Warning: This article contains some minor spoilers in image form
Arkham Horror the Card Game is the latest release from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) in their popular Arkham Horror Files range. It is a Living Card Game, meaning that the Core set released last week is just the first in a long line of products planned for the game, but before we go ahead and take out a subscription for everything yet to come, let’s take a look at what we get for starters.
First of all, the basics. In Arkham LCG, you control a character represented by a mini-card that you move around to track your location, a larger card showing your stats and powers, and a deck of 30ish cards that you draw from during the game in order to assist you in the various tasks and challenges that you undertake.
Your character has stats for their Willpower, Intelligence, Strength and Agility. They also have a health value and a sanity value. At various points throughout the game, you will be required to perform checks using these stats: to do so, you take your stat, add any modifiers for assets or other game effects in play. You then draw a random token from the “Chaos Bag” which will modify your total (usually downwards). Finally compare this total to the difficulty of the check: if your result is equal or higher, you have passed the test and can reap the reward.
Each investigator performs three actions per turn. Ideally you will want to use these for gathering clues, but you will also need to move, deal with enemies, and invest in acquiring tools for the tasks that await you, by drawing cards, gaining resources, or playing assets.
The pace of Arkham is driven by two decks: the Agenda deck and the Act deck. The Agenda deck is the game trying to execute its dark plan, and the Act is you trying to solve the mystery or stop things first. Although each deck is a separate pile of cards, they are designed to sit side-by-side, so that they give the impression of a single book.
Each scenario sets up with a series of locations. These are double-sided: a blank side, and a more detailed side that is revealed once the players enter the location. It costs an action to move between locations, and there are coloured symbols at the bottom of each location showing you where it connects to. Once revealed, most locations will have a certain number of clues (often scaled based on the number of investigators in the game), and a “Shroud” value, indicating how difficult it is to discover clues at that location. To investigate, you perform an intelligence check against the shroud value, and if you are successful, you take one of the clues from the location. Typically, you will need to acquire a certain number of clues in order to advance the Act, although sometimes there will be other conditions like defeating a particular enemy.
Each round, after the players have had their actions, all enemies engaged with them will attack, then everything refreshes, each player draws a card and a resource, and a new round begins with the Mythos Phase. The Mythos Phase is when the dark forces which oppose you do their work. First of all, a Doom token is placed on the Agenda deck, which may cause the Agenda to advance, then each player reveals a card from the encounter deck – either an enemy or a treachery.
The end of an Arkham LCG scenario is more complex than a simple win/lose check. You may have the option to resign and even if you do not, there are likely to be 2 or 3 different possible outcomes, creating knock-on implications for later scenarios in the campaign. This variable outcome structure adds to the replayability of the game, but it also lends weight to the designers’ assertion that the game is best played in campaign mode rather than just cherry-picking individual scenarios.
At the end of a scenario, assuming that you are not dead, various things will happen: you will be told to log certain pieces of pertinent information, and may gain cards or benefits, or suffer trauma that will affect you in future games.
You will also be given experience points (XP) based on cards you have defeated or objectives completed, and these can be spent on upgrading your deck. At the start of a campaign, all the cards in your deck will be “Level 0” but you can replace them with more powerful cards as the campaign goes on: the “Level” of a card (0-5) is the same as its cost in XP (although it always costs 1XP to swap a card, even if the new card is a level 0 as well).
When you finally reach the end of the campaign, you will be given an ultimate resolution – typically either a hollow victory that leaves you permanently scarred in mind or body (this is Lovecraft, after all) or outright death and destruction. The detailed consequences of the “positive” outcome are there for the particularly masochistic individuals who want to take their already-harrowed investigators onto a further campaign without starting anew.
Overall, I think that Arkham Horror LCG is a good game. It feels like the designers have learnt a lot from 5 years of experience with Lord of the Rings, along with ideas borrowed from elsewhere. Having smaller deck sizes increases the chance of you seeing a given card, whilst the 2-copies-per-deck limit for cards (as opposed to 3x for most other LCGs) keeps deck-building interesting. Signature cards are also a nice touch: these have had fairly haphazard implementation in other games, so having each investigator always start with 1 unique asset and 1 unique weakness in their deck levels the playing field and allows the character’s narrative to truly influence their gameplay.
