Tonight's 3-player session of Arkham Horror may well be one of its final plays. Although I lack experience with the distributions of encounters at the Arkham and Other World locations, I finally feel like I have a handle on the game mechanics themselves. And it's not pretty.
My main problem is that, when I play a game, the one thing that is absolutely necessary is that I have choices, and that those choices prompt appropriate results. This doesn't mean that I always get what I want or what I expected. But it does require that my choices matter. So let's look at Arkham Horror from this point of view.
There are 3 ways to win: seal 6 gates, close all gates and have gate trophies equal to the number of players, or defeat the Ancient One. Let's assume the first option is the easiest.
How do you seal a gate? One, you need to get to a gate. This requires moving around the board, and potentially fighting or evading monsters (see Monsters). Two, you need to survive 2 or more turns in the Other World associated with the gate (see Encounters). Three, you need to close and seal the gate (make a Fight/Lore check, then discard 5 Clue Tokens), or use an Elder Sign (see Items).
If you don't have an Elder Sign and fail your roll to close the gate, then you need to stay there and try again next turn. If you leave the location, you lose your opportunity and must make the entire trip again. If a monster that you cannot evade or fight happens to show up (perhaps a Hound of Tindalos), you are out of luck.
At the start of each turn, each player may adjust their skill settings to varying degrees. The encounters in the game often have you make skill checks based on skill settings that you could not have predicted before the encounter. Skills appear in 3 pairs of values running in opposite directions. So, for example, if you increase your Lore, you are decreasing your Luck. Going into an encounter, you never know if you will need either of these to be high. Finding a happy medium, say 2/2, if often bad because many of the rolls are at -2.
Most monsters move randomly. They can block your entrance/exit to/from a location, and can enter your space to force you to deal with them. Combat requires 2 skills: Will and Fight, which are on the same scale running in opposite directions.
With few exceptions you can never just go buy what you want. You might be able to draw an item and keep it, or draw 3 items and buy one at its face value if you have the money.
The Big Problem
With all this in mind, here's the big problem that seems to occur in every game I've played. I thought it was maybe just bad luck or inexperience the first few times, but it seems that this "problem" is by design.
You are standing in your current location. You have no money, no Clue Tokens, no Elder Sign, and insufficient weapons/items to fight anything on the board with any better odds than needing to roll a 5 or 6 on a single die. The best place to get money is the Newspaper, but that is blocked by a monster. So you go to the best location to get a weapon. You have an encounter there (draw a card) and have to make a random roll against a random skill, fail, lose 1 Stamina, and gain nothing.
More gates open. More monsters pour onto the board. You are still in the same situation, so you just sit there turn after turn just hoping you will get something useful before the store closes. Before that happens, some other random event forces you to fight or move. So you abandon the current plan to get a weapon and start wandering around to various places, just because you can get to them, hoping something good will eventually happen.
You might get 1 good encounter of every 4 you have. But if you really just need something specific like a physical weapon, it may take more turns that the game itself just to get one.
I have yet to feel that I was able to make even the simplest short-term plan and have it work. I've certainly had good luck, but that's got nothing to do with my choices. I enjoy the narrative of the game, but I want to be a more active participant in it.