That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die.
The influence of H.P. Lovecraft in pop culture media, especially tabletop games is undeniable. Necronomicon, Cthulhu, and The Ancient Ones, are just a few examples of how the Cthulhu Mythos has had an impact on our everyday language of pop culture. There have been many video and tabletop game companies that have tried to capture the same dark, miserable tone as his short stories; many unsuccessfully.
Among the many different publishers that have released Cthulhu Mythos inspired tabletop games, one publishing company stands out from the rest, Fantasy Flight. Since the Cthulhu Mythos accidental inception in the early 1900’s by Lovecraft and his literature correspondents, the universe has been expanded upon by many different media artists. Fantasy Flight has managed to add to the Mythos by establishing their own characters into the universe. Even though Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Call of Cthulhu Card Game, Elder Sign, and Mansions of Madness are all tied together by familiar faces and art style, they all play very differently from one another.
Arkham Horror was first published by Chaosium in 1987, but later mechanically overhauled and reprinted by Fantasy Flight in 2005. (If you are interested in the back story of the original printing of Arkham Horror, then check out this review.)
Arkham Horror is an atmospheric cooperative board game set in the fictitious town of Arkham. Fantasy Flight’s version of the board is a dark, brooding, beautiful piece of artwork. It sets the bleak tone of impending doom your investigators are about to face.
Every investigator has their own special ability and stats that will define their strengths and weaknesses. Players will move their pawns to different areas of Arkham and even to the Other Worlds, trying to gather precious equipment and powers, gather clues, defeat monsters, and attempt to close and banish gates that lead to the Other Worlds. There are several stacks of location specific Event Cards that will help drive the narrative of the game. Every player, in turn, will read and resolve the event, hoping for the best outcome.
The upside of Arkham Horror is that there are tons of big and little expansions for the game. The big expansions add new towns to the board, like Dunwich, plus new cards, Great Old Ones, and Investigators, while the smaller ones add more of everything, but town boards. Both add new mechanics, and an infinite amount of replayability to the game. The downside is that it can tend to be on the long side of the play time clock, the mechanics can be fiddly at times and the rulebook is absolutely horrendous. The only rulebook I know that has an index, and still can be tough to find answers to your questions. That is, IF you can find the answer to your question. A wonderful game, but definitely recommend learning this game with someone who knows it inside and out, if possible.
In 2013, Fantasy Flight released Eldritch Horror, Arkham Horror’s little brother. It takes all the mechanics that made Arkham Horror great, added some new mechanics and streamlined them in an easy to learn, enjoyable fashion. They even learned their mistakes with the rulebook! Not only is it laid out in a cohesive, coherent fashion, but they also packaged a quick rule guide separate from the rule book that is very handy!
This time instead of trotting around only one town, Arkham, you are globetrotting around the world by trail, sea, or air. The bland artwork of the Eldritch Horror board does not scream horror and desperation like the Arkham Horror board did. Instead, the board of Eldritch Horror looks like it was plucked out of an Indiana Jones board game. Rather than trying to save the world from annihilation, you should be gallivanting around the globe, trying to discover artifacts. Actually, Fortune & Glory’s board, which IS a game about globetrotting around the world, collecting ancient artifacts, looks better than this board!
Aside from that, this new reimagining of an old system breathes some much needed life into the story orientated cooperative board game genre. The spells, physical and mental ailment cards that player’s characters can amass are two sided. On one side are the ailment or spell’s name and directions that will instruct when the card will need to be flipped over.
It’s not until this moment of flipping to the back side of the card, that you know what havoc the ailment is going to unleash upon you or your companions. It may be something as severe as your or another investigator death or insanity, or something as minor as a bruised hand or soul, or it might actually be something beneficial, but rarely does the game allow any beneficiaries to the investigators.
Before Fantasy Flight had bought the rights and rereleased Arkham Horror, they were already starting to dabble into the Cthulhu Mythos with the release of Call of Cthulhu Customizable Card Game in 2004.
Call of Cthulhu CCG is a two player dueling game. Opponents will face off against one another, trying to turn the cards in their hands into usable resources on the board. They will be fighting over story cards, which are needed to win the game. Very few card games were overly successful with the CCG sales format; Call of Cthulhu was no exception. They reintroduced the card game into a Living Card Game format. The CCG model has players buying booster packs, hoping that they will obtain cards that will be helpful in building their decks. The LCG format provides a base set of cards that contain two complete decks ready to play. Expansions are released with a set card type and amount. A customer knows exactly what cards they are getting with each expansion set. No randomness unlike the CCG model.
In between the releases of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, Fantasy Flight had released a dice game that is set in the same universe and uses some of the same investigators as the previous games. Elder Sign or better known in the gaming community as Cthulhu Yahtzee is another cooperative game, but instead of trotting around the globe or around a specific city, you are in the Miskatonic University Museum. Investigators will be moving about randomly drawn card locations in an attempt to seal one of the chosen Ancient Ones away forever or at least till the next game.
Elder Sign is a much lighter game than the previously mentioned games. Each location has a task that must be completed. These tasks are resolved by a player rolling their pool of dice and trying to match the icons on the dice to the icons that are needed for the task. A player is also allowed two rerolls of any dice they want.
If a player is successful, they will obtain some very valuable resources to help them later in the game. If not, than the consequences of their failed attempt can range from losing health or sanity to adding to the Ancient One’s Doom Track, which brings him one step closer of him rising from his slumber. Collect enough Elder Signs to seal the Great Old One away before he awakes to win the game!
With Fantasy Flights successful run of their newly discovered playground, they released a RPG in a box called Mansions of Madness. One player assumes the role of the Keeper and the others the investigators. The Keepers job is to set up the chosen scenario. This all includes setting up the modular board, placing the hidden objectives, locks and puzzles that are needed for the scenario, and run the game. They will narrate, control the monsters, and wreak havoc upon the investigators as they try to solve the mystery and live to tell about it.
All the other players will navigate their pawns across the modular board, fighting evil ones, unraveling the puzzles, and searching for clues, trying to solve the mystery. Mansions of Madness is a game that the more effort you put into the narrative, the more you will get out of it. It’s the Keepers job not only to run the game, but to be able to tell the story as it unfolds.
The setup time is the only glaring fault of this wonderful game. Normally with the setup of a game, you can assign tasks to all the other players, cutting down the time of setup. Unfortunately, you really can’t do that with Mansions of Madness due to all the secrets that need to be kept hidden from the investigators.
Every scenario in Mansions of Madness and it’s expansions have two or three storylines that will determine where the hidden objectives are placed. If the Keeper places one in the wrong spot, than the cohesiveness of the story stutters. Not game breaking, but pulls you out of the game momentarily as the keeper scramble to try to figure out what got messed up. Plus, if the scenario calls for a lot of mini puzzles and locks; each one of those has to be set up separately. This turns the whole event into even more of a tedious and time taking setup. If all the players have the patience and perseverance through the setup, then they will be rewarded with a marvelous adventure.
Fantasy Flight has done what not many publishers have been able to pull off. They have published several amazing games with different mechanics and play styles set in the same universe. Every time you open the box to one of these great games, not only the scent of new, painted cardboard invades your nostrils, but also a sense of familiarity will start to overwhelm you. As you loot the treasure box of cardboard and plastic, you will recognize familiar faces, monsters, and locations. This seems to relieve some of the tension of learning a new game. It’s like revisiting an old friend at a different time and place.
Written by Jason Hancock