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Arkham Horror Brings H.P. Lovecraft’s Spooky Writing to Life in a Board Game

by Michael Barnes (10/22/12).

Arkham Horror, a board game that brings H.P. Lovecraft’s pulp horror fiction to life via a board game. Not sure what good that pistol is going to do against that Shoggoth…but it’s worth a shot!

In last year’s Halloween article, I presented readers with a couple of very expensive, very collectible board games with spooky themes and settings. This year, I’m aiming for accessibility by digging up two ancient but reprinted and currently available tabletop Halloween classics. Both are great games with definite collector’s appeal, if not astronomical value. In this, the first part of our spookshow duo, I give you the mind-shattering, eldritch terror of . . . Arkham Horror.

Originally published in 1987 by Chaosium Games, Arkham Horror was intended to be the board game counterpart to that company’s successful Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper roleplaying game based on the pulp horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, a writer today recognized as one of the greatest and most influential in the genre although widely ignored at a literary level in his lifetime. Arkham Horror challenges players to cooperate against the mysterious Great Old Ones and their miscellaneous servitors, retainers, cultists and other evil forces in a 1920s setting. Designed by Chaosium staffers and the legendary Richard Launius, who is still very active in designing games and promoting the hobby today, it was a roll-and-move game where players controlled individual investigator characters attempting to explore on-board locations in the fiction town of Arkham. The overall goal was to pass through gates to other dimensions and seal them off, stopping the creatures of the Mythos from invading our world. It wasn’t uncommon for these characters to go insane trying.

The original board was based on an acrylic painting by Richard Launius, the creator of the game.

Arkham Horror was unique primarily because it was the first—and for many years only—game based on Lovecraft’s stories. The appeal to board gamers, roleplaying gamers, horror fans and would-be Lovecraft scholars is obvious, and although the game is widely regarded as somewhat antiquated and flawed by more modern standards, it developed a cult following that outstripped available supplies. And that means only one thing—green. And not Cthulhu green. Benjamin Franklin green.

Arkham Horror became a very sought-after title after it fell out of print in its English, French and Japanese printings and, eventually, complete copies were selling north of $150 or even more into the mid-$2,000s. Chaosium continued printing Call of Cthulhu products and still does to this day, but never reissued the game. In 2005, Minnesota-based hobby games publisher Fantasy Flight purchased the license to reprint the game.

Smartly, Fantasy Flight brought Launius on board to modernize and redevelop the game for a modern audience. Working with Kevin Wilson, Launius completely revised the game and actually made it quite a bit more complex, strategic and narrative. Given an all-new coat of paint with best-in-business illustration and product design, the new Arkham Horror was—and continues to be—a massive bestseller.

The box of the updated Arkham Horror. OK, at least this time they brought a tommy gun and a car.

It’s also received a second edition of its own, and it’s also seen intermittent increases in value over the seven years it’s been in print. Occasionally, the publisher will run out of stock and the value of the game oddly spikes at online auction sites and secondhand sales. It’s a $60 retail title, but I’ve seen it sell for $100 during times of shortage.

More significantly, the new edition has spawned a host of support products, including multiple small and big box expansions that add new locations, adventures, investigators and, of course, monsters. New boards, new gameplay mechanics and tons of new equipment make this one of the best-supported and most-expanded games on the market today, and it takes a collector’s mentality to get everything branded with the Arkham Horror label. There are fully painted miniatures available, special dice sets, card games, dice games, IOS apps and even novels. It’s a long way from 1987.

Even though the game is more or less in print and Arkham Horror products are plentiful, the collector’s long view is that eventually they won’t be. Inevitably, some of this stuff is going to go out of print or be made unavailable permanently, either due to licensing changes, declining sales or the rising cost of keeping it all in print. Right now, it’s one of Fantasy Flight’s tent-pole products. But in 20 years, who knows. With an eye toward collectability, I would expect the expansions to be the most likely to increase in value since they tend to be printed in smaller numbers than the core game. The painted miniatures are already quite expensive and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them double in value as they are one of the more niche, uncommon products.

A storage rack made by a fan out of Legos that houses all of the modern game’s pieces and cards, including all expansions. The new board and investigator cards can also be seen.

There’s a lot to explore in the modern version of Arkham Horror. It is a somewhat complex, detailed game that takes quite a while to play but it offers one to eight players a gripping horror game experience that’s suitable for anyone in the family old enough to read a rulebook and manage a couple of cards. Horror collectors will thrill to the great artwork, and Lovecraft fans will enjoy the setting, even though it skews more to a certain two-fisted pulp action aesthetic rather than a subtle, atmospheric one. Those interested in playing the game should definitely look into the newer edition in general terms, although the old version still holds value around $50-$70.

Next time, we’ll pay a visit with a most peculiar European nobleman looking to buy some real estate in England.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.


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