Return to Arkham

Last night, some friends and I got together to try out the new Arkham Horror Third Edition boardgame from Fantasy Flight GamesThis new edition dropped about two weeks back, and I was initially pretty reluctant to buy it – I had pretty faithfully bought each of the Second Edition supplements that came out over the years1, so the thought of starting over with a new version that would probably spawn a whole raft of its own supplements was… uninspiring, let’s say.

Add to that the fact that we didn’t play AH much anymore because of the bloat. It seemed to take longer to set up, longer to play, and the rules kept getting more arcane2. There’s also a storage issue: Arkham Horror Second Edition is a huge game with all the supplements, and storing it all in a manner that makes it possible to actually keep the components sorted to minimize set-up times is a hassle.

But.

I love AH2e, even though the thought of setting it up and playing it is daunting. I loved the First Edition when I got it long ago, in the Before Times. So, even though I wasn’t planning to buy it, I was watching the pre-release information coming from FFG, curious to see what they were doing with the new version of the game. And that wore down my resistance3, so I preordered it from my FLGS4, and picked up my copy on release day5.

So. Let’s talk about the game itself.

It comes in the standard FFG-style square box. Stats on the outside say 1-6 players, 2-3 hours play time, and that it’s aimed at ages 14+. Nothing too startling about any of that, though I note that the play time estimate seems a little closer to our actual first-session play time than I expected, so it’s probably a closer time estimate than I’m used to seeing on board games. Also, it’s nice that the game works as solo play, but it’s a pretty elaborate set-up, so keep that in mind if you want to tackle things solo.

The premise of the game is the same as previous editions: your gang of desperate, soon-to-be-dead-or-crazy investigators roam the fictional streets of 1927 Arkham, Massachusetts, trying6 to keep unspeakable evil from wreaking havoc.

AH3e differs from previous editions in game structure by borrowing the scenario idea from Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror Card Game. Where, in previous versions of AH, you picked the Great Old One you were going up against and that made minor changes to the game changes, in 3e you choose a scenario that changes pretty much everything: board lay-out, types of monsters, types of anomalies, timing mechanisms, objectives, everything. It also frames everything narratively, so it creates a more coherent story of the play experience7. So, for example, after we lost the game last night, we all agreed about the moment things turned against us, and what had happened in the game fiction – not just the mechanics – to do that8.

Set-Up

Like previous editions of the game, set-up is a bit of a fiddly job. There’s lots of cards and tokens, and a fair bit of sorting to get together the specific bits needed for the scenario you’re playing. I had planned to get everything set up before folks showed up to play, but then we changed venue, so I spent about 20 minutes to a pre-sort of the components to make sure the set-up process was a quick and easy as possible. Set-up on the site took around 10-15 minutes, and that included a fair bit of chatting amongst the players, so it can probably be cut down to less than 10 minutes with more deliberate focus. So, including sort time, set-up from box to ready-to-play looks to be about a half-hour. Slightly less than AH2e.

This is the board at the start of The Approach of Azathoth, the recommended first scenario. Note that I’m using the deluxe investigator figures from previous editions of the game, and I’ve got some nice plastic stands off to the side for the anomaly markers. Also, an official RickFest souvenir dice tower, limited edition.

Of particular interest is the modular board. It’s double-sided: you get five tiles with a total of eight different neighbourhoods. Two neighbourhoods – Northside and Easttown – have duplicates in the mix, to allow for a little more variety to the neighbourhoods that can be mixed in play. They’re nice, thick cardboard stock that lock together like puzzle pieces, along with the seven different street segments. The town is different for each scenario, and the board generally has a smaller footprint than the AH2e core game board9.

One really nice touch for this edition is the special cards for investigator starting equipment. In previous editions, if you were playing a character that started play with, for example, a car and a tommy gun, you had to search the appropriate item decks for those cards, pull them out, and put them with the character. Now, there’s a deck of investigator starting equipment cards, with the investigator art on the backs to make it obvious who they belong to. You still have to look through a deck, but it’s just one deck, and the card art makes it really easy to pull out the ones you need.

Note that each scenario has very clear instructions for setting up that mesh into the general set-up instructions. General set-up has you build the board, while the scenario card tells you what neighbourhoods to use and how to connect them. General set-up tells you to build the monster deck, and the scenario card tells you which monsters to put in it. And there’s a scenario-specific deck of cards that look like the neighbourhood encounter cards we’ve seen in previous editions that get put aside in a special holder. That sort of thing.

