Welcome to Table Top Terrors! In this monthly series, we’ll help you recreate some of the terror, tension, and fun of scary stories by examining what the world of tabletop gaming has to offer horror fans. We’ll look at board games, card games, pen and paper RPGs, and miniature war games. We’ll offer reviews, insights, and tips on how to create an immersive and awesome game night.
February is when the horror community comes together to pay tribute to some of its most powerful and fascinating voices; the women who author and bring to life scary stories. Nightmare on Film Street is getting in on the fun with some articles and editorials spotlighting some of our favorite female creators and the horror projects they worked on. So for this month’s Table Top Terrors we’re going to look at the work of Nikki Valens, a woman who reinvigorated and revolutionized the idea of what a co-op Lovecraftian horror board game experience could be.
So gather your copy of the Necronomicon and your trusted .45s we’re going to tussle with tentacled terrors, crush some cosmic conspiracies, and solve some interdimensional mysteries by taking a deep dive into Fantasy Flight Games’ Eldritch Horror. We’ll also offer up our usual thematic drink, snack, and background music suggestions to help you create a game night as great as the Old Ones themselves.
“[…] a malevolent, massively powerful, Ancient One […] is getting ready to awaken and enter our world. In order to stop that, players must travel the globe and solve mysteries to foil the Ancient One’s machinations.”
I discovered Fantasy Flight Games via their second edition of Arkham Horror; a co-op game where players traveled the width and breadth of writer H.P. Lovecraft’s trademark, titular, town battling ancient cults and the various monstrosities of his Cthulhu mythos. The game’s numerous expansions brought in new mechanics and took players to the other fictional New England locales that served as a backdrop for Lovecraft’s mythos fiction. So, by the time that edition came to an end in 2011 the mechanic scale of the game was huge, but the scope was still focused on New England towns.
That all changed in 2013 with the release of Eldritch Horror by Nikki Valens and Corey Konieczka, a game that took a number of Arkham Horror‘s familiar rules, streamlined them, and elevated its scope to grand heights by turning the battle against the Ancient Ones into a globe-trotting affair. Eldritch Horror was Valens fist game for Fantasy Flight and in an interview with Punchboard Media she recalled, “Within the first week, Corey saw I had things under control and pretty much just handed me the reins and let me do my thing. We would discuss things and collaborate on major design decisions, but for the most part it was just me chugging along refining the system and mechanics. There were some bumps here and there, but we faced each challenge and the game became better for it each time.”
Eldritch Horror is described as “A board game of global mystery and horror for 1 to 8 players” on its front box, which might make it sound like a fairly complex and hard to pick up game. It’s not though and that’s partly because much of the mechanics and systems Valens introduced streamline things and keep the game moving. An average game of Arkham Horror‘s second edition would usually take my gaming group several hours to complete depending on the number of expansions involved. Eldritch Horror‘s run time though sticks pretty close to the two hours mentioned on the back of the box. It can grow considerably with more players, but the game’s difficulty also scales upward with more players to balance that out. Eldritch Horror‘s run time could also change if you add in any of its several expansions, but this article is only going to focus on the core game.
The central idea of Eldritch Horror is that a malevolent, massively powerful, Ancient One (Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth are probably the two most well known ones in the base game) is getting ready to awaken and enter our world. In order to stop that, players must travel the globe and solve mysteries to foil the Ancient One’s machinations. Along the way, they’ll confront monstrous abominations, explore ancient wonders, close dimensional gateways and collect useful things like spells, items and artifacts, and debilitating ones such as bank loans, dark pacts, injuries, and amnesia.
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Setting up a game of Eldritch Horror involves preparing several card decks, token stacks, and most importantly choosing the Ancient One you’ll be fighting for the game. Each of the the four cosmic “big bads” plays differently and have their own deck of mysteries and research encounters. Some even have special encounter decks. For instance, if Cthulhu is your Ancient One there will be a special encounter deck of cards that represent the rising of his sunken city of R’lyeh and the encounters you’ll have there. The Ancient One also tells you how to assemble the “Mythos Desk;” a stack of 16 cards that represent all the tumultuous twists your game will take when it’s evil’s turn to act.
“Eldritch Horror by Nikki Valens and Corey Konieczka […] took a number of Arkham Horror‘s familiar rules, streamlined them, and elevated its scope […]”
The Players’ turn consists of two phases “Action” and “Encounter.” During the Action Phase each player can take two different actions with their selected “Investigator.” Those include moving to a different global destination, resting to recover the sanity and health that keep your investigator in the game, trading possessions with fellow Investigators in the same space, or doing an action related to your Investigator’s abilities or one of the cards they’ve acquired. In addition, if an Investigator is at a city space that is not occupied by a monster they can acquire travel tickets that allow them to move faster or attempt to buy one of several valuable assets in the board’s reserve. They do that by testing their influence. They roll a number of dice equal to their Investigator’s influence trait and each roll of five or six represents a success.
