Lovecraftian epic Eldritch Horror got better, worse, and more confused

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Last year, I predicted that Fantasy Flight would choke their elegant Lovecraftian adventure boardgame, Eldritch Horror, with the usual glut of add-ons. This was like predicting the sun would rise in the East.

Was I right? In a fit of pique, curiosity, and indiscretion, I bought all of the expansions. I spent a day organizing everything. Labeling plastic baggies (not included), integrating the bits and bobs from six (6!) separate boxes, and trying (and failing) to fit everything in fewer than three full-size boxes. Then I spent several more days playing Eldritch Horror. I lost several points of sanity. But I have emerged to update you on my prediction.

After the jump, rumors of Eldritch Horror’s death are mildly exaggerated.

Would you be surprised to hear that in some ways Eldritch Horror is worse, while in other ways it’s better? How’s that for a bold statement? Did I mention that I’m officially predicting the sun will rise in the East tomorrow?

Let’s go over some specifics.

How Eldritch Horror is worse

1. Wilderness is no longer wild

With Mountains of Madness and Under the Pyramids, Eldritch Horror added gate tokens for the notable wilderness spaces, which used to be the exclusive domain of expeditions. Furthermore, the expeditions have now extended into cities. Who needs to go on an expedition in the Himalayas when you can just take one in Arkham while you’re loading up on spells? Who needs to journey out to the Pyramids or Antartica? Oh, wait, you do because now there are gates opening out there. The line between wilderness and non-wilderness has been blurred. A significant part of what made Eldritch Horror great was it’s keen sense of geography. Fantasy Flight has compromised that.

You might argue that the wilderness spaces didn’t have much incentive to visit them. What a silly argument. That’s the point of wilderness. You’re not supposed to have to visit it. It’s supposed to be off the beaten path. There’s a reason it’s not easy to reach. There’s a reason travel ticket rules don’t apply to wilderness.

The reason is because it’s wilderness.

Therefore, the times you did need to go into the wilderness were all the more notable. Expeditions, an almost guaranteed source of artifacts, meant going places that trains and ships can’t easily reach. Those occasional clues out in the wilderness mattered because they were out in the wilderness. Shub Niggurath holed up in the Heart of Africa mattered. The only time you’d find yourself in the Amazon is when you were lured there by Serpent People. But wilderness matters less when Fantasy Flight just throws more stuff onto more places because they see empty space as something to fill with add-ons. Now that wilderness gates open with the same frequency as any other space, they’re part of the regular rotation. They’re now on the beaten path.

2. The real estate crisis

Seriously, who has the table real estate for these bulky sideboards of questionable value? I don’t and I’m sporting quite an expanse of table real estate. Any Eldritch Horror scenario that includes the Egypt or Antarctica sideboards requires two tables. In a game that sprawls across as much table as Eldritch Horror, sideboards are just plain thoughtless. It speaks volumes that Fantasy Flight has added two of them to Eldritch Horror.

3. Design by oops

Upon reading the last page of the latest errata, I was aghast to discover written evidence that Fantasy Flight has had no idea what they’re doing.

Eldritch Horror scales based on how many players are playing. The number of investigators determines the number of gates opened, the number of monsters spawned, and the number of clue tokens spawned. Gates set the pace for the doom clock’s countdown, monsters are the main obstacles to closing gates and therefore managing the doom clock, and clue tokens are used to achieve the victory conditions before the doom clock runs out. These values feed into literally every system in Eldrtich Horror. They are the foundation for tuning the gameplay. They are the cornerstone of the design.

Fantasy Flight got them wrong.

At least they say they did. The last page of the errata — this information isn’t included in any of the add-ons — changes the equation for every single player count. You’ve been playing Eldritch Horror wrong. According to Fantasy Flight, you’ve been opening the wrong number of gates, spawning the wrong number of monsters, and spawning the wrong number of clues.

