Designed by Corey Konieczka and Nikki Valens
Published by Fantasy Flight Games (2013)
1-8 Players - 2-4 hours
Did the door always creak so loud? she wondered, moving forward into the dark chamber. Or is the room too quiet? She advanced along a narrow path surrounded on either side by ornate furniture, heaped with her husband’s infernal “research”. She would find him here, somewhere amongst the decrepit piles of cardboard, plastic, and wood. Distantly she could see the faint glow of his lamp. It was her beacon; her lighthouse through the sea of blackness. Her own candle flickered with every step, causing strange geometry to dance about in the shadows. It beckoned her to stray from her course. No. I must do what he could not.
Her eyes burned. She instinctively reached a hand to her face but found no tears. I’m forgetting to blink. She briefly closed her eyes and exhaled. I must not hesitate. I must make it to him. When she reopened them she was momentarily blinded as her eyes readjusted to the stark contrast between light and shadow. She began to step forward, but then hesitated as fear gripped her chest. Where is my beacon? Beyond the reach of her candle there was only inky blackness.
That’s when she heard it, a faint rattle from the abyss. There was a sinister rhythm to the sound which made her heart thrum in agony. As she stood still, it dawned on her that it was growing louder. A voice! she thought Is it him? It was barely a whisper, too quiet to make out words. I must reach him before all is lost. Through force of will, she managed to take one step toward the voice. Then another. The eerie shadows cast by her light mocked every step. She was getting closer. Is it a prayer? The air was thick, the darkness was consuming the light. Finally she reached the end of the hall, and found nothing.
Suddenly, the eerie voice crescendoed into an agonizing wail coming from all sides. She spun, brandishing her candle as both weapon and shield, protecting her from the dark unknown. Everywhere she looked, she only saw the disheveled remnants of madness. The noise stopped; a hand grasped her shoulder.
The terror was petrifying. She could not run, could not scream. “Are you afraid?” he croaked. It can’t be him. She remembered his voice being sweet and soothing This is an imposter! Her hate gave her courage to break free and face her captor, the flame of her candle danced excitedly. It was her husband, his face was withered and gaunt. The hand that had touched her remained outstretched, the other clutched a large, dark box. She swallowed. “Please” she cried, “Please, no more. Come away with me, away from this awful place”.
His face, vacant at first, twisted into a gruesome smile. She felt the courage drip away like the hot wax and tears that burned her skin. Your eyes, she thought. Are you still in there, Jack? After a long pause, he slowly lifted the thing he carried “he awaits within.” She risked leaving his eyes for just long enough to peer at the box. In the darkness she could barely make out ripples of purple and black, and two pale words “Eldritch Horror”.
The candle flickered out. His laughter was the last she ever heard.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Eldritch Horror is a sprawling cooperative game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, produced by Fantasy Flight Game. Players work together to solve incredible mysteries, duel with horrific monsters, and hopefully stop the Great Old One from destroying the world.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Eldritch is a reimplementation of the now-classic Arkham Horror. While some of the scope and individual mechanics differentiate the two, much of the art, lore, characters, and (most importantly) the feel of the game make it clear that this beast is intended to be a replacement of it’s older brother.
A Bit on H.P. Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft is one of the most celebrated horror writers in American history. He wrote dozens of novellas, sonnets, and short stories about cosmic horrors and the vast, terrifying unknown (oh, and cephalopods). While Lovecraft never enjoyed critical success before his untimely death in 1937, his work has since become massively popular. And thanks to 1981’s Call of Cthulhu RPG (designed by Sandy Petersen*), Lovecraft and Cthulhu have long been a staple of the tabletop world.
*Yes, PC gaming historians. That Sandy Petersen.
You don’t have to be a Lovecraft superfan to enjoy Eldritch Horror; in fact, the setting may feel familiar even if you’ve never read his work. From Tannis to X-Files, Supernatural to the Exorcist, Lovecraft’s influence can be felt throughout the “weird-fiction” genre. Players will fight grotesque creatures, receive blessings from elder gods, and make faustian deals with mysterious entities. The theme is a perfect playground for exciting and unpredictable adventures; but there are some real grizzly and provocative moments in this game. I love them, but they may be too much for some people. Bottom line, know what you are getting into.
A Vast World of Horrors
First off, this game is so huge that it seeps into the recesses between time and space. In other words, you need a big table (not to mention a couple of hours) to see it through. The game consists of a massive board, many decks of cards, several “Great Old Ones”, tons of characters, and about a dozen different types of tokens. If ever Fantasy Flight needed to provide an insert, tuckboxes, or some other organizational system to help manage content, it’d be this game. Unfortunately, FFG thrives on the suffering of it’s fans, so prepare to spend some time sorting. If you need help, there are tons of fine folks on the Board Game Geek forums who will be happy to share their hot organizational tips.