Tests are the core mechanic of the game and they’re really used in the Encounter Phase. During this portion, if a player shares a space with one of the game’s many cool and colorful monsters they’ll test their Will and Strength in “Combat Encounters.” If they survive they’ll move on to “Location Encounters” where they’ll draw a card from a desk based on larger, famous cities, or one representing smaller towns, the wilderness, and ship based encounters.
“Expedition Encounters” happen at such fabled real world locales as the pyramids of Egypt, the site of the Tunguska Blast, and Antartica. If an Investigator is at a city with an open gate to another dimension they can travel to another world and attempt to close the gate which is spilling monsters out into our world and fueling the Ancient Ones quest to awake. The final type of encounter is the most crucial; “Research Encounters.” Periodically “Clue Tokens” will appear at different spots all over the world. If a player is at one of these locations they can work towards solving the active mystery card for an Ancient One. If they solve three mysteries they win the game.
The Encounter Phase is where the game really shines. Here, players get to experience a number of fun, flavorful, horrific, and often epic short stories that will sometimes involve multiple test rolls, awesome payoffs, and dire consequences. It’s also where Valens and Konieczka show off their understanding of why the Cthulhu Mythos has captured the imagination of so many horror fans for so many decades.
The “Mythos Phase” is equally fun and flavorful, but it’s where bad stuff happens to players. During it you draw a card and resolve several different effects. Monsters might appear, gates could open, horrific consequences could come due, and valuable Clue Tokens could spawn. The Mythos Phase is also where the game could end or move into a cataclysmic finale. That could happen if there are no more Mythos cards to draw or the Ancient One’s countdown track, which often advances during this stage, reaches zero. If that happens, the Ancient One awakens and the players’ quest to save the world just got infinitely more difficult.
So, that’s the thrust of Eldritch Horror and one of the things I love about it is the game’s cooperative nature and the diverse collection of characters players can inhabit. Like Arkham Horror, players can step into the shoes of the types of heroes that weren’t featured in Lovecraft’s stories because of the author’s bigoted and hateful nature. So you can play woman investigators and people of color, and the fact that they’re on a global quest where they’re working together really helps to separate the game from Lovecraft’s problematic legacy.
“Victory, of course, isn’t assured in Eldritch Horror. It’s a difficult game to win that gets harder with the more players you have.”
It shows that much of the dark endings Lovecraft is known for could be emblematic of his hateful nature. Because, yes, humanity is doomed to fail against interdimensional entities if it’s just a lone white male opposing them. If a diverse collection of people stand united against the Ancient Ones, though, there’s hope that they can succeed thanks to their unique collection of abilities. Victory, of course, isn’t assured in Eldritch Horror. It’s a difficult game to win that gets harder with the more players you have. Win or lose though fun is guaranteed because of the epic shared story that unfolds as you and your friends play the game. So, Eldritch Horror perfectly and beautifully illustrates that the best chance we have to triumph over personal, existential, and cosmic horror is each other. Humanity is not necessarily doomed if we stand united and work together to save each other.
The other vital ingredient in a successful battle against the Ancient Ones are refreshments. There are a number of Cthulhu mythos themed cocktails out there. If you’re looking for one with a more universal appeal we suggest the Call of Cthulhu Cocktail from our look at Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham Horror: Final Hour. For this column though, we’re going to go with a different drink that may not be everybody, but it is an easy to make concoction sure to intrigue fans of scotch; check out this “Briny Deep” cocktail created by our friends at the Geeks Who Eat blog. It was inspired by the 2020 film Underwater, but given Cthulhu’s aquatic residence we think it’s thematically appropriate. If you’re looking for a simpler themed snack try the Cthulhu Chibi Pretzel Rolls we spotlighted in our Final Hour piece. If you’ve got time to bake and want to make something more elaborate check out this savory recipe for a giant Cthulhu pretzel and beer cheese dip courtesy of Board Game Bakes.
The right music can elevate your Eldritch Horror game night to cosmic proportions, and we have a couple of choices to perfectly set the mood. The first is Nox Arcana’s 2004 album, Necronomicon; a haunting score music tribute to Lovecraft’s Mythos tales. Composer Graham Plowman also has a number of captivating Lovecraft inspired score albums. We suggest starting with 2018’s The Great Old Ones and Other Beings.
I want to conclude by mentioning Valens other Fantasy Flight horror game, Mansions of Madness: Second Edition, where players take investigators inside archaic, labyrinthine, manors to solve mysteries and confront evil. I actually haven’t had a chance to play it, but I’m looking forward to a game of it in the future. That’s because in Mansions of Madness: Second Edition Valens rectifies a flaw in the first edition that made the game practically unplayable for my gaming group; the fact that it could take several hours to set up and play.
“Humanity is not necessarily doomed if we stand united and work together to save each other.”
The entire game is streamlined with a simple innovation; a thematic app that handles many of the first edition’s unwieldy features. So, if you’re looking for another, fun immersive, Lovecraftian game featuring the streamlined, story first design that Valens showed off in Eldritch Horror definitely check out Mansions of Madness: Second Edition.
Let us know all about your own immersive game night setups, and your favorite horror-based board games. Who knows? Your recommendation might become our focus for next month’s installment of Table Top Terrors. Roll the dice and spill your guts over Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!