Is Mountains of Madness add-on the beginning of the end for Eldritch Horror?

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No one can kill a game like Fantasy Flight in their scramble for another buck. Witness Arkham Horror, an already clunky game bloated to maddening proportions of awkwardness with Fantasy Flight’s successive add-ons. If ever a game was worthy of Lovecraftian adjectives like nonEuclidean or Cyclopean, it’s Arkham Horror with all the add-ons. Trying to play will surely drive you mad.

But unlike many of Fantasy Flight’s bloated franchises, a wonderful thing happened with Arkham Horror. It got a reboot with Eldritch Horror, which shaved off the cruft, refocused the gameplay, and restored to cooperative (or solitaire!) gaming a sense of design. It felt like a company trying to make a good game rather than a company trying to make a buck milking a franchise. It felt like redemption. Ah, Eldritch Horror.

You can’t help but wonder how long it will take Fantasy Flight to destroy it.

After the jump, it begins.

A few of the changes in Mountains of Madness, the first big add-on for Eldritch Horror, don’t make much sense, and they seem thrown in for no other reason than to change things. For instance, gates in Eldritch Horror are how monsters are placed on the board. An event card will tell you to place a gate, and it then spawns a number of monsters based on the number of characters in the game. Gates are also an integral part of the game clock for how they interact with the omen dial and the doom track. It’s a simple and elegant system for how you have a stack of nine gates, each corresponding to one of the major cities. This is also a facet of Eldritch Horror’s geography. Gates open in the big cities, and as the gate stack dwindles, you have a sense for which cities will be next. It’s almost as if the Ancient Ones have a plan, as if they’re some sort of malevolent cosmic intelligence bent on destroying our cities.

But Mountains of Madness adds new gate tokens to the stack for wilderness areas. Wilderness is a meaningful part of the geography for how it’s harder to reach than cities. Wilderness is also the domain of the game’s expedition system, which ties into powerful artifacts. It is its own distinct geography and terrain. So if you’re the type who thinks it’s a good idea to just mix things up — “Let’s make it interesting!” you might say as you throw out some new house rule because you find elegance boring — you’ll probably think new gates in the wilderness is a cool idea. But if you’re the type who really admired Eldritch Horror’s restraint and simplicity, and its sense of geography and character, you might be nonplussed at this change as you truck off into the heart of Africa to fight a byakhee.

Similarly, there are now cards that trigger positive effects during reckoning stages. Every turn in Eldritch Horror closes with a mythos card. Each Ancient One — that’s the elder god who sets the stage for a lot of the gameplay, the rough equivalent of a scenario — has a specific mythos deck set-up, which determines how many reckoning stages will hit you. These are the times during the game when accumulated negative effects fire off, like afflictions, nasty monster abilities, Ancient One powers, and the horrible “rumor” cards, each of which is a countdown to some sort of calamity you’re trying to prevent. Reckonings are bad news. But for some reason, Mountains of Madness throws in cards that do good things during the reckoning stage. Again, it’s not a big deal, but I’m a bit nonplussed as to why they’re doing it that way. “Let’s make it interesting,” Fantasy Flight says as I draw an ally who gives me a free gun every reckoning stage or a special funding card that gives me some sort of material benefit if I’m in a city during a reckoning stage. I guess now I’m kind of hoping for a reckoning stage?

Preludes are another example of “Hey, what do you say let’s make this interesting?”, and I’m again nonplussed. There are only six prelude cards, and the idea is that you draw or choose one before you set up the game. If you want. It’s up to you. Just pick one. Or make it random, whatevs. Mountains of Madness is limp-wristed about actually designing some of its components into the game, opting instead to just dump some modules into your lap that you can use if you feel like it. Or not. It’s up to you.

So these preludes are just starting variants that make the game easier. Or harder. It depends on which one you choose. Or draw, if you decided to draw them. Hey, let’s all start with an ally. Hey, let’s each take a mission when we select our character. Hey, let’s begin the game with a doom track that moves faster. “What do you say let’s make this interesting?” As if being elegant or simple is dull.

The Antarctica board is the worst of Fantasy Flight’s feature creep. This is what eventually killed Arkham Horror, which was already a clunky design, made increasingly clunky with successive add-ons jostling for someplace to fit in, for something to change, desperate for some pricey sideboard action regardless of whether it fit, or made sense, or broke existing mechanics. Antarctica isn’t even a core part of Eldritch Horror. It only comes into play if you use a specific prelude card or if you fight a specific Ancient One. Otherwise, it sits unused in the box, an expanse of mounted cardboard that keeps this from being a smaller and more affordable add-on like Forsaken Lore, the minipack of additional cards that is Eldritch Horror’s only other add-on.

The new sideboard consists of six sites that fan out from the original board’s Antarctica site. These new sites have unique character, representing an expanse of frigid wilderness with survival challenges you can mitigate by taking the time to get sled dogs, provisions, and guides. With the new geography comes more gates, more clue tokens, and more adventure cards. There are scenario-specific reasons to come down here, but you can also more easily find artifacts down here. At the far end of Antarctica is an escape chute to the rest of the board so you don’t have to slog back the way you came. Convenient.

The physical sprawl is a bit obscene. My gaming table can handle almost anything I can throw at it. It cannot gracefully handle Antarctica. There is no easy way to add the region to any reasonable sized or shaped table. Furthermore, storing Eldritch Horror is now a matter of multiple boxes. There is no way the original content and Mountains of Madness, which comes in a box just as big as the core game, will fit in one box. You are now resigned to a game that lives in multiple boxes.