Once you get the game in order, the finished setup is a thing to behold. The board is a beautiful, sepia-toned world map, evoking classic globe trotting adventures like Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon. The brightly colored cards and tokens contrast beautifully with the weathered board, emphasizing the game’s sense of scale. The components are all high quality with mesmerising artwork, serving to establish tone and immersion. Even the character standees feature beautiful portraits that are so good that I couldn’t imagine replacing them with miniatures. The production values go far to make Eldritch Horror feel like a deluxe package.
The Madness in Operation
Each game has the same basic structure but fortunately there’s enough variability to keep it consistently fresh and interesting. The main object of the game is to solve a series of mysteries before time runs out and the Great Old One awakens. Depending on which villain you’re facing, that may mean the world is devoured and the game ends, or the game will continue with a new time limit to battle an immeasurably powerful Elder God. Really you just want to solve the mysteries before ever having to worry about that.
Players are represented by a diverse cast of characters with their own starting equipment, strengths, weaknesses, and unique special abilities. Cooperatively, they jetset around the world to find clues, solve mysteries, kill monsters, and close a few interdimensional portals along the way. Each Great Old One (GOO?) spreads it’s own flavor of evil across the game, with unique effects, objectives, and challenges. By facing off with only one GOO at a time, it reinforces the unpredictable nature as events unfold, not to mentioned it sets up grudges for future games. (The Black Goat is more of a White Whale in the Eddy household)
Throughout the game the board is populated by various tokens that will aid or hinder your pursuit of the active mystery. Player turns are spent performing a variety of actions, mainly to prepare for challenges or move across the board. Then each player encounters their location. These encounters are where most of the action takes place, either by fighting monsters or resolving cards. The cards come from facedown decks, so you can’t predict what will happen, just that something will happen. Monster or Card, you’ll likely make one or more skill checks by rolling some dice based on your character and other collected equipment, then you are rewarded or punished based on your success. Finally, the mythos deck reveals some global catastrophe, usually having some nasty effect and instructing players what new tokens are added to the board.
The Heart of Darkness
There’s an elegant beauty to this clockwork monstrosity. Turns are quick, skill checks are easy to resolve, and most of the decisions players make are simple to understand but yield large consequences. The bulk of the mechanics are out of players’ hands, existing to automate the systems and propel the emergent storytelling. In a way, Eldritch Horror is more of a “choose-your-own-adventure” story with game elements than a game with a story attached. Sure, the objective is to win but the game is far too unpredictable to anticipate success, let alone what next turn will look like. It’s the micro stories reinforced by the hundreds of components, with beautiful artwork and delightful flavor text that encourage you and your friends to go along for the ride; and you’ll equally savor victories and defeats.
But it’s that unpredictability that is both the game’s blessing and curse. It’s so chock-full of narrative devices that the gameplay can lose focus, undermining player agency. It’s hard to feel strategically invested when you only have a vague idea of what your encounter will be. Sometimes you just have to move into place, hope for the best, and know that whatever happens the game will continue; which will be frustrating if you are looking for a strategic game. Don’t get me wrong, there are important decisions to be made, but the game’s random nature will be a severe turnoff for some people.
I AM PROVIDENCE (Final Thoughts)
I really love Eldritch Horror; in spite of it’s size the game feels welcoming, taking the load off of players and providing them with an experience. I like the wide array of characters to choose from, the variability of the Great Old Ones, the setting and tone are excellent, but I’m most fond of the automated storytelling told through the encounter and mythos cards. Thank goodness that FFG solved their encounter system, making sure that a little unique, unpredictable moment would happen for every player, every turn. Eldritch Horror is a wonderful, more streamlined, and ultimately more effective re envisioning of it’s older brother. You’ll want to return to the game again and again, to face new challenges, try new characters, and see what strange new story unfolds. And like the sleeper beneath the waves, Eldritch Horror awaits you, distantly calling for more.
Pro Tips for playing Eldritch Horror
Read to each other! When resolving encounters, make sure that each player reads another’s encounter card, stopping at the skill check or choice. Keeping the results secret maintains the narrative and adds suspense to each roll of the dice.
Get the small box expansions, they’re great! Each one is themed around a new Great Old One, and has a ton of content that can be mixed in with the base game for every play. They serve to add variety without overcomplicating the game. Strange Remnants in particular adds focus tokens, a simple but elegant way to add more options on those turns where other actions don’t seem worthwhile.
- Get organized! Like I said in the review, being organized is key in this game. By having a good system in place, you can cut setup down from 30 minutes to 5-10 easy; giving you more time to fight those nasty serpent demons.