New Game Weekend: Arkham Horror

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Released in 1987 and then vastly revised in 2005 and 2007 by Fantasy Flight Games, Arkham Horror is one of the modern classics in horror-fantasy boardgames. This past weekend, the creatures of Arkham Horror invaded our home in Brooklyn, and my sons and I have a new favorite.

Based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos, the game casts 2-8 players in the roles of investigators in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts during the interwar period of the 1920s. The New England town has been beset by the terror of strange rumblings of monsters invading the streets accompanied by weird magic, supernatural beings and strange goings-on. The mission of the investigators is to travel through portals to Other Worlds and seal them before a great Ancient One emerges in the town. Along the way, investigators accumulate clues, arcane items, spells and skills by visiting various locations in the town. If the portals are not closed in time, the horrific Ancient One rises and squares off in a final epic battle with the investigators in a last-ditch effort to save Arkham and the world as we know it.

wtcoversIssues of Weird Tales magazine featuring the work of H.P. Lovecraft from 1927 to 1937

H.P. Lovecraft is a darling of gamers and science-fiction/horror fans, and his influence resonates throughout today’s pop culture of movies, comic books, fantasy literature and gaming. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lovecraft published a series of short stories broadly placed in the weird fiction category combining elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy and crime genres. With its troubling themes of peril and unknown, weird fiction was perfectly suited for a broad mindset of American society just emerging from World War I, living through the Great Depression and watching the storm clouds of World War II gather on the horizon.

Weird fiction found a home with the cheap pulp-paper magazines popular in the first half of the 20th-century including dozens of titles such as Argosy Magazine, Amazing Stories, Western Story Magazine and Weird Tales. Within their wondrous and often racy covers, pulp magazines featured everything from western adventures, jungle stories, Victorian detective tales, sword and sorcery plots and science-fiction wonders. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lovecraft could all be found side-by-side within these magazines. The stories from pulp magazines were of profound influence on countless later 20th-century writers and directors, perhaps most famously with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. As kids in the 1970s and 80s, reprints of many of these pulp tales filled the heads of my circle of friends and informed our lifelong interests in all things weird and fantastic.

CsketchA 1934 sketch of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

One of Lovecraft’s most enduring stories, The Call of Cthulhu, was first published in Weird Tales in February 1928. The story recounts a mystery of an ancient cult of a mythic tentacled beast known as Cthulhu and the worldwide quest to uncover its origins and its new rise to plague the modern world. Through subsequent stories by Lovecraft and other writers, the world of the Cthulhu stories grew to be dizzyingly expansive in it depth of detail and plot. Today, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe serves as an insidery geek shorthand that stretches from stories, games, comic books and compendium reference books to clothing, statuettes, cupcakes, tattoos, jewelry and countless other collectibles.

10649826_10203907450141018_1116891535581886976_nArkham Horror from Fantasy Flight Games gets unboxed at our house

My older son recently scored a free copy of Arkham Horror after serving as a counselor in training during the summer day camp program at Brooklyn Game Lab, and we jumped into a full weekend of playing this wonderful game. People familiar with products from Fantasy Flight Games will find a box of incredibly well-designed pieces, with a richly-illustrated game board and hundreds of cards, playing pieces and reference sheets. The rules are daunting and require several plays to wrap one’s head around, but eventually Arkham Horror moves along briskly in a couple hours of gaming.

The game is basically a race against time until the Ancient One awakens to destroy the town. Much like an adventuring party in role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, players choose to play as one or two of sixteen roles such as a researcher, magician, gangster, nun, archaeologist or drifter. Each character begins with set standard and specialized equipment, money, spells, skills and allies laid out on a card depicting base abilities. The abilities — speed, sneak, luck, lore, will and fight — are each measured on a track that allows a player to boost or lesson their effectiveness at the beginning of each turn. Players move to various locations within Arkham where they find clues, engage in encounters or perform other actions like healing at the hospital, hiring allies at the boarding house or shopping for items at the general store or curiosity shop. Armed with items, skills and spells, characters either engage in combat with revealed monsters or attempt to slip by them. Taking damage from monsters or other encounters reduces an investigator’s Stamina (ie, health or hit points) or Sanity, driving the player closer and closer to death or madness.

At the end of each player round, a Mythos card is revealed opening a new portal to the Other Worlds, spawning new monsters and moving monsters already in the town. A character moving to a portal spends two turns journeying in one of eight Other Worlds where they may encounter more monsters or find objects. Upon emerging from the Other World, a character attempts to close or even seal the portal at the location. Each turn, the Ancient One moves on step closer to awakening. Players must either close or seal a set number of portals before the Ancient One arises for a final battle with all the players.

