian narrative bits on a meaningful map of the world, Eldritch Horror plays just fine with as few as one player. And it achieves far more than Arkham Horror’s parochial fiddly bits and bobs. Why stay in your dark and cluttered hometown when you can save a world worth caring about for gameplay reasons?

  • Eldritch Horror

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • Inspired by the bestselling board game Arkham Horror, and set in the same eerie mythos, Eldritch Horror presents a unique, globe-spanning adventure for those intrepid souls brave enough to embark on the journey.
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