Arkham Horror Card Game – Review

“It occurred to us, too, that our venture was far from safe, for in what strength the thing might appear no one could tell.  But we deemed the game worth the hazard, and embarked on it alone and unhesitatingly…”

The Shunned House – H.P. Lovecraft 1924

Lovecraftian horrors unleashed!

Since January I’ve been playing Arkham Horror – The Card Game, and uncovering the tentacled horrors within.  As my regular Netrunner opponent Dean, and myself, have now completed the first campaign, it’s time for a review.

Arkham Horror – The Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games, throws the players into the horror and insanity inducing nightmares of the world of H.P. Lovecraft.

The Mythos

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was an American author of horror fiction.  During his life he gained small success through the publication of some of his stories in magazines like Weird Tales.  It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that Lovecraft’s work became more widely known.  He is cited as an major influence for writers such as Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker and film maker John Carpenter.

Lovecraft’s stories usually centered on the themes of forbidden knowledge, non-human influences on humanity, threats to civilisation, fate and religion.  His most famous stories include links to the Cthulhu Mythos, and this body of work was expanded upon during Lovecraft’s life through contemporaries he corresponded with – Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.

H.P. Lovecraft at amazon.com

The nightmare begins

At the end of 2016 Fantasy Flight introduced Arkham Horror the Card Game.  The game takes their successful Living Card Game (LCG) mechanic from Netrunner, Game of Thrones and others, and add the immersion of story, traditionally found in role playing games.

The game is co-operative for up to 4 players to work as a team to investigate strange happenings, fight other worldly beings and their human disciples, and ultimately uncover as much information as possible to evade and defeat the dark doings of the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos.  The game can also be played solo, although be prepared for your dreams to be infested with nightmare creatures and the limits of your sanity strained….in other words, it’s tough on your own!

Being new to Fantasy Flights Android Netrunner LCG, and thoroughly enjoying it, but being behind the curve in terms of the games expanded universe and story lines, I was keen to pick up Arkham Horror at release.  The core set provides everything you need for you to play solo or cooperatively with a second player.  If you want to play with up to 4 people then you will need a second core set.

The first thing you notice when you get Arkham Horror in your hands is the artwork.  The core set box art sets the scene immediately. 2 armed investigators, a car from the 1920’s, a moonlit night, imposing building… and tentacles!  That action packed scene tells you everything you need to know about what a game of Arkham Horror is going to be like… dark, tense, and tentacled.

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Opening the box and arraying the cards out, and you notice that the gorgeous artwork continues.  It’s dark, mysterious, and horrifying, and the cards drip with the theme of 1920’s adventure.  The little snippets of flavour text also adds to that theme.

Investigators

The core set provides the choice of 5 investigators, each with their own background and hook that’s driven them towards the investigation of the strange events in Arkham.  Each investigator has their particular strengths and weaknesses as well as unique abilities.

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The players select their investigator and build a deck of cards each, which provides the various skills and assets that will come in useful during their adventures.  To start newcomers off, the rule book provides a list of the cards required in your deck for 2 of the investigators for the first adventure.

Scenario set up

Before play begins, the scenario needs to be set up.  This involves selecting out a few sets of cards;

  • The Act cards which drive the story and represents the progress of their investigators towards solving the mystery.
  • The Agenda cards which are progressing the dark machinations of the forces of the Mythos.
  • The Locations that the players will investigate during the scenario.
  • And the Encounter Deck, various perils, monsters and other events thrown in the investigators way to slow them down.

The core set provides a campaign storyline comprising 3 scenarios.  Future expansions will present new campaigns and scenarios.

The first expansion is already available – The Dunwich Legacy box set, which sets up the next campaign with 2 scenarios, and then follows with a further 6 scenario packs which continues the campaign.  These will be issued roughly monthly by Fantasy Flight.  All of the scenarios can also be played standalone.

Once the investigators have their decks ready and the scenario has been chosen and set up, the adventure can begin!

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Play – gathering clues

Players have a hand of 5 cards which they use to play assets or skills into permanent play for their investigator.  The cards they keep in their hand – cards are drawn each turn – can also be used to boost skill tests.  More on that in a moment.

Investigators move around locations collecting clues to progress the scenario to a resolution.  Notice I don’t say win our lose here, as in the world of Arkham a win can be deemed as you managed to stay sane while the bad guys may have escaped!

Clues are uncovered by skill tests.  Rather than using dice, a card and token mechanic is used.  The investigator uses their intellect skill to match or beat the required value to uncover a clue at the location they’re at.  The investigators skill value can be boosted by either using asset cards which they have in play, or playing cards from their hand which can increase the required skills value.  These cards from the players hand are discarded after the test.

