[Warning: This article contains extensive Spoilers for The Night of the Zealot Core Box Campaign in Arkham Horror the Card Game]
Play it again
Leaving aside the recent trend towards “Legacy” games, very few of us go out and buy a board or card game, expecting to only play it once. For one thing, the complexity of many modern games means that you need to play it once before you’re fully comfortable with the rules, mechanics and interactions, and for another, it would be an incredibly inefficient use of money and storage space.
For a lot games, that isn’t a problem – No matter how many times you play Pandemic, Carcassonne, Dominion or Ticket to Ride, the game remains basically the same, and the nuggets of information that you gather (what worked well last time, what is player X likely to be trying to achieve when they do Y) are fairly abstract, and equally available to all.
For a game drive by narrative though, this can be a very different matter. If part of the thrill is about uncovering a mystery, how is that going to play out once the mystery is no longer mysterious? Taking the initial campaign, Night of the Zealot from the Arkham Horror LCG Core set, I want to consider some of the practicalities of this.
The first scenario in the game, The Gathering, starts off with everyone gathered in the study of the first investigator – they have no choice in where they gather, because the door has vanished!
As we will no doubt see in a lot of scenarios over the course of the game’s life, in order to advance the act from this first stage, players need to gather a certain number of clues (2 per investigator). Once they have done this, they can read a brief bit of flavour text about the door mysteriously reappearing underneath the rug, and advance to the next stage, adding in the Hallway, Cellar and Attic locations. So far, no bother- the narrative detail here seems fairly limited in impact.
Moving on to stage 2, players need to explore the cellar and the attic to find clues: due to extremes of heat and cold, you can expect to suffer physical and mental damage when you enter these places and, on a second or subsequent run-through, you might want to avoid sending a particular investigator to the place which will hamper them the most. That said, the number of clues required means that you will have to visit both locations at some point, and unless you want your party very thinly spread, you might just have to suck up that damage and horror in order to reach the parlour.
The final stage of The Gathering is where the spoilers start to come thick and fast. For one thing, the rather large and unpleasant Ghoul Priest is going to spawn in the Hallway, and having advance knowledge of that is likely to impact where you position your investigators immediately prior to paying the clues to advance.
In the parlour itself is the mysterious Lita Chantler – with a big enemy like that in play, can you afford to use an entire turn evading the Ghoul, then moving to the Parlour and then performing an Intelligence check of difficulty 4 in an attempt to take control of her? First time round, we didn’t bother: Roland had Dynamite, and a beat-cop which was enough to put a good-sized hole in the Ghoul Priest without using that many actions in hope of gaining her “+1 to combat” “+1 damage to monsters.”
There is also, of course, the option to resign at various points in the game. Do you cut your losses and run? Well, once you know that at least one possible resolution leads only to death, you’re unlikely to bother with that one. Knowing that a surviving Ghoul Priest will find his way into the Encounter Deck for all future games is also likely to give you pause before turning your back on him.
Burning Down the House
By far the biggest issue for me with re-playing this campaign, is the question of burning down the house. In our first play-through, I reasoned that a by-the-book Fed like Roland was very unlikely to torch his own home, merely on the word of a strange woman who had appeared in his kitchen. The house remained standing, and we were rewarded with an extra XP for Roland, and the chance to start the second scenario at “Your House,” a location with clues, a low shroud value, and a powerful action ability to draw cards and resources at once.
The second time through, we torched the house. Obviously, there’s an element of wanting to just explore the different possibilities, but in all honesty, we were mostly motivated by the challenges we faced in scenario 3. We wanted to have Lita on the team, and correctly guessed that burning the house would bring her to our cause. No bonus XP, no “Your House” for scenario 2, and 1 mental trauma for Agnes, but in return we had a powerful ally who might prove… useful, in scenario 3.
The second scenario is a fairly confusing one first time out, just because it is so open ended. At least with the current card-pool, I think it must be near-on impossible to defeat all the cultists in the deck before Doom causes the Agenda to advance at least once. Of course, having it advance from stage 1 to 2 is no bad thing as you quickly discover when you realise that the back of the first Agenda card is one of the 6 cultists you seek.
