Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

On the Table: Arkham Asylum

Machine gun dude mows down some undead.

So I got invited to a new super-secret local game group. Seven people… all keen on playing a modern monster game– man, I was stoked. I was also surprised, too. (I would have thought that a group this size might want to break off into two separate tables and play a shorter game so that there would be time to get two or more plays in each.) Someone suggested Diplomacy… but there was rumblings of disapproval. We’d all met too soon to want to become lifelong enemies. Someone else suggested the new WWI themed Axis & Allies game still in the shrink wrap. I wasn’t too keen on spending precious game time punching stuff out and trying to learn rules. Someone had mentioned really liking Arkham Horror, so I asked if folks would consider that one. I think that some in the group were a little reticent about initiating direct conflict in a group of strangers, so that one got some additional support… and we finally started setting the thing up.

It seems like someone’s always running this at the conventions I frequent. Usually it’s someone that’s going crazy and trying to do this game with all of the expansions at once. But hey, if you don’t want to go crazy… your playing the wrong game…! I always kinda wondered how this plays, but now I get it: it’s basically an unholy combination of Pandemic and Munchkin. The Pandemic side of the game includes monsters spawning out of gates and then wandering around the board while a couple of horribleness tracks steadily rise. (The mechanism for determining where and when the monsters move is pretty nifty if you ask me.) The munchkin elements include various player-characters that can be decked out with magic-item cards and buffs and so forth.

At this point I have been exposed to far more Cthulu games than mythos fiction. The monsters from The Stars Are Right are here… and a good bit nastier they all are, too. The elder sign from Cthulu Dice shows up here as a major part of the victory conditions. I felt right at home with all of the theme… but it struck me as a bit odd how we seemed to kill monsters left and right. (Maybe we were doing something wrong to make it too easy?) Another thing that seemed off was the blessing cards that everyone else but me seemed to get. How does any sort of “blessing” make sense in a setting where Nietzsche’s philosophy is taken to its logical conclusion…?

Lot of monsters started coming through the gates, but they were no match for our pulpy awesomeness.

No matter. The skill system is pretty neat. You roll a fistful of dice and need a certain number of 5’s or 6’s depending on the difficulty. Combat is fun, there’s a lot going on, and there’s plenty of places to go and things to try. My only gripe about the game– and it’s probably due to us trying to accommodate a huge number of players in one session here– is that it can take a long time for your turn to come back around. Even worse, some things in the game require multiple turns to accomplish… there’s things that can happen that can cause you to loose a turn or two in a row… and if you have to go to the hospital or the sanitarium, that’s even more time spent not really playing.

This is a great example of a game that utilizes just about every component of role playing games except the role playing part. You’ve got characters and stats and you can move around as you wish. (The fact that the group doesn’t stay together is a big difference between this and D&D.) Adding an elaborate tactical map for evaluating the combats would not make this any more of an rpg, of course. Talking with funny voices would not make it an rpg, either. So what does it lack in that department…? Imagination. To be an rpg, the players need to be forced to ask questions of the game master and the situation needs to be fluid enough that it can be altered and developed and put into focus through those interactions. The finite game board and the tightly defined rules pretty well do all of the imagining for you. That’s not a criticism of Arkham; given how difficult it can be to pull a role playing campaign together, I’m glad to have as many gaming options as possible.


2 responses to “On the Table: Arkham Asylum

  1. Bill Barnes July 23, 2013 at 5:57 am

    One of my all time favorite board games…

  2. alandesmet July 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I love Arkham Horror, especially the weird little stories you get from the cards. It does have balance issues. 3 or fewer players is pretty much doomed. 6 or more players is almost guaranteed success. My experience suggests the sweet spot is 4 or 5 players. You mention you had a “huge number of players”, this probably explains why you were mowing down monsters; you’re likely going to have 2 or 3 well-equipped characters.

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