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I've only played about half a dozen games of Arkham Horror, and they ranged in length from about 3 hours to aborting after 8. These were all games with 5-6 players, with just the base game (no expansions). I'm not an experienced enough player to know what factors caused that amount of variability. (It wasn't the players or analysis paralysis.)

What can we do to complete a satisfying game in about 3-4 hours? Are certain investigators (or combinations) better? Are there house rules that would help?

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I would reexamine your assertion that it wasn't the players or analysis paralysis. If you're really moving along, making decisions and taking actions reasonably quickly, there's pretty much no way a game can go on for 8 hours. You should either have won or all be dead long before then. –  Jefromi Oct 29 '12 at 2:53
    
@Jefromi, thanks. I assumed that since the same group of players has won games in 3 hours and bailed at 8 that it wasn't the players per se but some characteristic of the game (bad mix of characters, unfortunate early monster placements, whatever). That said, we must have had some role in the long games too -- just trying to figure out what the relevant factors are. –  Monica Cellio Oct 29 '12 at 3:13
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3 Answers

3-4 hours is good. 8 is way too long!

Without seeing you play it's hard to say with precision where your time is being spent inefficiently, I do have a couple suggestions though.

Setup efficiently

Setup can be done in 5-10 minutes but can easily drag on for half an hour.

Setting up is a job for several people. The most experienced person should be handing out tasks like:

  • Shuffle the Mythos deck
  • Get clue tokens on every space with this red diamond on it
  • Hand out character cards to everyone, figure out what fixed items are needed and search for them.
  • etc

Play Cooperatively

My group got a lot more efficient when we started talking before we moved. A simple 30 second discussion of what each player's plans are for that turn can end up saving a lot of time. For example: I found that big stalls happened when the 2nd player to move took the clue tokens I was aiming for. With a brief chat, that sort of conflict can be hammered out.

This also allows an opportunity for someone to mention that they really can't do much unless someone else kills that pesky Dark Young hanging out in the streets.

Upkeep as well as Encounters (Arkham or Offworld) can generally be done simultaneously. However my group prefers that all encounter cards be read aloud so the whole group can enjoy them. The shuffling and drawing is done ahead of time so there isn't much waiting though.

Job 1 - Closing Gates

Arkham Horror is a great game, dripping in style. It is a lot of fun to have encounters, kill monsters and collect a lot of items and spells.

The game plays a lot faster if you keep closing gates as job 1. With 5 players several people should be tasked with collecting clues and hopping off world as quickly as possible to close the first couple gates.

Injury and Madness

The Dunwich Horror expansion added Injury and Madness cards. These cards greatly change what happens when an investigator loses all of her sanity or stamina.

Under the original rules losing all of your sanity or stamina causes

  • loss of half your items
  • loss of half your clue tokens
  • reset the sanity or stamina to 1

With the Injury and Madness rules

  • No loss of items
  • No loss of clue tokens
  • reset sanity/stamina to maximum
  • Gain an injury or madness card

Either way you move to Saint Mary's Hospital or the Arkham Asylum as appropriate.

Whether or not you own Dunwich Horror, I would encourage you to use these rules. The original rules are too harsh and potentially cost the player many turns to regain the lost items/clues/stamina/sanity and results in a slower game while the player recoups.

If you don't have the cards, just ignore them. Or pick a couple that sound cool off of the Arkham Horror Wiki and make your own custom chart and roll a die to get a result.

The Great Old One equals Game Over

If our game is running long, we declare that we have lost if the Great Old One shows up. In the first edition of the game (late 80's) this was the rule. Fantasy Flight adjusted it when they remade the game.

This can depend a lot on the GOO as well. Some of them, particularly in the base set, make for long combats. They neither kill the investigators very fast or have the decency to die quickly themselves.

You can easily just skip all that and stay true to the the Chthulu Mythos by admitting that the world is lost when the GOO shows up.

Note - if you follow Job 1(noted above), you'll be seeing a lot less of the Great Old Ones!

