This post originally appeared on the now-defunct Arcane Game Lore blog.
(Warning, this is a little long. TL;DR version – Great game go play it, even if you’re a fan of the first edition as I am.)
Okay, so I’m a couple years behind the curve on this one but I’m going to do it anyway. I’ve actually owned the game for a couple of years; my wife got it for me for Christmas in 2011. But until Christmas Eve 2013, it was still in it’s original shrink wrap. You see, the very existence of this game represents a bit of a personal disappointment/frustration in my life (If you want that story, it’s at the end of this post). Plus, I’m a big fan of the original Arkham Horror game Chaosium published decades ago. I’ve been playing it with my kids for years. So the new game didn’t hold a lot of draw for me. This review will definitely be tempered by my decades of playing the original game.
Let me start by saying that the physical components of the game are absolutely wonderful. The pieces are thick and sturdy and the artwork is beautiful. I was a little put off at first at the sheer number of components but once we started playing it wasn’t bad at all.
As I was punching out the components, I thought it odd that there were little chits for the money instead of paper money but in the end, I think this was a good idea as well and they worked well.
Compared to the old game, this one is much larger physically. Everything is bigger. The player cards are larger, the monster markers are bigger, the board is much larger. In a pinch you could play the old game on a folding card table if you only had 4 players. I’m not sure the game components of this game would even fit on a table that small. This one took about three quarters of our large 8 person kitchen table to play with the four of us playing.
The components were well designed and worked well with the game. My only real complaint was the sheer number and variety. It takes a bit of work to get everything sorted to get the game started.
Rules and Game Play
One of the things we loved about the original game was that it was a collaborative game with the players trying to defeat the game and not each other. I was glad to see that this hadn’t changed in the new version.
The basic premise of the game hasn’t really changed. You still move around Arkham, fighting monsters, closing gates, and having encounters in the various city locations. The details of all those things, however, are completely different. In fact, there really aren’t many mechanics that are the same. The game has received a complete overhaul. I’m not going to go into all of them, just the ones that stood out in our initial game.
This was very different from the original game. In the old game, there was one big map that the locations were set off of and the monsters would wander around the streets, moving on every turn. In the new version, the monsters are still on the streets but there are only 7 street squares instead of about 6 dozen. So while the board is physically larger, it is logically smaller, the largest distance between any two points being only about 7-8 spaces. Of course you don’t move 2d6 spaces a turn anymore but rather a relatively low “fixed” (see Character Skills below) number of spaces each turn.
Plus the mechanic for moving the monsters has changed and not every monster moves on every turn. This proved to be a frustration for us in our game as several monsters just sat still for several turns blocking the road before we were able to gear up enough to go kill them. It took a little getting used to as we were used to having monsters move on after every round. In the old game, they might be blocking you now but wait a turn and your path will probably clear up. That’s not the case any more.
The original game gave each character 4 skills that were relatively fixed (in both versions you can get skill cards that increase these). The new game removes the Fast Talk skill, makes movement a skill and adds in Luck and Will. These skills are grouped into three pairs and you are allowed to shift them somewhat at the beginning of each turn. Changing them allows you to sacrifice ability in one area to get a gain in another. For example, Speed and Sneak are paired up. You have the choice of moving quickly but not being able to sneak past monsters or dangers that appear or increasing your ability to move unseen but not being able to move very quickly. I found that I really liked this new twist on the skills and being able to adapt your abilities based on the situation definitely came in handy at times.
The original game had the “Arkham Gazette”, a 4 page booklet of tables that you would roll on to determine what would happen. In the new game, the various locations are divided into neighborhoods and there is a small 7 card deck for each neighborhood, each card having a unique event for each location in the neighborhood. I’ll admit this was a refreshing variation. We used to play the old game so much that we knew about half of the encounters without even consulting the “Gazette” just based on the die roll (e.g. a 6 is always a Gate and Monster in locations that can have gates ) The random shuffling of the mini deck always make for an unknown encounter.
I also liked the expanded deck of cards for the Other World location encounters. This deck of 49 cards had events for one or more of the 8 Other World locations plus and generic “Other” category to use if the specific world you were in wasn’t listed. This greatly expanded the possibilities and variety of encounters you can have over the single d6 table in the original game.
Gate Appearance Location and Monster Surges
Again, in the new game, this is determined by a drawn card instead of a dice roll. Since there are 67 such cards, the statistical probability of the various locations is bound to be different than in the original game that relied on a 2d6 roll and table to pick the location.
In the old game, you knew exactly where to put your 4 possible elder signs. You put them on the 4 gate locations that were in the middle of the table and had the highest probability of being rolled (Founder’s Rock, the Graveyard, the Silver Twilight Lodge, and either the Woods or Devil’s Beach). In the new game, where you can have more than just the elder signs from the item cards, you put them wherever you can.
In the original game, you only got a monster surge (one new monster on every open gate) if you rolled a 7 for the gate location (Founder’s Rock). Statistically, this happened about 1 in every 6 rolls. In the new game, you get a monster surge whenever you pull that a gate should open in a location you already have an open gate. Plus in the new game, you get more monsters, one for every player or one for every open gate, whichever is higher. This was a problem for us in our first game as we kept pulling the same gate location very often (although this was probably due to poor shuffling on my part of the card deck ).
Skill Resolution System
This aspect of the new game was completely different and took a little getting used to the first few rounds (and we definitely made several mistakes until we got the hang of it). In the old version of the game, you rolled d6, possibly adding your skill and any bonus for items and compared it to a target number. If you exceeded the target you succeeded. If not you failed. In the new game, your skills and item bonuses determine the number of d6 you roll with each 5 or 6 rolled being a “success”. Each challenge had a number of “successes” (typically 1 or 2) that you needed to roll to complete the task. The jury’s still out on whether I like the new system better but it is interesting and definitely different.
I like the variety of “enemies” that you get to fight in the new game in the form of the various “Ancient Ones” that you have to fight. It provides some variety to the game play (each one has different special rules). I also liked the larger number of potential characters you could play (24 instead of 8) that come with the new game. Again, adding variety to the game experience.
Overall, there wasn’t anything that stood out as a strong negative to the game. There was lots of new things that we’re still getting used to but there were a lot of things I liked about the new game. A lot of those having to do with adding greater variety to the game play. Overall, I’d recommend this game to anyone. We’ll still play the old version occasionally, but I think the new Arkham Horror will become the go to game when we need some Lovecraft gaming (unless of course we’re playing Munchkin Cthulhu).
Now that I’ve talked about my impressions of the game, how did our first game go? Well, let’s just say that the monsters didn’t have a chance. Although there were some points where we were a little worried, and I personally had a dismal game (I didn’t kill a single monster or close a single gate and kept going insane!). Of course it didn’t hurt us any that we were an experienced group of monster hunters that have been playing the old game for over 20 years in my case and as long as they’ve been able to read in the case of my kids. The strategies that work in the old version still work in the new one, just some of the tactics have changed a little. The players were myself, my 17 year old daughter and my two 14 year old twin sons.
This was our first game so we make a few mistakes (usually in the monster’s favor) the first few rounds but quickly sorted out those issues. All started well. I had a retainer and headed to the Curiosity Shoppe to start collecting magical items for the team while the others set about exploring Arkham. One of my boys pick up a second gun quickly and jumped right into the first gate.
The one worry we had was that we kept pulling the same gate locations over and over (probably due to poor shuffling of the deck) and were constantly getting monster surges. So the doom level wasn’t going up but the monster count was. We weren’t killing any monsters to start off so this kept pushing up the terror level (a new mechanic I didn’t talk about above) and actually closed off the general store early in the game and the Curiosity Shoppe somewhat later. And then of course, just as we started to get the monster situation under control, we started pulling new gate locations and the doom level started to rise.
My daughter had a rough time. She started out with no weapons and couldn’t for the life of her get one anywhere. She did manage to amass quite the army, however. By the end of the game she had 6 allies that boosted her skills all over the place. She finally managed to team up with one of her brothers for a round and he gave her some of his extra weapons and then she was off to the races closing gates. Her brother that gave her the weapons managed to close one more than she did but he had a big head start.
My other son had a decent game as well. He had a run of bad luck on one of his gates, however. He got a good encounter in the other world that sent him back early so he got out quickly, but then couldn’t for the life of him close the gate on the other side. It took him 4 or 5 round to finally close it.
My game on the other hand was terrible. I started well with my retainer and starting monies allowing me to purchase several magical weapons at the Curiosity Shoppe. It all went downhill from there, however. When I left the Curiosity Shoppe to try to deliver some of the items to the other players, I ran afoul of a nasty group of monsters going insane (and losing half of my items in the process). Then we made a rules mistake and allowed two Hounds of Tindelos to enter the Arkham Asylum (monsters aren’t allowed to go there or to the hospital) while I was still there and I went insane again losing more items, leaving me only with an Elder Sign. One of my boys went insane at the same time and so I passed the Elder Sign off to him while we were in the asylum together. Later tried going through a gate and ended up getting lost in the gate and randomly coming back to Arkham and not being able to close it. I was pretty useless.
