|Interaction||Components & Design|
Warning: There are some very minor story spoilers in the photos.
I’ve been a long-time sufferer from collectible card games, buying way too many booster packs to find that one card I really wanted. I’m out of that now, but I’ve been reluctant to get into Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Games because of it. They are much nicer than CCGs, of course. There are no booster packs that always have the same worthless cards. But their business model is still to keep you buying cards to remain competitive every time a new expansion comes out. But that’s not a concern with Arkham Horror: The Card Game. It’s a cooperative game, so no one has to buy cards just to be able to compete. You just buy an expansion when you want more story to experience.
The Rules of Cthulhu – How to play
Story is the focus of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. The base game comes with a campaign of three scenarios to suffer through, and it’s some of the best Lovecraftian storytelling I’ve found in a boardgame so far. The Arkham Horror boardgame and its successor Eldritch Horror have good elements, but ultimately they chain together random, creepy events that happen to you between killing monsters. Arkham Horror: The Card Game still lets you kill the monsters you encounter, and there’s no lack of random events haunting you, either, but the main story is deterministic, thus more coherent, and thus more creepy. It begins with the investigators sitting in the study at one of their homes, looking at clues to recent murders in the area, when the door to the hallway simply disappears. And then you hear digging sounds under the floor. I call that a strong start.
You experience the story in each scenario by going through two small stacks of cards. The Act Deck tracks the investigators progress. It advances when the investigators meet the objective of the current act, and when they go through the whole deck they usually get the better ending of the scenario. The Agenda Deck is for the dark forces arrayed against the investigators. It mostly advances after a set number of rounds, tracked by placing a Doom Token on the card each round, but in many scenarios there are special conditions to speed it up. If this deck runs out first, the ending is usually not as good. But, and this is a cool part, it doesn’t end your campaign in failure. It gives you a worse starting position for the next scenario, but you still get to keep playing through the story.
Now, how do you get out of that study? The outline of a round will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a cooperative game: First, all the investigators take a turn, then the game strikes back with monster attacks and unpleasant event cards.
In more detail, each of the one or two investigators (up to four if you combine two games) has three actions on their turn. Many of those actions are related to cards, because besides the Investigator Card telling who the Investigator is – familiar faces from good, old Arkham Horror – each investigator has a deck of cards with equipment, allies, and special skills to help them. In theory you can build your own decks within the restrictions given for each investigator, but we were quite happy to play with the suggested starting decks. They have the right flavor for the characters, and they are effective.
So, what you really want to do is play your hand cards to be prepared when the otherworldly goo hits the wind pusher. That’s especially true for Asset cards. They represent allies, equipment, spells and other things that stay with you after you played them. Playing a card takes one of your three actions, plus the cards price in Resource Tokens. Managing both hand cards and resources is an important part of the game. You only get one of each per round, and spending an action either draw a card or take a resource is not a good use of your time. So either you only play the cards you need, or you find a way to draw more. Some cards give you a bonus to your skill scores, others have a triggered ability to activate as a further action, yet others have a bonus effect that triggers from specific game events.
But you don’t play Baseball Bats, Flashlights and Literature Professors for the fun of it, the idea is to do something with those cards, like fighting monsters, or doing your job and investigating. Both things work the same way, with a skill test, only in one case it’s a test of your Combat skill, in the other a test of your Intellect. For every test, you have a target score you must reach, and you have your Investigator’s skill. You want the skill to be higher than the target score, and if it isn’t already you can play cards from your hand to boost it. Most cards have Skill icons to be used this way, but you have to discard them afterwards and don’t get to use them as an Asset or Event. Then you still draw a token from the Chaos Bag that gives you a final modifier, mostly a negative number, but in some rare cases a positive number or a special effect described in the scenario.
If the test was to fight a monster, success means you put a damage token on it. When investigating, success means you meet an old friend from the Arkham Horror boardgame: a Clue Token. In the card game, you want these things to advance the Act Deck, so they’re sort of a big deal.
Another skill test you take as an action is to evade an enemy. Enemies have the bad habit to engage with an investigator, and until the investigator can shake them off the enemies get a free attack for most actions he takes. The two exceptions, fighting and evading, are also the two ways to disengage from an enemy. You obviously disengage when you kill them in a fight, but if you’re not good at fighting you can instead test your agility to evade the enemy. Not only will that disengage you, it will also leave the enemy exhausted, meaning he can only come back to attack in the next round. (The game got quite a bit easier when we realized we had overlooked that detail in the rules.) Evading means that you can avoid most combats in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, giving you a chance to succeed with the more fragile investigators.
Finally, as an action, you can move to a different location. You start the campaign trapped in your study, but once you’re out of there more locations become accessible. Depending on the scenario, locations can be rooms in the house, neighborhoods in the city, or any other geographically distinct unit. What’s important is that locations have clues to collect there, they may have special abilities to trigger while you’re there, and you can only interact with other investigators at the same location.
After all investigators took their actions, the game strikes back. Monsters that are not exhausted engage with an investigator and deal physical and mental damage, without a chance to fight back. You should have dealt with them on your turn. Then you advance the agenda deck by placing a doom token, and then each investigator draws a random encounter. Those encounters are the main way to spawn new monsters, but there are other kinds of encounters that make you do skill checks and suffer consequences if you fail, or that force you to make decisions and either lose an asset or a bit of your sanity, for instance.
If you survive your encounters you continue to the next round, until a card instructs you to read one of the scenario’s resolutions from the scenario booklet. Even knowing the rules, you take anywhere between 45 and 120 minutes to get to that point, depending on the scenario and how well it goes for you. Then you might want to continue to the next scenario at once – I know that I did – but you get to level up first. One cool aspect of campaign play is that you earn experience points for each scenario you complete, and you may spend those on better cards to add to your deck. Trust me, you’ll need them.
So, regarding gameplay, I’m very happy that I broke my self-imposed Living Card Game prohibition for this one. Arkham Horror: The Card Game has exactly what I want from a cooperative game and from a Lovecraft game. It’s tense, has good replayability, and it tells a creepy story. That the campaign continues even if you don’t solve a scenario is a great touch and makes perfect sense with how the story progresses. I can’t say anything about the game balance in three or four players, but the game is equally tough alone or in two: somewhere between tough and impossible, depending on your chosen level of difficulty. I also love how it uses the same art style as old Arkham Horror, you know immediately that those two games share a heritage.
In other respects, I’m less happy with this game. What you’re getting in the box is admittedly high quality, in production value and creativity. But for what you get in the box, it’s already on the expensive side. So it irks me that you have to buy two copies of the base game if you want to play in three or four players. At current Amazon prices, that puts you at more than $100, a price that buys you about 1.3m³ of miniatures in other games. And it downright ticks me off that there are not enough cards in the box to play any two combinations of investigators. Only specific pairings that don’t share cards in their starter decks work, for others you need more copies of some cards and thus a second copy of the game again.
I realize that “make you buy more cards” is the stated business model for LCGs. I’m not going to argue about that. I knew what I was getting into, and I’m perfectly okay selling a kidney to buy scenario packs. But not printing more of the same cards so you can’t play with your selection of investigators unless you buy a second copy of an already expensive game, that’s just money-grabbing of the lowest order, and enough for me to knock a point off the score of a game that I really enjoy playing.
That’s my warning in my recommendation. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a great Lovecraftian coop, and I will get those scenario packs at some point, but unless you plan on playing solo anyway be aware that the spending more money doesn’t start with the expansions.