Deep Plaid One guy trying to make some interesting decisions

Final(?) Arkham Horror Impressions

Posted on January 26, 2011

Me, Laura, and our friends Harvey and Leah sat down to finish our game of Arkham Horror (which we had "serialized" after our first session by taking a number of photos and putting a lot of stuff in separate plastic bags). Though we played for a couple more hours, we still felt we were far from actually finishing a game, and chose to simply let the game die this time. Still, I think I learned a fair amount from the game - I figured I'd write it down here so that our experience felt like less of a waste of time!

The main reason I was originally interested in this game was that my co-workers at NewToy described it: "like an RPG, but without a DM." I'm not sure that this was an accurate description however, since I felt like I was acting as a DM the entire time! I took it upon myself to constantly look through the rules to determine what was supposed to happen next, and to resolve the many edge-case questions that emerged during gameplay (like "what do I do if I land on a square with more than one monster in it", which I never even found an answer for). This led to some serious downtime in gameplay as I would chase down the answer to some arcane rules question for up to five minutes at a time.

We did have one turn where we felt we were actually beginning to feel the "rhythym" of the game. But the very next turn everything came to a screeching halt again. I think the biggest hindrance was combat: the rules for combat are quite confusing, and different monsters have various exceptions and special rules that make it even harder to tell what's going on.

Harvey and I chatted for a little while about how much we'd like to streamline the rules into something more manageable, but the more I think about it the more I realize that the game is pretty monolithic - it would be difficult to remove one or two rules without completely changing (and probably ruining) multiple other systems in the game.

But just recently I think I struck upon the real solution that would make this game playable: delegated DM'ing.

The amazing thing about the game is that not only was DM'ing being a full-time job for me, but I wasn't even following the rules: the game suggests that the "first player" essentially do all the DM-type work, and that who the first player is rotates each turn. I didn't do this, of course; if I had, it would have mired the game even further into a morass, as each player would have to learn the entire rules system and keep it in their head (and then get 3 more turns to forget it).

But I realized that the idea of "sharing the DM responsibilities" actually is a good one in a different way. Basically I'd like to "chunk" the game into the different systems that I found most complex:

  1. The combat system and its intricate rules.
  2. Resolving a Mythos card at the bottom of every turn - opening the gate, placing the monster, etc.
  3. The monster-movement rules (a sort of simplistic rules-based "AI" that allows for random monster wandering around the board).
  4. Everything else, e.g. closing gates and moving through alternate worlds.

Each of these four "chunks" could be made the responsibility of one of the four players - one player learns the Combat system by heart, one player masters the monster-movement rules, etc. Then when that system needs to "run", that player steps up to the bat to make sure everything is run correctly.

It would almost be as though, for each turn, each different phase of the turn would be "run" by a different player. It's also great because it would have made the game feel less like "The Watching-Shay-Page-Through-The-Rulebook Show" - the other players would have been more frequently engaged, rather than just waiting on me to tell them what to do next.

Of course the funny part is that this entire method I've concocted would be largely unnecessary if the game were electronic... as far as actually running the simulation. But then again, the players need to understand the rules if they're going to strategize - having the computer be the only one who understands the rules, while your party discovers each rule "the hard way" (mostly by failing), is not ideal either. Having one member of the group who is "the combat expert" and can give us advice on what we should be trying to do seems like it would have a lot of benefits at once.

Anyway if you really really want to try to simulate the experience of fighting ancient supernatural entities from the beyond trying to break into our dimension, and have a lot of patient for intricate systems, go with this game - but my recommendation is that you try delegation of these duties. If you do, let me know how it goes! I don't know if we'll be taking this game out of the box again any time soon though.

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  1. At the end of the day, was this beastly-tangle of rules and cardboard pieces worth the effort? From my short session with the game I don’t think I was ever tasked with an interesting choice. Maybe the game gets better the longer you play it, but it seemed like we were merely reacting and rolling dice to a long series of event cards and spawning monsters.

  2. Hey Norman, hope to see you at the Global Game Jam tonight!

    I’d say two of the reasons I wanted to play this game was to 1) see where the interesting decisions were (as you can tell from the tagline of this blog, I agree that those are core to what good gameplay is); and 2) to challenge my own assumptions about the importance of interesting decisions – maybe this was a game that didn’t have many of those, and was still fun. Several of LeBlanc’s “8 Kinds of Fun” don’t require interesting decisions – and this game is probably more “fun” in terms of being a simulation of being in a Lovecraftian story; for the fun for the social interaction; and the fun of witnessing the unfolding story of what was happening to my character. And note that the relative lack of control over what’s happening works well with the theme and atmosphere for the game: when the game is about a massive looming horror almost-inevitably breaking out into our world, having the mechanics often leaving you helplessn, or with little ability to affect things, is very appropriate. And as far as atmosphere, I wish I had taken that further: I planned to have us playing in a candle-lit dining room with foreboding music, and to encourage us to get into a light “roleplaying” side of things, coming up with stories about our characters’ personalities, how they reacted to things, why they were doing things. I didn’t have time to get any of that rolling but I think it would have made things much more fun.

    I do think that perhaps its greatest strength is at being a “Story Generating Game” of the type I wrote about before:

    There are a few interesting choices though. There are constant “fight or flight” decisions regarding the monsters on the board. Whether you want to move toward a monster or not is, potentially, a FoF decision. You can choose to try to sneak past monsters (with a risk/reward decision there, as it will get a free hit against you if you fail your sneak check) or to confront them directly. And every single turn of combat is a FoF decision, as you can choose whether to try to deal damage, or to try and escape. And there’s a “meta-game” decision outside of combat as to how you want to set your attributes – you literally get a lower Fight for a higher Sneak and vice-versa. I can see where to set these being an interesting decision – make yourself super effective at Flight at the expense of low Fight? Could work, but it may have situational downsides. The fact that you can tweak that balance of attributes at the top of each turn adds a bit of decision-making and strategy.

    The way they limit the use of weapons and spells in a combat turn (they require zero, one, or two “hands” to use, and of course you only have 2 hands) seems like a potential mine for tricky decisions, though I mostly found it to be another mire of unnecessarily intricate rules. Like everything else in the game, I can imagine it might be fun if I actually had time to learn it.

    There was also some long-term strategizing going on, esp. around whether we wanted to just keep closing gates, or try to save up clues and permanently seal the gates. We were frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t share or trade clues, however – there’s surprisingly little cooperation among the characters, though there definitely was some going on.

    I think that ultimately this is just a game with a much higher and longer learning curve than most others. Perhaps it has a corresponding payoff of fun once you learn it and get into the swing of things; I really can’t say, since I just don’t think I have the time to justify getting into it to that level of depth!

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