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Solo Gamer's Guide to: Arkham Horror

Sister Mary’s Arkham Horror Vacation

(or, how Sister Mary failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation)

In my ongoing quest to find the best in solo gaming I fetched up in the quaint and delightful American township of Arkham. This has always been a favourite destination but I have considered it wise to travel with a bevy of like-minded individuals so that my belongings and any mortal remains can be reunited with my family if the worst happens. However, a quest is a quest, so I acquired some kick-ass life insurance and set forth in an intrepid manner to face the inevitable tentacled sliminess alone. 

I didn’t have high hopes for my solo investigator and I stripped Arkham down to its bare essentials: no Legacy of the Pharaohs Exhibit or exotic plays to visit and no train trips to Dunwich or Kingsport. My investigator was here on a working vacation and needed to keep his mind off fripperies. Common sense and past experiences were telling me that I would be facing a tsunami of trouble heading in my direction and I assumed that, at best, I would be scoring my failures rather than celebrating an out and out victory. 

Fortunately for the long-suffering town’s people I was proved wrong, at least most of the time. Not that the residents had it easy. If only one investigator is on the case, Arkham becomes awash with monsters and gates and a screaming mass of terrified people head off for the hills with their belongings on carts. You have to indulge your need for retail therapy real fast before the ‘Closed’ signs go up. Almost all investigators had to fight a final desperate battle to attempt to defeat the Ancient One but it is possible to prevail by sealing six gates. The close-all-gates option appears an unlikely goal and my investigator has never achieved it. 

Emboldened by my success I allowed the Legacy of the Pharaohs Exhibit to open, just temporarily at first but later it became a permanent tourist attraction. This added interest and variety without causing any significant difficulties. It was during this phase that Sister Mary of the title turned up, with her wheelie suitcase in one hand and not wholly effective cross in the other, to take on Cthulhu. This was what can only be termed an epic miss-match. She ambled naively round town but was financially incapable of getting together the redoubtable arsenal she was going to need. You can’t win them all.

If the investigators are still winning – most of the time – obviously there aren’t enough cultural experiences for the seasoned monster-slaying tourist. Fortunately, having taken Paris by storm, the acclaimed play The King in Yellow arrived in Arkham: that other great cultural centre of the world. Michael McGlenn shunned the attractions of the theatre turning the streets red with monster blood instead and then easily pummelled Shub Niggarath into submission. It could have been so different if the play prominently featured scantily clad dancing girls. Amanda Sharpe, more surprisingly, also gave the play the cold shoulder and came out victorious. The beleaguered townsfolk rarely saw more than the First Act before taking that by now all too familiar route into the hills with their camping gear. The play had to stay. The extra variety was fun and it added an extra bit of time pressure. No longer could the investigator pop on his sunglasses, set up a deckchair and enjoy the double sunset in Independence Square.

Obviously, you can’t have the play in town for long without the King in Yellow himself making an appearance. This ‘Herald Variant’ is perfect for the time-challenged investigator who wants to save the world before partaking of brunch in Velma’s Diner.  As sensible residents hitch up their mules and leave, the insane town characters stay put to make the investigator’s job even harder. Only the strong, fast and well prepared hero will prevail this time. Woe betide the foolish person who hadn’t packed a Tommy Gun with his smalls. Fighting the Ancient One is probably the only way this ends successfully. Beating Azathoth by sealing or closing gates? None of my eager holiday beavers could do it. They came close on a couple of very lucky occasions but this was a ‘score your failure’ mission. 

I decided that holidaying with the King in Yellow on the loose was not going to allow me time to fully investigate the mysterious monthly disappearances of Arkham’s residents and dubious goings-on in the Woods so I ran him out of town for good. Rumours of cultist activity added piquancy to the, by now, familiar daily round of panic and mayhem. 

