Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend

DSC07433Don’t be fooled by the rocks that she’s got, Jenny is most definitely not from the block. She is, however, the second investigator I’ve played in all 5 Arkham Horror Files games and, therefore, our second Investigator Revisited.

Guinevere Barnes, more commonly known as Jenny is a wealthy socialite, and the daughter of a professor of Arthurian studies.

All JennysHer official description is “The Dilettante” – and you will often see people arguing that this is nothing more than a typo for Debutante, but FFG have doubled-down on what they’ve written – a dabbler, a trifler, someone who cultivates an interest, but without any real commitment. In Jenny’s case, she is an amateur Archaeologist, using her considerable trust fund to finance various digs, and getting involved herself. It is during one of these digs that she finds the Green Man Medallion, an artefact which she then delivers to her sister Izzie.

Izzie is Jenny’s doorway into the Mythos. Her happy life of bouncing between archaeological digs and cocktail parties on yachts on the French Riviera is shattered by the news that her sister has disappeared. Returning to New England, she hunts for clues, and discovers that there are more things in heaven and on earth than were dreamt of in her philosophy.

Jenny MiniJenny is rich, and this is a theme that is played up to heavily, across various games, with high influence scores, and means of resource generation. Stat-wise, she varies from title to title rather more.

Her low-cut dress and enormous hat have definitely lead some players I’ve known to be a bit dismissive of Jenny, but she actually feels like one of the series’ more developed characters, and has powerful abilities in many of the titles.

 

Arkham Horror

Arkham Jenny The Original Arkham Horror gave Jenny a very simple ability – a $1 income every round. Not being a particularly experienced Arkham player, I’ve not managed to leverage this to great effect, and generally found her stacking up piles and piles of cash with nothing obvious to spend it on (I’ve only played her in 2-investigators games, possibly with a higher player-count she can be the designated shopper for the party, and let others go travelling to other worlds…)

That aside, Jenny’s stats are nothing to write home about – she only has 1 focus, which limits her flexibility, and whilst her sanity is solid, it comes at the expense of only 4 stamina, which makes her vulnerable if she gets into a fight.

Not necessarily a bad character, but certainly looking for something better.

 

Elder Sign

Elder JennyIn Elder Sign, Jenny has 6 sanity and 4 health, and can discard a common item, clue or spell to gain the Red & Yellow dice. The fact that she isn’t a 3 for either stat helps her to stay alive, but it’s her ability that makes her stand out.

We hadn’t really used Jenny all that much before I started writing this article, but it’s really powerful if you can get on a roll. Unless your investigators are really in a hole, it’s generally not that hard to find an adventure that offers at least one out of common item/spell/clue as its reward, and once you can do that, you’ll be semi-reliably rolling 8 dice instead 6 on most of your turns. Jenny’s ability stacks well with Blessed, and she is generally a character who can generate huge momentum.

People have queried how exactly this represents a “trust fund” (which is the title of the ability), saying that it feels more like having a master magician on the team, one who can continuously pull dice out of hats. In all honesty, Elder Sign is probably the game where the theme has the least depth in the mechanics, but whatever you say about her, it’s hard to deny Jenny’s power, and it’s power that comes from having “all the stuff.”

 

Eldritch Horror

Tokyo
No, not that one…

In Eldritch Horror, Jenny is one of the very high influence investigators, in a similar vein to Charlie Kane or Preston Fairmont. Charlie is the King of Tokyo, sitting there and smooth-talking the Japanese military into dealing with all your monster problems, whilst giving his spare actions to your other investigators.

Eldritch w AssetsJenny plays very differently: her shopping skills are clearly more honed, and she is better equipped to actually do some fighting, but she starts in the Caribbean, which is a long way from Tokyo.

Mission It’s also worth noting that her personal mission sends her traipsing all over the world, as she looks for Izzie at 3 randomly determined locations: there’s much less of an obvious role for her to fill.

Jenny Bio I’m also not a great fan of the slant on Jenny’s backstory that we get in Eldritch Horror, which seems to be pushing her far more into the vapid socialite stereotype, something which is really brought her home by her abysmal 1 Lore. I’m definitely more of a fan of the approach taken in more recent material (LCG, Investigators book, Novella), which depicts her pursuing legitimate academic interests, albeit with the casual ease that comes only to the truly wealthy.

 

 

Mansions of Madness (2nd Edition)

Mansions JennyAlthough Mansions uses the Trust Fund name for Jenny’s power, the ability here is actually a bit more nuanced: not only can she gain clues if she has none, but she gets to heal horror as part of the same action – this can be really powerful in some of the long investigation-heavy scenarios where simply the slow attrition of time will gradually send people insane.

Again she is highly influential, and reasonably agile. Although her brute strength is nothing to write home about, the fact that none of her stats is below a 3 makes her a good all-rounder, and 4 agility is pretty good for attacking with firearms. She can also spend her clues a little more freely than other investigators, as she has an in-built way to recover them, although it’s probably too expensive action-wise to trigger too often.

 

Living Card Game

It’s the nature of the Living Card game format that the characters get more developed than elsewhere in the Files: there are simply that many more aspects to an LCG character than an Elder Sign/Mansions one.

Mercenary
Being able to take any 5 level-zero cards from other spheres gives Jenny a lot of flexibility.

In the LCG, Jenny is a Rogue, which dictates a lot of the cards she can include in her deck, and she has a very even stat-line, with 3s across the board. Jenny generates twice the resources of any other investigator, allowing her to tool up, or to fuel the various mercenary talents seen in the game.

