Arkham Horror the Card Game is a cooperative card game which puts players in the shoes of intrepid investigators, trying to save the world and preserve their own sanity, as they delve into dark mysteries. Arkham Horror is the newest title from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) in their popular Arkham Horror Files range, as well as being the youngest of their Living Card Games – if you don’t know much about Living Card Games, check out our overview article here! Being an LCG, it means that the Core Set for Arkham Horror is just the first in a long line of products planned for the game, but before we get too far into the web of expansions, let’s have a look at the game itself and see whether it’s any good…
What’s in the Box? Cards, Tokens and Madness
The box for Arkham Horror the card game is mostly full of cards. There are cards representing 5 different investigators (i.e. player-characters), cards to build decks for those investigators, and the cards for 3 scenarios.
The card-stock is good, the graphic design is clear, and a lot of the art for Core Set’s investigators comes from the highly talented Magalli Villeneuve, so the game looks beautiful. Aside from the cards, you have tokens for resources, double-sided tokens which act as Clues (generally good) and Doom (generally bad), as well as plenty of brains and hearts to represent Horror and Damage. It’s all very durable, and ties into the aesthetic of the rest of the Arkham Horror Files range – my only real complaint would be that the 3-value Horror and Damage tokens are a bit too similar in size to the 1-value ones.
Lastly, Arkham Horror comes with FFG’s tried-and-tested 2 rulebook approach: a Learn to Play guide which walks you through an initial scenario, and a Rule Reference guide, designed to help you out with the technicalities of what can be quite a complex game.
So what’s happening? – It’s like an open book
The pace of any game in Arkham Horror is driven by two decks: the Agenda deck and the Act deck. “Agenda” represents the game trying to execute its dark plan, while the Act is you trying to solve the mystery first. Although each deck is a separate pile of cards, they are designed to sit side-by-side, so that they give the appearance of a single book.
Each scenario sets up with a series of double-sided locations: a closed side which gives you a vague sense of what the place is, and a more detailed side that is revealed once the players enter the location. Each location has coloured symbols at the top and bottom, showing you where it connects to.
Revealed locations have a number of clues (often scaled based on the number of investigators in the game), and a “Shroud” value, indicating how difficult it is to discover clues there. You acquire clues by Investigating – generally an intelligence check [see below for checks] against the shroud value, taking a clue if successful. Most scenarios will need you to get clues for something or other, so having a way to do this is key.
The sense of place in Arkham Horror is great – most of FFG’s earlier LCGs have had a fairly awkward interaction between characters and locations, but Arkham Horror makes things much clearer and cleaner: the locations exist in a map, and each character (or enemy), is always in a specific place at a time – to help a fellow investigator you need to be at their location, and likewise to fight an enemy.
The double-sided locations are also a very effective way of allowing variety in plays of the same scenario – some locations will have multiple versions, only a few of which will be in play each game: you might know that those are the woods, but which bit of the woods will you find yourself in tonight?
And who am I exactly?
Arkham Horror Files games feature a recurring cast of ordinary folk, drawn into something horrific and beyond their understanding, and Arkham Horror the card game is no exception. Each player controls a single investigator, with starting choices between Rex the FBI agent, Daisy the Librarian, “Skids” the ex-con, Wendy the Urchin, and Agnes the Waitress (who just happens to be the latest reincarnation of ancient and powerful sorceress).
Once you have chosen your investigator, you take a mini-card that you move around to track your location), a larger card showing your stats and powers, and a deck of 30ish cards that you draw from during the game in order to assist you in the various tasks and challenges that you undertake.
Your character has stats for their Willpower, Intelligence, Strength and Agility, which are what you will use to perform various “checks” over the course of the game. Performing a check follows a fairly standard procedure:
- Take your stat for the relevant skill, and add any modifiers for assets or other game effects in play.
- Draw a random token from the “Chaos Bag” which will modify your score (usually downwards).
- Compare this total to the difficulty of the check: if your result is equal or higher, you have passed the test and can reap the reward.
Characters in Arkham Horror have a “class,” which helps to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and determines the cards that they have access to. Each of the investigators in the core set come from a different class: Guardian (fighting), Seeker (Investigating), Mystic (spells etc,) Rogue, (resources and sneaking) and Survivor (just trying to make it out alive). They are all pretty straightforward, giving you a feel for how each class plays: whilst their abilities may not be as flashy as some of those who appear or have been spoiled for later boxes, they are all solid, great introductions, and don’t feel like they will be left behind as the game evolves.
Know your Strengths – and Weaknesses!
As a general rule in card-games, extra draw is always a good thing – in Arkham Horror however, you need to beware of Weaknesses – cards which do horrible things to you when you draw them. You always start the campaign with at least one random basic weakness in the deck and each investigator also has their own Unique Asset and Signature Weakness, always found in their deck. Both the general concept of including weaknesses in decks, and the focus on the signature cards felt like great ways to make Arkham Horror stand out from the crowd: it forces a very Lovecraftian element of doubt and uncertainty into even a decision as simple as “should I draw” a card, whilst making it very clear that whatever your investigator may bring to the party, their flaws will be as big an influence as their strengths.
Win or Lose? If only it were that simple!
In the Cthulhu Mythos victory is only ever illusory, as such the resolution of a game of Arkham Horror is always shrouded in shades of grey.
Sometimes a game of Arkham Horror will end with all the investigators being defeated, or “Resigning” (using an in-game ability to get out before things get any worse). Beyond these, there are likely to be 2 or 3 different possible outcomes, reflecting how well investigators have done, and decisions they have made, all of which create knock-on implications for later scenarios in the campaign. For me, this was a great strength of Arkham Horror: the myriad sequences of events give great replay value to the game, which is most definitely designed for playing in campaign mode rather than just cherry-picking individual scenarios.
At the end of a scenario, assuming that you are not dead, various things will happen: you will be told to log certain pieces of pertinent information, and may gain cards or benefits, or suffer trauma that will affect you in future games.
If only I had a better gun – now I do!
Investigators can also earn Victory Points in a scenario, for defeating enemies, or exploring locations – at the end of the scenario, these convert into Experience Points (XP), which can be spent on upgrading the cards that come in your deck. The core box for Arkham Horror comes with enough cards to build basic decks for any of the investigators, although your options will be limited, and some investigators can feel really underpowered with only a single box.
Whether you play with one core box or two, you will probably find yourself with lots of XP, and not a lot to spend it on – this is definitely only a short-term problem though, once you venture out of the Core set, you’ll get plenty more to spend your XP on, and find that you have to work harder to get it.
Overall, I think Arkham Horror is a great game, and it’s very clear for anyone who has played Lord of the Rings that Fantasy Flight’s LCG design team have learnt a lot over 5 years of making a cooperative LCG.
The way that locations have been taken out of the encounter deck and made into a separate entity makes for a much more coherent sense of where you are and, at the same time, far more consistent encounter decks, with only 2 types of randomised cards, not 3.
The difficulty also controls which tokens go in the bag in the first place.
Arkham Horror also has 4 levels of difficulty built into the game from the ground up, implemented by having different ratios of tokens in the token bag, and different effects when special symbols are drawn. Compared (again) with Lord of the Rings, this felt like a really solid design decision, both allowing players a lot more scope to customise the game to suit their own tastes, and ensuring that the varied difficulty levels are more than cosmetics.
The fact that in Arkham Horror you play as a single investigator, rather than a group of heroes, or even an unseen hand manoeuvring other characters really helps to strengthen the narrative aspect of the gameplay, and gives the whole game a more RPG-like feel, (although without anything like the time-commitment needed). Obviously this does mean that a scenario you’ve played multiple times will lose some of the wow factor, but the designers have clearly looked to put lots of variety and replay value into each of the scenarios.
Arkham Horror: The Future
As I said at the start, Arkham Horror is a Living Card Game, and that means, inevitably, that it’s designed to be played with more than just one box. If you’re serious about playing this game long-term, then having a second core set will give you lots of options for deck-building, and beyond that, there are more cards coming all the time.
The first deluxe expansion, The Dunwich Legacy, provides you with 5 more investigators, another wave of player cards, and 2 scenarios which provide the jumping-off point for the Dunwich Legacy campaign, gradually unveiled over the cost of 6 smaller, monthly Mythos Packs.
Fantasy Flight have also released 2 stand-alone scenarios: Curse of the Rougarou and Carnevale of Horrors, ideal for filling the lulls between releases.
If that isn’t enough for you, they’ve also already announced the second deluxe expansion, Path to Carcosa, again with more investigators, player cards, and the foundations for a whole new campaign.
I’ve been playing Fantasy Flight LCGs for many years now, and think that Arkham Horror is the best one yet. Like any LCG, it does require you to buy multiple products to get the full experience, which can certainly get expensive, but what is being offered here, in terms of theme, mechanic, design, and overall narrative experience makes it well worth it in my book.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.