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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Improving Arkham Horror

by Ken Newquist / February 9, 2014
The cover art for Miskatonic University. Credit: Fantasy Flight Games.

Arkham Horror has long been one of the go-to board games for my gaming group. It's popularity has waxed and waned, usually seeing resurgences when new people join the group and the experience Fantasy Flight's epic game of eldritch horror and fiddly bits for the first time.

At this point I have almost all the expansions, with the exception of Miskatonic University. Our last few forays into H.P. Lovecraft's world have focused on the "big box" expansions of Kingsport, Dunwhich and Innsmouth. Each adds a new town to explore in the form of a sideboard that sits alongside the main Arkham board. It gives you a bunch of new locations to explore, new monsters, and new game mechanics.

We've discovered two things: 1) the game has gotten considerably harder and 2) the expansion boards don't come into play much.

The difficulty of the game naturally fluctuates with each session because you randomly draw the monsters you face. However, we think that the difficulty was ratcheting up even further because I was adding all the monsters from all the expansions to the monster cup.

As you can see in this BoardGameGeek.com thread, opinions vary on how this is supposed to be handled. Some follow the official rule and include them all. As we saw though, this can make the game much more difficult because all the hard monsters from all the expansions end up in the monster cup.

The consensus of my group is that we should separate out each of the expansion monsters. In addition to making the game more difficult, having all the monsters in the cup dilutes the theme of each expansion. Fighting Deep Ones in Innsmouth makes sense; fighting them in Dunwich not so much.

We're going to be playing one of the small expansions tonight -- probably the King in Yellow -- so we'll see how going with the base monsters works out.

Our other big issue has been the utter silence of the expansion sideboards. We've seen with the Kingsport, Innsmouth, and Dunwich expansions that nothing happens there. Some might consider this a blessing, but the whole point of those sideboards is to introduce new mechanics into the game (in Kingsport that's dimensional rifts that run amok, in Dunwhich its a terrible evil appears and begins devouring investigators.

We think this is because the expansion mythos cards (which govern where gates appear, the terrible effects of the mythos on the game, etc.) are shuffled into the larger mythos deck, which can result in very "streaky" behavior where you get no expansion gates or you get a lot of them. This is compounded by the fact that the expansions add additional Arkham gates in order to implement the "gate buster" feature there. In the base game, you can "seal" gates at unstable locations to prevent new gates from opening there. The "gate buster" cards break through those gates, and makes the game more difficult. That's ok, but when the expansions add new Arkham based cards without removing any, your chances of getting an Innsmouth or Dunwich card go down.

One suggestion at Board Game Geek is to have two Mythos decks (base and expansion) and to alternate draws between them. This seems like a reasonable solution as it guarantees that every other Mythos draw will be from the expansion, and that in turn means you're more likely to get a Dunwhich or Kingsport gate location.

Another option is to get the Miskatonic University expansion, which introduces mythos cards with dual gate locations, one in Arkham and one on the expansion board. Gates don't open in both locations; if the expansion is in use, the gate opens there, if it's not, it opens in Arkham.

Miskatonic University sounds like it's the ideal solution, but since it also costs money, we're going to try separating out the decks first. Since we're playing King in Yellow tonight we won't get to try this tactic just yet, but there's a lot of interest in bringing these changes to Dunwich Horror game later this spring.

The final thing we're doing to improve the game is reading up on the base mechanics. "A Newbie FAQ - 21 things a new AH player might want to have in mind" has a good overview of common mistakes that people make. A good example is the rule that you remove an ally from the ally deck every time the terror level goes up. We'd never used that rule, mostly because the terror level rarely went up in some of our earlier games because we kept the monsters in Arkham under control. More recently that hasn't been the case, and allies should have been abandoning the city in droves.

How about you? What has your group done to improve your Arkham Horror games?

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Comments

I think the thing for me is that even with some of these alterations to the rules as written, the game is simply too unwieldy when the expansions are added. There is simply too much there, there, and for me it ceases to be fun. In a perfect world, each of the major expansions, Dunwich, Insmouth, etc., would have simply been a different base game. So instead of which expansion do you want to add, it would be which version of Arkham do you want to play this time. I think that would be the best fix for me. Maybe in some alterante dimension it exists that way. Until then, I'll stick to Elder Sign, which I think is basically a streamlined, and therefore to me, a better version of Arkham Horror.

I think focused boards for each of the expansions would have been preferable, though I wonder what it would have done to the economics of manufacturing the game.

I've only played Elder Signs on the iPhone. I really enjoy Akrham's crunchiness, but I think Elder Signs is a nice way of getting that Lovecraftian fix without sinking in all the time that's necessary for AH.

I'm curious about how Eldritch Horror plays. My understanding is that it's mean to be a streamlined, faster version of Arkham, look too closely at it.