Her Jenny LCG InvestigatorElder Sign effect gives you +1 skill for each resource she has, an ability which isn’t capped. Up until now this has generally just been a “you didn’t pull a nasty negative token” ability, as well as powering up Rogue’s “Succeed by 2” tricks, like many investigators. However, with an increasing number of effects that can guarantee pulling the Elder Sign for a specific test (Seal of the Elder Sign, Codex of Ages), you can use that boost strategically for some really big bomb effects, either passing impossible tests, or getting major boosts out of “succeed by X” cards.

StreetwiseStreetwise isn’t the most efficient of the permanent talents, but it may well be the most powerful, and Jenny is uniquely positioned to take advantage of it with her extra income. Jenny can access all Rogue cards, but like the other investigators from the Dunwich box, she can also take 5 level zero cards from any other class, giving her access to Dr Milan Christopher for a respectable 4 intellect, and an unparalleled amount of cash.

45s
Interestingly, the flavour text is taken from Hour of the Huntress, not released until a full year later!

Jenny’s signature asset is a pair of guns, her “Twin .45s” – these occupy both hand-slots, but in return they offer an amount of ammo equal to the number of resources spent on her – combo this with Contraband, and there are few in the game who can match this firepower.

Searching for IzzieHer signature weakness is “Searching for Izzie” a card which will drag her away from the party, chasing down any rumours of her sister. Failure to do this can give her a mental trauma if “Searching for Izzie” is still around at the end of the scenario, so she really does need to pursue that lead, but it can prove a major let-off in any scenario where locations get discarded before game end.

ReplacementsThe Hour of the Huntress novella made Jenny the first investigator in the game to get “replacement” cards – a new weakness and signature asset. The asset, Green Man Medallion, is a particularly interesting one as it allows her to convert resources into XP. The rate of 6:1 is fairly punishing, and it only counts against the next card you upgrade after the scenario, making it hard to save up for later. However, given how many high-XP cards there are for rogues, it’s a very attractive option for when you do find yourself sat on a huge stack of cash. I know that a lot of people were hoping for a Lonnie ally as the new asset, but what we have is probably more interesting, certainly in terms of how it pushes the boundaries of the game, even if it is a little less fun!

Along with the new asset, Jenny also gets an additional weakness, an enemy which prevents her from gaining resources from card effects (this includes her innate ability). This beast is a nasty one, with 4 fight, and 3 health, meaning you’ll inevitably have to attack it (at least) twice, and it’s going to start a fair distance away so, much like Looking for Izzie, you’ll have to take time away from the investigation to deal with it.

 

 

The Hour of her story

HuntressAs I already mentioned earlier, Jenny was the first investigator to be given one of the new wave of Novellas, Hour of the Huntress. We’ve already looked at the player cards, but I wanted to take a few moments considering how her character is developed here.

HarvestFestivalJenny is shown as a self-confident woman, someone happy mixing it up with mobsters, or generally going by herself, even into some of Arkham’s more dubious location. Her intellect and general level of lore seems to be fairly good.

Hour of the Huntress actually takes place some while after Jenny’s story from the Investigators of Arkham Horror book, which is comprised from a selection of journal entries and letters to Izzie. The dig seemed to attract a lot of superstition from locals, to the point where grumbling turned into a riot, the site virtually destroyed. Jenny was fortunate enough to escape with her life, her health and the medallion, of which she made a copy and sent it to a gift as her sister.

Hour of the Huntress [slight spoilers follow] picks this theme up and runs with it, making the medallion the reason that Izzie was initially abducted by a cult – they wanted a way to lure Jenny to Arkham, so that they could steal it from her. I won’t gave away the whole ending, but you can rely on nefarious cultists, a few terrifying monsters, and a young woman who emerges with a keen sense that there are forces out there which need to be confronted.

 

Final Thoughts

Chainsaw

I like Jenny. Out of all the investigators of Arkham Horror, she feels like one of the most developed and despite a spot of superficial silliness, she is actually a character who rings true in most of the situations that she finds herself.

The big hat and the short dress mean that she’ll never be short of her detractors, and there’s definitely an extent to which her outfit earns her a place on the art for various cards, but make no mistake. Jenny is perhaps the most powerful investigator we have for Elder Sign, and a significant force to be reckoned with in most of the Arkham Horror Files games.

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One Man and His Dog – “Ashcan” Pete

Welcome, to the first in my Investigators Revisited Series, where I’ll be taking a look at the investigators of Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Files Games. You can read more about the series at the link above, but I’m going to go ahead and dive in to our first investigator.

 

Ashcans Pete Washburne, better known as “Ashcan,” is a drifter. A loner, a hobo, a man who keeps moving, with only one constant companion – Duke his dog.

The earliest versions of Ashcan focused on his ability to make use of things that others had thrown away, the scrapper/scrounger who is always able to find something you need. Later versions have increasingly leant towards Duke as the centre-piece of what Pete likes to do.

 

Pete is generally represented with his health being equal or slightly higher than his sanity (he has bad dreams, so there’s only so much more the mind can take), but broadly he remains a balanced character, not too heavily tipped one way or the other. His actual skills vary quite a bit from game to game, although there’s a definite recurring theme with his Influence being low, whilst his body is fairly tough.

Game-by-Game

Arkham Horror the Card Game

LCG-Pete-and-Duke The Living Card Game is probably where Duke shines the brightest, leading to various comments about whether Pete takes up Duke’s ally slot, or whether Pete is Duke’s signature weakness.

Duke allows Pete to fight at an impressive base skill of 4 (set the dog on them) and to investigate, also starting at 4 skill, with an optional free move thrown in for good measure. (Sniffing out clues).

The fact that Pete can discard a card to ready Duke, and therefore use him twice in a round (potentially more if you draw the Elder Sign) makes for a really strong combination overall, able to do both of the games core actions (fight monsters, find clues) strongly. Without Duke, Pete’s Combat and Intelligence scores are both fairly low, at 2, but that does leave space for a Willpower of 4, which makes him pretty resilient to treacheries.

