Designed by: Nate French and Matthew Newman
Published by: Fantasy Flight Games
Playtime: 1-2 Hours
Review copy provided free of charge by Esdevium Games
One of the earliest board games I reviewed when I started getting into the hobby was Arkham Horror, a gigantic, fiddly game of Lovecraftian horror and table devouring. I loved it then, and while I’d probably pick it apart much more now due to having a bit more experience I love it regardless because of its absurdity. Still, it’s a difficult game to actually play because it takes up the whole damn table, takes a while to finish and the myriad of cards, tokens and other assorted nonsense tend to put a lot of people off. On the other end of the scale lies Elder Sign, another I love that takes the Arkham theme and pummels it into some dice and cards. Now Fantasy Flight Games have decided to compress all that Lovecraft horror into another small game, a card game. A living card game. Whatever the hell that means.
Impressively this co-operative card game manages to take the sprawling Arkham Horror’s beautiful thematic immersion and condense it into a much, much smaller game with surprising effectiveness. Flavor text on almost every card and especially on the agenda and act cards does a great job of bringing you into the story, delivering a variety of fun twists and turns that serve to ensure the first time you play through the game will likely be your most memorable, too. Once you’ve gone through the campaign some of the magic is lost on the second run, but you are still left with the fun gameplay. Meanwhile the art is nothing short of superb. One can certainly argue that the Lovecraft theme has been entirely overplayed, but it’s also hard to deny that FFG are damn good at making it fun.
Here’s the gist of how a game goes; you look up which scenario you’ll be playing out of the three scenario campaign that comes with the core set of the game and based upon what it says you’ll lay out a number of location cards, representing the areas you’ll be travelling to, investigating and killing monsters in. As an investigator your job is to find out what the hell is going on, usually by picking up lots of clues and either hitting things or running away from things. Being an Arkham Horror game there’s a lot of crazy stuff that happens to players as they deal with cults, insane people and unspeakable monsters that have clearly been harboring grudges for too damn long. As always with FFG’s Arkham series the theme may take inspiration from Lovecraft’s deranged works, but it is now very much their own thing, a sort of pulpy adventure series with an emphasis on the fact that you rarely truly win.
It’s the agenda and act cards that form the structure of the scenario you’re playing. The agenda is what the enemy are up to, a pile of ticking clocks constantly counting down to more bad stuff happening and thus whisper in your ear to abandon caution in favor of charging in. At the beginning of every round you’re going to dump a doom token on the topmost agenda card until it reaches the limit, and then flip it over, reading the beautiful flavor text and then groaning at whatever evil it’s going to drop on you from a great height. Then you do the same for the next agenda card. As for the acts, they represent what the investigators are up to and how they advance the story, providing objectives that must be completed such as gathering up enough clues or going to a certain location. While I’ve not tested them personally people have confirmed that the Dunwich Legacy expansions have already done a good job of adding in fascinating new stipulations. Just like agenda cards it’s best to read the detailed descriptions because Arkham Horror: The Card Game tells a captivating story across its three scenarios.
For each scenario you’ll also cobble together a mythos deck containing various enemies or events like hands bursting out of the ground that seek to grab you and pull you down into some underground rape dungeon. I mean, it doesn’t actually say that last part, I’m just assuming. It’s a good idea to avoid looking at these cards if you can because part of the fun is running into new stuff with no forewarning. At start of a new round each investigator has to draw a card from this deck and deal with the consequences, consequences that could be creepy fog obscuring a location and making it harder to find clues, or a new evil beast intent on ripping your face off for fun. The important thing is that enemies can show up like this at the start of a round, but they won’t activate until all the investigators have had their turns, meaning players are given an entire round to deal with the new threat.
Fail to deal with enemies by the end of everybody’s turn and the forces of evil get to do their thing, and sadly that thing isn’t just hanging round street corners. No, some will actively move to hunt players, choosing their prey based on a few different things, and others have special abilities. Any enemy currently engaged with a player will also attack, dealing a set amount of mental and physical damage. If you needed a further reason to deal with enemies quickly whenever they are engaged with you, which means they get placed in your ‘threat’ area, you’re unable to do anything other than run away or fight without incurring an enemy attack. Furthermore, engaged enemies move with you. I basically just imagine it as a giant hellbeast latching on to your leg and getting dragged along as you limp to the next location.
