|Interaction||Components & Design|
The Investigators are very different people from all over the world that stumbled upon the the dangerous plot to awaken an Old One. They are politicians or soldiers, sailors or actors. If they tell their story, no one will believe it, at worst they might end up in an insane asylum. And so the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of the one to eight players. All they have are their own skills and their starting assets – a weapon, an ally, maybe a spell that has a chance to kill them when they use it. That’s what the players start with after going through the considerable effort to set up the game. If you ever played Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror‘s ancestor, then you have a pretty good idea of the amount of material used: There are 14 different decks of cards and just as many different types of token, that all want to be sorted distributed before you start. I suggest you invest heavily into small plastic bags before the first time you play.
Also during setup, players decide which Great Old One they want to face. Or they just draw one if they’re feeling brave. Included in Eldritch Horror are only four of the ancient beasts, but with all the other variables in the game they are enough to give you new challenges for a while. Each of the GOOs adds its own special rules to the game. For instance, Shub-Niggurath, The Black Goat of the Woods, floods the board with monsters for you to fight. The most famous GOO, Great Cthulhu himself, makes it harder and more dangerous to travel by sea as the game progresses. That doesn’t sound so bad, until the proverbial fecal matter encounters the air moving device in Sidney and someone has to get there right now. How you stop them from waking, on the other tentacle, is similar for all four: the players must solve three mysteries from that GOO’s Mystery Deck. What exactly that entails is different again for each of them, common options are to deliver tokens to a special location on the game board, to pass skill checks in the right place or to defeat special monsters. All that must happen before the Doom Track on the board reaches zero, because if it does the GOO awakens and things get a lot worse. Every round counts, the players have to coordinate their actions well.
Each player has two actions per round, picked from six possibilities. They are all rather quick to do, the longest part of the Action Phase is usually the discussion who will do what this round. Traveling, for example, is an action. An Investigator moves along a path on the board from one space to the next. Preparing for travel is another, you can buy a ticket that you use on a future travel action to move more than one space. As another action, you can rest and restore one point of Health and Sanity to your character – running out of either one is bad, so rest frequently. Also as an action, you can trade possessions with another player standing on the same space. The last two options are slightly, but really only slightly, more elaborate.
One is to buy assets: weapons, other items, allies and one time services, be they from FedEx or a militia, basically everything that isn’t magical counts as an asset. Four assets are available at any time. To take one or more of them, the player must test her Influence skill, one of the five character skills. Rolling tests is simple, you roll as many dice as you have points in that skill, any five or six is a success. When buying assets, each has a price in number of successes: you have to spend that many successes to take the asset. If you have more successes, you can buy more than one asset. If you don’t have enough, the action is not necessarily wasted: you can take a Debt card to add two successes to your result. But that debt will come due at some point, and you don’t know what will happen then. More on that soon.
The final action is what the rulebook calls a component action: many cards have an action on them that you can use once per round. Every character has a special ability he or she can use as an action, for example. Some items have action effects, some Mysteries must be resolved as an action. Paying of your Debt from above is an action on the Debt card. Casting a Spell is an action from the spell card. Spells are different from other actions in that they have text on the card’s back. When you cast a spell, usually the action includes turning the card over and doing what it says on the back. It’s rarely a good thing, but the fun part is that you don’t know what it will be the first time you cast the spell. Cards with the same spell have different backsides, and when you first cast it you don’t know if you’ll lose a point of sanity or be jumped by a horde of monsters. That adds some excitement to casting spells. The same pattern of surprises from the backside of the cards is used for other cards, too. When you have to turn that Debt card from above over at some point, you also don’t know if you’ll have a polite chat with your creditor or if his thugs will break your legs.
After all players took their actions, they all have their encounters. First, players sharing a location with one or more monsters must fight all of them. Fighting a monster involves to dice rolls. First, you test your Will. If you fail here, you lose some of your Sanity, but unless you lost your last point you’re still allowed to go on to the next step. That’s when you test your Strength to actually damage the monster. For every success, you do one point of damage to the monster. For every success less than the monster’s Strength, you take one point of damage. Then, if the monster took enough damage, it dies. If it didn’t your encounter phase ends here. There’s no eternal fights against monsters delaying the game for the other players, one attack and that’s it, if the monster is still alive you can keep fighting it next round.
