Note: Under the Pyramids is an expansion for Fantasy Flight Games’ Eldritch Horror. The base game is required to play.
“Eldritch Horror is a cooperative game of terror and adventure in which one to eight players take the roles of globetrotting investigators working to solve mysteries, gather clues, and protect the world from an Ancient One – an elder being intent on destroying our world. Each Ancient One comes with its own unique decks of Mystery and Research cards, which draw you deeper into the lore surrounding each loathsome creature.”– Eldritch Horror Product Description
As I opened the Under the Pyramids Expansion box with a trembling hand, I could practically feel the heat of the desert winds and hear the call of things both old and terrible which lie beneath the ancient sands. For as I beheld the horrifying components within, I was overwhelmed with the knowing that I was now duty-bound to gather my brave comrades and journey once more into the realm of Eldritch Horror. For inside this box lay new threats to our world, the likes of which we have never known.
Within its confines, the expansion in question contained not merely a single foe, but two madness-inducing Ancient Ones (Nephren-Ka, an evil and powerful undead Pharaoh; and Abhoth, the grotesque master of filth and decay) and their blasphemous minions. But hope was here, as well, in the form of new dynamic characters, allies, items, and spells to aid in the struggle. Only by choosing our party wisely and bringing the lessons of our previous victories and defeats to bear did we stand a chance of saving the world from the hideous malevolence included therein.
However, as you soon will learn, dear reader, the path to stopping these Ancient Ones is peril-fraught, and facing such abominations is not a thing to be taken lightly. Though my companions and I were able to put an end to Abhoth and his cult, the curious case of Nephren-Ka was another thing entirely. I feel no small degree of shame in saying that we were not successful in putting an end to the Dark Pharaoh’s plot. Even now, I sense his minions calling to me. Whispering from the dunes. Proclaiming the ascendence of their wicked ruler…
Nephren-Ka (Ancient One): With an intimidating starting Doom of 12, The Dark Pharaoh is clearly not one to be trifled with. When the Reckoning icon appears during the Mythos Phase, Investigators may move one space towards The Bent Pyramid (on the side board) or lose 1 Sanity. This atmosphere-rich mechanic represents the hypnotic pull of this particular Ancient One, calling the characters to Nephren-Ka’s cursed desert home. In an interesting departure from the norm, Investigators facing the Pharaoh’s cultists in combat perform a Willpower check as usual, but instead of next making a Strength roll, they must perform a Lore -1 roll. Thematically, this seems to speak to the ancient and arcane powers of Nephren-Ka’s faithful, who apparently rely on magic more than muscle. If the Investigators are unlucky enough to awaken him, they must face a Final Mystery, requiring a character on The Bent Pyramid space to encounter the Dark Pharaoh himself in the form of a challenging Special Encounter card. It is important to note that in Nephren-Ka’s domain, all semblance of Sanity has fled and the Investigators on the Pyramids space on the main board or on any space on the side board will find themselves unable to recover lost Sanity when performing a Rest action. It would seem that facing this Egyptian menace is simply too much for our feeble human minds to take.
Abhoth (Ancient One): With a starting Doom of 14, Abhoth presents a steep challenge for the investigators, but gives them a little more time to operate before the world becomes a hellish landscape of despair and pain. This particular Ancient One’s strength is in his followers, and due to an intriguing mechanic, encounters with his cultists are not only unique – they are also far more challenging than the usual cultist. Special cards are played when an investigator encounters a cultist, which adds creepy flavor to what is typically one of the game’s least interesting interactions. If the players are unfortunate enough to awaken Abhoth, they will not only find themselves facing off against a fiercely powerful Epic Monster. In addition, they will find the board quickly overrun by cultists who are now even stronger than before the Ancient One found its way into our realm.
Artifacts/Assets/Conditions/Spells: Under the Pyramids offers an array of new Artifacts (4), Assets (16), Conditions (16), Spells (24), and Unique Assets (35). These add considerably to the tone and to the variety of possibilities that already exist in the already enormous base game and its subsequent expansions. The game designers continue to find new and different ways to aid the characters in their efforts via the Spells, Assets, Artifacts, etc., but have also created some truly confounding mechanics that might require a real-life Sanity test from some players – usually brought on by one of the vicious new Condition Cards that can impair characters’ statistics (see Impairment Tokens).
Characters: The new playable characters in Under the Pyramids are (as with previous expansions) one of the highlights of this installment. Eight brave souls join the struggle against the horrors from beyond, including the monster-killing farmhand Hank Samson, the clue-gathering researcher Mandy Thompson, and the skill-boosting professor Harvey Walters (a long-time favorite of Lovecraftian gamers). The new faces add exciting and useful mechanics, and provide new opportunities for deeper cooperation between characters.
Encounter Cards: The over 150 new Encounter Cards immerse the players in the atmosphere, and provide a staggering amount of experiences. Several of the cards are used specifically with the side board, and tie in beautifully to the Egyptian theme, creating a veritable lost treasure room of possibilities for the investigators to explore.
Impairment Tokens: This new mechanic definitely alters the overall experience the most as certain cards and encounters now inflict impairments on characters’ skills, creating an opposite for skill improvements. This seems a reasonable enough addition. However… In an already very challenging game, the implementation of this element might give players pause when considering which expansion to include in this week’s session. One Mythos Card specifically, an Ongoing Rumor called Shadow Beneath Chicago, was enough to make my intrepid team and I throw in the towel during our battle against Nephren-Ka. As we were unable to solve the rumor in time, the penalty was that each investigator impaired EACH SKILL… TWICE!!! To be clear – all players had to put “minus two” markers on every skill. With the Doom clock running out, pulling this card effectively rendered useless an already beleaguered party. While the impairment mechanic can unquestionably add to the difficulty and sense of dread, my group found that it sometimes negatively impacted the balance.
Side Board: UtP’s additional board (like the Mountains of Madness board before it) opens up a number of new locations and theme-specific encounters. Having played on just the original board time and time again, it is refreshing to have more options, and to have the new locations be so entwined with the game’s storytelling. The only negative with this addition is the space that it takes up. Eldritch Horror on its own takes up a lot of table space, so the UtP board requires the players to have a very large table.
Summary: With two nightmarish Ancient Ones, a side-board rich with atmosphere, a generous offering of characters, and a flood of additional cards, the Under the Pyramids expansion provides the Eldritch Horror enthusiast yet more variety, tone, and challenges. As always, the artwork is excellent and the text throughout is well-written. While the Impairment Tokens heavily impact the game, they were not enough to stop our team from dusting ourselves off after our battle with Nephren-Ka and entering the fray once more to take on Abhoth – a battle which we ultimately won! I would most definitely recommend this product, but suggest that you only include the entirety of its contents when you want to increase the game’s difficulty.