H.P. Lovecraft meets the Bronze Age – Designing Ancient Horror

15129018_10154731385453535_492367329159553307_oI wrote recently about the excellent Lovecraftian board game Eldritch Horror. That post was actually something of a preliminary to this one. You see, for the last several months I’ve been working on my own version of Eldritch Horror, set in the East Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Anna Judson called us together to play something else – her excellent Mycenopoly: an Aegean Bronze Age themed version of Monopoly, complete with barter system and utilities such as textile works and the ability to build megara instead of hotels. I highly recommend checking out her own blog about it, which went a bit viral, and deservedly so. Apart from having an excellent time with Mycenopoly, the evening left me wondering if it would be possible to do something similar for the game we most often play together, Eldritch Horror.

eh01_mainFor those who haven’t read my original post, a quick recap: Eldritch Horror is a co-operative game in which players guide investigators round the world, fighting monsters and having uncanny encounters as they battle to prevent the world-ending advent of some great cosmic horror – Cthulhu or one of his pals. That game is set in the 20s-30s, and that’s a pretty cool setting. But the Bronze Age? That could be amazing! Who wouldn’t want to fight Lovecraftian monsters in the East Mediterranean c.1200 BC? The setting, after all, is perfect – it’s a time as like an apocalypse as the world has ever known, when the great civilisations of the Mediterranean world faltered or collapsed for reasons that remain almost entirely mysterious. The Mycenaean palaces were burned to the ground, accidentally firing their precious archives of Linear B tablets; the Hittite Empire suffered famine and fragmentation; Ugarit was razed to the ground and even the mighty Egyptian New Kingdom ended amid riots, food shortages and political partition. Texts from the period alluding to ‘watchers watching the coasts’ and ‘people who live on boats’ have prompted all manner of fanciful theories about great wars and migrations, of invasions by Sea Peoples. I’m not going to go into this in depth now, but suffice to say I’m very sceptical of a lot of these invasion theories, and the reality was a lot more complex. But I don’t believe in the monsters either, and mashing together a consciously lurid imagining of the end of the Bronze Age creates a realm of fun possibilities.

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My custom game-board

Designing the game

The challenge is that Eldritch Horror is an extremely sprawling and complicated game. The rules are fairly straightforward once you master them, but the sheer amount of stuff it involves is daunting. In particular, there’s an abundance of different cards, almost all of which are extremely text-heavy, as befits a narrative-focused game. As the original game is set in the 20s or 30s, all of these would need to be rewritten for a Bronze Age setting. The game’s also stuffed with artwork, much of which would need to be replaced. This would be a lengthy job, and it’s one that’s taken me since June. The text files I’ve created run to tens of thousands of words and I sent off image files for the fronts and backs of nearly 200 cards to the printers. Even that’s the bare minimum the game can work with – Eldritch Horror becomes a lot less repetitious when you add in its expansion packs, but I haven’t attempted to replicate the content from them. Not yet…

An early decision I had to make was what version of the Bronze Age I wanted to set this in. It was never my intention to create something as reflective of the real world as Mycenopoly – given that any version of Eldritch Horror would be stuffed to the brim with monsters, cultists and magic, there didn’t seem much point, and I wanted to keep the source game’s pulpy feel. On the other hand, I was clear I wanted this to be set in something resembling the actual Late Bronze Age, not in a vaguely defined ‘Greek mythology’ or its Near Eastern equivalent. What I eventually went for is something I would like to think of as Bronzepunk (after Steampunk etc.). While nominally set in a real Bronze Age where technology, society and culture are depicted more or less realistically (there are lots of references to the exchange of diplomatic tablets between the region’s Great Kings, for example), the game is happy to pick and choose, remix, and play a bit fast and loose with chronology for the sake of telling a fun, cool adventure story or subverting how we conventionally think about the period. So, for example, Akhenaten – Egypt’s monotheistic heretic pharaoh – is present a couple of centuries after he really lived because he fits the Lovecraftian tone too well to leave out.

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The full game set-up. A few components are borrowed from Eldritch Horror, but most were newly created for this game.

