The Arkham Horror Expansion Guide

One of the perpetual questions about Arkham Horror I see posed on Boardgamegeek and Fantasy Flight Games’ forum, among others, is some variation on “What’s the best expansion?” or “What should I buy as my first expansion to Arkham Horror?” Well now, I’ll be able to point inquiring minds to this post, saving everyone some hassle.

There are, at this time of writing, six expansions to Arkham Horror, with a seventh on the way. We’ll run through them in order of best place for an Arkham Horror fan to begin to worst.

The Black Goat of the Woods

Some may find Black Goat of the Woods a funny place to start, but consider: it’s a small box, so it’s not as big an outlay of cash as one of the larger expansions. Its focus on the Cult of One Thousand is fairly modular, with respect to the Ancient Ones. Yes, the thematic links to Shub-Niggurath are there, but one can squint and take it for a cult worshiping Azathoth as required. Further, the cult membership mechanics work best in conjunction with just the base game and this expansion, due to deck dilution. There are enough new items and spells to flavor those decks without radically changing their make-up.

Finally, Black Goat includes a set of cards that serve as a guide for varying the difficulty of a game of Arkham Horror, from easier to even harder. For someone starting out, this can be just as useful in learning to gauge the knock-on effects of tweaking the rules to taste as actually using the cards in play.

Dunwich Horror

The big box expansion with the most widespread general utility, Dunwich Horror is a grab bag of bits and pieces that expand or add on to a game of Arkham Horror. The new board’s locations and their encounters are the most obvious. Those are fun and thematic, though the titular Dunwich Horror monster can be a ticker if it spawns on Sentinel Hill. Dunwich Horror doesn’t so much alter the basic play of the game as expand it. The new board adds more locations and with the exception of the Horror itself, doesn’t change how the game plays. The Dunwich gates open and behave just like those in Arkham, causing just as many problems — if not more, because monsters in Dunwich fall into vortices, eventually giving rise to the Horror.

Most of the smaller elements of Dunwich Horror are modular. They can be added to a game of Arkham one by one without adding anything else, if desired. Items and spells fit neatly in their decks without disrupting play, aside from decreasing the odds of pulling multiple Elder Signs in a single session. There are a few new decks of one for everyone, like the Rail Pass and Sheldon Gang Membership. They’re neat fiddly bits, but never necessarily — and, in honesty, rarely useful.

The eight new characters have the same plug and play design. Add them to the original sixteen investigators and you’re good to go — with the exception of needing the Golden Trumpet for Jim the bluesman, or giving him a random draw from the Unique Items deck in its place.

Perhaps the single best element of Dunwich Horror are the Injury and Madness cards. Yes, when your investigator drops to zero Sanity or Stamina, now they can take a Madness or Injury card, rather than having their pockets rifled by hospital attendants. In addition to the highly thematic bonus of your poor, beleaguered character accruing a phobia and a bad knee in the course of their monster-hunting, it’s better to take those than deal with losing all your great gear and clue tokens, which are the most precious commodity in Arkham.

The King in Yellow

Another small box expansion, King in Yellow gobs on theater and drama-related content, centered around the performance of The King in Yellow, the bizarre, unsettling play Robert Chambers invented that became incorporated in the wider Lovecraft mythos. All the new encounters, items and mythos cards tie into the elements of the play, Hastur and Lost Carcosa.

King in Yellow‘s innovation was the Herald, sort of a greater servitor to the Ancient One threatening the world. Heralds are modular elements, that one can add in to the mix to up the difficulty. Some of them are designed to fit thematically or mechanically with a particular Great Old One. The King in Yellow, appropriately enough for an expansion of the same name, ramps up the terror track’s impact on the game. If you ever thought “Ho hum, the terror track’s gone to 2. The general store still isn’t in danger of closing,” you should see this Herald in play. When the terror level goes up, players have to choose between increasing the Ancient One’s doom track or putting Blights in play. Blights, representing the corruption of Arkham’s leading citizens by the eldritch play, are negative, global mechanical effects that can’t be removed once they’re out. It gets nasty when Doyle Jeffries whips up the townsfolk into pitchfork-wielding mobs that roam the streets and Doctor Mintz’s sanity-restoring therapies whittle away at one’s stamina.

This expansion doesn’t play well with others, unfortunately. A lot of its effects come from the mythos cards. The bigger the mythos deck gets, the less of an effect King in Yellow‘s unique effects have on the game. If you dig the source material, though, it’s a hoot to play straight up Arkham with just this expansion.

Innsmouth Horror

The most recent expansion at the time of writing — though Lurker at the Threshold is just around the corner — Innsmouth Horror is a tricky one. I have to place it after Kingsport Horror because, while Innsmouth is very good, it’s a rough first expansion for the newcomer to Arkham. The town of Innsmouth is a labyrinth of time- and resource-sinks. Investigators are frequently arrested, trapped on inaccessible reefs and otherwise held up. The Deep Ones Rising tracks requires constant feeding with clue tokens; once full, the Great Old One bursts into the world. The track’s six spaces are filled by gates not opening when they should, due to seals and other effects. So the closer a group gets to the six seal goal, the faster the Deep Ones Rising track fills.

