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Arkham Horror – By A Newbie, For Newbies


Episode 1 - How Did It Come To This?

I’m not supposed to be here.

Let me put it this way: I know what swimming is, for example, and I’ve had a go at it and it hasn’t killed me yet. The thing is, I know my limits when it comes to swimming. I’ve got an idea about some of the moves but it’s best if my feet can touch the bottom. Would I wander confidently to the deep end of the pool and fling myself in without inflatable armbands? Not on your nelly, sunshine.

Why, then, have I done exactly that into the bewildering hobby of boardgaming?

I’m a newbie, and I’m flapping around like my inflatables have sprung leaks.

(Fig 1: The collection starts small and slightly eclectic.)

It’s not by chance exactly. And we’ll avoid saying that Fortune’s rolls of the dice brought me here as that’s a tad on the nose. There are reasons, though. Several.

Some honesty first, as I feel it will serve us well on this journey. During my teenage years there was a flurry of dalliances with a few legendary games that cause shivers in those of us who were there. I idolised HeroQuest at age 13, but no-one else did. I even bought two expansions for a game I couldn’t play, so obsessed was I. Actually… I did attempt to run the game as both DM and hero player. This was as heart-breaking and disastrous as you imagine. Space Crusade appeared and mustered more interest from the group. From there we found our way into the Advanced versions of both titles. This, however, was in the sixth form years, when we’d play at a friend’s house who also happened to concoct a homebrew peach schnapps. It did not taste of peach. It tasted of Hell. I can’t even recall the box art for those later games, let alone a single rule. One thing I can remember: Hell schnapps gave us the farts.

Final point of clarification: someone told me once that all of our cells renew every seven years. Logically speaking, this means that my time with those games unfolded approximately five point three lifetimes ago. Some days I can’t remember why I walked into the kitchen, so there’s no chance of me recalling the finer details of Advanced HeroQuest.

It’s there in the DNA, though, isn’t it? That love of games and storytelling. That yearning didn’t die: it went into hibernation.

The intervening years have seen sporadic games of standard family-gathering fare. You know the drill, Monopoly, Cluedo, Cranium, once or twice a year, tops.

And Then…

Oh boy, and then…

We find ourselves in Waterstones Newcastle and we bumble into a corner of the store where we are surrounded by wondrous works of art. Every box looks as if it contains a whole world awaiting exploration. I want all of them immediately. I can worry about where on earth I’d keep them on another day. I point at two games several times in the vain hope that one might turn up during my imminent birthday.

Both did. I literally have the most wonderful other half. Arkham Horror LCG and Horrified entered my home, and life will never be the same again. (Oh my love, what have you helped me do to myself?)

The boardgaming world in 2024 is bewildering. The amount of choice is staggering. There’s a load of new terminology to get your head around. There’s cooperative, competitive, solo play. That’s easy to follow. A heavy euro game isn’t necessarily made in Europe. I mean, what are you people on about? Little wooden figures of a certain type are called meeples. Don’t know why. There’s worker placement (this worker gets placed enough already, thanks), engine building (more work?), and others, and more.

Whichever game type you try first, the quality of the components is likely to be outstanding. If you’re anything like me then you’ll spend an age enjoying the unboxing process, and that’s before you play the actual game. Here’s the thing: don’t worry too much about the multitude of terms and choices, just do what I did. Pick the first thing that leaps out at you.

Obviously I’m one for the spookier stuff, hence my gruesome choices. I’ve written a second opinion piece about Horrified elsewhere on this blog (short version - if you’re a Universal monster fan, then the theme is ‘fiendishly’ well executed), so let’s dive into Arkham Horror the Living Card Game.

(Fig 2: This game is incredible. It has three instruction books. I can’t cope.)

Do you remember that swimming analogy I faffed about with earlier? Yeah you do. The shift from the likes of Cranium up to Arkham Horror LCG is the equivalent of slapping around in the paddling pool then abruptly teleporting and finding yourself clinging to the twanging end of a fifteen foot diving board.

