Having managed 10 plays of 10 games by mid-autumn in 2016, and by the summer of 2017 (final tally, 23 games played 10+ times), I decided to step up the challenge slightly for 2018.
For those doing the ‘official’ 10×10 challenge on Boardgame Geek, there are 2 basic ways to play it – normal, which is what I’ve done for the last couple of years (although I don’t actually log plays on BGG), and hardcore.
Whereas with the normal challenge, you play games, then write down what you played, hardcore requires you to name 10 games in advance, then play them ten times – if you are organised, and only finalise your list part-way into the year, then only plays after the list is confirmed can count.
I thought that this was quite an interesting way to think about the future, and decided to do it.
Arkham LCG and Zombicide were the first and probably the easiest to put on the list – if I don’t play these 10 times, something seismic will have changed. I decided to keep “Zombicide” as a single, cover-all term – it’s definitely possible that I’ll manage 10 plays of Black Plague and 10 of Green Horde, but chances are, I’ll end up mixing a lot of the stuff together.
We’d just finished February in our Pandemic Legacy Season 1 campaign when New Year rolled around, so barring a premature death (don’t even know if that’s a thing that can happen), that’s got at least another 10 games left in it, and to follow, we have Pandemic Legacy Season 2. I was slightly concerned that it might be seen as a con to count these as 2 separate entries, so ultimately decided to just list them once – Assuming I managed ten sessions of each, it should be fairly safe to have this ticking 1 box, whichever way you measure it.
Lord of the Rings LCG has been steadily dwindling over the past few years, but I’m still pretty confident that it will get to the table 10 times. Aeon’s End hasn’t had quite as much table-time as I thought it might since we got the expansions, but it should still manage 10 without too much difficulty.
Legendary is always a perennial favourite, and Massive Darkness has only just finished the core box play-through, leaving much left to explore, including the new Ratlings I got for Christmas.
Elder Sign has been one of the steadiest games of 2017, and with a new expansion due in early 2018 , this should be another fairly easy 10.
How to round out the list was a bit of a puzzle – Eldritch Horror was a plausible candidate but committing to play a 2 ½ hour game 10+ times seemed risky. Dice Masters, L5R and Runewars are all too dependant on getting out of the house and finding opponents.
In the end I went for Mansions of Madness as my 10th – there are still a couple of scenarios we’ve never beaten, plus 1 we haven’t tried yet, and 2 which are DLC and I haven’t shelled out the necessary fiver.
The last entry on the list was a late(ish) addition when I decided to only count Pandemic Legacy once. Gloomhaven will probably be slow and steady rather than a sudden rush of plays, but I think we’ll comfortably have plenty more than 10 by the time the year is out.
So, the final list looks like this:
Arkham Horror LCG
Mansions of Madness
Although I’m only getting round to posting this now, I had finalised the list by the time New Year rolled around, meaning I’ve already clocked up 8 counting plays towards 100 needed.
I’ll continue doing my monthly updates in 2018, but will give a special mention to how these 10 are faring.
December has always been the red-headed step-child of the monthly recaps, being largely ignored in favour of the annual run down. I decided to do something about that, with this lightning recap, whilst I work up the annual run-down for the end of the week.
As feels only fitting around Christmas, December saw a good strong focus on old favourites, with all the top 6 games getting table-time: Legendary dominated the early days of the month with 9 games (7 in the first weekend), and there was also a return for Elder Sign as we ran up against Cthulhu himself – even managing to seal him away at the second attempt. Arkham LCG got its obligatory share of table-time, buoyed by the arrival of some new packs to kick off the Carcosa cycle and an OP event, there was plenty of Zombicide, a bit of LotR (although the OP event was cancelled) and Aeon’s End continued to tick along.
Mansions of Madness went very quiet over the summer but started to pick up over the autumn, and came back strongly this month as we attempted the scenarios from the latest expansion with varying levels of success. On New Year’s Eve, we finally managed a successful Escape from Innsmouth (well, my character got torn apart by monsters, but everyone else made it out…)
L5R was a bit quieter than in previous months, but still got played a few times, keeping just ahead of a punishing release schedule in the value stakes.
December was a big month for all things Pandemic – there were odd sessions of Iberia and Cthulhu, but the big hitters were both new arrivals, with Santa bringing me Legacy Season 1, and Rising Tide arriving for review. Both really interesting titles which deserve to have more said on them later.
Although, in keeping with Christmas, December was mostly about the Greatest Hits, we still had a few more novel games getting played.
This War of Mine is a truly remarkable game: it’s fantastically well-crafted, but dark and depressing at the same time – in many ways this just does too good a job of capturing life as civilian trapped in a modern-day siege. It’s definitely a game designed to play over multiple sessions, and we decided that we needed a break before taking this any further. If you haven’t already, do look at the review I wrote for this.