10639448_10203907820550278_4188666163549777050_nArkham Horror laid out for our first games this past weekend

 Like Lovecraft’s written work, there is an enormous amount of story in Arkham Horror. The game plays like a rich role-playing game with backstories on the investigator characters and detailed information on the various cards and monster pieces. Since the game is collaborative, everyone either wins or loses, making collective planning and playing to each character’s evolving set of equipment and abilities a must. For instance, certain characters may be more adept at moving quickly and acquiring valuable items while other characters may be better suited to go to battle with physical or magical beasts. In a battle with the Ancient One, the collective strengths of the entire group will combine to have any hope against defeating the creature and saving Arkham.

My sons — ages 14 and 9 — played three games of Arkham Horror with me this past weekend, and it’s a big hit at our house. We’re all fairly experienced gamers and we’ve logged many hours with some pretty heavy boardgames like Civilization, also from Fantasy Flight Games. Arkham Horror is suggested for ages 12 and up, and the flavor text on the game cards and mechanics were a bit on the challenging side for my younger son. With that said, with a little help on the heftier vocabulary words, he enjoyed the story, collecting items and using various combinations of gear, spells and skills to destroy some monsters and seal portals to the Other World. By the end of the weekend, my older son and I also started getting a handle on using characters in combination to effectively work through the rising tide of beasts and terror in the town. No matter the age, Arkham Horror is going to push any gamer’s skill and sanity to the limit.

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New Game Weekend: The Resistance: Avalon and One Night Ultimate Werewolf

avalonwerewolfThe mechanics of common and secret knowledge among players creates the basis for so many games we play. A game like chess has everything set on the board for everyone to see, and it is only a player’s skill and strategy that remains secret until revealed in a series of successive moves of action and reaction.

More typically games involve some level of secrecy either in cards hidden in a player’s hand or pieces set on a game board ready to be revealed at specific moments during play. Deduction, reason, probability, informed guesses, manipulation through bluffing and revelation of information drives much of the action of these games.

Almost 30 years ago, Mafia was created by a psychologist at Moscow University. In the game, two players act as the mafia with their identity known to each other but not the other players. The non-mafia participants take on a variety of other roles, each with select knowledge of the other players and abilities to effect other player roles. With starting roles assigned, the game enters a “night phase” with all players shutting their eyes. A non-player game moderator bears witness as the mafia players and any accomplices kill off other players in secret. Next, all players open their eyes for a “day phase” and changes in the situation of the game is revealed. Players still alive in the game discuss the new conditions of the game, and attempt to discern the mafia players among them in subsequent night and day phases.

As Mafia spread outside of the former Soviet Union in the mid-1990s, it took on a horror-themed variant known as Werewolf. In the new version, players act as werewolves or villagers attempting to identify and kill off each other in night and day phases. Once players have an understanding of the basics of Mafia or Werewolf, neither game really requires any special equipment. This had made these games popular as pick-up party games with hardcore and casual gamers alike (my wife recently played Werewolf on a company retreat as a team-building exercise).

wwcontentsCards, markers and free app from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

In the past two weeks, I had a chance to play two of the more popular modern versions of these games at Metropolitan Wargamers and Brooklyn Game Lab. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is the latest riff on the classic game from Bezier Games with werewolf players hiding among villagers with a variety of roles. These include colorful characters like the Minion who knows the werewolves and only wins if they survive, the Seer who secretly knows identities of other players and the Tanner who has a death wish and wants to be killed before the werewolves are found out. Along with the cartoon artwork on the heavy-carded playing pieces, this version of Werewolf comes with a free app which acts as a game moderator and timekeeper.

avaloncardartCard artwork from The Resistance: Avalon

The Resistance: Avalon is a the sequel to the sci-fi-themed The Resistance from four years ago from Indie Boards & Cards. Players of Avalon take on good and evil roles from Arthurian legend and set out on a series of quests to root out the opposition. After roles are set, a king is selected each round to select other players to participate in a quest. All players vote to approve or deny the selected party on their quest, and then players on the quest vote for the quest to succeed or fail. The evil players win if more quests fail than succeed, so each quest round is the chance to reveal who may be working alone or in concert to win the game for the evil side. Like the more traditional, Mafia game, Avalon involves a non-playing moderator.

With all these games, the colorful pieces and cards are just jumping-off points for the real action which takes place among the players. Accusations are slung, theories are posited and alliances are built and then dissolve in minutes. In the games I played recently, people spent a lot of time just staring into other people’s eyes, looking for a glint of deception or a sly twinkle of acknowledgement. What has made all these games in their various names and variations so enduring is that human nature itself becomes the mechanic of the game. Whether the game is Mafia, Werewolf, Resistance or Avalon, the only real equipment needed isn’t in a cardstock box but in what each player brings with them to the table.

