Eldritch Horror

Trying the solo version of Eldritch Horror.

Trying the solo version of Eldritch Horror.

Last night, I had a bunch of friends over, and we played a game of Fortune and Glory and a game of Cards Against Humanity ((I lost both games pretty badly, but still had an awesome time.)). This afternoon, after I had cleared up all the game stuff from the table, but before I removed the table leaf and pushed the table back into the correct position, I decided to try out my newest board game: Eldritch Horror, from Fantasy Flight Games.

Eldritch Horror is another Lovecraft-themed game from FFG. It’s got the same basic underpinnings as Arkham Horror or Elder Sign – it’s a co-operative game, set in the 1920s, with a Ancient One trying to break through into this reality and mess up all the furniture ((And, by “furniture,” of course, I mean, “reality as we know it.”)). It differs in scale; it covers the entire globe, while AH is a town ((Or a couple of nearby towns, with the expansions.)), and ES is a single museum. So, your investigators have to travel the globe, tracking down clues and information to prevent the Ancient One from winning.

Complexity-wise, EH falls between AH on the high end and ES on the low end. There are more moving parts and options and special rules than in ES, but not nearly as many as in AH ((Caveat: of course, there haven’t been any expansions for EH, yet. This may change; the expansions sure ratcheted up the complexity of AH, after all.)). Turn structure is a simplified version of AH turn structure, with three phases for players:

  1. Action Phase. Players get two actions. This is stuff like moving, resting, acquiring assets, resting, etc.
  2. Encounter Phase. Players get to have an encounter. They may fight a monster, or draw a special encounter card, or what have you.
  3. Mythos Phase. Draw a card to see how the Ancient One tries to screw you over.

Turns seem to tick along more quickly than with AH, and possibly even more quickly than ES, once you remove the fact that I was relying pretty heavily on the rulebook and reference guide while trying to get the hang of the way things work. All in all, I got set up and through five rounds in about an hour, with two characters. About half that time ((Maybe a little less.)) was me checking the rules to see what I was supposed to be doing. So that’s about ten minutes set-up, the big part of which is building the Mythos Deck ((You use a subset of all the Mythos cards in each game.)) and sorting out cards that don’t get used with the Ancient One, leaving about a minute per phase per player.

Of course, if you’re not playing solo, some of that time savings from not relying on the rulebooks so heavily will be eaten up by discussion, planning, and socializing. Still, compared to about five minutes per player per phase in AH, you still come out ahead if you double the EH turn esitmate.

Right there, that’s enough to make me like the game. I mean, I love AH, but it is a huge investment of time to set up and play. A version that sets up and tears down quickly, with speedy play, is just what I want, and I’d have been happy if that was all EH brought to the table ((As it were.)). But there’s a lot more than that.

I mentioned while describing the set-up that you use subsets of different kinds of cards during the game – building a Mythos Deck from a larger assortment of cards, for example. You also have some specialized decks for the various ((Four, right now: Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath.)) Ancient Ones that you must battle. These decks allow the game to build strong narratives for each of the different Ancient Ones, setting different goals and tactics for each one.

To defeat each Ancient One, you must complete three ((Or four, for some Ancient Ones.)) Mysteries. These are unique to each Ancient One, and are related to the trademarks of the specific Ancient Ones. For example, you may have to investigate the strange meteor that landed in Tunguska if you’re facing off against Azathoth, or explore newly re-risen R’lyeh if you’re dealing with Cthulhu, or defeat the Dunwich Horror if Yog-Stothoth is your opponent, or break up horrid witch cults in remote corners of the world to beat Shub-Niggurath.

In addition, there are specialized research cards and (for some) encounter decks. These, coupled with the special ways the different Ancient Ones advance the Doom Track, add a lot more consistent and ((To my mind, anyway.)) interesting narrative to play. Facing off against Azathoth is qualitatively different than dealing with Cthulhu, which is great.

There’s also a mechanic for scaling the difficulty of the game based on the number of players. A set of crib cards show you how many gates, monsters, and clues get spawned at the appropriate times, as well as the position of the initial Doom Track marker.

One other mechanic deserves mention here: double-sided cards. These are Condition cards and Spell cards, which have information on two sides. Players can freely read the top side, but are not allowed to turn them over to read the back side until something specific directs them to do so ((This is a little like the Danger/Cliffhanger cards in Fortune and Glory.)). For Spell cards, this is usually casting the spell. For Condition cards, it’s when a certain symbol comes up on a Mythos card, indicating that a Reckoning is due. The cards flip over, you get to read the consequences of your leg injury acting up on you or your bank loan coming due or the downside of messing with powers man was not meant to know.

Players win if they complete the three Mysteries of the Ancient One before the Doom Track reaches zero. Well, they mostly do. When the three Mysteries are completed, there are instructions on the Ancient One card as to what to do next. Sometimes, that’s it, you’ve one. Other times, you must face the final Mystery that is printed on the Ancient One card itself.

The Ancient One wins if the Doom Track reaches zero before all three Mysteries are solved, or if all the investigators are eliminated.

I do worry, however, about replayability. There are only the four Ancient ones included in the game, and each has a deck of four Mysteries, three of which get used each game. Right there, you’re only looking at sixteen combinations. But there is a lot of other stuff going on, too, that adds variety to each game, so it’s entirely possible that my concern is completely misplaced.

Another concern is a common one to Arkham Horror and Elder Sign ((And, indeed to other games with similar rules for getting various stuff to beef up your character, such as Fortune and Glory.)) : once your character starts doing well, he or she can get stuff to help him or her, like gear and allies and spells and so forth. But if you need to succeed at a couple of encounters without that kind of help to get the game currency you need to get the stuff that helps you. If you take some time to get rolling, it can be very frustrating ((Trust me. That’s how I spend a lot of these games.)).