Your-House
If you’ve played Night of the Zealot, you know why Pete has to be the first investigator, and what you have to choose…

Overall, I’d say that the Card Game is definitely the place where Ashcan/Duke are the most powerful, and offer the biggest incentive to play. I’ve taken them all through one campaign in the past, and have been enjoying running them through a second as I prepared this article.

LCG-Nightmares The back of Pete’s investigator card talks about his nightmares, and how they drive him to seek out the people he has seen, to save them from the horrors that he has witnessed. This is fairly consistent with other stories, but it only gets limited development in the LCG, mostly in the title of his signature weakness.

 

Mansions of Madness (2nd edition)

Mansions2-Pete-and-Duke In Mansions of Madness, Pete is reduced to “starts with Duke.” In this case, Duke being a unique “item” (allies aren’t really a thing in Mansions). Duke’s power definitely isn’t a flashy one, and I’d largely overlooked it in the past, but actually it has the power to be fairly useful, giving you an extra trade action at the start of your turn, a trade that can be conducted with someone in an adjacent space. In a recent game, where I’d made a point of playing Pete in preparation for this article, Duke was actually the difference between Pete winning and losing the scenario, as he went insane whilst fighting the end boss, and now had a sudden need for evidence, currently in the possession of the person in the next space.

Pete-Miniature Stat-wise, Mansions Ashcan is a fairly solid all-rounder, with 4s in Strength, Agility, Observation and Will. His Lore isn’t great (not much time for studying whilst you’re riding the rails) and, as you might expect for someone who is essentially a tramp, his influence is very low.

Pete certainly isn’t a mega-popular character when we play Mansions – he generally only gets picked when someone says “ooh, I’ll be the one with the dog” but he’s a very solid option when he does get onto the team.

 

Eldritch Horror

Eldritch-PeteAshcan’s stats in Eldritch Horror are much what you might expect: a very low 1 for influence, and steady 3s for everything else. His Health and Sanity are fairly balanced, with a 7/5 split in favour of health.

This version of Pete has 2 abilities, one of which focuses on acquiring discarded Item or Trinket assets with a value less than his observation skill – this can be very nice if he successfully improves that stat, but quickly loses its power if the skill becomes impaired.

Ashcan-MissionAnother aspect of Pete’s character that is often referred to in backstory, but isn’t always that prominent in gameplay, is his habit of riding the rails, never staying long in one place. Eldritch specifically gives him additional movement power along railway lines, making him one of the game’s more mobile characters, so long as he takes that train. This is further reinforced by his Personal Mission, introduced by the recent Masks of Nyarlathotep expansion, which forces him to resolve encounters in a set of locations scattered randomly around the world – doing this brings rewards, but leaving the voices unanswered will only fuel his nightmares.

Eldritch-DukeEldritch Horror’s take on Duke isn’t the most thematic, but it is highly useful, allowing a re-roll once per round. Given that most investigators spend many actions over the course of a game taking Focus tokens to allow them to do just that, a repeatable re-roll is always well-worth having. As if that weren’t enough, Duke also allows Pete to recover sanity more quickly, making that horror limit of 5 remarkably solid. Sadly, as an ally, Duke is vulnerable to a lot of Mythos cards, and there’s a strong chance that Pete will eventually find himself with no dog for company.

 

Elder Sign

Elder-Sign-Pete-and-Duke

Elder Sign is probably the game that gives us least information about the Investigators, at least from a narrative standpoint. Here, Pete’s ability to scavenge for things is to the fore, with the ability to gain clues or different types of items from scenario rewards. He is also still very much “the one with the dog” – Duke’s ability in Elder Sign is somewhat sad: you can discard him to avoid the penalty for failing an adventure. Hopefully this is the noble hound sacrificing himself to save his master, rather than Pete using his dog as a meat-shield.

Elder Sign Ashcan has 6 health and 4 Sanity: again, fairly balanced with a slight lean towards the physical.

 

Arkham Horror

Arkham-Horror-PeteAlthough Arkham Horror is the original Arkham Files game, it’s also the one I’ve played least, so I don’t necessarily feel all-that-qualified to offer opinions on it. In this first iteration of Ashcan, his ‘scrapper’ nature was to the fore, allowing him to draw cards from the bottom of the deck instead of the top. Given that cards leaving an investigator’s possession go the bottom of their respective decks, rather than into a discard pile, this allows him to draw items with a good level of foreknowledge, as well as being able to recycle a powerful card.

Arkham-Horror-DukeDuke is also present in Arkham Horror, where he gives Pete +1 Maximum Sanity or, he can be discarded to immediately restore Pete’s sanity to full (although “full” will now be the printed total, as you no longer have the boos).

Character stats in Arkham work a bit differently to the later games, being in a constant state of flux, with an investigator’s Focus being the factor which influences how much they can be altered. Pete has a very high sneak value, with his other stats being fairly rounded, but a very low focus of 1, making it difficult for him to react to changing circumstances.

 

From Games to Fiction

GhoulsAshcan Pete has yet to receive his own novella, but we do still have some information about him from FFG’s tie-in fiction. He first appeared in Ghouls of the Miskatonic, a work that is now (I believe) officially pre-canonical, but definitely still worth a read (and available fairly cheaply on Kindle).

Even in a few short pages, I felt like these old novels did a better job of conveying Pete’s character than many of the various game implementations. In Ghouls, he wakes up, dry mouth tasting of whisky and vomit, noting that “A drunken stupor was preferable to the horrific nightmares that had plagued him over the last few weeks.” This take on Pete places the source of his nightmares very firmly in the Great War – although it’s very strongly implied that he may have observed the misuse of Eldritch magic there, alongside the solely human carnage. Either way, it was “horrific, mind-wrenching stuff that had left him unable to sleep or hold down a job when he got back to the States.”

