It’s early during my first play as Calvin Wright, a tormented guardian willing to sacrifice body and soul for the residents of Arkham. Sitting in hushed silence, I hide on a bridge wedged between the Northside and the Merchant District. A bloated half-man/half-fish gives a guttural croak as he patrols the nearby cobblestones.
I draw an encounter card, and a mogul in a top hat and suit struts up the middle of the bridge, flanked by a couple of ruffians. They’re hauling a human-shaped object bound in cloth—which they heave into the river. Top hat stops, finally recognizing me, and reaches into his pocket. “You never saw us here,” he remarks, pressing a wad of cash into my palm. I quietly grab the money and carry on, as that’s all a weary citizen can do.
Arkham Horror Third Edition is a classic struggle of agency versus impotence, set in the uncanny world of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. It’s a tight and structured design, one much cleaner than its previous iteration. At times, the game can almost feel as if you’re on rails, churning toward impending doom with little say in the matter.
Much of the focus is found in the narrative framework. Instead of investigative wanderlust, you’re responding to constant premonitions of doom. These tokens pop up across the modular map, amassing in spaces until they eventually open an anomaly, ripping apart time and space.
The proliferation of “doom” is a direct nod to the ubiquitous Pandemic. Arkham Horror’s revised design, in fact, comes across as a hodgepodge of influences, including Fantasy Flight’s own Mansions of Madness, Eldritch Horror, and even the recent Fallout board game. The result is a compilation of recent in-house design sensibilities at Fantasy Flight. The largest challenge facing the company’s Arkham Files line of games is that everyone has borrowed from each other’s collection of ideas so much that the products can feel a bit same-y.
But Arkham Horror Third Edition comes out, Tommy gun blazing, fighting with all the will of the world to establish a unique identity.
Telling a story
The new game takes its cue from the Arkham Horror Living Card Game, mixing branching narrative scenarios with a constricted board filled with cardboard occupants. Out are the flat monster tokens of old Arkham; in are the small cards of the LCG.
When you run into a foe (or rather when they run into you) their card is removed from the board and placed next to your investigator sheet. You are then “engaged” with the monster (don’t worry, no one expects custom vows) and must evade or eviscerate the damned thing before you can proceed.
Fighting is very clean, taking the form of a simple strength test. Evading is straightforward, as it exhausts the enemy if you succeed. Horror checks are gone. Everything has an intensely streamlined feel that keeps the drama rolling and the tension high.
While spending your limited actions to move and clean up the spreading “doom,” you’re continually eyeing the card archive. This system of narrative cues is derived straight from the Fallout board game. Scenarios will have you place certain cards in play, shaping your goals and offering branching decisions.
Much of this is framed as a tense race. You must scurry about collecting clue tokens before the scenario sheet collects a wealth of doom. Putting out fires while still tending to your own objectives is the central challenge of play. It establishes roles for players to adopt as they support each other and struggle to hold the door against the encroaching cosmic horror.
It all works incredibly well. As you push the pace, the card codex will see turnover, one accomplishment or failure leading to the next story beat. The formula is compelling because you begin in the dark with the truth slowly unveiling over time; even your overall objective is initially unknown.
With each turn of a card, the next act is revealed, and in a flash the world can end, devoured in the misshapen gullet of an entity beyond mortal comprehension.
Tighter, but less replayable
This shift from open-ended adventure to focused narrative is the defining characteristic of this revision. It offers meaningful story that’s told to as much as by you, which can result in fantastic moments of coherent storytelling.
It also presents a serious challenge in providing extended surprise. Once you’ve played a given setup a couple of times and pushed through the two or three forks in its structure, you will likely want to move on. The four included scenarios dictate which monsters are included, what events are seeded in the deck, and your overall purpose of play. The sequence of occurrences and your decisions will vary, but one of the strongest assets of this design will fade over time.
This is further hampered by the thin location decks. Each small set of cards corresponds to a map space and dictates what random encounters are available. After several trips to the diner, you begin to feel the repetition.
The result is that Third Edition can feel like it’s leading you about by the nose. As clue and doom tokens manifest, you will have little control in your journey’s destination.
Rowing along with the flow restrains creativity, but it does offer some advantages. This revision is a much shorter experience than both Eldritch Horror and the older Arkham Horror. It also arguably captures its themes more effectively. As you engage the breadcrumbs of story, you gain a sense of immersion that was previously unattainable. For all its restrictions, this is a game that nails its subject matter.
This accomplishment is the work of designer Nikki Valens. She offers a strong editorial touch, providing numerous tweaks to the Arkham Horror formula that are subtle yet effective. This is seen in the new Mythos gameplay phase that has players drawing tokens out of a cup to spawn monsters, spread doom, and seed clues. This influences the arc of play, and the game achieves a sense of climax superior to its predecessors.
A matter of expansions
The burning question is whether all this is enough. Does Third Edition justify its existence? For a newcomer to these types of games, it’s a no-brainer: this is the most effective game of its ilk and a worthy experience. For those boasting a shelf of Arkham Files releases, though, the answer becomes murky. Seasoned players may not find enough new or replayable elements here.
This release is more foundational than exhaustive. With only four scenarios and a limited set of options, much is riding on Third Edition’s future inevitable game expansions.
For all its iteration, this revised Arkham Horror is unlikely to blow your horror-stricken mind. Yet it’s still a solid improvement on a sturdy infrastructure. This is the strongest version of FFG Lovecraft we’ve seen, even if it’s a cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster of its brothers and sisters.