Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror

Board Game Review: Eldritch Horror

Published Date
March 2, 2019
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🛠️
Designed by Corey Konieczka and Nikki Valens
📊
My Number of Plays at Time of Review: 24
👥
1-8 Players
⏱️
180 Minutes

Eldritch Horror is a cooperative board game of mystery and adventure where players work together in an effort to save the world from impending doom. Set in the universe of the Cthulhu Mythos, created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, things tend to go wrong more than they go right, and it is up to the players to make the best use of their limited resources to traverse the globe, solve mysteries, and save the world!

Gameplay Summary

A game of Eldritch Horror takes place on a board depicting a map of the world. Each player takes on the role of a specific investigator who brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. Opposing the investigative team is one of several Ancient Ones that is selected at the beginning of the game. The Ancient One will dictate the goals for that particular game, as well as present challenges that are unique to its methods of destruction. To begin play, the first mystery from the Ancient One’s mystery deck is revealed, giving the players their first objective.

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Each round begins with the Action Phase, in which each investigator has the opportunity to perform two different actions from the following list:

  • Travel – The investigator can move from their current location, along a connected path, to a new location.

  • Rest – Assuming there are currently no monsters threatening the investigator, they can recover one health and one sanity.

  • Trade – If another investigator is on the current player’s space, they can trade possessions between them.

  • Prepare for Travel – If the investigator is on a city space, they can take one ticket: a train ticket if there is a train path connected to their location, or a ship ticket if there is a ship path connected to their location. Tickets can be spent during a Travel action to move additional spaces.

  • Acquire Assets – If unthreatened by monsters, and on a city space, the investigator can test their Influence stat in an effort to gain asset cards from the publicly revealed row of cards known as the Reserve.

  • Component Action – Many cards or investigator sheets have additional actions that the investigator may be able to use during their turn.

Once each investigator has completed their two actions, play proceeds to the Encounter Phase. This is when each player will advance the narrative of what is happening to them in their particular situation. Each investigator decides what kind of encounter they would like to have, depending on what is currently on their space:

  • Monsters – If there are any monsters on the investigator’s space, they are forced to encounter them. Only if they defeat all the monsters are they given an opportunity for another encounter.

  • Gate – Throughout the game, gates to other worlds will appear around the globe, and investigators can encounter them in an effort to close them. This is important because open gates cause the doom track to advance more quickly, accelerating the game towards the awakening of the Ancient One (and likely the players’ demise). To resolve a Gate encounter, a card is drawn and read from the top of the Other World deck, which may give the player the opportunity to close the gate.

  • Clue – Clue tokens will also appear around the board, representing opportunities for players to investigate happenings and gain information related to their cause. A card is drawn and read from the research deck (which is unique to each Ancient One), which may give the player the opportunity to gain the clue token.

  • Expedition – There is a single Expedition token that will move around the board, matching the location shown on the top card of the Expedition deck. An Expedition card is drawn and read, and may give the player the opportunity to gain special benefits such as rare and powerful artifacts.

  • Normal Encounter – Even if the investigator’s space does not contain any of the preceding elements (or they choose not to have those types of encounters), a player can simply have an encounter associated with that particular location. A card is drawn and read that matches the investigator’s location, which could have a variety of effects.

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Earlier I mentioned an “Influence test” which really gets at the heart of a lot of the Encounter Phase in Eldritch Horror. Most of these encounters will present a narrative that has branching paths based on the investigator’s result after performing a test. These tests will specify a relevant statistic (Fight, Will, Observation, Influence, or Lore), and the investigator will get to roll dice equal to their character’s value for that stat (sometimes with a modifier). Each 5 and 6 that is rolled counts as a success. In most cases, a single success is enough for the test to be successful and the positive result to be read. A lack of successes results in a failed test, and instead the negative result is resolved. Players have the opportunity to improve their statistics throughout the game, as well as gain items that help their chances of being successful.

Once each investigator has resolved their encounter, play progresses to the Mythos Phase. The top card of the Mythos Deck is drawn, and effects are resolved such as new gates, monsters, and clues spawning on the board, as well as events that may help or (more likely) hurt the investigators. Once all of the Mythos effects have been resolved, a new game round begins with the investigators choosing who will go first (the Lead Investigator), and starting the Action Phase.

This main gameplay loop will repeat until the players trigger either a victory or loss condition. If the investigators have completed three of the Ancient One’s mystery cards (in most cases), they have won the game! However, if the Doom track ever reaches zero, the Ancient One awakes, and its sheet is flipped over. While this doesn’t end the game immediately, it typically increases the difficulty while giving the investigators limited time to complete their objectives.

