Your Head Will Collapse But There’s Nothing In It…

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011 | Board Games

…in which I talk about an unfounded fascination with Lovecraftian games.

I’m going to plainly state up front that I’ve never read any Lovecraft, nor do I have more than even a passing understanding of the entire Cthulhu mythos (I had to Google the spelling of Cthulhu, even). This has not, however, stopped me from developing an almost insatiable appetite for Cthulhu based board/card/dice games. I’ve got four in my game closet now, and every time another one pops up on my radar, my ears definitely prick up. Of course, even in the light of this obsession, there’s still one Cthulhu game that I can’t foster an appreciation or excitement for: Arkham Horror.

The Clock Strikes 12
The clock strikes twelve and the horrors escape into our world.

My introduction to Cthulhu based games probably stared with Munchkin Cthulhu. I came to the Munchkin genre pretty late in the day, having missed out on a lot of the early pomp and circumstance of it. By the time I became aware of it, most of the people I game with had already shelved their copies and submitted them to the back of the closet. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, its kind of like all the core facets of Dungeons and Dragons boiled down to two decks of comical cards, and a rules set nearly as simple as “Kick open the door, kill the monster, go up a level.” But when I latched on to Munchkin, it was experiencing a revival with the introduction of some more thematic variants, such as Munchkin Booty (pirates), The Good the Bad and the Munchkin (wild west), and of course Munchkin Cthulhu. All of these games have almost identical rules and mechanics to the original, but my coating the game in a new skin, it takes on a new feel, completely. Even between the two versions that own (Cthulhu and GB&M), they feel like very different games, despite the fact that they really are pretty much the same exact thing.

There was no real reason that I picked up Munchkin Cthulhu when I did, other than the fact that it had a reasonable number of expansions (more on that later) and bore the Cthulhu label which I knew that Cthulhu would appeal to some of my board game kin. It also happens that I have a fondness for the late 19th and early 20th centuries so it is no surprise that the two Munchkin games that would appeal to me first would be The Good the Bad and the Munchkin (1860’s) and Munchkin Cthulhu (1920’s). It was a pleasant surprise though because not only did I find a great new game “system” but also a new genre of games to expand into. Having dipped my toe in the water of Cthulhu inspired games, I started looking for others, which brought be to my nemesis, Arkham Horror.

Arkham Horror is a massive collection of games and expansions that make up the better part of the Fantasy Flight production line. Fantasy Flight is known for making very high quality, intricate, and complex board games that also happen to be worth quite a bit of money on the store shelf. While I appreciate a quality product, the price tag on most Fantasy Flight games is usually high enough to give even me reserve. Add to that the extensive list of expansions and you’re looking at a net value that would rival some automobile sticker prices. This did, however, coincide with the upswing of my current board game fascination, so it was a dangerous temptation. I started out seeking opportunities to play without having to invest anything in advance. You see, unlike a lot of things in this world, board games can’t really be returned after they’ve been opened. This is especially true when the game comes with 1,000 cardboard “chits” that all have to be punched out before you can play. It depreciates the box value pretty much immediately.

Nevertheless, I was enamored by the game. It is meticulously stylistic and fantastically complex. Its also gorgeous to look at with the art and design. And it has a ton of expansions which is an admitted weakness of mine. Like most things in my life, I appreciate being able to “renew” the aura of something by adding on to it, so any game that builds up a library of expansions is automatically appealing to me. I do have to be careful though, because if a game has too many expansions, I’ve found that they can get bogged down, or even destroyed by the additional gimicky mechanics that the expansions add in an attempt to be original (Carcassonne is perfect example of this). So with all this in mind, I committed myself to reserving purchase until I’d actually played the game.

Fortunately, I found a friend who owned the game and all the expansions, and he agreed to bring it over to one of our bi-weekly board game sessions. Little did I know that disillusion was on the horizon.  When we sat down to play the game, the sheer number of chits n’ bits that came out was overwhelming. It was explained to us that we were playing the core game plus a couple of the easiest, most advantageous expansions. This made us a little more confident in the light of the fact that we were told that “we hardly ever win this game.” I’m going to be honest here, I don’t remember anything about the game, how it played, what we did, or if we even finished. A part of me thinks we played for an hour and then were told that we couldn’t win, and it all went back in the box. I know that, in the case of movies, if I don’t remember a thing about it after the fact, it’s nothing to remark about. I felt the same way about Arkham Horror. It ended up looking like a whole lot of guff for nothing. I pretty well put it out of my mind.

