New Game Weekend: The Grizzled

grizzledbox

In June 1914, a member of a group of fringe Bosnian Serbs assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in an effort to split some of  Austria-Hungary’s territory into a freed Yugoslavia. Through a series of cascading and intertwined alliances, the act of terrorism begat World War I and led to the death of millions.

Over a hundred years later in January 2015, two brothers self-identifying as Islamic terrorists associated with a Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda forced their way into the Paris offices of the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The men shot more than 20 people, killing 11 and setting off a nationwide manhunt lasting for two days until the men were found and gunned down.

A month after the 2015 Paris shootings, a WWI-themed card game called Les Poulis was released by Sweet November, a French company which largely produces colorful games geared toward children. Carrying the line “L’amitié plus forte que la guerre?” or “Can friendship be stronger than war?,” the game prominently features the artwork of Bernard Verlhac who drew under the name Tignous and was one of those killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo the month before. A century apart, the war which nearly destroyed early 20th-century Europe and the modern threat of international terrorism intersected in this curious little game.

Les Poilus is French slang for “infantry” roughly meaning “the hairy,” an appropriate title for a game which focuses on the experience of French soldiers in the trenches of WWI. The game’s designers wrote a manifesto of sorts for the game, here presented in the American printing under the translated title The Grizzled:

At the same level as literature and cinema, games are a cultural media which is undeniably participative.
There are no subjects it can’t broach, though some are more delicate than others. That of the life of the Grizzled is one of those.
Guided by the deepest respect that the suffering endured by these men has inspired in us, we’ve designed and tweaked this game with this constant concern.
In this earnest endeavor we’ve chosen to focus on the individual, with his preoccupations and his daily fears.
The only escape for the men we’ve portrayed is to use their solidarity, their brotherhood, and mutual assistance to save one another.
Without ever touching on the warlike aspect, “The Grizzled” offers each player the chance to feel some of the difficulties suffered by the soldiers of the trenches. Thus the emotions around the table will often be intense.
The path to victory may seem difficult, but don’t get discouraged – persist and survive the Great War!
IMG_7357A player’s set-up from The Grizzled with the Mission Leader marker, Speech and Support tokens and Hard Knock cards

Rather than attempt a grand take on the war, The Grizzled brings the war down to the level of six French friends who mobilize to action in the early August 1914 days when the war still seemed something heroic and noble. The cooperative game presents the soldiers fulfilling a series of missions in an attempt to deplete all the Trial cards covering a winning Peace card before the Morale Reserve cards covering a losing Monument card are used up.

IMG_7358The six Threats from The Grizzled – Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow

In each round, the mission’s leader chooses to deal 1-3 Trial cards to each soldier. Trial cards feature Threats of six types — Shell, Night, Whistle, Rain, Mask and Snow — or Hard Knock cards featuring various negative battle effects. In turn, players have a choice of actions. Threat cards may be played in the center of the table’s No Man’s land for the current mission, avoiding playing three of the same type and failing the mission. Hard Knock cards are assigned to the active player with immediate effect, and four Hard Knocks on the same player also causes a loss of the mission. Players can also choose to make a Speech, removing one type of Threat card from all player hands or use their Good Luck Charm to clear a card already played in the current mission.  Finally, players may withdraw from the current mission and assign a Support tile to another player.

IMG_7359The Peace and Monument cards from The Grizzled

Once all players have withdrawn from the mission, support tiles are passed to other players. Players with the majority of the support for that round may clear Hard Knock cards or refresh their Good Luck Charm. Cards are then moved from the Morale Reserve to the Trials pile according to the number of cards players still hold in their hands from the previous mission. With that the new mission leader deals cards and the next round begins.

The Grizzled is a powerful game in a tiny package and one of the most challenging games I’ve played in some time. The collaborating players need to tightly manage their own hands and plays while keeping an eye on all other the other players. As Hard Knocks mount up, effects on one player wind up rippling through the entire group, hindering the collective effectiveness in missions. Clearing Hard Knocks with Support becomes key late in the game but getting Support to the players needing it most also becomes a challenge.