There are many other moving parts in Eldritch Horror, but this overview should be sufficient to give context to the remainder of this review.

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What Is It Like to Play?

In a lot of ways, Eldritch Horror is like a complex, cooperative gambling game. Due to the fact that nearly all the actions and encounters boil down to die rolls, it is an exercise in weighing all the different options, and consistently putting the team in a position that balances risk with reward. Do I take the guaranteed travel ticket, or do I test influence to try to gain items from the reserve? Do I attempt to fight these monsters this turn, or should I take a turn to rest? Players are constantly tempted by the ideal outcomes, what could happen if they happen to roll well. And due to the difficulty of the game, players can’t afford to always play it safe, and will need to find the right moments to take those risks.

This puzzle of probabilities, despite the final outcomes being randomized, is strategically satisfying due to the wide decision space presented by the game. There is a lot going on with the board state at any given time, with each investigator capable of doing many different things that could be useful. The coordination required of the team at the start of each action phase nearly always leads to interesting discussion about the tradeoffs of different approaches to that round. Every decision of the players is made in the face of a multitude of unknown variables, which not only leads to interesting choices without any “right” answers, but it is also highly thematic. At the end of every round, the Mythos Phase materializes some of those unknown variables into the board state, and then asks the players to re-evaluate their priorities based on the new information.

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On top of all these mechanical decisions, is a role-playing experience that allows players to get absorbed in the narrative of what is happening to “them.” Players roll dice with the conviction that they can influence the results, and yet the randomized outcomes never feel out of place. In fact, more control of the randomness would actually work against the theme, as it is meant to simulate a real world where mere humans have control over just a small subset of the variables in their situation. Players do have control over trying to improve statistics or gain useful items, but there is always that chance that a well-equipped investigator could fail or, conversely, succeed in the most dire of circumstances. Each die roll carries a little burst of excitement, with the whole table engaged as the team shares in each investigator’s successes and failures.

The other factor that guarantees that each round’s puzzle will remain fresh is the raw quantity of channels for the game’s variability. Whether it is investigators, Ancient Ones, monsters, encounter cards, items, or Mythos cards, the game provides stacks upon stacks of cards and tokens that combine into a near infinite number of possibilities. The game is a big unexpected sandbox, and a lot of the appeal of each turn is the “what will happen?” factor attached to each randomized element that gets introduced into the game. That core loop of “randomized elements” to “probability optimization puzzle” to “resolve probabilities to advance the narrative” is the heartbeat that runs through the entirety of a game of Eldritch Horror.

FAQ

How is the game’s replay value?

With the base game, the replay value is there, but is really just a taste of what Eldritch Horror is meant to be. If you won’t enjoy Eldritch Horror, the base game is all you need to confirm that. However, if you do enjoy the game, I am convinced that your continued enjoyment will require venturing into the (many) expansions available for the game. But once even one or two of these expansions in thrown into the mix, the replay value shoots through the roof. The game thrives on the breadth of variable situations that are possible, and every bit of additional content increases that number exponentially.

How does it play at different player counts?

Eldritch Horror claims an impressive 1-8 player count, which I feel is generous. While technically possible, I have found that in my group it has settled as a 3-5 player game, with 4 player being the sweet spot. The main mechanism for scaling the difficulty comes with cards that change things like the number of gates or clues that spawn at one time, as well as the Ancient One’s mystery cards requiring progress that is relative to the number of players. However, the implementation of this scaling is a little wonky, causing the game to be much harder with an odd number of players. First, those cards that scale gates/clues/monster surges use the same values for 1-2 players, 3-4 players, etc. This means that if you have an odd number of players, all of those stats are the same as if you had another player, which makes the game more difficult. On top of that, many of the mysteries require you to make progress equal to “half of the number of investigators,” but it rounds up. Again, this means that with an odd-numbered group, you have to make progress as if you had another investigator to help you out. So while I will play it with 3 or 5 players, it is when I have a group of 4 that Eldritch Horror is most likely to hit the table.

What games are similar?

