|Name||Arkham Horror: The Card Game (2016)|
|Accessibility Report||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||19 [8.23]|
|Player Count (recommended)||1-2 (1-2+)|
|Designer(s)||Nate French and Matthew Newman|
|Artist(s)||Christopher Hosch, Marcin Jakubowski, Ignacio Bazán Lazcano, Henning Ludvigsen, Mercedes Opheim, Zoe Robinson and Evan Simonet|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
At this point in the muggy Scottish summer of 2017 I think under most circumstances I’d rather be killed by raging cultists of the King in Yellow than play another Lovecraft inspired game.
Once upon a time Lovecraft and all his weirdly specific public racisms were what literate horror fans used to use as the quality benchmark for tales of cosmic horror. By and large, they were written terribly – as if someone only briefly lucid was channelling the rampaging thoughts of something only vaguely sentient. However hidden within that overwrought prose and those ornate gothic consonants were genuinely unsettling worlds. They hinted at knowledge that was hidden not because its obfuscation served a purpose but because it was part of a collective act of psychic self-preservation. The stories of Lovecraft veer wildly from the ridiculous to the sublime. They encompass everything from gunfights straight out of hard-boiled noir pulp fiction to the gradual encroaching oppression and self-destruction associated with existential dread and paranoia. The world of Lovecraft is sophisticated. It’s subtle, except when it intersects with the regressive worldviews of the author. The horror in these stories comes from seeing intensely unfamiliar things in intensely familiar environments.
I love the Cthulhu mythos and yet I am so tired of seeing games set in that universe. It’s no longer a selling point – it’s genuinely a potential deal-breaker. Over-saturation of Lovecraft gaming properties has completely dulled the impact of the underlying literature. Lovecraft’s work excelled in the space between our desires and our capabilities. That works best when it’s coupled to the cold truth of an unfeeling reality that is greater and more mysterious than we can comprehend. Our infinitesimal needs don’t even register in a universe that neither knows nor cares for our troubles. We want to be noticed. We won’t be noticed. And the universe simply doesn’t care. The intense unfamiliarity at the core of Lovecraft has no surprise value when it rotates in and of public consciousness like a forgotten rucksack at an airport’s baggage claim terminal.
It’s impossible to be shaken to your psychological core by the looming imminence of Cthulhu’s awakening when he’s available for purchase as an adorable plushie. When you’ve shot an Old God to death with a shotgun, they cease to have any of the resonance that comes them not even registering your murderous efforts. Much as with the humour of Monty Python Lovecraft has been ruined by the constant recycling of his works. It’s not cosmic horror any more. At this point it’s little more than cultural muzak.
All of this is to say that Arkham Horror: The Card Game had a fair bit of work to do in order to overcome my prejudices regarding Lovecraft inspired games. Our last review of something in this mould was Elder Sign, also from Fantasy Flight. We didn’t have much positive to say about it because like almost every Lovecraft game it focuses on the big antagonists and the common literary touchstones. It’s about throwing the Necronomicon into Hastur’s face while everyone totally shreds their guitars and lightning flashes while everything explodes into fire. Elder Sign is the board-game equivalent of an Iron Maiden album cover, and as such it’s far more Freddy versus Jason than it is Us against the Universe. Similarly with games like Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror (two games that we haven’t yet reviewed for the site) – there is too much packed into each Lovecraftian reference that it loses all the menace and psychological nuance. They play like a greatest hits album of Lovecraft’s most recognised hits. You might want to slowly tease out the mystery and meaning behind the weird light that suddenly appeared in the cellar but some asshole at the back is screaming ‘Free Bird!’ and ruining the ambiance. When the asshole is the game engine itself, you know it’s not a good fit for you.
There’s something different in this box though and I am immensely happy to see it. This is a Lovecraft game that understands what makes Lovecraft so effective. This is a game where the scale has been shifted from the grandiose to the intensely private. Rather than traveling to Senegal to have a discussion with an old man that can see through time and space, you’ll climb into the attic of your own house after a haunting encounter in the cellar. Rather than heading to Rome to find the Necromicon under a hospital bed, you’ll explore the chilly early morning fog of your home-town. It’s far more personal, far more intimate, and approximately a million times more effective as a result. This is a horror game that puts the investigators at the centre of the story, not just the centre of the action. This is the only Lovecraft game I have ever played where it feels like the designer understood what matters about the franchise. It’s a game that combines solid card-play mechanics with some serious storytelling chops and a real respect for the source material.
Within the confines of the game you’re doing deck-based battle against the unfathomable strangeness of the universe. You and maybe your compatriot (a single core box set supports two players and don’t think we won’t be returning to that topic) face off against the darkness with nothing more than an investigator, a deck of cards, and your wits. Yes, those wits. I know, right? You’re already screwed before a single card gets turned over.