Winning a game of The Grizzled feels like a real accomplishment. In the first week I had the game, I played about 15 games and my group of experienced gamers only won twice. Fortunately, a typical game runs about 30 minutes, so multiple games can be run in a sitting. It’s interesting the original French publisher states the game is for ages 10 and up while the American version from Cool Mini Or Not suggest ages 14 and up. The game’s play is intense but that’s the point, no matter the age of the group.

We’re still in the midst of the centennial commemoration of World War I, an enormously complicated war still argued over to this day. While fully understanding the war’s big picture may be a nearly impossible exercise, getting a view from the trenches in The Grizzled shows how the trauma of violence on individuals or small groups of friends or colleagues is an unfortunate timeless human reality.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

NathanHalesHazardousTalesAs a young fan of history in 1970s and 80s, my bookshelves were brimming with illustrated history books. Classics Illustrated comics, David Macaulay’s books and Dover history coloring books were all favorites. In my teen and college years of comic book fandom, I was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Decades later, I loaded up my own boys’ shelves with beautiful books from Dorling Kindersley on such subjects as ancient history, the American Civil War and World War II. Now, as the kids have grown, they’ve made their own reading discoveries and turned me on to newer series. One of my current favorites is Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.

Nathan Hale is the actual name of the Utah-based author and artist of a variety of best-selling children’s graphic novels. His Hazardous Tales series focuses on US history with a wit and flair aimed at engaging kids in wonderful little vignettes of the past. His war-themed books include looks at the American War of Independence (One Dead Spy (2012)) the American Civil War (Big Bad Ironclad! (2012)) and World War I (Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (2014)). He’s also taken on non-war subjects with the doomed Western settlers of the Donner Dinner Party (2013) and the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in The Underground Abductor (2015).

NHSpyPageFamed American spy Nathan Hale is introduced in “One Dead Spy”

Hale’s three war books introduce children to three different conflicts from three centuries of the American story. One Dead Spy outlines the American Revolution through the lens of famed Colonial spy Nathan Hale, his exploits, capture and martyred execution in September 1776. The first half of the book moves from Hale’s years at Yale to the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Siege of Boston. In the second half, the story shifts to the war in and around New York City and Long Island, making it of particular interest for my sons living amid the ground covered by the Battle of Brooklyn. Other historical characters including George Washington (naturally), Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the colorfully-written Henry Knox all make cameos, each adding to the overall narrative which ends with Hale’s hanging just as the war was gearing up into its later years and eventual victory for the American colonists.

NHIroncladsPageCivil War naval combat from “Big Bad Ironclad!”

The American Civil War gets its treatment in Big Bad Ironclad which tells the story of the nation-defining conflict through the epic development and battle of the first US ironclad ships in March 1862. With so many stories to be told from the Civil War, this book’s focus on the relatively ignored naval side of the conflict makes for another interesting tale. A colorful cast of well-known and marginal characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Swedish immigrant inventor John Ericcsson and US naval hero William Cushing, frame the story. Drawn in blues, grays and blacks, the historic figures and events helps to place this sideshow to the American Civil War as a not-to-be-forgotten part of American history.

NHTrenchesPageEuropean alliances explained in “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood”

My favorite of Hale’s three war books is Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood which does an amazing job of explaining the complex causes and series of alliances which contributed to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. The story begins in the obvious place with assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the somewhat hapless Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914. After the entertaining opening act, the book moves to outline the intricacies of the allied European nations. Using the cartoon and comic book convention of animals as characters, each country is cast as a different creature — UK (bulldog), Russia (bear), France (rooster), Austria-Hungary (owl), Germany (eagle). You might think explaining geopolitical politics would be a yawn in a children’s book, but Hale carries it off such that even adults would benefit from the World war II overview.

The story marches onward to 1914, erupting in the war depicted in a dramatic double-page spread of assembly line of manpower grinding to battle with the Greek god of war Ares overseeing the entire coming slaughter. Weapons, the introduction of tanks and trench warfare all get their due in the second half of the book, but it’s the pre-war framing of European empires in conflict which makes this book a standout intro to the war for all ages.

