In this week’s edition of What We’ve Been Playing, the team balances the horror of eldritch beings and classic scares with the wonders of fantasy trains.
Whilst Matt has been exploring the locomotive world of Empyreal: Spells & Steams, Liv has been delving into the horrors of the Shiver RPG and I’ve been battling terrifying abominations in Arkham Horror.
If you’ve been playing something you want to share or you’re planning to play something great this weekend, please feel free to share it with us and your fellow readers by commenting down below or tweeting at @joindicebreaker.
What We’ve Been Playing - July 14th 2023
Empyreal: Spells & Steam
Empyreal has always been on my wishlist. It combines three things I love: train games, anime and board games made by publisher Level 99, maker of Bullet, Millennium Blades and other fantastic stuff.
Empyreal looks intimidating, with a chunky cube box closer to Descent: Legends of the Dark or Gloomhaven than Ticket to Ride. The thing is, though, it’s mostly just posturing; Empyreal is actually a fast-playing, surprisingly simple game. The box is so big because it’s packed with beautiful components and pieces, along with one of the best in-box storage solutions I’ve seen in a good long while - everything simply lifts out, almost ready to play instantly.
The surprises don’t stop at the box. Because this isn't really a train game. Well, it is, but it isn’t really. You’re not connecting points A and B with strings of carriages; instead, you’re occupying hexes with your plastic engines in the hope of grabbing valuable resources from the spaces and delivering them to cities faster than your rivals. It’s more in the vein of an area-control contest like Kemet or Blood Rage than TTR.
Turns are light, as you activate a column of railroad cars on your player board. These powers are the meat of Empyreal, allowing for a huge variety of actions and strategies without making things especially complicated. You simply move along your train of carriages, activating the next column to add carriages to adjacent spaces, hop over opponents and obstructions, move goods around, and so on.
The wealth of possible powers combine with asymmetrical characters at the top of your railroad company, who present different ways of speeding toward your goal - everything from manipulating goods to blighting the land to hinder your rivals. The characters are fun, anime-esque personalities who join with the rest of Empyreal’s brightly-coloured pieces and artwork for a train game that blows away drab stereotypes. (Did I mention the trains are magical, and can fly?)
As I wrote recently, Empyreal is the ideal train game for people who don’t like train games, or trains (liking games helps, though). But if you are into train games, it manages to stand apart from the crowd with a vivid take on the classic genre. I’m besotted, and can’t wait to jump straight back on the hype train for this terrific title.
Arkham Horror (2005)
I’ve always been a big fan of the Arkham Horror Files franchise, especially Eldritch Horror, but I’ve never gotten around to playing the board game that started it all, Arkham Horror - until now. The Arkham Horror Files is a universe of tabletop games that feature a diverse cast of characters attempting to stop the world from being destroyed/taken-over by eldritch beings from beyond the stars.
The entire franchise began with Arkham Horror, a board game that was originally published way back in 1987, before the rights were picked up by Fantasy Flight Games and a new version was released in 2005. Taking place in an alternate 1920s, Arkham Horror presents a world in which terrifying monsters roam the streets, with the players stepping into the shoes of average folks who have stumbled across a plot to awaken one of several potential eldritch beings.
Arkham Horror is based entirely within a fictional city in the state of Massachusetts, with players travelling across the board to different parts of the city in order to gather the gear, experience, allies and knowledge needed to prevent the awakening of an Old One. Rather than playing heroes with amazing powers or access to incredible weaponry, players control relatively ordinary folks - if you count an explorer and a magician as ordinary - who are most definitely out of their depth when it comes to their current task.
Each round of the horror board game begins with players drawing a mythos card - which is essentially the game’s turn and usually results in bad things happening. Players then have a chance to refresh their stuff and change their skill scores, before moving to a new location on the board. The different locations of Arkham have various unique twists that mostly only come up during the encounters phase of the game. Players will experience different encounters depending on where they move to: including visiting shops or meeting individuals in a club.
Should players need to move through any monsters, they’ll have to attempt to either sneak past them or engage in combat. Fighting monsters is risky business as the player characters could face death or supernatural insanity if it all goes wrong, so it usually requires players to have gathered enough useful resources to have a good chance at success - though even that isn’t always guaranteed.
The encounters phase of Arkham Horror is when most of the action happens. Players can either experience a simple exchange with a shopkeeper or a trip into another dimension, depending on wherever their investigator is at the time. This is also when players can tip things in their favour by closing, and even sealing, portals.
Playing Arkham Horror gives great insight into how it laid the groundwork for Eldritch Horror, which is a much larger - and much improved - version of the game. The concepts introduced in Arkham Horror: playable investigators, mythos cards, Old Ones, gathering resources, travelling to different locations, fighting monsters and closing portals, are all present in Eldritch Horror in a developed state, one that offers more narrative cohesion and mechanical depth.
Though an interesting glimpse into the originator or Eldritch Horror, I don’t see myself returning to Arkham Horror again.
This week I've been gearing up for my first foray into running the horror RPG Shiver, which is a GM's best friend if you're looking for the tools to run a spooky game but you're tired of cramming it into other RPGs that don't quite do the job - like D&D.
Shiver not only understands the length and breadth of its source material to a T, it allows you to harness whatever facet of it you wish to explore. Creepy highschool mascot seeking revenge on a group of teens? It's got you covered. An alien stalking you around a cold and clanging spaceship? It's ready for that. Hoards of the undead taking over your underground corporate prison? They have even written up a full one-shot for that in the core rule book!
I'm more than over the moon to present this RPG system to as many of my tables as possible and I want you to know about it too! October is right around the corner after all!