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 years ((And there were a lot of them!)), 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 arcane ((Ba-dum CHING!)). 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.


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 resistance ((So, congratulations to the FFG marketing department, I suppose. Working as designed.)), so I preordered it from my FLGS ((Amuse N Games, if you care. You should. They’re pretty great.)), and picked up my copy on release day ((I was surprised to also get the Deluxe Rule Book with my preorder. Thanks, Brian and Scotia!)).

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, trying ((Largely unsuccessfully.)) 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 experience ((This was implemented in Eldritch Horror specifically, but was a little rough there. The AH3e version of it is nice and smooth.)). 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 that ((ONE stupid headline! Just ONE!)).


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 board ((This may change with the supplements that I assume are coming, and will probably add some more neighbourhood tiles.)).

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 things ((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.)), 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 Codex ((The game’s fancy term for an array of cards that charts the narrative status of play and current goals.)) 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


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 Phase ((You also start the game with three clues on the board.)). 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 test ((That is, you roll dice equal to your investigator’s Observation skill, and count each 5 or 6 as a success.)) 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 is the flipside of clues ((Literally, in this game, because the tokens for doom are the other side of the tokens for clues.)). 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 scenarios ((I haven’t looked carefully at the fourth scenario, yet, so I can’t speak to what doom does in that one.)), 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 times ((As we did, last night.)), 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.



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 randomly ((Rex Murphy.)) 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.


Four of us played, and we all had a lot of fun. One of the group is generally reluctant to play these longer games ((To be fair, the version of AH she’s most familiar with is 2e, which can take 6-8 hours or more to play.)), 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 the ((Many, many.)) 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 various ((Many, many, many.)) 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 games ((AH2e, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness.)), 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, though ((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.)).

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.

Rammed by the Black Goat of the Woods

Just finished our first Arkham Horror game using the Kingsport Horror and Black Goat of the Woods expansions (along with the other three: Curse of the Dark Pharoah, Dunwich Horror, and The King in Yellow). It was a lot of fun, but ended badly for humanity.

Some observations:

  • I had to put a leaf into my dining table to hold all three gameboards, and use two side tables to hold the various stacks of cards and tokens. The game has always been big; now it’s BIG! We had to walk around the table a fair bit to move our characters, read the monster stats, reach our clue tokens, etc.
  • The rifts mechanic in Kingsport is a potentially fatal distraction. You can’t ignore it, but you can’t really focus too much on it. We had only three players, and that meant that we were pressed to try and get everything done without worrying about the rifts. By the time we started paying attention to them, everything was getting out of hand.
  • Heralds and Ancient Ones: Having a Herald in play makes the game more difficult. Having the Ancient One associated with the Herald in play makes the game especially hard. We played with Shub Niggurath and the Black Goat Herald, because I wanted to see how the new stuff in the expansion worked, and the synergy between the Herald and the Ancient One was pretty overwhelming. With a couple of extra players, I think we would have had some breathing room, but it still would have been a real challenge.
  • Kingsport recommends playing with multiple characters per player if you have a small group; once you add the third board in, there is a lot of territory to cover. And Kingsport can’t be ignored as safely as Dunwich could, because of the whole rift thing. In future, I think running with two characters each if we have fewer than five players is a good idea.
  • The Epic Battle variant added a lot of flavour to the final battle when Shub Niggurath broke through. The new mechanics were good, and the flavour text was great. However, the “You Lose” card came up as the first red card, which was somewhat disappointing. I think it would be a good idea to expand the two decks, and pick the appropriate number of green and red cards randomly at the start of the game. Just to shake things up a bit.

We all died in the final battle. Tom went down when Shub Niggurath arrived, because his previous character had been devoured trying a courageous stunt to take a token off the doom track, and his new character didn’t have any monster trophies left. I fell next, to a Dark Young that got summoned as part of the Epic Battle and the customized Ancient One plot decks (my ninth injury was a duplicate – another sprained ankle). Fera held on to the bitter end, but then that damned “You Lose” card showed up, just when she had Shub Niggurath on the ropes.