AlamoThe forthcoming “Alamo All Stars”

The upcoming sixth book in the series, Alamo All Stars, will appeal to Texans and Texans at heart with the tale of the heroic defense of the Alamo in 1836. With the school year just under way, all of Hale’s Hazardous Tales are worthy of reading lists, no matter the age. Each book also contains a bibliography and more factual information at the back of the book, making all these books a great jumping-off place for budding historians and maybe some future wargamers, too.

Touching History at the Military History Society of Rochester

mhsrlogo

I have logged many, many hours over the years visiting battlefields, historical homes, living heritage sites, reenactments, roadside markers and all sorts of art, history and military museums. Near the top of these experiences was a full day I spent at the Imperial War Museum a few years back while working in London for over a month. With over two million visitors a year and some 11 millions artifacts, the IWM is hard to beat for immersing yourself in the history of warfare.

This past week I had a very different, yet truly remarkable experience in my first visit to the Military History Society of Rochester. Located up a flight of stairs in a warehouse inhabited by various artist galleries and studios, the MHSR occupies roughly 2000 square feet of space packed with all manner of historical artifacts focused on telling the story of the US military through the local lens of Rochester, NY.

IMG_4891

A timeline of US long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War at the MHSR

Founded several years ago by Chuck Baylis as the American Civil War Artillery Association, the group’s mission has since grown beyond his original collection of Civil War artifacts to encompass American wars from the Revolution to the present. The first room still focuses on the Civil War including detailed displays on artillery, uniforms and the 140th New York Volunteer Regiment formed in Rochester in 1862. A timeline of American long arms from the American War of Independence through the Korean War covers an entire wall.

IMG_4890

A timeline of military uniforms from the American War of Independence through the present at the MHSR

In the rear space of the museum, the focus swings to 20th-century with displays on World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and present day wars. Uniforms, guns, swords, equipment hang from the walls, rest on shelves and lay slung over mannequins. Scale model airplanes hang from the ceiling, model vehicles rest on the floors and cases and a D-Day diorama sits nearby. Throughout the museum are some 2000 books as well as countless other letters, maps, photos, schematics, deck plans, prints, posters and other ephemera for perusal or research.

IMG_4887

 A US .50 caliber machine gun at the MHSR

Baylis has been joined by a number of passionate volunteers who can be found at the museum during its operating hours on Thursdays, Fridays and some Saturdays. Civil War reenactor, historian and wargamer Mike Vasile (co-author of the excellent Arena Games: Gladiatorial Combat rules) is responsible for many of the scale dioramas throughout the museum. Scale ship modeller Timothy Igoe of Historia Militaris Shipways has contributed several naval models to the collection and is currently undertaking a build of the USS Rochester (CA-2) for the museum. Retired Social Studies teacher Orton Begner rounds out the group with a deep knowledge of every object on hand.

IMG_4889

A US M1919 Browning machine gun at the MHSR

The one-to-one interaction with the MHSR’s members and the collection is what sets the museum apart from any other I’ve every visited. Everything has been well labeled, organized and put on display but hardly anything in the museum sits behind glass. Care to hold the various types of artillery rounds used in the Civil War? Want to feel the heft of a WWII era Thompson submachine gun or M-1 rifle? Would you like to take a look inside a pack carried by an American GI on D-Day? Want to lie down with a German MG-42? Ever wanted to hold a Japanese officer’s sword or 1913 “Patton Saber”? Just about everything in the museum, with the proper care, respect and assistance from one of the staff, can be touched, offering an incredibly rare opportunity to physically connect with past.

IMG_4888

 A German MG-42 and StG 44 at the MHSR

The mission to bring history alive beyond the walls of the museum also occurs with the exhibits members of the group bring to school groups and veteran events in the Rochester area. With its focus on celebrating the men and women of Western New York’s service in every branch of the military past and present, the museum is serving a unique and human mission of connecting today’s generations to a long tradition military service.