Looking at the artwork of the box was exciting enough to start with, but opening the box and sifting through the stunning cards was like reading the book that changed and influenced your tastes forever (in case you’re wondering (I’m sure you are) for me it was Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, a poetic parallel given that King cites Lovecraft as a major influence). This was the tipping point: no going back now.

What followed was a roller-coaster ride of delight, confusion, hesitation and a first playthrough that, from a technical standpoint, was a disaster.

For the uninitiated, inside the box is a How to Play guide, a campaign guide and a 32-page rule book. Yep, thirty two. The edition of Monopoly I owned as a kid had the instructions printed on the inside of the lid. We have bumbled into unknown territory and we have not brought enough provisions. My other half suggested that, for the sake of sanity, I should learn the game first and introduce her once I had a good handle on it (she definitely didn’t run away screaming, honest). With a fool’s confidence I popped dozens of pieces from their cardboard sheets (such satisfaction!), expecting to get started soon. I settled into the process of reading the first guide, nodded like I knew what was going on. I stopped reading. I read a few bits again. I thought about those bits. Took another look at the cards. Considered the character selection. Wondered about the chaos tokens. Thought about setting up. Then I put the whole kit and caboodle back in the box. I needed to do some research.

That last sentence is code for ‘I freaked out’. What on earth did I have in my possession? I was scared of it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Every hour of the day and night it gloated over my shoulder, rising over the edge of my universe like the Great Old Ones themselves. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos - all hail the Toob - and found a couple of fantastic how-to-play videos that helped me piece together the rules I’d read. Arkham Horror began to make sense. Yes it’s a game, but it’s also a complex story that you, the player, are involved in telling. Win or lose, that story will progress.

As a writer of paranormal fiction I was enraptured by this notion. Before you chime in (I can see you coming a mile off) I agree wholeheartedly that the very nature of a board game and the necessity for interaction with it will create storytelling within that gaming session. The escalating tension, the mistakes, the twisting turns of fortune. It’s a very different form of storytelling to words on a page and it is equally compelling.

Some advice from a fool: watch Fantasy Flight Games’ own tutorial video for the game. There’s no better starting guide out there. In the space of twenty five minutes it explains the core concepts and runs through an opening two turns in scenario one. It was like the bit in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Griswold finally slams the correct plugs together and all the strings of lights across the house burst into life (but they’re not twinkling, Clark).

(Fig 3: While setting up a suitably spooky photoshoot, I accidentally summoned this terrible beast.)

At Long Last, I Was Ready.

Ha ha. Yeah, right.

I really, really enjoyed setting up. I chose to run two investigators solo, which meant setting up two sets of thirty cards according to the manual’s recommendation. I’ve now learned what a deck-building game is. (I’m self-taught, you know. Which no doubt explains the multitude of mistakes.)

I did as I was told, picking out the correct cards for the trainee decks, and these instructions outlined two things that alerted me to the exponential potential of Arkham Horror LCG. One, that each investigator’s deck must be built from specific types and up to specific levels (levels?!). Two, that upon completion of a scenario, experience points earned can be spent on levelling up cards (levelling up?!). In case you can’t tell, I found this tremendously exciting. My favourite part of videogame RPGs is usually the levelling up system, where the effort you put into the game results in your character’s power increasing. Final Fantasy 7 first showed me this thrill in the back half of the ‘90s: it’s such a satisfying feedback loop, one that was about to draw me in again. Is it worth hanging around to try and beat that ghoul so I can nab those juicy experience points and choose Roland a card to improve or replace?

Yes. The answer’s always yes.

Scenario one then! Night of the Zealots part one: The Gathering. Ooo, gathering zealots. What are they zealoting about, eh? And is it any of my business? The presentation in this game is outstanding. The artwork alone was worth the price of admission. This might be ‘just a deck of cards’, but whoever came up with the ‘Act’ and the ‘Agenda’ as two pages of a book is an underpaid genius. As I started the scenario, however, I thought the small number of locations - five - would prove somewhat limiting. The single campaign the base game comes with contains just three scenarios, and with the first so short I’d blast through them in no time. I was hoping for more bang for my buck. Well, I was about to get plenty.

