Anatomy of a Reimagination: Eldritch Horror

Though it’s been out for about two years, I just played Eldritch Horror (2013) for the first time last month. I was quickly won over by the game, as I happily fought nameless horrors and investigated blasphemous locations. Though Eldritch Horror only notes “inspiration” from Arkham Horror (1987, 2005), I’d call it a revision — or else a “reimagination” — because this newer game rather cleverly reinvents most of the mechanics from Arkham Horror, but using a totally new design paradigm. The result is a clear evolution of design.


The Victory Conditions

Eldritch Horror MysteryIn Arkham Horror, the object of the game is to close as many gates as there are players, then get all the gates closed simultaneously. In Eldritch Horror, the goal varies for each Ancient One, with “mystery” cards revealing three different tasks that players must undertake.

Result: The original edition of Arkham Horror (1987) was an exercise in frustration, because the rules made it almost impossible to coordinate the players to close all the open gates simultaneously. The revised FFG Arkham Horror (2005) was better, because an increased ability to permanently close gates meant that there was more opportunity for players to improve their position over time by getting the most likely gate locations warded. Still, it could be frustrating to have a very unlikely gate open at just the wrong time.

Anything that got away from the mechanic of simultaneously closing gates was likely to decrease frustration and make the game more fun. However, the mysteries of Arkham Horror take a step beyond that.

First, the mysteries introduce uncertainty. Players may not know what the mysteries of each Ancient One are. Even if they do, only three out of four mysteries come out each game, and the order they appear in varies. This all amounts to a great way to keep the game from becoming too staid.

Second, the mysteries introduce variability. Every time the players play against a new Ancient One, the game’s different. That means there are four different sorts of gameplay available in the core game — plus even more in the supplements.

Response: Awed Celebration. This is the biggest change in Eldritch Horror, and it’s also the best. When you remove frustration and add uncertainty and variability, you get a game that’s flat-out more fun, more tense, and more likely to keep you playing.

The Characters

Eldritch Horror CharacterIn Arkham Horror characters are defined by: mental and physical health points; a special power; starting equipment; starting location; and paired attributes that can be changed by increasing one and decreasing the other. In Eldritch Horror characters are defined by: mental and physical health points; a special power; starting equipment; starting location; and simple, unpaired attributes.

Result: I always thought the paired attributes in Arkham Horror were clever, because they gave players better control of their characters. I never thought about the fact that they introduced a (relatively minor) tactical decision into every single round of play. Eldritch Horror does away with that, and gains some immediate speed-up benefits as a result.

Response: Happy. For every single mechanic you introduce into a game, you have to ask, “Does this pay out its complexity with sufficiently improved gameplay?” Having now seen the Horror games with and without the tunable attributes, I don’t think they added enough to the game to be worth the slowdown and added complexity.

Character Death

Eldritch Horror DefeatIn Arkham Horror if you lose all your sanity or stamina, you waste one or two turns and then have your attribute refilled to 1 point; in rare cases you could get “devoured” and have to start a new investigator. In Eldritch Horror if you lose all of your sanity or stamina, you tip over your investigator on the board, and start a new character on the next turn. The group loses a point on the Doom Track as punishment. Later, other characters can encounter the downed investigator and have a final scene with them.

Result: Players with hurt characters in Arkham Horror ended up sitting around a lot — both during their one or two lost turns and afterward when they worked to get back up to fighting strength. Eldritch Horror throws out that downtime, and instead gets you right back into the fun (while ensuring there is still a cost for losing the character: the doom point). Meanwhile, the ability to encounter the downed investigator makes the game feel like more of a story, providing closure to the previous investigator’s tale.

Response: Happy. Yet another great revision! Punish victory points, not player fun! Players shouldn’t sit around bored, and I definitely remember having multiple turns of not-fun in Arkham Horror due to wounding. Dying is so much easier!

The Map & Movement

Eldritch Horror MapThe Arkham Horror map has 27 encounter nodes, 9 movement-only nodes, and 38 edges between the nodes. The overall structure is a tree that has a maximum of 6 distance between the leaves on one side and the leaves on the other. This tends to require 2-3 rounds of movement. The Eldritch Horror map has 15 major encounter nodes, 21 minor encounter nodes, and about 46 edges between the nodes. The overall structure is a ring that has a maximum of about 6 distance between the most distance locales. This tends to require 2-3 rounds of movement.

In Arkham Horror, movement is controlled by your variable Speed value. In Eldritch Horror, movement has a flat value of 2, but can be increased by up to 2 on a round if you have previously purchased train or boat tickets.

Result: The most notable change between the games is that Eldritch Horror no longer has “dead” spaces where players don’t get to have an encounter. Some encounters are still more interesting than others, but barring issues with monsters, every player gets to draw an encounter every turn. This seems to be another attempt to maximize the fun of the players, as having a turn without an encounter was always a bummer in Arkham Horror.

Looking at the math underlying the two boards, they seem to be very similar in size and ability to get around. Nonetheless, Eldritch Horror’s locations “feel” closer in actual play. This illusion is probably caused by a combination of board design and new rules.

First, the Arkham Horror board’s tree layout is very rigid while the Eldritch Horror board’s circular layout is more freeform, and doesn’t make it as obvious that locations are far apart.

Second, Eldritch Horror allows you to use downtime when you don’t need your actions to purchase tickets. Though the total actions spent moving is the same, you get to swap out unneeded actions for faster movement when it counts. This can be helped even more by another player handing off his own tickets.