IMG_4892

My son gets some hands-on time with a Thompson submachine gun at the MHSR

In all my years of interest in history and military heritage, I have yet to find a museum as alive as the experience found at the Military History Society of Rochester. As a wargamer, the opportunity to see and handle so many objects up close is unparalleled. My time spent at the museum on my first visit was brief, but meeting the guys and seeing the collection at the museum will definitely bring me back my next time in Rochester.

Interview with Chuck Baylis of the MHSR

The Military History Society of Rochester is located in the Anderson Arts Building at 250 North Goodman Street on the second floor. Admission is free.

Flames of War: Forces of War Launches

ForcesHome

This month, Battlefront Miniatures, the makers of the popular World War II miniatures game Flames of War, took its first big digital step forward with the introduction of the first of their two new digital services — Forces of War.

EAhp

The soon-to-be retired EasyArmy.com

Debates have been raging through online message boards, Facebook groups, Twitter and over WWII-themed tabletops ever since the announcement that the beloved EasyArmy was being closed down and absorbed into Battlefront with Forces of War. During its run, EasyArmy had become a much relied-upon tool for FOW players worldwide. Battlefront has maintained a lengthy working relationship with EasyArmy’s designer in an incredibly rare example of a corporation willing to cede some control of their intellectual property. Now, like so many other companies working in the digital space today, Battlefront has brought the ideas and work of a passionate outsider in-house with this month’s launch of Forces of War.

ForcesNewCo

The New Companies menu on Forces of War

Beginning with Forces of War, buying a company list will run $1.00 USD with a 25% discount extended when buying all lists from an entire book or compilations at about $16.50 USD. The initial offering of lists is meager, focusing on the more recent FOW books Road To Rome, Barbarossa, Road To Remagen and the World War I themed Great War. Devil’s Charge is listed but the complete book is not available and instead points to the popular Panzers To The Meuse list. This set of German companies is the only free offering at launch, allowing for some limited experimentation with the site before buying additional lists. Being a Late War player who mostly plays US and British lists of the D-Day, Market Garden and Battle of the Bulge operations, my hope is that FOW quickly updated Forces of War with these lists as well as Eastern Front lists for Late War Russian and German players.

92ForcesCo

 Company builder on Forces of War

As a test, I went through the quick PayPal process of buying the US 92nd Infantry list from the Road To Rome book. The performance was familiar to my experience on EasyArmy, although I did find the Forces of War site to be somewhat faster than its predecessor. Within a platoon, options are selected with simple clicks, and a running points total is tracked along the top of the page by company and platoon. Forces can be saved with custom names and a nice (but minor) new feature allows notes to be added within each platoon.

ForcesCoPDF

A sample Saved Company page on Forces of War

Saved companies are accessed through easy to view lists which can be filtered by period, country, type, name, source, motivation and skill. Companies can be exported and saved as PDFs or printed. The printed lists are somewhat clearer with better page breaks than those with EasyArmy, a simple but welcome tweak. Frustratingly, the platoon motivation and skill ratings still print within unnecessarily colored text boxes which are nearly unreadable on the page.

ForcesScenarios

Scenarios selector on Forces of War

Most other aspects of EasyArmy have been ported over to Forces of War, including the handy Scenarios map. The Scenarios page could use some upgrades with a search or menu feature to allow quicker access and some better designed graphics or links.

Much like EasyArmy before, Forces of War offers an easy interface in which to view and manage force lists for FOW. In a nutshell, all the core functionality of EasyArmy has been preserved and then packaged with an official FOW wrapper.  Like a lot of players, I would have very much liked to have seen more lists available at launch. As more lists become available in the coming months, re-buying lists already purchased via EasyArmy is also a sticking point for many but I find the new pricing scheme to be completely in-line with FOW balancing customer usability with needed company profit. Some will also continue to complain about the inaccuracies in some lists, but clean-up edits over time, cross-checking the books and being a considerate, mindful and fair player will always trump any gaming tool.  Gone too are all the ads which cluttered the layout of EasyArmy — a true step forward for any premium digital offer. As transitions go, the evolution of EasyArmy to Forces of War is a good start with room for greater improvements to hopefully occur in the very near term.