The most obvious answer here is Arkham Horror, which is the predecessor to Eldritch Horror, and a game that I also have a ton of experience playing. Personally, I consider Eldritch Horror to be the superior experience by a fair margin, with the exception being if players are really attached to the role-playing elements of Arkham, as Eldritch loses a bit of the personal and cohesive narrative that comes from the game being entirely contained within the town of Arkham (as opposed to globetrotting across the world). Recently Fantasy Flight released Arkham Horror: Third Edition, and while I can’t make a comparison based on experience, my research was enough for me to determine that Eldritch Horror is still a better fit for me. From a thematic perspective, other Lovecraftian games like Mansions of Madness: Second EditionArkham Horror: The Card Game, and Elder Sign can scratch a similar itch. For other cooperative games that ask players to weigh odds and resolve with dice, Ghost Stories and Robinson Crusoe fit the bill.

How long is the setup time?

The setup is fairly steep, with the caveat that much of the setup is actually a fun part of the experience. For example, it is fun for players to receive their investigators and see which Ancient One is selected (I always choose both randomly), with each piece of the variable setup giving players a glimpse into the possibilities that await them. However, the setup time of elements lacking fun cannot be ignored; there are simply a lot of decks and pieces that need to be arranged on the table.

How difficult is it to teach new players?

The cooperative nature of Eldritch Horror proves to be a double-edged sword when it comes to teaching new players. On one hand, you don’t have to cover every detail (mainly the player actions), as players will be working together throughout the game and you can always help out new players as you go. On the other hand, it is very easy for an experienced player to slip into “alpha gamer” mode and tell new players what they should be doing without letting them explore it on their own. I have had the most success teaching new players when I collaborate with them to narrow their options to a few good ones, but make sure that I let them have the final say (even if I have my own preference). I will admit that Eldritch Horror isn’t a game that I teach often, as I almost always play with friends that have played it before, which may be indicative of it being a game that is harder to get to the table if you often have new players.

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Things to Like

Sandbox of Endless Possibilities

One of Eldritch Horror‘s biggest strengths is the huge amount of variety it provides. Nearly every element of the game is pulled from a randomized pool, and the combinations of all these variables present the players with a steady flow of unique challenges to tackle. The small adrenaline rushes tied to every card draw and every die roll accumulate into what is a very exciting experience, and there is always that chance that you could see something crazy that you never would have expected.

Good Balance of Meaningful Decisions and Exciting Randomness

All of those possibilities would be wasted if the core gameplay and decisions were not solid and engaging, and despite all of the randomness, Eldritch Horror has a lot of room for skilled tactics and strategy. Players need to be able to “roll with the punches” as the game state shifts in unexpected ways, but with each change comes a new puzzle for the team to discuss and attempt to optimize. There are many opportunities to push your luck or play it safe, but all of the players’ actions leading up to the encounter phase are grounded in probabilities that the players are generally aware of, allowing them to strategically put the team in what they feel is the best position possible. The unpredictability of the final outcomes also helps alleviate the “alpha gamer” problem suffered by many cooperative games, as it is harder for players to say that one option is definitively better than any others.

Unexpected Challenges Lead to Satisfying Victories

Most of the curveballs that the game throws at the investigators are negative, and make their lives more difficult. It is this constant barrage of unexpected challenge, spiraling towards what appears to be inevitable doom, that makes the victories all the more sweet. My favorite cooperative games tend to be the ones where we lose more than we win, simply because overcoming greater challenges as a team is far more satisfying than expecting to win on each play. I have many memories of seemingly hopeless situations in Eldritch Horror where somehow we were able to squeak by through a series of fortunate breaks and clever plays, and they are among my all-time favorite board-gaming memories.

The Ceiling for Amazing Moments Is Really High

Due to the large number of randomized elements, the range of experiences in Eldritch Horror is rather broad. Many games (especially Eurogames) tighten their grip on randomness so that they are capable of providing a consistent and controlled experience. This is admirable, as it prevents the chance of negative experiences, but can come at the expense of cutting out the potential for extreme highs as well. Eldritch Horror gives randomness a lot of room to play, allowing that ceiling of positive experience to remain elevated higher than most games.

Strong Theme Creates Memorable Stories

The Lovecraftian Mythos that serves as the backdrop for the players’ adventures in Eldritch Horror is really the perfect thematic setting. The feelings of impending doom, endless possibility, and unpredictability of the opposition are consistent with the theme and narrative in a way that prevents players from getting frustrated with bad outcomes. After all, what more can you expect from some modest investigators trying to save the world from powerful alien forces? Additionally, it frames the moments of the game in the context of a narrative that makes it more memorable to players, and makes it easy to reminisce about “the time that one thing happened…” in previous games.

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Things to Dislike

Long Playtime

Eldritch Horror requires you to budget three hours on average, and for many that is all they need to hear to know that they aren’t interested. It is the kind of game that is the “main event” of a game night, but many people may be put off by the amount of luck contained in a game that runs that long. The length of the game contributes to its epic thematic scope, but it has the potential to drag, and can be hard to get to the table with any regularity.