Dragonfire and Gloomhaven were the new games I wanted to get to the table (I’d played them solo in November, but hadn’t managed to inflict them on family or friends), and I managed with a limited degree of success. Dragonfire is, apparently, slightly easier than its predecessor Shadowrun: Crossfire, but still feels brutally tough. We got completely smashed on our first multi-player attempt, and definitely still have some way to go to master this one. Gloomhaven was again, basically a dry-run, and most of the real exploring of this will come in 2018.
Themes and Mechanics
In terms of what got played, there was a typically high level of Lovecraft, Fantasy and Zombies on display. “Historical” was the surprise entry into the upper echelons, tying with Comics for time, and edging it out by sessions.
We had a good amount of mystery solving and good old-fashioned survival, but once again, it was Pandemic which provided the shift, as “Save the World” broke into the top categories.
That’s about all for the December re-cap. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with the overall 2017 run-down.
I’m aware that this blog has a habit of getting a bit number-crunch heavy at times, lots of theory, and not a lot of board game.
As part of an ongoing attempt to stem this tide of text, I try periodically to introduce some more visual content, looking at my efforts with the Paintbrush.
Today I’m going to return to Mansions of Madness- I did a painted low-down of the base game back in the autumn, and today I want to look at some of the expansions.
Suppressed Memories and Recurring Nightmares were 2 boxes that provided the tiles and figures of Mansions of Madness 1st edition for 2nd edition players – they disappointed some 2nd-edition fans with their lack of scenario/card content, but they way that they extend the range of Investigators and Monsters at your disposal made them a must-have for me.
Between the 2 boxes, there were no fewer than 16 new Investigators made available. Some of them were really nice figures to paint, and I was really pleased with some of the details, like the creases on Kate Winthrop’s lab-coat, and the pens in her pocket.
Generally speaking, the male investigators in Mansions of Madness tend to be less interesting to paint – Darrell the Photographer, and Bob the Salesman particularly fade into the background, although figures like Dexter the Magician and Monterey the Archaeologist have a bit more of the unusual going for them.
There are also a few rather more dynamic male investigators appearing in these boxes – Michael the Gangster and Joe the PI both come out all guns blazing – Joe feels a little bit over the top to me, but I like Michael’s scope, and he’s a fun investigator for scenarios that have a heavy focus on monster-bashing.
Relying more on mind than body, the next 2 male investigators are Vincent the Doctor, and Harvey the Professor – a lot more brown in the palette for these men (there’s no way I was going to paint Tweed pattern on something that size). I also liked Vincent’s Saw – definitely the approach to medicine you expect your Arkham Investigator to take.
Of course, no Arkham Investigators set would be complete without everyone’s favourite Arkham LCG Investigator, Duke, who comes to Mansions in the company of his faithful sidekick, Ashcan Pete.
Because Duke is so small, it’s quite difficult to get any meaningful detail onto his miniature (aside from the red scarf around his neck, but being the only dog in the set, he still stands out from the others quite well.
Jenny Barnes is a character who takes quite a bit of flak from various members of our play-group, and you have to admit that her outfit looks better suited to society balls than creepy old houses. However, she’s a character with quite an interesting backstory, and very good utility in most of the different games, so I still wanted to do a good job on this one – the colour-scheme for her dress and hat vary across the different Arkham Files games, but on personal preference I went for the blue rather than the purple end of the spectrum.
Gloria, the author was another fun one to paint- the shades of green weren’t that remarkable, but anyone who carries a typewriter like a handbag has done more than enough to catch my attention.
Sadly, this miniature arrived slightly damaged (leaning forward at quite a funny angle) and, although I’ve been able to correct it a bit with a hair-dryer and pot of cold water, there’s still a noticeable lean.
Amanda and Carolyn, the student and the Psychiatrist respectively, both have fairly blank outfits, but with a lot of utility in Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, I still wanted the figures to look good – they certainly aren’t the stand-outs of the bunch (Amanda’s glasses are way too dark/thick-framed), but I think they’re passable.
Sister Mary, like Father Matteo from the 2nd Edition core box, appears in clerical robes, and I decided to follow FFG’s illustrations with a brown colour-scheme, rather than black and white, which leaves them looking a bit less similar to one another.
Last, but by no means least comes Mandy, the Researcher – this was a really difficult figure to paint, combining my two pet peeves from this range of figures – glasses and excessively detailed shoes. Overall though, I was quite pleased with the end result, particularly when viewed from a table-top gaming distance: the dark wash bringing out the detail lines in the jacket really well.
That’s about it for today – I want to aim more towards little and often with these pieces, but hopefully I’ll be back soon with some more Monsters
Somewhat belatedly, it’s time to recap on what happened on our gaming table during May.
