Lovecraftian horror seems a little old hat to the tabletop world now.
There are countless Cthulhu-themed versions of existing games - from Lovecraft Letter to Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu - RPGs inspired by Lovecraft’s works and, of course, enormous board games based on the mythos. One of those games is Eldritch Horror, an absolute behemoth of a title originally released in 2013. Eldritch Horror is a globe-trotting co-op adventure set in the Arkham Horror Files universe - a Lovecraftian tabletop franchise from Fantasy Flight Games that also includes Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness - that has players seeking out clues to solve a series of mysteries surrounding one of the Old Ones.
Despite being based on the over-exhausted genre of Lovecraftian horror, there’s something about Eldritch Horror that allows it to continue to live in my head completely rent-free.
It may rely on a well-worn series of stories, but one thing that Eldritch Horror absolutely nails is its setting. The game’s artwork is incredibly striking, depicting creatures that inspire disgust and dread, and its writing is evocative, leaning into both the darker and pulpier sides of Lovecraftian horror wherever each works best. Some of these storytelling elements are random - such as encounters with cultists or battles with eldritch beasts - and can be limited to the space of a single card, but nonetheless they come together to form a cohesive narrative.
The game’s characters aren’t especially well-defined - they’re entirely built off existing tropes such as the troubled actor or skilled martial artist - but the experiences they go through help to flesh out their stories. From signing dark pacts for the promise of power to being transported into other worlds in search of forbidden knowledge, player characters endure such harrowing and exciting encounters in the course of a single game that they transcend their stereotypical backstories. Eldritch Horror encourages players to care about their characters because they make it through these terrifying events despite their fragility.
Characters endure such harrowing and exciting encounters in the course of a single game that they transcend their stereotypical backstories.
Player characters can die very easily in Eldritch Horror. Many of the encounters they’ll face throughout the game will see players rolling to overcome a skill check. Depending on a character’s current statistics and held items, they might stand a better chance against some skill checks than others. But even some of the most well-equipped and upgraded characters can fall prey to a poor dice roll. Rather than causing frustration or feeling unfair, moments of character death work because of the game’s setting and tone. No matter how powerful they may feel, investigators are always on the back foot in Eldritch Horror. They are relatively ordinary people facing insurmountable odds, and the game likes to remind them of that fact.
Player actions can doom characters just as much as bad rolls. Taking a dark pact can provide characters with access to powers or items that they might otherwise not acquire, but certain events can trigger the unpleasant side of these bargains. The same goes for choosing to take debts to pay for items player characters cannot otherwise afford. Eldritch Horror provides plenty of opportunities for players to put their characters in the path of danger, with the results being debilitating injuries, serious setbacks and - sometimes - instant death. When any of these gruesome outcomes occur, they give characters their own arcs and moments beyond those already laid out by the game that keep players invested and determined to carry on.
When any gruesome outcomes occur, they give characters their own arcs and moments beyond those already laid out by the game.
Character deaths aren’t the end of the world, as players can simply pick a new character and continue from there. The deceased characters are still part of that game’s story, but this ensures that players continue to be involved in the narrative and gives them a chance to continue seeking salvation or to wallow in defeat. There are still consequences to character deaths, as every time a player character dies, the doom track is moved forward. The doom track is a ticking clock counting down the turns until whichever Old One players have chosen to face finally wakes up. Depending upon the Old One currently in play, this could mean the immediate end of the game - such as when Azathoth, ‘The Daemon Sultan’, awakens - or the start of a frantic second phase, like when Shub-Niggurath spawns as an epic monster on the board. Eldritch Horror provides a perfect balance to letting players remain part of the story - even when their characters have died - whilst ensuring that there are still stakes to the narrative.
Players remain part of the story - even when their characters have died.
Eldritch Horror is not an easy game; it’s intentionally meant to be difficult. I’ve played it many, many times and the ratio of wins to losses is not by any means even. The mythos phase, which is almost always bad, can escalate things pretty quickly, transforming a board that feels under control into a nest of monsters and monster-spewing portals. Nevertheless, the game doesn’t feel unfair. Surviving each one of these mythos phases feels amazing and helps to give the game a real sense of tension. There always seems to be just one more mythos phase between success and defeat, with the fate of the game constantly hanging in the balance. Which fits perfectly with the narrative of Eldritch Horror. The investigators are chasing what seems to be an impossible dream. Despite the deaths of their fellow investigators, the terrible horrors they’ve witnessed and the enormous amount of work left to do, the characters in Eldritch Horror’s world continue to fight.
That’s what makes Eldritch Horror such a memorable game: the experiences your characters go through, the bonds forged between players and those nail-biting moments that have the potential to change the entire outcome of the game. Eldritch Horror might have all the markings of a generic Lovecraftian board game, but its ability to make players empathise deeply with their characters means that it’s difficult to forget.