Overall, we did quite well, the doom track only ever got as high as 7 and was only on 6 when we won the game. Part of this was due I’m sure to poor shuffling on my part of the game cards as we got a lot of repeat gate locations and managed to get 3 Elder Sign items early in the game. However, a good part of it, I believe, was due to the fact that we were experienced players. By mid-game we had reached our stride and were closing gates as fast as they were appearing. I think better shuffling would have resulted in a higher doom track value but I don’t think we would have reached the 12 necessary to summon Hastur, the King in Yellow, our opponent for the game.
As is typically the case, the last round was spent waiting for one of the boys to come of the last open gate (my daughter had closed the other open gate the round previous) and close it while desperately hoping that the next gate opening location was either where the last gate was or where one of our 4 elder signs were located. Luckily we pulled a location with an elder sign and the universe was saved. Fun was had all around and we’ll definitely be playing again.
The Tragic Backstory
If you’ve been wondering why the existence of this version of the game is a bit of a disappointment or frustration to me and why it took two years to actually open and play the game, read on. Otherwise, you can stop here. Also, I’ll be dropping names that may or may not mean anything to you depending on your connections to early gaming history.
Dial the clock back to the late 80′s, early 90′s. I was in high school and played in a gaming group GM’d by John Scott Clegg, who went by Scott and is about 20 years older than me. Scott grew up and went to high school with Tracy Hickman (yes, that Tracy Hickman of Dragonlance fame) and Sandy Peterson (yes, the Sandy Peterson that wrote the original Call of Cthulhu RPG). In fact, Scott is the one that introduced Sandy and Tracy to role-playing in the first place, even before D&D came out. We played a heavily customized version of RuneQuest set in a world Scott had been developing since they were in junior high. Occasionally, if we didn’t have enough players, we’d play Arkham Horror (the original version of course) instead of RuneQuest.
Scott actually helped Sandy write the original version of the Call of Cthulhu RPG (his name appeared in the credits at least up through the 4th edition, the last one I saw) and wrote freelance for Chaosium creating adventures for CoC. He also wrote, with his wife, the Earth Dreamlands supplement that won the Origins Best Role-playing Supplement of the Year award in 1985. So he had some background with the game industry and Chaosium’s Cthulhu games specifically. According to Scott, the scene on the original game cover (above) is a depiction of a scene from one of the RPG sessions that Sandy ran. In the session, the mythos monsters destroyed an entire wing of the hospital trying to kill Scott’s character (in the blue coat in the foreground). He managed to escape with the other character who was visiting him in the hospital at the time.
In the late 80′s we decided that we’d take a stab at writing a sequel to Arkham Horror. Scott knew that Chaosium had intended to do expansions for Arkham Horror but had never gotten to it and figured that if we could present them with a ready made game, they might snatch it up. So we set to work. The game was called Chaos in Kingsport. It had a new map, new locations, new encounters, a new monster mix, and some slight rule variations that made it a bit more difficult than the original Arkham Horror. It was designed to be played stand alone or in conjunction with the original game and had rules for allowing the characters to travel between the two cities.
Once all the design was done, we built a prototype and sent it off to Chaosium for review. We had the beginnings of two more expansion games plus expansion packs for each of the four games in the works (we actually finished the expansion packs for Arkham Horror and Chaos in Kingsport). We figured if they liked this one, we could do quite a bit more to expand their line. Then after we sent off the game, the bombshell it. Chaoium pulled Arkham Horror and declared it ‘Out of Print’. At the same time Dragon Magazine ran a very positive review of the game that ended with this gem: “The game is now out of print. So if you can find a copy, buy it. Period.”
Needless to say this didn’t bode well for our endeavor. Although we had a little hope that if they had some viable supplements, Chaosium might bring the game back. In the meantime we took the advice of the Dragon Magazine article and paid a visit to our local game shop (which I’m glad to say is still in business 25 years later and has grown from 1 to 3 locations). Scott talked with the owner/manager and told him to get as many copies of Arkham Horror as he could and we’d buy them. He managed to get three copies and that’s how I got mine, probably one of the last ones sold at MSRP.
Well, in the end we got our prototype back with a rejection letter. With Arkham Horror out of print, they weren’t interested. They had loved the game, however, and played it to death. The pieces were in shambles, the map had mug stains all over it (why they had been putting mugs on the map, I’m not sure) and the review they sent back was glowing. Our timing had just been bad. If this had happened today, we probably could have gotten permission to do a Kickstarter and produced the game ourselves but at the time, we had no money (that was one of the reasons we did the game in the first place) and no real way to raise any (except for Scott, most of us were still in high school).
In the end, we consoled ourselves with producing a copy of the game and the two expansion packs for each of us. I think my copy is number 14 of 20, I’d have to go find the map and pull it out to be sure. Had things been different, I may have broken into the field of game design much sooner in my life and been doing it at least semi-professionally for years now. So that’s why it took two years for me to even open the game. I’ve always had a soft spot for the original game and didn’t really want to see what had replaced it.