Game Play

The game is broken into rounds, and each round has four phases:

  • During the Action Phase, each investigator gets to take two actions. There’s a list of eight or so standard actions – Move, Attack, Ward, etc. – and different cards and abilities can provide options beyond those.
  • Then comes the Monster Phase, when the monsters on the board get to move according to their AI rules, and attack. Attacks are nice and simple – they just do the listed damage to the investigator they’re engaged with. No rolling, so it doesn’t slow things down.
  • The Encounter Phase comes next. This has always been pretty much the heart of Arkham Horror games – you draw a card based on where you are in town, and read what happens to you. This is where you most often have to use your skills to prevent bad things and acquire good things.
  • Finally comes the Mythos Phase. In previous editions, this is when you would draw a card for the Great Old One and commit the appropriate atrocities. AH3e borrows the idea of the chaos cup from the Arkham Horror Card Game, putting a mix of tokens into a bag and having each player in turn draw two tokens and resolve them. The tokens are a mix of good and bad things10, and are set aside when drawn. Once the bag is empty, all the tokens are returned to the bag, and it starts again. This is one of the timing mechanisms of the game, charting the descent of the situation into chaos and ruin.

You run through each phase in turn, then go back to the top and do it again. Repeat until the world is safe or destroyed.

One thing of interest is that you don’t know what you need to do to win when you start a game. Goals are laid out by cards in the Archive, which is basically a choose-your-own-adventure-style deck of cards. You add one or two to the Codex11 at the start of the game, and these cards tell you your initial goals, the pass/fail conditions, and any special rules. When you meet the pass or fail condition, you’re instructed to flip cards and read the back, or add other cards to the Codex, showing the next step on the path to victory or destruction. This is the piece of the game that charts the overall narrative of the game.

Advancement of the game, both in good and bad directions, is governed by two factors: clues and doom

Clues

In AH2e, clues were a simple resource that let you reroll dice and seal gates. In AH3e, they are more narratively supported as actual clues: evidence your investigators can gather that’s related to the central mystery of the scenario, and then figure out to find the next goal. Clues are spawned in neigbourhoods when you pull the appropriate token from the bag in the Mythos Phase12. The card with the clue information has a back that matches one of the neighbourhood encounter decks, and you shuffle it into the top two cards of the deck, so the clue sits among the top three cards. Having an encounter in that neighbourhood thus gives you a one in three chance of a scenario-appropriate incident that provides an opportunity to claim the clue.

Clues can be spent to reroll one die on a test. This is not a terribly efficient way to use your clues. Most scenarios only advance in a positive direction when you add clue tokens to the scenario card. This is done with a Research action, which is an Observation test13 that lets you move one clue per success from your character’s card to the scenario card. This means that, to take a Research action, you must already have one or more clue tokens on your investigator. Narratively, gathering a clue means finding evidence, and Researching lets you figure out what that evidence means.

So, yeah, you want to add clues to your scenario card. The Codex will tell you how many you need to advance the plot, but adding more is not a bad thing, because there are some times you’ll have to spend them from the scenario card to advance the plot.

Doom

Doom is the flipside of clues14. It shows how bad things are getting in Arkham. In AH2e, doom was just a track on the Great Old One card that, when it filled up, woke up the terrible ancient evil to eat you all. In AH3e, doom is added to locations in neighbourhoods, and causes bad things to happen as it accumulates there.

In three out of the four scenarios15, getting too much doom in a given location creates an anomaly, which are 3e‘s counterpart to 2e‘s gates. Once an anomaly exists in a neighbourhood, any new doom is added to the scenario card. Doom on the scenario card is similar to clues on the scenario card: get enough of it, and the plot progresses, but not in a direction that will make the investigators’ lives easier. Let this happen too many times16, and you lose the game.

The way to prevent, or at least mitigate, this is the Ward action. If your investigator is in a space with doom, you can use one of your actions to test your Lore skill, removing one doom from that location for each success you roll. Keeping on top of doom is vital for keeping the game going long enough to have a chance of winning.

Our Game

Our game lasted about four hours, which is only an hour longer than the time estimate on the box. For a first run-through, that’s pretty good. I think I’ve already said a couple of times that we lost. Here’s pretty much the moment we really knew it was over.

Okay. We had just pulled a headline card (one of the other timing mechanisms in the game) that cost everyone 1d6 Health and Sanity, split however we wanted between the two stats. Everyone rolled 5 or 6, so we were all pretty beat up. Then, a Reckoning pull put a whole bunch of doom on the board, spawning three anomalies. We hung on for a few more rounds, and got things largely cleaned up, but the time spent cleaning up the current mess meant we couldn’t really work towards the actual goal, and it all fell apart.

And thus, because of our failure, Azathoth arrived and destroyed all life on earth.

Sorry.

Tear-Down

Tear-down of the game took about 20 minutes, mainly because of the fiddliness of sorting all the various components. Most of the scenario-specific stuff auto-sorts itself during play, so there’s not a whole lot of messing around with doing that – just looking through the location decks for the scenario-specific clue encounter cards, which have a different enough face that they’re easy to spot. So, not a trivial clean-up time, but not overwhelming either.

