Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror – A Proper Mythos Game | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror – A Proper Mythos Game

Know this up front – I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. So Mythos games always pique my interest. I had enjoyed Arkham Horror well enough (though it did have some notable flaws). Eldritch Horror re-implements the Arkham idea in a streamlined and more intuitive way. The players each take on the role of an investigator attempting to scour the world for the clues that can solve ancient mysteries and prevent our world from being swallowed by a Great Old One.

The Basics. Eldritch Horror is a cooperative game where the players win or lose together. They begin by selecting their characters (either by choice or randomly) as well as a particular Great Old One to fight against. The game comes with four such villains.

Each Great Old One has a unique rule that affects the game. In addition to this rules they each have different cultists.  Mechanically, some of the available monsters are cultists. But the monster token showing the relevant information for cultists is blank and instead that information is on the Great Old One card.  That way, the servitors of one daemon are different from those of another. Plus, each Old One comes with a deck of Research cards unique to it.

Seeing the map on the board drives home the point that the whole world is threatened and clues exist in scraps here and there

The board is a map of the world with locations for every major city as well as some locations for sea, wilderness, and not so major cities. In the action phase, players (in turn) can take two actions from a number of different options. They can travel, rest (to regain lost health or sanity), buy items (if in a city), and trade items with other players in the same location. Once all players have used their actions, the Encounters phase begins.

Every player has an encounter. If there is one or more monsters on that space, then they must first have a monster encounter. Fighting a monster requires them to test their sanity and strength. If they defeat the monster, they can then have an additional encounter. If not, their encounter phase is over. Damage done to the monster remains on the monster so it may take several turns to whittle down a particularly strong foe.

Monsters? Yeah, we got monsters

After the monster encounter, there are several different types encounters that may be available to a player. If there is a clue on that space, a player may have a Research encounter to learn more about the Great Old One and possibly pick up that needed clue. If there is an expedition tile, the player can have an expedition encounter. A gate might lead to a gate encounter. And if the player is on any other space, they can have an encounter related to the named city, or to a city/wilderness/sea area at random.

At the end of the turn, players draw from the mythos deck. The deck states whether another gate opens and whether there will be a Reckoning. Several cards and monsters have powers that occur (usually bad) whenever there is a Reckoning. So, when a mythos card calls for it, players must check all their conditions, in addition to any items they may have.

Investigators in the Far East

The mythos cards usually also have some game effect. Some have one time impacts, but the most devastating are the Rumor cards. Rumors tend to create an ongoing crisis. As the game continues, the crisis will worsen, If the players don’t ferret out the rumor in time, then they can lose the game entirely.

Unlike it’s predecessor, the goal is not merely to seal gates and fight monsters. Instead, the goal is to solve mysteries related to the game’s villain. Each Great Old One comes with a deck of Mystery cards. Players must solve three before the Old One awakens in order to win. If the Old One awakens, then it adds an additional mystery to be solved before players can win.

Omens are tied to gates which, in turn, can open the way for the Old One and advance Doom

The Feel. While I generally like to consider a game on its own merits without comparison to other titles, it is clear that this is the successor to Arkham Horror. As such, it retains a lot of the same feel: thematic experiences, dice driven attribute checks, and a strong sense of impending doom. The difficulty can be fairly substantial and players should not expect to win every game – or even a solid majority.

One of the big changes from Arkham, that I was initially apprehensive about, was the scope of the game. Arkham took place in one city while Eldritch spans the globe. While it loses some of the claustrophobic feeling that Arkham generated, Eldritch more than makes up for it by giving the sense of doom a much grander scope. You really feel like you are going all around the world to gather the secrets of the Great Old One, piecing together scraps here or there to solve the mysteries. In Arkham, it felt like all the evil in the world happened to show up on a few main streets in one particular New England town.

Cthulhu and his Mysteries (sounds like a cover band)

One of the best aspects of Eldritch is the unique research decks for each Great Old One. Any time a player wants to pick up a clue, they have a research encounter. And each Old One has their own unique research deck. This allows for the narrative to be very strong. When fighting Azathoth, every time you find a clue the story on the card relates specifically to him. Same when opposing Cthulhu or the other Old Ones. It’s fantastically immersive since as you discover the clues, you are really learning more about the particular Old One threatening the world. It also helps the game feel thematically different and well-suited to the different personalities of the Old Ones.

The other great aspect is that, despite wonderful thematic depth, Eldritch has (relatively) simple rules. There are really just three phases each turn: players act, players have encounters, and a mythos card gets drawn. Rinse, repeat. This provides a framework that is easy to teach to new players – though an experienced player (or reference to the rulebook) is needed when edge cases arise.