I’m not convinced. By changing these fundamental values, by jerking around the rates at which the doom clock counts down, the number of obstacles in the way, and the amount of resources available to win, they have basically conceded that either a) they had no idea what they were doing before with the values included with the game, or b) they have no idea what they’re doing now with the new values they’ve introduced. My money is on the latter. Fantasy Flight’s modus operandi is to release good designs and then screw them up.

How Eldritch Horror is better

1. Prelude to an epic

I wasn’t entirely sold on preludes when they were introduced in an early add-on. These are cards that apply some effect before the game starts, usually an advantage and a disadvantage. Basically, gain something and lose something. Some of the preludes are just a forced reason to include more cardboard. A big-ass sideboard or a set of pointless “adventure” cards as an alternative to whatever you’re already doing to advance the game.

But what started as a paltry hand of six cards has grown into a respectable deck of twenty cards (which makes those big-ass sideboards less likely than ever to come into play). The preludes serve as an early “what are you going to get?” surprise before the game even starts. With twenty different options, and with a couple of clever ones in the mix, I’m happy to have this as a third foundation for starting each game of Eldritch Horror: what Ancient One, which investigators, and now which prelude?

2. Now with added glamour

Spells are a fundamental part of Eldritch Horror. Characters with high lore skill can use them for powerful advantages. With some Ancient Ones or events, spells are useful as a resource, even if you don’t have the lore skill to use them. Previously, spells consisted of rituals you find in Buenos Aires and incantations you find in Arkham. A ritual is used as one of your character’s main actions. You’ll have to do it instead of the several other things you probably want to do. But an incantation automatically applies at specific times, such as during combat or skill tests. These two types of spells serve as a tidy magic system.

Glamour spells are a completely new type of spell. They’re almost like conditions for how they apply a constant passive effect. Astral Travel lets you move an extra space. Forced Learning doubles your skill improvements. Mind’s Eye and Enchant Weapon let you reroll dice if you’re not happy with the result. But you don’t check your lore skill when you use them. They just happen. Instead, you’ll occasionally test your lore during the mythos phase and then flip the card to see what happens. Glamour now, pay later.

(One of the new glamour spells is oddly redundant. Shroud of Shadow lets you ignore monsters. Which I know is useful, because I’ve been ignoring monsters with the Mists of Releh incantation included with the base game. Sure, they work a little differently, since one is glamour and the other is an incantation. But it’s odd that Fantasy Flight is doubling up on spell effects.)

3. No more “oh that card again”

Sometimes more is good, particularly in a game like Eldritch Horror where the amount of content in the initial box is a bit sparse. You only have to play a couple of games before you’re running into the same location encounters and the same mythos cards. With each Ancient One having so few mystery cards, they should have instead been called deja vu cards. But if there’s one thing you can say for a game with five add-ons, it’s that it sure does have more stuff. There are now plenty of location encounters, mythos cards, and even additional mysteries for each Ancient One. It’s going to take a lot longer to start seeing duplicates.

In fact, what I’ve been doing — and what’s currently in progress — is running the same team of investigators through a game against each Ancient Ones until I get a win. I’ve beat Azathoth and Shub-Niggurath. I’m on my second attempt against Ithaqua. After that, eight Ancient Ones to go! Eldritch Horror seems to finally have enough content to sustain this sort of long-term viability.

How Eldritch Horror is, uh, a little confused…

1. The new deal

Among the conditions a character can acquire are deals. This is most often debt if you want some juicy item that you can’t quite afford. Just take a debt card and hope you can shake it before it comes due. Dark pacts are deal cards that are far more insidious than debts. You take a dark pact usually to offset some awesome gain. “Psst, hey,” Eldritch Horror whispers, “I’ll give you a random artifact, plus you can improve the skill of your choice, and I’ll even let you discard a gate. All you have to do is take this little dark pact card, which only comes due if you roll a 1.”

Seems like a great deal until you roll a 1 and flip the dark pact. I can’t say for sure whether most of the dark pact cards result in your character being devoured, but I know for sure several of them result in your character being devoured.

