Arkham Horror (Second Edition), Chainsaw Warrior and Runebound (Second Edition) have some things in common. They are out of print. They are ripe with randomness. They are clonky and prone to house-ruling. Most importantly, they’ve been on my table a lot lately. Inspired by Athena and JW and their great short format musings in the Table Presence Series over at Solitaire Times, I’m doing three compact reviews in one. Since all of these games have been around for a long time there will be no scrutiny or rules summaries. I’ll focus on why these games keep coming back to my table, and what their table presence means to me.
Arkham Horror (Second Edition)
Speaking of table presence, this game certainly has it! Even without the expansion boards there’s hardly room for a drink let alone a cat on my kitchen table.
Arkham Horror was designed by Richard Launius and originally released by Chaosium in 1987. It was heavily influenced by the Chaosium table-top role-playing game Call of Cthulhu. The second edition was developed by Kevin Wilson together with Launius and released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2005.
I’ve mostly played Arkham Horror cooperatively, but lately it’s become one of my favorite solitaire games. I’m using a selection of cards from some of the expansions and the number of house rules keeps growing. Playing just the base game and following the printed rules is a more than adequate horror adventure experience, though – it was good enough to get me hooked!
I play three or four investigators. I haven’t yet made up my mind about which number I like the best. Playing Arkham Horror cooperatively often leads to some light role-playing. When playing solitaire with several characters you’ll get less of a role-playing experience, of course, but the brilliantly interlocked mechanisms of chance provide evocative snippets of narrative that are easily tied together into wonderful stories of both personal tragedy and cosmic horror.
To aid in the storytelling process I’ve added the following expansion content:
- Injury and Madness cards from Dunwhich Horror. With these cards physical and psychological trauma have lasting effects on the investigators, such as the loss of a limb or a phobia.
- Personal Story cards from Innsmouth Horror. These cards give each investigator some additional background story and a personal goal to fulfill during the game.
- Relationship cards from The Lurker at the Threshold. Investigators that have a relationship get to share certain bonuses based on what kind of relationship it is. If they are business associates, for example, when one of them earns income the other one gets some money as well.
On top of this I’ve added any further cards from these expansions, that can be seamlessly integrated with the base game. With hundreds of cards, hundreds of counters, a plethora of investigators and a big selection of monstrosities to fight, Arkham Horror tells a different story every time. It’s a very immersive game and exciting and tense whether you win or lose.
Arkham Horror takes about four hours to play, has lots of components to keep track of, has quite a few rules and keywords to learn, often has you at the mercy of a die roll, takes up an entire table and is one of my absolute favorite solitaire games. Actually, it’s one of my favorite games period.
Coincidentally, in 1987, when the first edition of Arkham Horror was published in the united states by Chaosium, British publisher Games Workshop released Chainsaw Warrior, a solitaire game designed by Stephen Hand. Hand’s most well-known design is probably Fury of Dracula, also released by Games Workshop in 1987. Just like Arkham Horror, Fury of Dracula was later picked up by Fantasy Flight Games, further developed by Kevin Wilson and released in a second edition. Chainsaw Warrior has remained out of print, however, but a digital version of the game is available on Steam.
Despite these coincidences, the narrowly focused, brutally repetitive Chainsaw Warrior is very different from the sprawling, sandboxy Arkham Horror. Arkham Horror has around 15 different decks of cards. Chainsaw Warrior has one. It represents a building in New York that’s been infested by zombies, mutants and radiation. Taking on the role of the eponymous warrior you have to fight your way through this building, through traps and hordes of enemies, to find and kill Darkness, an extradimensional being of pure evil. And you thought Arkham Horror with it’s mix of Lovecraftian mythology and hard-boiled paperback mystery fiction was pulpy…
Chainsaw Warrior is linear: there’s one way to go, there’s one thing to do, and it usually ends in one way – you lose. Not because it’s a tactically and strategically challenging game, but simply because winning is unlikely. It’s set on nightmare difficulty by default. Although it predates the highly influential and wonderfully over-the-top first-person shooter Doom by six years or so, that’s kind of what it feels like. And doesn’t the Chainsaw Warrior look a bit like the chainsaw-wielding Doomguy?
