Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Solo Arkham Horror

Tom Vasal recently talked about playing Arkham Horror, getting his tush handed to him and the other players (it's essentially a cooperative game), and having a great time. Having played an abortive late-night game (is there a better time to do this?) last summer followed by a single one-character solitaire session that was less than satisfying, I decided to give this game another shot.

AH (hmm, perhaps Avalon Hill should change their name to Avalon Horror after releasing a stinking pile of poo like Rocketville) is a repackaging of the 80's classic, and currently linked into FFG's CCG Call of Cthulu, both based on the freaky too-much-cocaine-for-you HP Lovecraft. The artwork is great, there are tons of cards, lots of characters with Special Mutant Abilities, development in the form of a wide variety of items, everything that seems to make World of Warcraft such a fun solo experience. With anything less than three characters in play, however, the game simply becomes unwinnable as you dash around trying to seal six gates to the Nether Regions (settle down, people), unable to deal with any side issues that come up. With three, the game felt like it was winnable, and in fact I did. Having an environment that made spell-casting essentially free and a character whose Flux Generator (tm) seemed to deny half of the gates opened by Mythos cards helped quite a bit, although I did send one character to the Lost In (Time And) Space box once.

I won't go into details on the game other than to say that your entire raison d'etre is to collect clue markers on the board, then go into the various and gradually increasing gates to Other Worlds, finally emerging and using your clues (or Elder Signs, it you've got 'em) to seal the games. Seal six, and you win without having to fight the Major Baddie who wants to Enslave Humanity (Lovecraft's prose tended to feel like it required lots of capitalization, even if it wasn't there). If enough gates open, you have to fight whichever of the Elder Gods felt like spending Spring Break infiltrating our world. I never did get why any of the EG were so hot to take over, other than there are a few hot babes (see my previous post) spending too much time behind microscopes or hanging with the Mob. You can also win by shutting down all of the gates, although that really isn't an option unless you get very lucky.

As such, the game kind of feels like you're working on a factory assembly line: Get clues, fight through monsters (or evade them) to get to gates, draw random event cards for the oh-so-unsatisfying experience of wandering around on another plane (the game should come with 'shrooms or acid or something), then rolling a few dice to see if you can seal the game instead of just closing it. Stapled alongside is a truly astonishing array of chrome: you can become a deputy (shades of Bang), hang out at Miskatonic University, buy weapons from shady characters at the docks, even get a membership at the Silver Mphmph Club. That is, if you had time to do any of those things.

I get the sense that the game was designed to give you lots of paths to achieving victory, but the simple fact is that you go where the clues appear, then go where the gates appear. You don't really ever have time to do anything else, so your path is set more by what Mythos cards you draw than by any real strategy. Even if I could become a deputy (and really, doesn't everyone want to be a deputy?), get to drive the cool wheels, arrest people who annoy you, use the 1920's version of an occult taser, it still just feels like a space on the board to me. Even the Other Worlds feel more like I got into a bad batch of Corn Nuts more than having my sanity ripped from me neuron by neuron.

And there's another nit: Each character has two, well, characteristics, Sanity and Stamina. Which begin with the same letter. I played for about an hour before I realized that I had been removing Sanity from each character even when the card called for Stamina. Perhaps we could call it Health? Constitution? Anything that doesn't start with an 'S"? FFG usually gets this, but I think this was a case where they wanted to match up with the CCG's terminology, or perhaps even the terminology from the old CoC roleplaying game. I wouldn't have minded, guys. You use little hearts, which are Health in every other game you produce. Maybe it was bad Corn Nuts.

Anyway, playing this game solo was boring. Perhaps things were too easy because of my combination of characters, early spell-friendly environment, and non-starter gates. I never had a single monster in the outskirts, clues were plentiful, and even when six monsters were on the board near the end of the game I had no problem getting characters into the Other Worlds (thanks, Nightgaunt, for providing a transporter to the nearest gate when a character lost to you!) and winning with six gates sealed.

As it is, WoW provides much more of a fun experience, if nothing else because the character development system is so rich that I could play dozens of times, trying out different combos. Because really, WoW's feel isn't any better, perhaps because I don't play the MMORPG, but it's fun solo, whereas AH just feels like a math problem with random events. Hey, there's an idea.

Not to say that AH wouldn't be fun at, say, 1am with a couple of other people, although I'm not pulling out the Bart Simpson acid (some of that art is pretty eerie), but as a solitaire game, it just doesn't cut the mustard. And I'm a Lovecraft fan!

No comments: