Nov 21, 2016

Let's Play Arkham Horror: The Card Game

At long last, we've gotten our hands on a copy of Arkham Horror: the Card Game, and we're here to tell you if it's any good or not.

Nicholas Roerich: Рассвет (незакончена) [Sunrise (unfinished)], 1930


Full disclosure: as a household full of H.P. Lovecraft fans and several devout Lord of the Rings card game players, we were very much looking forward to this game. If anyone unfamiliar with the Lord of the Rings LCG happens to read this, I apologize in advance for comparing Arkham Horror to it constantly. This post will also contain mild spoilers for the first scenario in the core set.

Here's what's inside the box:

There's five investigators, enough player cards to make full decks for two of them, three scenarios for them to tackle, and all the counters and paraphrenalia required to make that happen. Unsurprisingly, it's a lot like the Lord of the Rings LCG; one of the major exceptions are the Chaos tokens, which basically work like the Hunt pool in War of the Ring. The cards and counters are made of good quality material, although as always, I do strongly recommend sleeving all the cards before playing. The art on the cards is of fairly high quality, as I think we very much expected, but although I can't say we're disappointed, the cards aren't quite as lovely overall as the Lord of the Rings card game's. For the backs of the player and encounter cards, they've gone for a sort of art deco Cthulhu look, which is quite all right, but especially the flat beige of the encounter cards isn't the most attractive choice. Art deco is a bit cold at the best of times, and here it comes off as quite distant. But certainly nothing here is ugly!

In terms of content, the cards aren't really terribly evocative or even all that interesting on their own. I suppose this is one area where the comparison to the Lord of the Rings card game is at its most unfavorable, but going from, I don't know, Light of Valinor to Physical Training or Blade of Gondolin to Switchblade is a bit of a downer. Most of the cards are very generic and and only take on any life once you've used them in the game. By themselves, few of them evoke anything at all. Even fairly obvious opportunities for thematic hooks are ignored; we get Research Librarian rather than, say, Miskatonic Librarian and Guard Dog rather than watchdog or even "canine guardian" as they're referred to in the Dunwich Horror. Even the flavor texts aren't usually from Lovecraft or the broader mythos. So the initial impression from the cards is unfortunately almost bland.


The proof, though, is in the pudding: now that we've seen the actual physical game, it's time to try playing it. We're going to start with the first scenario in the core set, the Gathering, and use the recommended starter decks. That means one of us gets Roland Banks, the Fed:

While the other gets Wendy Adams, the Street Urchin:

Because we both think we'll want to make different choices later when we settle on a particular deck to call our own, I picked the Fed and my partner got Wendy. The numbers across the top right-hand side of the card are their skills: willpower, intellect, combat and agility. As you can see, both investigators have fairly well-rounded stats, Wendy's lousy combat score being the only exception. The cards also detail their abilities: Roland can find clues by defeating enemies, while Wendy can swap a horrible Chaos token - used to resolve skill tests - for a hopefully better one. Finally, there's the starting health and sanity for both characters.

The reverse of the investigator cards gives us a little backstory on the character and, crucially, their deckbuilding requirements. Arkham Horror has five different classes of characters and cards; Roland's class is Guardian, and the back of his investigator card tells us we can include Guardian cards from levels one through five in his deck. He can also use Seeker cards from levels 0-2, and neutral cards. A starting deck for Roland will have thirty cards from those classes, plus his two special cards, Roland's .38 Special and Cover Up. The last of these is a Weakness: a card you draw from your player deck that hurts you. So far, each investigator has one specific weakness, and must also include one random basic weakness.

The deck itself is made up of three kinds of cards in addition to the mandatory weaknesses: assets, events and skills. Assets include allies, tools, weapons and so on; they remain in play, and the number of "slots" your character has restricts how many you can have at any time. For instance, characters only have two hand slots, which means you can have two assets that take up a hand slot, or one two-handed asset. Events are played and resolved immediately, while skill cards are committed to boost skill tests. Each card has one or more skill icons, and when you take a skill test, you can discard card to boost your skill score. Skill cards are only useful when discarded to skill tests, and will have a specific effect when discarded. For now, though, we don't really have to worry about deckbuilding, since we'll be using the ready-made starter decks.