This game is a ritual – monotonous in the best sense of the word, and something you might do not for it’s own sake but rather with an ulterior motive. Chainsaw Warrior is relaxing for the mind despite the tension of the die-rolls and the preposterous subject matter. Once you’re familiar with the game, going through the motions becomes meditative.
The game’s rather fiddly with all the counters and the tiny cards, but the counters can be kept in a counter tray to make it easier to find the right one at the right time, or they can be replaced by dice, since they’re mainly used to keep track of ammo and hit points.
Chainsaw Warrior plays in half an hour or so. To set it up you roll the stats for your warrior in a way reminiscent of creating an RPG character. I have added my own rule here: I re-roll 1s. That way I get to play for a litle while at least, before my hero dies. After character creation you shuffle the cards and divide the stack in two. The card representing Darkness is shuffled into the second pile and then you’re off to an untimely death. On each turn you advance the time tracker one step, flip over the top card of the deck and try to deal with whatever you find. Usually it’s something bad, but on rare occasions you find a medkit or a weapon.
Move the time tracker, flip over the card, roll some dice, repeat… There’s lots of luck and randomness, quick decisions, agonizing odds and brutal uncertainty. When I lose I usually have another go. Then I lose again. I’m usually dead before I run out of time, which is another way to lose.
I can enjoy Chainsaw Warrior wholeheartedly since it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a wonderfully rough game and a piece of solitaire gaming history that I cherish.
Runebound (Second Edition)
Runebound is definitely the most unpredictable of the three. Not in terms of in-game events or outcomes, but in terms of enjoyment. Sometimes it’s very involving. I go through the turns in rapid succession, captured by the rather derivative fantasy adventure. Sometimes the different game mechanisms just grind against one another and the experience becomes an exercise in patience and temperance rather than an epic quest.
Despite this inconsistency, I keep returning to Runebound. It has potential. It’s a diamond in the rough. At its best it’s great. I like how it takes the elements of a dungeon crawler into an open world.
Runebound uses a brilliant variant of the roll-and-move mechanism. The different kinds of terrain are represented by different symbols. At the beginning of your turn you roll a handful of movement dice. On each side of the dice are several of the terrain symbols. To enter a mountain hex, for example, one of your dice has to show the mountain symbol. The harder a certain kind of terrain is to traverse, the fewer of its symbols are on the dice. If you play cleverly your hero can roam around almost freely on the beautiful map.
And there we have another inconsistency: the artwork. The map is beautiful but the character art is awful.
Playing solo I use one character and the optional Doom Track rule. This rule puts pressure on the player by making the final boss appear after you’ve gone through a certain amount of cards. This means that you can’t run around haphazardly and gather loot and followers. Instead, you have to prepare systematically for the endgame.
While you’re exploring the map, fighting monsters, leveling up, running errands, gathering loot, hiring followers and preparing for the big finale, event cards sometimes are revealed. These, together with the steadily growing number of Doom Counters on the Doom Track, help giving the open-ended game a sense of narrative and direction and often add a sense of foreboding.
Playing with the optional Doom Track, Runebound becomes a strange hybrid between an optimization puzzle and an all-out ameritrash luck-fest. While this might sound like a union of opposites, this is also where the game shines. I guess that’s what you get when Martin Wallace, well-known designer of complex strategy games that simulate industry and economics, makes a fantasy adventure game with lots of die-rolling. Runebound is in the sweet spot right between Legends of Andor, a game I like a lot, and Talisman, a game I try to avoid.
I keep playing Runebound because it shows so much promise when it works the way it’s supposed to. It will probably turn into a house-ruling and customization project. I’ll make this game mine. I just have to get my hands on a few expansions.
Want to Know More?
Arkham Horror designer Richard Launius shares his own house rules as a PDF on Fantasy Flight’s website. They are well worth a look.
If you’re interested in Chainsaw Warrior, here are some gaming media gems for you:
- Chainsaw Warrior has been made into a computer game by Auroch Digital.
- The Developer of the digital version of the game has made a two-part interview with Stephen Hand, the designer of the original game.
- FNH has made a wonderful video review of the game.
- Zhu Bajiee has written a fantastic essay on Chainsaw Warrior, contextualizing the original game and comparing it to the digital implementation.
Thank’s for reading! Meow!