Eldritch Horror is a tremendous game, but it’s not for everyone. The game has been out for a number of years now, and is best conceived as a refined version of the classic board game Arkham Horror, where Lovecraftian mysteries unfold in a global setting rather than in the confines of Arkham. The game gets rid of some of Arkham’s more onerous gameplay phases, such as upkeep, and closing portals to other dimensions is a bit more straightforward. But the basic feel of the game is the same, as is the objective: stopping one of several Ancient Ones from destroying Planet Earth/the whole Universe.
A few months ago I posted about my first impressions of Eldritch Horror. Most of those still stand, although having played it more I now think that the game does have a good sense of atmosphere. The pseudo-1930 aesthetic is consistent and well done, and the game’s locations and encounters make extensive use of Lovecraft lore as well as wider historical reference points. There is a lot of original game art, with a huge number of card types, and the writing is generally concise, clear, and polished. My one criticism is that there are not quite enough cards for each location, which means that it is very easy by the end of a game to be reading out text for the second or even third time. This does spoil the atmosphere and immersion somewhat. I understand there are several expansion sets which alleviate this problem, but considering the basic game alone will set you back the guts of £50, it’s an expensive solution.
Despite being a simpler game than Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror still has an intimidating number of rules and mechanics and a sigificant play time that will be a barrier to entry for some. For those unfamiliar with the archetype, Eldritch Horror is a co-operative board game that can support 1-8 players, but is best played with about four or five. Each turn or round consists of several phases: an action phase, where you can travel, prepare to travel (!), try to acquire items, or rest; an encounter phase, where you get a location-specific short narrative event with one or more tests (dice rolls against your attributes); and a Mythos phase, where you read a longer card which usually results in the game making life more difficult. Finessing a new player through an entire turn without losing them can be a challenge/game in itself, as some people will eventually glaze over while you’re explaining one of the many arcane rules; and leading an 8-player game with six people who’ve never played it before is exhilarating and exhausting. Considering that not all board games aficionados are necessarily known for their people skills, it’s an interesting one.
But, for every friend who rolls their eyes there is one who will love the experience, and if you get a group of people together who are prepared to learn and get into the rhythm of the game then Eldritch Horror is an unbeatable board game. We had two epic 8-player games around new year, one of which we lost and one of which we won, but both of which were a lot of fun. It is very satisfying to develop a collective strategy and work together to win against the odds, and investing several hours in a game like this is a great bonding experience.
You really have to be prepared to put the time in, though. While a game with 2-4 experienced players can be over in a couple of hours, a game with more people or where you are constantly explaining everything can easily take over four hours. The challenge goes up in proportion as more players are added to the game, but that’s not really balanced if hardly anyone knows what they’re doing. In many scenarios (or most if your friends have jobs or kids), it’s not feasible for a big group to commit that length of time to a game, making this something for special occasions. More than once we’ve had to abandon games simply because people have had to get home to sleep before work the next morning, or just go to bed because they’re too tired/drunk. But as I say, those occasions are made up for by the times when it goes right.
There are a good number of investigators for players to choose from, and while some are stronger than others, most of them have their niche. There are only four ‘bosses’ in the default game: Azathoth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath. They all have a different emphasis, but the latter two feel too complicated/difficult for most new players. If we get into the game more, and play with more experienced players, we may track down some of the expansions which provide new Ancient Ones to go up against. It’s a bit of a shame that so many of the antagonists in Arkham Horror are not present ‘out of the box’, but as I said, the game is so hard and unforgiving that nine times out of ten you’d probably end up just using the easier ones, anyway.
In short, this is one of those times when the final score doesn’t tell the whole story. In the right context Eldritch Horror is an absolutely fantastic game, but if you approach it with the wrong expectations it is guaranteed to kick your ass.