Review of Arkham Horror 1st edition

Review Summary
Affiliated Playtest Review
Written Review

April 2, 2003

by: Shannon Appelcline

Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

A classic Cthulhuesque board game that really set the standards for both roleplaying and cooperation in a strategy game.

Shannon Appelcline has written 689 reviews, with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.84 The reviewer's previous review was of Dungeoneer: Tomb of the Lich Lord.

This review has been read 30562 times.

Product Summary
Name: Arkham Horror 1st edition
Publisher: Chaosium
Line: Cthulhu Strategy
Author: Richard Launius, Lynn Willis, Charlie Krank
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $24.95
Pages: N/A
Year: 1987

SKU: CH1050
ISBN: 0-933635-46-X

Review of Arkham Horror 1st edition
Arkham Horror is often considered a classic RPG-related board game. Released in 1987 it tried to bring the ideas of Call of Cthulhu roleplaying to a truly strategic format ... and did a pretty decent job.

Players: 1-8
Playing Time: 3-5 hours
Complexity: 6 (of 10)

I have marked the "affiliated" flag on this review though I had nothing to do with the production of Arkham Horror. However, I did work at Chaosium for a couple of years about a decade later, and my current company is creating an online game under license from them. Caveat reader.

The Components

Arkham Horror comes with a fairly large set of components:

The map of Arkham is a 17x22" board that's printed on glossy cardstock. It's pretty flimsy, and tends to stick up in the middle because of the folds. The main portion of the map lays out the city of Arkham (with an inexplicably different geography from that of Chaosium's Lovecraft Country books). The artwork is by Steve Purcell and is attractive and colorful. Around the edges of the map are: boxes for 8 "other dimensions", the "doom track" which is labeled 1 to 13, spaces for "spell", "item", and "gate" cards, and a gate appearance table.

There's a lot of text on this board, from the 2d6 rolled for gate appearances to the event tables for all the other dimensions, and that ends up being a deficit, as most of the words can't be read from across a table. Better use of iconography, such as placing the gate-appearance numbers in the appropriate locations on the board, would have done a lot to help out, but despite that the map is one of the better components in the game.

The monster tokens are the other. They're on very solid cardstock, each monster color-coded to its home dimension and showing a silhouette of the monster in question on the front. Clear icons show a monster's movement and special powers. The back of each token contains more information that's required for fighting the monster (though ultimately at least the monster's strength should probably have been on the front, as there's currently a lot of token flipping required during a game, as players assess whether they can defeat monsters are not.)

Although the color coding of the monsters is very nice, it's actually done poorly in the Chaosium printing. There are, for example, 2 shades of yellow, one associated with the "Abyss" and the other with "The City of the Great Race", and it's almost impossible to figure out which tokens go with which dimension unless you have both colors on the board. A similar problem is seen between the Great Hall of Celaeno and Yuggoth, which both use purple tokens--the Celaeno ones are printed white on purple, and the Yuggoth ones are printed black are purple (and you can do the math about how easy the latter are to read). The only thing that really saved us from total mystification regarding the dimensional color coding in this game is that I'm enough of a Lovecraft-geek to know which dimension each monster should be associated with.

The doom marker is on the same cardstock as the monsters and says "Doom Factor" on one side and has some weird concentric circles on the other (apparently the logo for Chaosium's long defunct Different Worlds magazine).

The investigator cards represent the 8 different characters available for play in the game. Each one has a name, stats in 4 skills (Fast Talk, Fight, Knowledge, and Sneak), tracks for sanity points and strength points, and an icon showing which color marker the investigator is related to (important for when someone is playing more than one investigator). There's a black and white drawing of each investigator too.

The 99 different game cards are quite small--a couple of inches on a side. There are 7 types of cards: spells, items, gates, charity, local characters, skills, and retainers. Each card is marked with a distinctive color on the back (e.g., blue for gates, red for spells), though in some cases not all of the colors for the same card type match (e.g., skills are both orange and red, while items are both brown and black) due to bad printing. The front of each card tends to have text and a very simple black & white illo (often clip art) against a light beige background.

Both the investigator cards and the game cards are printed on a glossy cardstock that's a bit lighter in weight than the board; unfortunately they end up badly perforated when they're punched out of their sheets.

The pawns are very standard plastic pawns, in 8 colors, coordinated to the investigators.

The plastic clips are attached to the investigator cards and used to mark the current strength and sanity for each player, since those stats tend to move around. They're only a medium hard plastic, and thus not too fragile. Unfortunately they're a lot stronger than the investigator cards, and thus tend to wrinkle the cards badly when they're used. (The sides of some of my investigator cards look like waves.)

The money is made up of slips of paper which are heavily perforated because they were punched out of sheets. They're very plan, greenish-black on white, and the printing is faded at points. The $1, $5, and $10 bills don't really jump out as looking different from each other, but I suppose you should blame that one on American currency in general.

The rulebook is divided into three 4-page folders. The "Rules for Arkham Horror" and the "About your Investigator" folders are each printed black on white. They use lots of silhouettes to add interest to the pages, but ultimately are composed of pretty dense 3-column rules text. "The Arkham Gazette" contains all of the location events, and is printed 2-color, black and brown on beige.

