Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Horrors

Arkham Horror designed by Richard Launius, Lynn Willis, Sandy Peterson, and Charlie Crank,1987, Chaosium Games
Arkham Horror designed by Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson, 2005, Fantasy Flight Games

Many years ago, I played the original Arkham Horror from Chaosium, and found it to be a fun game (though I don't remember if I finished it). Several years ago, I played the revised Arkham Horror from Fantasy Flight (and did not finish it). When I was in Pittsburgh recently, I had the chance to play the revised game (and did not finish it again), but resolved that I would eventually finish the game. And one evening, with my regular Call of Cthulhu crew, we DID finish the revised game (and there was much rejoicing). And then over the recent long weekend, I had the chance to play the original game (and did not finish it), but did regain enough knowledge and sanity to be able to compare the two.

So the question is: what is it about this game, a game where most of its sessions remain unfinished, that attracts one so?

Both games share the same framework - You're an investigator in Arkham, ground zero of the Cthulhu mythos. Gates are opening all over town to the Other Worldsh. And monsters are coming out. Your job is to close the gates. It is a cooperative game, which means that everyone wins (with a bonus to the one killing the most monsters), or everyone loses.

Now both versions skim the "eldritch horror in an uncaring universe" part of the Necronomicon, and bore more down on the "use everything and kitchen sink approach". All manner of mythos deities, minions, and locations make their head-nod, which leaves the games more of a primer to the mythos than a deep probing into the psyche of a hideous reality. But that doesn't really matter, since one of the joys of the game is explaining to others what a "shoggoth" is.

And both are "play to exhaustion" style games. The basic goal of the game is to close portals, which are springing up as fast (or faster) than you can shut them down. And with every new gate, the ending of the game comes closer, while every time you close a gate, that ending and the sweet, sweet release of completion moves further away. I think this is the reason that so many games end in everyone taking a deep breath and putting it all back into the box - you play until you decide to stop playing. Like hitting yourself with a board, the relief comes when you finally stop.

The first edition is ruled by tables - a table for where the gate appears, small tables for encounters in every location. Simple D6 rolls rule with all sorts of mods applied. High roll wins in combat. Fighting by magic is nigh-impossible, unless you got the Bind Monster, which is an auto door-closer as you throw you gug at the gate to the Abyss. All monsters are equal in chance to appear, so you have the same chance of hitting a maniac as finding Cthulhu wandering down the street.

The second edition has vastly improved physical components, but then uses them to create a bunch of different systems and tracking devices. You have three movable skill-pairs PLUS counters for your Sanity and Strength. The Candyland-like path-map of first edition is replaced with point-movement that does not give the same feeling of connectivity and sense of place. Instead of a high-role success combat shifts to a "number of successes" resolution, where you are looking for additional dice to increase your chances. And the "great powers" of Cthulhu are now moved to the endgame - instead of the game just ending after time, a particular pre-chosen Old-One (with particular universal effects during the game) shows up and everyone fights it (though they have the "classic game" solution if the baddie is Azathoth. He shows up at 13 gates and everyone dies automatically.

And while the second edition is incredibly popular (six or seven expansion), the sheer amount of fiddly bits included makes my head hurt. There is a lot more to the second game, and therefore a lot more to forget and get wrong (survival tip for the second edition - get multiple copies of the rule set (available in pdf from the Fantasy Flight site) before starting in). The ease-of-play of the original worked to its benefit, and the various modifications to add speed, depth, or variety just overloads the senses and capabilities.

Both games are rainy-day games for people in it for the long haul - not for folk starting something in late evening. It ranks with Talisman as one of those games you continue because you don't want to admit to be beaten by the game's sheer inertia. Yet my grognard heart goes out to the original as opposed to the later version.

More later,