He returns in the third novel of the same trilogy, Dweller in the Deep, when Finn Edwards, one of the main characters is hitching a ride on a transcontinental train and “an angry-looking black mongrel” and “a sprightly fella” jump into their slow-moving wagon. In this instance, Pete is depicted as a man “affecting hobo mannerisms” but not nearly as drunk as he makes out. He is clearly headed to Arkham, but his motivations are unclear, simply a “you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Ashcan-Book-Page Moving to the more recent/official era, Ashcan also got his own short story in the Investigators of Arkham Horror book released in early 2017. Unlike many of the stories, it focused not so much on the investigator himself, as an unknown character who happened to meet with him. Pete starts sharing his life story and, with no mention of the War, describes how he came from the Arkham area originally, but was driven to travel the world by his nightmares, finding that if he could help people, the dreams would fall silent for a while.

 

Closing Thoughts

yesthisisdogOverall, I think Ashcan feels like a fairly consistently represented character across the different game-lines. He’s generally solid, rather than flashy, and the only game in which I’d say he really stands out is Arkham Horror the card game. For anyone who is wanting to try him in the LCG, you could do a lot worse than start with “Hello, Yes this is Dog” a deck I found on Arkham DB and have been having good fun with recently.

I think the biggest disappointment with Ashcan is that, even having played him 21 times across the various titles (he’s in my top 10 for most-played investigators), I don’t really feel like I know him that well, he struggles to become more than “Man with Dog.” Hopefully, this is an area which will be a bit better with next month’s* investigator, Jenny Barnes

(* Time limits are not binding, nor, necessarily, probable).

 

Arkham Horror: Investigators Revisited

Investigators-Book-PhotoWith the arrival early in 2018 of Omens of the Pharaoh for Elder Sign, and Masks of Nyarlathotep for Eldritch Horror, there’s a definite sense of the end of an era for Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files games.

There are 55 investigators all-told, all of them now playable in Eldritch Horror, and all-but-one in Elder Sign. Arkham Horror, the original board game has a more modest 48, there are 32 in Mansions of Madness (2nd Edition), and a mere 21 for Arkham Horror the card game (25 including promos).

Now that we’re reaching the point where most investigators are available in at least 3 games, I thought it would be good to take a look at the folk, see what we know about them, how they’ve been characterised across the various different games, and how that works out mechanically.

If we include officially announced upcoming releases and promos there are currently (I’ll try to keep this up-to-date, won’t manage it though…):

  • 9 Investigators appearing in all 5 games
  • 33 investigators available in 4 out of 5
  • 12 Investigators available in 3 of the titles
  • And poor old Daniella Reyes in just 1.

 

My aim is to start with the folk who are in all 5 games. I’ll begin with “Ashcan” Pete, Jenny Barnes, and Carolyn Fern, as they are the only 3 I actually own all 5 versions of, but if I can get 1 of these articles out every month or two, hopefully that will give me enough time to pick up some of the missing ones.

I’ll try to keep this post updated with the ones I’ve written so far:

Investigators Revisited

“Ashcan” Pete

Jenny Barnes

Gaming Mad

Some thoughts on the portrayal of madness in the Arkham Horror Files games

Arkham Horror (both the Board & the Card Game), Elder Sign, Eldritch Horror, and Mansions of Madness – aside from all being games in Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Files series, they are all games in which characters need to worry not just about their health but about their sanity.

All ArkhamsThe premise is quite simple, and the mechanical benefits are many – the monsters and horrors that these investigators are going to face will tax their minds just as much as their bodies. How can you very quickly and easily ensure that the little old lady or the quiet, bookish secretary can offer as much to the party as the big, tough fighter? By making every character’s stats a trade-off between Physical Health (where the Athlete or the Soldier score very highly) and Mental Health (the domain of the Parapsychologist, and the Dreamer).

Arkham Files games tend to be highly atmospheric, full of narrative immersion. You can reduce everything to pure numbers, and strive to burst through everything with maximum efficiency, but a lot of the enjoyment in the games is clearly designed around the idea of playing the game in character: How would this individual react to what goes on around them? – in my opinion, that’s where the immersive, thematic, and enjoyable experience is to be had.

I’m a big fan of these games, and 4 of the 5 are amongst my most-played titles (I only recently picked up Arkham Horror the Board Game). That said, there is definitely something about them with at least the potential to be… Problematic? Somehow not ok?

Today I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the portrayal of madness in board games: what does it add? what are the dangers? and generally is it being done right?

I had wanted to include some thoughts from the designers of the games, but – perhaps tellingly – Mental Health is the sort of topic that’s considered too sensitive for individual employees to speak for the company. Instead, here are a selection of my own musings on the topic.

 

The Unspeakable Oath

Warning: the following section contains narrative spoilers for Arkham LCG’s Path to Carcosa Cycle

King in YellowI think that I was most struck by this whole question of madness, of where we draw the lines between reality and games, whilst playing through the Arkham Horror Card Game. The recently concluded Path to Carcosa cycle takes inspiration from Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, and it taps in very deeply to themes of questionable states of reality, unreliable narrators and the constant sense that things may very well not be as they seem.

This really comes to a head in the 4th scenario, which sees your investigators visiting the notorious Arkham Asylum. Not a Joker or a Scarecrow in sight, this place is a prison for the mad, a cold, damp, miserable place full of cold isolation and with brutality just as likely and just as dangerous as the esoteric, experimental “treatments” that inmates might find themselves subject to.