May was a much quieter month than any I’d seen so far this year gaming-wise, as work, family, weddings and who knows what else clamoured for my attention.
(Ok, who am I kidding, it was mostly just the baby and the need to catch up on sleep).
However, whilst I didn’t manage to get a lot of things on my to-do list finished, that doesn’t mean that May was completely gameless, as you’ll see…
For one thing, May allowed me to cross a few more games off of the un-played list, as both of our Discworld games: Ankh-Morpork and The Witches made it to the table for the first time – Ankh-Morpork is a good game generally, although it has the potential to get rather frustrating as Random Events destroy all that you have built. Interestingly, for all its appeal, this one has only made it to the table twice in the past three years, and I’m often tempted to sell it, as it goes for silly figures on account of being out-of-print, but never quite get round to it.
The Witches is a much lighter, more family-friendly game – I didn’t really enjoy the game we played of it, as I got crippled by a string of shocking dice-rolls, and basically did nothing all game. Still, as something ideally suited for young children, it’s probably worth hanging on to in anticipation of when Ned can cope with something more complex than Peekaboo.
May also saw Super Dungeon Explore crossed off the list, as I sold it on – I picked this one up last year, and enjoyed a few early games that we played of it, but its sheer length, combined with the discovery of games like Mansions of Madness, Descent, and Eldritch Horror (not to mention others that are ‘coming soon’) mean that this wasn’t likely to see much more play, and didn’t really justify its place on the shelf.
Dominion became the 11th game to make it to 10 plays, hitting the table 5 times early in the month, although it faded towards the end of the month. I’m still working on something Dominion-wise, but haven’t got nearly as far with it as I’d hoped, so that will have to be a story for another time.
There are several other games that are still heading in the right direction to hit 10 plays sooner rather than later, but I don’t want to pre-empt myself, so I’ll talk about them when they get there.
What got played?
May was very heavy on Fantasy, easily accounting for over half of the month’s gaming. Within Fantasy, Terrinoth was the big new thing, about 1/3 of sessions, but over half of time, simply because Runewars and Descent are both multi-hour undertakings – I’ve got an article on Terrinoth cooking away somewhere, so I won’t say too much more on that now.
Lovecraft still made a significant appearance, with more Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, as well as a welcome return for Mansions of Madness, back in play after a long spell on the painting table. Overall, we were still mostly in a solve-the-mystery/complete-the-quest setting, although there was a fair amount of PvP “kill the other side” in Runewars.
That just about brings me to the end of May (finally getting around to posting this on June 8th, which, the latest polls suggest probably isn’t also going to be the end of May – the electorate showing a disappointing lack of concern for punning bloggers…)
Of course, June is UK Games Expo month, so expect that to shape gaming for the coming weeks, and even if I don’t manage an Expo article, I’ll be sure to report back all the highlights in the next monthly summary, in a few weeks’ time…
Having had our gaming habits somewhat disrupted by the unexpectedly early arrival of a baby, it felt like a good moment for a bit of a retrospective.
I’ve been doing game reviews now for a little over a year now. In that time, I’ve saved myself money on some games I wanted to get anyway, breathed life into games that had been standing idle and, above all, tried a lot of games that I would never have come close to playing without doing the reviews. Today I want to look at some of the highlights.
Zombicide was one of the earlier games I got to review, and it was undoubtedly the game which made the biggest impact on last year – it was also my pick for “2016 Game of the Year” in the video. It’s a miniatures game, where a small band of heroes take on ever-growing armies of zombies, simple to learn, and not that difficult to master, I love how accessible this game is, and just how much fun it is. The game is scenario-based, so there’s a fair amount of variety, and the ongoing search for better weapons drives a lot of what happens. The zombies power up as your survivors do – specifically spawning in numbers determined by the most powerful survivor at that point in time, which means that you need to be careful of one person getting too far ahead of the group.
With a £70+ price-tag on the base game, coming from a publisher and designers I didn’t really know, this is something I would never have picked up having not played the franchise before. Having got it, it’s been such a hit that various birthdays and Christmas presents have gone on expansions. At the time of writing, it’s hovering on the brink of hitting 100 plays in under a year, which is pretty good going for a game that typically lasts more than 90 minutes, and regularly hits 2-3 hours or even more.
Cracking game, great fun, and it even inspired me to get back into miniature-painting to an extent that I hadn’t in a good while. Great stuff.
Gaming for the Future: Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
After Zombicide, Mansions of Madness was the second most-played new game last year, but I’m including it on this list for a couple of other reasons. I’ve already waxed lyrical about this game here, and here (amongst other places), but there’s something specific I wanted to draw out today. This game completely changed my mind on the use of apps in Board Games. I use randomisers for set-up in Legendary and Dominion, but otherwise, I’ve always been pretty luke-warm on the concept. Things like X-COM, with a stress-inducing real-time element aren’t really my cup of tea, and I could never see the benefit: Boggle works fine with an egg-timer, with needing to digitise everything.