Cthulhu never really left my mind alone, though, because I was always somewhat aware of his coming and going. Arkham Horror was always kind of there as a passing thought, a kind of “maybe if there was something similar but different” vibe. Also, Steve Jackson games was still releasing expansions for Munchkin Cthulhu (three to date), and they even put out a funny dice game that plays great at parties. Cthulhu Dice is a remarkably simple game about gaining or losing sanity all on the roll of a die. It’s great fun, but in all reality, has no theme or style to it. The rules and mechanics could be easily applied to anything at all, from space aliens to bunnies. Still, it’s got that moniker that seems to catch your eye right off the bat. What is it about Cthulhu anyway?

About a year ago, though, another game started getting a little press. Mansions of Madness was on the release schedule from Fantasy Flight, and it was being touted as a kind of “toned down Arkham Horror.” My interest was piqued as I was still inclined to buy a game that carried the style and theme of Arkham Horror, but with a bit more accessible playability. I found a decent place to pre-order it from and got it in for a good price. I can confidently say that Mansions of Madness is much closer to what I was looking for in a Cthulhu game, but still a bit shy. It’s not a fully co-operative game, for one, so while most of the players work together, one player (usually me) has to play as the “keeper” and run all the evil elements on the board. It gives it a somewhat role-playing feel, but not so much that I feel it’s any less of a board game than some of the others that I own. Someday, though, I’d like to be a player and be a part of the team, rather than the evil overlord. We’ve played it a good number of times and it’s fun, but it’s still not what I was looking for. It’s got some expansions coming out (glee!) so we’ll see how that broadens the horizons. Fantasy Flight games, however, not to let an intellectual property die, has now released yet another Cthulhu based game: Elder Sign.

The Adventures
The museum is plagued with strange and evil things.

Elder Sign is a dice based “board” game played with a series of cards in place of the board, and to be honest, it’s much more accessible than any of the former Fantasy Flight games, while still being entertaining and challenging. The elevator description of it would be “Yatzee meets Cthulhu.” It uses a series of custom dice and a stack of challenge cards to create a series of investigations and challenges that can be completed by equal parts strategy and luck. The story is simple. A group of investigators have come to a cursed museum to investigate some strange goings on and have to complete their investigations to keep an elder beast from entering our world. If things go poorly for the investigators, and the beast arrives, they must then attempt to drive it back from our world back to it’s own. Each of the Adventure Cards has a series of challenges on it that can be completed either by matching dice, or making sacrifices. With each “Adventure” comes the temptation of reward, but also the risk of penalty.

Dice in the Entrance
The salvation of the world is in the rolling of the bones.

I’m not going to say that Elder Sign is the end-all be-all for me of Cthulhu games, and I’m not going to pretend that I wouldn’t give Arkham Horror another go, but for its gradual approach to the genre with easy to pick up rules and quick game play, I’m pretty impressed with it. I’ve read plenty of reviews of people complaining about how much easier it is to win than Arkham Horror, or how it recycles artwork from every Fantasy Flight Cthulhu game before it, but none of that really matters if the game is fun. I’ve played it twice now, and both times were entertaining and challenging. As of yet, I’ve only played it with two players, but it can support up to eight, so I’m really looking forward to some bigger games. I think the game play will change with more players, and I can see the challenge increasing, as well. I’m excited to stress and fret over the Elder One breaking through and working together with the other players to seal that gate before the world is wrought with new evil.

So yeah, I started out thinking I was going to write a full breakdown and  review of Elder Sign, but it seems that I spent more time working up to it than I expected, so I’ll save all of that for later. For now, know that I’ve got another game or two in my library that need playing and I can always use a hand or two keeping the forces of evil at bay.

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September 2011