Arkham Horror: How to play the game and why!

Dear reader, it should be by now well documented that the things I write about here seldom have anything less than monumental significance to the stage play of life.  For my regular readers you will find the expected observed truths about the rest of the world laced within this article so it should not be expected that this is purely for entertainment or instruction on how to play a difficult, rules heavy role-playing game called Arkham Horror.  The things that excite me are often categorized this way.  Even the things I consider leisure fall into this summation.  When I get a sense that something has some sort of metaphorical significance I become obsessed with plunging into its depths—and this holds true if the target is the literary works of James Joyce or some phantom relic from the past lost to time and space.  CLICK HERE to review.  In that regard I have made my affection for Fantasy Flight Games well known—it is a gaming company that was brought to my life through family members bridging my love of mythology with a need for adventure—and I have found with them a wealth of creativity and new ways of modern storytelling.  One game in particular is of the type that I have to thank the owner of Nostalgic Ink and my grandson for putting before me.  It was just the kind of thing I was searching for and has brought to my life a joy in discovery that nurtures my imagination and for that I am extremely grateful.  Also of note I am placing throughout this article the instructional videos of Ricky Royal from the YouTube channel Box of Delights who poured an extreme amount of love into the creation of the following “how to” videos.  By watching these videos he explains many of the rules and way to play Arkham Horror.image  I used these videos to get started and to make the decision to purchase the game.  They are long, but very complete and well worth watching.  The result is that my wife and I bought Arkham Horror on a Friday afternoon and did not stop playing it until midnight on the following Sunday.   We were one turn away from closing the final gate when one of the characters I was playing was plunged into Time and Space letting the monster Azathoth loose to destroy the world.  I was so frustrated that I wanted to put my fist through our kitchen table because we had worked very hard to position the game for a victory.  But circumstances being what they were—time ran out—as it often does even when the best of hopes are the fuel behind endeavor.

We had played several games over the weekend and most of them ended with losses—the game is far from easy.  In fact, it could be said to reflect life all too accurately even though the subject matter is about monsters and attacks upon mankind from other dimensions.  I find the subject matter to be more accurate than a daily read of USA Today and ultimately more rewarding for the soul even in disappointing losses where all the best layed plans fall apart in the end. For a game it reminds me of Jumanji the old game from the Robin Williams movie—Arkham Horror not only takes place in the streets of the classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, it carries players into other dimensional planes of reality such as the City of the Great Race, the Great Hall of Celeano, R’lyeh, the Plateau of Leng and Yuggoth.  It is often there that terrible things happen if players forget to adjust their lore or luck rating to deal with the type of things that typically happen during the “Other World Encounters” phase.  Sometimes even if players do adjust their settings terrible things will happen anyway—just as they often do in real life so it is the task of the players to adjust and recover attempting to suppress obstacles with tenacity even when the situation feels hopeless.

The terror of the game comes not so much from the monsters which flood the game constantly throughout from each round as the Doom Track edges ever closer to the end where the Mythos Monsters present themselves from centuries of slumber to destroy the world and everyone in it, it comes from the lack of certainty that one has about what happens next—the constant feeling that the floor could drop out from under everyone at any moment.  imageIn this way Arkham Horror is like walking through a commercial haunted house that is dark and smoke-filled not knowing what might happen around the next corner.  Visitors know that the monsters cannot harm them—but the terror comes from not knowing what’s coming next.  In Arkham Horror the game designers obviously took great pleasure in making every stack of cards and every move a potential failure with very little rewards given to players.

The rules of the game are vast.  On its surface all things about Arkham Horror look simple, the game board looks not so much different from a Monopoly board, but this is very misleading.  The game is layered with meaning and small printed text that takes the level of game play very detailed destinations.  There is no way to just pick up the rule book and begin playing even for experienced Dungeon and Dragon players.  The mechanics are very similar, but the depth must be understood before proper game play is even possible.  For instance, particularly helpful items that will help win the game are Elder Signs which can be purchased from the Curiositie Shoppe as a “unique item.”  Those cards are the most powerful in the game because they not only seal gates without having to spend clue tokens, but they take their seal off the Doom Track for the Ancient One holding off its arrival as a destroyer of the world.  Other very helpful tips are alleys which can be recruited down at the boarding house, blessings which can be found at the church and Magick spells which can be purchased at Ye Olde Magick Shoppe that can hold off terrible Mythos cards revealing rituals.  Combat weapons are purchased at the General Store as common items.  It helps to have a couple of pistols to increase combat points up over +6 to +7 with buffed applications above and beyond the amount of fight on the character sheets.  The reason is that each time a player encounters a monster—which is unavoidable—a horror check must be performed with “will” and will is connected directly to “fight.”  So in order to have a high will typically it will cost fight and to beat a monster, both are needed. So the fight needs to come from weapons, not the skill bar as much as possible.

I think for me the most compelling, and terrifying aspect of the game is the “sanity” cost of certain tasks whether it be losing a horror check, casting spells—which often cost sanity—or random things that happen to characters that scare them into losing their mind.  I am used to health points, and Arkham Horror has a standard health measure which is called “stamina” but balancing that out with the general mental health of the players is something unique.  When the mind gets too beat up during the game sanity can be restored at the asylum—two dollars will completely restore mental capacity or a swig of a whiskey bottle will give a +1 boost.  But the game takes place during prohibition so there are times that the police come and arrest anybody caught with whiskey in their possession—so it is dangerous to have such things.

