“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
Wednesday’s Gen Con preview night was full of exciting announcements from tabletop behemoth Fantasy Flight Games, and while many people were anticipating news for games like Star Wars: X-Wing or the Game of Thrones board game, I was shaking with horrible anticipation for a different franchise under the Fantasy Flight umbrella.
Arkham Horror 2nd Edition is the game that hooked me into the pulpy world of Lovecraft and was my gateway into designer board games. So when Fantasy Flight revealed that the 3rd Edition would be so drastically different from the 2nd, I was conflicted. But after trying out the latest version at Gen Con, I am happy to say that it seems to have only enhanced the best aspects of what made this series so fantastic in the first place.
Lovecraftian horror games are a niche that Fantasy Flight has historically dominated. 2nd Edition’s interesting and stylized characters, the great sense of working together to overcome insurmountable horrors, and the publisher’s generally incredible production quality allowed it to become the gold standard for Cthulhu game cultists, myself included. But other companies have begun to step their game up with Lovecraftian horror, closing the gap over time. This caused the expectations of gamers to grow with the genre, and left the mechanics and glaringly long playtime of Arkham Horror to slowly become dated.
Arkham Horror’s 3rd Edition feels like more is at stake and more must be risked, pushing the players to really live inside the stress that I’m hoping the narrative will reinforce.
Thankfully, the success of other Fantasy Flight Lovecraftian games like Arkham Horror: The Card Game and Eldritch Horror have taught the publisher a lot about what works and what doesn’t within this genre. Arkham Horror: The Card Game has a branching narrative with a ton of character and an extremely reasonable playtime. Eldritch Horror’s mechanics feel much more like Arkham Horror’s 2nd Edition, but streamlines a lot of the number crunching involved. This is something that the new Arkham Horror has clearly learned from.
Its 3rd Edition now features a modular board comprised of double-sided tiles that change orientation with each scenario, creating a shifting and interesting backdrop, as well as changing the scope of managing the horrors that will appear across the street lamp lit streets of Arkham. Movement is limited, and constantly having to work with your teammates to cover ever-spawning problems and slay monsters feels reminiscent of the old game, while changing the layout for different scenarios will force the players to have to adapt their strategies and dare to be alone more often. It feels like more is at stake and more must be risked, pushing the players to really live inside the stress that I’m hoping the narrative will reinforce.
Furthermore, each player will have their own problems to deal with as the Mythos phase has changed. Instead of one sweeping effect, each player now draws two mythos effects per turn from a mythos bag, only returning these effects to the bag when it empties. What this means is that as you pull different effects from the bag, your chances of drawing that effect again decreases, creating ever-changing game states that each player contributes to. It makes end phases of each round feel more important and dynamic, rather than the previous edition, where you were just waiting to see how terrible it would be and then get back to your turn.
The game goes out of its way to communicate the roles your character is meant to play within a group.
This is also an excellent way of solving the problem of scaling the difficulty for fewer players, something previous editions struggled with. There are fewer effects pulled if there are fewer players, meaning that the amount of problems to solve remains exactly proportional to the number of players in each scenario.
Probably one of the most powerful changes is the Focus mechanic. It was initially introduced in the expansions for Eldritch Horror, but has been updated to become a pretty impactful tool in Arkham’s 3rd Edition. Focus now allows you to gain tokens to improve stats, but they can also be discarded to re-roll dice in dire situations. This empowers you to compensate for character’s weak points or double-down on their strengths, creating a powerful unitasker.
Arkham Horror goes out of its way to communicate (via text on your character card) the roles your character is meant to play within the group. For example, I played a character meant to absorb and heal both mental and physical damage from other players. I used the focus tokens I had earned to more evenly balance my character. However, IGN’s own Tom Marks played a magic-oriented character who took damage in order to perform huge swings in combat — those swings were buffed by his lore stat, which he bolstered with his earned focus tokens. Our characters made a great team, as I let Tom do a lot of the heavy-hitting against monsters and I could absorb the damage he took while I took care of the mounting pile of small problems needing to be addressed.
Arkham still includes huge swings in chance as well. For example, Tom got to roll a whopping THIRTEEN dice in one combat scenario, trying to overcome a particularly nasty beasty. He rolled one success, still defined as rolling a five or six. ONE. While painful, the group was able to adapt using our characters exactly as they were intended and come together to stabilize after Tom received some heavy damage. Each player felt useful and contributed to different things across the board, and their design melded perfectly with their flavor. It felt great to see each of us smile as we succeeded on our own paths to a common goal.
I once spent nine hours in one playthrough of Arkham Horror 2nd Edition, while 3rd Edition should take closer to two.
Narrative in other Arkham games has also improved in recent years, and it seems 3rd Edition is reaping the benefits of that with the addition of the Archive deck. While our time with playing allowed for little interaction with this system, if it’s anything like Arkham Horror: The Card Game, it’s sure deliver a compelling storyline. Something I can’t wait to experience.
Probably most importantly, our demo guide explained that the average playthrough time during playtesting was only an hour and a half to two hours. This is drastically shorter than the 2nd edition and a welcome improvement. I once spent nine hours in one playthrough of Arkham Horror that left some of my more casual tabletop gaming friends exhausted and hesitant to include it in our regular pool of games. While they all agreed that they loved the lore and feel, it was just too long. I’m glad to see Fantasy Flight seems to have gotten the memo.
Arkham Horror 3rd Edition seems to have committed to creating a flavor-rich game by maintaining much of the spirit that made 2nd edition so great, but also creating a game with a much higher replay value and more palatable playtime for the average gamer. We only got to play a few rounds, about 30-45 minutes, but I was already very impressed with the quality of life improvements for one of my all-time favorite games. I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished product, which promised to be a much more in-depth narrative filled with the joy of Lovecraftian despair.
John Borba is an avid tabletop gamer, zombie enthusiast, and enjoys the Mexican dessert, Tres Leches cake. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram as @borbsauce.