StraitjacketAs you play through the Unspeakable Oath, there is a strange blurring of reality – increasingly you have to ask, are you really here to interview a patient? or simply residents of the asylum harbouring weird delusions about fantastical cults and alien beings? –Without warning, you suddenly find yourself wearing a strait-jacket! And why do you need to start a fire or a riot in order to be able to escape this place by jumping the fence, rather than just going back out of the front door?

The harsh reality really kicks in at the end of the scenario. Up until now, however badly you did, there had been little that could interrupt the ongoing flow of a campaign. Although there were certainly ways to make your life difficult, only once had we seen a way to bring a campaign to a premature end [warning: link contains spoilers for the Dunwich Legacy]. Failure to escape in the Unspeakable Oath, however, sees your investigator immediately driven mad, and confined for the duration to the care of Asylum doctors. The campaign might continue without you, but that individual has lost their mind, and will be playing no further part. All the events of the previous scenarios are now seen as the violent delusions of the criminally insane.

I think it was the shock of that resolution which first started me down the path towards this article.

 

Closer to Home

The Arkham games are set in the 1920s and 1930s, which can hardly be regarded as a golden age for mental health provision. Asylums were as much a convenient dumping-ground for the more inconvenient elements of society as they were places of healing. Things have changed. I’d imagine that most people reading this are like me, and have never set foot in an asylum, as they simply aren’t that common any more.

Even in this day and age though, treating mental health conditions is an inexact science and both the conditions themselves and the ways they are dealt with can be shocking. I remember being amazed during my student days when a friend (who was training to be a doctor) mentioned that electro-shock therapy is still used! She likened it to giving a TV a good whack when the signal was conking out – it won’t fix the long-term problem, but sometimes it will keep things working long enough to get it put right properly. It’s a controversial method, but it’s definitely still out there.

RecruitingAs I can’t presume to speak to anyone else’s state of mind, I’ve been thinking about my own. Whilst I’ve never needed to spend time in any secure mental institutions, I have been under the care of doctors and assorted medical professionals for many years. I take a fairly large amount of daily medication to keep my mental health in a place where I can function day-by-day, with only intermittent periods of despair, and only occasional accusations of being a high-functioning sociopath.

Even as a fairly “normal” person (if you’re reading this, I’ll assume that you don’t consider a board game obsession and “normality” to be mutually incompatible) I’m all-too-aware that Mental Health is not something that we can just assume or dismiss.

Speaking to friends who have worked in Psychiatry, there was a feeling that we still don’t have enough positive portrayals of mental illness in society or culture, so even if it’s on a subliminal level, there is an issue with how these conditions are portrayed.

 

When I get down to it, I think the question I’m really asking is – is it ok to play games that see characters driven mad?

 

Mad.

Right there, there’s something to note. Doctors (at least in the UK) wouldn’t use terms like “madness” or “driven mad” in a clinical context. They are too vague, too loaded, and ultimately don’t mean anything precisely enough to be medically useful.

Another thing I wanted to note quickly is that, obviously, the Arkham titles aren’t the only games that can end in the demise of characters or others. I think, thought, that there’s a qualitative difference.

A historical game, whether it be something abstract like a Commands and Colors title, or something gut-punchingly real like This War of Mine, is steeped in death, but it’s also educational. That’s clearly not a claim we can make for the Arkham Horror line.

In fact, almost the opposite is true: Yes, Mobsters and Flappers, Jazz and Prohibition all provide a thematically rich and quasi-historical background for the Arkham series. However, whilst your character might take physical damage from depression-era historical concepts, true horror comes from encountering those who have interbred with sea creatures, fantastical beings that have no right to exist, and holes in the fabric of reality itself. The very nature of these games is that they run counter to the world as we know it.

 

Looking at the Face of Madness

Elder SignLet’s take that idea and look a bit more closely. What exactly is happening in these games that gets depicted as / causes horror and insanity?

In some games, like Elder Sign, Sanity is just another pool of hit points, a number which will dwindle, causing death if it reaches zero. As this is already a monster article, I won’t talk any more about it here.

Other games attempt to flesh out the concept of sanity, to make it a more developed aspect of your personality, such that the assaults it suffers will do other things to you, have lasting consequences which apply in different ways.

Normally, I’m all in favour of games adding to the theme, making something more than just a set of numbers to represent a mechanic. That said, I think that there’s a danger. Obviously, you can’t represent years of treatment, months of therapy or a long-term course of exercise and medication in a 2-hour board game – Horror has to fit on a small card, and so do the ways of removing it (probably the Psychiatrist using one of her actions to treat you, or a reading from a King James Bible). Is it possible that adding a little detail becomes worse than having none at all?

Let’s zoom in on each of the games that do attempt to flesh out their madness mechanics, and see how it looks in practice.

 

Mansions of Madness

1: Horror

In Mansions of Madness (2Ed) some things will cause you to take Horror. The “standard” Horror card, much like the “standard” Damage card simply says “no additional effect, flip face down.”

Others will have different instant impacts. Perhaps the most impactful of these, are the persistent ones which generally read “keep face up…”

KleptomaniaOne such card is Kleptomania: whenever you end your turn in a space with another investigator, take 1 item at random from another investigator in your space” (I once had an investigator with Kleptomania and a Broken Arm – he stole other people’s stuff, then immediately dropped it…) – it’s a massive over-simplification of kleptomania but, particularly in that ridiculous combination with the broken arm, it generally amuses me more than it annoys. The question found myself asking as I started writing this article is – would I feel the same if I actually knew someone with Kleptomania? Perhaps part of the equation here is the fact it is very unlikely that I would – Kleptomania just isn’t a commonly-diagnosed condition (there’s even a certain amount of controversy around its validity as a diagnosis).

