Thursday, April 23, 2009

Arkham Horror - Teens and Up Please

Arkham Horror is an absolutely fabulous game but one with a very specific audience. In the 1920's and 30's an author named H. P. Lovecraft wrote dozens of short stories with thrilling and supernatural themes. While some people might label these as "horror" stories I think this is misleading. Lovecraft's stories might be better described as weird fiction or thrilling tales. His heroes are drawn to old graveyards, hidden caverns, and spooky locations of all sorts. They are offered many reasons why they should turn back but their curiosity drives them onwards. In the end they discover all sorts of frightening secrets and usually faint from horror. Lovecraft's heroes rarely actually fight anything, and the beings they encounter usually present a minimum of physical danger to anyone. Rather, the beings and creatures in Lovecraft's stories generally wish to be left alone and are fairly indifferent to humanity unless we bother them. The drama in the stories stems from humanity's insatiable curiosity and how it leads us to see and know things which were not meant to be seen or known.

I'm certainly a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. He typically could handily deliver the goods when it came time to describing things better off neither seen nor known. Eighty years after his death he remains a vital force in the genre of imaginative fiction. Lovecraft had a wide variety of personal issues including a level of racism and misogyny which even by the standards of his time was excessive. That being said his creative genius in my opinion far outshines his inner demons and flaws.

Which brings us to Arkham Horror. In this game the players act cooperatively and either win or lose as a group. In a nutshell Arkham Horror is about collecting tools through exploring and then using those tools to fight off menacing supernatural beings. The players move game tokens around a board which depicts the town of Arkham. They may visit the general store, or take a stroll in the woods for example. There is also the possibility of being transported to supernatural locations- the distant past, the land of dreams, or unknown planets. Menacing creatures from these other worlds will also appear in the town and their tokens are moved from location to location as well. The players can move their tokens to confront the creatures and send them back to the worlds they came from. The players may also try and close the portals that allow the creatures to enter our world. The game ends when the players block all the points of entry to our world and prevent any more creatures from entering. There may also be a grand battle at the end of the game between the players and a large, especially menacing creature.

Arkham Horror borrows some role playing elements. The players each have a different "character" with different strengths and weaknesses. Thus, one player's game token may represent a tough sailor who is particularly feisty. Another player may have a professor who can learn magical spells. Thus in the course of the game a zombie may appear. The players may say "OK Sarah, your character is tough so you go take care of the zombie while Joe's character visits the library to search for helpful spells." In this sense it's different from, say, Monopoly, in which the hat token is no different from the racecar token. Making that leap to quasi-role playing shouldn't be difficult and if the players enjoy the game style then of course you have a whole universe of fun role playing games to consider.

Arkham Horror has a lot to recommend it. While the game is expensive it is absolutely crammed full of game equipment. The components themselves are gorgeous to look at, colorful and sturdy. You certainly get your money's worth with this product.

Speaking of money's worth, the game mechanic is well designed. The players have a nice challenge on their hands as they work together to banish the creatures invading peaceful Arkham. The rules propel the action along at a brisk pace and cooperative games of this sort deliver real tension and excitement. Each game will have a different set of monsters to confront so you can expect plenty of replay value. Finally, Arkham Horror has several expansions and add-ons if you feel the need to expand the game.

Ironically the sumptuous game box does present one slight drawback. The abundance of game material and the length of the rules may appear daunting. The rules are actually fairly straightforward so just plow on in.

Clearly the chief drawback to Arkham Horror is that it is designed for a very specific audience. On the other hand, most people will know instantly whether their teens will like this game or not. If need be, ask them "do you want to play a game of investigating and fighting weird aliens and supernatural beings from outer space and the land of dreams?" If that question brightens up their face then this is the game for them

Pros: Great cooperative game, Simulates investigating and combating creatures from beyond time and space

Cons: Simulates investigating and combating creatures from beyond time and space

Beyond the Basics: Huge replay value and lots of expansions

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