In short, it’s a brutal expansion in almost every way, with particularly unforgiving Ancient Ones — take, for example, Zhar, the Twin Horror; you get to beat it twice. But it’s a fun ride to the bottom. The encounters in Arkham and Innsmouth both are flavorful. The threat of discovering Deep One heritage in the family tree hangs over everyone. Plus, hey, more monsters to kill — er, be killed by.

Innsmouth Horror also introduces personal stories. Every investigator published to date gets one of these side quests. It expands on the back story found on each investigator’s sheet. A personal story has pass and fail conditions. Usually, achieving the pass condition before the failure occurs is good, because the benefit is better than the penalty. I’ve seen people argue that the time and resources that go fulfilling some investigators’ personal stories aren’t worth the reward. I agree with the sentiment that personal stories are another way to eat up the group’s time, to keep them off-task. It’s an insidious, flavorful way of wasting precious turns, and that’s rather fitting for Arkham, but they do take up time that could be otherwise put to saving the world. I tend to ignore personal stories for that reason and not to further bog down game play.

Kingsport Horror

The second of the expansion towns, Kingsport is an odd place. Gates don’t open there, as in Dunwich and Innsmouth. Instead, there’s rift activity. As time passes, instability grows in the town. That instability translates into rifts spawning in Arkham, which roam the streets spewing out monsters. That is, unsurprisingly, not fun for anyone trying to get through the streets to dive into a gate.

The rift mechanic was the first in an Arkham Horror expansion that resisted the dilution effect of mixing expansions together. Triggered by different combinations of monster movement symbols, the rifts keep opening and moving regularly without regard for how many mythos cards you’ve got in the deck, because the great majority of them have one of the specified configurations. Unfortunately, it’s not a terribly fun mechanic. With the consequence of more monsters clogging the streets of Arkham, the best tactic is to station an investigator in Kingsport to keep rift activity from getting out of hand. It gets repetitive for a player to keep visiting the 7th House on the Left over and over again. Investigators good at coordinating movement can arrange to switch off now and again. I’ve seen people refer to Kingsport as a vacation spot for investigators to catch their second wind after getting beaten up in the course of duty.

Beyond the rifts, Kingsport Horror has the usual mix of tougher monsters and less effective items, but some really awesome new characters, like the martial artist who can shift her sanity and stamina like a skill slider and the librarian who can read tomes all day without losing sanity. There are two new Heralds and three Guardians, which are entities helpful to the forces arrayed against the Ancient One. For a first time player, the only really exciting thing in this expansion are the new investigators. Everything else seems to have come from a desire to make the game different than the basic experience.

The Curse of the Dark Pharaoh

This was the very first Arkham Horror expansion and I’ve ranked it last. Because, frankly, it’s really enh. It’s got Egyptian theme and imagery out the wazoo. But it’s also got all these bits related to special cases that rarely come up. Instead of new unique items, it has exhibit items, extra rare items that typically can only be acquired via encounters. That would be interesting, if they were any fun. Most of them have a function so narrow in its applicability, I’ve yet to find an occasion when it proved useful.

Other Arkham Horror scholars can educate you on the plethora of examples of poorly constructed encounters and ill-defined game mechanics. I’m looking at it from the perspective of: would this be fun to play for someone who’s played the base game enough to know they really like Arkham and want to add something new to the mix. If that’s what you’re looking for, I think you’re better off with the entries at the top of this list.

13 thoughts on “The Arkham Horror Expansion Guide

  1. I do appreciate your efforts to help newbie Arkham players by providing them with a guide to what you believe is the best order to get the expansions in. I don’t agree with all of your opinions, but that is only to be expected.

    You did, however, make one very big omission: In your Kingsport section, you completely left out the Epic Battle and Sinister Plot cards! Considering the huge impact these cards have on the final battle, not to mention how thematic and fun they are (in my opinion), I don’t understand how you could possibly fail to mention them? Wouldn’t you agree that new players be advised of the existence of these cards?

    • I have to admit to having never used the epic battle cards, so they don’t factor into my opinion of the Kingsport expansion. I’ll make a note of that. Thanks for pointing out the omission!

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      • I hope you do it soon, so I can see what should I buy first… I am from Brazil, and I just bought Arkham Horror… never played, but as I saw here, I bought Black Goat of the Woods and Dunwich Horror, because I think it will be better to learn the base game with these expansions… am I right? (I was told that Dunwich Horror has a errata for the base game…)

  5. This is an outstanding guide even six years later. I purchased Arkham Horror this past year, and it took a few plays to be able to move the game along at a steady clip. I’m interested in the expansions, and I’m curious if you’d have anything to add in 2016?

    • I haven’t played Arkham Horror much more since those halcyon days of 2011-13. My recollection of The Lurker at the Threshold was that the additional mechanics were easily forgotten and didn’t add to the experience. Miskatonic Horror was a hard sell because it was literally a pile of cards that added to existing decks — in interesting ways, sometimes, since their effects are partly driven by what expansions are in play — and institutions, which were yet another form of herald/guardian that was easy to forget about.

      Miskatonic Horror would be the third to last thing to buy, Lurker would be second to last and then Curse of the Dark Pharaoh brings up the rear just because I never picked up the revised edition and can’t speak to it.

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