Righteous HorrorSomething I really like about the Horror cards in Mansions of Madness is the fact that sometimes – just now and then, the outcome is positive – you steel yourself in the face of terror, and become Focused or Righteous. It won’t come up in every game, but just often enough to save you from despair. To show that the human spirit is capable of real feats in the face of terror, just as much as it is of despair.

2: Insanity

BenignInsanityAside from the horror cards, your investigator can be driven insane. Mansions of Madness is currently the only Arkham Files game which doesn’t end for an insane investigator – instead they play on, but with a new “Insane” card. Some of these do a reasonable job of depicting obsessive behaviour – you can’t do the same action twice, you need to acquire objects/do something else even if it’s not contributing to the overall investigation. I certainly don’t have any problem with those.

DarkInsanityBut what about the card that says you have Seen Too Much and can only win if the investigation is completed and you die?

Or the card which not-that-subtly implies that your character wins only if they stab a fellow investigator to death?

Should I be more upset by that than I am?because if you stop to think about it, it’s downright disturbing?

Arkham Horror the Card Game

DescentIntoMadnessAnother game which attempts to pad the Horrors and Madness out into something beyond simple numbers is Arkham Horror the Card Game.

Arkham has moments where the idea of madness is handled brilliantly, and other instances where things feel a bit more problematic. Overall, things tend to be relatively abstract, simply due to the way the game’s mechanics work.

Rather than delving too much in the Card Game here, I wrote a separate article on the topic for the Mythos Busters, which you can find here.

 

Eldritch Horror

1: Conditions

EldritchMadness In Eldritch Horror, your sanity is once again just another pool of hit points to manage, but there are still wider implications. Amongst the many Condition cards that investigators may acquire, there are many Madness cards: Hallucinations, Amnesia, Paranoia, Terror, Hunger and Despair. The way that conditions work in Eldritch, each of the 6 types has a shared front, with different effects on the back. Broadly speaking, these will tax your investigator’s resources: losing health, sanity, clues, assets etc, or even gaining further negative conditions.

There were a few I wanted to look at a bit more closely – the first is the version of paranoia which causes each other investigator on your space to lose 2 health, and discards an ally. In essence, what we have here, is the idea of violence causing someone to become physically and dangerously violent to people around them. Obviously there are instances when poor mental health can lead to violence, which is part of the reason we still have secure psychiatric units, and this felt like an obvious point where the game and reality came uncomfortably close.

EldritchDespairSpeaking of uncomfortable, we had a bit of a shock during our first run-in with the “Despair” condition. The art features a man holding a gun to his own head, which is a fairly grim starting point, and the version encountered in our game was probably the darkest of them all – with narrative text describing in macabre fashion how you attempt to perform a lobotomy on yourself and/or gouge your own eyes out. Mechanically this is a penalised Willpower check, where failure leads to permanently impairing your Lore and Observation. I was introducing a new player to Eldritch Horror when her investigator got this card (thankfully she had played Arkham Horror and Mansions 2ed before, so wasn’t wandering in completely unprepared), and was genuinely quite concerned about scaring her off (both from Eldritch, and from coming to our house for gaming more generally) as Calvin repeatedly attacked his own eyes with whichever implement was closest to hand. As I’ll be mentioning in a bit more detail in my LCG article, I think that self-harm is a particularly problematic subject for games, because it’s something that’s so prevalent and so poorly understood in the real world.

2: Defeat

Also, when your investigator is defeated, you need to note whether their end came as a result of a failure in mind or body. You can then encounter that survivor (not necessarily dead, even if they are ‘broken’) or their legacy. Although defeated investigators are a fairly common feature of our games, it’s not all-that-often that we have the chance to encounter them later, so I had to go back through these to look at how they were set out.

fry tinfoil hat
Yes, an actual tin-foil hat

Some of these are fairly tongue-in-cheek, like Agatha Crane who you will find wearing a tin-foil hat and muttering about a government conspiracy. Others are more typical of what you might expect from madness in this setting – Kate Winthrop is obsessive and distracted, Agnes Baker doesn’t know her own name, and Ursula Downs is a Laudanum addict.

Some though are especially dark and grisly. Marie Lambeau bled out after painting the walls with her own blood, Monterey Jack has scratched an arcane symbol into his own flesh with his nails, and Amanda Sharpe simply walked into the sea and drowned herself.

Overall, the spectrum of effects presented is probably about right – the things which are particularly shocking are a level of extremity that we might hope to avoid in daily life, but are probably understandable from those who have gazed into the abyss.

 

Closing Thoughts

I hope that in this slightly meandering discussion I’ve managed to raise some questions for people to consider, even if I haven’t really ‘answered’ anything.

I’m certainly not arguing for censorship of these games – anyone who plays a game called Mansions of Madness or Eldritch Horror, and is shocked by the fact that they depict madness, probably needs to learn to read better.

DriverIndeed, as I said at the outset, the fact that characters can go mad is definitely part of the appeal in these games. Something really simply can add a lot of fun flavour – take the Driver in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu:

  • Normal characters – 1 space per move
  • Sane driver 1 or 2 spaces per move [he has a car],
  • Insane driver, 2 spaces per move [he has a car and doesn’t know when to brake!]).

This sort of thing appeals to my gallows sense of humour, but is my enjoyment of these mechanics somehow wrong? Some kind of weird schadenfreude in wanting to see madness come crashing down upon these investigators, rather than me? I don’t think so, but it’s a troubling thought to give me pause for a moment.

Rational In Elder Sign, 5 expansions in, there are lots and lots of adventure cards spread amongst the various decks, but one simple quote always makes this one my favourite. “I struggled to keep calm, but given the evidence presented by these artefacts, madness was the only rational response.”