Then you get to the fun bit; your own deck. The rulebook handily contains premade deck lists for all five included investigators so you can jump right in with minimal faffing around, although you can only ever actually have two of them made at a time with the core set. But the real joy is constructing your own deck of cards based around the investigator you pick. This deck of cards that you’ve fumbled together from the admittedly limited core set isn’t just a bunch of random objects and things mushed together to form something useful, no it represents your character, their very personality, an extension of the text on the back of their cards. It tells you who they are friends with, what they carry with them and what skils they have, and since you can build it and tweak it throughout the adventures contained within the core set and future expansions there’s a real sense of character building and ownership. Roland, for example, carries dynamite around in his pocket, a shotgun strapped to his back and a first-aid kit because he’s a man who does not screw around when it comes to shooting unspeakable horrors in the knackers. Roland’s deck defines him, it gives him personality and as new cards are added and old ones removed it tells a story of a man learning from mistakes, developing new strategies and finding new stuff on his adventures.
The game does put in place some limitations to how decks are built, as written on the back of investigator cards. There’s a limit of thirty cards, for example, and each card is split into different class types such as the Guardian, which is Roland’s class, or the Seeker, who happens to be very good at the whole investigation thingy. The other classes are the Rogue, the Survivor and the Mystic who comes with a variety of powerful abilities that all happen to have a serious cost. Characters can use any card in their specific class, and then some lower-level offerings from another type plus any neutral cards like body armor because obviously everybody wants to have that. Coming from other collectible card games these restrictions might be annoying to some but they serve to keep a cohesive theme running throughout everything. Roland is a badass, so he’s never going to be stocking up on evasive Rogue abilities.
But here’s the kicker; every investigator’s deck contains a weakness that is unique to them, along with one other randomly drawn one. These can be amnesia, shady pasts, cover-ups, abandonment issues and much, much more. It’s a neat subversion of the typical deck-building game where drawing more cards is almost always a good thing because you’ve only added helpful things. Here these weaknesses are at the back of your mind all the time, a potentially disastrous thing to bump into that might force you to uncover extra clues at a location or else suffer mental trauma, a reduction of your mental state that carries over through the campaign.
Lots of talk about decks and monsters, but now we need to tackle a bit of the actual rules. One of the simplest actions you can take is to move from one location to another, a series of symbols indicating which card is connected to which, forming a sort of board in your mind. Until an investigator travels to an area it is classed as undiscovered, with just a small portion of flavor text on the front providing a snippet of information. Once you amble over to it, though, the card is flipped over, revealing how many clues there is to discover and any special abilities or events which might occur.
At the cost of one of your three actions available per turn you can play a card from your hand. These come in various forms, but most of them require you to pay resource tokens to play. They tend to be worth it, though, since it might give you access to something like a shotgun, a magnifying glass that gives you a boost to investigating or a helpful ally who provides bonuses or can just be used as a meatshield. These kinds of cards stick around and can be used over and over, although in the case of some cards you place a number of resource tokens on them indicating how many times they can be used, like putting down two tokens on the shotgun to represent ammo. Other cards use up an action when activated, or may take no action at all thanks to special abilities. And others might be one-off events or skills.
You’ll get one resource token and one new card from the top of your deck at the end of every round, but actions can also be spent to take another card or resource token in case you want to stock up for an upcoming threat
When it comes to fighting or investigating or running away from things or various other actions you need to make a skill check, so we better talk about how this game doesn’t include dice. No, instead skill checks are made by grabbing yourself a chaos token from a handy bag or container (the game doesn’t come with a bag, annoyingly) and working out the results from there. Some of these tokens simply take a few points of your result, so if you have a fighting skill of four and draw a -2 token then the result is two. Other tokens have special effects based on the scenario or based upon a character’s sheet. What’s special about this system is that it allows FFG to add new tokens to the game in the future, and it also allows players to tweak the difficulty by altering the contents of the bag.
Let’s take an example; you want to investigate a location for some clues, so you look up the investigation stat on your investigator sheet and then you also note the shroud value of the area, which is basically how hard it is to find a clue there. You then get a chance to modify your stat by committing cards from your hand bearing the matching symbol, sending them to the discard pile in a bid to beat the test. Each investigator in the area can commit one card, so having friends in the same location helps. Other cards you have in play may also be able to offer bonuses. Finally, you draw a token from the bag and apply the effect, be it a simple modifier like +1 or -3 or something more interesting. If the final number matches or beats the required amount, then success! HUZZAH!