(Fig 4: Nobody’s as cool as Roland. Even when he can’t shoot straight.

This entire first playthrough of my first LCG was riddled with first impressions getting shot through by Roland’s .38 special. Sometimes it’s great when you’re proven wrong.

First task: get out of the study. All my investigators had to do was beat a skills test against a fairly low shroud number and gather enough clues. If they couldn’t manage something so basic, then there was no hope for the rest of the game, haha. In the story-writing business they call that foreshadowing. Almost immediately the study was hit by an obscuring fog, adding +2 to the location’s shroud. I don’t have the words to describe how much of a pain it was to escape that one room, right at the beginning of the scenario. This is also where I discovered Wendy’s love of drawing -3 or -4 chaos tokens, thus ruining every single skills test she took. She simply couldn’t get enough of them. To say this was discouraging would be an understatement. I had visions of both investigators dying as they failed to find a door handle.

Perhaps Gaming Wasn’t For Me

Mercifully the so-called investigators managed to escape, only to stumble into a world of hurt. Every single move was blighted by terrible card and chaos token draws. Wendy blundered into a ghoul and struggled to evade the beast despite a strong agility skill level: it was like she’d forgotten what legs and feet are for. Roland, meanwhile, discovered an incredible but brief streak of good luck, pulling off two blistering shots at the ghoul priest - and didn’t it feel good! What a rush to land those strikes against such a powerful enemy, a tiny victory that felt monumental. Was there hope yet for my battle against the Nameless Ones? Thematically, I realised that the game’s difficulty was working in its favour.

On reflection, this was the moment when Arkham Horror seized me utterly. The investigators were but two little humans facing insurmountable odds. It shouldn’t be a walk in the park.

That rush gave way to despair once more as Roland fumbled the next two shots so badly that he might as well have aimed at something in the middle of next week. And he took a kicking. Quick as that, defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. Death seemed inevitable. Where had his good fortune gone? Why, Wendy had nicked it of course, heading off to tackle one of the end game situations that I won’t give away here, lest I spoil things for the one other person yet to play ‘The Gathering’. I will add, though, that in a shock turn of events Roland drew the Beat Cop card and essentially sacrificed the unfortunate officer to the jaws of the ghoul priest. Bit of a dark soul, our Roland.

(Fig 5: Every single card is a work of art. Love this game.)

What a game! I should have started this hobby years ago. I stood at the table for five minutes afterwards, examining the end state, not wanting to tidy away just yet. It buzzed within me right through the night. I couldn’t believe that a game - a solo card game - could be so electrifying. Arkham Horror is meant to be a challenge because that makes your successes all the more meaningful.

Full disclosure, I made all kinds of mistakes during the playthrough, some of which I suspected at the time, others I discovered later. For example, I had every monster chase the investigators round the house like an episode of Scooby Doo, whether they were engaged with a player or not, whether they were a hunter or not. Also, a symbol came out of the chaos tokens that I couldn’t decipher the meaning of in the rulebook no matter how hard I tried. Did any of this detract from the experience? Not one bit. It did make me wonder how the scenario would have turned out if I’d had a better clue what I was doing, but you know what? I made mistakes. Big deal. More importantly, I had a great time.

Never mind moving on through the campaigns, I was already considering replaying the first scenario. What would happen if I drew different cards and made different choices? How would the other investigators fair? So much for any doubts about the game’s longevity. Inevitably the mind drifts to the many expansions available for Arkham - already I feel the dark pull of the Dunwich Legacy, and I wonder what awaits me one grim day at Innsmouth? Then there’s the other board games in the Arkham universe, and this is what the hobby does to you, isn’t it? One or two great games to start with - Horrified and Arkham Horror for me - and one or two fantastic experiences and it’s got you and you never want to leave.

Thinking about taking up the hobby but not sure where to begin? Stop thinking about it. Don’t be scared. Dive in and make mistakes. You’ll have an amazing time, trust me.

And let’s see where we end up, eh? Together.