Play Advice

After running through the game once, I have some advice to help it run smoothly and in a timely manner. These are mainly things I learned by not doing them well enough during the game, and regretting it. There’s no real strategy here, because I haven’t developed any beyond, “Clues good. Doom bad. Monsters bite.”

  • There are two-side player markers that you can flip to show that your investigator has acted. USE THEM. The Action Phase lets you choose the order in which your investigators act each round, and there are lots of moving bits to the different actions, so it can be easy to lose track of whether or not someone has acted. Use these markers religiously.
  • Appoint one player to monitor and announce each phase. There are nice reference cards for each player, so use these to keep track. Again, there are lots of moving parts, and there can be digressions in play because of various things triggering other things. Giving one player the responsibility to keep track of what phase you’re in and what comes next can really help avoid having to make timing corrections.
  • Read your whole investigator card. I mean, there’s some flavour text that you can avoid, but I almost missed the fact that the investigator I took randomly17 was essentially permanently cursed, only succeeding on 6s on his tests. Made him a real challenge. So, read the whole card, and all the starting cards you get, and keep track of your various abilities. There are a lot of them.
  • Read all of the cards that affect the entire game out loud. Other people hearing the stuff may be able to help you avoid misinterpretation and mistake. It’s a co-operative game, so use your team.
  • Spend a minute or so at the start of the Action Phase to strategize. You get to decide the order in which the investigators act, so take advantage of that to make sure you’re doing things efficiently and effectively.
  • Clear your schedule. This is a game that takes time and attention to play. Not paying close attention or trying to rush things will really impact your enjoyment of the game.

Conclusions

Four of us played, and we all had a lot of fun. One of the group is generally reluctant to play these longer games18, and even she said that she had fun, and was looking forward to playing it again.

The scenario-based design really works well to build a story out of game play, and to emphasize the mystery and horror aspects of the game, especially on the first play of any given scenario, when you don’t know how the story will unfold. It also provide a strong structure for future expansion releases.

The physical design and structure of the components is typically high-end for FFG games. I sleeved all the19 cards, because I think the game’s going to get a fair bit of play, and the extra sorting and shuffling you do with the scenarios is going to increase wear on the cards. I also use a cheap set of plastic bowls for the various20 counters and tokens used in the game, making it easier to draw them during play, rather than just putting them on the table in the baggies I store them in.

Also, it looks nicer.

Of the 12 starting investigators, 10 have shown up in previous AH family games21, and 2 are new to this game. That meant I had the deluxe, painted investigator figures for all but two of the investigators. I also had some nice plastic stands for the anomaly markers that I threw in the box.

The Broken Token, my favourite creator of deluxe game crates and game organizers, has a product page up for an Arkham Horror organizer, but no organizer product listed on it, yet. I’m watching that space, though22.

This game is, to my mind an improvement over the second edition in a number of ways, including speed of play, replay value, and mechanically supported narrative. It’s still a non-trivial investment of time and money, but if you liked second edition, you’ll probably like this, and probably like it more. And it’s nice to have an AH game that fits in one box again. So, if Lovecraftian board games are of interest, I strongly recommend you check this out.

  1. And there were a lot of them! []
  2. Ba-dum CHING! []
  3. So, congratulations to the FFG marketing department, I suppose. Working as designed. []
  4. Amuse N Games, if you care. You should. They’re pretty great. []
  5. I was surprised to also get the Deluxe Rule Book with my preorder. Thanks, Brian and Scotia! []
  6. Largely unsuccessfully. []
  7. This was implemented in Eldritch Horror specifically, but was a little rough there. The AH3e version of it is nice and smooth. []
  8. ONE stupid headline! Just ONE! []
  9. This may change with the supplements that I assume are coming, and will probably add some more neighbourhood tiles. []
  10. Mostly bad. The only really good one is the one that puts a clue on the board. The other “good” one is blank, so the goodness is just that nothing bad happens. []
  11. The game’s fancy term for an array of cards that charts the narrative status of play and current goals. []
  12. You also start the game with three clues on the board. []
  13. That is, you roll dice equal to your investigator’s Observation skill, and count each 5 or 6 as a success. []
  14. Literally, in this game, because the tokens for doom are the other side of the tokens for clues. []
  15. I haven’t looked carefully at the fourth scenario, yet, so I can’t speak to what doom does in that one. []
  16. As we did, last night. []
  17. Rex Murphy. []
  18. To be fair, the version of AH she’s most familiar with is 2e, which can take 6-8 hours or more to play. []
  19. Many, many. []
  20. Many, many, many. []
  21. AH2e, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness. []
  22. Now, the page shows the AH2e box and publication date, so I don’t know if they’re making a product for 2e or 3e. Fingers crossed. []
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