HP Lovecraft was an American writer from the early 20th century. He was responsible for a fairly impressive body of work that was mainly disregarded at the time as ‘pulp fiction’ but is now considered one of the most influential horror writers of all time. The Cthuhlu Mythos (named after the dreaded Elder God sleeping beneath the ocean) with its themes of forbidden knowledge, insanity and the gradual doom of civilisation, have influenced the works the many novelists, musicians and screenwriters
But since you are reading a board gaming blog, you are probably all aware of this. Because everyone loves a Cthuhlu game. And this blog is about my favourite, Eldritch Horror.
Eldritch Horror is published by Fantasy Flight Games and was first released upon an unsuspecting world in 2013. It is based upon a far older game, Arkham Horror, first published in 1987. Arkham Horror took a band of investigators in the 1920s based around the US city of Arkham, where they had to tackle a series of challenges to prevent an ancient evil from being unleashed upon the world. Eldritch Horror takes this idea but spins it into a world spanning epic pulp adventure, where the band of heroes crosses the globe seeking ways to undo the machinations of great and powerful monsters.
Eldritch Horror is not just a change of scale however. For all the plaudits the Arkham Horror has received during its long run, it has had a reputation for fiddly interactions, complex rules and being difficult to teach. Eldritch Horror was an attempt to strip this back and provide a more streamlined play experience that did not take half the preparation time in explaining how it works to new players.
The game starts with set up, during which you need to select the Ancient One (the name of the adversaries you need to fight against) is threatening the world. Each Ancient One is a fearsome ancient deity that is awaking from a long slumber and the players must co-operate to prevent this. Each Ancient One is represented by a double sided card, which explain the process by which they awaken, any special rules that happen over the game and what happens if the countdown (the Doom track) reaches zero (it’s normally very, very bad).
Players then select their investigators, the various characters who have been given a glimpse at the terrible truths of the world, and now have a chance to put it right. Each has a different set of statistics, equipment and special actions. The many characters come from a variety of walks of life – for examples a soldier, politician, sailor, spy, shaman – each with a rule that reflects how their role aids their investigation. They also have health and sanity scores – basically the games hit points.
After the game is prepared with a number of clues, monsters and other phenomena placed in the board, the first mystery card is uncovered. These are the ways you win the game – defeat 3 mysteries and you prevent the Ancient One’s awakening. These mysteries will see you have to travel to specific locations, seek out items and do a variety of actions. Each mystery deck is also unique to each Ancient One. Seems simple right? The game begs to differ …
The game is broken down into three phases – firstly in the player phase each characters takes two actions from a list of 6 (there are more added in later expansions). These are moving, resting (healing), preparing travel (for bonus moves later), acquiring assets (buying goods), trading with another player and a special character action. Acquiring assets is particularly well done. In order to buy anything, you need to roll you influence ability and the number of successes determine how much you can buy. Short of cash? You can always take out a loan to buy extra, but this normally comes back to haunt you later …
The second phase is the encounter phase. Firstly the investigators will fight any monsters on their space. Each monster is represented by a double sided square token – you cannot see the monsters abilities until you fight it and turn it over. You will have to take tests upon your Will and Strength statistics in order to fight.
Testing abilities is a very simple mechanism – you roll a number of six sided dice equal to your relevant score, which usually ranging between 1-4, plus any bonuses you may get from items or allies. Then any dice rolls a 5 or 6 is a success. Some tests just need a single success. Others may force you to remove dice from your pile or need more than one.
In the case of combat you will have target numbers for will and strength. For every success you roll under the target, you will take a point of either sanity or health damage. Then for every strength success you have rolled, you also do damage back to the monster. As a result, it is possible to kill some monsters, but still be grievously wounded yourself in the process.
If you investigator kills all the monsters, or was in an empty space, you must then take an encounter card corresponding the space you are on. The cards normally have a variety of encounters upon them, reflecting whether you are drawing them in the wildness, cities or at seas. Major cities have their own encounter decks. These cards will normally give you a test to make or an opportunity to gain skills or spells, normally at a cost. The outcome of the encounter is explained on the card and may result in you gaining condition cards.
Condition cards are a lovely mechanic whereby you are dealt a random double sided card. These include things like Back Injury; Paranoia or Agreements. The backs of the cards are never shown to you unless a trigger is reached. Once the trigger event occurs, you will flip the card over to see what the full extent of the condition is. Your Head Injury condition could reveal itself to be a concussion or more serious brain damage, but you will never know until you turn that card.
The third phase is the Mythos phase – this is when very bad things normally happen. Every tunr you draw a Mythos card from a deck that you built at the start of the game. These will have various triggers, which may cause you to advance the doom track, create more “gates” (rifts between worlds) or spawn additional monsters. Some may force the players to discard cards or suffer sanity or health damage. There are cards that place additional problems on the board that force you to divert resources away from the main task in hand.
Are there issues with Eldritch Horror? Well nothing is perfect, but any quibbles I would have with it are minor. It does take up a lot of room – you need a dining table for all the components to be put in the right place. And be prepared to give up at least 2-3 hours to get this game done (dependant on player numbers – the most I’ve done is with 4). I would also complain about the initial box contents – despite how much is contained within, there are frankly not enough cards avoid repetition of encounters. Thankfully the first expansion, Forsaken Lore, solves this issue and needs to really be considered a mandatory purchase very soon after picking up the base game.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the title, Eldritch Horror. If you are looking for a horror game, this is not it. My experience of playing is that this is a world-spanning pulp adventure, much more akin to an Indiana Jones movie. And do you know what? I genuinely don’t care …
Eldritch Horror is a spectacular game – and I do not use that term lightly. The faults I find with it are easy to overcome and what you are left with is a brilliant experience in board gaming. It does not treat you nicely; as even any small victories are hard won and come at a price. In order to beat even the easiest of Ancient Ones takes a great deal of planning and a lot of luck (I think my win percentage against Azathoth still remains somewhere in the region of 30%-40%). But despite this difficulty and the length of the game, it never feels like a chore. Instead when you emerge at the end, you have shared a joint experience – an epic story that will see many twists and turns. And to emerge victorious, you know that you have earned it.