Your deck represents your protagonist and as such it’s a collection of sundry things that define who they are as a person. It’s made up of skills and experiences, friends and enemies, equipment and debilitating personal weaknesses. It’s also a deck that you will carefully prune and curate over the course of the game campaign – you’ll add things, upgrade other things, get rid of the cards that don’t work and replace them with those that synergise with your style. The decks are fascinating tools for emergent characterisation too – while they are the drumbeat of the game, they also tell real and meaningful stories about the people to which they are attached.
The deck that each of the players gets though is going to be set against the far darker and more frightening deck of the scenario. Each scenario is made up of a pile of terrible things that will happen in terrifying ways to your terrified investigators. In this deck are grim monsters, philosophical conundrums, and eerie happenings. Every single card in the deck is bad news for you. You don’t want a part of anything that’s in this deck.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a scenario based game and the core set comes with three of these to play through. One of the key failings of this box as a product, as opposed to a game system, is that it’s hard to describe it as anything other than miserly. When I attempt to reach a bit farther for meaningful synonyms, I mostly find myself grasping the word exploitative. What’s in here is definitely very good – but it’s not a lot of very good. It supports two players – if you want four, then you better go get yourself another goddamn box or shed yourself of some goddamn friends. If you want more than about five or six hours of play, then go get yourself an expansion. What are you waiting for? Time is money, friend.
I’m serious about this too – this isn’t just ‘Oh my, it’s a bit pricey’. It’s, ‘oh my, it’s a bit price gougey’. To set yourself up for four players will cost you SEVENTY POUNDS at full retail price, and you will get perhaps two evening of dedicated play for that if you take your time to savour it. That’s a value proposition roughly equivalent to being offered a million shares in Blockbuster for your kidneys. It’s shitty – really shitty. I understand good content takes time and effort to make but come on. The gouging continues after you finish the box too – the first cycle of expansions will cost you around £120 if you want to get to the end of it. As you might imagine, this ‘value’ proposition comes up pretty heavily in the teardown we’ll publish on Saturday so I won’t stress it any farther here. BUT COME ON.
Before we go any farther let me say – there are some spoilers coming for the first few rooms of the first scenario. I will keep them to a minimum, but you can’t realistically talk about how the storytelling of Arkham Horror: The Card Game works without revealing some of the earlier story beats. I mean, you almost certainly can – but I’m not gifted enough as a reviewer to both retain the veil whilst revealing the meaning of what’s behind it. If you don’t want to know anything about the game itself, skip to the last couple of paragraphs. Search through until you see the words ‘Welcome back!’. It’s okay, I won’t mind. Off you go. Have a great day! Have you been working out? You look wonderful.
God, did you see how quickly those assholes skipped over the rest of this review? I mean, I said it would be fine but I can’t deny it hurts a little. Fine, it hurts a lot. I hope cultists dismember them in the night. Seriously, screw them.
The scenario deck you build contains a number of special cards that get broken out from the rest. Those are the locations in which you’ll wander, which will get arranged in some kind of pattern determined by the accompanying scenario guide. They will also include some special events and protagonists that get triggered at different points in the story, and the act and agenda cards that dominate the shape of the tale to come. The agenda sets out the dark forces acting against you, and the act makes available a course of action for you to follow. The agenda progresses regardless of your desires, but the act progresses only if you accomplish the aims it sets out.
Usually there’s a small stack of these, laid on top of each other. Don’t read the cards. Seriously, so much of the genuine storytelling here comes from a lack of expectation and a profound need for improvisation in the face of ever changing circumstances. As such, while you can certainly replay scenarios you will lose a lot of their impact when you know what happens on the obverse of each of the cards. Uncertainty is Lovecraftian. Efficient allocation of cards in preparation for known plot-twists isn’t. This is a part of what makes the value proposition of the core set so poorly balanced – you get a great story in each scenario, but it suffers incrementally more with each retelling. It’s not that there’s no replay value, it’s just that the replay value has sharply diminishing returns.
Let’s take a small moment to talk about the art here – while it’s small and doesn’t remotely get the kind of priority it deserves, it is astonishingly evocative. Check out that sinister figure bursting through the floor of a filthy, unloved bathroom – it says a lot about the scenario we’re facing and the personality of location in which we’re facing it. It’s dark, gritty and just suggestive enough of the depicted event to leave your imagination room to fill in the blanks. The text in Arkham Horror: The Card Game always takes precedence but the art manages to fill in just enough of the blanks to add flavour without being overpowering. For me, the best horror implies but never shows. The monster the author is imagining will never be as scary as the one my mind has created in order to run a cheese-grater over my nerves.
