Just within the past fifteen years boardgames got interesting, and then promptly entered a golden age. No more was there the blandy McBlanderson choices of Monopoly, Sorry, and Candyland (Clue, of course is amazing) of the past eighty years, and no longer did you need a math degree if you wanted to get into the more obscure stuff.
Then came 2005, when the great Fantasy Flight Games released a cleaned-up second edition of an obscure Lovecraftian game from the ’80s called Arkham Horror.
Arkham Horror is a cooperative game for 1 to 8 players. It’s the 1920s, and gates to other worlds are opening all over the city. It’s up to the players to close and seal the gates before the great old one awakens and devours the world.
The game is huge (one might even say cyclopian). When fully assembled with all the expansion packs, it will roughly take up the size of a queen-sized bed (assuming you don’t want any elbow room). Arkham was the first horror board game that oozed the Lovecraftian themes with perfect, perfect art, it’s like sinking into a wonderfully weird retro world. The game did gangbusters and became so influential that cosmic horror and zombie boardgames feel like 2/3rds of all boardgames.
It does have its problems though. The rules are as intuitive as a do-it-yourself colostomy. The Aztec empire rose and fell in the time it takes to set up and take down the game. If you use more than two expansions, the components become so unwieldy it feels like juggling irritable bengal tigers while they’re reading aloud a detailed list of all your personal flaws. And storing the bloody thing is harder than keeping the Ark of Covenant out of the hands of the third reich.
But the unique thing about Arkham Horror, the one thing that no other board game does, is that it’s actually scary.
Out of the estimated 4,789 things that can go wrong, all of them will happen. Nothing ever goes right in Arkham Horror. No matter how immaculate the plans, no matter how many weapons the characters have, or how close victory is, the game will blow it all to perdition with a single turn of a card. And like a Lovecraft character slowly realizing that there are things beyond the understanding of man, it slowly dawns on the player that these incomprehensible, unfathomable rules are out to kill the players simply through it’s own existence, and they are taking their sweet time in doing it.
This revelation usually comes around the third game. When a great old one vomits up a yet another monster surge/gate seal burst/character death/eats all clue tokens/insanity increase/gate opening/devouring/weapon destruction/hospital trip/lost in time and space/brings out a #&@# rumor card, all of which always comes a turn after you finished cleaning up the last disaster. It’s wonderful, and worthy of any of Lovecraft’s stories.
And even when it’s slowly crushing the player, no other game creates such epic moments. Like the time my gaming group and I were a turn away from losing and we used Trish Scarborough to hop two gates in one turn and slam down the winning seal in the nick ‘o time. Or The Harvey Walters Pimp Squad. Or how in one utterly miserable game, where we didn’t even get in a single seal, the great old one awoke, and we drew the one card, in over a thousand, where he walked away because we were too pathetic to kill. Or the ridiculous, skin-of-our-teeth nine-hour marathon that was the first time we tried killing Cthulhu. Then there’s the Black Goat STDs games. The King in Yellow games, the King in Yellow plus Innsmouth games (where it’s possible for a turn one loss). It has a steep learning curve, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Arkham Horror stands as one of my top ten greatest achievements in horror because it transcends it card and cardboard medium to perfectly capture the feeling and mood of cosmic horror. I highly, highly recommend it.