Combat is easy to resolve, too; you just make a combat check against the enemy’s combat rating. By default investigators do a single point of damage, so some foes that you’ll face off against can weather a beating, but various cards can increase that damage.
Running away is a perfectly valid option as well, and can in fact be an important strategy because a success scarper exhausts the enemy card, leaving it unable to attack at the end of the round. In other words, hitting it in the face with a machete and then legging it down the corridor while screaming is a perfectly valid tactic.
Throughout all of this you have to do your job as well, which is to say actually investigating stuff. Clues tend to be the driving force behind much of the game, and since each location only has a set amount you’ll need to move around and check out every location to get what you need. In order to make the game work for various player counts most have an investigator modifier, thus for each investigator a card might require two clues, meaning three investigators would have to get six clues. It’s a simple yet effective method of balancing the game.
Even if fail to find the clues and get pummeled into the dirt by every monster you meet along the way there’s no true fail state in Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Each scenario has a few different potential resolutions depending on what happened throughout, and these carry various effects into the next one. Killing a foe in one means he won’t pop up in the second for example, while taking too long somewhere else forces you to start the next adventure with two fewer cards in your hand.
At the end of each scenario you tally up experience points based on what enemies you defeated or events took place and can then spend those points on buying new cards for your deck, hopefully bumping up its abilities. There are size limitations in place on your deck, plus certain restrictions on what card types can be used based on the character, but its clear that this customization is going to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the entire game since it brings a real sense of progression and ownership.
So how does all of this come together as a solo adventure? The answer is very, very well. Sure, with two or more players there is naturally the joy of planning out turns in order to maximize each other’s skills and there’s room to bounce off of each other’s decks, too. A group who plays whole campaigns together can focus on building up their decks individually or so that they’ll work nicely together. However, while you might lose these co-operative elements the tradeoff is an arguably more engrossing theme as you’re able to fully take in the text and immerse yourself in the story. Hell, you could even play by candlelight for full effect. Mind you don’t burn the house down, though.
The biggest flaw is that the game simply doesn’t have enough scenarios, at least for my taste. You’ll get through the three contained in the box quite quickly, and while they are replayable some of the intrigue is obviously lost when you know what is coming next. I’d like to have seen at least another two scenarios included for a meatier introduction campaign.
This problem continues with the expansions, too. The first deluxe boxed expansion is named Dunwich Legacy, costs £25 or so and contains just the first two scenarios in an eight scenario campaign. The rest of the Dunwich Legacy story has to be bought in individual mini-expansions that cost around £15 each, although these can all be played as standalone adventures, too.
There aren’t enough cards in the core box to give players a reasonable taste of the deckbuilding mechanics, either, which is a shame since this is easily one of the game’s biggest selling points. If you play solo like I did here there is a little bit of room for customization but it’s very, very small. In other words between the scenarios and the lack of deck customization it feels like you need the Dunwich Legacy expansion straight away just to get a reasonably beefy feeling, and that makes it a hard game to recommend on a monetary basis.
The final problem is the same one that has plagued every Arkham game, although this one comes down to personal taste; stuff just kind of happens. It’s within the Lovecraftian theme to create a sense of helplessness and the Arkham games have embraced that by having lots of cards or events that can kick the player around with little chance of them being able to stop it, and there doesn’t tend to be much in the way of important tactical decisions to make. Arkham Horror: the Card Game continues this trend to a degree, so sometimes you’ll lose through sheer annoying luck and it can often feel like there isn’t a lot of important decisions to be made in the grand scheme of things. For the most part it did feel like I had the time and opportunities to deal with most things that came with my way.
But these flaws never manage to undermine the fact that there’s a very solid, very enjoyable game here, even if it is one that you’ll wind up having to invest a lot of money in to get the best experience. LCGs are cash black holes, happily slurping away at your bank account. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to know what happens next, though, or from wanting to pick up the Dunwich Legacy and check out that story. Next to Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, also a Lovecraftian tale, this has become my go-to solo game of choice. It tells great stories and simply fun to play, it’s wonderful art and solid writing drawing the player into stories of horror and adventure.