Crafting a cast

Eldritch Horror’s Investigators are pre-defined characters with their own artwork, abilities and back-stories. For Ancient Horror I based as many of my Investigators as possible on actual known Bronze Age people, trying to assemble an eclectic bunch in terms of gender, culture and background, while unashamedly focusing on my own and my friends’ favourites. As well as Akhenaten, there’s Karpathia, the trouble-making Pylian Keybearer; Puduhepa, the powerful Hittite queen; Piyamaradu, the rebel from Asia Minor; Phugegwrins the scribe; Shipitba’al the Ugaritian merchant (not an Asterix character, though he sounds like he should be), and so on. For other characters, I used real Bronze Age names but attached them to invented characters, such as Tuzo, my Minoan textile-worker or Qaqarys the mercenary. In a conscious reaction against some of Lovecraft’s more unpleasant characteristics, and the often rather stereotypical depiction of non-white characters in Eldritch Horror, I did my best to make the cast diverse and to present them in the artwork as genuinely Mediterranean- or Near-Eastern looking, rather than blandly Caucasian. The cards that control what befalls characters in the game don’t distinguish on the basis of gender, age or class, so things like same-sex relationships are perfectly possible – indeed likely – in the game. Anyone can be a hero, anyone can be a liability.

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Another thing I wanted to do with the characters involved their back-stories, and this was the one area where I introduced a new game mechanic. In Eldritch Horror, although characters’ cards tell you their back-stories or the personal missions that launched them on their battle against the cosmic horrors, these don’t actually come into play in the game itself. A character looking for redemption will never find it; one seeking a lost love one will never be reunited. In Ancient Horror every character has a unique Personal Quest which can be triggered by chance during the game. This ties into their back-story and offers some potential resolution. The rewards can be big, but so are the risks; do you put the fight against evil on hold while you pursue a dangerous mission of self-gratification? Rather than the chance dice-rolls that determine the outcome of most adventures in the game, these quests often rely on the player to make a moral or tactical choice. The down-side is that each quest can only be played once before players learn what will transpire, but given that there are more potential characters than players, and the Personal Quests are not guaranteed to occur in any given play-through, I’m hoping that they’ll still allow us to have a couple of games at least before things start to repeat.

 

Playing the game

I’d hoped we could play the game at Hallowe’en, but there were so many cards that the only practical option was to have them professionally printed, and they didn’t arrive until a few days too late. Busy schedules intervened and it wasn’t until yesterday that we finally managed to sit down with the shiny new Ancient Horror. I took advantage of the delay to hand-paint a box for it. I’m rather happy with it.

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For our first game we faced off against Dagon, the natural choice for a villain since he is both a Lovecraftian monster and a major deity worshipped in the Bronze Age Levant (especially in Ugarit, where his is one of the two large temples on the city’s acropolis, although I started working on this long before I had any inkling how significant Ugarit was about to become for me). Our starting Investigators were Phugegwrins the Mycenaean scribe, Puduhepa the Hittite queen, Kutuqano the bull-leaper, Piyamaradu the Anatolian rebel, Karpathia the Pylian Keybearer and Nabua the Mesopotamian astrologer.

Over the course of the game there was drama, horror and comedy. Puduhepa, the brilliant diplomat and politician, revealed herself as a compulsive hoarder of weaponry; in her absence, Piyamaradu took advantage of an opening and sacked Hattuša, removing its shops and facilities permanently from the game. Later on, Puduhepa was forced to sacrifice one of the other players to a terrible fate and wasted no time in using the knife on Piyamaradu. Phugegwrins (a brooding detective as well as a scribe and butler) faced down his nemesis, the Knossos serial-killer, but accidentally got a child killed in the final confrontation. Kutuqano went insane while fighting the Great Deep One and was replaced by Shipitba’al, whose main achievement was drunkenly setting off on a quest to find a stranger a centaur bride, despite being fairly sure centaurs do not exist.

In the end we defeated Dagon – only just – but the toll was high. Hattuša in ruins, two Investigators insane and one devoured by something unholy. Many of the survivors were carrying multiple injuries, illnesses or curses.