Now to get the game started! As in the Lord of the Rings card game, we pick a scenario to play against; in this case, the first scenario of the core set, the Gathering. We make progress in the scenario by working through the Act deck, which we do by collecting clues from the various locations in play.

The first Act, above, requires us to find two clues per investigator in order to advance. However, while we're working to find those clues, the Agenda deck will simultaneously be advancing.

As you can see, you're meant to read them in the opposite order. But the agenda card tells us that once three Doom counters have been placed on the Agenda deck, the agenda will advance, and that's not going to be very good for us. So we'd better get cracking on those clues!

The scenario setup instructions tell us that we start in the Study. All locations enter play with their "unrevealed" side up:

Once an investigator enters a location, in this case by starting there, it's flipped over to the "revealed" side:

The number of the left is the location's Shroud value: in order to discover any clues there, we need to beat the Shroud value with an investigator's Intellect. The number on the right is the total amount of clues at this location; it's two per investigator, i.e. the same number as we need to advance the Act deck. The circles at the bottom of the card tell us which locations this one connects to; they're all blank, meaning we're not going anywhere!

Each turn, every investigator gets to take three actions. Obviously we need to find those clues, and as lead investigator, Wendy gets us started by Investigating. This is a skill check pitting her intellect of 3 against the location's Shroud value of 2. To make it more interesting, we also have to draw a Chaos token, which will either modify the skill value or cause something different and unexpected. In this case, the token is a -1, meaning that Wendy's intellect counts as 2 for the purposes of this test. It's still equal to the Shroud value, though, which is enough for a success: we've found our first clue! A clue token is moved from the location card to Wendy's card. On my turn, I play an asset card and summon an ally:

Given that we're trapped in the study, I don't know how he got there, but this is a card game, let's not get hung up on details. The icon in the lower right corner tells us that Beat Cop occupies my ally slot. He has a health and sanity of two, meaning I can use him to absorb some damage if necessary. He also grants me a bonus of 1 to my combat score, and I can discard him to do damage to an enemy. The fist icon on the upper left edge of the card means that instead of paying four resources to put him into play as an ally, I could've discarded him for a +1 modifier to a combat skill test. In addition, I also investigate, succesfully netting a clue, and use my last action to gain one resource.

This all sounds a bit too easy, which is why from the second turn onward, the turn starts with the Mythos phase. First, we place one Doom counter on the Agenda deck, moving it one step closer to presumably something bad. Then each of us draws a card from the encounter deck, which are pretty much always something bad. I drew an enemy that couldn't spawn because the location where it would've appeared wasn't in play, so it was discarded, but my partner drew A Swarm of Rats, which engaged Wendy.

After the investigation phase, where we take out turns, those rats are going to attack Wendy, so we'd better do something about them. Wendy is our lead investigator, but my partner decides that this turn, Roland will go first. I'm not taking any chances, so I'll start off by playing a Knife.

Armed with a knife and backed up by my Beat Cop ally, my combat score is an unnecessarily high 6 against the rats' 1. The only Chaos token that could defeat us is the autofail tentacle one, but I don't draw it, and the rats are toast. For my last action, I investigate and find a second clue. On her turn, Wendy finds the fourth and last clue, and we decide to advance the Act deck. As soon as we spend the required amount of clue tokens, we flip over the first Act card and carry out the instructions on the reverse side:

The second act tells us that our way out is still blocked, and we'll need a total of six clues to advance:

We now find ourselves in the Hallway.

There are now three icons at the bottom of the card, signifying three locations that connect to the Hallway. With no clues to be found in the Hallway, obviously we'll need to look in one of the connected locations. Finding herself with actions left, Wendy chooses to descend into the Cellar.

There are four clues to be had in the Cellar, but its Shroud value is an uncomfortably high 4, which Wendy will struggle to beat with her intellect of 3. So for her last action, she plays a Flashlight, which ought to help us find some clues.