Potential for Lackluster Games

I mentioned how the multitude of randomized variables in Eldritch Horror gives it the capacity to reach extreme highs where amazing moments happen that simply aren’t possible in games where the randomness is more controlled. This is a double-edged sword though, as the random elements are just as likely to swing the experience in the other direction. Pair this with the three hour playtime, and it becomes a hard ask for a lot of groups: are you willing to risk putting in three hours for a mediocre game, for an equal chance that it might be outstanding? For many players, and especially ones that are likely to only play the game once or twice, this just isn’t worth it. However, for a group like mine that really enjoys the game and has played it over twenty times, it is not only worth it, but makes Eldritch Horror one of our most requested games.

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Expansions

When discussing replay value, I mentioned that I think the base game for Eldritch Horror is not far off from a “trial” version of the full experience. Many might scoff at this approach, blaming Fantasy Flight for being greedy and withholding content so that they can make more money selling expansions. Besides the fact that Fantasy Flight is a business that of course wants to make more money (that is the literal objective of nearly every business), I think this perspective is missing another key benefit: by keeping the base game trimmed down, the cost to try the game is kept relatively low as well. Certainly Fantasy Flight could have included the first expansion in the base game, but it would have carried a larger price tag as well. Bottom line is that players who enjoy Eldritch Horror are going to want more content, and players that don’t only need the base game to discover it is not their cup of tea.

Should you find yourself in the camp that enjoys the game, you will have the luxury of having plenty of opportunities to expand it! At the time of writing this, there are four small box expansions and four big box expansions available for Eldritch Horror. It is certainly nothing short of excessive how much content is added among all of these expansions, but Eldritch Horror is the type of game that benefits greatly from simply having more options to inject randomly into the experience. But what is the best way to approach this sea of expansions?

I find that buying expansions too quickly prevents you from truly appreciating what they add to the game. I believe it is far more effective to pace yourself, buying one expansion at a time, giving time to log multiple plays with each one before expanding further. So here is my recommended approach with Eldritch Horror: pick up the expansions in the order that they were released, but only buy the next one once you play all of the Ancient Ones at least once. With the base game, this means a minimum of four plays before picking up the Forsaken Lore expansion. Forsaken Lore adds an additional Ancient One, bumping the number to five plays before you head on to the next one. It may make sense to tweak this based on how often you can actually get the game to the table, but I think pacing yourself ensures that you get good mileage out of the existing content before determining that you need more.

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Game Design Perspective

Eldritch Horror is a game that thrives on expanded content. When setting out to design a game where endless expansion is a goal, it puts even more pressure on the core systems. Not only does the gameplay need to be fun and interesting (like any game design should aim to be), but it also needs to be robust and generalized to allow for creativity when adding content. One great way that Eldritch Horror handles this is by giving each Ancient One unique decks of cards that are used when they are in play. For example, when you encounter a clue, you draw a Research Encounter that is specific to the current Ancient One, allowing specific thematic flavor to be injected. Similarly, the mysteries that provide the goals of the game are defined by each Ancient One’s unique deck. By leaving the goals open-ended to what is described on the card, the designers of future expansions have a lot of flexibility in creating goals that are unlike anything that has been introduced so far.

I think another lesson to be learned from Eldritch Horror is how players are willing to accept certain game mechanics if they are justified by the theme. To many modern board gamers, rolling dice to determine results is a red flag, and feels like an antiquated mechanic in a modern design ecosystem where control is king. However, many of these same gamers will play and even enjoy the mechanic within the context of Eldritch Horror because it feels consistent with the theme and contributes towards the desired player experience. When I roll poorly at a crucial point in the game, it can feel hopeless; but hopelessness is exactly the emotion that is consistent with my avatar in the game, and reinforces the narrative. Designers should always be looking for opportunities for theme to inform the mechanics of their design, as well as being able to recognize when there is a disconnect between what the players are feeling and what the theme tells them they should be feeling.

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Bottom Line

If you are the kind of board gamer that rarely plays a game more than five times, especially with a game that takes three hours, Eldritch Horror may not be a good fit. It is a game that rewards those who dig into it enough to experience the strength of its variety, and for those who make that journey and embrace the unpredictable challenges, they will emerge with memorable stories to tell.

Enjoy my review and wanting to pick up Eldritch Horror? Consider buying through my Amazon affiliate link and I will get a small kickback on your purchase.