Mansions changed all of that – it gave us access to a great game that we’d always steered away from due to the 1-versus-many aspect, and it allows masses of replayability in a way that just wouldn’t be possible with physical components. The puzzles are probably the biggest aspect of this, but the whole experience is very well done – I never feel like it isn’t worth having the bits out, or that I could just be playing on the app, but the app streamlines the play so much. Eldritch Horror is another game we picked up last year, very similar in a lot of ways, but it does have a lot of bookkeeping to do (and I often miss bits), so having the app to keep track of these things just makes life so much easier. Lastly, the element of the unknown that it provides is great – the fact that you can roll a check without knowing how well you have to do to succeed gives you all the openness and surprise of an RPG, without someone actually having to take on the role of GM.
Mansions has really whet my appetite for more of these all-vs-app games. I strongly considered getting Descent, and only decided against it on the basis of time, but if the rumoured app for Imperial Assault finally appears, then I’ll be taking a very interested look at it (hopefully they’ll publish a second edition of the box, and someone will be needed to write a review…)
Elder Sign is a game we’d owned for ages, but hadn’t been played that much. In fact, in 2015, it didn’t get played at all, and I wouldn’t be overly surprised if the same was true of 2014. It was one of a small handful of Cthulhu-mythos games that had been bought in, but had never really taken off.
Elder sign was already on my radar as part of last year’s “unplayed” project, but it definitely helped when I saw an expansion sitting on the up-for-review list – the Alaskan-themed “Omens of Ice” box.
I didn’t put in for it straight away, but made a point of playing a few games first, to make sure I actually had some recent context for reviewing the expansion. Then I got the expansion to review, and played it some more. And more.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Elder Sign is our most-played game of the year so far. Part of that is due to some skewed circumstance, along with catching up on expansions for Christmas, but this is definitely a game that Reviewing breathed fresh life into – Dominion also benefited last summer with the excellent Empires expansion, but this felt like the clearest example of a game brought back from extinction.
Writing Board Game reviews can be a great opportunity to pick up games or expansions that I would be buying anyway. It also offers a chance to try something completely different.
There a few games which fit the “different” header better than AYA: a cooperative domino standing game where you work together, against the clock, to construct landscapes of dominoes in matching patterns, then attempt to knock them over with a single flick, leaving a unique pattern of animal and landscape photographs.
AYA is a fun little game – certainly not of the things we play most regularly, but interesting enough for a change. Without a doubt though, this is not a game I would have found and bought in a shop: it’s simply way too far off of my radar, too far removed from the sorts of things I normally play. When it comes to spending money, one of the main reasons I get so many expansions for board games, is that I feel like I have a better idea what I’m getting, a sense that I’ll be enhancing something I already know I enjoy, rather than taking a chance on something new. I still try to target games which I think might go down well at home for reviewing – it’s hard to write a review on a game no-one will play! – but overall, reviewing offers a great opportunity to push the boundaries slightly, to experiment with the new.
I feel like it wouldn’t be fair to finish this article without pausing for a moment to mention Star Wars Carcassonne, or Starcassonne as I like to call it. This takes the well-known tile-laying game, and mashes it together with the Star Wars franchise – it’s an interesting twist on the original game, with dice-based combat and planetary invasion making for a slightly more direct, if also more luck-based experience than the original Carcassonne.
The Star Wars theme is pretty thin- really this is “space” Carcassonne to a far greater extent than it is Star Wars in any meaningful sense, but that doesn’t seem to hurt its popularity – this was by far the most read of all the articles I did for them last year, and it continues to attract attention into 2017.
There have definitely been a few reviews in the last month or so that have run into baby-related reviews, and when time is at a premium, you don’t want to be unable to play your favourite game because you’ve promised to review something strange, new and not-all-that-appealing. That said, I’m optimistic that Review work will still have a place in a parenthood world, and I look forward to telling you all about them in due course.
The announcement of this game was probably what re-ignited my interest in this area, as it had been a while since I read any Lovecraft or played any Cthulhu-themed games (I think I played 1 game of Munchkin Cthulhu last year, but I’m not convinced that counts). I managed to play a sneak preview of this game at UKGE, and was really impressed. I then managed to get my hands on a copy of my own in late August, and it didn’t disappoint.
As I’ve said several times in various places, this game is both Pandemic and not Pandemic at the same time. There are many aspects which are remarkably familiar, at the same time as the game brings in elements that are unique. The sanity dice leaves you spending most of the game fearing that you may lose your mind and, if enough Old Ones awake, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it before you eventually go mad and the world is destroyed.
