Reflections on Eldritch Horror and Why it’s Better Than Arkham Horror

Summer is in the air, and in Wisconsin that means the familiar and delectable scent of bratwurst cooking on the grill. It can also mean the inevitable tug to be outside is stewing deep inside you.

While struggling to start my crap-ass lawnmower never sounded so good right now, there are always games to be played. What I’m saying is don’t let the nice weather stifle your hobbies. Yes, it’s nearly summer out there, but I officially give you permission to not feel guilty about – you know — sitting inside playing a board game or two. Got it? Good. I feel better already. Pass the spicy mustard, grab a brat, and head back inside because there’s work to be done, mysteries to solve, humanity to save and an unfathomable Ancient One that must be banished at all costs.

This review is written by Scott Bogen of The Board Game Show blog and podcast.

 

Nostalgia Beckons Like the Glowing Spheres of Yog-Sothoth

All of us can be nostalgic about games we played earlier in life. Some of these games may have been played decades ago, some of them perhaps sold at garage sales for quick cash while in college, followed by decades of sporadic pangs of regret at having done so. Then suddenly your long-lost friend is re-released again after decades, or the local thrift shop has a copy of something you haven’t seen in a very long time. Or you win an all-out bidding war on Ebay. Or, maybe you simply grab an old favorite off the shelf and dust it off. Whatever the case may be, it’s been a long time.

If you’re at all like me, a lot of these attempts to relive past experiences have fallen flat. It turns out, while these old games are well and good, they do force your hand in admitting that you’ve changed. You’re not the same person you were when you first played Dungeon or Talisman or even Settlers of Catan (yuck), and so the game isn’t either. Between now and then you’ve perhaps played tens or hundreds of new games. Your idea of what constitutes fun or challenging or even quality is forever altered. While you may be introducing these old games to a new generation of gamers – a son, a daughter, a spouse, or a group of friends — it often isn’t the same for you as it once was.

Today, tabletop gamers have the luxury of a seemingly-endless conveyor belt of new games. We are in a Golden Age of tabletop gaming. Think about the last conversation you had with a gamer buddy. Comparisons can be fast and furious when talking games. This mechanic is like “this,” and that mechanic reminds me of “this.” It resembles “x,” with “this” thrown in, or I really hate games with “x.” We have become or are becoming more knowledgeable, more discerning. We know what we like, and certainly, what we don’t. So where does this all lead?

It began a dozen years ago with the release of a Lovecraftian-themed game called Arkham Horror. I’ve since played it a lot, went insane a lot, lost a lot, read the rule books and FAQs a lot (ugh), and I dutifully piled on every last one of the expansions. Until recently, it was unlike anything else I had ever played. It was immersive, horrifying, and full of surprises. Pure genius. I loved my terrifying, RPG-like, journey through the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, albeit often a chaotic, meandering mess in terms of story line.

 

Eldritch Horror is Better than Arkham Horror (I Said it Again)

Then along comes Eldritch Horror, and my view of Arkham Horror – somewhat regrettably — is forever altered. The fact is the problems I had with Arkham Horror today still have everything to do with the appearance of Eldritch Horror. Eldritch Horror, with its easy-to-learn, streamlined system that maintains an immersive, Lovecraftian experience is by leaps and bounds a cleaner, more enjoyable experience. Eldritch Horror unseated Arkham Horror as the ultimate Lovecraftian board game in my collection. Those are difficult words to write. I invested more than $300 into Arkham Horror, so understand that I don’t make my claim casually.

 

How is Eldritch Horror a Better Board Game?

In Eldritch Horror you play an investigator who moves to locations around the world having encounters (drawing cards and resolving them with your abilities) and fighting monsters toward the ultimate goal of saving the world from an Ancient One, which will awaken if the Doom track reaches zero. An Ancient One is, for clarity, a horrible, mind-shattering boss monster.

Okay, what I’ve just described also happens to be an apt description of Arkham Horror. Really, the main thematic difference between the two base games is simply where each one takes place. Arkham Horror’s action is centered in and around the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Eldritch Horror is worldwide.

Now back to the point, and what makes Eldritch so much better. Here’s the laundry list, and in each case, I believe Eldritch Horror to be superior:

  • Eldritch Horror has a better rule book, make that two rule books. You have an easy-to-follow and understand rule book that gives you the overview of the game with enough examples and specifics to get you started. Then there is the handy reference manual, which is nicely indexed and includes all the details. Everything on how to discard double-sided cards to the technicalities of combat encounters are included.
  • Eldritch Horror has streamlined game play. First everyone takes up to two actions from a slate of six. Then everyone has an encounter, and after that, the game itself strikes back in the Mythos phase. Draw a Mythos card and learn what nastiness transpires. I always found Arkham’s turn sequence to be a bit convoluted, and you didn’t even get to read the Mythos cards from top to bottom. What’s up with that?
  • And there’s more! Eldritch Horror has the amazing double-sided cards for spells, conditions and debt cards. I first played with these double-sided cards in Mansions of Madness. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, these allow for an element of surprise because are only able to flip them in certain circumstances. For example, if you cast a spell, you’ll flip the card and read the sentence that pertains to the result of your die roll. The cool thing is that there is more than one of each type of double-sided card, so you never really know what will happen when you read the Necronomicon or enter into a Dark Pact, except for my friend Al who is intimately familiar with the Detention cards, having spent much time inside jail cells around the world.
  • Okay, on to another cool Eldritch Horror feature. It’s the Omen Track! This is a simple, circular track with different symbols that is not only well-integrated into the mechanics, it is highly thematic. This represents the machinations of the cosmos portending terrible things, and as the omen track advances, the Doom track advances if the current symbol matches any open gates on the game board. For the uninitiated, a gate is a portal to another dimension, time or place. To close them, you must go in. Of course, your incentive to close them is to avoid the advancement of the Doom track.
  • Another thing I love about Eldritch Horror is the Ancient Ones and how the game has tailored research encounter cards and mysteries for each one. What that means for players is a more story-driven experience where you’ll actually be resolving encounters or orchestrating your game play based on the Ancient One itself. Imagine that — a cohesive narrative!
  • Here’s another plus, Eldritch Horror can be played in an evening with four players! You can play with up to 8, but I haven’t done that yet, but it sounds… insane! (Get it?) One of my favorite ways to play is with two players, each playing two characters. You get to take your turns often, and with just two mortals making all the decisions, you sometimes have a better chance of beating back the Big Bad. With more players, some guy named Chris just might avoid his responsibilities and go to Japan “just for the fun of it.” (This is how I find out which friends read my reviews, People! Don’t judge!)

 

Eldritch Horror or Arkham Horror — Final Thoughts

All of these positives mean that Eldritch Horror is the game to play, the game to buy, and Arkham Horror should be avoided, sold, or just discontinued. So harsh! Yeah, but that’s how I feel. No need to own both, and I think Eldritch Horror is the obvious choice. In fact, if I am being totally honest, I should throw in a negative, which is more or less related to the positives. The base game of Eldritch Horror desperately needs more encounter cards. In a four-player game, you will cycle through some of the decks a couple of times, and you will very likely run into a few of the same encounters. This is especially true of each Ancient One’s specific research deck. The silver lining is that there are a whole lot of expansions — nearly all of which I’ve acquired — and all of your card stacks will fatten up as quickly as the Leng Spider living in your attic.

As for Arkham Horror, while the fond memories of that game linger, I have been forever changed for the better by the appearance of Eldritch Horror, and I’ll never be able to look at Arkham Horror the same way again.

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