Games: Arkham Horror

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

There are countless board games that simulate D&D and similar “dungeon crawl” RPGs. They accomplish this by providing the components and rules necessary for the hack and slash element of the game: the movement through the labyrinth, encountering of monsters, the throwing of dice to resolve combat. The narrative aspects of the roleplaying game, meanwhile, are surgically removed, or reduced to an “Introductory Paragraph” to be read to the players before the action begins.

But how does one recreate the experience of Call of Cthulhu, a roleplaying game in which story is paramount? Arkham Horror does so by focusing on the aspects of CoC that make it unique: the teamwork (AH is a cooperative game), the escalating sense of doom, the “sanity” attribute, and, above all else, the plot arcs of the characters involved.


Pete the Drifter investigates the Black Cave

The board depicts Arkham, the fictional setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories, in the most functional manner possible, with locations such as “The Witch House” as circles with artwork, streets as colored rectangles, and the routes connecting the two as thick white lines. The background shows tract housing in an attempt to make things look a little more City-ish, but it’s clear that the board was designed to be pragmatic rather than aesthetic. The first time you see it you are likely to wonder how the game hopes to capture the spirit of Lovecraft with such a drab playing surface.

The answer, as in the roleplaying game on which Arkham Horror is based, is via story–a staggering amount of story of story. Flavor text is everywhere and, unlike most games of this sort, demands to be read. For starters, each player begins with a Investigator–Joe Diamond the private eye, Jenny Barnes the dilettante, etc.–and the back of each character card tells “The Story So Far”, describing how this unfortunate soul came to uncover those Things That Man Was Not Meant to Know. For example:

Sister Mary has served the Church faithfully for many years, so when she was sent to Arkham to work with Father Michael, a man whose writings she had admired for many years, she felt that she was truly blessed. Now, after witnessing Father Michael’s strange mood swings and seeing some of the bizarre practices that go on in this town, she’s beginning to feel that she may have been a bit too hasty …

Now, gathering her things and quietly leaving South Church, Sister Mary has decided to investigate this town, and in so doing, reaffirm her faith.


Sister Mary is one of 16 Arkham Horror Investigators

These characters move around the city of Arkham, investigating locations, collecting items, and unearthing clues. There is a separate stack of cards for each neighborhoods on the board, and when an Investigator visits a building–the Library in the Miskatonic neighborhood, say–a card from the corresponding deck is drawn. The text describes an encounter experienced by the character, and usually asks the player to perform a Check by rolling a number of dice and comparing the result to the Investigator’s relevant Skill: Fight, Sneak, Lore, Luck, and so on. Here again the mechanics of the Call of Cthulhu RPG are emulated, albeit in a simplified form.

Meanwhile, gates to Other Worlds open around town and unleash terrible creatures into the streets, while the power of some terrible god grows ever stronger. Players can close these gates, but only after traversing the bizarre dimensions to which they lead, and returning to town before irrevocable madness sets in. If too many gates are open concurrently, or if monsters completely overrun the town, or if any of a number of Apocalypse-triggering conditions are met, the Great Old One shows up for a climatic final battle. And as anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu can tell you, shooting Yog-Sothoth with a .45 rarely ends well.


Yes you can battle–and be devoured by-the Big Guy himself. It’s an honor.

There is more to the game–lots lots lots more–but you get the gist: from humble beginnings the Investigators uncover a terrible threat of mankind, and save the world in the nick of time … or suffer a fate worse than death in their failure. No game I own comes closer to recreating the feel of a RPG than Arkham Horror.

Now the caveats, of which there are many.

First, this is a Byzantine game, with a dizzying amount of stuff of which to keep track. On more than one occasion while playing Arkham Horror I have thought that this, the board game version of Call of Cthulhu, is more complex than the roleplaying game on which it is based.

Second, it takes a loooong time to play: three hours at a minimum, unless you are spectacularly (un)lucky. A corollary to this is that the game’s player rating of “2-8″ is universally acknowledged as BS: playing AH with more than four is ill-advised, unless you’ve set aside a week for the playing.

Third, AH is an very much an “experience” game; anyone who cares more about victory than enjoying the ride will wind up vexed and frustrated at the vagaries of fate. Don’t play with that person, they are a drag.

The Fantasy Flight version of Arkham Horror was released in 2005, but for some perverse reason I didn’t pick it up until last year. Once I did,though, it quickly became a favorite, and remains for me an ideal ways to while away an evening. If you are interested in playing, see if someone you know has the game and would be willing to teach it to you–there is no better way to learn. But even if you have to undertake the Herculean task of decoding the rulebook, your investment will pay you back with interest. For fans of Lovecraft, Arkham Horror is a game for the ages, and the strange aeons therein.

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5 comments.

  1. I’ve played this game a couple times on my own to get comfortable with the rules before teaching it to others.

    Even though I feel pretty confident about how the game works, I’m stymied as to how to go about teaching it. Any tips/tricks that work well for you?

    First, teaching AH benefits enormously from a “staggered rules rollout”–that is to say, don’t attempt to tell new players everything before you start play, as they will simply become overwhelmed. For instance, there is absolutely no reason why someone needs to know how the “Final Battle” works when play begins, and even explaining combat can wait until the first time someone actually gets into a scrap with a monster. Just remind folks that it’s a cooperative game and, even if they don’t understand everything yet, you will ensure they don’t do anything foolish as you bring them up to speed.

    Second, I will echo something I read in the Boardgame Geek Arkham Horror rules forum that has proven indispensable: makes sure you zealously enforce the segregation of phases. Everyone should complete the Upkeep phase before anyone starts the Movement phase; complete the Movement phase before starting the Arkham Encounter phase (this one is especially important); and so on. This, in conjunction with the Arkham Horror Turn Flowchart, will eliminate at least half of the rules problems you would have had otherwise.

    Third, and perhaps most importantly, take a cue from the roleplaying game and just wing it when you have to. It’s an experience game after all, so it’s better to blow a rule (and look it up later) than get bogged down in the minutiae of the rulebook while the tension trickles out of the evening. — Matthew

  2. The last game I played of it (with five players and took under two hours) used two rule books, so that the next player could check what they were going to do (and how to do it) before their turn. Mind you, I think most people were familiar with the game (which helps – a lot!)

    Having a few copies of the turn phase order would help as a guide to players – illustrate each step as you teach the game. Make sure you get the monsters right (they seem to be the most complicated part of the game, especially the placement of them and how flying monsters work.) If you follow the order everything should become clear after the first few turns.

  3. There is a pretty stellar single-player version of this board game for Android, which I highly recommend. It takes a bit to figure out the rules, but the production values are high for an Android game.

  4. Instead of putting the investigators in their stands, lay them flat (everyone always knows where their investigator is). Instead put the monsters in stands it makes them much easier to find during monster movement. Also count out the number of stands equal to the number of monsters before monsters start going to the outskirts, that way you don’t have to keep looking it up or forget. Once every stand is used, any more monsters go to the outskirts.

  5. Arkham? Damn near killed ‘em.

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