28th Nov2018

‘Arkham Horror: Third Edition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


If you’re familiar with Fantasy Flight Games catalogue, then you must have encountered one or more of their Lovecraft inspired games by now. Among them are some of the most recognisable lines in FFG’s catalogue, including Mansions of Madness and the Arkham Horror Living Card Game (LCG). There have also been two editions of the mid to heavyweight thematic board game, Arkham Horror, alongside its sibling, Eldritch Horror. Confused? Me too – but fear not, because now there’s a Third Edition of Arkham Horror and as the subject of today’s review, it’s the only one you need to know about.

In the same way as Mansions of Madness Second Edition was designed to streamline, enhance and simplify the game, I feel that Arkham Horror: Third Edition set out to do something similar. Where it differs from Mansions of Madness: SE though, is in the fact that (at least for now) it remains entirely board and card driven, with no app integration. Mansions of Madness always came with a huge overhead on the player acting as dungeon master, but since Arkham Horror was always a solo or cooperative game, I guess the designers felt that there was no problem to solve.

As a result, Arkham Horror: Third Edition remains a much heavier prospect than MMansions of Madness: SE, but it is nonetheless easier to pick up and dive into than the original Arkham and Eldritch Horror games. Third Edition also comes with a modular board which enables considerable variation (something that was never a feature before.) There’s also a bit more structure this time, with four scenarios (complete with specific event and codex decks) to work through, rather than just an overarching story with random elements.

A lot else has changed as well, though most of those changes are down in the detail somewhere. The stats of the player characters, for example, have been standardised with other games in FFG’s Lovecraft universe, whilst many elements of monster movement/control and setup have been streamlined considerably. I guess that most people reading this review will be new to the series entirely, however, so I’m going to explain things at a more basic level.

Fundamentally, Arkham Horror: Third Edition is a thematic, cooperative game with elements of randomisation that come in at setup and affect the chosen scenario. From the four scenarios included in the box, the players will choose one, which will last between two and three hours depending on experience, rules familiarity and so on. The overarching objective of each scenario won’t be apparent at first, but an initial objective will always be provided for the players to work towards.

On the board itself, each player will be represented by a character that comes with his or her own backstory and set of equipment, spells and suchlike. The available characters are diverse and varied in terms of both heritage and gameplay, with classes like Guardians and Mystics, for example, which clearly indicate what players can expect from them. Each one has a fixed special ability and set of stats, as well as a few items or spells that will be chosen at setup. This adds an element of flexibility that I felt was very welcome in order to personalise the experience or prepare for a specific challenge based on the combination of characters in play.

With a scenario and a set of characters chosen and setup in accordance with the scenario card, the players will take turns to take two actions each, then resolve a Monster Phase, an Encounter Phase and then a Mythos Phase. With the setup (which is fairly laborious, as it involves building several custom decks of cards) done, these phases are very fast and relatively simple.

For their actions, the players will do things like move (up to two spaces, plus one space for each of up to three dollars spent) or they will focus an ability (for a plus one bonus to that statistic), fight an enemy or research a clue. These things are all essential to resolving the current objective, which might, for example, expect the players to collect a certain number of clues from regions in Arkham, or to collect Remnants, which are usually obtained from creatures. As the game unfolds, the players will need to counterbalance their own objectives against those of the game itself, which might trigger an automatic loss in the event that a certain board state (such as X number of Doom tokens) is achieved.

The Monster Phase is exactly what it sounds like, but in Arkham Horror: Third Edition, the changes versus older versions of the game are material. Instead of using complex movement based on what if scenarios and symbology, each monster will now follow very straightforward rules. Move directly to the player with the highest lore, for example, or move directly towards the location that most recently received a Dread token. It’s quick and simple, with a system of ready/exhausted that makes it clear when and who a monster should attack. Combat is also simple to resolve either way – but especially if a monster is attacking a character.

The Encounter phase is where much of the excitement happens, from a progression perspective. Among the decks that will be prepared at the beginning of the game, players will have stacked a deck for each neighbourhood in place. There will also be a preloaded Event deck that is periodically drawn from, with the card drawn then being shuffled into the top three cards of the neighbourhood encounter deck that it matches. A clue token will usually be added to that neighbourhood as a result. During the Encounter phase, players will draw from the deck of the neighbourhood that their character is in and will sometimes get a basic encounter card, or if they are lucky, they’ll draw the event encounter card and progress the story.

Finally, for the Mythos phase, players simply draw tokens from a pre-loaded opaque container. Depending on what is drawn, they can generate a wide variety of results. Monsters might spawn, doom tokens might appear or more interesting things can occur – the player might have to draw from a random deck of newspaper clippings that could confer either negative or positive effects.

Whilst I found the setup of Arkham Horror Third Edition to be quite slow and labour intensive, it’s clear that a lot of work has gone into making the gameplay itself fast and fluid. The phases fly by very rapidly, with the player actions taking a relatively small amount of time and the traditionally fiddly and less interesting monster turns being even faster. The encounter phase is an interesting one, but I’m not sure I like that the fact that getting to the cards that progress the story is almost completely random. You may simply find yourself staying put in one neighbourhood for three turns, just to wait for the card you need.

There are a few other quirks as well. For example, players will often be asked to test their skills – be that strength, lore or something else. When this happens, the player will roll a number of dice equal to their skill in that statistic (four being the highest, normally) but they may also modify their stats with items or by focusing (which costs an action, but provides a plus one in any skill.) If the player scores one pass, then they’ll achieve whatever they set out to do, whilst some tests given bonuses for more than one pass. The reality is that sometimes encounter cards require a pass, or else the card will be shuffled back in to the neighbourhood deck – which can be ultra-frustrating.

Combat has similar random possibilities, although at least the information about what can damage a creature (and your chance of doing so) is open information going into each fight. Players may also evade monsters in such a way that leaves them exhausted (searching, presumably) for the next monster phase, which can offer a powerful tactical alternative when fighting seems an unlikely option.

With four scenarios that last around an hour each and a lot of variable options around setup and configuration, Arkham Horror: Third Edition does deliver a lot for the asking price. The scenarios are all finely penned to create an interesting mythos that is always engaging and often exciting and the game has a pleasing way of telling its own story as the result of the Encounter and Mythos phases. The inclusion of numerous characters and different ways to set them up further enhances the variability.

Overall, whilst Arkham Horror: Third Edition features a few negatives; a very long setup time, a number of overly random elements and perhaps a lack of app driven gameplay where in fact it would have been a logical inclusion, it’s still an excellent game. In particular I enjoy the speed and simplicity with which Arkham Horror plays, as well as how well it creates the feeling of impetus among the players, within the structure of a fairly compelling narrative. Ultimately, a worthy replacement for past iterations and the best possible entry point for players new to the Cthulhu mythos.

**** 4/5

Arkham Horror: Third Edition is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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