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.

Rough Magi(c)k(s)

Gonna talk about two different things, now. They’ve got similar titles, and both deal with Lovecraft; one’s a DVD and the other is a game supplement.

Rough Magik

This is a television pilot from the BBC that never got made. It’s available on DVD from Lurker Films, on Volume 2 of the H.P. Lovecraft Collection – Dreams of Cthulhu: The Rough Magik Initiative.

The set-up is simple: twenty years ago, a group of covert operatives in the UK ran into a cult that worshiped a strange, ancient god that slept and dreamed beneath the seas. I don’t recall them using the name Cthulhu in the episode, but the sculptures and themes make it very clear that that’s who they’re talking about. They called themselves the Night Scholars, and the cult was called the Dreamers. Through great sacrifice and skill, the Night Scholars pretty much wiped out the Dreamers, though most of the Night Scholars wound up dead, insane, or exiled.

Now, the cult is stirring again, and the powers-that-be in the British government find they need to reactivate the Night Scholars they had previously disavowed and driven away.

If that sounds like a great framework for a Delta Green campaign, you’re not alone in thinking so.

Now, as I said, the series never got made, but the DVD has a pretty detailed description of the episodes that would have been made. In fact, according to the list, the episode on the disk is, in fact, episode 2: An Age of Wonders. The plan was for 14 episodes, and the brief descriptions of each of them make me very, very sad that they were never produced.

I can understand why, though. This is powerful, disturbing stuff, both on a horror-story level and on a human level. The episode on the disk opens with a middle-class mother sacrificing her young children to Cthulhu. There are scenes of atrocities in the Falklands as part of the story. Some unfriendly things are said about what people are capable of.

They manage all of this on what seems a shoestring budget. They use the cheap option for night-time scenes that we all know and love from low-budget kung-fu and horror movies – film during daytime, and use a dark filter. The scenes of gore and dismemberment are done in quick cuts (so to speak) and uncertain lighting. Most of the true horror creeps in as you start to think about the implications of what you’ve just seen or heard, rather than from buckets of blood or rubber monsters jumping out at you.

There are four other shorts on the DVD:

  • Experiment 17, which does a great job of looking like a WWII German Army archive film of a paranormal experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong.
  • Experiment 18, which is a sort of sequel, and loses a lot by abandoning the stark, simplistic style of 17 in favour of trying to tell a longer, more complex story.
  • The Terrible Old Man, which is pretty good, but longer than the pay-off is worth, in my opinion.
  • From Beyond, which shows the futility of getting actors to speak the dialogue Lovecraft wrote for his characters.

There’s also a bunch of extra stuff that’s of interest to Lovecraft and/or horror movie aficionados.

As I said, I’m very sad that the series never made it past the pilot, but I’m very glad to have the pilot. You should get it and watch it, if you like Lovecraft.

Rough Magicks

This is a sourcebook for Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press. First thing you need to do is check out this cover art. That, to me, is the essence of magic in the Cthulhu mythos. “Yay! My spell worked! My dark god has arrived and OH MY GOD IT’S EATING ME!!!”

The book is written by the illustrious and inventive Ken Hite, and offers an expansion on the magic system from the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook. It’s short – 38 pages, including a new character sheet – and inexpensive – $9.95 for the hard copy. And it’s quite good.

The new system is pretty light, consisting of just adding a new ability (Magic), and saying basically “Use this instead of Stability when you do magic stuff.” It’s a little more complex than that, and the book does a decent job of spelling out just exactly how it all works, but there’s not that much more to it.

There is also the obligatory collection of new spells, some examples of how to use the Idiosyncratic Magic from the Bookhounds of London campaign framework, and an analysis of what magics Lovecraftian magic Lovecraftian.

The two parts of the book that I really love, though, are very short. One is a page-long sidebar called “Names to Conjure With,” which gives the Keeper a list of names of historical or fictitious magi to seed into histories or spells or scrolls or whatever. I love stuff like this, that lets me name drop and create a sense of a vast mystical world lying below the surface of the mundane one.

The other part runs two whole pages, and gives a variety of options (reminiscent of the section on Gods and Titans in the core book) for what magic actually is. My favourite has to be the idea of it being the corrupted bio-technological operating system written into the DNA and crystalline structure of the world by the Elder Things. Using magic means hacking the degenerate code fragments still in place.

Anyway, as I said, it’s a short book, so this is a short review. I like it. If you play Trail of Cthulhu, or even Call of Cthulhu, there’s a lot in this little package to take your game up a very weird notch or two.

Trail of Cthulhu

I got my copy of Trail of Cthulhu this week. It’s a new implementation of the Call of Cthulhu game, using Robin D. Laws’s GUMSHOE system, and it was written by Ken Hite.

I like it.

Now, I like the original game, too, a whole lot. But in many ways, I think I might prefer the new one. I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know after I play a session or two.

Let’s talk about why I like the new game, though.

  1. It’s written by Ken Hite. If you aren’t familiar with the name, then you really need to pick up Nightmares of Mine, Suppressed Transmission, and Suppressed Transmission 2. The man knows his weird stuff, and builds it into supremely gameable constructions. He’s been a hero of mine since I started reading his column in Pyramid Magazine, and he achieved godlike status with the coining of the word “speleo-herpetologist.” There’s a pretty short list of folks I’d trust with a new version of a Lovecraft game, and he’s on it. Near the top. At least twice.
  2. No more missed clues. The GUMSHOE system of Robin Laws removes the bane of investigation-based games: you can’t get stuck with no way forward because you missed the roll for the vital clue. In the game, if you’ve got the right ability, and you use it, you get whatever clue it might provide automatically. The game becomes less about finding the clues and more about interpreting them.
  3. The Great Old Ones. Ken’s take on them is great. First of all, he doesn’t give them stats, very reasonably treating them as plot devices. When one of the big boys – Cthulhu, Hastur, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, etc. – show up, it either means that you’ve really got to hurry with the ritual to banish it, or you’ve already lost and should just embrace your new role as mindless servitor or dinner. Beyond that, he gives five or six different interpretations of each of them, some wildly contradictory, that characters may find in their research. Because these beings are essentially unknowable by humans, I think that works very well.
  4. The creatures. Lesser beings are nicely statted up, and include a great little section on what sorts of clues they may leave behind, which is immensely helpful for a GM. They are, all of them, nasty in the extreme. As it should be.
  5. The fun little sanity games. The book includes suggestions to get the other players working with the GM to make the player whose character has gone insane feel confused and disoriented, not just the character.
  6. Tons of good GM advice. Specifically for running this game with this system, but a lot of it is just good, solid advice for any horror or investigation game.
  7. Campaign frameworks. Three ready-to-use setups for ongoing play, talking about who the characters are and why they do what they do, and what they tend to run into. They include one fairly standard Lovecraftian framework, one proto-Delta Green framework, and one very interesting one involving shady rare book dealers in London.

The book also has an introductory scenario, but I haven’t decided how much I like it. On the one hand, it’s a great little mystery that shows Ken’s ability to mix real-world history with mythology and deep weirdness. On the other hand, it doesn’t deal very directly with any specific aspect of the Cthulhu mythos, though it does talk about what may be behind the whole mess. As an adventure, I like it a great deal, but I think I would have preferred a more standard Cthulhoid example.

All in all, I think this is a very interesting, well-done game, and I can’t wait to try it out. I’ll post the results after I have a chance to run it.

Right now, though, I have to get ready for the final Dresden Files playtest session tonight.