Being a Z-Man game, the characters in Reign of Cthulhu are not the familiar faces from the FFG set of Cthulhu games, they are merely generic figures. That said, they still offer varied gameplay styles, and for a standalone game that seems unlikely to warrant an expansion, it still feels like it’s got plenty to offer. Not the most involved from a thematic/narrative standpoint, still a good game.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition
Mansions was the surprise appearance of the summer. It was announced about a week before its release, and it’s one that I was lucky enough to pick up a review copy of: with a retail price somewhere in excess of £80, this isn’t one I would ever have been buying, but I think it does a remarkably good job of justifying the price tag. The miniatures are a bit naff out of the box: excess casting and clunky bases, but they scrub up well, with both monsters and investigators looking the part after a quick paint job. The tiles are already a very high standard, and the various card decks are all good.
Apps in board-gaming were one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog, and I was pretty lukewarm on the idea at the time. Mansions changed my mind: the app is really well done – it takes care of a lot of the bookkeeping, but I never felt like I was playing a computer game instead of a board game. The limit of only 4 scenarios to begin with was somewhat restrictive, but having not paid for the base game, we were happy enough paying for the first tile/miniature pack, and will doubtless invest in at least the first digital scenario or two, due to appear for around $5 sometime very soon.
One of the biggest things that Mansions did, was to get us mentally invested in the setting, and interested in the investigators, which definitely enhances the experience of the other games.
Elder Sign is a game I’ve had for several years. I didn’t play it all in 2015, but I dusted it off back in the spring, and even picked up an expansion to review. It’s a game that requires you make a bit more effort with the flavour – it’s too easy to skip over the flavour-text and focus straight in on the dice you need to roll: in the past, I think I’d been trying to push this one on people with no real interest in the Mythos, and it had fallen a bit flat.
Now feeling a bit more like I know the characters, from other games, or from some of the tie-in fiction, it’s easier to get a bit more invested, and I feel like I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve played. I’ve still only played it solo and with my wife, but we’ve played it quite a bit and enjoyed doing so.
Eldritch Horror is another Fantasy Flight Game, a very highly-rated globe-spanning board game. It’s fairly long (although probably no longer than a lot of games of Mansions), and has a lot going on – I picked up a copy in a Maths Trade.
Eldritch was released a few years, and landed during a time period when my first attempts at finding a good Cthulhu game for us had petered out: as a result, I just never really looked at it that closely. Most reviews I did read seemed sharply divided between it being “the streamlined wonder-game that Arkham Horror should have been” or “a vile exercise in dumbing down that is an insult to the Arkham name.” (ok, neither of those are actually quotes, but they capture the feeling of an awful lot of BGG threads…)
Having played this a few times, I’m not sure I’d agree with either of those assessments. It’s a fun game, with a lot going on, but once again, I think the length is such that it wouldn’t wash with people who hadn’t already been hooked on the Mythos via Mansions.
I liked Eldritch, and am in discussions with Santa about how best to approach the backlog of expansions (I have neither the time nor the money to get all of them). That said, it’s still not a perfect game. Having come into this off the back off a lot of Mansions, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff there is to keep track of: in both of our early plats, we missed various rules and triggers, and in the second game, that may have even made the difference between victory and defeat. Aside from the sheer length, I think a major factor stopping this game going from “fun to play now and then” to “played all the time” is that excess bookkeeping, and having too many things to keep track of.
I also want to mention quickly the scaling issues this game has – we’ve only played it with 2 players so far, and the first couple of times, we took a character each, spending most of the game charging about frantically, and failing to get to places on time: having gone at it again with 4 characters (2 each) it felt much more balanced, and I think that’s how we’ll play it in the future.
Arkham Horror LCG
Arkham Horror the Card Game is the most recent offering in Fantasy Flight’s “Arkham Horror Files Series” and the second ever cooperative Living Card Game, it was released in early/mid-November. Coming from several people involved in the Lord of the Rings LCG, it very clearly builds on those foundations, but has various unique features of its own, both showing where lessons have been learnt over the past 5 years, and showing a conscious effort to make the game feel like a part of the Arkham Family (aside from the recurring characters and settings, the Chaos bag in particular feels like a direct homage to the earlier titles in the series).
The announcement of this came with near-perfect timing, as I finally succumbed to the inevitable and parted with my Call of Cthulhu LCG collection – a good game, but a competitive LCG that I could never find opponents for. Arkham seemed set to not only fill the gap, but to offer a better fit than its predecessor had, both in terms of thematic coherence and in terms of the co-op gameplay.
