The works of H.P. Lovecraft are notoriously hard to adapt. There have been movies, videogames, role-playing games, and even board games all trying to put their own spin on everyone’s favorite racist uncle. And it’s one of those board games that I wanted to talk about today. Eldritch Horror is a personal favorite among the board games I own, and part of that is because I think it’s one of the best adaptations of Lovecraft I’ve ever seen.
I’d like to begin by giving you some backstory about my history with Lovecraft’s works. I was aware of his existence for quite a while, mostly through the osmosis of being Extremely Online in my teenage years. I believe my first exposure to something referencing his writings was buying Munchkin Cthulhu. It wasn’t long after that I found some of his stories in the library of the high school I was attending at the time. I was enamoured almost immediately, and started to read every story of his I could find. Look, I was a stupid edgy teenager who didn’t know any better, okay? Please don’t hold it against me too much. It wasn’t until I got a bit older and learned some more analytical skills that I started looking at Lovecraft’s work with a more critical eye and noticed how hilariously racist a lot of his stories are, and how often they rely on fearmongering about mental illness. Also, Google what he named his cat. Or better yet: don’t. Lovecraft was a pretty unpleasant dude.
It’s very hard to separate those criticisms from his work. But it’s undeniable that he left a major impression on pop culture. His (frequently meandering) prose has inspired countless writers, filmmakers, and game designers to try their own hand at adapting or expanding on his universe and the pantheon of eldritch monstrosities. People just love giant unspeakably horrific deities of chaos. Though one thing I have noticed is that lots of people like to fight the very beings that should break your brain by merely looking at them.
It’s an attractive power fantasy for sure. These creatures exist as a metaphor for man’s existence in a gigantic and uncaring universe, and facing them head-on is a bold act of defiance that says “I matter!” It’s an excellent way of empowering a player character and give them a motivation beyond survival. But that’s also an inherent flaw in adapting Lovecraft. Fighting evil is the bread and butter of games (both video and board) but the major monsters in Lovecraft aren’t malicious. Cthulhu doesn’t want to eradicate humanity or conquer the world. Cthulhu was cranky because he got woken up and attacked the guys who did it. Cthulhu has no hate towards humanity. We’re an inconvenience at best. That’s what the stories are ultimately about: we’re small specks in an unknowingly vast universe. That’s the major source of the horror in the more famous Cthulhu mythos stories. So making a game where the primary mode of dealing with these creatures is combat kind of defeats the purpose.
This brings me to my main topic: the board game Eldritch Horror. This game sees you and your friends play Investigators who travel the world solving mysteries and closing portals to another dimension in order to stop one of a variety of elder beings from rising and potentially wiping out humanity. This game is totally sweet. It’s one of the few fully cooperative board games I know of, and there’s enough content in the base game to happily play it multiple times.
Why do I think it’s a good adaptation of Lovecraft? For a number of reasons, actually. The first is that they took out all of the racism. I can’t stress enough how important that was. The second was that you spend most of the game doing investigations and gathering clues. Most of the encounter cards involve talking to people or doing research. Even when you travel to an alternate dimension to try and close the gates, you rarely do it by fighting something. The third reason is the combat mechanics. You have two resources in the game, Health and Sanity. Pretty classic for a Lovecraft game. But in order to fight the monsters in the game to clear the way for the gates, you need to pass a Sanity check before you can even get physical and do some damage. You need to make sure you can even stand looking at it before you can fight it.
But I think the best part of Eldritch Horror is the Mythos cards. The Mythos phase happens after every player has taken their turn, and can range from positive developments like healing or free items, or can be as devastating as the ruination of a city or the spawning of an Epic Monster. In the game, these are contextualized as random happenings of the universe, sometimes directly caused by the Great Old One you’re fighting, sometimes from other sources like humanity banding together or a secret society offering aid. The most important thing with Mythos cards is how unfair they can be. Depending on how you construct the deck, they can be completely awful for you.
You rarely fight the Great Old Ones directly. You fight their spawn, their supporters, and assorted nasties because the game usually spawns them randomly. But their effects can be felt all through the game. It’s a frantic race against time as you try to solve enough mysteries to stop your adversary from rising. Because when they rise, you almost always just lose on the spot. Azathoth doesn’t care how many guns and magic swords you have. Azathoth doesn’t care about you. Azathoth is the literal god of the elder beings. Fighting him directly is pointless. All you can hope for is to stop him from arriving by stopping the cultists and rituals that are summoning him.
In Lovecraft’s world, we individually have very little power to fight against the unspeakable ancient horrors of the universe. They’ll do bad things to us sometimes, and we just have to accept that. I wish more games understood this. I’ve heard good things about the tabletop role-playing game but I’ve never been able to play it. A good Lovecraft adaptation should focus on investigation, gathering clues, studying the occult. If you must fight, fight the people trying to bring about the elder things. Just don’t fight the elder things themselves. If you’re going to adapt Lovecraft, adapt Lovecraft. Adapt his themes, not just his monsters. Just don’t adapt the racism. Feel free to leave that out.