There’s even a temporal sprawl. Because Antarctica sticks a chunk of geography onto the bottom of the world, and because geography takes time to cross, both scenarios that use Antarctica add extra time to the game. You either have to solve more mysteries before winning or you have to play with adventure cards that mess with the game clock.

But is this bulge of bloat bolted to the bottom of the world thematic? Sure, I suppose. It’s a brand new wilderness adventure based on At the Mountains of Madness, which you might know as the story that established the shoggoth. But is it well designed? Not really, especially if you’re looking for it to flow well with the rest of Eldritch Horror, which is well designed. This is how Fantasy Flight kills their games. By weighing them down.

My favorite part of the Mountains of Madness add-on are just extensions of things already in Eldritch Horror. For instance, you get a whole mess of new investigators, although I’m a bit puzzled about some of them. Why is the waitress a powerful magic user? Why are we getting a concert violinist when we already have a jazz musician? But you also get a really powerful librarian, a useful bootlegger, an even more useful rookie cop, and an oddly specific lawyer that I can’t imagine anyone would ever want to play. He’s got one hell of a beard, though. It even rivals the astronomer’s beard, which is quite an accomplishment!

There are two new Ancient Ones, which are basically scenario parameters. The Rise of the Elder Things is drawn out to make room for the Antarctica board, and it’s oddly nonspecific for how you have to fight a “dark god” if you don’t stop the elder things. I thought most of those dark gods had actual names. But I like how cultists in this scenario are represented as notable people who’ve been mind-controlled by elder things; when you defeat a cultist, you draw a random ally.

Mountains of Madness adds some badly needed new mythos cards, particularly the rumors I mentioned previously. There simply weren’t enough rumors in the base game. These countdowns to calamity are a significant part of any game because they’re seeded into the mythos deck in such a way that they’ll always be early obstacles for the investigators. In fact, Cthulhu was uniquely nasty because the two rumor cards would always be among the first four cards you draw. That meant that within four turns, you had two countdowns to calamity in progress, whereas the other Ancient Ones spread them out among the first four to ten turns before that would happen. Cthulhu hits hard and early. One of the new Ancient Ones, Ithaqua, hits hard and early in the same way.

I also like the new tricks with double sided cards. Double sided cards are a way to maintain a sense of mystery and surprise across multiple plays. For instance, when you cast a spell, you roll the dice and then refer to the back of the card. But there are multiple copies of each spell, each with different effects on the back of the card, and you’re not allowed to look at the back until you actually cast the spell. So when you learn Wither, you won’t know everything that’s going to happen until you cast it. Which Wither is it? That’s magic for you! You’re dabbling in the unknown. These double-side cards with variable effects are also used for negative conditions like injuries and insanity.

I love this mechanic and there’s more of it in Mountains of Madness. New conditions, new spells, and even a whole new deck of mostly double-sided cards called “unique assets”, which is a terrible name given that some of them aren’t unique at all. Sled dogs and provisions, for example, are supposedly unique assets, yet there are several in the deck, they’re identical, and there is no limit on how many you can have. “Unique” assets? It brings to mind Samuel Jackson’s query in Pulp Fiction about English.

I particularly like the four new spells, each of which is a valuable contribution to the game. Intervene and Storm of Spirits are new ways for spellcasters to contribute to combat situations. Banishment lets spellcasters simply remove monsters from the board. And Arcane Insight is a cool way to earn valuable clue tokens, which ties into items called tomes by giving the spellcaster a bonus for however many tomes she has. The idea being that she’s poring through old books. It takes a Lovecraft game to make research exciting.

Speaking of clue tokens, one of the ways you can use a clue token is to reroll a die. This rarely happens, since clues are so valuable in the larger scheme of things. But there might be times that a die roll is important enough that you might burn a clue token. Or two. Or all of them. There’s nothing quite so disheartening than wasting all your clue tokens chasing what should have been an easy die roll, but them’s the breaks in Lovecraftian horror. Mountains of Madness adds a new concept called focus. Investigators can spend a turn getting a focus token, which can later be cashed in to reroll a die. Again, I’m a bit nonplussed at this addition. There is already a mechanic in place for rerolling dice. Why do we need another one? For all those times an investigator was stuck somewhere without a valid action? Now he can just grab a focus token. But isn’t being stuck part of the game? Sometimes you have to waste time to chase an objective, right? But focus tokens means you’ll never have to waste another action, because you can almost always just grab a focus token.

(It’s worth noting that Mountains of Madness — for all the cardboard you have to buy! — doesn’t include enough actual focus tokens for the player count. Yet there’s nothing in the rules as to whether this is a limitation on how many focus actions are available to players, which is a strange oversight in otherwise very well written and comprehensive rules.)

You can see Fantsy Flight flailing around trying to make focus tokens relevant by referencing them in some of the new events and even one of the new character abilities. But it just reminds me of the kind of cruft that eventually accumulated around and sank Arkham Horror. Mountains of Madness seems like the beginning of the end for Eldritch Horror.

And all of the good stuff in Mountains of Madness could have been part of a mini add-on, like Forsaken Lore, consisting of a pack of a new cards. Instead, it’s tethered to an expensive boondoggle that you’ll rarely use, indicative of Fantasy Flight being unable to keep their money grubbing fingers off a good game design.

  • Eldritch Horror: Mountains of Madness

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • The side board and over 150 encounter cards allow players to experience locations throughout Antarctica; eight investigators contribute their unique talents to the fight to save humanity; two new Ancient Ones, the Elder Things and Ithaqua, threaten unspeakable destruction; a boardgame publisher compromises the integrity of a solid game design in pursuit of more money.