Saturday, February 14

Thoughts: Arkham Horror

As we watched, the wall shuddered – rippling in ways rock should not be able to – the large vertical crack slowly widening to reveal a gleaming black pool; at the center of which was set a smaller orb of milky white. The moment stretched into a period of indeterminate length as our fragile minds struggled to comprehend the sight before us. With a sudden scream, our guide fell backwards, his hands clawing the air as he madly scrambled backwards toward the cave entrance. My own perception, it seems, pitied me so greatly that it was not until Fowler’s low, rising wail grew enough in pitch to waken me from my stupor that I realized what we were looking at. In that instant, all reason fled – driven by the numbing realization that this was no mere geologic anomaly.

Before us, a great, bulbous eye yawned open; its horrible gaze drawn towards the feeble light of the lamp shaking in my hand. Unbridled terror threatened to consume me then, as I perceived a malignant sentience appraising us behind that cold, aqueous cavity. A deep rumble slowly began to fill the cavern; accompanied by a low, rising groan that seemed to pulse in time with the series of jolting spasms that now shook the walls. Fowler began to scream incoherently and I felt my own sanity start to slip as I realized with mounting horror that the unholy tremors were actually the sound of laughter from something the size of a mountain…

About a month ago, Hanna and I found ourselves in Barnes and Noble with a $50 gift card to blow. Unable to locate the complete series of
Angel or any books that we couldn’t just rent from the library, our quest for entertainment eventually led us to the board game section. Unique finds like Settlers of Catan, Tide of Iron, and yes, even a board game version of World of Warcraft all promised tokens, stats, and craploads of dice rolling; all bundled into smorgasbords of tactile amusement.

Settlers and Zombies! were battling for supremacy in my mind (epic image, that) as I tempered my desire for complex gameplay with something that my wife, Hanna, would at least enjoy in part. Pondering some sort of compromise, I glanced down to the bottom shelf. A large, green and black box sat alone, waiting.

The cover art showed a 1920’s roadster speeding through the night.

Hanna likes prohibition-era stuff.

The occupants of the car were all armed. One of them with a Tommy gun.

Hanna likes gangsters.

They were shooting at a screaming, tentacled horror.

Oh, snap.

It was already in my hands by the time I saw “A Call of Cthulhu board game” emblazoned at the bottom.

Our Friday nights have kind of been overtaken since then.

At its heart, Arkham Horror follows a very basic gameplay model; players (read: investigators) travel about the eponymous town, having encounters to get weapons and items that allow them to defeat monsters and close gates quickly enough to prevent the awakening of the Ancient One and its subsequent feast upon the living Earth’s sweet, caramel core.

This isn’t Candy Land. We’re not strolling down the gumdrop lane. Horrid, eldritch death is at large and people are going to die. Even a decent sized party of characters will be hard-pressed to seal the required number of dimensional gates and banish the great evil before it arises. More often than not, their investigation degenerates into a mad scramble around town; the ground trembling underfoot from the encroaching apocalypse as the survivors search in vain for something to kill a squid-faced monster the size of Rhode Island with.

To accurately communicate the fact that players are attempting to stop Armageddon, a number of elements are constantly working against them either directly (the unspeakable horrors crawling forth from the open gates) or otherwise (one game expansion brings the blasphemous play, “The King in Yellow” to the local theatre; corrupting former allies and turning townsfolk into rioting mobs with its maddening influence).

Foremost amongst these devices though, is the Terror Track; an effed-up alert system indicative of how kooky things are in Arkham on a scale of “What are those strange lights in the woods?” to “HOLY GOD THE SKY IS BLEEDING”. With an increase in the terror level, shops close, allies leave town, and things generally get more fucked up as chaos and ruin engulf everything you know and cherish.

This is, clearly, serious business.

While the level of difficulty may seem daunting to some, Hanna and I have found this to actually be one of the game’s most entertaining aspects. With the hand of fate set against you and your continually dwindling resources, there is a fundamental rapture when you finally either seal all the open gates or (as we usually find ourselves doing) face and defeat the risen Ancient One in mortal combat.

During the final battle, should one of your characters roll enough successes to strike the last Doom Token from the Elder God’s Track, you feel their elation as they soar through the air clutching a .45 automatic and an enchanted blade; their suicidal attack penetrating the mass of flailing claws and tentacles to strike dead the thing that should not be. After which, they land back on the ground, strike a pose, and say something awesome, like: “That which is not dead can now eternal lie… in pieces.”

Overall, if your gaming palate yearns for something new, I’d suggest throwing history, horror, and action into a blender on “frappe”. The resultant brew of monster-hunting, cult-busting, pulp adventure is called Arkham Horror and it will take you about half an hour just to set up.