The first time we played this, we were very uncertain a lot of the time –how long could we spend investigating? How many cultists did we need to find? We defeated 4 in the end, and called it a day.
The instant you set up the third scenario, a lot more about the second one becomes clear: any cultists who survive are going to reappear looking for a fight just at the moment you need to get past them to the Ritual Site. Cultists still at large will also mean starting the third scenario with Doom already on the Agenda, effectively cutting the amount of time available to you there. Perhaps more to the point, you realise that there is no real drawback to allowing the agenda to advance once in Midnight Masks (as noted above, it can be a blessing in disguise, providing a cultist to defeat at the cost of zero clues). If you do run out of time, going “Past Midnight” leads to a simple cards-in-hand penalty at the start of the next game: certainly not something an investigator would wish for, but a price you may decide to pay if you think it will mean the difference between taking down that last cultist or leaving them to roam free.
The Devourer Below
At last then, you come to the third and final scenario of the campaign. First time round, Roland and Wendy were both in full health, and we had arrived ahead of Midnight. However, we then found ourselves in all manner of trouble – Doom was advancing fast, Roland got stuck in the twisting paths, and when it was time to head to the Ritual Site to stop the dark deeds underway, the way was blocked by 2 Cultists. Wendy was able to get past them thanks to the help of the Cat Burglar, but by the time Roland had cleared them out and joined her, all they were able to do was to die together.
Playing The Devourer Below crystallised things about the earlier scenario for us in a way that no amount of actually playing the earlier stages could have: we knew that we needed to be much more successful in defeating cultists first time out (Wolf Man Drew is a particularly nasty one to have to deal with). Agnes and Skids felt a lot more optimistic going into their attempt at Scenario 3 knowing only Victoria (pay resources) and Herman (discard cards) would be standing in their way.
Above all though, coming face-to-face with Umordhoth made it clear to us that we needed Lita in the party: obviously our investigators are decent folk and will do what they can to win the investigation properly, but knowing that there’s an ally we can throw under the bus makes a big difference.
Locations and Encounters
Away from the meta-narrative there will, obviously, be variation in every game of Arkham Horror that you play. The encounter deck is randomised and, even if you shuffle as badly as I do, that will mean some variation between whether you have to pass a skill test, sit hampered by a treachery you can do nothing about, or fight an enemy.
On top of the pre-existing randomness built into the mechanics of the game, there are some elements where additional unpredictability is built in through randomised cards: choosing between the 2 different versions of Downtown, or the different Southsides for example. That said, it’s still important not to get too carried away: there are exactly two versions of each of these locations, and even drawing at random, it won’t take that many plays to get through all of them.
Arkham Woods in the 3rd scenario is a little more complex: even though you will fairly quickly get to know all 6 of the locations on the revealed side, you still never know from game to game which one is which or where. Given the different challenges that these offer, this can make for a lot of variety in the final scenario, even if it also leads to a lot of frustration (Roland wasting 3 entire turns trying to get out of the twisting paths springs to mind).
Overall I think location variety is a good way to stop you from reaching a point where you have “cracked” a scenario, and it no longer offers any challenge, or reason to play again. However, I’m not convinced it really compensates for a narrative that has become sufficiently well-worn to feel excessively predictable.
Overall, I enjoyed Night of the Zealot. At times, we found the difficulty really frustrating, but that’s a lot to do with the limited deck-building options you have from a single Core Set. No doubt in time, a couple of properly rounded-out decks will make the easy mode feel just that: easy. At that point, we’ll probably try it on a higher level (standard at least, we may not be going near “Hard” for a while yet).
Overall though, I do wonder how much re-play value this campaign will have. I’ve played it a fair few times now and I’m pretty confident that I know all the different ways it could play out. At that point, it’s very easy for the game to shift from being a narrative, role-playing experience, to a mechanical puzzle where theme is a slightly secondary consideration. That isn’t necessarily a problem – the game can scratch two different itches on early / later replays, but I think it’s important that we don’t have unrealistic expectations: the outcomes and possibilities within a given scenario or campaign are finite, and we’ll only be setting ourselves up for disappointment if we expect any different.