The fog crept inexorably into the city, a grey blanket of corruption that seethed malevolently in the damned streets. His mind reduced to that of a gibbering simian, Ashcan Pete lay helpless on the ground, his limbs torn to ribbons by the putrefied teeth of the Byakhee. He bled out slowly, his blood watering the cursed soil of Arkham, and around him grew the sound of an unspeakable, infernal howling. The ninth gate is opening, Pete whispered, his last shred of lucid thought. His dying words were a phlegm-choked rattle in his throat, and then the world went black.
Arkham Horror is a shambling inter-dimensional beast of a game, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It can be fiddly, and it can be very random. But its arbitrariness is part of its shaggy charm, like when you’re doing research in a carrel in the library, reading up on R’lyeh, minding your own business, and suddenly a bunch of robed thugs appear from nowhere, beat you up for your library card, and throw you out into the streets of Arkham where a ghoul just so happens to have spawned, and it takes a bite out of your arm, and the whole experience drives you insane, and you wake up the next morning in Arkham Asylum with half your stuff gone because the ghoul grabbed your spell books even though it doesn’t have time in its busy day to kick back and read.
Fans of Lovecraft would recognize that none of this sounds particularly Lovecraftian1, not in the sense of some awful cosmic horror where the curtain is parted and the cold yawning presence of the Old Ones is revealed. The closest thing to this in all of Lovecraft’s oeuvre would be “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” which features the closest thing to a thrills-and-chills sequence in his work.
How to translate Lovecraft into something ludic is a challenge. For instance, one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” is pure unfilmable opiate fantasy; the idea of making it into a pleasurable game, with rules, seems impossible. (Similar challenges abound for cinematic translation: even a director like Guillermo del Toro couldn’t film “At the Mountains of Madness,” though I imagine the technical challenges of recreating vast caverns under Hyperborean wastes are steep. Though Richard Stanley’s 2019 film Color out of Space is a worthy and nicely revisionist translation—gratifying, too, because of Nic Cage’s usual delirious scenery-chomping, but I digress.)
So Fantasy Flight Games’s move was to use Lovecraft as the basis for an adventure game, with players controlling a random assortment of investigators such as Flapper-era socialites and detectives and gangsters and the occasional wizened scholar surrounded by moldering tomes of unknown provenance. (In the game Eldritch Horror—a more streamlined version of Arkham Horror and, I should say, a good candidate to replace Arkham Horror next year in my top 10—investigators hop on transatlantic ships as if they were some globe-trotting Mod Squad, all in the service of slaying intra-dimensional creatures.)
In Arkham Horror your investigators run around in the benighted town of Arkham, dodging deranged cultists, discovering clues, fighting monsters while trying to keep your sanity and health intact, and earning enough clue tokens to close these gates to extra-dimensional worlds—hopefully before terror reigns in Arkham and one of the Elder Gods awakens.
And as you can imagine, monsters come with all sorts of immunities and resistances, making it difficult, odds-wise, to go toe to toe with the slightly higher-level beasties unassisted by a rifle or a spell—most of which are easily obtainable except for, well, the times you really need them.
It isn’t an easy game to win, and that isn’t helped by the complexity of the rules, though at this point I can probably play it from memory. It’s certainly dated (it’s from 2005 after all), and the components (and rules) can be clunky, a factor that has led to fans creating third-party mobile companion apps to help streamline upkeep. (One example is the clumsy way you adjust the characters’ attributes at the start of every turn, which consists of sliding tokens on a flimsy sheet of cardboard.)
But Arkham Horror is such an entertaining game nonetheless, full of dramatic and tense moments right out of a horror movie epic, making it my eighth favorite solo board game of the year.2
1 Sometimes I think of the game’s randomness as “Lovecraftian,” but cosmic indifference, not caprice, was the hallmark of HPL’s cosmology. (Well, that and a deep-seated
2 Arkham Horror probably shines best in “multiplayer” though. Solo gamers won’t want to play it true solo, i.e. with just one investigator, because they’ll miss out on the possible synergies between two investigators. (Plus it’s impossible to simply sprint across Arkham as gates and monsters spawn all around your lone investigator. I always play it with two characters myself; one of these days I’ll bump it up to four just as I’ve done with Eldritch Horror.)