Anyway, it was one of the more brutal games we’ve played, and everyone said we needed to play more often, which I took as a positive sign. I mean, we’d just had our asses handed to us by Shub Niggurath and her flunky, and it made us want to play again.

That’s a good game, in my book.

Home Again

I’m back from GenCon. As always, it was a real blast. I got back around 9:00 last night, and had to be up for work this morning, so my recollection is kind of chaotic, but I want to talk a little bit about it while it’s fresh.

Here we go, in no particular order:

  • Once again, I spent my time with Scott Glancy of Pagan Publishing and Jared Wallace of Dagon Industries, both fine gentleman. We shared the both with Shane Ivey and the Arc Dream Publishing crew, and they were a good bunch of fellows, as well.
  • Greg Stolze spent a lot of time in the both, flogging his games Reign and Dirty World. I got to know Greg back in the days I was writing for Unknown Armies, and it’s always a pleasure to spend some time with him.
  • Ken Hite, one of my favourite connoisseurs of the weird and the real and the intersection of the two, stopped by a few times. He’s got a new book out: Tour de Lovecraft. It’s a collection of his blog entries, and takes you on a tour through all 51 of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. Good, good stuff. I bought two.
  • I got to touch base with Fred Hicks and Lenny Balsera of Evil Hat. They were both pretty busy, but it was good to shake hands and attach faces to names. Nice folks.
  • At the Pagan booth, we had the printer’s proof of one of their next books, Mysteries of Mesoamerica. My good friend and GenCon traveling partner, sculptor Clint Staples, wrote a big chunk of the book, and it’s been a long time coming out. But it’s more than worth the wait. This book is absolutely beautiful!
  • Had dinner a couple of nights with Gwen and Brian from Sigh Co. Met them last year, and they’re very nice people. Good to see them again.
  • Fantasy Flight Games is rapidly becoming the powerhouse of the show. I bought a new expansion for Arkham Horror from them that I didn’t even know was coming – The Black Goat of the Woods. There were about four other games I would have liked to pick up, but the budget can only be stretched so far.
  • Last year, I passed on the Campaign Coins, and I regretted it. This year, I bought the starter set, and feel much better about myself. They’re very nice.
  • Also picked up Aces & Eights, BRP, and Alpha Omega. Haven’t had much chance to get into them yet, though. Look for thoughts in future posts.
  • Didn’t get to play in Scott Glancy’s playtest this year, but he did talk to me some about the scenario and his thinking behind it. I just want to go on record as saying that there is something broken inside his very soul if he can come up with stuff like that, and I thank him for it.
  • Seemed to be a larger female turnout this year. More, there seemed to be more females buying game product for themselves this year. I like to see this; the hobby has a lot to offer everyone, regardless of gender, and it’s good to see it grow.
  • For those interested, the final tally for the count on Saturday was 43*.

So, it was a good trip, and I had a lot of fun. Thanks to everyone I spent time with down there. You guys are what makes the trip worthwhile.


*Those who know don’t need to ask. Those who ask don’t need to know.

No Roles – Board and Card Games

A friend of mine dropped off a new board game with me tonight. He bought it, but he doesn’t have time to work through the rules and figure out how to play so that he can teach the rest of us, so he’s leaving that to me.

I don’t mind. I like board games. And card games. They’re a fun diversion when you want to game, but you can’t get the whole group together for an RPG, or you don’t want to devote the energy to an RPG, or you have non-RPG-players in the group, or you just want something different.

It got me thinking about board and card games that I like, and why I like them. Here are three of my favourites:

Arkham Horror

This is probably the most popular game in my collection. It has a great mix of strategy, random surprises, and truly fiendish challenges. It also gets played less than it’s popularity would seem to indicate; it’s a long game, it takes a long time to set up, and it takes a long time to put away.