The aesthetic of Arkham Horror is good: the iconography on the locations take a little getting used to, but is actually quite intuitive. The investigator art is particularly high-standard, with many of the characters depicted by Magali Villeneuve, everyone’s favourite artist from LotR.
The components generally are high standard too – including the trademark hearts and brains common to most of FFG’s Arkham games. It’s a little sad that they didn’t include an actual bag for drawing chaos tokens, but it’s easy enough to find a substitute.
The separation of locations from the Encounter deck allows the designers to convey a really good sense of place: you are always at a location – if you’re two rooms away from another investigator and they need help, expect it to take time for you to get to them. Making the locations double-sided, and having more copies of some locations than you use in each game allows them to retain an element of mystery of what you will find when you go there.
Having an encounter deck of 2 card-types from the outset (rather than 3 in LotR) reduces some of the variability in terms of what the encounter-deck throws at you, and thereby improves the overall sense of balance. LotR has had lots of location issues over the years, and having this approach from day 1 feels like a smart move.
Play it Again, Sam
I’m planning on writing a lot about this game over the coming weeks and months – I certainly want to take an in-depth look at the question of just how much replay value there is within a given campaign, but I think that will work better as a full-spoilers piece.
For now I’m just going to say that whilst you can play through the same campaign repeatedly, once you’ve done it a few times, and seen all the different resolutions, the narrative surprise is going to be significantly reduced: decisions which you take first time round from a purely narrative standpoint may become non-decisions once you know exactly what the gameplay outcome will be.
Obviously the nature of an LCG is that FFG expect people to buy into the game in a long-term fashion, and the replay value will grow with time: once we have the full Dunwich Legacy campaign, and the option of taking a detour to deal with a Rougarou, the scenarios should feel a lot more varied, and hopefully it will be easier to stay in character as you play.
Nothing to Build.
The Core set comes with 5 investigators, and allows you build legal decks for them – but only in certain combinations. For each character, you will be using all of the level 0 cards from both their primary and secondary classes at the outset, meaning that they cannot investigate alongside any character who shares one of those classes. In practice, each Investigator has to choose one of two others in order to start their investigation.
Once you have chosen your pair of investigators, the decks largely build themselves: take all of the level 0 cards from both classes, and top up with level 0 neutral cards. There is some scope for customisation here, but again the options are limited – by the time you’ve given everyone a couple of knives, a couple of flashlights and a couple of emergency caches, you’re only really picking skill cards to round out the numbers.
There are a number of ways round this, of course – with a second Core Set you can combine any pair of investigators (or play with 3 or 4 players). If you stick to the suggested pairings, a second Core gives you actual decisions to make about which cards to include. Aside from allowing you to play around with deck construction, a second Core makes some characters a lot more viable. Take Agnes for example – her base combat stat is a fairly weak 2, but her willpower is 5, making her a much more viable combatant once she has an attack spell out. Sadly, with only 1 copy of shrivelling in a core box, and only 4 uses possible, she’s going to really struggle until you can bulk out her card pool.
Even without the second core set, the card pool will grow over time, and players who don’t want to acquire the dead cards from a second core will see their options grow over time. (there is some labour-saving between scenarios to be had from a second set of encounter cards, but those duplicate acts, agendas, and unique cards are basically dead cardboard).
I think there’s a good argument for hanging fire until we’re seen what the Dunwich Legacy will offer us in terms of player-cards, (I think it’s due out before Christmas, so not long to wait) before deciding on a second Core set. Deck-building is going to be another area I look at more in the future, so I won’t go into any more detail here.
I think that Arkham Horror LCG is going to be a good game. We had fun playing it, even though our initial run-through of the campaign ended in death and destruction (and that was on easy mode). As an LCG Core Set, I think this offers a good starting point, and shows that the designers have crafted some solid mechanics, which offer a lot of potential for the future.
That said, as a stand-alone product, this feels very limited: the restrictions on deck-building mean that you are pushed strongly towards the lower-end of the difficulty level and for our purposes hard/nightmare might as well not exist. We played it 7 times over the first weekend we had it, and will probably play another half dozen or so times, but once I’ve taken all the characters through the initial campaign and done a mix of solo and 2-player (well, completed it 2-player, and gotten fed up with dying in solo), I’m not sure how much life is going to be left in it.
TLDR: A good start for an LCG. Very limited as a 1-and-done.