The Cthulu Mythos. It’s huge, it’s weird and it hasn’t ever really grabbed me. However, this hasn’t stopped its tentacles infesting nearly every facet of pop culture, even co-operative misery simulator Pandemic has been co-opted by the unknowable madness.
The game that I’ve been playing is Eldritch Horror, the globe trotting sequel to Arkham Horror, which sees paranormal investigators working together to stop world ending catastrophes.
Now right out of the gate I’m going to say this game is big, really big. The main game board will take up most of the table and then yet more space is needed for the frankly ludicrous array of decks, tokens and even whole extra boards. However this extravagance definitely helps rather than hinders the game, less is not more in this case.
Eldritch Horror can broadly be divided into two parts, preparing for stuff to happen to you and then playing that stuff out. Both on the small scale where your movement and actions on your turn prepare you for your encounters and on the large scale where the encounters you aim for early on will hopefully prepare you for the encounters you will need to solve the mysteries of your unknowable foe. So with so much of the game being taken up with random encounters as well as spells to be learned, traits and equipment to be acquired and so on then the game will live or die on variety so more can only really be a good thing. One particular place this variety shows up is in the characters, colorful magicians and actors contrast with dour mercenaries, each coming with their own little story of why they took up the call of a paranormal investigator and a sad farewell if they should become too injured or mad to carry on. This will happen more than you’d expect, after all it’s a hard life out there in the apocalypse
These encounters that make up probably more than half of the game represent everything that’s good and bad about the game. On the good front they contain the best story elements in a very story driven game, these vignettes are where you spend most of your time and also how you actually make progress and good story is important to keep you immersed in the game rather than just rolling dice. Whether my friends were sneaking past a street gang in Shanghai, or riding an otherworldly beast out of a portal, I was invested in their success no matter the actual in game consequences. In fact, particularly when failing, these encounters can be quite funny. However, the problems arise when you see what the encounters ask you to do in game. The vast majority of the time you will face a story choice, but that just leads you to take a characteristic test (rolling a number of dice and looking for 5+s that signify success) and either passing or failing. The fact that you won’t know what characteristics you’ll need to be good in or how good is good enough really limits your ability to plan in the other half of the game.
This other half is where what strategy there is in Eldritch Horror emerges, meeting up to exchange items or combine buffs for particular encounters, and deciding what problems require immediate attention, and how to get there. Beyond the mysteries of the main scenario there are a thousand and one things tugging at your attention, closing inter-dimensional gates, stopping roving monstrosities all over the world, or dealing with persistent rumors that threaten to make life very difficult for your investigators. Keeping a lid on things tends to mean you make very little progress on the main story, although the increasing chaos that you just let happen in the later stages of the game ends up being both dramatic and funny. As San Francisco is ravaged by shambling horrors but you really don’t care as you only care about defeating the big bad.
One problem for the map portion of the game is that the world is a big place, and this makes moving around it quite time consuming and ultimately annoying. Sure this makes the game world feel big, but that doesn’t really make up for me having to sit through 3 encounters in the middle of the ocean that I don’t care about so I can get where I need to be. And this slow movement contributes to the main problem I have with the game, it takes forever.
The task of uncovering the nature of a vast unknowable entity should feel epic of course, but I will draw the line at it taking over four hours, in which time I could play 2 or 3 other games, I feel like the game is in something of a no win situation though as if it were shorter it would be in great danger of being anticlimactic. And a lot of this time is spent with stuff just happening to you, it’s incredibly flavourful and entertaining stuff happening, but mechanically all you end up doing is taking a series of characteristic tests. Sure there are plans to be had, using the whole team to get the right things to the right people in the right place can sometimes be very satisfying. However, the game is by no means the methodical puzzle seen in co-op or semi co-op games like Pandemic or Samurai Spirit.
Looking back on Eldritch Horror, I can absolutely see the appeal in a game that is more about storytelling. In fact, a lot of the aimlessness and time wasting that I criticize can be seen in Battlestar Galactica and Betrayal at the House on the Hill, which I do generally like playing. The sheer length of the game though, and the quite high buy in if you want to get the game to a place where it shines push it over the edge for me. If you really like your Lovecraft and want something that doesn’t require too much effort to play then you can certainly do worse, but I won’t be coming back to it for quite a while.