However, before she can do that, the Mythos phase rolls around and my partner draws a Ghoul Minion from the encounter deck.

A slightly tougher enemy, the Ghoul Minion has a combat score of two and two hit points. Since their combat scores are equal and each succesful attack only does one point of damage, Wendy might need all turn to defeat the ghoul, and there's a pretty good chance she's take damage doing it. So once again, I start our turn, and Roland charges down the stairs. I use the second action on my Knife, discarding it for +2 combat and one point of additional damage; the combat check is succesful, and the ghoul is discarded from play. This time, I remember to use Roland's special ability, meaning that since I just defeated an enemy, I get to discover one clue at our location. Roland Banks: stabs ghouls, finds clues.

After some succesful investigating with Wendy's flashlight and my Magnifying Glass, and a visit to the Attic, we find ourselves in the Hallway with the required number of clues. First, though, since I have a bad feeling about breaking down magical barriers, I'll play one last asset.

With my .45 Automatic in hand, we bust down the barrier and enter the parlor. Here we have a choice: we can run away through the front door, ending the scenario as unresolved, or fight the Ghoul Priest attacking us.

Misreading the Ghoul Priest's hit points as five rather than five per player, I take the first turn and blast him with my .45 automatic. Two succesful attacks deal four points of damage, and finally, discarding Beat Cop does a fifth point of damage, which we wrongly believed was enough.

To be fair, though, Wendy still had her turn as well, and with some of her card and one of Roland's actions remaining, I'm pretty sure we could've defeated a ten-hitpoint Ghoul Priest as well. It's also a pretty good reminder that when you play one of these games, mistakes are going to happen, even in a scenario as simple as this one. I mean come on, when you actually hold the card in your hand, that investigator symbol next to the hit points is really small...


But be that as it may, we won! That takes us to the Campaign Guide, where we find out what happens next. There are four possible outcomes for this scenario. The worst happens if we fail to complete the Act deck, but the bad guys finish the Agenda deck, and it's, well, not good. The campaign goes on, though! If we'd both been defeated, or if we chose to escape out the front door after reaching the parlor, a different set of conditions would ensue. Finally, because we, in fact, won, we have to make an additional choice after the scenario, and what we did is noted down in the campaign log. This is definitely one of my favorite things about Arkham Horror: instead of each scenario being a more or less isolated episode, like the Lord of the Rings quests outside of the saga expansions, they all belong to a campaign where, hopefully, the choices you make will make a difference further on down the road. Also, even in the worst possible case, we'd be able to continue the campaign, only at a disadvantage.

In addition, we gain experience! Each victory point we've earned gets each of us a point of experience, and because we defeated the Ghoul Priest (Victory 2) and cleared the Cellar (1), that's a total of three victory points. The scenario resolution we ended up with grants us a +2 bonus, so we each have five experience points we can use to upgrade our decks before the next scenario. I could upgrade some of my existing cards, but since we've worked out a pretty good division of labor where Roland does most of the fighting, I'm going to pick a new card to help with that: Extra Ammunition. It's a level 1 card, meaning that I need to spend one of my experience points to add it to my deck. Another card I think looks promising is Police Badge: it goes on the accessory slot, which Roland isn't currently using for anything, and in addition to boosting my willpower, I can discard it to give another investigator extra actions. Police Badge is a level 2 card, so it'll cost me two experience points, leaving two which I'll save for later. Because the size of my deck is capped at 30 cards, I'll remove Mind over Matter and Research Librarian to make room for the new cards. Now I'm ready to continue the campaign.


So there's gameplay for you. You advance through a series of locations, finding clues and fighting off enemies, trying to outrun the inexolerably advancing Agenda deck. What about building your own starting deck?

Unlike the Lord of the Rings LCG, which was billed as being for 1-2 players but really supported 1-4, this is actually a 1-2 -player game, and in a way that creates some problems. For example, I can tell you right now that my investigator of choice going forward is going to be Agnes Baker, the Waitress.