Note here the bottom of the card has a number – that’s used to handle when the situation escalates to a new horrifying state. Every round, we place a new doom token onto that agenda. When it hits the number count, we flip over the agenda, resolve its effect, and then move on to the next card in the stack. Things, as you might expect, do not get better over time.
The act here shows at the bottom the number of clues we’re going to need. We need two clues per investigator in play, and when we spend those we’ll flip over the act and progress the scenario in our favour towards its conclusion. We’re in a race against the dark agenda to get to the end of the act and survive with some semblance of our lives still intact.
The act and agenda set the context of the story, and then the location decks give us places for the story to happen. We’re trapped in our study. There are no exits. Something weird is going on, and we don’t know what. All rooms begin unexplored, and only when we enter them do we find out what fresh hell lies within. We may find monster spawning, or sinister effects that coruscate through us like an electric charge. Or we might find resources and aid if we are very lucky. But come on, how lucky do you really feel?
Every round of the game each investigator takes a turn. In that turn, they can perform three (and occasionally more) actions from a fixed menu of options. They can investigate for clues, search around for equipment and opportunities, move from room to room, and fight the dark forces that may be arrayed before them. Here, the task is simple – there are four clues in this room, and finding all four will allow the investigators to progress the act. The room has a shroud value of two, which represents the difficulty of finding each clue. The first scenario is in many ways a tutorial for the much more challenging stories to follow but don’t be fooled – that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The room will give some options, as will the deck of cards each investigator draws into their hand. The decks have some shared equipment and experience but they also contain unique elements for each investigator. Each time a card is played, we must spend its cost in resources from our supply – these are non-specific, but they can represent anything from time, improvised supplies, or even just the will to go on in the face of ever more unfathomable circumstances.
As such, much of the implied storytelling comes from the way these cards pop up and are used. Every so often, a card gets charged up with a number of resources from the common pool, and even this has a kind of tactile storytelling built into it. Roland’s .38 special for example takes three of our resources to play, and when we do that we put four bullets onto the card for later use. It’s powerfully evocative of the grizzled FBI man drawing his gun, checking the cylinder, and then snapping it shut as he steadies it in front of him. The use of resources as well as opportunity cost ensures that you can’t just tool up and head out – you’ve got a powerful need to also manage the economy of your psychic reserves. It models stress, adrenaline, fortitude and paranoia within a system that is mechanically simple enough to become a backdrop for the gameplay. It blends into the background of your attention.
This is important because card management is something you need to carefully consider – you don’t have an unlimited set of limbs into which weapons can be drawn. You have only one head for a hat, and so on. You also can’t safely play cards within combat situations – you provoke attacks of opportunity in that situation. As such, you need to balance preparation time against actually doing stuff. Remember, that agenda is ticking along in the background and you only have three actions in your turn.
This too is storytelling gold because it imbues every action with a dose of often unjustified paranoia. Remember, all Roland has to go on is a missing door and a scratching sound. Some people might think of stress or hallucination, and consider whether they need a doctor. Roland instead drew his gun and started pointing it around. It tells you much of what kind of person Roland is, and this characterization is drawn in large part from the mechanics and the drum-beat of the menace accumulating on that agenda. Wendy might pull on her necklace, with the resources spent representing perhaps the time cost associated with nervous fingering of the chain or the emotional fortitude required to snap it in place. It gives you room to tell your own stories of your investigators within the context of their own fixed (and eventually evolving) personalities. Those non-specific resources acquire whatever meaning to which you ascribe them, and that meaning can be situational and projected.
If you’re not going to be playing cards you’re probably going to be undertaking other activities – such as investigating the room for the clues that will move the story onwards. Most of the things you do with your turn are going to require some skill test, and that’s where these bastard things come in – they’re called chaos tokens and they are monstrous:
You put these in a bag (not supplied because this game is miserly) and instead of rolling a die or other such randomisation mechanism you draw one of these from the bag. The token you draw is a modifier to your skill, and to pass a skill check your skill value plus the modifier has to match or exceed the difficulty of the task. It’s very easy to understand, and very difficult to pull off. The distribution of tokens above is for an easy game. If you want a harder game, well – let’s just say there are tokens in there that are viciously punitive.
