Friday, April 4, 2014

Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror

For the second time ever, I'd like to talk about something other than video games. The last time I diverged from the chosen topic of this blog was to complain about that one really disappointing Batman movie; this time I'll at least be sticking to the general topic of gaming while I review my recent purchase of the narrative-driven, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Eldritch Horror board game by Fantasy Flight Games.

My friends and I all enjoy playing video games, and whenever we get together there's a strong tendency for us to setup a multiplayer game to pass a couple of hours. After a few years of playing the same games over and over again, I was getting a little tired of it and made the radical suggestion that we try playing a board game instead. Being completely unfamiliar with board games, the difficult part of that suggestion was narrowing such a wide selection of interesting games down to one. After reading through lists of popular games, I decided to go with Eldritch Horror because of its Lovecraftian subject matter and its blend of strategy and role-playing elements.

In Eldritch Horror, players assume the roles of up to eight investigators as they attempt to solve mysteries across the globe in order to prevent one of four "ancient ones" from awakening and ravaging the earth. Each investigator has their own unique stats and abilities; during encounters, investigators draw a random card from the deck, which describes each scenario as the story progresses, and resolve skill checks by rolling dice. As they travel the globe, investigators acquire arcane spells and artifacts, battle other-worldly monsters, close gates to other dimensions, and deal with horrifying supernatural encounters.

Each round of gameplay occurs across three phases: the action phase, the encounter phase, and the mythos phase. During the action phase, investigators can complete up to two actions. These actions consist of traveling one space across the game board, purchasing a boat or train ticket to travel two spaces during the next turn, resting to recuperate lost health and sanity, acquiring weapons and items, trading with another investigator on the same space, using their special abilities, or using spells and items. After each investigator has had a chance to perform their actions, the encounter phase begins, wherein each investigator resolves a random encounter specific to their location.

A sample of various types of encounter cards (click to enlarge)

If an investigator is in San Francisco, he draws from the randomized encounter deck and reads the entry marked for San Francisco. If he's on a space containing a dimensional gate, he draws from the "other worlds" deck and has a chance to close the gate. If he's on a space containing a clue, he draws from the "research" deck (specific for each ancient one) and has a chance to gain the clue. If he's on the space of the active expedition, he draws from the "expedition" deck and has a chance to gain powerful artifacts and retreat doom. Each of the major locations has a tendency of yielding specific effects, indicated on the space, like permanently boosting your stats, spawning clues on the board, or letting you acquire spells, should you succeed in the skill tests during the encounter.

Once each investigator has completed their encounter, the game moves into the mythos phase, wherein the lead investigator draws a card from the mythos deck (built randomly each time, with different configurations for each ancient one) and reads its effects. The mythos cards are the primary method of advancing the story, and they have the most critical effect on the game. Mythos cards can spawn more dimensional gates on the board, spawn more monsters, spawn clues, advance the doom track (the countdown before the ancient one awakens), or trigger reckoning events in addition to the special event.

During encounters and mythos events, investigators sometimes suffer conditions like leg injuries, internal injuries, amnesia, dementia, or paranoia (among others) -- these effects typically remain dormant and are only triggered when a mythos card causes a reckoning, in which case investigators flip the condition card over and suffer the consequences. Like everything else in the game, you never know what to expect, so there's a minor sense of dread and tension as you try to resolve everything before something bad happens. In most cases, there are ways to cure yourself (based on skill checks and dice rolls) during the action phase, but this comes at the expense of using your turn to work on various other (perhaps more important) goals like closing a gate or solving a mystery.

What it looks like with (almost) everything set up. 

Investigators win the game by solving three overarching mysteries specific to each ancient one. Mysteries are complex tasks that happen over multiple rounds, typically requiring players to collect a certain number of clues and use them in a certain way, to close dimensional gates under certain conditions, to defeat epic monsters, or to resolve special encounters. Mysteries are a challenge to solve because you often have to collect the requisite amount of resources first, but also because there are frequently more-pressing issues that threaten your survival, and that's where the strategy element comes into play.

You're essentially under a time limit to beat the game, with each round having a chance to reduce the time remaining on the doom track. At virtually any stage of the game, you'll have multiple threats to your survival on the board, and so you'll have to make tough decisions about what your priorities should be and what risks you're willing to take. Active gates can spawn monsters and cause doom to count down, so it's in your best interests to close them as quickly as you can, but at the same time you might have a cursed condition or a back injury that could trigger at any moment during a mythos phase, so maybe you should rest and try to get rid of those conditions, but at the same time there might be an ongoing rumor that threatens to remove all of the clues from the board plus those in your possession, which you need to solve the active mystery, so maybe you should focus on that instead.

When an investigator is defeated, either by running out of health or losing all of their sanity, doom advances by one and the player chooses a new investigator, placing them on the board in their starting location. Defeated investigators remain on the board so that other investigators can collect their possessions and resolve a test to possibly retreat doom by one. Players lose the game if all twelve investigators become defeated, or if they ever run out of mythos cards.