The Strange Remnants add-on added deals called agreements. Sounds pretty innocuous. But it’s not. Some of them instruct you to reduce a character’s health or sanity to zero with the stipulation that you can’t reduce the loss. In other words, permanently dead or mad. Harsh. And given that they’re more likely to come due than dark pacts — an agreement gets flipped on a 1 or 2 — they’re arguably more insidious than dark pacts. So why are they called “agreements”? What a deceptively innocuous name for something potentially worse than a dark pact. C’mon, Fantasy Flight, this is Lovecraft; don’t get all quotidian on me. “Agreements”?

2. The mystery of Mandy Thompson’s missing decolletage

The add-ons have been adding investigators from Arkham Horror. For instance, researcher Mandy Thompson. Here she is in Arkham Horror.

Mandy_Thompson_AH

Here she is in Eldritch Horror.

Mandy_Thompson_EH

Apparently, cheesecake is no longer on the menu.

3. Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia

So what’s the deal with these Egyptian relics in the Under the Pyramids add-on? Aside from the fact that Fantasy Flight screwed up keywords relevant to the gameplay (an error they inexplicably carried over from the Strange Remnants add-on).

One of Eldritch Horror’s coolest new gameplay concepts is multiple copies of a card, each with unique backs. When you learn a Flesh Ward spell, you randomly draw one of several Flesh Ward cards. You don’t get to look at the back until you cast the spell, at which point you will discover a unique set of possible side effects depending on which Flesh Ward you drew. When you’re afflicted with paranoia, you randomly draw one of several paranoia cards. You don’t get to look at the back until you fail a will check, at which point you will discover a unique mental breakdown depending on which paranoia you drew. When you take up the Enlist the Masses task, you randomly draw one of several Enlist the Masses cards. You don’t get to look at the back until you cash it in, at which point you discover what the masses you’ve enlisted have done.

The add-ons introduced the idea of unique assets, which are multiple cards for a specific item, each with different information on the back. For instance, when you find a treasure map, you randomly take one of several treasure map cards. You don’t get to look at the back until you find the treasure, at which point you discover a unique reward. It’s a great idea. It lends items the same sense of mystery and discovery.

But Fantasy Flight seems a little confused about how they work. Strange Remnants included an Ancient Sword with an effect on the back that didn’t fire off until you killed a monster with it. But there was only one Ancient Sword card, so once you used it, you would always know what it did. What was the point of using the “flip this card when you do such-and-such” mechanic? But then Under the Pyramids added a second Ancient Sword, so now it makes sense. When you get an Ancient Sword, you won’t be sure if you got the one that restores health or the one that restores sanity.

But what about all those relics with only one card, each with supposedly hidden effects on the back? Cursed Tablet, Wooden Puppet, Ornate Scarab, Stone Calendar, Pharaonic Mask, Lost Treasure, and Jeweled Scarab will always do exactly the same thing, because there’s only one copy of each card. When you use the Cursed Tablet as your action, the text instructs you to flip the card. “You invoke the tablet’s power,” it reads, “but at what cost?” Uh, the exact same cost as always? Why these aren’t in the artifact deck is a mystery to me. Maybe Fantasy Flight will sell me more Cursed Tablets, Wooden Puppets, Ornate Scarabs, Stone Calendars, Pharaonic Masks, Lost Treasures, and Jeweled Scarabs in later add-ons.

4. I can’t quit you, babe

Okay, so let’s say you’re a big whiney baby like me and you want to go back to the elegance of the core game. You know, that version of Eldritch Horror before Fantasy Flight started piling on the add-ons. It should be pretty easy, right? You just take out all the cards with icons representing which add-on added them. There you go! Basic Eldritch Horror in all its sleek glory.

But wait, what about the components that aren’t cards? What about the gate tokens? More importantly, what about all those monster tiles? Monsters are one of the main pillars of gameplay. Eldritch Horror comes with 34 monsters. But the add-ons chucked another 32 into the mix. And that’s not counting the epic monsters (which you don’t need to, since they won’t come into play without their corresponding cards). How can I separate out the new monsters from the original monsters? Eldritch Horror doesn’t offer any solution.

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