An Investigator’s Guide to the Games in the Arkham Horror Files

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H.P. Lovecraft’s pop cultural influence is strongly linked to the Cthulhu Mythos, a collection of stories building a world of horror at the intersection of terrible cults, inscrutable aliens, and strange technology. In recent years, many people’s first experience with Lovecraft’s work has been through games rather than his fiction. Call of Cthulhu brought Lovecraft’s horrors to life as it explored a style of RPG much different than Dungeons & Dragons. The gaming legacy of Lovecraft is a major pillar in the rise of Fantasy Flight Games as well. The cooperative nature of the games, the gorgeous artwork, and the ability to upgrade and customize the experience helped put Fantasy Flight on the map while continuing the exploration of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. These games, collected under the Arkham Horror Files umbrella, appeal to different types of players while offering a chance to solve a mystery and save the world… even if is just until Cthulhu stirs again.

Arkham Horror

The original board game, created by Richard Launius, was published in 1987 thanks to the popularity of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. The game was acquired by Fantasy Flight Games in 2005 where it was revised by designer Kevin Wilson and published in a new edition. Players work together to explore locations, fight monsters, have RPG-style encounters, and close gates to prevent the Great Old Ones—Cthulhu and its godlike friends—from ending the world. Nearly a dozen expansions have followed in the past decade, and that’s just counting official releases; there are plenty of home brewed accessories and apps that help the game run smoothly.

Elder Sign

Arkham Horror broke a lot of ground for board games, but it also tends to run long (around 4 hours). Players looking for the same experience in a much shorter time frame can turn to Elder Sign. This is a press-your-luck game where the investigators explore the strange goings on in Arkham’s museum. Different encounters require different combinations of dice rolls to pass. Successful encounters give players items and “Elder Signs” to stop the Old Ones from coming through to our world. Failed encounters harm the investigators physically or mentally (or both) and change the state of play on the board. Wil Wheaton and friends tackled this game on  TableTop for anyone who wants to see how its played, and it’s also available in an excellent mobile app for stopping horrors on the go.

Eldritch Horror

Fans of the Arkham Horror Files often think of this game as Arkham Horror: Second Edition, but  Eldritch Horror is so much more. This game streamlines a lot of elements from the original Arkham Horror design while simultaneously expanding the scope of the investigation. Stopping Cthulhu in this game means  battling creatures in exotic locations around the world. Fighting Byakhee in Singapore during one turn while infiltrating a cult in Cairo the next gives this game a unique Raiders of the Lost Ark flavor.

Nikki Valens, one of the designers of Eldritch Horror and Mansions of Madness Second Edition, says, “Mansions of Madness Second Edition is fundamentally a narrative game, while Eldritch Horror is a strategy game at its core. In Eldritch, a narrative emerges from the actions of the characters, but in the end the players are concerned with winning the game and “beating” the Ancient Ones. There are strategic and tactical decisions to be made in Mansions of Madness too, but players don’t need to worry about them to enjoy the story being told by the game. In Mansions, players can win or they can lose—their characters can stay sane or they can go insane—and the players can still enjoy the narrative experience.”

Mansions of Madness

The original version of Mansions of Madness followed the template of one of Fantasy Flight’s Descent. One player plays as the Keeper, running the monsters, drawing encounters, and working against the other players as they investigate a creepy house. The second edition, released earlier this year, moved all the players to the same side, giving Keeper duties to a free app that terrorizes and hounds the players as they make their way through the mansion. A game where humanity unites against the latest technology? Lovecraft would be proud.

Grace Holdinghaus, developer of Mansions of Madness Second Edition, says “One of the most exciting elements of the Lovecraft mythos is the investigation. Reading the spells, discovering the bloody altar, opening the door to find a ravenous ghoul inside. Mansions of Madness: Second Edition takes individuals through a very personal investigation, every step of the way on screen.”

“Using the app and scenario-based play,” says Kara Centell–Dunk, another Mansions of Madness Second Edition developer,  “Mansions of Madness Second Edition allows us to tell very rich, very specific stories that immerse investigators in a narrative that can have unexpected twists and turns. The app achieves in one device what in physical space would take hundreds of cards and a living opponent, letting players unravel a mystery and interact with the story together without needing an incredibly complex ruleset.”

Arkham Horror: The Card Game

The latest release in the Arkham Horror Files brings the game full circle. Arkham Horror: The Card Game has players teaming up to investigate strange elements in Arkham and its surrounding confines using decks that represent their investigators. Each deck has flaw cards that can spring up at the most inopportune times, and actions taken in earlier scenarios can affect the available cards later in the storyline. If investigators take the time to rescue someone from the clutches of the Mythos, for example, they can add that card to one of their decks as an ally. If not, an enemy version of the card, corrupted by Cthulhu, might show up as a villain in a later game. Fantasy Flight has already announced the first few expansions, but these expansions are more like RPG campaigns or adventure paths. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is another great tool for Game Masters that want to get their board game friends to come out and try an RPG.

Nate French, one of the designers of the Arkham Horror LCG says, “One of the strongest draws of the LCG model is the extent to which players are able to customize and identify with their decks. When a player builds their own deck, it becomes a form of self-expression, and this gets the player to really care about their deck, which in this game represents their character. Establishing a world in which the audience identifies with and cares about the protagonists is an important first step in telling a horror or suspense story, and the fact that players are deeply invested in a deck they put together can really kick up the tension when bad things start to go down.”

“Another aspect of the model that works really well is the monthly, episodic schedule. This allows us to tell serial tales, in which the suspense and mystery can build over time, and we can also keep some secrets and surprises up our sleeve: there is no way for a player to look ahead and see what’s coming in the next pack. Unexpected consequences, sudden revelations, and cliffhanger endings can all be realized with a monthly release schedule.”

For gamers that have never played in the Arkham sandbox, now is a great time to find a game that fits your style. For those fans that have tried one of these games, it’s a great time to come back to that creepy town in Massachusetts and go crazy for the game all over again.

Who is your favorite Arkham Horror Files investigator? Let us know in the comments.

Image credit Fantasy Flight Games

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