Brutus rating: 1/10 knives in the back
Pairs well with: some very strong whisky. Strong enough to forget the horrors you’ve seen.
The Misery Farm’s friendly photographer-friend enjoys only three things: board games, cameras and suffering. This makes him a good misery photographer but a bad person. It has also adapted him to suit a game called Arkham Horror: a board game that brings nothing but relentless suffering. If you’ve not played it, then rest assured that it’s just hours and hours of trudging around dreary old Arkham before being eaten by a void-born tentacle-god.
When Eldritch Horror came out, Dr Photographer sold it to us as “It’s Arkham Horror, but fun.” Does being fun take the fun out of it? … No, it turns out!
It’s big and it’s long and it’s tentacley. The board is a great chunky world map which you traverse, and there are lots and lots of extra cards and tokens and doodads which make setting it up annoying but playing it extremely satisfying. Like many ‘big’ games turns take a while and are divided into phases. They are, roughly, Doing Stuff, Stuff Getting Done To You, and Bad Stuff Happens (or ‘action’, ‘encounter’, and ‘mythos’ if you’re being fancy and accurate). The aim of the game is to solve mysteries and stop the hell-spawned Old Ones from rising up and devouring the universe. You will sometimes often fail at this.
Eldritch is one of those games that gives you some excellent characters to work with if you want to get into the spirit of things with a little bit of the ol’ roleplaying. This makes it an immediate favourite for Lizzy already, and the rest of the team are just relieved that it’s a co-op and they can take a break from having to beat the crap out of her in case she gets ahead. Everyone each gets their own character (until they die, go insane, or the game ends) and a good group of friends will heavily encourage acting, an elaborately developed personality and a funny voice for the duration. The characters each have special abilities of some kind, their own set of stats and their own backstory.
Of course, the game also doesn’t shy away from other classic Lovecraftian themes such as racial stereotyping. There’s an Asian lady who’s… really good at martial arts? Ok. And the Nigerian’s backstory is about wise village elders and spirits? Yup. Let’s just… yeah. And let’s not put on voices for those characters k? K.
And then there’s our own personal favourite: Silas Marsh. One for the ladies. His thing is that he’s better on sea-tiles. What’s his intricate and carefully woven backstory? He… quite likes the sea.
Yep, that’s it. He just really likes the sea, you guys. He comes from a small seaport town, you won’t have heard of it. It’s in New England somewhere.
So as mentioned above, Eldritch Horror is a co-op game, hence the small “knives-in-the-back” rating. It still gets one knife however, in case someone gets a death pact and has to kill one of their friends.
Yup! That brings us right round to the main theme of the review, the game, and indeed life itself: never-ending horror. As with most good co-ops, at the end of every turn someone needs to trigger what’s known as Bad Stuff Happens (‘mythos phase’). For Eldritch Horror this means turning over a card and letting all hell break loose. Not got enough monsters on the board? Have some more. Not got enough terrifying gates to otherworldly and evil dimensions, floating around? Have some of those, too. Not feeling like there’s enough DOOM floating around? Better advance the DOOM track! Frankly if you’re not feeling overwhelmed and panicky once you’ve resolved all the conditions of the mythos card then you’re playing it wrong.
If the DOOM track reaches zero, or you’ve got too many inter-dimensional gates spitting monsters all over the board, or maybe just if great Cthulhu’s great alarm clock was set a little early, then congratulations, the Old Ones have woken up. When that happens you are more or less fucked, unless you can pull out some really fantastic dice rolls and co-operation. So yeah, pretty much fucked. Enjoy being devoured.
But of course, there are several other ways that things can go wrong for a plucky gang of adventurers during the ‘encounter’ phase. There’s that aforementioned “death pact” and other terrifying conditions (you don’t need all of your limbs for adventuring, right?) and there are monsters – those tend to want to attack you if you get too close. Sometimes you’re just on a lovely, optimistic quest for a ‘clue’ and instead you wind up beaten and imprisoned. There are really excellent cards that describe what happens in each situation and which skill-checks you need to pass, and you’ll always find yourself shouting at your character as you read it out.
“You see a terrifying crypt… good, that’s ok so far… you head towards it to explore… NO I FUCKING DON’T WHY WOULD I DO THAT… and suddenly an arm grabs you… OF COURSE IT BLOODY DOES I’M IN A SHITTING CRYPT WHAT DID I EXPECT? …Make a strength check to escape… OKAY COME ON ARMS OF STEEL… SON OF A BISCUIT HOW DID THAT FAIL?? …if you fail you get dragged underground where shoggoths pull off your arm and beat you with it.”
The game has an exciting balance of making you firefight all of the things going wrong and actually trying to scrabble your way towards victory. You may want to hoover up all of the lovely clue-juice, for example, depending on the current victory goal that you need to achieve, but you also don’t want to leave open five portals which more terrifying goat-spawn can clop through at any point.
One thing that seemed a little less balanced is the discrepancies between different numbers of players. We left Bob unsupervised once or twice and she had a few solo runs of the game, which she tells us was possibly a little too easy. Obviously we can only explain this by the game being easier with only one player, and nothing at all to do with Briony, Lizzy and the Camera-Man holding her back the rest of the time. It’s also absolutely impossible that she was playing it wrong. She’s a known rules junkie, our Bob, who never takes the ‘eh, that’s probably right?’ approach to little things like numbers of dice or how DOOM tracks work.
We also didn’t have too much of the “one person controls all” problem that seems pervasive through a lot of co-op board games, but that might just be the particular team of plucky adventurers / arseholes that we are.
“Get the clue, we need it for the next victory condition!”
“… Hmm but I really want to explore Tunguska.”
“But the victory condition?”
It’s also got great replayability as you can choose from a variety of world-eating monsters to struggle vainly against, and which affect the gameplay quite strongly. If you fancy your misery Shub-Niggurath-flavoured, for example, you’re going to be spending a lot of time losing your sanity to suicidal cultists. If it’s Yig, you’re going to be poisoned by snakes at least twenty times. If you’re in a Cthulhu mood then I’m afraid you’re going to be spending some time in the sea. There are goat-spawn too, and hellhounds.
The expansion adds to this with a host of new monsters, crippling ailments, and a frozen wasteland. Hurray!
To enjoy Eldritch Horror, you do have to enjoy a bit of misery for your adventures. Luckily, this is right up the street of a group of board game reviewers who’ve called themselves ‘The Misery Farm’. We’d certainly recommend it to people who only hate themselves a little. Most of you, probably.
The real winner is Cthulhu. May the dark lord’s tentacles ever be long and terrifying.
Photos credited to Dr Photographer
The big bag o’ monsters was made during a game by the mighty-impressive Emma Field at JustAddCrochet, who is also featured in a photo as a starfish.