Players that are now in a monster-free location now have a story encounter. Depending on their location, players have a choice what encounter they wish to try. All encounters have a short story that is happening, many then involve rolling skills, paying tokens or something similar. Picking a generic encounter is always an option. They are different for city, wilderness and sea spaces and generally have a smaller reward than other encounters, but also a smaller chance to kill you instantly. Players in a bigger city can take an encounter for that city that has a good chance to have a specific effect for that city. Players in Arkham or Buenos Aires are likely to draw a Spell, players in Shanghai may improve their Lore skill and so on. If there is an open Gate in your location, you may have an Other World encounter: you jump through the Gate into whatever horrid place lies beyond and have a gruesome encounter there. If you succeed, you usually close the Gate. Gates are not as important as they were in Arkham Horror, but closing them quickly is still a good idea as they make the Doom Track advance faster and spew monsters into the world while they are open. Locations with a Clue Token let you take a Research Encounter where success mostly means you get to take that token. Research Encounters are specific to the GOO you’re fighting, so the tasks you have to complete and the story told matches their character. The Clue Tokens so acquired can be used to reroll a single die when you really screwed up a roll, but many game effects also demand that you pay Clues to resolve them, making them too valuable to spend on fixing your bad luck. Taking an Expedition Encounter has a chance to win an artifact, a special item of enormous power. Finally, there is an especially beautiful type of encounter from a storytelling point of view: characters that are eliminated from the game, either by death or insanity, stay behind in their last location and can be encountered by other characters, with the encounter being specific to that character and the reason of elimination. It’s a little thing that doesn’t happen often, but it makes the story of the game more tangible and I really like it for that. Players are not eliminated, by the way, they may continue the game with a new Investigator.
While all encounters have a chance for a positive outcome, what happens next is very rarely good: you turn the next Mythos card and do what it says. There are a number of standard symbols that do bad things, plus the card’s text that also does mostly bad things. Some cards will instruct you to open a new Gate, complete with a new monster. Yay. Some cards make you advance the Omen Token to the next symbol and then advance the Doom Track by one step for each open Gate with the same symbol. Double yay. Cards with a Monster Surge icon make monsters spawn from all Gates with the symbol under the Omen Token. Triple yay. And the card’s text is rarely in your favor, either. Event type cards do something right away, and sometimes it’s even a good thing. But then there are Rumor cards that give you some extra task to complete. Defeat a special monster, collect Clues to fight a disease, that sort of thing. Rumors also have some sort of time limit, and if that expires before the Rumor is resolved, even worse things happen. But the worst and the best thing on the Mythos cards is the “Resolve Reckoning Effects” icon. Worst because of the things it does to the characters, best because of what it does for the story telling in the game. Whenever that icon appears the Reckoning effect on all components that have one is resolved. Some GOOs have one and, for instance, spawn new monsters when it happens. Some monsters have one that can be bad or worse. The harmless Zombie turning into the definitely not harmless Zombie Horde is one of the worse ones. And your Condition Cards have one. Debt is one of them, but there are many other things that can go wrong with you: different types of Injuries, Amnesia, Paranoia, a Curse, all those things are Conditions, and most of them have text on the back of the card that you read when the Reckoning is triggered. That really adds tension to the game. As soon as you have one of those Conditions, or any other component with a Reckoning, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know it’s coming, but you don’t know when, and you don’t always know what will happen.
After the Mythos card, players decide who will start the next round and keep going. The game continues until either the Investigators lose because of a card effect, they solve three Mysteries and win, or until the GOO wakes up when the Doom Track reaches zero. If that happens, not everything is lost yet, but it’s definitely a reason to panic. The GOO now puts much harsher effects on the board that will, sooner or later, eliminate all Investigators. But until then, they can still win the game by resolving the three Mysteries plus the GOOs Final Mystery. Not easy, but certainly more fun than attacking Cthulhu with a dagger for thirty minutes was in Arkham Horror.
Speaking of which, how does Eldritch Horror compare to Arkham Horror? Put simply, in my opinion Eldritch Horror is the superior game. I always found that Arkham Horror tells a great story, but has deficits as a game. Eldritch Horror addresses most of those. It streamlines many things that were clunky in Arkham Horror, like the Combat rules, and removes others completely, like the awful monster movement. It also reduces downtime a lot, players don’t have to wait as long for their next move. Giving everyone an encounter, no matter where they are, contributes to that, so does not spending a round in Another World with only an encounter and nothing else, and so does only having one round of combat per round of the game. All those situations that felt as if I had lost a turn are gone. I still will never again play Eldritch Horror with seven or eight people, but it works well up to five. I could still complain that you need some luck with the dice, but Lovecraft, the author of the stories the game is based on, is all about how uncaring the universe is towards us. Dice go well with that.
But beyond that, Eldritch Horror also manages to tell a better story that Arkham Horror. The Reckoning effects are the biggest contributor here, waiting for them to mess you up adds so much tension to the game. Encountering eliminated investigators is a nice touch, and having some cards belong to the GOO you’re fighting makes for a more consistent story. Finally, the Rumor cards seem to have a much greater impact on the game, having one of them instead of another changes the whole game, even when fighting the same Old One, so you have more reason to fight the same GOO again. Eldritch Horror is my new lovecraftian coop game of choice. I know I’m late to that party, but better late than never.