To buff up your skills in preparation for a test, you can discard appropriate cards from your hand for a boost. Some of these will give you additional effects depending on a success or a fail. Not all cards can be used for all skill tests, and many of them are too valuable to risk on routine tasks. And yet – those chaos tokens are more often punitive than they are otherwise and as such even a task that should present no risk can go wrong. Some of those tokens too have contextual impact, related to the scenario, or to the specific investigator playing. Again, this creates circumstances of intense paranoia or foolhardy optimism. Drawing a -4 token on your 4 skill reminds you every single time that you can’t take anything for granted, and yet you can’t exhaust yourself too readily. You get a new resource and card every turn, but each one you want beyond that is an action apiece. And even then, drawing a card isn’t necessarily a good thing because your deck contains some that represent past trauma, dark conspiracies, or personal failings that will make everything more difficult still.
And amidst all of this that agenda deck is still ticking onwards…
But more than the deck, at the end of each round you draw from that scenario deck – one for each investigator, and you resolve those effects. They do bad things. Very bad things. You honestly don’t have any time to waste – even if you’re within spitting distance of your goal, you still want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible because at the end of any round you may find your chances spiralling away into oblivion.
Inaction compounds in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and every new treachery card you draw moves the goal post farther away from you whilst simultaneously reducing the time you have to reach it and limiting the resources you have to do so. It’s not so much the dark forces directly that are your biggest enemy – it’s time. Every new challenge you face in a round means more things getting in the way of you performing your core activity – finding the clues you need to progress the story. Every locked door, every angry ghoul, every ice-sharp moment of doubt and recrimination – they grab you and hold you back until you give up and succumb to their embrace. Every turn of the game is a struggle against the inevitable. Don’t fight it. Don’t resist. Just give in. Shhh. Shhh. This could all be over if you just stopped struggling…
Every action in Arkham Horror: The Card Game is best treated like an ongoing triage in a war situation – you look at the situation as it currently stands and you try to work out what you can do versus what you need to do. Does everyone need to survive, or can someone set themselves up as a hero so the overall scenario can succeed? Do you just give up and run away? Do you turn and face the shadow hunting you in the night or just keep fleeing? What cards can you sacrifice now because who knows if you’ll even survive otherwise? The job in front of you is difficult enough that you rarely have time to think about how bad it’s going to get at the end of the round. All of these things come into play with every action, and the only thing you can say with any real confidence is that you’re really just facing an average turn – worse than the last one, but better than the next. Just get your head down, and don’t lose sight of the goal. You never know – maybe if you just focus on the task at hand you’ll find your other problems solve themselves in the process.
With a larger set of locations, we start to get a feel for the real spiritual ancestor of the game. It’s not so much Arkham Horror: The Card Game as it is a kind of Lovecraftian text adventure. Each room is connected in a lattice of symbolic relationships. This permits both non-Euclidian geometry and an emergent spatiality that permits for monsters to hunt you through the night. It allows for physical acts such as barricading or simply cowering waiting for the creatures outside your door to find more palatable prey. The geometry of the scenario, as much as the scenario itself, is a resource to utilise and a puzzle to be solved. In this you need to balance the need for exploration versus the imperative for action. Like your character deck, the scenario map develops a personality of its own. The difficulty of locations and the dangers they present texture your world with an accumulation of tiny interlocking game systems. Every new location presents both the promise of succor and the risk of damnation. Even simply moving into the unexplored parts of the map carries within it a weight of dread and danger. And within this, the scenario decks are tightly coupled to the story so that they can trigger in interesting and completely thematic ways. You absolutely can narrate a game of Arkham Horror: The Card Game in a way that makes almost perfect logical and narrative sense. That’s unusual in a game that combines both random elements and deck building. We saw in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game that when you looked closely it generated nothing but random number targets and narrative gibberish. The Arkham Horror: Card Game attempts something far grander, and largely accomplishes it.
And then you get to the best part of the scenario – the end! I’m not being mean there – I’m not saying ‘the game is so bad you’re happy when it’s over’. At the end of the game you make choices and record outcomes. And then you are instructed to make a note of those outcomes at the back, because they are going to come back to haunt you. Sure, you let that bad guy go, but you survived the scenario so it’s fine, right? Maybe! But maybe you’ll be told ‘write down that the bad guy survived’ and future scenarios will change depending on that. This is a game that has persistent consequences for your actions, and potentially they might follow you through every scenario in a particular story cycle. It’s important that you survive the night, but it’s also important that you survive it well.
And for those that abandoned us earlier, welcome back! Did you do some more exercise while we were chatting? My word, I need to get me a ticket to the gun show, am I right?
This then is the Lovecraft game I have always wanted – a game with a scale sufficiently grand to encompass the richest elements of the mythos, with a focus tight enough to bring out the personal anguishes and triumphs of those striving in a new and uncertain world. The stories you go through here are well written and interesting. They’re full of surprises and twists and turns. And, importantly, they are also subtle and nuanced with the game mechanics being as important to their execution as the text and aesthetics. This is a game that feels like it was designed and written by people that understood Lovecraft on more than the level of cheapest common denominator marketing.
