Arkham Horror 3rd Edition: It Takes Two to Tentacle

by Mr. Saint

Overview:

Arkham Horror 2nd Edition was my entry into hobby board gaming.  Bought at significant discount while I was a struggling, underemployed law school grad amidst the last great recession (the summer of 2011), I spent countless evenings learning its systems and playing game after game.  Since those fondly remembered summer nights, my journey through the hobby has found me enjoying dozens of other games, including owning a majority of Fantasy Flight’s “Arkham Horror Files” product lines, such as Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness 2e, and the Arkham Horror LCG.  As such, I was very enthusiastic when I first heard about Arkham Horror 3rd Edition.

 In Arkham Horror 3rd Edition (AH3E for short), players take on the role of a team of investigators attempting to understand and combat the strange occurrences happening in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts.  Loosely based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, AH3E is a cooperative, scenario-driven adventure game for one to six players.  Each scenario sheet will detail any special setup instructions, the layout of the modular map, a bit of story to get things started as well as which Archive cards start in play (these cards usually detail the investigators’ current objective and help to move the narrative along as the players succeed or fail at each card’s task).

A game of AH3E is played over a series of rounds.  In each round, players will move through four individual phases – the Action Phase, the Monster Phase, the Encounter Phase, and the Mythos Phase.  

In the Action Phase, each investigator gets to take two actions.  These actions include things like moving, fighting monsters, removing doom from an area, performing research (placing clues on the scenario sheet) and others.  Like in Eldritch Horror, each action can only be performed once per turn, so the players are incentivized to diversify their activity to avoid wasting actions.

The Monster Phase, appropriately, is full of monstrous activity.  Borrowed heavily from the Arkham Horror LCG’s monster AI system, each monster has a set of behavior it follows.  Some will continually pursue investigators with the most clues or the most damage.  Others will do their best to avoid the investigators and impact the board in other ways.  Such as by spreading Doom, the game’s barometer for how bad things are getting in Arkham.  Monsters that move into investigator spaces engage with (move off the main board to the investigator’s play area) and damage the engaged investigator every turn until they are killed or evaded.  

This monster patrols the unstable location and unfortunately this investigator is on it.

The Encounter Phase is where the magic happens.  Each investigator not engaged with a monster draws and resolves an Encounter card.  Encounter cards contain a small snippet of narrative unique to that specific location, really bringing the world of Arkham to life.  Investigators can use the symbols on the individual map spaces to inform the type of encounter a space will provide.  Feeling strong and brave, but lacking funds?  The iconography found on the Graveyard suggests you might be able to make a quick buck gravedigging, if you’ve got the brawn and brass for it (the back of the Rules Reference has a complete symbol key to help pinpoint where you should be headed for a given type of encounter).  If you’re lucky, the neighborhood you’re in will have a Clue on it, giving you a chance to have an Event encounter: one of those encounters unique to the scenario you’re playing that will help you start to piece together what the hell is going on around here. 

The Mythos Phase composes the majority of AH3E’s admin, where the game moves things forward via various effects.  In the Mythos Phase, each player in turn will draw two tokens from the mythos cup and resolve their effects, refilling the cup only once all tokens have been drawn.  These effects include things like spawning monsters, putting clues in a neighborhood, resolving the effects of the Reckoning symbol on various game components, or drawing and resolving a Headline, among others.  These Headlines seem like a bit of a missed opportunity.  Their format of a newspaper article headline followed by a bit of flavor text and an in-game effect are often the highlight of the Mythos Phase, and we would have liked to see Headlines tailored to each scenario to push that story’s uniqueness and theme.

Transformers© Mythos cup not included.

Players who have played some of the other Arkham Horror Files games will be familiar with AH3E’s roll-to-resolve skill test system.  Frequently, the player will be asked to test a given attribute (such as Lore or Observation).  The player will roll a number of dice equal to their investigator’s attribute, plus or minus any modifiers.  Each five or six is a success.  This approach to conflict resolution is serviceable, though it would have been nice for this new edition to iterate on this system a bit.

Review:

For me, Arkham Horror 3rd Edition is like returning to the neighborhood where you grew up.  Many things are as you remember – the street corner convenience store bustles with activity; the sirens of the nearby hospital can be intermittently heard from a couple blocks over; people brood silently over their morning coffee at the local diner.

Other things are noticeably different – the vacant lot by your old house is now a playground; the family-owned pharmacy has been replaced by a corporate chain; things seem a little less bright, as if the day-to-day ennui of adult life has eroded the color from the world.  An unsettling thought forms in your mind.  Maybe it isn’t the neighborhood that’s changed.

Arkham Horror 3 Edition’s modular map system in action.

Many of the things that differentiate AH3E from its previous incarnations were liberally lifted from the Arkham Horror LCG.  Each investigator now sports a starting role: Guardian, Mystic, Rogue, or Seeker.  This RPG-esque classification system helps point people new to the Arkham Files universe to specific aspects of the game they might enjoy exploring.  Those interested in combat will find themselves drawn to the Guardian investigators while players interested in advancing the narrative and interacting with Event Encounters might prefer the Seeker role.  Each investigator also now has a choice between two starting items, offering players an interesting decision before the game has even begun.

We also really liked the new Focus action.  An amalgamation of Eldritch Horror’s Focus action and improvement token system, taking the Focus action in AH3E allows you to claim a token that permanently boosts a skill of your choice by 1. No more will you spend turn after turn in San Francisco, hoping for an encounter that will boost your investigator’s Observation!  Now, simply spend one of your two actions for the turn on a guaranteed upgrade, and when that is no longer useful, you can cash the Focus token in for a die reroll on a crucial skill test.

