Review: Eldritch Horror

I like to think that I can make a reasonable, educated guess about what games I’d enjoy. Few games surprise me after doing a bit of research. That’s what made this review such a tricky one—Eldritch Horror defied my expectation. Unfortunately, I was expecting to have fun playing it.

Eldritch Horror is a cooperative horror board game, set in the ever-popular Levecraft mythos. Elder gods, cultists, ineffable horrors, all that jazz. It’s the spiritual successor to the much-loved Arkham Horror, and based on multiple reviews and aggregated scores, it sounded as though Eldritch Horror was at least as good if not better than Arkham Horror.

Getting my thoughts together on this involved me facing why my guess was wrong. There are things about this game I was sure I’d enjoy. Was I hypocritical for not liking the game? It certainly received a lot of praise—was I wrong? Was there something I wasn’t getting?

In short, no. My opinions just run against popular consensus on this one—and I’m prepared to back it up with a list of reasons why Eldritch Horror just fell flat.

1. It’s punishingly difficult, but not clever.

I like a good challenge, and Eldritch Horror provides one in spades. The problem is that those challenges aren’t a puzzle you agonize over to find a solution, but a series of die rolls you are probable going to lose.

Even now I’m worried that just sounds like whining. It’s a cop out to blame the game itself if you don’t do well at it—but, in this case, I think it’s fair. If there’s a problem to solve, it’s fairly clear how. Head to a clue you need to collect, head towards a gate you need to close, or move towards whatever catastrophe the game actually makes clear.

The problem is that you’re going to face very unpredictable challenges both on the way and once you get where you need to go. You flip over a card, roll a number of dice equal to an indicated character trait, and try to get at least one to come up as a success. The chances of success are often slim. That’s about it.

When you feel as though all your choices are either obvious or lateral moves, it doesn’t feel like you’re making any choice at all. The punishments just get boring.

2. It’s gorgeous, but bland.

A game like this needs to be exciting. If it’s messy or unfair, that might be forgivable if interesting things happen, or you at least get to read something amusing explaining what’s going on. Eldritch Horror just doesn’t deliver.

Story time. There are condition cards you get in the game. You might take out a loan and be in debt, or lose a fight and get injured, or attract some attention from dark forces and become cursed, among other possibilities. When that happens, you take an appropriate card. The fronts of each condition card are all the same, but when they are triggered, you flip them over and see what the consequences are, which varied from card to card. I actually think this is a very clever mechanism.

But wait! My character predictably encountered something or other that left him in bad shape. There was no way to get rid of it. I can’t remember exactly which condition it was, but I can tell you word for word the consequences:

“You are devoured.”

…that’s it. No story, not last chance, no anything. My character was worse than dead. He wasn’t going to drop his gear, or come back driven to insanity. My only choice was to pick a new character and start over—or, as everyone around the table decided, to just stop playing.

Most of the time the game does convey a story, but when everything is so thematically consistent, it all muddles together. It lays the mechanisms bare, and neither is compelling enough to forgive the other.

But the game looks pretty, so, well, there’s that.

3. It’s cooperative, but that just spreads the frustration.

I wondered why I had so much fun playing Tales of the Arabian Nights, which is certainly prone to unpredicatble and unfair consequences. Then I realized why—that game isn’t cooperative.

If something bad happens to a player in Tales of the Arabian Nights, it’s entertaining. You can laugh at the misfortunes of other players, or even your own. In the end, there’s going to be a winner, guaranteed.

In Eldritch Horror, if another player fails at something, that hurts everyone. If you’re the one responsible—in as much as anyone is “responsible” for anything in this game—you get the feeling that you let them down. If anything, it just hurries the process until everyone ends up bored. Speaking of which…

4. It’s slow, but… no, that’s it. It’s slow.

Oh, and in so many ways!

Each turn, you take two different actions of your choice. They must be different actions. One of them is moving one space. In a game that takes place over the entire globe, it’s going to take a long time to get anywhere, especially when your destinations change frequently.

Oh, but you can spend an action to buy a ticket. A ticket lets you move one additional space. So, functionally, you can spend an action doing nothing in the hope that sometime later you get to move a tiny bit further.

After completing your two actions, you… wait for everyone else to take theirs. In a way, it divides up the down time in the game, but it doesn’t reduce it. If anything, it just paces the game in a way that separates actions from consequences even more.

In conclusion…

Eldritch Horror is, by far, the game I enjoyed the least of anything I’ve reviewed. I’d almost recommend against trying this one out.

But, of course, enjoyment is subjective. People like this game, and I’m in the minority for disliking it. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it (well, beyond a couple of hours or so of boredom and frustration). If anything, I just hope someone reading this will see a counterpoint to popular opinion. Just think things over if you were planning on buying it based on the hype. I know I wish I did.

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