Front and backsides of two investigators (click to enlarge)

If investigators haven't solved three mysteries by the time the doom track reaches zero, then the ancient one awakens. In the case of Azathoth, that constitutes a game over, but for the other three ancient ones, play continues after they've awakened, allowing investigators a last-ditch effort against increased odds to solve mysteries and defeat the ancient one in combat. Cthulhu, for instance, causes all investigators to lose sanity during reckoning events while he's active, and the longer he's on the board the more sanity investigators will lose. While it's still possible to win the game after the ancient one has been awakened, it becomes substantially more difficult, especially since players become eliminated from the game if their investigator is defeated during the final phase.

Accomplishing all of your goals requires careful teamwork and strategy; sometimes it's best for investigators to divide and conquer, other times it's necessary for investigators to team up on the same space to face an epic monster or to trade items with one another. In my group's first play session, we spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out the most efficient options available to us, coming up with a strategy for who should go where and what order we should tackle obstacles. This is a game that can really get your brain working in problem-solving mode.

The real fun, though, is its unpredictability, in terms of randomized decks and dice rolling. Even when you're laying ingenious plans, there's always the possibility that something bad will happen or that your spell will actually backfire on you, thus causing you to reevaluate your plans and come up with a new strategy. Everything is a gamble, and although some bets are safer than others, this game is not afraid to make life hellishly difficult for you. It feels vaguely similar to Dark Souls in that regard. I had to laugh in dark appreciation when a random effect of the setup process triggered a curse on me -- we hadn't even started playing and I was already suffering one of the most debilitating conditions in the game.

Front and back of various conditions (click to enlarge)

Eldritch Horror supports up to eight players, but it can also be played solo with a single player controlling one or multiple investigators. The box says a typical game lasts 2-4 hours, which is probably true for a mid-sized group once they become familiar with the mechanics. It took my group of four players 4-5 hours for a single game, which included time spent setting up the board, reading character cards and selecting investigators, and explaining the rules. Perhaps the next time we play it will go faster since everyone will already be familiar with the investigators and the mechanics, but setup and cleanup remains a bit of a time-consuming hassle regardless, because of how many pieces you have to sort and shuffle.

Adding up the "game contents" table on the box indicates there are a whopping 583 pieces in the game box, including 319 different cards and 245 different tokens. When you setup the game board, you have to separate the decks between North/South America encounters, Europe/Africa encounters, Asia/Australia encounters, generic encounters, other world encounters, expedition encounters, research encounters, special encounters, asset cards, artifact cards, spell cards, condition cards, mystery cards, and mythos cards, and then shuffle each one. Then you have to separate, shuffle, and arrange health and sanity tokens, monster tokens, clue tokens, improvement tokens, travel ticket tokens, eldritch tokens, gate tokens, and rumor tokens. Then when the game is concluded, you have to repackage all of these items in an organized system so that they can be setup easily the next time you play.

That's an awful lot of stuff to handle, and it takes up a whole lot of table space, too. The game board measures 33x22", and you need a minimum of six extra inches around the entire game board for the plethora of cards and tokens, more still to leave room for players' character cards, possessions, and condition cards. I've played this game on two different mid-sized dining tables and was pressed for space each time, so if you're playing in a small apartment or dormitory then you might simply lack the physical space to play this game comfortably.

Two sample spells and four sample items (click to enlarge)

The game strives to instill a level of narrative immersion in its descriptive encounters and events; these descriptions, combined with all of the great illustrations, offer a great variety of narrative reasons for the events that transpire and make it feel like you're really involved in the story, even though you're really just moving cardboard pieces across a board. The overarching story suffers quite a bit, though, because of its desire for randomization -- the story ultimately feels like a patchwork of random events, and it's difficult to draw any storylines connecting everything together.

The game's overall tone is sufficiently dark and foreboding, thanks to the descriptions and the illustrations, but also because of the mechanics. There's a genuine sense of dread whenever you're suffering from a condition because you never know when it might trigger or what the consequences might be, and there's the constant tension of trying to resolve multiple goals and threats while the doom track steadily counts down. Meanwhile, the game's subject matter frequently has you dealing with arcane magic and horrifying other-worldly monsters while your characters descend into madness or suffer crippling defeat. It's exactly what you'd expect for something inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and it's handled with care and respect (for the most part).

Finally, Eldritch Horror boasts an awful lot of replay value because it's a new game every time you play. There are 319 different cards, but you'll only see a fraction of those in a single game session because a lot of them are specific to the four ancient ones. Upon playing the game a second time, you can pick a different ancient one which will come with its own unique mysteries, research cards, special encounter cards, and conditions for victory, you can pick a different investigator who will have different stats and special skills affecting how you play the game, and the randomized nature of the decks and dice rolling offers a lot of unpredictable variety in the content you experience each game.

Even if you were just to play each ancient one once and then never play the game again, you'd get about 12 hours of play time out of it, so there's enough value in the game to justify a purchase especially considering you could play each ancient one multiple times and get a new experience each time. There's also an expansion called Forsaken Lore set to release sometime in May which will add further replay value to the game. My friends and I thoroughly enjoyed Eldritch Horror and look forward to playing it more in the future, so it's easy for me to recommend if you like strategy/role-playing games, and especially if you enjoy Lovecraftian horror. 

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