I’ve always been a big fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, despite the problematic nature of its origins and creator. HP Lovecraft often used thinly veiled – or not even veiled at all – racism in his stories and unfortunately, The Call of Cthulhu falls prey to this ugly trait in parts too.

Nevertheless, the expansive lore and stories around the Mythos have grown far beyond Lovecraft, his abhorrent views – which were fairly extreme even in his day – and the sometimes deeply problematic framing of the fiction it spawned.

The Call of Cthulhu as an RPG has been a staple of tabletop RPGs for not far off 50 years at this point. The original Arkham Horror – published in 1987 – allowed players to take on the creatures of the Mythos in board game, rather than roleplaying, form on their tabletop.

Having recovered lost articles such as my interview with the designer of Nexus Ops – Charlie Catino – which you can read here, it made me wonder what else was lurking on the now sadly defunct IGUK site that I could salvage; along with my Nexus Ops review, I’ve also unearthed my review of the second edition of Arkham Horror.

My writing style has certainly evolved since this was published and it’s also worth noting that there were some editorially mandated guidelines that I wasn’t always enamoured with – placing so much emphasis on explaining the basics of the game’s rules, for example; even the final rating summaries are something I’d rather stay away from.

However, I hope you find this an interesting read. Here’s my review of Arkham Horror 2nd Edition from 2005, in full!

(Note: the third edition of Arkham Horror has now superseded the second; it was published in 2018)


Arkham Horror: A Call of Cthulhu Board Game

Arkham Horror Boardgame

Let’s just get one thing out of the way right now: Arkham Horror is big. It’s very big. The board fits on my table with not much space to spare, and then the components have to be arranged around it…and there are lots of them. So if you’re interested in Arkham Horror, make sure you have a big table or some floor space to play on – you’ll need it…

Based on the works of the influential cosmic horror writer HP Lovecraft, Arkham Horrror attempts to interweave a very solid theme onto a board game, and is pretty successful in doing so. Arkham Horror is a co-operative board game, which means that all the players work together to defeat the evil that is overshadowing the town of Arkham, Massachusetts in the 1920s. An Ancient One – one of a number of cosmic beasts – is stirring in its slumber, threatening to reawaken and rain doom upon the world. Unless the players can roam Arkham, closing gates to other worlds and defeating the nasty creatures wandering the streets of Arkham and put a stop to it before it’s too late. Of course, all of this contact with evil creatures from other worlds and dimensions has a price – players can go insane or be killed – but surely with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the sanity of a few people is a small price to pay?

The object of the game is to either

  • a) seal 6 dimensional gates
  • b) seal the same number of gates as there are players with no other gates open
  • c) if all else fails, defeat the Ancient One when he awakes. The Ancient One awakens if there are too many gates open in Arkham or if the Ancient One’s Doom Track is filled with tokens.

To start, each player chooses an investigator from the stack of investigator cards (almost half of which are women, which is very refreshing – well done Fantasy Flight for going beyond the usual token, single choice of female). The investigators all start with certain items and modifiers (some fixed, some drawn from card decks), and each one has different levels of sanity, stamina and abilities. The abilities, in a superb piece of game design, are able to be adjusted every turn – abilities come in pairs (Speed/Sneak, Fight/Will, Lore/Luck) – but when you increase one, the paired ability decreases. After everyone has prepared their investigator, it’s time for the Ancient One to be drawn or chosen. Each Ancient One (creatures such as Nyarlathotep, Yig, Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath and Cthulhu himself, among others) affects the game in a different way – some affect the sealing of dimensional gates, others affect the abilities of certain creatures in the game and one – Azathoth – ends the game instantly if he awakens. In the case of other Ancient Ones, the players do get a chance at defeating them if they awaken…but to be fair, it’s not much of a chance (in keeping with the Lovecraftian theme – the players do get a chance against the Ancient Ones in Arkham Horror for the most part – which is more than can be said for the characters in Lovecraft’s stories!).

Once the Ancient One is chosen, the investigators ready at their home locations with all of their clue tokens placed at the unstable locations and the many decks of cards and piles of tokens prepared, the game begins. A Mythos card is drawn and resolved – this means that the following happens:

  1. A dimensional gate opens at the location noted on the card and a monster appears at the gate location.
  2. A clue token appears at the relevant location.
  3. The monster moves if applicable according to the card.
  4. Any other instructions or effects on the card are enacted.

