We’re back! And to mark our return we’re taking a look at Eldritch Horror, the notable reinvention of Arkham Horror second edition that appeared in the ’10s (and one of the ever-popular series of Lovecraftian co-ops).
Eldritch Horror by Corey Konieczka & Nikki Valens
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure Game, Resource Management
The world has a problem. Gates are opening and letting in monsters from beyond. To save the world, the players must solve the mysteries of the Ancient One while simultaneously resolving rumors and closing gates — any of which might bring DOOM to the world.
As with its predecessor, Arkham Horror (1987, 2005, 2018), the challenge system in Eldritch Horror is activated once per round of play when a player draws a Mythos card that reveals the newest threats. Typically, four Mythos events occur from a menu of seven, which keeps players on their toes, never knowing what will occur. Possibilities include:
- A new gate and monster appear on the board.
- The Doom track advances, based on which gates are on the board. This is the most obvious marker of the players’ slide toward defeat. (The Doom track can also be also be advanced by other events, such as characters dying; this nicely consolidates several sorts of bad results without requiring the players to track multiple loss conditions.)
- New monsters appear at certain gates. The monsters in Eldritch Horror are just barely a threat; they’re more of an obstacle, keeping players from doing the things they want.
- Specially marked “reckoning” effects occur, based on which Ancient Ones, monsters, and threats are about. This is a nice mechanism for consolidating many different powers into a single trigger.
- Rumors are placed. These are usually new, ongoing problems that must be resolved.
- Clues are placed. This is a positive effect, as it creates the resources that players need to resolve many of the problems.
- A special one-time effect bedevils the players.
These options combine to create an interesting challenge simulation focused on two elements (gates and monsters) that interrelate: gates tend to spawn monsters, and monsters tend to protect gates. Parallel with that, Eldritch Horror spawns tasks — the mysteries and the rumors — that players must accomplish. The result is a common cooperative gaming trope: players must balance tasks that can cause the loss of the game (gates & rumors) with obstacles that stand in the way of their winning (monsters) and tasks that can lead to victory in the game (mysteries).
The most unique aspect of the challenge system is probably how the Mythos deck is constructed: it’s stacked. Eldritch Horror may be the only major co-op game to use a “pre-organized deck” where sets of cards are placed in strata to create a specific effect. At the start of the game, the deck is formed from three sets of cards — each of which contains a specific number of randomly selected green, yellow, and blue cards. Those three sets are then stacked in a specific order. The result is a game that gets harder as it goes onward, creating the decay that’s so important for a cooperative board game.
The overall Eldritch Horror challenge system is also interesting for how it takes the challenge aspects of Arkham Horror and simplifies and abstracts them. For example, closing the gates of Arkham Horror required a complex routine, while in Eldritch Horror it’s all done with cards that uniquely describe what’s required each time. Similarly, the change of monsters from being active threats to passive obstacles removed several complex rules about sneaking past monsters. The result of all of this is a much better polished game that shows how a very complex challenge system can be improved by enthusiastic development.
Challenge System Elements: Round & Exploration Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Environmental, Interrelated, and Removal Consequences; Combat, Task, and Victory Threats.
As in its predecessor, Arkham Horror, the cooperative elements of Eldritch Horror mainly focus on strategic cooperation, where players run off in different directions to deal with different problems. However, Eldritch Horror seems to support this sort of play slightly better: it feels easier to specialize characters during play, so that they can get better at their individual roles. Meanwhile, a tighter, less sprawling board makes item trading easier; this in turns feeds back on the specialization, as players can now get the appropriate items to the appropriate characters.
Also like its predecessor, characters in Eldritch Horror can’t really work on tasks together. Though players can focus on the same actions, they do so one at a time — meaning that those tasks will ultimately be solved faster, but with the same amount of total effort. The exceptions are the “mysteries”, which are usually large-scale tasks that everyone can contribute resources to.
Finally, Eldritch Horror expands on one other sort of cooperation that carries over from Arkham Horror: removing monsters that are in the way of task completion. Eldritch Horror lets players choose who the first player is each round — which allows the monster killer to go first when it’s convenient to do so. This turn ordering can also improve cooperation of other sorts: it can sometimes be helpful for a player to go first (or last) depending on where he is or what he can do. It’s a really tiny mechanic that has a surprisingly large effect.
Characters in Eldritch Horror are defined just like those of predecessor, Arkham Horror: each has specific skills, some special powers, and can gather a variety of equipment. The result is a very rich adventure system. It’s played up by the fact that players can actually die and get a “death scene” when someone encounters the fallen character.
Meanwhile, the introduction of unique “mysteries” for each Ancient One creates not just variability but also story in the game. The result is one of the most evocative cooperative games out there, which is saying a lot given Eldritch Horror’s ancestors.
Expansions & Variants
Eldritch Horror was Fantasy Flight’s fourth Cthulhu cooperative game, following in the footsteps of Arkham Horror Second Edition (2005), Elder Sign (2011), and Mansions of Madness (2011). It shares a lot in common with Arkham Horror; even though it only claims “inspiration” from its predecessor, it feels more like a ground-up redevelopment.
Fantasy Flight Games followed the same release pattern for Eldritch Horror as for its predecessor. Big box supplements included “side boards” and other large-scale changes to the game: Mountains of Madness (2014), Under the Pyramids (2015), The Dreamlands (2017), and Masks of Nyarlathotep (2018). Smaller supplements consisted mainly of cards: Forsaken Lore (2014), Strange Remnants (2015), Signs of Carcosa (2016), and Cities in Ruin (2017). Support for Eldritch Horror ended when FFG revived Arkham Horror in a third edition (2018).
Arkham Horror second edition was a successful game that still showed its origins in the more rough-and-tumble game design of the ’80s. Eldritch Horror is a very thorough redesign of that game that revisits every game system to see how it could be polished and cleaned.
Eldritch Horror’s challenge, cooperative, and adventure systems are very clear descendents of the ones in Arkham Horror; the challenge system is nonetheless of note for designers, primarily for how it creates a very complex interplay of elements while still seeming simple and easy to understand.
Overall, Eldritch Horror is an excellent reinvention of a deep, adventure-focused cooperative game. Unfortunately, at 2-4 hours it’s still too long for casual play.
“I like games that tell a great story. Battlestar Galactica, Eldritch Horror, and Imperial Assault all have special places in my heart.”
— Corey Konieczka, Interview, Board Times Interview (November 2014)