Did my investigator ever infiltrate the Cult of the Black Goat? No. If the world is going to be saved there is absolutely no spare time to have hopeful picnics in the woods, boat rides to the Unvisited Isle or abseiling sessions in the Black Cave. Besides which these locations are merely conduits to exotic parallel worlds before elevenses and any cult members have probably been sucked through. The gate bursts were the most obvious sign that ne’er-do-wells were abroad but they stayed so elusive as to be otherwise invisible.       

I had to up the ante and share my vacation with the Black Goat of the Woods himself. Surely a goat with a thousand young couldn’t be invisible to my preoccupied hero? With this herald on the loose it is vital to multi-task. By elevenses everything will be settled one way or the other so breakfast had to be eaten on the run and only the well-equipped lark could hope to prevail. Bob Jenkins did consider thwacking one ‘young’ just to see what would happen but common sense cut in and he went off to tackle a gate instead. And that is the problem with this variant. The Cult of the Black Goat is a minor side issue to the main event and can therefore be largely ignored. They need to get the advertising banners strung up across the Uptown Streets and lay man traps in the Woods to catch the hero as he sprints by munching on his shredded wheat. I gave up the search and put the Black Goat out to pasture with the King in Yellow. I couldn’t banish the Cult from Arkham owing to the fact that I hadn’t found them in the first place. 

The next malign influence to blight the township had a strange, unsettling and unexpected effect on my solo tourist. Apparently those Arkham citizens not already engaging in dubious cultish devilishness were being seduced to the dark side by some lurking evil. Strangely the most noticeable effect was the many caring, sharing opportunities suddenly on offer. The neighbourhood took on a warm and rosy glow and now my investigator was dancing out of Ma’s Boarding House in a complementary white bathrobe and pink slippers looking for someone to share his waffles and indigestion with. Never had my hero felt so lonesome. However he got over it with the usual business of saving the world. As luck would have it Carolyn Fern bumped into the Cult of the Black Goat whilst attempting a game of solo frisbee on the Unvisited Isle. Sadly this astounding chance meeting occurred moments before she hurtled off to Celeano. She then returned to Arkham to seal a sixth gate to send Azathoth packing so never experienced the joys of corruption and ritual sacrifice. Still it was good to know that the cultists were more than a rumour.    

Having failed to be corrupted by the Cult would the lure of making unwholesome pacts with The Lurker on the Threshold appeal to my investigator’s dark side? The answer was obvious. If you are up to your neck in poop are you going to be tempted to invite someone along who could place his jackboot on your head and push it under? Things are never that desperate. Ever. This time there was no extra time pressure, which was an unusual delight for a herald variant, but no point if you weren’t going to be tempted by his offers. 

I’d like to think that my investigator got a hero’s banquet and a ticker tape parade along the French Hill Streets for his unending struggle against the arcane horrors threatening the town. However, the exhausted citizenry probably heaved a huge collective sigh of relief at his departing back and prayed that the tourist season was over for this year. Farewell Arkham.

Conclusion

This remains a fantastic game which has been so carefully designed and play-tested that it scales down to a solo experience seamlessly. The one-player game takes less than an hour and because there are fewer monsters on the board weaker characters rarely get trapped as they can in a multiplayer game. You have to stay utterly focused on the ultimate win condition which of course will vary depending on which Ancient One you are combatting. This means that your strategy will be different and will also change in response to your investigator’s strengths and weaknesses. The additions of the first three mini expansions cause the gates to appear in less predictable patterns than they do in the base game. Oddly, the addition of ‘The Lurker at the Threshold’ seems to restore the original gate balance. I took the designers’ advice and refrained from adding in any large expansions. One person can only cover so much ground and I suspect that any add-on boards would end up being ignored.   

I would definitely buy this game and the mini expansions to play as a solo game. If I never foresaw a chance to play multiplayer I would still buy this game. The only downside to it is the amount of room it takes up and the set up time. A result of this my long-suffering family lost the dining room table for 3 months whilst I play-tested for this review. A big ‘thank you’ to them but they did get to eat in front of the TV and computer so it wasn’t all bad.