Eight clue encounters unique to Cthulhu

One of the other improvements over Arkham, at least in theory, is that the game now has a fixed timer. Each game is set up with a specific number of mythos cards. If the players go to draw a card and there isn’t one, then they lose. While this sets a hard limit on game length, it ends up not helping all that much. There is still plenty to do and the cards still allow for about a three hour game – likely more with new players. This isn’t substantially different than base Arkham Horror.

One negative with the game (assuming the play time is not a turn off) is that it has difficulty scaling. It scales based on the number of players, but treats 1 and 2 the same, then 3 and 4, then 5 and 6, then 7 and 8. So an odd number of players is strictly more difficult than an even number – and it’s a noticeable difference. An odd numbered group can get around this by adding an extra investigator that the players use together. But, frankly, I find the game much more tense at the odd numbers.

Eldritch has not just regular monsters, but Epic Monsters

The other negative is that it doesn’t provide quite enough cards for truly distinct experiences from game to game. Sure, you’ll have enough for your first game, but things start to repeat quickly. You will go through the majority of the named city cards for a few cities in even your first game. By the second, you’re already seeing familiar repeats. Similarly, the generic encounters are too few to last even one entire game. Likewise, Old Ones only have eight clue cards and four mysteries. Even a second play with the same Old One will seem somewhat repetitious. As a result, that does harm the narrative a bit.

Eldritch has been described as “thematic” and an “experience” game, and that is certainly true. Eldritch is so enjoyable because of how well it captures the Mythos atmosphere and how distinct the various Old Ones feel. But the game itself is highly enjoyable. It has a solid mechanical basis, is (relatively) easy to teach, and provides a challenging cooperative experience. It succeeds in the feel of Arkham while offering significant and important mechanical improvements. Frankly, I never want to play the Arkham when Eldritch is around.

Tokens galore. Best to get a plano.

Components: 4 of 5. Eldritch Horror, in true FFG fashion, comes with a whole mess of tokens. All of the pieces are on quality cardboard and the players use standees to mark their spaces. The cards are also good quality. One feature which merits praise, is the inclusion of “Eldritch Tokens.” Eldritch Tokens are generic pieces that are used by rumors, Old Ones, and other events in the game. This is far preferable to having unique tokens for each and every possible event. It is especially annoying to dig through a stack of 20 tokens – each of which gets used only once in 20 or so games – just for the one marker you need.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. Eldritch Horror, by its nature, is heavily reliant on randomness. Sometimes that takes the form of die rolls as you combat monsters. Other times, it is the random draw of Mythos cards that can stack events against you. Now, the game does allow some mitigation. Players can level up their stats and improve their die rolling odds. And the mythos cards are differentiated by color and then built in a way that hopefully evens things out, but randomness is an integral part of the game.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. I love the way that Eldritch is put together. It provides a wonderfully thematic experience steeped in the lore of the Mythos, but the basic rules are simple enough to have new players meaningfully contribute. Eldritch Horror’s improvements are so substantial that it completely replaces its predecessor. Sure, edge cases do exist, and the FAQ is sometimes needed, but the fact that a complex game can run so smoothly is a testament to the rules.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. The game is great because of the different experiences it provides. Players constantly react to different mythos and monsters and try their best to make progress against the Great Old One. In fact, the unique Research and Mystery decks is an overwhelmingly positive development and really helps replay value. The negative here is that there just aren’t enough basic cards to get multiple plays without seeing repeats. Given the thematic nature of the game, it really detracts. (While not part of this review, it is worth noting that the first expansion greatly ameliorates this problem).

Spite: 0 of 5. As a cooperative game, there is no spite.

Character cards have static, but improvable stats

Overall: 4 of 5. If you enjoy the Mythos, then Eldritch is for you. If you enjoy Arkham, then you’ll love Eldritch. I love the world that Eldritch creates and the way that Research encounters are tailored to the particular Old One you are fighting. The game is full of exciting moments, daring gambits, and the gnawing feeling of running out of time before horrors befall the world. The game is difficult, though, and players need to be prepared for death, dismemberment, and loss.

There are 2 comments.

  1. futurewolfie said on October 24, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    My favorite aspect of this game is the deck of Condition Cards. I love the delayed and varied effects that give you a chance to save yourself in most cases. It adds a great risk/reward element to accepting Dark Pacts or Debt conditions in exchange for useful upgrades, tools, and items, and different combinations of them make each games’ story play out unique and memorable.

  2. Jordan said on August 5, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    I wouldn’t exactly say zero spite. When one player’s decision ends up dragging everybody else down (Looking at you Diana Stanley with the unnecessary dark pact) it generates a little bit of resentment going forward.

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