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Great advice, thanks! We do pretty well on distributed setup, but group planning of turns would make a big difference. Because the cost of injury and madness are so high we probably play too conservatively, so the Dunwich changes would make a big difference. –  Monica Cellio Oct 26 '12 at 18:47
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2-4 hours is definitely the standard length for a game. That said, sometimes games run for 6+ hours just due to luck of the draw. The "Big 4" locations in the base set are the Woods, the Unvisited Isle, the Witch House, and Independence Square. Each of these locations has 10 cards in the Mythos deck which open a gate in their location. Concievably, you could seal off those four locations after the first 8 turns and just keep pulling mythos cards that try to open on those locations that don't do anything. Turn after turn after turn.

When that happens to my gaming group generally we'll all just sit on various locations, skip movements and breeze through encounters until something interesting happens.

But maybe that's not what you're talking about. Maybe you're talking about how you're doing a pretty good job of holding off the slow inexorable approach of Lovecraftian horror and you want to get better at it.

General Suggestions

So like I said, sealing off the Big 4 is a good way to get things under control pretty quickly. After those, the Black Cave, Unnamable, and the Graveyard has six cards each. All the others only have two. If you're in a pinch, generally you can close gates in the lower tier locations rather than sealing with without repercussions. Sometimes you'll just have to close a gate to get it off the board. If you find the game is going too slow, going gung-ho on just closing gates is a good way to speed up the doom track.

Getting at least one investigator decked out with weapons is very helpful. People generally want something to protect themselves, but I find that having 1 strong combat character can get more done successfully then 2 or 3 OK characters.

Madness/Injury cards from Dunwich Horror decrease the amount players need to run to the Asylum/Hospital for healing, allowing a larger number of productive turns.

Player Count

A 5 investigator game is also one of the more difficult configurations for Arkham. Gate limit is one lower than the 4 player game, moster limit on the board is +1, but you'll have twice as many monsters to deal with. 4 player games and 8 player games are the sweet spots mechanically, 4 player games are the sweet spot logistically (Less downtime in between turns keeps players more involved with the game, prevents slowdown, less inter-investigator coordination required, etc.)

Game Flow

Having one player that knows the rules decently well is pretty important. You'll be tempted to pull out the rulebook and try to find specific answers to scenarios, but it's generally a bad idea. Make a ruling, remember to look it up after the game is done, and keep playing. Stopping the flow of the game to look up rules can really extend game time and kill enthusiasm.

Try not to take breaks during the game! Maintain focus! 3-4 hours is pretty long time to play a board game for some people and if they're fiddling with a smartphone, playing on a DS, watching a TV that's on in the background, taking a break to get food, talking with another group of people, knitting, etc. it takes them time to catch up with what happened in the game when they weren't paying attention, people have to wait for them, etc. I've had 8 player games done in 2 hours just because everyone was really paying attention to what was going on in the game.

That all said, even experience groups can find themselves in a slogfest (or a shogfest har har) and you may find that taking a collective break and coming back does wonders for everyone's morale. Group morale is a pretty big part of the game interestingly enough and when it starts going down game speed starts going with it. Have a decent grip on the rule basics, maintain group cohesion, and have fun; soon enough most of your games will land in the 2-4 hour window!

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Thanks! Analyzing the card frequencies hadn't occurred to me (duh!); we've probably been wasting a lot of effort on low-probability recurrences. And it does sound like we're playing with with the wrong number of people. –  Monica Cellio Oct 26 '12 at 18:49
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Good advice. I agree with everything except for 5 players. Per the Arkham Horror Statistics report, 5-8 players win at about the same percentage, 69% +/-1%. With lesser number of players your odds decrease, 4p is 64%, 3p is 60% –  Pat Ludwig Oct 26 '12 at 19:15
    
With experienced players, more investigators is generally always better. With players that are looking to tone down on the game length, I'd argue heavily for keeping it at or under four players. Looking at individual submissions in the statistics report that submitted a game length in time, 4 player games generally ranged from 2-5 hours centered on 4 hours. 5-8 player games generally ranged from 3-6 hours centered on 5 hours. And there's a considerably smaller sample size for the larger groups than there is for 4 investigator games. –  EvilAmarant7x Oct 26 '12 at 22:18
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+1 for maintaining focus. This is a problem that a lot of people don't even realize they have. It sometimes helps to have a taskmaster, to say "you, it's your encounter, go" - I've played in groups where without that, people would sit around for a few minutes talking without realizing it was their turn. You can only do so much to win faster, but you can often be much more efficient about the amount of gameplay per real time. –  Jefromi Oct 29 '12 at 2:49
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In addition to the already excellent answers presented here (upvotes all around!), I'd like to add very specific things my family and friends do to keep the game flowing at a good pace.