Now, admittedly, "the Waitress" may not sound like much if you're one of those pompous bastards who don't appreciate the hard work that the men, women and others of our hospitality industry do. The gorgeous Magali Villeneuve art certainly helps, and a willpower of 5 is nothing to sneer at, but what seals the deal is her background story: she's a reincarnated Hyperborean witch. Her card text literally says she is from an age undreamed of. I'm completely sold; she is awesome and I will fight you.

The back of her card tells us that her character class is Mystic, and that she can pick Mystic cards from levels 0-5 and Survivor cards from levels 0-2. The starter deck that we can build for her from our single core set uses all of the 0 level Mystic and Survivor cards, and approximately half of the available neutral cards, so there's not a whole lot of deckbuilding to be done with just one core set. Unfortunately, that also means no-one else can be using those cards at the same time, which means that we're left with the Guardian, Seeker and Rogue classes. The only core set investigators using only those cards are Roland Banks and "Skids" O'Toole, the Ex-con. So if I want to play as Agnes, my partner is forced to choose either the ex-con or the fed, and we don't have enough cards for a third player whatever we pick. I can't help but contrast this with the Lord of the Rings LCG, where we immediately got four fully interoperable decks and could get right into a three- or four-player game, which was crucial in getting us hooked.

Now, admittedly, we've been promised that the very first expansion will feature as many as five new investigators and a pile of new player cards, so hopefully that'll help. But to be honest, it's still a little disappointing. Another thing it does, which I'm not sure the people in charge of these things entirely appreciate, is that it makes it a lot harder to get other people to play the game. With just the Lord of the Rings core set, me and my partner can invite another couple or two friends over and have a game. With Arkham, this is impossible; without multiple core sets, the only way to demonstrate the game is one-on-one. So I really don't think this was a good idea. I'd rather have taken smaller starting decks, for example.

What's more, you'll actually need a second core set just to have reasonable deckbuilding options beyond the starter decks, since there's only a single copy of each player card. And that's just for two people! There are people on the forums talking about buying three or four core sets. Why? Suppose we got a second core, and used the new Guardian, Seeker, Mystic and Survivor card to kit out our investigators properly. What's left for a third player? Our leftovers and a full set of Rogue cards. So actually, if we want two decks with full cardpools and two other starting decks, we'd need three core sets. If the third player wants two copies of each player card, that would require four core sets.

Obviously we'll have to see what the expansions are like; if the Dunwich Legacy really offers us at least one additional fully viable player deck, then this isn't so bad. But I'll be honest, I really don't like that we're pretty much expected to buy two core sets, let alone more. So from a deck-building perspective, this is not good. Coming to this from the Lord of the Rings, I kinda feel like I'm being shaken down for money. If the deluxe expansions only come with one copy of each player card or something like that, meaning that we'd have to buy multiple deluxes, I fucking quit.


Deckbuilding dubiosities and our own incompetence aside, we definitely enjoyed our first experience playing Arkham Horror! We're going to at least try to finish the core set campaign, and then get started with our investigators of choice and look out for the first deluxe expansion. Based on the first scenario, the fundamental game mechanics are sound, and I'm looking forward to playing more. Arkham Horror succeeds in blending a little bit of roleplaying feel into the cardgame format, above all by being at a considerably lower level of abstraction than, say, Lord of the Rings. Instead of locations and enemies floating around in a staging area, generating threat against your heroes and army of allies, you're in the cellar, looking for a clue with a flashlight while a ghoul is stalking you. There's definitely some atmosphere here!

The lack of real deck-building options in the core set is a bit of a disappointment, but hopefully that'll start getting corrected soon enough. I'm horribly tempted to buy a second core set, but I resent the fact that even if I did, we'd effectively have to choose between expanding our starting card pools or accomodating more players. So in terms of further purchases, I think we'll wait for the Dunwich Legacy to show up and assess our options.

It's definitely a fun game, though! If the deckbuilding aspect didn't make me feel like I'm being fleeced, and even rudimentary three- or four-player play was possible right out of the box, I'd think this was an awesome game with no ifs or buts attached. As it is, I'd cautiously recommend it if you want an engaging experience for one or two players. We'll wait to see what the expansions are like before going further than that.

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