Monday, June 22, 2015

Another look at Eldritch Horror

When we originally reviewed Eldritch Horror, it was still very new to us. Like most players, we approached it as an evolution of (and perhaps even replacement for) Arkham Horror, and we were dazzled by the streamlined game play and improved graphic design. At the same time, we praised it for being different enough from its predecessor that the two could peacefully coexist.

Having played Eldritch Horror several more times since then, we've got a better sense of what we do and don't like about the game. It is overall a much smoother game when compared to Arkham Horror, taking out some of Arkham's more tedious game elements such as needing to keep track of money to buy equipment.

However, in some areas it oversimplifies, such as with the character skills. Eldritch Horror gives players set skills with the ability to improve them, which takes time away from other, more urgent game tasks. Arkham Horror groups character skills into sets of two that relate to one another, such as Sneak and Speed, and allows players to adjust these somewhat at the beginning of every turn, with the catch that, for example, if you increase your character's Sneak it is at the expense of their Speed. This makes skill improvement into a strategic decision, where in Eldritch improving skills is semi-random and turn-consuming.

We played Arkham Horror recently for the first time since getting Eldritch, and one thing that struck me was how much more depth there is to the older game, almost overwhelmingly so. Granted, we have several hundred dollars invested in Arkham expansions, and to compare that to just the Eldritch base game isn't even remotely fair. But part of the point of this blog is to assess these games within the context of our game collection, so we have to look at the whole package. I have no doubt that Eldritch will soon have at least as much expansion content available, but do I really want or need to invest in all that content, when Arkham already has more expansions than I can handle?

The answer would be yes, if we preferred Eldritch to Arkham, even more so if we intended Eldritch to be a replacement, or truly found it to be different enough that we would play both regularly. But I don't think that is the case. For all its clunkiness, we are finding that we prefer Arkham. The games are similar enough that we're playing Eldritch instead of Arkham, and not having as much fun with it. Which isn't to say that one is a better game than the other, and in all honesty I would probably recommend Eldritch over Arkham for most new players.

One of the things we find frustrating about Eldritch Horror is its almost overwhelming sense of urgency. The game presents players with a detailed world with lots of places to explore, but then moves along at such a breakneck pace that you never have time to explore it. For example, the board features several locations featuring expedition sites such as central Africa, the Himalayas, and the Egyptian Pyramids, but in all the games we've played we've never felt like we had time to visit any of them, because we're given so little time to achieve the game's victory conditions.

This brings up another comparison, this one possibly less obvious: Fortune and Glory, Flying Frog's game of 1930s pulp adventure. Most online criticism of Eldritch Horror has focused heavily on comparing it to Arkham Horror, which is natural due to the games' common subject matter and publisher. I know this contradicts what I say in my earlier review, but in a lot of ways, Eldritch Horror has more in common with Fortune and Glory, with a similar early 20th century setting, and even more similar world-spanning game play. A major difference is that Fortune and Glory lets you slow down and enjoy the game's setting a little bit.

While it lacks a sense of impending Lovecraftian doom, Fortune and Glory does have a cooperative mode in which players team up against the Nazis or the Mafia, and with the Rise of the Crimson Hand expansion it even adds a sinister, Lovecraft-style cult for players to fight against. Additionally it's a bit more versatile, with a competitive game option where players race to be the first to recover a certain number of fortune points, and it's easily scalable for longer or shorter games by adjusting the amount of fortune needed to win, in either the competitive or cooperative modes.

The bottom line on Eldritch Horror for us is that, if it existed in a vacuum we would probably play it regularly. But we can't help but look at its similarities to Arkham Horror and Fortune and Glory, both of which we enjoy more.

Read the original review.
Original rating: 4 (out of 5)
New rating (pass or fail) FAIL

Thursday, June 4, 2015

New adventures in Tolkien's world

I have little doubt that Middle-Earth Quest started out as a Lord of the Rings version of Arkham Horror. It's a largely cooperative game in which each player controls a character, traveling around the board to put a stop to the evil Sauron's schemes, and exploring the world of Middle-Earth via encounters with monsters, helpful supporting characters, and monsters, much as the intrepid investigators do in Arkham Horror.

While there is a goal the players are trying to achieve, and a somewhat urgent time frame in which they need to achieve it, the game's emphasis is solidly on exploration and story more than on merely winning. Where Arkham Horror combines elements from dozens of stories by Lovecraft, Chambers, Howard and others to ensure that each game is different from the last, Middle-Earth Quest sets its action in the  17 years between Bilbo Baggins' journey in The Hobbit and his nephew Frodo's epic quest in The Lord of the Rings, and players control original characters rather than the familiar personalities from the books, all of which keeps the game from seeming like simply a re-enactment of events we've already seen.

Middle-Earth Quest differs from Arkham Horror in a few important respects. The most obvious difference is the addition of a Sauron player, who works openly against the other players by controlling the forces of Mordor. The Sauron player acts almost as a game master, driving the plot forward by playing cards representing Sauron's nefarious schemes and moving monsters and minions around the board in a strategic manner. As a result, the game feels less random than Arkham Horror, and more challenging without necessarily being more difficult.

Another important game element that makes Middle-Earth Quest seem more strategic and less random is the complete absence of dice in the game. Cards still provide an element of chance that keeps the game from being the same every time, but conflicts rely on choosing the right card to play in order to outwit the Sauron player, rather than an arbitrary roll of the dice.

The world Tolkien describes in The Lord of the Rings is vast, and a comparatively small amount of it is actually seen in the books. Middle-Earth Quest gives players a chance to explore that world in more depth and detail, while providing an immersive story about the fight against Sauron.

Sadly, this game recently went out of print.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Not quite as smooth or expansive as similar games such as Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness, but an excellent Tolkien-themed adventure game.