Review: Arkham Horror – The Card Game

arkham-horrorlcgFantasy Flight has a lot of games with the Lovecraft theme and decided to jump into the Living Card Game (LCG) pool with a card version of sorts of their old traditional board game sharing a similar title, Arkham Horror: The Card Game. It’s a cooperative, 1-2 player LCG deck builder (but with a 2nd core box and likely more expansions up to 4 people can play). Players are investigators that discover there are terrifying things that go bump in the night but being the heroes they are, fight to ensure the safety of mankind. Sadly they’ll likely lose their lives or sanity in the process. The game is designed to play specific scenarios which can be just a one off session. However it really is designed from the ground up to form a longer linked campaign.

In the box you’ll find lots of cards which are split between those used by the player, and those for a 3 scenario campaign story. The cards for the campaign are generally split into locations and story events for a specific scenario, and other cards which form the encounter deck. The encounter deck represents different obstacles, challenges, and creatures the players run into during the game. Each story has it’s own set of locations and different pools of cards that are used to create the encounter deck. As it doesn’t have a static composition for the entire campaign, you will find some scenarios have unique challenges and monsters.

In broad terms each turn is split up into different phases. The first is the mythos phase, where a doom token is added to a scenario (agenda) card. Whenever the number of tokens match the value on the card, something horrible happens and the next agenda card for the scenario is put into play. Then continuing the mythos phase, each player in turn draws a card from the encounter deck. This encounter deck will be adding more monsters and unfortunate events for the players. In short, something terrible always happens to every player and they are in a frantic countdown before even more bad things happen as the agenda deck advances.

Afterwards the players have their turns. Each player has 3 actions which can be used to play cards, move to different locations, or do a core activity in the game, carry out an investigation. While each turn there is a slow accumulation of doom tokens, the players are rushing from location to location to try and accumulate clue tokens through investigation. If they gather enough clues, they get to advance a different set of scenario cards (act cards) commonly resulting in something to their benefit.

This is really the heart of the game. The players have to slowly accumulate enough clues through investigation to discover what is happening in the scenario and finally learn the major objective needed in order to advance the campaign (destroy a monster, gather enough clues in an area, succeed enough times with a particular skill, etc.). All the while the evil agenda cards are accumulating doom tokens and reaching story milestones that ratchet up the difficulty. Commonly for most of the scenarios there isn’t a hard failure, just punishing effects that wear down the investigators forcing them to capitulate the scenario. At least until the end of the campaign when players learn they either emerge victorious or gibbering madly from being driven insane (or a turned into a pile of bloody goo).

Players will continually be making skill tests. Each investigator has varying levels of 4 select skills measuring their reflexes, physical prowess, mental will, and how clever they are. If this value is equal or higher than a target number, they succeed at their check. Players can play cards to bolster these values. Every card will have some skill icons. For each one that matches the test being taken, they add to the player’s total skill value. It’s not so cut and dried though. For each check a player pulls a random token which modifies their skill total (and the tokens are immediately returned to the pool). Most of the tokens offer a penalty roughly 75% of the time, with some even making the check fail automatically. Essentially this is like rolling dice but with an uneven distribution of results.

As mentioned, cards can be discarded from a player’s hand to boost the skill value of an investigator, and other players at the same location can also contribute to checks. This offers a feeling of working together for key challenges. While a handful of card types are only related to skill checks or one time events, most provide a static bonus or abilities as permanent assets. Players pay resources to put asset cards in play with some being limited to available equipment slots for an investigator. An investigator can only carry up to two assets in their hands for example. Meaning if they had a flashlight and a knife, they’d have to get rid of one of them if they wanted to equip a pistol. Some assets are followers and can provide exceedingly useful abilities (as well as be a buffer for physical and mental damage), but a player may only have one follower in play at a time.

While assets offer static bonuses and reusable abilities, the cards can also be used to boost skill checks. This makes for a fun choice during play. Do you discard an asset to help with a critical skill check? Or do you push your luck hoping to make a successful token draw, so you can put that asset into play as a resource for other actions in the future? While cards that are discarded can eventually return to the draw deck (once a player’s deck is exhausted the discard pile is shuffled and made into a new draw deck), commonly players will not get a chance to see that card again for the game. It certainly has that push your luck factor and can be an agonizing choice sometimes.

Players can play investigators of 5 general class types from bookish seekers, to rough and burly guardians, to mythos sensitive mystics. Each class also dabbles in another investigator class type. These restrictions mean that there will be investigator cards that the player cannot use (being of a different class type) which encourages having another different investigator in tow to tackle a scenario. For a solo player, they have the option of playing one investigator as a true solo experience, or instead have a second investigator in play.

In addition to challenges being thrown at the players from the encounter deck, they can also can run into horrible monsters and fiendish human villains. These enemies will do damage to health and/or sanity. If a player ever reaches zero they are out of the game (but not necessarily out of the campaign). Players find they can either attack an enemy directly to inflict enough damage to kill it, or evade it by essentially stunning it for a round. Evading a creature can be critical. If a monster is ready and engaged with a player, any time the investigator takes an action that isn’t to fight or evade, the enemy gets to attack. This can be brutal as a player trying to move, draw cards, or play cards from their hand will always be having an engaged monster attack them. If they can evade the creature, they can then act without risking an attack of opportunity.

