Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Ultimate Horror Horrifies... Ultimately

Anyone who has played Arkham Horror even in its most vanilla incarnation could be forgiven for facing the prospect of attempting it with all six expansions added in with the kind of terror usually reserved for a calamari supper with Great Cthulhu himself. The three smaller expansions can be fiddly enough, but adding three extra sections to the main board results in a game that you can't even fit on most tables, let alone play.

As a true board game lover, however, I hold it to be axiomatically true that there is no game that cannot be improved by extra bells, whistles, rules, cards and Great Old Ones (only the latter would be liable to help Monopoly beat genital torture as a choice of pastime, of course). And if I'm going to force people to sit down and grind their way through a game with a board almost longer than my arm span and with at least three dozen different decks of cards (and make no mistake, people will be forced), I figured I should put some effort into ensuring that the feat is physically possible.

The bad news is that the set-up time for this behemoth amongst games is now somewhere around the half-hour mark (and I'm guessing the time lost by doing it single-handedly is entirely compensated for by the time gained by not having to deal with constant questions or stopping people chewing on the playing pieces). The good news, though, and it is very good news, is that once the game kicks off, everything slots together perfectly.

I'm not sure I'd call it a complaint per se, but one of the comments raised by people using the Dunwich and Kingsport expansions was that their unique requirements (stopping the Dunwich Horror from rising and keeping reality-warping rifts in check, respectively) essentially forced one investigator to spend the entirety of their time in those locations, running damage control whilst the rest of the players got on with the far more glamorous job of shooting shoggoths in the face-analogue and hopping to other worlds ("glamorous" in Lovecraft's world being entirely synonymous with "physically hazardous and mentally destabilising"). I suspect that if one played with only the Innsmouth expansion, a similar problem would emerge; someone would have to stay beside Devil's Reef and make sure the Deep Ones don't get too up themselves ("The Horrors From Beyond Time That Got Too Up Themselves" being one of the best Mythos stories, obviously).

In combination, though, that need is somewhat lessened. The accumulated volume of extra Mythos cards vastly decreases the frequency with which gates appear in Dunwich, which in turn delays the arrival of the Horror itself. Similarly, since playing with all three extra boards allows the players to subtract two from their number for all rules requiring a count (I played with six characters, since that seems to be the optimal number for the basic game), the terror track fills up more slowly than would otherwise be the case, and increasing terror is what the Deep Ones are relying upon to feed their hideous appetites.

The effect of this is that Dunwich and Innsmouth can both be visited when necessary, rather than policed at all times (alas, Kingsport still requires constant supervision, which is a shame since it is in many ways the least interesting of the four towns). Not only does this afford greater flexibility, it allows the characters to concentrate on the main board, which means more dead gribblies, and more closed gates. At one point last night I actually found myself at a loss regarding character movement, since there were no open gates on the board left to deal with (had I been more even-handed with whom I had sent into other realms, of course, I would have already have won by that point).

With regard to the card-only expansions, it's worth noting that the entire game can go by without explicitly referencing them at all (the various additional items, encounter cards and so on are still likely to make an appearance, of course). Whether this allays fears about being bombarded with too much information, or irritates you over buying an expansion that might hardly feature, is up to you. Currently, I'm going with the former.

Moving away from the combined game to discuss the Innsmouth expansion on its own terms (the only expansion I hadn't played before), there is a distinct possibility that this is the best expansion so far. Whilst Dunwich essentially relegates one character to monster hoover, and Kingsport requires some kind of horribly repetitive guided tour, Innsmouth both allows exploration and action. The mid-game switch to martial law, requiring an investigator to sneak around to avoid arrest, is a particularly nice touch (it's also a wonderful nod to Dark Corners Of The Earth, still one of the best FPS games ever made, though it might have occurred in the original story as well, I haven't read it). There's also a strange sense of satisfaction to amassing enough evidence to persuade the Feds to show up and ruin Innsmouth's shit, far more than there is in killing one more monster, or visiting the Artist's Colony for the umpteenth time.

The Innsmouth Expansion also contains a personalised goal for each character. Not only do these add flavour to the characters, which until now have been relatively interchangeable (special rules notwithstanding), but unlike pretty much everything else in Arkham Horror, the conditions required to fulfil these individualised side missions are not overwhelmingly difficult. Of the seven characters I played (one of them being devoured by a Moon Beast halfway through, poor guy), two characters achieved their goal, two failed (including the replacement for the poor sod who got eaten, who arrived in the game after his failure condition had already occurred), and the remaining three were all heading towards the finish line, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Overall judgment, then? Innsmouth is a great expansion; the whole combined shebang plays very well and isn't quite as drawn-out as you might think (the game itself took me a little under four hours); and the balance between the various expansions means that it finally feels like failure is a distinct risk rather than a near-certainty. I was literally one turn away from winning the game (I had two characters about to return to Arkham through the last two gates, one of whom was the only remaining character sans gate trophy) when the Great Old One awoke (Chaugnar Faugn this time, and congratulations to the game artists for managing to come up with the most sinister rendition possible of what is essentially a fat-bastard elephant man). If only Groth, The Nemesis Moon hadn't been the Herald. If only that gate burst from a few turns earlier hadn't cost me a precious Elder Sign. If only that Moon Beast hadn't been so impossible to dodge. If only...


Pause said...

Is it a moon? Is it a comet? No, it's Groth, the indeterminate dick.

Which reminds me: are there now sufficient cards that the chances of the King in Yellow arriving to piss on our collective chips becomes an attractively remote possibility?

Sounds like a more interesting experience for everyone, anyway.

SpaceSquid said...

The first Act showed up, though if it hadn't been for Groth (who, as you say, is an interplanetary fucktard) I might well have paid the two doom tokens to get rid of it (which admittedly would still have ultimately have cost me the game). Though, as frustrating as Groth is, having Hypnos as the Guardian was great. Clue tokens all over the place.

Senior Spielbergo said...

We are soooooo going to have to play the full version. I love Cthulhu (the game not the Elder Being)

Garathon said...

Sounds great - where do I sign up? (I've just submitted my application for Fellowship, so am now available for such normal human activities as thwarting the plans of the Great Old Ones.)

SpaceSquid said...

All of you are welcome to bask in the glory of Arkham Horror: Muthafucka Edition. Next time I see either of you, we will get our game on!