So, everyone with even a passing interest in horror has by now read or at least heard of H.P. Lovecraft, his Cthulhu Mythos, or his “cosmic horror” genre. There is a good chance that you’ve read some books, watched some movies and TV shows, listened to some songs, played some video or board games, or read some comics influenced by his works.
Fantasy Flight Games’ Eldritch Horror board game, though not the first board game that was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, amassed quite a large following and is one of those polarizing titles that you’ll either love or hate.
Want to know why? Keep reading my Eldritch Horror review and find out.
|Playing time:||90 to 120 minutes|
|Number of players:||1 to 8|
|Genre:||Cooperative, Cosmic horror, adventure, novel-based|
|Publisher:||Fantasy Flight Games|
- Plays out differently each time, offering a unique and unpredictable gaming experience
- Has a story arc feel, highly thematic and immersive
- Ends in a tense, climactic finish
- Made for Lovecraft fans
- The game’s length may not appeal to casual gamers
Eldritch Horror Overview
So, what is Eldritch Horror all about? Worshiping the Old Ones, what else? Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn, anyone? No?
Ok…Eldritch Horror is a game where you and your friends take on the role of amateur investigators and travel around the globe uncovering mysteries, closing portals from other dimensions, fighting monsters from beyond our reality, all the while procuring unusual items, and trying to save the world from an ancient and unfathomable evil. But mostly dying…or going insane. Did I mention you can die a lot? No? Well, there it is. The game can be like that sometimes, but don’t worry – it just all adds to the (grim) flavor.
The one thing about this game nobody can deny is that the artwork is beautiful and thematic, the character backstories are well thought out, and it all mixes together well, giving it a not-so-horror-driven atmosphere, but more of a pulp fiction globe-trotting adventure.
It also reminds me of Indiana Jones movies, moving from one location in the world to the other, chasing clues, solving mysteries, and never knowing what may come next. God, I wish somebody would make an Indy/Cthulhu crossover! But until that happens, the closest thing you can have to it is Eldritch Horror.
One other thing I feel the need to mention is the world map and the feeling it conveys to the players. Even though it’s a table hog, the map subtly says that this is something bigger than all of us. In the most dramatic sense, your team of rag-tags is concerned about the fate of the world. The players take on the roles of those few blessed or cursed enough to be able to save it from the ensuing death and madness (but probably not). Now that sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Death and Madness or How to play Eldritch Horror
Ok, let me start by saying that it’s not all death and madness, all the time. I don’t want you to think this game is all doom and gloom. Well, ok, there is doom, a Doom Tracker that is.
The Doom Tracker counts down the time until one of the Ancient Ones (or Elder Gods) awakens from their slumber and kills everything and everyone (or whatever else the Ancient Ones do – it’s not good either way). You guessed it, the Ancient Ones are the big baddies. This in itself gives the player a feeling of a race against time, the Final Days that have come upon the World, and a sense of waging a desperate battle that may just be beyond the ability of our heroes. Verrrry ominous…classic Lovecraft, right?
Investigator Goals and the Race Against Time
The objective of the Eldritch board game is to either solve all of the Ancient One’s mysteries, defeat the chosen Ancient One, or prevent the Doom tracker from reaching zero.
Gate tokens represent tears in the fabric of reality, and are portals to other worlds, dimensions, or even points in time, that can bring dangerous beings like monsters and Ancient Ones to our world. In the game, each gate has a symbol that corresponds to an omen, and when the omen matches the symbol, Doom advances for each gate with that symbol.
As is said before, Doom is a measure of how close the players are to losing the game, so it is important to keep track of the gates and their symbols. Additionally, multiple gates can be on the same space, which can make things even more challenging for the players.
The Ancient Ones come in all shapes and sizes and have their own mysteries, and in-game difficulty as well. If you are new to the game, I recommend playing your first game with the easiest ancient evil, which by my account is Yog-Sothoth, rather than Azathoth, as the rule book would suggest.
To defeat the boss, you must complete three Ancient One mysteries before the baddie awakens. However, if they do awaken, you will usually be faced with an additional task. *cue dramatic music here*
Investigators: Unlikely Heroes or Just Ill-Fated Adventurers?
You start with each player randomly picking an investigator. They are all different and flavourful, but they do have one thing in common – all of them stumbled on some bigger horror than they could imagine, and are fighting it the best way that they can. Eldritch horror characters all have two special abilities that give them unique and specific gameplay options, one of which counts as an action, and the other that is passive.
