My kids (with some strong hints from me) gave me a copy of Eldritch Horror for Christmas. It’s the newest in Fantasy Flight Games’ massive line of Cthulhu mythos games, and is presented as a kind of updated/streamlined version of Arkham Horror, which despite many recommendations I have never played. I’ve had the chance to play Eldritch Horror a few times over the past couple of weeks, though, and I absolutely love it. I love games that tell a story–I like winning, but I consider that secondary to the experience of playing a game, and nothing improves that experience for me like a really great story. This is one of the reasons that I love Last Night on Earth so much: it has so much flavor, and creates such a strong narrative as you play it, that you remember it long after, almost like a good movie or a book. Games that create this kind of situation, that put you in a place not just to play a game but to experience something cool and dramatic, are the reason I love gaming. Eldritch Horror has this in spades.
The board represents the entire world, in the classic Lovecraftian era of 1920/1930, and in that way kind of resembles Fortune and Glory, but with a strong horror focus and a game engine that’s much deeper and more polished. Each player takes the role of a specific character, and you work together against a scenario: one of the Greater Old Ones is starting to awaken, and you have to work together to find the right clues, solve the right riddles, and save the world. There are a ton of random encounter cards, and a great assortment of characters that each play surprisingly uniquely, making each game different even when replaying a familiar scenario.
I could go into specifics, but really there’s no better recommendation I can make than simply recounting one of the standout story moments from my last game. I was playing solo (it’s a fantastic solo game) with two characters: an investigator and a psychic. The investigator was great, thanks to an early ally that gave him a big boost exploring cities, and he’d managed to accrue a lot of great equipment–balanced by a few Condition cards (like ‘Debt,’ ‘Hallucinations,’ and so on) that represented the high price he’d paid for his power. The Conditions are fun, because there are several different versions of each, and you never know which one you get until a game effect tells you to flip it over and see what happens. Maybe you’re in debt to some mob thugs, who’ll come and break your legs, or maybe you’re in debt to a warlock who wants to steal some of your sanity. It’s a great system. The psychic, on the other hand, had stronger willpower than the investigator and stayed a little more pure, but as a consequence struggled for a lot of the game. We managed to solve two of the three mysteries required to stop Yog-Sothoth from waking up, but time was running out, and I needed more clues–I was desperate for clues. How desperate? I got the chance to find out when my investigator took a boat across the Atlantic, following a lead from Johannesburg to Buenos Aires, and halfway there ran into some mysterious creatures with the information I needed. They offered to share it, but only for a price: two clues in exchange for a Dark Pact. A Dark Pact is a Condition that could potentially devastate me, up to and including just killing the character outright, but I didn’t need to worry about that, right? The odds that the next big event card would trigger the pact were extremely small, and even then I had to roll incredibly poorly for anything to happen–and even if my investigator died, who cared? With those two clues my psychic could cast the spell I needed and win the game on literally the very next turn. I had this game in the bag. What could a little deal with the devil hurt me?
End of turn event card: trigger the Dark Pact. Oops. Well, no matter, I probably won’t roll a…oh. Oops. Looks like the mysterious creatures are calling me in to fulfill my half of the bargain. Still, no worries, because even if I die I’m fine, so let’s flip the card over and see what I have to do….
My investigator has to sacrifice ANOTHER character. Not himself.
The investigator’s dangerous flirtation with the forces of darkness has led him too far! He’s made one too many shady deals, and now it’s time to pay the piper. He betrays the psychic, losing his very humanity in the bargain, and the dark gods laugh. I struggle desperately for another couple of turns, solving the final mystery just a fraction of a second too late, and Yog-Sothoth awakes. He repays my poor investigator with a dragon to the face (a Hound of Tindalos eats him), which is a fitting punishment for such a fallen wretch, and though I still get to keep going with new characters it’s simply too late. Yog-Sothoth devours the world, and all is lost in madness.
I know several gamers who would hate to lose the game on what is essentially a random effect like that, and if that’s you, I’m sorry. This game is not for you. I LOVED it. I’ll remember that fateful decision and it’s soul-crushing repercussions for years to come, far more than a good hand of 7 Wonders or a clever bit of action timing in Agricola–both games I love, but for different reasons. Random effects by themselves can be onerous and frustrating, but random effects coupled with rich storytelling and tense situations are the stuff of pure drama. It’s all about the experience, and if you love games that give you a thrilling experience, definitely give Eldritch Horror a try.