Within a game like this though it’s inevitable that the tight interlock between game rules and game story would cause problems just as often as it solves them. The exact things that should happen when card effects resolve is often interconnected and complex to completely and correctly action. Often in the course of the game you’ll find this intricate storytelling engine simply breaks down, as if a cog or a bearing came loose. The result is a kind of continuity error that needs mentally retconned in a very obtrusive way. Within your decks are assets and allies, and you might very well find that ‘hey, you were accompanied by Billy Beat Cop all along’. That’s true even in scenarios where it’s not possible his absence would have been missed, or his sudden presence can be remotely justified. You might be in the unusual position of pickpocketing yourself, or for clues to fall out of your pocket into the room you are standing. You can invent thematic explanations for these things, but when the rest of it so smoothly narrates a story from mechanisms alone it’s jarring and often unintentionally comic. Unfortunately, a sense of looming horror rarely survives a giggle that cuts through the atmosphere. This is sometimes a very funny game, but it’s neither intentional not conducive to the game experience.
Coupled to this is the perversity of the intense randomness baked into the very core of the game. While it doesn’t use dice the replacement it has gone for is simultaneously more awkward and less fair. You know from the start that the situation is slanted against you, but that creates a circumstance where attempting to compensate can be intensely punitive and ultimately irrelevant to the outcome. You can exhaust your resources to pass a test in which you would have handily succeeded without support. You can exhaust your resources to pass a test which turned out to need more help than you were able to give. It’s entirely possible for there to be occasions where you absolutely cannot overcome the token that you draw regardless of hindsight. Importantly, this is both thematic and entirely compatible with the principles of Lovecraft. It’s not however an awful lot of fun at times. You might spend all of your turn trying to accomplish something trivial and failing each time. Or perhaps, failing something trivial and making everything worse in the process. In some scenarios, it’s possible to all but lose in the first couple of rounds through nothing more than bad draws from the token bag.
In real situations of horror-driven narrative such moments of failing to accomplish the trivial can be very effective – fumbling at the door with shaky hands and a key, or searching through the kitchen drawers for a weapon to use against the killer outside the door. Those moments can be chilling because they add a relevant timing beat to a tense situation without being heavy-handed. They work occasionally and for short periods of time. Here you can spend an entire round failing to pick up a single token. It doesn’t ramp up the tension. It dampens down the excitement. This is a game where you absolutely need to be able to roll with the randomness even when it seems to be perversely doing its best to take away all the fun and pace of play. Often there’s nothing you could have done to mitigate the risk, but you only know that after the draw is made.
Coupled to this is an issue associated with the persistence of consequence. As mentioned above, the scenarios don’t thrive as replayable experiences even if you can play them as many times as you like. They lose a lot of their juice. However, sometimes this is going to be necessary because a bad performance in an earlier scenario will lead to a heightened failure chance in future ones. You can easily set yourself up for a situation where failure compounds on failure, and when that’s being mediated through a perversely slanted randomisation system it can turn any quest into a crucible. And again – it’s very thematic, and it’s very Lovecraftian. But it’s not necessarily a lot of fun even within the implied despair escalation associated with a game of this nature.
Really though these are relatively minor quibbles and shouldn’t detract from what this game actually accomplishes – a storytelling game that is fun and worth playing while being set in the world of Lovecraft. It actually succeeds in all of these capacities even if some of them are usually directly incompatible with others. That’s a rare accomplishment even if some of those achievements come with caveats.
Here though our recommendation must be tempered with the same point we made about the X-Wing Miniatures Game and Blood Bowl. This box is only a part of the game you want to play. It’s a sampler – a taster. With both of those games, you need to invest a fair bit in additional miniatures to get the full experience. The box for both of those games represents a down payment and when the balance is paid off you’ll have a game you can play potentially forever without any more investment.
That’s even more significant with Arkham Horror: The Card Game. You’re not making a down payment – you’re signing up to a subscription box. The novelty of scenarios wears off very quickly, and you will need a constant reinjection of new scenarios if you want to keep enjoying the game you bought. If you’re happy paying almost £200 for a day’s worth of gaming for you and three friends then absolutely – this is great. If you want to enjoy some Lovecraft card play for a couple of evenings in the company of yourself or a significant other, then sure – this will accomplish that easily enough and you won’t resent the time you invest. For everyone else, I might be inclined to recommend you just buy a book of Lovecraft’s short stories and save yourself the ongoing financial outlay.