Player characters have several stats – Lore, Influence, Observation, Strength, and Will. Some investigators are well-rounded and can perform multiple roles, while others are more specialized in fighting, magic, or work best as support characters. For your team to be efficient you do not need to pick each of these,
I just recommend that you communicate with your fellow investigators and familiarize yourself with what your character can do, their special skills, and what they’re good at, so you can make the best use of each one.
This is a kind of no-brainer I guess…but I did play with someone that spent the whole game ignoring one of the abilities of their character, and I can tell you, that didn’t go down well with the rest of the gaming group.
Stat tests are resolved by rolling the number of dice indicated on their card (fives and sixes count as successes). Note that your items may grant extra dice or re-rolls, so remember to stack up so you can keep rolling high.
Eldritch Horror games are played in three phases: Action, Encounter, and Mythos.
While in the Action Phase, the investigators take turns doing any of the four actions described below.
- Travel – players can move one space on the world map.
- Prepare for Travel – purchase a travel ticket that will let the player travel one space further.
- Acquire Assets – Roll a die and test Influence and if successful, purchase from the reserve items to the value of total successes rolled.
- Trade – Exchange items with a different investigator who is occupying the same space.
You can only carry out one of each action and two total actions per turn, and some of them have a specific space tile, where they can be carried out, such as in the city.
In the Encounter Phase, each investigator deals with whatever is happening in the space they are currently in. If there is a monster in their space, they must fight it, one at a time.
If there are no monsters left in a player’s space, or there were no monsters in the first place, they proceed with the location or a token encounter (Gate, Rumour, Clue, and Expedition). Location encounters are great because they often return something of value to the player (Spells or Stats) and are crucial for buffing up your investigator for the battles to come.
Monster encounters take you to a combat round. You contest your Will and Strength stats against the monsters. The Monster token will indicate if there are any penalties to the test (such as a -1 die). Do a Will test and compare the result to the Monsters Horror stat (which can be found on the token as well). If the Monster’s stat is greater, then you lose sanity equal to the difference between the number of successes rolled and the monster’s Horror rating. The Strength test is more or less the same, but you take health damage instead of sanity. The monster also loses Health equal to the number of successes rolled, and some eldritch monsters have a lot of health, so you need to team up with another investigator or it may take you a couple of turns to defeat it (or your investigator will meet a grisly fate).
Complex Encounters are when you choose to engage an encounter card that is split into three. They are easy to identify and they have Initial, Pass, and Fail Effects. After resolving the Initial Effect test, you move onto either the Pass or Fail row, depending on the result of the Initial test. Failing some encounter cards can have dire repercussions/consequences, so be careful.
The Inevitable Fate of All Investigators
Another fun dynamic of the game is the Defeated Investigator Encounter. When any investigator has been defeated, the players (even the defeated player’s new character) can investigate what has happened to them, as they still remain a part of that game’s story. They can do this by entering the world tile that the investigator was defeated in, and reading the text on the back of the character sheet.
Depending on how an enemy defeated them, damaging their health or sanity (death or madness), read the corresponding text row and resolve it. Unlike the others, these are usually positive and can help a current investigator in the game, though there are still consequences to character deaths – each time a player character dies, the doom track moves forward.
All these encounters add a sort of mini adventure feeling (or sidequest if you will) to the Eldritch Horror gameplay that ties into the main adventure, so with each world tile and each turn, there is some new mystery for your characters to uncover.
During the Mythos Phase, a Mythos card is drawn and resolved. Icons at the top of the card are resolved first and can have several outcomes. For instance, they can advance Omen by one, and if the symbol on the card matches the symbol on the Omen chart, they can advance Doom by an amount equal to the number of gates on the board.
As a result, it is crucial to close the gates in the symbol to prevent this outcome from happening.
After the Mythos phase, the Reckoning phase begins. During this phase, all effects with a Reckoning symbol are resolved, including Monsters, Ancient Ones, Mythos cards in play, Possessions, and Conditions that the investigators may have. This is a critical phase that can have a significant impact on the game, so it is important to pay close attention to the Reckoning symbols.
Spawn Gates Phase
Next, the Spawn Gates phase begins. During this phase, gates are spawned based on the number indicated on the game board, and each gate also spawns one monster. The Monster Surge effect also spawns Eldritch monsters at each gate corresponding to the current omen, which can make things even more challenging for the players.
Spawn Clues phase
In addition to gates and monsters, clues are also spawned on the game board during the Spawn Clues phase. The number of clues spawned corresponds to the numbers on the board tiles. Finally, the Place Rumors and Place Eldritch Tokens effects are resolved, which involve placing rumor tokens and Eldritch tokens on the indicated spaces on the game board.