To be blunt, the rules are the biggest failing in Arkham Horror. The editing and organization are very poor, and after playing the game maybe a half-a-dozen times, I still haven't quite figured out how sanity rolls, sneaking, and other interactions with monsters are meant to work. We figure out some answer every time we play, after repeated reference to the rules, but it tends to vary from game to game. Breaking the rules up into two folders really doesn't help either, because you never know where to look for specific questions. Further, there are a decent number of special case rules for specific cards or locations which only appear in the rules, not on the cards or locations they affect. (E.g., the fact that "Bind Monster" doesn't work on powers isn't noted on the "Bind Monster" spell, while the ability to decrease item prices with the "Fast Talk" skill isn't noted anywhere that players might actually remember it during the game. Even the fact that you roll knowledge to cast spells isn't shown on spell cards.)

"The Arkham Gazette" folder is OK, because it alphabetizes all the locations for easy lookup. Further, the fact that the game includes two copies of this rule sheet makes it a lot easier to play, since you're referencing these folders. Kudos for that. My only complaint here is that there's no brief summary anywhere telling you why you might go to locations, and thus the game often slows down while players read through the event tables for all nearby locations to see what they might be getting themselves in for. Developing some sort of iconographic representation of why you might want to visit locations, and putting that on the main board, would have helped a lot.

The roll of honor is one page of a four-page folder. It's used to list out who became first citizen in each game of Arkham Horror. The other pages of this booklet include a diagram of locations in Arkham and a listing of components, which is generally only useful when writing reviews.

Overall, I find it slightly difficult to assess the "style" of Arkham Horror, because the game was produced almost exactly 15 years ago, when expectations for components were quite different. Today, I think we'd consider most of the pieces flimsy and cheap, but back in 1987, these components were probably above average for a game that wasn't your standard "war game". Various inflation calculators claim that $24.95 in 1987 is about $40.00 in 2003, and for these components, that might be a bit pricy in 2003.

I also tend to include rules editing, layout, and overall structure in my style calculations, and as I said already, those are a problem in Arkham Horror, to the point where I think they make the game hard to play unless you're really familiar with it. Thus a style rating that was wavering on the edge of "4" drops to a "3", even taken in the context of its time. If this game was produced today, I might be a little harsher with my rating, given the high quality of games from The Settlers of Catan to Fist of Dragonstones, some of them for relatively reasonable prices. On the other hand a high-quality version of Arkham Horror with streamlined and revised rules could easily top out the style scale.

The Game Play

Arkham Horror centers around the investigator characters; each player takes on the role of one. Each of these investigators has scores between 1 and 6 in a set of 4 skills: fast talk, fight, knowledge, and sneak. In addition, each investigator has a two variable statistics: sanity points and strength points, which start at about 5 each at game start.

Skills are used for various tasks within the game. Most particularly, fight helps win combat, sneak helps avoid combat, and knowledge is used to cast spells; with the exception of combat, to use any skill you try and roll the skill or less on 1D6.

The two stats measure how sane and healthy an investigator is; monsters, as it happens, will reduce both.

Each turn is divided into two phases: the investigator phase and the mythos phase. First, the investigators rush around, then the Mythos monsters respond.

Investigators start out by moving. They roll 2D6 and get to move that many spaces on the Arkham board. Movement ends either when players run out of movement points, when they enter a building, or when they encounter a monster.

Buildings provide investigators with encounters, each randomly rolled on a D6, with the result then read from a table. Some places, such as Miskatonic University, are more likely to have good encounters; others such as Devil's Beach are more likely to have bad encounters. Through these encounters you can gain items and spells, or fight monsters, or lose sanity or strength. In many cases you'll have to make some type of skill roll.

I'm Unitarian. I go back to the sidewalk.
--A Player with Convictions

Buildings can also contain gates--in fact, there are 11 particular buildings where gates tend to appear. If you enter a building with a gate, after resolving any conflicts with monsters there, you can choose to go through the gate instead of rolling on the building encounter. This takes you elsewhere, from the Abyss to Yuggoth. Each journey into another dimension is a three-step affair: you roll on the dimension's event table the first turn; then you do so again on the second turn; and then you return to Arkham. The point? Once you've "found both sides of a gate" you can try and destroy the gate, closing the interdimensional rip into Arkham's space-time continuum.

Monsters come from those other dimensions; whenever a gate opens, a monster appears too. Eventually you'll come into conflict with these critters. You can try and sneak past them, using your Sneak skill, but if you fail you're forced to fight. You add up your fight skill and your various weapons and possibly cast some spells, and then you roll a die. If you're lucky you overcome the monster's strength points and slay it (though some monsters are harder to kill than others, taking no or minimal damage from normal weapons). Gates are destroyed in a similar manner to monsters, with an investigator trying to overcome the gate's SPs.

If you fail to kill a monster, it gets a shot, doing you strength damage. And then you get another shot too ...

Whether you sneak by a monster or fight it, you're forced to make a sanity roll, and much like in Call of Cthulhu, you can either lose a little or a lot of sanity based on the success of that roll.