Even if the closeness of Eldritch Horror’s locations is an illusion, it’s an important one. The different board provides a visceral response, while the different movement mechanic makes things closer when players care about it.

Response: Quietly pleased. Though looking at the numbers suggests there isn’t a big change between the two boards, all of the visceral changes create the illusion of a board where it’s easier to get around. The designers didn’t sacrifice any strategic obstacles, but managed to improve player experience. That’s a pretty good trick! The removal of no-encounter spaces is an even more obvious slam-dunk.

The Mythos Phase

Eldritch Horror Mythos CardIn Arkham Horror a Mythos card draw spawns a gate, a monster, and advances the doom track — unless the selected location is sealed (in which case nothing happens) or unless the location is already occupied by a gate (in which case a monster surge occurs). Then a clue token appears. Then certain monsters move based on arrows on the board. Then special text reveals a one-time occurrence.

In Eldritch Horror a Mythos card draw tends to cause three effects from a menu of six: the doom track advances; special “reckoning” effects occur; a gate and monster appear; a monster surge occurs; a clue appears; or a special rumor marker goes on the board marking an ongoing problem. Then special text reveals a one-time occurrence.

In Arkham Horror the gate and clue placement are based on the text of the card. In Eldritch Horror the gate and clue placement are revealed by the gate and clue tokens themselves.

Result: The changes in the Mythos phase were another pretty big reinvention in Eldritch Horror, and they tend to have a lot of results.

There’s increased variability. Because of the general changes, players can no longer count on specific things happening each turn. Instead there are some times when things are good (such as when a clue appears) and some times when things are bad (such as when all the menu items are terrible). This sort of uncertainty is good in board games general, but it’s especially great in co-op games.

There’s increased simplicity. Because Eldritch Horror decouples the doom track, the gate appearance, and the monster surge, players don’t have to remember as many unique rules and how they interact. The result is easier play. The lack of monsters moving around is another example of this simplicity (and another thing that speeds up the game).

There’s increased specialty. Because of the “reckoning” mechanism, the game is better able to support lots of special powers. For example, the mi-go have a reckoning effect that causes them to steal clues. However, the reckoning mechanism keeps all of these special cases within a regularized context that makes them easy to administer.

Finally, there’s decreased randomness. Because the placement of the gates and clues are linked with the actual tokens, the gates and clues will be spread all about the board. This is because it’s impossible to repeat them (whereas a large deck of cards will have repeats).

Response. Enthusiastic. These are all changes that you don’t really notice, but I feel pretty good about them creating a game that’s smoother sailing.

Fighting the Monsters

Eldritch Horror MonsterIn Arkham Horror, monsters are an active threat. Fighting them was a frequent occurrence and very complex. The fighting rules were almost impossible to figure out in the first edition (1987), and even in the second edition (2005) it took a lot of effort to step through all the phases. You had to make an Evade check to avoid them (which was half-a-page of rules on its own), then a Horror check to not go insane, then there was another chance to Evade or Fight (requiring more checks), then the monster did damage if it was still alive. Weapons and spells could add to the complexity.

In Eldritch Horror, monsters are instead passive obstacles. You don’t have to fight them, but if you want to have encounters in their area, you need to deal with them. The routine for fighting a monster is briefly listed on the back of each monster chit. First you roll a Will test which tells you how much sanity you lose (if any), then you roll a Strength test which tells you both how much health you lose (if any) and how much damage you do to the monster. Spells tend to hurt monsters as normal actions (so they don’t get involved with the combat encounter), while weapons meld cleanly into the combat system: they add dice, modify dice, or change the effects of dice.

Result: The old system was complex and required frequent reference to the rules for all the special cases. The new system is intuitive and obvious and requires almost no rules lookup. You give up some things with the sort of simplification, but this is nonetheless a strong revision that both shows how a more polished system can be much more playable and demonstrates how components can make a mechanic much easier to understand (because everything you need to know about each monster is quite intuitively presented on its tile).

Response: Awed Celebration. This is what makes game redevelopment worthwhile.

Closing the Gates

Eldritch Horror GateIn Arkham Horror you close a gate by going through it (often after following the rules to sneak past a monster), then surviving two rounds in the Other World, then coming back and succeeding at the rolls needed to close a game.

In Eldritch Horror  you close a gate by dealing with any monsters in front of it, then picking up an Other World card and doing what it says.

Result: The Arkham Horror system was another frustrating mechanic: after spending turns and turns getting to the gate and getting through it, you sometimes had to spend turns and turns trying to roll the numbers needed to close the gate. It got boring. The Eldritch Horror system is another example of notable polishing (getting rid of all those rounds of travel) and great use of components (putting all the rules for closing gates on the cards). A player might sit around just as long before he can close the gate but it’s more interesting because he gets to read new text and make different rolls every turn!

Response: Happy. This feels like the same sort of change as the monster-fighting revamp. I don’t rate it quite as high because I didn’t find the frustration of not closing a gate as great as the annoyance of having to look up fighting rules, but it’s still another fine example of polish.

Conclusion

Looking at Eldritch Horror as a redevelopment of Arkham Horror, it’s really a masterwork of game design. I think that every single change works and that every single one makes Eldritch Horror a better game than its predecessor. Bravo to Corey Konieczka and Nikki Valens!

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