 

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Playing Ancient Horror

 

I can’t claim it was as educational as Mycenopoly, but we had lots of fun, and there’s still plenty of the game left to discover – new surprises and new monsters to fight.

And at some point I might make some expansion material.

EDIT – I’ve written a follow-up post about how I produced the map on the game-board, if that’s something that interests you.

 

Do you have any favourite Bronze Age monsters, characters or macabre stories that you think I should include in future material for the game? If so, let me know in the comments!

I should also say that because Eldritch Horror is a commercially-created game to which I don’t own the rights, Ancient Horror can only ever be for my own use – I’m afraid it can never be distributed, sold or made available in any way. But I’m more than happy to play it with anyone interested in the Cambridge area.

 

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “H.P. Lovecraft meets the Bronze Age – Designing Ancient Horror

  1. Pingback: More Boardgames | Daniel B. Unruh

  2. A couple of my colleagues (who are my also my Facebook friends) were interested in this, having seen a picture of me playing it. I explained what it was – they thought it was cool. I also mentioned Mycenopoly to them – they liked the sound of this as well!

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  3. It looks so amazing!! How long did it take you to do this? I know some friends who would love to copy your idea and start making their own Ancient versions of famous board games.

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    • Thank you, Natalia! I can’t claim that making an ancient version of a board game was my idea – Anna Judson did it first and I copied her idea. How long it takes really depends on what board game it is and what stuff you need to make for it. Eldritch Horror includes an awful lot of text and artwork so it took me a long time – about 5 months working through my breaks at work and in evenings. It would take even longer now I have an academic job! Games without all that writing and painting to do would obviously be quicker: I expect you could knock up an ancient version of something like Cluedo, for example, in an afternoon. The main time taken would be to decide what changes you want to make. What games are your friends interested in? If you need recommendations for how to go about it or where you can get things like cards printed, let me know!

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  4. Pingback: Amazing Fan-Made Version of Lovecraftian Horror Board Game - ANCIENT HORROR - Geek Girl Authority

    • Thanks – I’m really glad you like it. Unfortunately, as I said in the article I don’t think I can make this available for people. I don’t want to get into murky waters with Fantasy Flight Games for infringing their copyright on Eldritch Horror, and I’ve also used a lot of other people’s artwork on the monster and item cards. I know if it were my work I wouldn’t want someone else distributing it without asking, and I don’t have the time to chase up all the artists to ask for permission. I’m afraid the files are also really big – edging towards a gigabyte – so even from a practical standpoint it’s not really feasible.

      Sorry to disappoint. I’d share it if I could. I could possibly share the text files and the templates I made for cards without the artwork, but I don’t know how useful they’d be.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It was a mixture of Illustrator and Photoshop. I scanned the original Eldritch Horror map at high resolution, which ended up being several images because of the size of my printer. I used Photoshop to recombine those and used the clone brush to fill in the gaps. Then I found a map of the East Mediterranean and layered it over the existing map, before flattening the image and importing it into Illustrator.

      I redrew the map as a vector image in Illustrator with basic tools, then took it back into Photoshop to overlay some textures. The mountains were hand-drawn pencil illustrations I did years ago for something else; I think they’re just set to multiply. I had separate templates for the various space icons. They were just pasted in. All the stuff from the original board – the doom track, reserve etc. – are just my original scan.

      I used a lot of layer groups to keep things organised. I’m not normally one for naming and grouping layers, but it was necessary here with so much to keep track of. I had separate groups for things like space icons, paths, etc.

      Once the base image was done in Photoshop I reimported it back into Illustrator to add the paths – again they’re just really basic tools. Just the default brush, I think, with some spacing. Google ‘dotted lines in Illustrator’ – that’s all I did. I printed it out on several sheets of A3 and glued them to card – though I should probably have gone with something stiffer. I might glue them onto some wood or foamboard.

      Does that help? I don’t feel like it was anything particularly advanced or unusual, but then I’ve been using Photoshop for a long time so I know my way round it pretty well. Was there a specific aspect you were interested in or curious about?

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      • Actually, I wonder if it’d be worth doing a detailed post on ‘how to do a map in Photoshop’. That could be useful for archaeology people as well as board game/fantasy people. Any interest?

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