Additionally, a Doom token is added to the Ancient One’s Doom Track every time a new gate appears. Turns are then taken as normal in the following order:

  1. Upkeep: Players adjust their skills and perform all necessary maintenance actions on cards they currently have.
  2. Movement: Players in Arkham move according to their Speed value, players who have been drawn through to other worlds move to the next space in that world.
  3. Arkham Encounters: Players draw an Encounter card matching the colour of their current location and act upon it, or if they are in a special location they may use that location’s ability instead of having an encounter (such as buying items at a shop or restoring sanity at Arkham Asylum). If players are in a space containing an open gate, they are drawn through it during this phase.
  4. Other World Encounters: Players draw from the Gate Deck until a card is drawn with a border that matches the colour at their location, then the appropriate encounter is resolved.
  5. Mythos: A Mythos card is drawn and resolved.

If a player ends movement in a space containing a monster or attempts to pass through a space containing a monster, they must either fight or evade it. This means passing a horror check (a horror modifier is printed on each monster tile along with the number of sanity tokens lost if the check is failed) and then pass a combat check (the combat rating is also on the monster tile along with stamina value lost if it fails – to pass, the number of successes in the check must meet or exceed the monster’s toughness rating which is also, unsurprisingly, on the tile). All checks (even non combat ones – sealing gates can use either Fight or Lore as the attribute to roll against) use a simple dice system, where the ability needed has a number (eg Fight with the number 6), which is the amount of dice rolled. Modifiers from items, a monster, a gate or an encounter card can add or subtract the total dice used. Players roll this number of dice – any 5 or 6 is counted as a success. Pretty much everything except most combat situations require just one success to be rolled.

Those are the basic mechanics of the game, but what this does not illustrate is just how atmospheric and thematic Arkham Horror is. Due to the overwhelming odds that the players face through most of the game, a real sense of tension and pressure can be felt. Additionally, due to the high amount of flavour text on cards and monsters, a real feeling of being involved in a Lovecraft story is present. The atmosphere really does pervade every ichor-filled seam of the game. Lovecraft fans will love all the references contained within the game, and non-fans should extract great enjoyment from being introduced to such a fully formed and consistent world as the one presented in Arkham Horror.

One complaint is that, for the first few games at least, games can last in excess of three hours. Once the turn sequence becomes more familiar, however, the playing time does drastically reduce – which makes for a much more enjoyable experience. The first game or two will see players referring back to the rule book quite a bit, but the rules do become second nature quicker than you would expect for a game of this size, length and complexity. A major selling point is that it can be played as a solitaire game (the game caters for between 1 and 8 players), which is highly unusual for a big boxed game such as this.

Fantasy Flight have once again produced an amazingly heavy package, filled to the brim with tokens, cards and the aforementioned behemoth of a board. It’s very heavy and once again seems like great value for money considering all of the well produced bits contained within.
Lots of dice rolling and initial rules do seem to be a bit daunting for the new player, but Arkham Horror is a very rewarding game if persevered with. Stick with it and you’re sure to have a very creepy, very different experience every time you play. Even those players that have a hard time finding people to play with are well catered for with Arkham Horror given that it plays nicely even with one player. Another excellent Fantasy Flight product for fans and non-fans alike.


Presentation: Brilliantly illustrated – the creepy Lovecraftian imagery is everywhere. Very tough to fault the consistently excellent design. 9.8/10

Clarity of Rules: It all falls apart here – the rules are not clear or set out in a logical way. Player aids with difficult rules clarifications included would have helped immensely. 4.8/10

Game Length: Varies depending on the number of players and can be incredibly long with too many players. Four to five players seems to suit the game perfectly, any less and it feels quite short. 8.0/10

Value: A fantastic amount of replayability, a huge amount of components and a Cyclopean board round out an excellent package. 9.0/10

Overall: A brilliant tribute to the Cthulhu Mythos, and a stunning game for any Lovecraft fan. Those not familiar with the Mythos may be on shaky ground with a lot of the theme and mechanics, but there is still a lot of game here even for those who don’t know a Shoggoth from a Deep One. 9.1/10 (not an average)

Review by Jason M. Brown


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