Toys, Trains and Games at the New York Historical Society

IMG_4659Toys and games are on my mind year-round, but the holiday season adds an extra layer of history, tradition and nostalgia to my passion for play. And so, my son and I made our way this past weekend to the New York Historical Society on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and back through more than 150 years of childhood wonder.

Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection

IMG_4660

The museum’s ground level entrance and rotunda galleries are currently occupied by the stunning Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection. The name of the collection is derived from the names of Jerry and Nina Greene, the Philadelphia area collectors who amassed more than 35,000 toys over some five decades.

The Jerni collection, considered one of if not the largest toy collections in the world, represents a comprehensive story of what is considered the high water mark in toy making from the mid-19th through 20th-centuries. With a heavy leaning toward European manufacturers like Märklin, the railroad themed items in the collection are dizzingly ornate and go beyond locomotives and carriages to encompass railroad stations, amusement rides and detailed mechanical machines and vignettes. Boats, bridges and other transportation toys are also included. Everything displays an incredible level of detail and refinement in the use of metal, wood, paper cloth and hand-painted finishes developed through advances in manufacturing processes through the late 19th-century.

IMG_4664Toy military and civilian ships from the Jerni Collection at the NYHS

IMG_4661Futuristic-looking craft hold their place next to traditional trains at the NYHS

Just a few years ago, the Jerni collection began seeking a new home. After displaying some of the collection at Sotheby’s auction house in 2010, no appropriate buyer was found to meet the estimated eight-figure value of the collection. A small portion of the collection went on display again in November 2012 at the NYHS which generated enough interest from a group of donors to underwrite the cost of acquiring the monumental collection. Two years later, the Holiday Express exhibit offers just a glimpse of what the museum now has under its roof.

IMG_4662Some of the Jerni Collection’s trains in the rotunda at the NYHS

While the current Holiday Express exhibit of some 300 objects is heavily focused on railroad-themed toys, my interest was drawn to the side displays of toy cast metal soldiers. Several periods are represented, from early American and Old West toys to a fantastic grouping of World War I era soldiers, vehicles and artillery. The preserved original paint, cloth, string and wires on these toys is some of the most impressive I’ve seen. Thin bayonets continue to protrude from the ends of tiny rifles, and an olive drab fabric cot is still doing service holding an injured soldier. The survival and ongoing preservation of these primarily metal toys in the Jerni Collection is all the more remarkable given how many vanished through the decades of play and wartime scrap drives in the mid-20th-century.

IMG_4657Toy soldiers and artillery represent multiple nationalities

IMG_4658A patriotic display of toy soldiers, medical staff and railroad transports

IMG_4663Old West metal toys from the Jerni Collection at the NYHS

The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift

IMG_4665

On the museum’s lower level, is the smaller yet no less important exhibit The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift. The ongoing display offers a rotating view of American made board and card games selected from the 500 item collection. Focusing on the period of 1840s to the 1920s, the games help illuminate a period where a modern and less rural middle class America was on the rise. The late 19th-century also saw great advances in color printing processes, allowing for bolder and more complex graphics. The current exhibit focuses on games with the theme of “fate,” something very much on the mind of native and newly arrived Americans at the turn of the last century. I would expect similar revelations into the shared cultural experience through gaming as the exhibit continues to evolve.

With so many stories to tell, the New York Historical Society’s current exhibit space dedicated to toys and games is certainly a crowd pleaser. My hope is that serious focus continues in future exhibits at the museum on the themes of toys, games and play. Just as technological, economic and cultural shifts drove mass change in toys and games beginning in the mid-19th-century, these same factors are driving new evolutions to the way we play today and influence who we may become as New Yorkers and Americans tomorrow.