Loving The Evil Dead: Why Do We Like Nazi Zombies?

Gaming, at its core, is a matter of pitting at least two sides against each other in a test of tactics and strategy. Whether you’re playing chess or moving hundreds of miniature soldiers around on a tabletop battlefield, you have to pick a side. In most games, there isn’t necessarily a “good” side or a “bad” side. But then you get to Nazis and from there you go to Nazi zombies.

Nazis are the bad guys of the 20th-century, and Nazi zombies take their evil to another level. Maybe its because there’s no way anyone can feel badly about slaughtering a horde of Nazi zombies that makes them so appealing as a foe. There’s also a horrific visual impact of Nazi zombies, as well as some conjecture the Nazis actually had some relation to the supernatural. For whatever reason, Nazi zombies are swarming everywhere and have been creeping up on us for some time.

Nazis And The Occult

Beginning in the 1950s, a spin-off post-WWII historical narrative began to emerge involving the real or supposed fascination that Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich held for the occult. While the Nazi obsession with ceremony and iconography can’t be denied, most of the Nazi-occult conspiracy theories seem to be more about trying to explain how something as evil as Hitler’s Reich could be allowed to rise to power right in front of a watching world. Books, fictional movies and documentaries have delved extensively into this topic of Nazi fascination with weird science and magic. Numerous movies like The Boys From Brazil, Hellboy, Captain America and my favorite, Raiders of the Lost Ark, have all used Nazism and the occult as main plot points. Throwing the dark arts into the mix with the already-hated Nazi bad guys is just one more way pop culture has amped-up the inherent evil of Nazis and their doomed quest for world domination.

Nazi Zombies On Film

shockwaves     zombielake

About a decade after the first scholarship on Nazism and the occult emerged, George Romero launched the first wave of modern zombie films with his classic Night Of The Living Dead in 1968. Through a series of sequels and other Romero-influenced movies, the zombie genre slowly grew worldwide during the rise of horror and slasher films in the 1970s and 80s. The Nazi zombie movie subgenre probably arrived in 1977 with Shockwaves starring British horror screen veteran Peter Cushing in the role of a SS commander breeding Nazi zombies who attack a yacht’s shipwrecked crew. The movie began a minor trend almost exclusive to European filmmakers in the 1980s with the B-movies Zombie Lake and Oasis Of the Zombies.

outpost      dead snow

The second life of all things zombie came post-9/11 in a surge of movies, comic books, novels and the critically-acclaimed The Walking Dead TV show. Again, European movies led the way on the Nazi zombie theme with Horrors of War, Outpost and War Of The Dead. My personal favorite in the modern wave of Nazi zombie cinema is 2008’s Dead Snow, a Norwegian film that made the rounds on the art film circuit. The dark uniforms and red, white and black swastika armbands against the mountain snow makes for striking visuals, even more-so as the blood begins to splatter. The film is a tight amalgam of themes from the genre — cursed treasure, local legend and, of course, unsuspecting good-looking vacationers winding up smack in the middle of a battle to the death with Nazi zombies.

Next up on the still-growing list of Nazi zombie movies is this year’s Frankenstein’s Army, which offers a riff on the Nazi zombie theme with a heavy dose of classic horror, science fiction and even steampunk thrown in. Again, the makers of this latest entry in the Nazi zombie genre are European. I don’t think its a coincidence that most Nazi zombie movies have risen out of many of the countries once occupied by the Axis forces. Since many Europeans live most directly with the spaces and stories of WWII all around them, clearly the Nazi zombie storylines of these films are tapping into a vein of horror that still resonates today.

Nazi Zombie Video Games

As a kid, one of my earliest video game memories on my Apple II computer was Castle Wolfenstein. While there were no zombies in the game way back in 1981, the modern iterations of the Wolfensetin video game series have included zombies. Not only did the new Wolfenstein games help popularize the now-ubiquitous first person shooter (FPS) game mechanic, but they fired some of the earliest shots in the escalating video game Nazi zombie wars.  Call Of Duty has risen to become one of the most successful franchises in the FPS genre, and a big part of its success can be tied to its Nazi zombie expansions. I would argue that without Nazi zombies as targets, many more wary parents may have kept FPS games out of their children’s hands. Hurling grenades and unloading clips into crowds of Third Reich undead is something to which even the most cautious parents may very well have turned a blind eye.