Hearing all this it might be wondered why anybody would want to play the game at all.  That is where things get interesting in a very satisfying way.  In spite of the horror nature of the game, it is actually an adventure game nicely mixing genres in a way that Poltergeist the movie did.  As I was going through the characters I was very pleased to find a card named Monterey Jack who happens to be an archaeologist and has the fixed possessions of a bull whip and a .38 revolver—identical to Indiana Jones the film character.  The game makers at Fantasy Flight know what makes a good adventure story and no matter how great Indiana Jones was, he still ended up tied to a pole during the opening of the Lost Ark, he was cursed by poisoned blood, burnt, tortured, and had spells of voodoo cast against him.  He was captured many times and jailed and designated for execution by the Nazis and all this happened in just three classic movies. image Arkham Horror is the kind of terror that was found in an Indiana Jones film and the best way to play the game is to roll with the punches and just keep getting back up and trying to win.  Some of the best moments in Arkham Horror come from the characters running into clues from ancient secrets or stealing treasure away from terrible creatures deep in a slumber from some dimensional rift.  Needless to say, my favorite character is Monterey Jack, the bull whip gives a plus one to a combat check but if you miss, you can use the whip to role again.   So of course I have to play that character!  It seems Monterey Jack was made by Fantasy Flight Games just for me.

The Indiana Jones films were inspired by old Saturday morning serials from the 30s, and 40s and those serials were inspired by the kind of publications that H.P. Lovecraft wrote for—the pulp magazines so popular in the 1920s and 30s.  Indiana Jones was not original in the sense that he sprang from the mind of George Lucas but was rather a tribute to the kind of movies and stories he enjoyed as a kid. So it is only fitting that the makers of Arkham Horror paid tribute to Indiana Jones who was a product of the original H.P. Lovecraft stories.  The game we see today started in the 80s as a different version of role-playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons designed by Richard Launius called Call of Cthulhu.  By 2005 Fantasy Flight Games purchased the rights and brought the game up to a level seen presently.  There is a lot of love poured into the presentation that would have taken many hundreds of hours of game development and input by people who simply love all these genres, Indiana Jones, the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft and movies like PoltergeistArkham Horror is a very story driven game that looks like players lose more than they win.  What is most intriguing is that you do not play against other players so much as you play against the Ancient One’s reemergence with the world from an awakened slumber.  Players work together to fight the Ancient One and all its minions—and up to eight players can participate.  The best way to perform this task is to trade items that other players might need like spells, or weapons in the streets of Arkham.  To do this, items can be passed to other players as long as both players are in a street location and they are not in a combat phase with a monster.

About the Ancient One, there isn’t just one, but many.  Of course the primary is Cthulhu but others include the Nyarlathotep, the Yig, Hastur and the Yog-Sothoth.  To make matters even worse each mythos monster has its own worshippers among the land of the living.  For instance, the Yog-Sothoth worshippers have powerful magical abilities giving cultists a combat rating of -1.  Or the Sub-Niggurath worshippers have babies that roam the game board and all are given the “Endless” ability when fighting in combat.  This means that players who kill these creatures cannot collect their hides to sell for money or items as a trophy—but are returned to the monster pool only to be drawn again when a gate opens.  Reading through some of the text reminded me of the many real life attempts by Alistair Crowley and the Masonic rituals particularly on display at the Denver International Airport to appease unseen spirits to invoke supernatural benefit to their attempts at success in life.  Many people are willing to trade their souls for successful help by spiritual aid and in Arkham Horror this is reflected in the sanity meter.  There are many in the real world that clearly do trade away their sanity for a chance at victory even if it calls for the invocation of unseen forces.   Arkham Horror deals with these types of things making it all too reflective or a reality we all know too much about—making this game even scarier because it dares to name an avoided truth.

It has been a long time since my wife and I played a board game all weekend long, but with Arkham Horror the depth was such that it was not hard.  Before we knew it, 14 hours flew by on a Saturday and the sun had set.  We resumed on a Sunday only to see the day fly by as well and midnight was indicated by the hands on a clock.  Arkham Horror is like reading a great novel that you share with other people.  Afterwards win or lose there is a feeling of an adventure that had just been embarked upon.  Other players have complained that Arkham Horror feels too much like a hopeless enterprise because it is difficult to win and like the H.P. Lovecraft stories, bad things happen to the characters and no matter how smart or good you are at playing the game—there is a sense of fate that must fall in your favor to even have a chance at victory.  But that too is reflective of life—all you can really do is position yourself for success and if bad things happen, you have to get up and try again even if you are cursed or find yourself driven insane or even lost between planes of reality.  The adventure of life must trudge on or the world will be consumed by the evil, vile, intentions of an Ancient One striving to claim its hold on all of existence and everyone in it.

Arkham Horror is a fabulous game that is not just mere entertainment meant to pass time away, it is an experience that gives back much just by playing.   It is well designed and certainly does what it set out to do—which is provoke thought.  The random mechanics are not so overpowering that victory is impossible, it is just treacherously difficult like climbing a tall mountain, or running in a marathon.  Playing Arkham Horror will never be the same game twice, but it will always be something that requires attention and care to detail.  It is something that I’d call remarkable for what it does just like the game itself—working on many different levels.image  I am very pleased that my buddy at Nostalgic Ink pointed me to the game.  I have spoken on more than one occasion about these gaming stores and how they are palaces of mythology with only one purpose in mind—feeding the mind of the curious.  Stupid people do not wonder into stores like Nostalgic Ink to buy games like Arkham Horror.  Lazy people would avoid the place like a plague. But in that store are treasures of really previously unimagined consequences, and they are popular enough to have a store of their own now instead of being an underground fad like Call of Cthulhu was for so many years previously.  I have often looked at wonder at the games on the shelf in places like Nostalgic Ink and Yottaquest in Mt. Healthy, Ohio and wondered how or why those games are so popular with this newer generation.  Granted, Arkham Horror even among hard-core gamers is a difficult game—but after playing it, I clearly see the appeal and am a fan.

Rich Hoffman


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