Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The horror!

Yesterday I played Arkham Horror for the first time.  It is a cooperative board game for 1-8 players themed around Lovecraftian monsters coming into the world, eventually followed by some sort of horrible evil Elder God.  The players are investigators trying to fight or evade the monsters and either close all the gates to other worlds or defeat the Elder God.

I hate Arkham Horror.

Part of it is Arkham Horror's design flaws and part of it is simply the type of game it is, which isn't necessarily a flaw but makes it a game I dislike.  Arkham Horror is one of those cooperative games where players all have the same information so instead of each player deciding things on their own they all can make decisions together.  This is pretty much the definition of the Alpha Player Problem where newer or less aggressive players get told what to do by the better or more yelly players.  It is also extremely random and involves drawing lots of cards that either ruin you or help you, and rolling lots of dice to see how encounters come out.

I dislike both random games where you just do stuff and see what happens and games where one player can just run the board.  They make me sad.  You might like those games but I have no use for them whatever.

Let us imagine for a moment that I am the sort of person that likes the kind of game Arkham Horror is.  Does it do that well?

No, not really.

The quality of the pieces and art is great.  The theme is well done and I like the characters and events.  There is all kinds of fluff and lore that is well made and enjoyable.  Unfortunately the play of the game is rubbish.  In the game I played I just did the same thing over and over again because there was no reason to explore or do anything interesting.  The cards that came up were extremely favourable so we just walked through the game effortlessly and it hardly matters what we did at all.  We won handily, never felt like there was any real threat, and honestly spent much of our time not having anything to do.  People just wandered to random locations to draw random cards to see what would happen because there was nothing useful to accomplish.

I read a strategy guide written by someone who had played a lot and who read all the cards and the optimal strategy is to just sit in one place that has mostly really helpful cards and do nothing else if you can avoid it.  When the strategy guide is "Just sit in the Newspaper office all game" then the game itself seems extremely weak.  It is fine to have some areas be good for some things and not others, and it is also fine for some areas to be risky but with big payoffs, but when you just stay in one place because it is flat out the best then the game is not well made.

Arkham Horror feels like a game that was built by someone who liked the Lovecraftian lore, got lots of nice art made, and had no clue how to build a good game.  It is the Monopoly of modern cooperative games - trivial strategy, extremely long, and unpleasantly random.

Two thumbs way, way down.


  1. I'm glad you read the strategy guide to confirm it, just in case that experience was atypical.

    It's too bad - the flavour was rich, and the potential exciting, but as you said, any game where "sitting around waiting for stuff to happen" is the strategy is not super fun.

    1. If you don't want to sit around waiting for stuff to happen... Go do something! Try to join the creepy cult under the tower! Get a twinky weapon and clear the streets of monsters!

  2. The optimal strategy for one person may be to do that, but if you send the whole party to one spot you're going to get screwed most of the time I would think.

    It's also not extremely long if you're playing with a small number of players who either know how to play or have a traffic cop. I've certainly seen a 6 player game take more than 7 hours which is obscene (I wasn't in that game, thankfully. I was playing bridge in the basement instead!).

    It has real balance issues when it comes to number of players, too. It's been a while since I played but my understanding is it's practically impossible with 2, a good challenge with 3, and trivial with 4.

    I feel like maybe since you're the sort of person who detests this sort of game you're probably not the best person to decide if it's a good game for the genre or not. I've quite enjoyed most of the games I've played, especially when playing 3 player games with Aidan and someone else.

    There is a 'remake' of the game that I've heard is better, but I have yet to play it. (Eldritch Horror)

    1. Eldritch Horror is both very different and *much* *much* better. It keeps a lot of the flavor stuff (the same characters, the same enemies, the same item decks) but completely changes the main set of rules.

      In EH, you have a bunch of locations that need to be "solved", and solving them gives you bonus stuff, gets you closer to winning, or stops bad things from happening. Unlike AH, there's no random rolling to move or random effects at locations. To solve a location means moving there, rolling dice, and getting the right symbols on the dice you roll, with items and character abilities and other stuff adjusting how many/which dice you roll and what you do with them.

      It still has the same problem Sky mentioned with AH that everyone has knowledge of what everyone else can do, so the 'group' decision is likely to be what the most experienced/shouty person decides should be done. But the randomness is less of a "did I get lucky or doom us all?" and more of a risk/reward management mechanic.

    2. "Did I get lucky or doom us all?" is kinda the point of a Lovecraftian world though, isn't it?

      I'd also worry more about an alpha gamer problem if the randomness is more risk/reward because that feels like it's easier to 'solve', but not having played it's hard to say.

      I donno, I feel like Arkham Horror is not really a game for focusing on winning and more a game for having fun in that world. Like Tales of the Arabian Nights, which Sky couldn't fathom why we wanted to play.

    3. If you want to tell a story or immerse yourself in Lovecraftian Horror, I feel like there have to be a lot of better ways to do it than a board game. If you want to play a game about winning and losing, Arkham Horror is a terrible way to do that. I just don't think it is good at anything.

    4. And again, because you don't like something makes you a pretty bad judge on if it's good at being that thing.

      You're going to point at D&D or another roleplaying system as a 'better' way to tell a story. And for some people you're going to be right. But for other people (people who need more structure to be comfortable, for example) then a board game is actually a great way to do that.

      You want your board games to be about winning and losing, and that's fine. But saying that they only have to be about winning and losing is awfully hoity-toity of you. Not everyone is like you. Not everything is about you. Arkham Horror not being at anything you want from a board game doesn't mean it's not good at anything.

  3. I think Arkham horror isn't designed for the sort of player who reads strategy guides (or even reads all the cards beforehand) to get good at a game. It's designed for players who want to play wth no idea other than what they can guess from the theme about what's in the decks. There's much less alpha player problem because no-one knows what's in the decks, so no-one knows what a good play is. You have fun exploring and seeing what happens. When you've played enough that you've learned what is in which deck, and which locations are so good that you should stay there and which locations are terrible ones that you should never go to, the game is "used up", and you play another game.

    I have two problems with this sort of game. The first is that if you don't always play with the same group of people, then you can be in a situation where the player who has played more, and knows what's in the decks, has a much better idea what the right play is than the other players, and that player is faced with the choice of being an alpha player that makes the game less fun for everyone else, or not really trying to win, and making the game less fun for them.

    The other problem is that I like a game that gets better, rather than worse, when the players know the game well. I can't give any rational reason for this: maybe it made sense back when there were far fewer games, so there was risk of all of them getting "used up". But the feeling that I'm learning to play better as I play is part of what makes a game fun for me, and if I feel that what I'm doing by learning how to play well is "using up" the game, and once I've learned to play well I'll have to move on to a different game, then I enjoy the experience a lot less.

    1. I agree on all counts. I love playing games over and over to master them, and a game that becomes crap after you do this a bit is not my style at all. Some people go to board game nights to play 4 different games. I go to play the best game 4 times back to back.