Fortunately, when investigators' health drops to 0 they just go to the hospital and when their sanity drop to 0 they go to the sanitarium ... unless they're in another dimension, in which case the player must start a new investigator.

We had a 30% kill rate; Sandy Petersen would almost be pleased.
--A Player with a Smart Mouth

After each investigator has taken his turn, engaging in these various actions, the mythos phase begins.

The first thing that happens is that 2D6 is rolled and the gate appearance table is consulted. A gate opens at the appropriate, specified location unless there's already a gate there or unless an elder sign has been placed on the gate location. (There are a handful in the game.) In any case, unless the location is elder signed, a new monster appears on that location.

Then, all the monsters move. A couple of monsters (typically, the Great Old Ones) just hang around, but the rest are right-handed, left-handed, or flying. RH monsters wander Arkham, always taking right turns at intersections, and LH monsters do the opposite. Flying monsters always go for the nearest investigators. It can get a bit confusing moving monsters when Arkham becomes heavily populated.

Finally, monsters attack any investigators who they've come into contact with.

And then a new investigator phase begins.

You win Arkham Horror if, after the first round, you manage to close all of the gates. This can be a pretty tricky thing, as a new gate can potentially open every turn. Ultimately it requires a lot of teamwork and cooperation to pull off, as well as careful elder signing of the common gate locations (ie, die rolls "6", "7", and "8", which are "Graveyard", "Founder's Rock", and "Silver Twilight Lodge").

The GOOs must die!
--A Player with a Bit of Hubris

Typically a game of Arkham Horror starts off with players running around, trying to build up spell and item reserves. At the same time gates slowly open up and monsters begin to enter the town. At some point players move into the gate-closing phase of the game, and start jumping into other dimensions so that they can succeed at this task.

When I said that you win Arkham Horror if you close all the gates, I really meant that it was an all or nothing affair. All the players win if Arkham is saved, though the person who closed the most gates is named first citizen. It's also possible for all the players to lose, if too many gates (14) open in Arkham over the course of the game. You can also lose if too many gates are open at once (6, 7, or 8, depending on the number of players on your game--another of those little bits that should have been marked on the board and isn't).

Arkham Horror is a fairly unique game, especially for its time, because it's in many ways a roleplaying strategy game (if you want it to be), and it's very much a cooperative strategy game; the investigators who don't work together are ultimately squished. One of the few games I know of that plays somewhat similarly in these broad areas is Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings. But Arkham Horror did it first.

The Game Design

Here's some of my favorite elements of the gameplay in Arkham Horror:

Cooperative Roleplaying: As I just noted, Arkham Horror was very innovative in its use of both cooperative and roleplaying elements. The cooperation is absolutely required by the rules of gameplay, while the roleplay is encouraged by having investigators who are real people and by having lots of color text in the location encounter tables.

Multifaceted Gameplay: The evolutionary gameplay in Arkham Horror, starting with item collection and moving on to gate closing, allows for the game to remain fresh and interesting for a lengthy period of time.

Solid Endgame: The endgame can get a little frustrating, if new gates open just when you think you've got them all closed. However, overall the endgame is quite solid. The doom track slowly ticks away, and if you get too unlucky or play too ineptly it'll eventually cause Arkham to be destroyed, and there's no preventing that.

Good Control of Randomness: There's a lot of randomness in the game, from the movement die rolls to the encounters and combat. However, it's almost all tightly controlled: you go to locations generally knowing what results are likely. You fight monsters and the random factor is maybe 25% of the total. Even when you fail to move as far as you wanted, you can sometimes duck into a taxi stand and can often go to some other interesting location.

My complaints with the game are almost entirely centered on the components, as discussed earlier. The iconography could be improved, the rules should be rewritten, the board could be examined for improved playability, and specific rules could be moved to the small card subsets they affect--but those are all mostly cosmetic/UI problems.

Minor gameplay issues include:

Game Length: I do find that the game runs a bit long for my tastes, which for me at least suggests that the evolutionary gameplay should have included another major stage, else the game should have been shorter, but it's also possible that's an entirely individual issue.

Money Becomes Irrelevent: Toward the middle and end of a game, once item collection is done, money tends to become totally irrelevent, and starts to accrue in large stacks for anyone who has gotten a retainer from Miskatonic University or the newspaper. Some way to transform the usefulness of this early game marker would have been nice.

Overall I think Arkham Horror does quite a good job of presenting a roleplaying strategy game, either in the market of 15 years ago or the market of today, and thus I'd give it a "4" out of "5" for substance.


Fifteen years later, there's still not a lot like Arkham Horror out there. Games like Duneoneer, which I reviewed last week, do carry the RPG-strategy-hyphenate bastion, but they've been pretty rare. In addition, a few other Cthulhu strategy games have surfaced, including Cults Across America.

However, Arkham Horror is still unique, and definitely suggested for the Cthulhu gamer who enjoys a strategic aside.

Unfortunately, it's been out of print for over a decade now, and thus your best bet is to pay $100-200 over at EBay.

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