Eldritch Horror: More melodrama without Arkham’s confusion

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I’ve seen the world end about a half-dozen ways now. Sea creatures storming every port town from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Zombie hordes ravaging eastern Europe. Riots in London as a nihilistic cult races to summon its deranged god, a chaotic, semi-sentient horror that will bring only utter annihilation.

Each time, we thought we had things under control. We had weapons. Magic. A network of allies spanning the globe. But, in the face of unspeakable evil, it was never enough. What hope can mortals have in the face of ancient, all-powerful evil?

Melodramatic, yes, but then, Eldritch Horror is a game that encourages melodrama. A pseudo-sequel to the classic H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror game Arkham Horror , Eldritch expands its predecessor’s scope from fighting off hordes of monsters in one impossibly creature-plagued New England town, to facing an entire demon-haunted world. Your team of heroes represents humanity’s last hope against the unknown, and in keeping with Lovecraft’s unforgiving prose, each one will likely end up crippled, insane or dead.

Arkham earned its keep through a creepy atmosphere and plenty of replay value, but it has always had its issues. Even before a half-dozen expansions were added to the mix, the game’s rules were as arcane as any mystic tome Lovecraft ever dreamed up, and the game play required players to keep tabs on monsters, inter-dimensional portals and ongoing effects on a board that can look over-cluttered from the outset. It’s imposing and, without someone who knows their way around, can seem downright inaccessible.

Eldritch is still a beast, but a lot of effort has gone into making everything make more sense. Many of the basic elements remain in place — there are portals or “gates” that spew out ghouls, cultists and unpronouncable entities; there’s a “doom track” that counts down the time until the ancient evil awakens; you’re still gathering clues and drawing random encounters — but they’re implemented in a way that feels more like an evolving story than a series of fidgety mechanics. Doom advances when the stars align against you. Clues are tied into the specific “ancient one” you’re fighting, making for a tighter story. Even the way in which players take their turn has been tweaked to add a little more strategy to the mix.

But it’s the focus on narrative that really makes it all work. Take the way player deaths are handled. In Arkham, if you lost your health or sanity, you would end up in the hospital or sanitarium. If you lost both at the same time, you started a new character. That’s it.

Eldritch gets rid of the hospital. Lose your health or sanity and you lose your character, but they don’t go away. They become a landmark that your new character can encounter, to try to give them one last bit of respite — and ideally collect some useful items in the process. It’s a small thing, but it adds some continuity and makes the story feel more like an ongoing struggle instead of just a weirdly frantic week in the small town from hell.

All of which is to say, Eldritch is enough of an improvement to make Arkham feel obsolete. That’s good news for people who’ve been tempted to try Arkham but haven’t made the plunge — your choice is easy. For those who’ve sunk hundreds of dollars into Arkham and its expansions, all I can say is, even after only a handful of Eldritch play-throughs, I have no desire to go back. It’s not exactly fair, but then, in the world of Lovecraft, nothing ever is.

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