Another kink in the player’s plans are weakness cards. Every investigator has one card that is specific to them which provides some impediment. In addition, one additional random weakness card is added to a player’s deck. Out of 30 or so cards then, 2 of them will be some type of hindrance to the player. Every turn a player must draw a card from their deck, and they can also use actions to draw. While a player is putting assets into play and using cards from their hand to help with skill checks, they will quickly be going through their deck. Yet every time they draw, they are getting closer and closer to drawing a weakness card.

This is an exceedingly clever mechanism. Most cooperative card games depend on the card draw flood. You want to be drawing as many cards as you can to have multiple options during your turn. This curbs that strategy. Some investigator weaknesses can be crippling if a player is unprepared. The player will find the flow of the game changes where they are at a point of wanting a lot of cards and looking to draw that weakness card early in the game (where they have more resources to handle it effectively), compared to getting it later in the game during a critical time when every action and card counts.

While you can get wrapped up in how Arkham Horror is a board game, you can’t neglect that it is a LCG deckbuilder. There are strict rules for constructing a player’s deck. Aside from class card composition, players can only have 2 copies of each named card. As players go through a campaign they can earn experience which is used to purchase more powerful cards (or replace existing ones with more efficient versions). You are limited to decks of a particular size, so you will be continually throwing out cards to make a place for new ones. While the rules recommend starting with some pre-constructed decks, players will eventually want to dabble in making their own.

The Good – It’s an enjoyable implementation of the original board game that has a narrative, choose-your-adventure style of play. Many scenarios will end with multiple options and the decisions, successes, and failures from one scenario have an impact on future games. Cards have enough keywords and varying game elements to allow for some interesting card combinations. While you can certainly go the brute force route of dumping cards for bonuses into skill checks, there are some nuances to explore.

This also comes about from the enemies and challenges that the players face. Aside from hard numbers for wounds, damage, and combat skill values, some creature cards can also have abilities making them play a little differently from other monster types. Combined with limited resources, actions per turn, and the clever implementation of weakness cards, players will have lots of engaging choices during play.

The random tokens for task resolution is also a great idea. You can tailor the pool of tokens to make for an easier or more difficult game. With 5 investigators out of the box, you can get a fair amount of replay from the base game. The solo option is also enjoyable which doesn’t stray too much from the play experience you get with an additional person at the table.

The cards are standard playing size and of good quality with wonderful art. The tokens are of nice card stock and are an excellent means of keeping track of damage and resources maintaining that tactile feel.

The Bad – The token draw for skill checks will likely drive some players crazy. You can typically count on it being a bad modifier, meaning you always have to try and get your skill value +1 or +2 over the base number. This can be for naught as there is a 1/16 chance (if using the normal difficulty) of failing automatically. I like it, but I can see some might find it mechanically jarring, heavy handed, and too luck dependent.

The other criticism isn’t too easy to dismiss. You have a short campaign out of the box of three, linked scenarios. You can get a few replays out of the campaign, but some of the scenarios are going to be repetitive. The mystery of exploring different locations and advancing the scenario story will seep away and your will be shifting to a purely mechanical play mode. This is compounded due to it being a cooperative game with automated enemy actions.

Lastly due to the limited card pool and rigid deck construction rules, you really can’t get a deep deck building experience with the base game. This is especially damning with the number of character cards. Yes, you have 5 investigators out of the box, but you can only play certain combinations because each one pulls from the same pool of class cards that another investigator uses. Sure this will eventually be alleviated once more expansions roll out. And you can certainly buy a second copy of a core set to open up deck building. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Other games like Netrunner have so much more potential for deck building with just a core set compared to Arkham Horror.

The Verdict – Arkham Horror has a lot going for it. I really enjoy that it takes a narrative structure but there are limitations in how replayable it is. Eventually that shine of new choices and exploring locations will dull and plodding repetition will arise, switching the feel of the game to more one of a mechanical exercise than that of experiencing a story. The limitation of card variety for the investigators is another glaring detraction. I’m certain eventually the game will get stronger as more content is released, but out of the box I was disappointed with how limited the deck building potential was.

This can and likely will be tinkered with. The use of cards for advancing the story is a great idea. If you add a few variations of cards for locations and outcomes for the agenda and act cards, you will suddenly see that scenario which was so repetitive before become much more varied and enjoyable to replay. Something similar was used with another card game, Space Hulk: Death Angel and I will not be surprised if by the end of the year we see a special add-on pack that expands the core box campaign to include variant cards.

This touches on another thing that chafes me some. The notion of pushing getting another core set is absolutely wasteful. Almost half the cards will be just set aside and never used. All the scenario and encounter cards are redundant (not to mention the tokens and rules). It’s a shame that another product of just the investigator cards found in the core set isn’t available as separate purchase. Fantasy Flight really dropped the ball there. Having a $22 product with simple packaging for just a set of base game investigator cards would have been great.

In the end, Arkham Horror is very much a LCG. It is enjoyable. It captures some of the encroaching dread and doom in a horror-themed game (but after repeated play of the same content that will ease some). There is enough variety of card types and abilities to allow for interesting choices during play and also with deck construction. But it is solidly in that LCG camp of buying more cards and I think almost too much so initially.

It practically forces you to buy into the game getting more cards as the core set is so limited early on. I feel right now it’s a pass on getting. Wait until there are more expansions available so that if you want to jump into Arkham Horror, you can do so pretty quickly. If just looking to purchase the base game and see about getting more expansions 3 or 4 months later, you will be disappointed as you’ll see the limitations in the base set pretty early on. Better to wait some and have a larger pool of cards readily available to explore the deck building possibilities fully from the get go.