Especially the way we play, with all three supplements.

It also looks rather intimidating to newcomers. Having said that, it’s really a pretty simple game, once you get the basics down. The turn sequence is easy to pick up on, and the rest is just reading the cards and rolling the dice. We played a couple of weeks ago, with a player who was completely new to the game, and she picked it up pretty fast.

Co-operation rules in this game – if you don’t work together, you lose. Talking to each other, parceling out tasks, and carrying them out is central to victory.

It also does a nice job of capturing some of the feel of the source material, with horrific monsters, impending doom, rampant insanity, and the advent of an Elder God to worry about.

It’s not perfect, though. The aforementioned set-up and pack-up time (I’ve got it down to about 20 minutes each, which is not bad for over a thousand different pieces) is a barrier: I don’t set up for less than two other players, because it’s just too much work. Play time is also a factor; I’ve finished a game in under an hour, but that was really a fluke. Generally, I figure on about 5-6 hours for a complete game. That’s long. And in the last game, we found a nasty little quirk with one of the characters that makes her pretty much invulnerable as she spirals down in madness and maimings.

One thing we found was very useful for speeding play was to have one person, who is also playing a character, act as a sort of referee and timekeeper, calling the different phases and keeping everyone on task.

Still, every time we play, everyone has a blast. It’s worth the effort and time, but not every day.

Fury of Dracula

This is another fun game from Fantasy Flight. And every game we play, my friend Clint and I are amazed once again at the complex, delicate balance of the thing. It works best with five players: four hunters and one Dracula, and it really comes down to a question of strategy and skill between the two sides.

I’ve run the game as a demo at stores and conventions, and I’ve seen how easy it is to set Dracula up for a loss just by placing him in a sub-optimal starting position. But even the optimal starting positions don’t make his victory a lock. Using his powers, choosing his route, timing his attacks, placing his traps, all these things are vital to his success.

On the other side of the table, the hunters have their own strengths. Each has his or her own special ability which, when used wisely and creatively, can really turn the game around.

Dracula’s hidden movement system is beautiful, and is one of the interesting balance items. So is the order of player turns, the arrangement of event cards, the mix of cities and their locations on the board, and the mix of encounters Dracula can play with. In fact, everything about the game contributes to the game balance in interesting ways. From a design perspective, the game is beautiful.

It also generally plays in under two hours, and sets up and tears down in a total of about twelve minutes, which makes it good for a spur of the moment game.

The one thing that seems a little out of place in the game is that there are a couple of event cards that come up randomly that give a big, big boost to one side or the other. Now, the balance between the two sides with these cards is fairly equal, but it seems like a real blow when Dracula gets to relocate for free, breaking his trail on you, or the hunters get to reveal Dracula’s current location.

The only other downside is the combat system is a little convoluted and arcane. Until you play through it a couple of times, it doesn’t make much sense. Once you’ve got it down, though, it’s slick and interesting.

Still, a fun game.

Deluxe Illuminati

If you don’t know this game, I’ve really gotta ask you what you’re doing reading a blog primarily devoted to gaming.

Illuminati’s been around for decades, and is one of those nasty little games that just grabs you and hooks you. Play is generally quick, schemes abound, and backstabbing is pretty much required. Everyone loves it, everyone gets into it, and everyone gangs up on me.

Every time.

And still, I love it.

When you throw in the expansion sets, the game gets pretty strange, but that’s what you want with this game. Finding out that the Boy Sprouts are a front for the Colombian Cocaine Growers, who are controlled by the UFOs just makes too much sense some times.

What’s great about the game? All the groups, the mechanics to let you mess with other players, the good-natured betrayals, the quick changes of fortune, and the mass of deals struck and rejected.

What’s not so great about the game? Well, some of the cards are kind of dated now. And everyone gangs up on me.

Every time.

But I’m not bitter.

Anyway, it’s a great game. You should be playing it.

And there you have it. I’m going to talk about a few more games I like next time. Check back.