Perhaps that’s it – even with what are pretty minor mental health problems in the grand scheme of things, one of the most wearing things I have to fight day-by-day is the assumption that everyone else is “normal,” and that I’m not. That depression and anxiety are in some way a dysfunctional reaction to the world.

Maybe people are right – and I can certainly see why folk would want to attain to what is generally regarded as “good” mental health. But perhaps there’s part of me that wants to say “No! – the world is a crazy, terrifying, and often dismal place, and some level of dread, misery or concern about it just makes sense.”

Perhaps we won’t see eye-to-eye on the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But maybe, when an abomination made mostly of eyes and tentacles comes bashing through the wall, or the sky is ripped open, and fell beasts swoop down out of the glare of twin suns to tear at our flesh. Well, maybe then, we can all agree that sometimes it’s just better to be mad.

This is Hardcore

Having managed 10 plays of 10 games by mid-autumn in 2016, and by the summer of 2017 (final tally, 23 games played 10+ times), I decided to step up the challenge slightly for 2018.

For those doing the ‘official’ 10×10 challenge on Boardgame Geek, there are 2 basic ways to play it – normal, which is what I’ve done for the last couple of years (although I don’t actually log plays on BGG), and hardcore.

Whereas with the normal challenge, you play games, then write down what you played, hardcore requires you to name 10 games in advance, then play them ten times – if you are organised, and only finalise your list part-way into the year, then only plays after the list is confirmed can count.

I thought that this was quite an interesting way to think about the future, and decided to do it.

ArkhamStorageArkham LCG and Zombicide were the first and probably the easiest to put on the list – if I don’t play these 10 times, something seismic will have changed. I decided to keep “Zombicide” as a single, cover-all term – it’s definitely possible that I’ll manage 10 plays of Black Plague and 10 of Green Horde, but chances are, I’ll end up mixing a lot of the stuff together.

LegaciesWe’d just finished February in our Pandemic Legacy Season 1 campaign when New Year rolled around, so barring a premature death (don’t even know if that’s a thing that can happen), that’s got at least another 10 games left in it, and to follow, we have Pandemic Legacy Season 2. I was slightly concerned that it might be seen as a con to count these as 2 separate entries, so ultimately decided to just list them once – Assuming I managed ten sessions of each, it should be fairly safe to have this ticking 1 box, whichever way you measure it.

AE-WE-KSLord of the Rings LCG has been steadily dwindling over the past few years, but I’m still pretty confident that it will get to the table 10 times. Aeon’s End hasn’t had quite as much table-time as I thought it might since we got the expansions, but it should still manage 10 without too much difficulty.

MassiveLegendary is always a perennial favourite, and Massive Darkness has only just finished the core box play-through, leaving much left to explore, including the new Ratlings I got for Christmas.

Elder Sign has been one of the steadiest games of 2017, and with a new expansion due in early 2018 , this should be another fairly easy 10.

How to round out the list was a bit of a puzzle – Eldritch Horror was a plausible candidate but committing to play a 2 ½ hour game 10+ times seemed risky. Dice Masters, L5R and Runewars are all too dependant on getting out of the house and finding opponents.

Streets-of-Arkham-Box
We’re still playing through the scenarios from the last expansion

In the end I went for Mansions of Madness as my 10th – there are still a couple of scenarios we’ve never beaten, plus 1 we haven’t tried yet, and 2 which are DLC and I haven’t shelled out the necessary fiver.

The last entry on the list was a late(ish) addition when I decided to only count Pandemic Legacy once. Gloomhaven will probably be slow and steady rather than a sudden rush of plays, but I think we’ll comfortably have plenty more than 10 by the time the year is out.

So, the final list looks like this:

  1. Arkham Horror LCG
  2. Zombicide
  3. Pandemic Legacy
  4. LotR LCG
  5. Legendary
  6. Aeon’s End
  7. Elder Sign
  8. Massive Darkness
  9. Mansions of Madness
  10. Gloomhaven

 

Although I’m only getting round to posting this now, I had finalised the list by the time New Year rolled around, meaning I’ve already clocked up 8 counting plays towards 100 needed.

I’ll continue doing my monthly updates in 2018, but will give a special mention to how these 10 are faring.

Plenty of Crackers and Not too Many Turkeys – December Round-up

December has always been the red-headed step-child of the monthly recaps, being largely ignored in favour of the annual run down. I decided to do something about that, with this lightning recap, whilst I work up the annual run-down for the end of the week.

PallidMask
The scariest monsters don’t always have tentacles…

As feels only fitting around Christmas, December saw a good strong focus on old favourites, with all the top 6 games getting table-time: Legendary dominated the early days of the month with 9 games (7 in the first weekend), and there was also a return for Elder Sign as we ran up against Cthulhu himself – even managing to seal him away at the second attempt. Arkham LCG got its obligatory share of table-time, buoyed by the arrival of some new packs to kick off the Carcosa cycle and an OP event, there was plenty of Zombicide, a bit of LotR (although the OP event was cancelled) and Aeon’s End continued to tick along.

Mansions of Madness went very quiet over the summer but started to pick up over the autumn, and came back strongly this month as we attempted the scenarios from the latest expansion with varying levels of success. On New Year’s Eve, we finally managed a successful Escape from Innsmouth (well, my character got torn apart by monsters, but everyone else made it out…)

L5R was a bit quieter than in previous months, but still got played a few times, keeping just ahead of a punishing release schedule in the value stakes.

Pandemics DecemberDecember was a big month for all things Pandemic – there were odd sessions of Iberia and Cthulhu, but the big hitters were both new arrivals, with Santa bringing me Legacy Season 1, and Rising Tide arriving for review. Both really interesting titles which deserve to have more said on them later.