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The pesky chaos tokens!

To represent the fickleness of Lady Fate, once the player has boosted their skill, they take a random token from the chaos bag.  These tokens will either modify your skill by a value or give you some other random effect – some positive, some negative.  Then resolve the test.

The same format of test is used for combat and for evading monsters or bad guys, and checking your sanity should you encounter something truly terrifying!

Assets

Success – or what passes for success in the horror filled locales of Arkham – is down to careful use of your investigators assets and skills.  Each turn a player has 3 actions available to move, investigate, engage or evade enemies, gain cards or resources.  To put assets into play requires spending resources. S o managing your resource pool is also important.  But don’t hoard too much as there’s always the chance that an encounter leaves you losing more than your shirt!

All of this asset management gives Arkham Horror a lot of its strategic depth.  It also encourages the co-operative play that’s so important to getting to the end of a scenario.  When investigators are at the same location they can assist each other during skill tests by playing their own cards for another’s test.  But, do you hold on to a particular item or weapon a that may be useful later?  Or is there a skill that may work better when coupled with another?

Of course in classic horror style, there’s also the question of do you stick together, or split up to cover more locations?  Hope you’ve got a torch handy!

Creeping horrors

Of course, while the investigators are running around Arkham, rummaging through creepy locations or leafing through dusty tomes in wood panelled libraries, the minions of the Mythos are progressing their own nefarious goals.  This is represented by the Agenda cards and the accumulation of doom counters.

Doom counters will be familiar to anyone who’s played the Arkham Horror or Eldritch Horror board games.  As the name suggests, they track impending doom and the forces of the Mythos achieving their goal.  A doom token is accumulated at the start of each turn – the ticking clock – and can be added by various Mythos creatures and individuals when they are encountered.  Once a set number are collected, the Mythos Agenda advances.

To combat this, the investigators are trying to collect the required clues they need to progress the investigation on the Act cards.

The first scenario in the core set keeps it gentle for you (not so gentle that you can’t still go mad or die!), scenario 2 ramps up the doom tracking, so don’t dilly dally battling bad guys.  And scenario 3…well, I’ll leave you to find that out.  Sometimes it’s better to run away.

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Role playing

Putting together the clue hunting, encounters with the unknown, the creeping horror, and the individual quirks of the characters provides a real role playing game vibe, which I really warmed to.  It’s role playing without a Games Master, weird shaped dice and complex mechanics and tables…role playing lite, if you will.

If you can get set up somewhere dimly lit and quiet, and make that effort to play as a character, then Arkham Horror provides a great story telling experience.

I think it’s key to not just look at the cards as skills and numbers, but if you’re assisting a fellow investigator say that you can aid them in their hunt for a clue, don’t just blurt out “I’ve got a +2 find clues card”.  It all helps with the immersion in the game, something that Fantasy Flight also point out in the rule book.  Embrace the atmosphere, and you’ll get so much more from the game.

Resolution

So, how do you know you’ve won?  Well, the scenarios present different outcomes depending on how the investigators have progressed (or not).  Sometimes those outcomes will end the campaign – too many of the investigators have died or gone insane.  But often you can still progress to the next scenario.  However, you may be going in with a disadvantage in some way, or someone or something may appear in the next scenario unexpectedly.

This means there is a lot of replay value in the 3 scenarios provided in the set.  You could come to a different resolution which affects the next scenario.  You could play as different investigators, as their skills, available assets and abilities differ.  And the combinations of those investigators can influence the game.

At the end of each scenario the investigators will be awarded experience points, depending on the outcome, which can be spent on improving the sills and assets in their deck.  This encourages the role play aspect of continuing with the same character throughout the campaign story.  Of course that’s if they don’t go mad!

Sum up

Arkham Horror gets 2 big thumbs up from me.  I was already a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and having played Eldritch Horror and Netrunner by Fantasy Flight, I’m also already hooked on their game mechanics.

I think Fantasy Flight have achieved a game that oozes atmosphere.  The production and art is of the usual high standard.  The cooperative nature keeps all players involved during play, so there’s little sitting back as someone else takes a turn.  The game plays quickly once you grasp the core mechanics, and the scenarios can be played as one off sessions or as an ongoing campaign with a group.

The only drawback is ideally someone should prepare the scenario decks in advance of playing, as it can be time consuming to go through the stack of cards sorting them out.  As for deck building, well that could be done as a group activity with the investigators.  Similar to a character creation session for role playing games.  It gives the players time to familiarise themselves with their own and others characters.

In future posts I’ll cover the first expansion – Dunwich Legacy – and I’ll also review the solo play option.

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