On the up side, it looks like the gate and monster holders from Litko that I got for AH will work just as well with EH. I’ll have to check to see if I have the character figures for the investigators in EH, too.

So, final evaluation? I like Eldritch Horror. It fits nicely into the complexity/duration gap between Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, and does some very cool things that neither of those other games do. It’s not just a simplified version of AH, though it is that too. But it’s a great game in its own right.

I’m glad I bought it when it came out. I’m looking forward to playing a full game with real people.

Edge of the Empire Beginner Box

I’ve been kind of curious about the new Star Wars RPG from Fantasy Flight Games since it was announced. I managed to get a copy of the Edge of the Empire Beta book shortly after GenCon last year, and it looked pretty good, but until I actually played it, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it.

Then FFG released the Edge of the Empire Beginner Game. It’s been very carefully constructed to take new players ((And by this, I mean the set presupposes no knowledge of gaming at all, teaching the basics of RPGs from the ground up.)) from no knowledge of the game to basic competence with the system. The contents of the box includes a number of books and papers labeled with the order in which the GM should read them. There’s an intro sheet to read first, the adventure book to read second, another sheet with info about a follow-up adventure ((The Long Arm of the Hutt, downloadable from FFG.)), and a pared-down rulebook. In addition, you get four character folios for the pregen characters, and a set of the special dice you need to play. There are also an extra pair of character folios you can download to run the game with more than four players.

I wanted to see how the game ran, so I gathered four of my friends, and we took the Beginner Game out for a spin.

I’m not going to say too much about the adventure, both because I don’t want to spoil it for others, and because it’s a pretty linear story, with no real twists or surprises. That said, it provides a few hours of good Star Wars amusement, covering most of the kinds of things you want to do in a Star Wars game.

The main thing I was interested in seeing was how well the structure of the set taught the game. Each encounter teaches one or two new rules – or tweaks on rules – leading the players from simple ability checks, through combat, opposed rolls, minion rules, and even starship combat. By the end of the adventure, the new players have had a taste of just about everything available in the game, with one exception that I’ll talk about later.

One of the big things I wanted to see was how the the fancy dice worked. Like they did with the latest Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay edition ((Although, not with such wanton exuberance.)), FFG created a new dice mechanic to work with specialized dice in a simple dice pool system. You build your dice pool based on attributes and skills possessed by your character, adding difficulty dice based on opposition, difficulty, and situation, and roll them all. Add up success symbols, cancel successes with failure symbols, and if you have one success symbol left, you succeed. There are a couple more tweaks to the system, with advantage and triumph symbols on the positive side, and threat and despair symbols on the negative side, but you get the idea.

The dice give outcomes along two different axes – success/failure and advantage/threat, tweaked by triumph and despair. It works pretty slick, and the players learned the language of the dice symbols quite quickly, so play actually went fast after the first couple of encounters. What I found, though, was that estimating the odds – what was a long shot, what was a sure thing – was difficult. I mean, you can ballpark the odds based on the types and numbers of dice in the pool in a broad way: more green skill dice than purple difficulty dice mean that the roll is likely to succeed. But how likely is more difficult to tell ((Why do I care? Well, it’s not a gamebreaker, but I’m so used to examining and understanding the odds on numerical dice rolls that I feel a little adrift without the ability to do that. Not a huge deal.)).

Combat runs pretty quickly, and the threat and advantage mechanic adds some colourful variation to the vanilla back-and-forth of the standard “I hit him, then he hits me” of the basic combat system. The minion rules turn groups of stormtroopers into serious opposition without bogging the game down. And the starship combat runs smooth, with options for everyone on the ship ((At least, everyone on the ship in the playtest.)) to do something every turn.

Opposed rolls work very much like normal rolls in this system, with the difficulty dice that are added to the pool being determined by the skill of the character opposing the active character’s intent. So, if you’re trying to talk a junk dealer into selling you a part he promised to another ((Just as an example.)), the difficulty dice in your pool are based on the junk dealer’s Discipline skill. This nicely resolves in a single roll what normally takes two separate rolls. I like the idea, and it works pretty well in play.

The one thing that the Beginner Game doesn’t cover that exists in the Beta version of the game ((Well, the one play aspect that I noticed. Of course, the Beginner Game has no info on character creation, fewer equipment listings, etc. As one would expect in an introductory set.)) is rules for Force users. Now, Edge of the Empire doesn’t deal with Jedi or Sith characters, and rightly so; the default setting of the game is the interval between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back ((I’m pretty sure, anyway. I don’t have the book handy right now.)), when the Jedi have been hunted almost to extinction and only Vader and the Emperor stand for the Sith. Out on the Rim, the eponymous edge of the Empire, there may be a few minor Force users that haven’t been exterminated yet, but anything more impressive gets far too much Imperial attention.

So, as I say, no Force use in the Beginner Game, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Based on what I’ve seen in the Beta book ((And bear in mind that it is a Beta book, so things are apt to change.)), Force powers add another layer of complexity and another new type of die, along with a whole set of powers and abilities. They look interesting and useful but, as I say, they weren’t in the Beginner Game, so I didn’t get to test them.

Anyway, final verdict on the game is that it was fun to play. The linearity of the adventure can be forgiven in light of how the game is structured to teach the system, and there’s enough fun stuff in the adventure to make it enjoyable to play. It did a good job of teaching the basics of the system to new players ((And GMs.)), while hinting at how much more fun you can have using the full game.

So, if you have an interest in a Star Wars RPG, I suggest checking it out. It’s not that expensive, will give you a taste of the system, an evening’s play ((More, if you download the sequel adventure.)), and a set of the dice you need for the game.

Go check it out.