Arkham Horror is one of Fantasy Flight Games’ most enduring titles. It’s often pointed to as the pinnacle of the “ameritrash” game category and receives equal parts praise and disdain for that moniker. Arkham Horror is a game of cosmic terror and horrifying monsters. Investigators prowl the streets of Arkham, Massachusetts hoping to scrape up just enough weaponry to take down a Cthulhu-esque Great Old One. Now in its 3rd Edition, Arkham Horror is embracing modern narrative trends to update a classic system.
To begin a game of 3rd Edition you must first choose a scenario. In addition to defining your “big bad” evil enemy, the scenario will also define which city neighborhoods are on the board, which monsters you’ll see, and – most importantly – provide a set of event and encounter cards. These are critical to creating a cohesive narrative feel.
Take, for example, the scenario Echoes of the Deep. Echoes features Cthulhu: everyone’s favorite tentacle-faced demi-god. His transdimensional home of R’lyeh grazes against our own deep underground. Stories of great Cthulhu often warn of amphibious fish like monsters emerging from the sea, of the salt-tang smell of low tide miles inland, and other nautical portents. The event cards used in Echoes of the Deep weave a narrative infused with those elements.
The scenarios themselves also offer a richer narrative experience than simply surviving until it’s time to fight the bad guy. The narrative patch can and will branch depending on how effectively you manage various threats popping up around the board, and you’re often presented with “choose your own adventure” style choices that let you make your experience your own. The downside is that on repeat plays you’ll start to gain a sense of familiarity and you’ll inevitably be more successful as you know what future demands the scenario will make of you.
Fortunately, this isn’t so much of an issue because Arkham Horror is a challenging experience. It isn’t enough to simply fight monsters, or remove doom, or gather resources. You’ll also have to spend time in various neighborhood spaces hoping to succeed at encounters and discover clues. These clue tokens are the only generic-feeling element of the 3rd edition, but acquiring them still comes with a narrative description of what’s going on. Notice that the rain is falling upwards and you’re seeing animals walk past the window twice deja-vu style? That’s Azahoth approaching…
Juggling all of these competing priorities is especially difficult because players are limited to only 2 actions per turn. This greatly restricts your ability to be where you want to be and makes it all the easier for monsters to pounce. Unfortunately, this does create a source of downtime. Player turns often move quickly and it doesn’t feel like you accomplish much before monsters move, then attack, then each player draws from the Hell Bag of Doom which inevitably causes more issues, monsters, and doom to appear. If you’re one of those gamers that embrace games that throws obstacles at you faster than Shub-Niggurath can grow her brood then you’ll love this. If not, it has the potential to feel defeating.
Twelve intrepid men and women are included in the base game. Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files games have always had an excellent and varied cast of characters and that’s no different here. Each investigator feels unique and will force you to play and adapt differently. Coupled with 4 scenarios there’s plenty of opportunity to replay this game even if you start to recognize familiar story beats. I’ve played each a number of times and have yet to win the game so there is certainly no risk of things becoming stale due to familiarity.
Key to this is the variety of ways in which I’ve lost! It’s hard out there for a deeply flawed human trying to stare down an incomprehensibly vast being of light and doom. In some games, my loss came close to the end as I spent too long in a pocket dimension and disincorporated bodily. In others, I took too long to investigate and watched in horror as Anomalies burst into reality all over the city. These hasten your demise as they vomit doom onto your scenario card accelerating your race against the clock. In many, I lost just because humans are weak and die a lot.
Yes, Arkham Horror 3rd Edition is no easier than its predecessor. What’s different is how you go about it. Arkham Horror 3rd Edition feels like a modern take on this familiar story, borrowing from each of the Arkham Files games that came before it. Layered over the core elements of Arkham Horror is a narrative that reminds me of the Arkham Horror: Card Game and a sense of cohesive exploration I get in Eldritch Horror.
Arkham Horror 3rd Edition is a worthy successor to the King of Ameritrash games. Designer Nikki Valens has done a wonderful job crafting the story of each scenario, and many of 2nd Editions dated “fiddly” elements have been streamlined or eliminated. I don’t know that it will win over anyone who disliked the level of chance and lack of control in previous editions, but I like the decision to tightly bind the scenarios together with a sense of cohesive adventure. Maybe I’ll even see the positive ending one day.
Want more opportunities to fight the Eldritch Gods?
- ARKHAM HORROR: THE CARD GAME is a rich game of narrative horror.
- CALL OF CTHULHU may be one of the best horror RPGs ever.
- PANDEMIC: REIGN OF CTHULHU is an eldritch take on the classic co-op game.
Image Credits: Raf Cordero