Being a Living Card Game, there will be a lot of content available for this going forward: FFG have already released some playmats one of which has an especially stunning piece of art that I like. I’m not going to say too much more about it here, as I’ve already done a review of the Core Set, along with some articles for Mythos Busters on how we can enjoy losing Lovecraftian Games, and started to look at issues of character class and deck-building. Overall, I plan to do a few odds and ends on this over the coming months, so stay tuned.
It’s also worth mentioning the tie-in novels that exist for Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror range – the physical copies can be slightly hard to track down, but the Kindle Format is readily available from Arkham, and I’ve been really enjoying them: not all of the characters are game-play regulars, but several are, with others making cameo appearances here and there.
So far I’ve read the Dark Waters trilogy and whilst it’s not about to win any literary prizes, I’ve found them really enjoyable – capturing the sense of Arkham as a place, the challenges and dangers driving our investigators, and an awareness of the pulp origins of many Mythos tales. Reading about Amanda Sharpe’s dream of lost R’yleh has already inspired me to play her in a game of Elder Sign, and seeing how he handled himself in a fight, was the inspiration for giving Silas Marsh a run-out, an inspired decision for the game of Eldritch Horror where we faced Cthulhu out at see. I plan to continue wading through these over the coming months and hope they continue to be enjoyable.
Fantasy Flight have also announced The Investigators of Arkham Horror, a book filing in background details on all the 52 Investigators who appear across this suite of games. It’s going to be a large, 264 page+ colour hardback, so it will cost a pretty penny and, sadly, the delivery cost to the UK will more than double that $60 starting figure.
I’m really hoping that our FLGS will be able to pick these up, ideally the deluxe edition that comes with a Play Mat for the LCG and a chance to get hold of Marie Lambeau plus her signature Asset and Weakness for the LCG, not arriving in normal retail releases until sometime next year. Either way, it looks like it’ll be a good addition to the shelf.
Overall, it has clearly been a golden year for all things Lovecraft in the world of gaming. Arkham Nights, FFG’s annual Cthulhu gaming weekend, sold out for the first time ever, and the whole IP really feels like it’s riding the crest of a wave with upcoming expansions announced for all of their games which I’ve mentioned above. I’ve already talked on here about some of the issues which Mythos gaming sometimes provokes, but overall, I’ve really enjoyed most of the games from this Mythos that we’ve played this year, and I look forward to many more in the future.
Some Musings on the place of Lovecraft in Lovecraftian games in the 21st century.
A little under a week ago, I stumbled across some of the rumblings generated by a recent article published by Cynthia Hornbeck. Hers was not a name I’d heard before, but both Hornbeck’s own blog and the Board Game Geek news article which brought it to my attention, describe her as a former employee of Asmodee North America, (the umbrella organisation who are now behind other big names you might have heard of such as the publisher of a lot of my most-played games, “Fantasy Flight” and the UK distributor, Esdevium).
Hornbeck’s article took aim at the recently released Conan board game, which she cites as being an abysmal example of sexist, racist stereotypes. She also argues that acquiescing to something like this in board games helps reinforce misogynistic, racist norms in society at large.
I haven’t seen the new Conan board game itself, so I’m not going to get in to the details of the claims she makes about the game (for those who are interested, amongst all the shouting, the comments section below this article has a few people taking issue with some of the factual claims Hornbeck makes about the game.)
I did review an older Conan game a few months back, and as I read back through my review, I think I would stand by the main thrust of my argument – roughly: there’s some dodgy stuff in here, but the game is so abstract that most of the time you don’t really notice.
Reading it with Hornbeck’s article fresh in my memory, I can see how people might want me to make more of this aspect, but I think that I’d assumed anyone considering a Conan board game would be sufficiently into the Conan theme that they’d be aware of/ have already made their decision on this type of thing.
Despite that long-ish intro, I didn’t come here today to talk about Conan. If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend having a look at Hornbeck’s original article, which is certainly thought-provoking, even if it feels hyperbolic in places, and some of her conclusions seem stretched. There’s also the article on Kotaku which brought the original blog piece to a slightly wider audience, and gives the company behind the game a chance to respond.
What I wanted to pick up on though was a single line near the start of Hornbeck’s article, which struck a bit closer to home.
“Conan is closely based on the books of Robert E. Howard, who was coincidentally a close friend of another highly influential author racist, H. P. Lovecraft.”
As I’ve mentioned more than a few times lately, the second half of this year has seen a heavy Cthulhu-Mythos theme to it in our house. Whilst some of Hornbeck’s conclusions seem a little strong to me, and her comment on Lovecraft felt a bit lazy, I did come away from the article feeling challenged by one of her exhortations towards the end.
“As a gamer, start refusing to purchase or even play a game that objectifies women, excludes women, excludes non-White people, makes non-White people the enemy, etc.”