World War I: The Battle of Vimy Ridge 1917 with Price of Glory

VimyRidgepic

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, France over four days in early April 1917 was not just a victory for the Allies during World War I. The battle also served as a shining example of Canadian national pride as the overwhelming Canadian-led force was able to stand on its own for the first time without British leadership on the field against Germany. The decisive capture of the German lines at the ridge would hold this section of the Western Front for the Allies until the end of the war.

pogcover“Price of Glory” by Iron Ivan Games

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers we finally got some WWI gaming in with a quick scenario modelled on the Canadian exploits at Vimy Ridge with the Price of Glory rules from Iron Ivan Games. We unpacked over six feet of beautifully modelled trench works that had laid too long in storage and set up a gorgeous collection of 28mm WWI German and Canadian troops from Great War Miniatures. The three of us new to the rules divided the Canadians among ourselves with four rifle and machine gun squads, a grenade-armed bombing party and a Vickers machine gun to our right. Facing us across the cratered and barb-wired field was two lines of German trenches initially defended by two teams of Germans and a MG 08 on their right flank. The level of Canadian victory would be measured by the capture of the German front line, rear set of trenches or the treeline beyond in a ten-turn game.

IMG_4620

Canadian troops advance on the German lines at Vimy Ridge

The Canadians initially plotted four artillery targets along the front and rear trench lines. After the starting German deployment, we rolled off for the artillery bombardment which we had luckily ranged-in directly on the German rifles and machine gun on the front line. Unfortunately the dice were not with the Canadians, and all four artillery shots missed. From there, the Price of Glory rules progressed simple enough with a D10 roll-off for initiative which the Canadians won and began their advance. Teams alternate on each side of the table taking move, fire or melee actions with short movement of 3″ allowing for a full rate of fire, 6″ at fire at half-rate and a 9″ sprint allowing for now firing.

IMG_4621

Germans hold the front line in the trenches

As the first few turns elapsed, the Canadians at the right slowly advanced from crater to crater as they took heavy fire from the German rifles and machine gun. Defending from the trenches, the Germans were a hard target with only a “1” result counting as a hit on the fistfuls of D10s being thrown. In the rules, a team taking fire must also roll a D10 morale check or become suppressed. Morale rating is based on the command strength of the squad, with squads on both sides initially beginning with two officers each at a “7” and “8” rating. A morale check equal to or less than the command rating for the squad passes and may take an action on their turn. A squad losing their morale check must use their next activation to rally.

IMG_4622

Canadians advance through a gap in the wire

By mid-game, one Canadian squad had met their doom in the open wasteland in front of the German line and a second was torn in half as they limped to the trench line at the German left. At the center, a full Canadian squad made their way through a center gap followed by the bomb team. On the German right, the machine gun was eliminated and a final squad of fresh Canadians made way for the trenches. The Canadians continued to win initiative roll-offs which were modified at -1 on each side for lost squads or squads failing morale checks.

IMG_4623

Germans flee the front line to defend from the next line of trenches

As the remnants of one surviving squad of Germans fled the first line of defense after losing two morale checks against the encroaching Canadians, two reserve units of Germans emerged from the woods to the rear and ran to defend the secondary line of trenches. From there, the final turns of the game became a shoot-out between the two trenches with the Canadian bomb crew and a German rifle squad being nearly eliminated in the firefight. At the final turn, the Canadians had scored a minor yet costly victory by securing the first line of the German trenches for the Allies.

IMG_4625

The Canadian bombing party occupies the first line of trenches

IMG_4626

Germans hold the second line at Vimy Ridge

IMG_4624

Canadians hold the first line for victory

I hadn’t played a WWI game in a couple of years, and the figures and terrain at the club hadn’t hit the table in quite some time either. The Price of Glory rules ran fast, and we were all generally of the opinion it captured the combined fire and morale effects found during the conflict. We also agreed another larger game with a bit more complexity and perhaps some artillery, armor and cavalry would be in order. With many worldwide commemorations this year of the Great War’s 100th anniversary (including an excellent site from the Imperial War Museum), is was good to make time for our own journey back to the Western Front.

New Game Weekend: Arkham Horror

ahcoverbox

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.