Although, in keeping with Christmas, December was mostly about the Greatest Hits, we still had a few more novel games getting played.

This War of Mine is a truly remarkable game: it’s fantastically well-crafted, but dark and depressing at the same time – in many ways this just does too good a job of capturing life as civilian trapped in a modern-day siege. It’s definitely a game designed to play over multiple sessions, and we decided that we needed a break before taking this any further. If you haven’t already, do look at the review I wrote for this.

GloomNed
baby not actually included with Gloomhaven…

Dragonfire and Gloomhaven were the new games I wanted to get to the table (I’d played them solo in November, but hadn’t managed to inflict them on family or friends), and I managed with a limited degree of success. Dragonfire is, apparently, slightly easier than its predecessor Shadowrun: Crossfire, but still feels brutally tough. We got completely smashed on our first multi-player attempt, and definitely still have some way to go to master this one. Gloomhaven was again, basically a dry-run, and most of the real exploring of this will come in 2018.

Themes and Mechanics

In terms of what got played, there was a typically high level of Lovecraft, Fantasy and Zombies on display. “Historical” was the surprise entry into the upper echelons, tying with Comics for time, and edging it out by sessions.

We had a good amount of mystery solving and good old-fashioned survival, but once again, it was Pandemic which provided the shift, as “Save the World” broke into the top categories.

That’s about all for the December re-cap. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with the overall 2017 run-down.

Monsters of the Mansions: Part II – The Investigators

I’m aware that this blog has a habit of getting a bit number-crunch heavy at times, lots of theory, and not a lot of board game.

As part of an ongoing attempt to stem this tide of text, I try periodically to introduce some more visual content, looking at my efforts with the Paintbrush.

Today I’m going to return to Mansions of Madness- I did a painted low-down of the base game back in the autumn, and today I want to look at some of the expansions.

Mansions-Investigators-All

Suppressed Memories and Recurring Nightmares were 2 boxes that provided the tiles and figures of Mansions of Madness 1st edition for 2nd edition players – they disappointed some 2nd-edition fans with their lack of scenario/card content, but they way that they extend the range of Investigators and Monsters at your disposal made them a must-have for me.

Mansions-Investigators-Kate
Sadly, I can’t really get the pens in focus – that’s how detailed they are!

Between the 2 boxes, there were no fewer than 16 new Investigators made available. Some of them were really nice figures to paint, and I was really pleased with some of the details, like the creases on Kate Winthrop’s lab-coat, and the pens in her pocket.

Mansions-Investigators-Monterey-DexterThe Guys

Generally speaking, the male investigators in Mansions of Madness tend to be less interesting to paint – Darrell the Photographer, and Bob the Salesman particularly fade into the background, although figures like Dexter the Magician and Monterey the Archaeologist have a bit more of the unusual going for them.

Mansions-Investigators-Joe-MichaelThere are also a few rather more dynamic male investigators appearing in these boxes – Michael the Gangster and Joe the PI both come out all guns blazing – Joe feels a little bit over the top to me, but I like Michael’s scope, and he’s a fun investigator for scenarios that have a heavy focus on monster-bashing.

Mansions-Investigators-Vincent-Harvey

Relying more on mind than body, the next 2 male investigators are Vincent the Doctor, and Harvey the Professor – a lot more brown in the palette for these men (there’s no way I was going to paint Tweed pattern on something that size). I also liked Vincent’s Saw – definitely the approach to medicine you expect your Arkham Investigator to take.

Mansions-Investigators-AshcanOf course, no Arkham Investigators set would be complete without everyone’s favourite Arkham LCG Investigator, Duke, who comes to Mansions in the company of his faithful sidekick, Ashcan Pete.

Because Duke is so small, it’s quite difficult to get any meaningful detail onto his miniature (aside from the red scarf around his neck, but being the only dog in the set, he still stands out from the others quite well.

 

 

The Gals

Mansions-Investigators-JennyJenny Barnes is a character who takes quite a bit of flak from various members of our play-group, and you have to admit that her outfit looks better suited to society balls than creepy old houses. However, she’s a character with quite an interesting backstory, and very good utility in most of the different games, so I still wanted to do a good job on this one – the colour-scheme for her dress and hat vary across the different Arkham Files games, but on personal preference I went for the blue rather than the purple end of the spectrum.

Mansions-Investigators-GloriaGloria, the author was another fun one to paint- the shades of green weren’t that remarkable, but anyone who carries a typewriter like a handbag has done more than enough to catch my attention.

Sadly, this miniature arrived slightly damaged (leaning forward at quite a funny angle) and, although I’ve been able to correct it a bit with a hair-dryer and pot of cold water, there’s still a noticeable lean.

Mansions-Investigators-Amanda-Carolyn Amanda and Carolyn, the student and the Psychiatrist respectively, both have fairly blank outfits, but with a lot of utility in Elder Sign and Eldritch Horror, I still wanted the figures to look good – they certainly aren’t the stand-outs of the bunch (Amanda’s glasses are way too dark/thick-framed), but I think they’re passable.

Mansions-Investigators-Mary-MatteoSister Mary, like Father Matteo from the 2nd Edition core box, appears in clerical robes, and I decided to follow FFG’s illustrations with a brown colour-scheme, rather than black and white, which leaves them looking a bit less similar to one another.

 

Mansions-Investigators-MandyLast, but by no means least comes Mandy, the Researcher – this was a really difficult figure to paint, combining my two pet peeves from this range of figures – glasses and excessively detailed shoes. Overall though, I was quite pleased with the end result, particularly when viewed from a table-top gaming distance: the dark wash bringing out the detail lines in the jacket really well.

 

That’s about it for today – I want to aim more towards little and often with these pieces, but hopefully I’ll be back soon with some more Monsters