Am I playing games like that? I don’t think so. But then, I am a white, middle-class man. It would hardly be unprecedented for one of us not to notice this sort of thing. I decided then, to take a look back through the games and see how it felt they were doing at creating a world which captures the mobsters and monsters feel of an Eldritch 1920s without having to import a 100 year-old worldview.
Starting with Lovecraft himself, I think we can say without argument that H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) said, wrote, and (presumably) thought a lot of things that would be considered ignorant, rude and at times, even downright racist in today’s world.
Beyond that, it gets a little more complicated – and people who have done far more research than I, have already spilled many gallons of ink on whether Lovecraft was simply a product of his time, or whether he should be regarded as a bigot, even within his own historical context – overall, it seems to me to lean towards the latter, but there are advocates of both sides.
Personally, when I read Lovecraft, I can wince when a leading character has a cat called “N*gger Man” or at some of the derisive offhand descriptions of Blacks, Asians or other characters, but by-and-large, that doesn’t stop me reading his work – some of it is very good, other bits feel tortured and overblown, and I’d certainly say I’m more drawn to the ideas he had and the world he created than to his particular craft as a writer. Lovecraft’s crimes against women are largely by omission rather than commission – i.e. it’s not so much what they say or do, so much as the fact that they often don’t appear at all.
It’s important to remember that the Cthulhu Mythos is not simply the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself was heavily influenced by writers who came before him, such as Edgar Allen Poe, and also borrowed things directly from earlier works such as Carcosa and Hastur, taken from Ambrose Bierce, via Robert W. Chambers The King in Yellow.
Within Lovecraft’s lifetime, his works interacted with those of others: Robert E. Howard (yes, the Conan guy)’s The Children of the Night, features a character reading The Necronomicon, and there were other writers who interacted with the world he had created. However, it was only really later, and largely through the work of August Derleth that the Mythos expanded, becoming something which numerous later writers could contribute to, and which has seen the setting expand beyond Lovecraft’s original works. In recent times, writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore (who would be unlikely to make anyone’s list of bigoted or narrow-minded authors) are among those who have cited Lovecraft and his Mythos as an influence on their writing.
For me, the appeal of the Cthulhu Mythos setting is a little hard to describe, but I think that there are definitely some key elements to it: I’ve already used the phrase Mobsters and Monsters, and I think there’s something about that 1920s aesthetic which has to be there – jazz and prohibition, the horrors of wars past, and the optimistic decadence which looks to a brighter tomorrow. It’s also, as has been well explained over at Mythos Busters amongst other places, the idea of battling cosmic forces too powerful to comprehend: the aim is survival, and a fully triumphant victory is simply never on the cards. Lastly, I think that there’s an element of forbidden knowledge – the idea of things that Man Was Not Meant To Know, that your mind is in as much danger as your body when you look in to these things.
The fact that most Cthulhu games do offer some hope of victory, however hollow, says to me that we are dealing with the wider Mythos, the version imagined by Derleth rather than simply Lovecraft’s starting point. I think that this Mythos has been developed broadly enough that it’s possible to have a game that feels “faithful” to the setting without being dependent upon outdated ideologies.
From Theory to Game
All of that is well and good, but establishing that something is possible and establishing that it has actually happened are different things, and I wanted to move on next to look at the actual execution of these ideas in the game.
Arkham Horror Files
I’m mostly going to concentrate on Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files range – this is the umbrella term that covers Mansions of Madness, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Arkham Horror the Card Game, and various others.
Play the Man
There are 52 different investigators who appear across this range of games – I’ve collated a list of these as best I can, and by my reckoning there are 23 female investigators and 29 male: it’s not a completely even split, but it certainly doesn’t feel like this is just token representation.
In terms of the roles that these investigators play, there is a fair amount of breadth for both genders: yes, the Secretary and the Dilettante are female, but so are the Spy, the Scientist and the Martial Artist. The PI, the Fed, the Soldier and the Gangster are all male, and there is a noticeable tendency for those in the more influential position to be male – the Senator, the Professor and the like, but this is still supposed to be the 1920s and it’s probably more of a stretch to imagine a woman being given that kind of senior academic appointment back then than it is to suggest that there might be ghouls and monsters hiding in the shadows.
Not every investigator appears in every game – in fact there is nobody yet who appears in all of them – but for any of the games, picking up the Core Box (this is Fantasy Flight, all the games have expansions…) will give you a broad spread of options across the genders.
Race is a slightly different question: at a rough guess, only 5 of the 52 investigators are non-Caucasian: Akachi Onyele, Lily Chen, Minh Thi Phan, Rita Young, and Jim Culver. They are respectively a Shaman, a Martial Artist, a Secretary, an Athlete and a Jazz Musician, which suggests a certain amount of tropery in linking race and occupation.
