Played Arkham Horror today-- a fairly substantial co-op game from Fantasy Flight. Everyone works together to fight off the coming elder horror before it engulfs the town (and therefore you as well). I'd say I'm pretty good with rules-- I'm usually the person who teaches the games for our regular board game night (a group sadly down to three regulars and one irregular). So I went through the rules pretty closely ahead of time and read through the online FAQ and printed out a cheat sheet. Still, we managed to make a number of errors, but nothing earth-shattering. I should probably say, I made a number of errors and everyone else played along with my interpretation.
Play-wise we had a good time. It is a game that takes about three-four hours. That might come down a little with players who know what they're doing, but I'm not sure it'd get reduced that much. We had two younger kids playing and three adults, but I don't think that slowed things down too much. You could tell at about the three hour mark they started to get antsy, but they kept with it. We ended up winning but it was close-- a few more bad rolls could have finished us off. As it was, three of the five players got killed off in the final battle with the Great Old One. That kind of tension and close game is what you want out of a first session and I'm sure I'll play it again.
All that being said, it is a strange game-- what I'll call an inelegant game. It has a jumble of different mechanics, all handling distinct parts of the game. With some games-- Euro-games I'm probably talking about now, there's a simple beauty to the system that leads to complex decision-making. Games like La Citta, Carcassone, Goa and so on build up their apparently complexity out of the variety of choices but the actual system and rules themselves are clear and direct...well, maybe Goa a little bit less than the others, but it still works. Then there are games that are so elemental simple that you can really see the bare-bones of what's going on in terms of mechanics Dominion, Bohnanza, or San Juan for example. All good games, but the mechanics could be done in any other setting very easily just by renaming things and the essential game would remain the same. It isn't that you couldn't reduce Arkham Horror down to some base mechanics, but the engine would look odd, unfinished and cumbersome if you did. Here, theme carries the day over the game engine.
I'm trying to think about that as I look at how to handle modifying and reworking my card-based rpg system. At what leave are the mechanics of that game mechanical and how do I work the theme in of the setting and genre so that the play feels natural?