Editorial | 6/27/2013 at 11:48 AM

Tabletop Co-Op: Arkham Horror

On your tabletop, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming

Today, we dip our toes back into the pool of cooperative tabletop board games. We've previously delved into the rich Lovecraft universe with an article covering Elder Sign. Moving beyond the fast paced, dice rolling puzzle aspects of that game, we come to the Great Old One of Cthulhu games, Fantasy Flight's colossal epic, Arkham Horror.

Arkham Horror was originally developed in 1987 by Chaosium, publishers of the Call of Cthulhu role playing game. The game was designed by Richard Launius, who would later design other solid co-ops: the aforementioned Elder Sign and the heroic Defenders of the Realm. In 2005, Fantasy Flight obtained the rights, and gave it a few rules tweaks to bring them design to modern standards, while giving it the luxurious components and art treatment they are so well known for. Since that time, Arkham Horror has been revised once and has had no less than eight expansions, as well as a host of accessories and even a companion app. 

One of the key aspects of Lovecraft's stories was a sense of dread and foreboding, a feeling that no matter what you might do, in the end, you would lose your mind or even perish at the hands or tentacles of some horrific monstrosity from beyond. Arkham Horror interprets this sensibility as a board game quite well. As you play, the forces of evil spread far beyond your ability to combat or otherwise control them. Characters die, or are driven insane, and things rarely if ever go as planned. Arkham Horror is not a game for the easily discouraged. It is highly likely that you will fail at repelling the invasion of the Great Old Ones, dooming the world forever. This may drive some potential players away, but win or lose, there are few experiences quite as memorable in board gaming today.

One of my favorite gameplay mechanics is variable player powers, and Arkham Horror provides a large group of heroes of varying abilities for players to choose from. These characters are known as Investigators, and are fleshed out thematically with a background and an occupation. Each Investigator has a certain amount of starting Stamina and Sanity, which are like hit points for your body and mind, respectively. There are also paired stats, like Sneak/Speed, where there is a slider on a spectrum. Each turn, players can choose to adjust from one end to the other, or somewhere in the middle. It's a unique system, and gives you plenty of interesting choices. Each Investigator has different starting items, spells, and other abilities that further differentiate them from one another. The different characters are interesting and add to the sense of immersion in the theme.

(Image Credit: Dan Nagato)

The game board is gargantuan, quite a bit larger than most similar board games. The besieged town of Arkham, taken straight from Lovecraft's tales, takes up most of the space on the board. Streets, buildings, and outdoor locations are all represented from the innocuous Bank of Arkham to the dread Arkham Asylum (no Joker included). Along one side of the board are the various otherworldly locations the Investigators might encounter throughout the game, like the Dreamlands or the Plateau of Leng. The illustrations on the board are of very high quality, and it is very impressive when you see it all laid out for play.

As the game begins, an Old One is chosen to be the main antagonist, and this can be done either randomly, or by the consensus of the Investigators. Azathoth and Nyarlathotep, as well as Cthulhu and a host of others, are each available. As play progresses, the Doom Track, an area of the Old One card which acts as a timer, fills up and bad things begin to happen. Each different Old One affects the game in various ways. For example, when Cthulhu stirs in his ancient slumber, each Investigator loses one Stamina and one Sanity. If the last Doom Track space fills, a Final Battle begins. Investigators will likely be devoured if this happens, but there is a small chance at victory, if luck is with them.

The key is to prevent the Old One from invading Arkham in the first place. This is done by sealing the various gates that pop up around the board as Investigators move from place to place. Gates spawn monsters, which must be avoided or overcome via combat. It becomes a very difficult balancing act to keep the gates closed and the monsters under control. When a certain number of gates have been closed, depending on the number of players, the game is over and the Investigators are victorious. It may sound simple, but the forces of evil are constantly working against the players, wearing them down over time. The sense of horror's inexplicable rise is very strong, which makes victory, when achieved, that much sweeter.

Arkham Horror is not for the faint of heart. It is very complicated, not very easy to understand upon a first play, and takes between three to five hours to play. But if you are willing to put in the time and effort, it can be very rewarding. The game is quite popular, with a line of miniatures for investigators and monsters, special dice, and more for fans to "pimp" their game. Teaming up with a few friends against the rise of an ancient evil is a very solid cooperative experience, and Arkham Horror is one of the better co-op board games out there as a result.