Nazi Zombies Tabletop Games

suicide squad

With the 21st-century rise of all things zombie, tabletop games have also become infected with the undead. Zombicide, Zombies!!! and Last Night On Earth are among the host of gamer favorites pitting the living versus the unliving. Naturally, Nazi zombies have found their way to the tabletop, too. Two popular games — Dust Tactics and Incursion — take an alternative history approach to incorporating zombies into Axis powers. Among all the futuristic technology available in the miniatures game Dust Tactics are squads of zombie soldiers which prove to be fast and incredibly deadly in the game. Similarly, the game Incursion include zombies in the living arsenal created by evil Nazi scientists.

zombieminis

Beyond packaged boardgames, wargaming has followed the zombie trend. The “weird World War II” genre of miniature and RPG games offers some monstrously fun modelling and play possibilities with such things as bizarre zombie battlescapes, fantasy technology, magic-using stormtroopers and lycanthropic soldiers in a WWII alternate universe. Weird War II: Blood On The Rhine from 2001 was one of the early RPG systems incorporating zombies and occult alternatives to the WWII time period. Nazi zombie miniatures in both 15mm and 28mm scales are now mainstays in online gaming forums and at regional conventions. Rules systems have been written to accommodate the Nazi zombie craze and players regularly create house rules for other regular WWII-themed games such as Flames of War and Bolt Action.

Nazi zombies have their own history now, rising out of theories of Nazi-occultism and then mined as the nightmare bedtime story for European horror filmmakers for nearly four decades. As the ultimate in evil, Nazi zombies now lurk in every corner of popular culture, much of it overlapping with the gaming hobby onscreen and on the table. Debates will continue to rage between the historical gaming purists and those who love their Nazi zombies. Honestly, playing with Nazi zombies has become just too fun to ignore and the horde just keeps coming.

Favorite Kickstarters of the Month (August 2013)

These days it seems like a month doesn’t go by that some Kickstarter horror story makes the rounds. Projects vanish, people lose money to scams or entrepreneurs running Kickstarters go belly-up with their success. This past week, the owner of a successfully-Kickstarted game called Corporate America wrote about his experience. The piece gives a solid, balanced look at the real economics behind running a Kickstarter game campaign. It’s a good read and worth bearing in mind while taking a look through the game campaigns I’ll be watching this month.

duelA Duel Betwixt Us: This two-player card game pits two 19th-century gentleman in a game of manly combat. By using their workers, each player is able to mine for ingots used to create weaponry and armor for combat. Once ready, a player selects a duel and then brings their arms, armor and stack of dirty tricks to the fight. The very Victorian artwork reveals a hilarious game of codpieces, drunken miners, oddball weaponry and double-crossing at every turn in the quest of woman’s favor.

incursionIncursion: Released by Grindhouse Games in 2009, Incursion is yet another take on an alternative post-WWII world where Nazis and Allied forces persist in protracted combat as a Doomsday Device threatens world destruction for all. This sci-fi-fuelled game is full of fantastic weapons, evil scientists, daring heroes plus zombie Nazis and combat gorillas. This second edition and expansion of the game adds all sorts of plastic miniatures to the game, new missions and rules for three players.

freedomFreedom – The Underground Railroad: I grew up in Western New York, a hotbed of the Abolitionist movement and gateway to Canada for escaping slaves. Academy Games is adding the story of the Underground Railroad to their Birth of America Series of games that has already covered the American War of Independence and the War of 1812. There’s a lot of real history packed into this intense strategy game as players take on the role of allied abolitionists alluding slave trackers while escorting escaped slaves north to Canada along eight routes. Historical events and people shape the game along the way, making this game a really fascinating vehicle for retelling the story of the Underground Railroad.

TemplarTemplar – The Secret Treasures: I’m a fan of a number of the Eurogames produced by Queen Games, and Templar looks to be another fun hit. The game plays on two boards, a “harbor board” of warehouses and the other a detailed floorplan “abbey board.” Moving between the boards, players seek to find and hide treasure relics throughout the abbey by playing different character cards. Characters like the Prior, Abbot or Spy act to either aid or foil the Templar’s plans.

zerohourZero Hour – Survivor Horror Card Game: Aside from the occasional run-in with some zombies, I’m not generally a horror gamer. Zero Hour could change that. Play begins with 30 children stranded in the woods after their bus driver dies. Soon, weird things begin to happen in the woods, pushing each child closer and closer to insanity. Somehow, the children have to survive the night until the zero hour at dawn. The gothic design and theme of the entire game makes this look to be creepily attractive. A bonus part of the campaign is a tall plush Slenderman doll, certain to please the darkest child within you.