This Is How the World Ends
The three most common ways to lose the game of Eldritch Horror are: if all the investigators are eliminated, if the Mythos deck is emptied, or if the Ancient One awakens and defeats the investigators. The latter is the moment when you have the final showdown against the main antagonist in the story. Unfortunately, it’s on their terms, so the odds are rather stacked against our poor investigators.
Eldritch Horror Expansions
For a game that has a large following, it’s no surprise that a significant number of expansions have been released over the years since its initial launch. Eight, to be exact. Most of them provide players with additional cards, new mechanics, and extra boards, catering to those who are seeking to further immerse themselves in the world of the Cthulhu Mythos.
- Forsaken Lore
- Mountains of Madness
- Strange Remnants
- Under the Pyramids
- Signs of Carcosa
- The Dreamlands
- Cities in Ruin
- Masks of Nyarlathotep
One notable expansion for Eldritch Horror is Forsaken Lore, the first of the Eldritch Horror expansions. It adds a significant number of cards to every deck and greatly enhances gameplay variety, making it a highly recommended addition even if you play just the base game stuff.
In fact, it almost feels like it should have been part of the base game package from the start. If you’re not planning on purchasing all of the expansions but still want to expand your game, Forsaken Lore is a great choice. And snake people… don’t forget, it adds the snake people.
Eldritch Horror Alternatives
Now, I’ve mentioned earlier that the Eldritch Horror board game was not the first board game inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. From Lovecraftian spins on Scrabble to games where US soldiers fight Nazi cultists and Deep Ones, there is plenty of death and madness to be experienced and spread elsewhere. With that in mind, here are a few Eldritch Horror alternatives that I would recommend.
A spiritual predecessor to Eldritch Horror, Arkham Horror is a cooperative adventure, strategy, and dice game set in the 1920s in HP Lovecraft’s forever-doomed city of Arkham. You and your team must gather rumors, solve mysteries, and try to save the city from nightmarish beings that are emerging through portals from another dimension.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a cooperative Living Card Game that involves investigators who are tasked with finding clues through a series of scenarios. They can use either pre-built standard decks or custom ones centered around a specific investigator. As they progress through the game, they’ll earn experience points, which they can use to improve their decks to better handle the increasing difficulty of the various scenarios and campaigns.
Mansions of Madness
Mansions of Madness 2nd edition is an app-assisted board game in which you and your friends assume the roles of investigators who embark on a horror-mystery adventure in various scenarios and locations within the Cthulhu Mythos. Throughout the game, you will need to engage in dungeon crawling, gather clues, solve puzzles, and sometimes engage in combat against the mythos monsters.
I would say that Eldritch Horror is flawed to perfection. As you might have noticed, in each Eldritch Horror game you play, you’re presented with a unique story and a diverse cast of characters and adventures, giving you a fresh experience every time. Eldritch Horror is a fairly streamlined game but it can still get complex. The story is, in my humble opinion, the most important aspect of the game, regardless of whether you win or lose. The characters and the story work together to shape the game’s narrative. So, don’t be afraid to fail in the end – after all, that’s how Lovecraft predicted things would go down.
I believe that the recurring element of death in the game adds extra depth to the flavor while supporting H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophical concept of “cosmicism” and the original Cthulhu Mythos theme – the idea that humanity is small and insignificant in comparison to the larger universe.
For those who may not be fans of Lovecraft, don’t worry – you don’t have to be one to enjoy playing Eldritch. All you need is a love for sharing a great story with friends, and the understanding that sometimes even your best efforts won’t bring about a happy ending, and that’s perfectly okay.
Unfortunately, playing Eldritch Horror isn’t easy. Things can go really bad really fast for the players. It can be quite challenging even for people who like difficult titles, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun game – quite the opposite.
An average game of Eldritch Horror can last from 90 to 120 min, though we had a game that went on for three whole hours once. It was one of those Eldritch games that we wanted to win so badly, only to experience a spectacular failure in the end. Some of us even vowed not to touch the game anymore. It was a genuine Eldritch Horror game experience, though, and, of course, we all wanted to play it again the following Monday.
Yes, absolutely – it’s just not that easy to do. Eldritch Horror gameplay is first and foremost a cooperative title, requiring you to coordinate the actions you take with the other players.
Just because it uses a world map doesn’t mean you don’t know each other’s plans. Focus on Mysteries, then Gates. Familiarize yourself with what your character can do, their skills, and what they’re good at.
Positioning the investigators so that each one patrols a region works. Upgrade their skills, keep their health and sanity up if you can, rest, shop for items, and trade. The more dice you have, the more likely you will succeed in a challenge.
Ignore the expeditions: they are far away, and sometimes the artifact you can get is not even worth the trouble. Finally, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this Eldritch Horror review: have fun, and don’t be afraid to die.