That is, if you can take the time out of your busy schedule to take the Focus action.  AH3E’s design is tuned significantly tighter than previous Arkham Horror Files games.   In the second edition and Eldritch Horror, you might find a moment’s respite to visit a shop or have a unique encounter that doesn’t advance your win condition.  Maybe the gate that should have opened bounced off your seal (2E) or the Mythos Phase offered up an easy card (thinking specifically of the white bordered Mythos cards in Eldritch).  By comparison, AH3E is relentless.  If you are playing a Mystic, you should expect the overwhelming majority of your turns to consist entirely of moving and warding doom.  Guardians will spend almost all of their time moving between locations with healing encounters and engaging monsters.  At times, it feels almost scripted.  And deviations from that script often result in a cascade of negative consequences for the players that are difficult, sometimes impossible, to recover from.

Because the investigators’ actions are often so prescribed,  the Action Phase is usually lightning fast.  By contrast, the Mythos Phase drags.  In a four player game, the sequence of each player pulling two tokens from the Mythos cup, resolving each individual token, and passing to the next player often took more time than the three previous phases combined.  The flow of the game improved significantly with only two investigators, but the admin the Mythos Phase required was still very noticeable.

Sometimes an investigator does not survive the Mythos Phase.

Additionally, because the contents of the Mythos cup are relatively static and known from scenario setup, the Mythos Phase loses a lot of it’s suspense.  Gone are the groans in response to a backbreaking Rumor entering play, the sighs of relief when the Mythos offers a brief respite, the silent moments of anticipation as the game group waits to see what new challenge will present itself.  Instead, because all tokens have to be drawn prior to refilling the cup, the players know with a high degree of certainty what will take place in each Mythos Phase. It’s predictable, mathable even.  You might come to the realization, based on a given scenario’s Mythos cup content and number of players in the game, that Doom will spread approximately 1.5x a round, two monsters will spawn a round, a gate burst will occur every other round, etc.   The players have pulled back the fabric covering the random, hostile universe to reveal clockwork gears underneath.  One wonders if the trains at Arkham Station always run on time.

So that’s it then.  Review over, everybody pack it in.  The investigation is complete.  It was Nikki Valens in the foyer with the lead pipe!  Here’s the thing though: we’re keeping our copy of AH3E.  An explanation is clearly due.

By way of analogy, I didn’t like Eldritch Horror (EH) much when it was first released either.  It felt thin, such a small thing dwarfed by the amount of content it’s grandiose older sibling presented.  There was not enough on offer from EH for it to ever equal the endless replayability of second edition with all of it’s expansions.Then, Forsaken Lore was released.  I picked it up on a whim, and I’m so glad I did!  That small box nearly doubled the number of cards in base EH, including adding two new Mysteries to each Ancient One in the core set.  My argument against EH, based mostly on its longevity, began to erode.  And as we continued to invest in Eldritch Horror, more and more of its strengths shined through.  This isn’t an Eldritch Horror review so I’ll end my reminiscing here, but long-story-slightly-less-long, Eldritch Horror is now my favorite Arkham Horror Files game and one of our favorite games period.

This is the worst that AH3E will ever be.  That statement said not as condemnation, but as a hopeful declaration towards the future.  At the time of writing this review, AH3E already has one expansion released (Dead of Night) with another to be released relatively soon (Under Dark Waves, Summer 2020).  Like Forsaken Lore for EH, Dead of Night promises to double the number of cards in the game.  Arguments about whether this content was culled from the core box to fit Fantasy Flight’s expansionist business model aside, this support of AH3E leaves us hopeful that it will follow a similar arc to our enjoyment of EH.

One can already see glimmers of potential in AH3E’s design.  The modular map tile system is ripe for exploration.  The layout of the tiles, dictated by the scenario setup, already changes the way you interact with the map on a fundamental level from game to game.  What if that design space was pushed even further?  And while we found mostly fault with the Mythos cup system, there is the possibility in future scenarios to do something novel with it.  Maybe a scenario in the future will randomize the tokens in the cup periodically or change the way they are drawn during the Mythos Phase, adding some much needed variance to that process.

Story-wise, AH3E sticks closer to the LCG’s model, providing a guided narrative experience that is slowly revealed to the players over the course of a session.  This is in stark contrast to the emergent narrative gameplay on offer in both second edition and Eldritch Horror.  This allows the stories told by 3E to be more cohesive and narratively consistent, but possibly less replayable.  Which type of storytelling you might prefer falls mostly to preference, and my opinion changes depending on what type of mood I’m in.  But AH3E’s structure makes it very compatible with a potential narrative campaign.  It would be interesting to see an expansion structure where a big box expansion and a small box expansion could be played as six intertwined scenarios, similar to the Mythos Cycles found in the LCG.

AH3E is a bit of an odd duck.  Eschewing some of the randomness of its predecessors for a significantly tighter design, it feels more machine than mythos.  It freely adopts some of the better design decisions of previous games while also bringing a few ideas of it’s own to the table.  Uttering the phrase, “the expansion will fix it” may be a brand of madness unique to hobby board gaming.  But AH3E offers just enough of the new mixed with the familiar, that we hope you’ll forgive us, as we entertain this insanity just a little bit longer.

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