Arkham Horror Third Edition, is the latest in a long line of Lovecraftian board games from Fantasy Flight Games, designed by Nikki Valens and Kevin Wilson and based on the original game by Richard Launius.
In the third edition of Arkham Horror, one to six players (though three seems to be the best number) take on the role of investigators working together at to uncover a mystery in the city of Arkham, The Daemon Sultan awaking, the barriers between dimensions collapsing, an ancient god rising or a cult worshipping Ghouls killing the citizens off. As the game is heavily scenario based I have avoided any gameplay spoilers.
Dive into a Lovecraft Story
Arkham Horror is a story driven scenario based game, coming with four playable out of the box, each with a distinct feel and differing victory conditions. The game is driven by the codex cards which tell the story in an evolving manner depending on what happens as you play. Most scenarios have a goal to collect certain clues or uncover certain places, when this is done the next codex card will be revealed telling you more about what is going on and your next goal. But if doom starts racking up, then bad codex cards will come into play, bringing you one step closer to loosing and perhaps adding some nasty element to the game to kill you or drive you mad.
The stories are branching, creating different endings for each scenario, some where you lose, some where you win and some that are a little of both. But these endings are limited, there are only about 10 story cards for each scenario - but they are immersive and creative, and you feel drawn in and driven by them. Some of the cards are simply goals, others add cards to location encounters, strong monsters to the board or special actions that you can take, each giving the scenario their unique feel.
The scenarios also create different boards, one of the more contentious issues around third edition is the use of a modular board that is different in every scenario, changing where you can go, how you can get there and the strategies you need to use to manage the various events happening across Arkham. The changing nature of the Arkham board has some players frustrated, saying that it makes no sense as to why Arkham changes between each game.
However, the board doesn't change too much; for example Northside is always to the left of Downtown, and Downtown is always to the top left of Riverside, just with differing connecting street types and not all neighbourhoods are in each scenario. These are just a few examples but it is clear these board layouts have been thought out by the designers and work well.
The issue with the modular board is its physical practicality. The neighbourhood boards, and the street connectors are a tight jigsaw style fit and after a month of average game play for a newly purchased game the edges on a few are already starting to fray in my copy and I am expecting that anytime soon one of the pieces will rip or tear. Fantasy Flight have always been known for high-quality production values, but this is a little disappointing especially when you look at other modular board games that have been around for eight or nine years (such as the Dungeons and Dragons board games) which didn't have this issue.
What can you do Against Overwhelming Evil?
The core part of the game for players is the start of each round where each investigator can carry out two actions and be proactive, this is the only time the players will be proactive in the game, where they can plan and put a strategy in place to achieve whatever goal they have to achieve.
The actions are a mixed bag including; moving, gathering resources, warding doom, researching clues, fighting monsters, focusing skills not to mention any unique actions, items, ally or your own character can do. This makes it feel like there is plenty you can do on your turn and there is very little downtown for your characters. At first look there is a feel that there could be a little analysis paralysis, but the game flows well and there is often a feeling that you don't have enough time to do everything you need, forcing you to prioritise and strategies with other players about what to do and more importantly, when to do it. This is where the player interaction is at its greatest, not with direct game mechanics but through discussions about solving the puzzle that is unfolding, be aware this can lead to one player, perhaps the most experienced becoming an alpha playing and directing others to carry out his suggestions.
Ultimately Arkham Horror is a puzzle solving game. There is always the sense of not enough time, and a feeling that you need one more action as all the actions available are useful in different ways and there is no throwaway action; but far from being a frustration that it could easily have become this adds to the thematic tension embedded within the stories and now games of Lovecraft in that everything is against you.
Horrors Beyond Life's Edge
Once the players have had their investigators do actions the game takes over and the many choices that the players had are stripped back to a couple or none, and the control they had now passes to the game and some people might not like that feeling, but it is thematic to Lovecraft
First, the monsters move, do horrible things and injure your investigators. Unlike Arkham Horror Second Edition, or Eldritch Horror, there are no real ways to prevent monsters doing these things except for cards, not even the randomness of dice rolls can save you from being injured in some way if a monster lands on your space. You just take damage because Lovecraft's monsters are now very dangerous, this does mean you need to plan ahead (you know how the monsters will move for example), having played the previous games it seems that this has been streamlined for quickness as monster rounds do go quick, but at the general expense of player decisions and actions, of course you can always decide how to take the damage if you are lucky or clever enough to have allies or items that can absorb it, but little else really.
The monsters themselves are on cards rather than chits as Second Edition and Eldritch Horror, this gives more art and more space for the various symbols that are needed and they are all right from Lovecraft and the games, and when some are drawn, like the elite monsters, your heart sinks (in a good way) as the entire game dynamic shifts to dealing with a creature that could end it all very quickly.
What Happened to Us?
The location encounters are the heart of Arkham Horror, like its predecessors, they are filled with thematic location focused events that will bring fortune both good and ill for the players, a few of them have options on how to pass the various skill tests you need adding a little player choice here, but essential it is a read a card, roll some dice and something happens. A few simply have something happen even without such tests, while adding great sense of story and theme, these things generally happen to you. Now you do have information regarding what each space does for its encounter, like a good chance of getting an item or spell, but it is not guaranteed so if its part of your strategy things might slow down in your plans.
Amount of player choice aside, drawing the encounter is exciting, there is no denying and it is the point at which your decision made only moments ago payoff or not.
The Strongest Kind of Fear is Fear of the Unknown
The game round ends as most Lovecraft games do, with the big bad doing it's worst. Unlike the previous Arkham Horror or Eldritch Horror titles, there is no mythos deck, but instead a cup full of tokens (like The Card Game). Each player draws two tokens which may spawn new monsters, spawn doom, draw a headline card which usually does something bad. The headline deck also acts as a countdown timer for the game, as if after 13 cards have been drawn from 40 different ones the game is over! Or you might have to complete a reckoning effect that each scenario has, as well as some of the cards and game effects. But not all hope is lost, there are blank tokens which do nothing and there are clues which not surprisingly spawn new clues on the board.
Then there is the Gate burst token, which adds multiple doom tokens to the board. The event deck (in it's snazzy, heavy duty cardboard holder) is what spawns clues and gate bursts (which are drawn from the front, so you know where the next one is going) and doom, which are drawn from the back and which you cannot see. This lets you know where potential clues will go but also where the gate burst will happen, but only the next one, if you draw two clues and then a gate burst there is no way to anticipate that.
The event deck is recycled through a mechanism familiar to those who play games such as Pandemic, as when a gate burst happens the Event discard pile is reshuffled and placed at the back, where doom is draw from, turning it into a bit of a memory game.
Then the next round begins, mostly needing to react to what the Monsters, encounters and mythos phases just threw at everyone with a balancing act needed to be proactive in managing the victory goals as well. The length of the game can vary depending on how well or not you are doing, but expect a 3-4 player game to take three hours.
So you've played the four scenarios, now what?
Arkham Horror is re-playable despite only having four scenarios with it; the scenarios have a few story lines in them and it will take a few plays to play each of them, but each game feels different, the cards are drawn at random, different investigators, different monsters and different headline cards will alter each game enough for it to be different. Yes, you will know the stories, but that is not as debilitating to play, because this game is fun and emphasises the journey and not the destination as well as the feeling that you are just a small person in a massive universe that wants to devour you!
Closing Thoughts on Arkham Horror Third Edition
This is welcome addition to my Lovecraftian collection that I will love playing for a long time and may become my favourite over Eldritch horror; like all Lovecraft games, expansions will be a pleasant addition, to fill so much potential that Arkham Horror has to bring.