Appoint a Game Master

This guy/gal's job is to keep the game flowing nicely. They remind everyone what the current phase is, and they handle the weird rule questions. If you have an experienced group, the game master is simply the current first player. Concretely, what they do is:

  • Announce the current phase. This is important. Some people take longer in their phase than others (upkeep, planning, etc), and others may drift a bit in their mind. Announcing the new phase not only gives them a cue to tune in, but also forces a certain pace.

  • Guard the pace and proper sequence. In line with announcing the current phase, the game master keeps an eye on what's the current hold-up, and that people don't get ahead of themselves. Even experienced players tend to treat Movement and Encounters in one fell sweep.

  • Read and resolve Mythos cards. (If they're the first player, they do this anyway.) These cards have specific and sometimes confusing orders and side-effects: doom tokens, monster movement, new gates or monster surges... Having some experience with the game will help you roll through them much quicker.

Distribute Responsibilities

Arkham Horror has a lot of cards, especially if you start adding in the expansions. Distributing card stacks among players is a good way to keep them involved in the game even when it's not currently their turn.

  • Put decks near each player. Encounter cards, item cards, blessings, and so on, can be spread over the players per full stack.

  • Read each other's encounters aloud. Hand your encounter card to the player to your left or right for them to read aloud. (If people have the ability to draw several and pick one, first let them pick.)

  • Spread out the tokens. Have a stack on each side of the board, consisting of: clue tokens, dollars, stamina, sanity. This will help enormously during Mythos phases (placing clue tokens) and upkeep (stamina, sanity, dollars).

  • Spread out Mythos and Other World Encounter cards. (Only if you have many expansions.) These decks become tall and unwieldy; spread them out so people can draw from a smaller one nearby. In casu encounters outside of Arkham, have everyone look for a card of the proper colour.

Keep the Focus

This was mentioned in the other answers. Focus is important; having to catch up with the game complicates things and slows down the pace. A lot of the suggestions above are primarily aimed at flow, but also help people stay involved in the game when it's not their move.

Other tips that we use to good effect:

  • Have some atmospheric background music. The music should be simple, not loud, and not have intelligible voices. We use a laptop with music from old games like Hexen, Dungeon Keeper, and so on--don't use a radio or something that will have people talking.

  • Address people by name. May be silly, but it helps with focus. Arkham Horror is a long and involved game and, at some point, someone will tune out to other thoughts or worries. Don't fuss about it; just address them by name when you need something; keeping the above tips in mind, this will be regularly.

  • Don't tell people what to do. Should go without saying. It's tempting for experienced players to do this. Discussing is great, advice is great, but in the end it's down to everyone to play their part. Little drains your fire more than simply not feeling like you're the one playing.

  • Do take a break, but do so at a clear checkpoint: after a Mythos or upkeep phase. People will need to use the bathroom, check their messages, stretch their legs. It's a good moment to get some snacks, recharge that laptop, or maybe even have dinner (take-out?). Make sure people know when you start again.

Bend the rules a bit

Skipping a turn is boring. Are you lost in time and space? You get an other world encounter under 'Other'. Got knocked out in upkeep or movement? Take an encounter at the hospital or asylum anyway.

These changes may make the game harder or easier, and not every gaming group will agree with them, but the important thing is to have something to do. Little drains focus and enthusiasm so much as knowing at the end of the previous turn that you will do nothing next turn.

Results?

Before any expansions, our AH games took one-and-a-half to two hours. Later on, having pretty much all the expansions, they take about two to four hours for a full game, and that's with all the stuff like vortices, Innsmouth rising, heralds, institutions...

The games do still take a while, but nowhere near as long as eight hours. o_O

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Great advice, thanks! Keeping mean time between "things to do" low (for each player) is important in all games, and this is an area where we definitely bog down sometimes. –  Monica Cellio May 6 at 14:04
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