Rita Young is a source of particular controversy: a character whose backstory involves persecution in the Deep South, particularly at the hands of the KKK, pictorial depictions of her have covered a fairly wide range of skin tones, with her pre-painted miniature looking decidedly white.
Personally I went for a skin tone that seemed more in keeping with the bio when I painted the miniature and, whilst it came out slightly darker than I’d intended, it makes more sense to me.
On top of these characters, you can add a few others like Finn Edwards, Marie Lambeau, and “Skids” O’Toole who are still decidedly white, but not Anglo-Saxon, which seems to have been where Lovecraft drew the line.
I think it’s possible to go too far with trying to make characters in a game “representative” – to the point where the designers are more concerned with making sure they’ve got enough of type X or Y, and not enough with an interesting concept / backstory – in that respect, I don’t really mind that I haven’t found an exact 50:50 male/female, and 50:50 white/non-white split. Could they have created more non-white characters? – absolutely! Do I think it would be good if, were they to expand the roster of characters, more of them came from non-white backgrounds? – Yes! Do I think the games as they are feel like they lack options in character choice? Not massively.
Who We Are and What We Do?
If I’m picking a character to play in a game, whether it’s Arkham, Pathfinder, Lord of the Rings (gender in Tolkien is a whole other article, and this one’s already getting long…), or any other, I’m generally a lot less interested in their gender or the colour of their skin than I am in their ability, what they’ll actually be like to play – I’ll confess that in Pathfinder, I’m drawn to the more obscure races (Goblin, Tengu etc) but there’s no real parallel for games set in New England (although if Fantasy Flight want to let me play as a Mi-Go who has decided to side with the humans, I’ll definitely take them up on the offer).
It’s kind of cool that Grazzle, my current Pathfinder character is Lizardfolk, but I’d quickly have got bored with that if it weren’t for his phenomenal healing ability. I am neither a waitress nor (as far as I’m aware) the reincarnation of a powerful sorceress, but that doesn’t stop me from having fun playing as Agnes in the Arkham LCG.
It’s worth noting that the descriptions and occupations are about the characters’ backstories: whilst they will influence their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t limit them in an absolute sense. Yes, in the LCG Daisy Walker sucks at hand-to-hand combat, but she can still toast ghouls with a copy of shrivelling or two. In Mansions, my wife mostly plays as Min Thi Phan – a bookish woman she can identify with – but with agility and observation 4, she can gun down cultists with the best of them.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that this is still a game and part of why we play games is because sometimes the Hail Mary pass comes off: Agatha Crane probably wouldn’t have been our choice to face down the Priest of Dagon, but somehow she rolled the 3 successes on 3 dice needed to slide across the floor through his legs, and whack him in the groin with the pickaxe: that moment, where the little old lady KO-ed the boss monster still stands out months later as one of the best moments playing this game, in a way that it simply wouldn’t have if Michael McGlen the Gangster had rolled 2 successes on 5 dice to cave the monster’s head in with a crowbar.
In terms of what I’m familiar with, there aren’t that many other Cthulhu Mythos games out there which go that heavy on characterisation – Mythos Tales is a very flavourful experience in Arkham, but there’s never really a moment where we’re concerned with who “you” the player are.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu has “roles” – more a character class than any kind of backstory. She may not look like me, but the Hunter is generally my first pick for her un-paralled ability to take down Shoggoths. The Reporter (also female) is another key figure, able to get round the board better than pretty much any other character. As I say, it’s not the most thematic / role-play-y of Cthulhu games, but there are multiple female characters, and they include the most powerful / hands-on.
Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds more Cthulhu games out there. However, I don’t know the RPG well enough to comment on it, and things like Munchkin Cthulhu or Smash Up: The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion are light enough that I don’t feel any real need to go too deeply into their characters.
Overall, whether you read Lovecraft’s work or not (I do, periodically, but I think a lot of the other stuff, including some of FFG’s tie-in fiction, is as good if not better), I think it’s perfectly possible to play Cthulhu games without affirming any of Lovecraft’s more dubious views. In a way that may not be true for Conan, there is enough scope in this world for game designers and game players alike to create varied characters: characters who give everyone an opportunity to play as a character they can relate to, if that’s what they want.
As noted above, I am white and male: it’s possible that I’m not the best person to be making these judgements – that’s why I’d really like to hear other people’s thoughts: are Lovecraft’s views an issue for you when considering a Mythos Board game? Do you agree that the world these games inhabit is a bigger, more creatively open space, an acceptable place for us to game in? Or are there aspects you struggle with? Perhaps you disagree with Lovecraft’s views but are happy that a game is just a game, and aren’t even bothered about how far they carry over to your table-top experience.
I’d be interested to know people’s thoughts in the comments.