Sunday, August 13, 2006

Game Review: Arkham Horror

It's 1926. For a few years, Mandy Thompson has been research assistant to a number of professors in the little New England college town of Arkham. A busty, bespectacled redhead, Mandy is not only a painstaking researcher but also a crack shot. The interests of her employers have taken her far into areas of inquiry that most God-fearing New Englanders know little of. Indeed, they would prefer to stay ignorant. But Mandy has become keenly aware of how thin the veneer of sanity and normality is that separates the sunlit world from a howling abyss of cosmic horror. And certain Signs indicate that breaches are forming in that veneer...

I played the new Arkham Horror boardgame for the first time today at my friend Asko's place. Set in the worlds of Jazz Age horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, it has the players cooperating against a sudden onslaught of horrific beings from far planets and alien dimensions. Interdimensional gates start opening in secluded places around town, and squamous, rugose nightmares stalk the streets at night. The players must try to defeat the monsters and close all the gates before a Really Big Meanie makes it through one of them.

The first things to note about the game is that it's not scary and that most of its subject matter will be incomprehensible to anyone who's never read Lovecraft. Secondly, you might want to note that the game has lots of different card stacks, various little paper chits, a gaming board that looks like a moldy flowchart for a widget manufacturing plant, and a long complicated rule book. It's a nerdy game.

Unfortunately, it's not a very fun one. My main problem with it is that the story soon descends into horror spoof slapstick. Just look at what Mandy, my character in the game (no, I didn't make her a busty redhead, she comes like that out of the box), went through in five hours of game play.

Fearing the worst, Mandy loaded her rifle and took to patrolling the streets of Arkham with a few other brave souls [the other players' characters, an archaeologist with a bullwhip and a hard-boiled private eye]. Outside the Arkham Historical Society she shot a cultist of the Great Old Ones dead in the street. Evading a Dimensional Shambler, she entered the legendary Witch House and promptly fell through an interdimensional portal.

Finding herself in Earth's Dreamlands, a realm where powerful dreamers have nocturnal adventures that can last for centuries in one night's sleep, she was attacked by an insane man whom she also shot and killed. After befriending a tribe of furry zoogs, who gave her a gourd of invigorating moon wine to drink, she returned to the Witch House through the portal, which she then closed for ever.

Onward Mandy went through the night to the graveyard. There, she ran into a suave-yet-sinister Egyptian warlock whom she shot and killed. She then entered a newly opened portal leading to the Plateau of Leng
[a horror version of Tibet], where she had a strengthening vacation [!] and met a group of horned, wide-mouthed traders, whom she politely ignored. Back to Arkham Cemetery and close the portal.

Mandy hurried to the Miskatonic University campus where a risky experiment in transdimensional studies had gone horribly wrong, leading to a particularly nasty monster infestation. She encountered a Night Gaunt and yet another cultist, whom she, yes, shot dead. She then for a change managed to sneak past a homicidal maniac in the street and entered the town's other infamous haunted house, The Unnameable. Here she dropped through a portal into the Abyss, came out again and closed the gate.

Sneaking back past the raving, axe-wielding man out front, she went to Indepedence Square and entered a newly formed portal, ending up at Celeano.
[This is actually a consistently misspelled version of Celaeno, a harpy in ancient Greek mythology, who has given its name to one of the stars in the Pleiades, on one of whose planets there is, according to Lovecraft epigone August Derleth, a library of forbidden lore.] Here she received the blessing of an old sage who liked her debating style.

After returning to Arkham and closing the portal, Mandy sneaked past a threatening cultist into Hibb's Road House, a diner in which a portal had appeared. It took her back again to the library in the Pleiades, from which she then promptly returned to Arkham.

And then I left. After five hours without a meal break. The others took over Mandy's reins and continued without me. Next time I'm going to invite the guys over to my place to play RoboRally.

Update 14 August: Asko tells me the game ended in an ugly way. Shub-Niggurath, an Elder God, broke through into our world and fought briefly with the player characters, stomping them into the ground. Mandy was the last one to bite the grass. "Then, crushing what it chanced to mould in play, the Idiot Chaos blew Earth's dust away". The entire game lasted 5½ hours.

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Blogger Hans Persson said...

Jag kan tänka mig att jag hade gillat det där spelet i slutet av 1980-talet, och av din beskrivning att döma låter det som om spelet vore designat någon gång på den tiden också. Det låter komplicerat och pilligt på en nivå som man brukar slippa i moderna spel, och en speltid på fem timmar är inte heller något jag önskar mig idag.

Jag har tittat på Arkham Horror och funderat på om det kunde vara något att prova, men det verkar ganska klart att det inte är det. Jag är dock fortfarande intresserad av någon form av skräckspel, men i så fall vill jag ha något som har mycket atmosfär (inte nödvändigtvis Lovecraft-baserad) och som inte kräver timmevis med förklarande för att komma underfund med reglerna. Spel man inte kan förklara på en kvart är för komplicerade för sitt eget bästa.

14 August, 2006 10:47  
Blogger Martin said...

The Swedish classic Drakborgen is actually far scarier than Arkham Horror. The clock that keeps ticking -- will you have time to make it out alive? And the dragon that might wake up and roast you any time. I still play Drakborgen now and then.

14 August, 2006 10:53  
Blogger Hans Persson said...

Jag håller utkik efter ett exemplar av Drakborgen, men de brukar vara rätt dyra när de dyker upp.

14 August, 2006 11:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the game. I play it with a group of friends and it has never taken more than about 3 to 3 1/2 hours. I have never read Lovecraft but some in my group have. Otherwise, we would have never come upon this wonderful game. I don't find this game to be unintelligible by any stretch of the word. I find it to be a lot of fun with very straightforward rules. Yes, it is a game for nerds but so are most non-mainstream games(Roborally included). Yes, there are a lot of cards and chits so setup is a pain. However, this also brings more variety. It's hard for me to view any board game as "scary" but I think this one has a good balance of mythos to scare and slapstick to entertain. If you want a "scarier" game and something that is easier for you to understand, try a card game called "Testimony of Jacob Hollow". It is another Lovecraftian tale and the flavor text on each card weaves an interesting story.

08 October, 2006 09:46  
Blogger Martin said...

Even if one does possess the kind of intelligence that I so obviously lack, then one may not like highly complicated games. It's a matter of taste. But my co-players are avid war gamers, and they like Arkham Horror.

08 October, 2006 10:31  

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