Arkham Horror the Living Card Game

Campaign games are a hot new thing in board gaming. I’m quite a sucker for them, and judging by their performance on Kickstarter, so are a lot of other people. Since I’ve backed a few, I figured I might as well write about them. To kick things off, however, let’s take a look at a game with a more traditional publishing method: Arkham Horror the living card game. As opposed to Arkham Horror the board game, it’s progenitor. This is a minor annoyance at most, but it’s unfortunate Fantasy Flight Games came up with “Elder Sign” and “Eldritch Horror” for its spin-offs and reimaginings, then just gave up.

Campaign games?

What is a campaign game? Simply put, it’s a game with some amount of continuity between sessions: decisions made in one game carry over in some form into the next. Such games most likely include an ongoing plot. This is also how roleplaying games typically work, so it’s no wonder most campaign games can be described as boardgame-ified RPGs, with each player controlling their own character that grows in power between games. It’s not a particularly new idea: Descent 2e, out in 2012, came with a campaign in the core box. There’re most likely much older examples I’m simply unaware of. Progression is a great hook.

Legacy games, such as Pandemic Legacy, are a subtype of campaign games distinguished from the rest by permanent changes made to their components in the course of play. While Pandemic Legacy does give each player a character with their own abilities, and these characters do gain new powers between sessions, the core game is still the original Pandemic, far from an RPG in a box. Other legacy games, which I haven’t played, explore different genres as well.

It’s curious, then, that it took the fairly brief popularity of legacy games to reinvigorate campaign games, which have since gone back to emulating RPGs with great success. Gloomhaven is one of the early examples of this resurgence that I wrote about previously.

The inner workings of horror

AH is a scenario based cooperative card game with deck-building progression between sessions. Each player gets a character – an investigator – and together the players unravel mythos mysteries. Each such character has a deck of cards representing the items they may find, allies they may recruit, or skills they may master. This metaphor is card-thin, as scenarios range far and wide, and accidentally stumbling on your old buddy in a jungle temple is slightly implausible. Thankfully, immersion comes from the scenario itself, not the character actions. And the core of each scenario is a deck of encounter cards each player draws from at the end of their turn, containing monsters, obstacles, and other misfortunes.

Scenarios come with a set of location cards and instructions on how to arrange them, and a few Act and Agenda cards, tracking progression of mythos and investigators. As conditions listed on them are fulfilled, players flip these cards to read the advancing story and learn of their new objectives and threats. You win by getting through the Agenda deck. Should the Act deck run out before you manage to do that, the consequences will range from permanently injuring your characters to ending the world.

If you’re familiar with the board game version of Arkham Horror, most of this should sound very familiar to you. The truly ingenious part of the card game version is the way the encounter deck is constructed. Every card belongs to a particular set, with the core game providing generic sets such as Rats, Dark Cult, Ancient Evil, etc. Similarly, scenarios have their own themed sets of encounter cards. Scenario setup instructs you which sets to mix together to form the encounter deck.

Taken together, this makes every scenario a unique and highly thematic experience. While the core gameplay remains the same, the map, objectives, and threats all change to fit the story. One scenario you’re wandering the mistrustful Dunwich village, another you’re fleeing down a disintegrating train, or lost in another world. The designers do a fantastic job of making the scenarios feel and play differently.

Investigators facing these scenarios are quite varied as well. Their decks are made out of an ever-growing pool of cards split into six types: Guardian, Survivor, Seeker, Rogue, Mystic, General. All but one character belongs to one of these types, meaning their deck can use any of these cards, and has access to some constrained set of other types. These constrains can get more fiddly than I personally like – hunting through hundreds of cards for a particular subtype a character can use is not that much fun. As you may have guessed, every character can use General cards.

In my admittedly limited experience, not all archetypes are created equal. The core activities of the game are killing monsters and investigating – you have to do these to succeed. That’s what Guardian and Seeker are for. Mystic can do anything with a right spell, but is entirely reliant on them, so I wouldn’t play one in a 2-player game where there’s no one to pick up the slack should you fail to draw the needed cards. Rogues generate resources, card advantage, evade monsters (which is occasionally preferrable or easier done than outright killing them, but means you have to keep evading them), and are overall fiddly to play for the sake of being fiddly to play. Survivors, as their name suggests, are good at not dying. Which is great, but doesn’t really help them accomplish any objectives. 4th pick at best.

At the end of an adventure, players earn experience points based on their performance. These often introduce delightful tension between getting on with the main objective, or even escaping once it’s completed, and sticking around to get the precious XP by tackling tough monsters or fully investigating locations. This is one of the joys of campaign games: it matters not only that you win, but how you win.

These experience points are spent on buying more powerful cards. It is a very gradual process – you’ll get somewhere around 3 xp per adventure (the mini campaign in the core set is the exception, packing lots of xp into its shortened form), and a card can cost up to 5 xp. The total number of cards in the deck stays the same, usually 30 plus plot-related cards, unique character cards, and weaknesses. Oh, yeah, weaknesses are cool. Characters get one specific to them, and also draw a generic one. These fire off as soon as they’re drawn, and are always a pain to deal with. These are ongoing problems, objectives, or compulsions characters have.

As for the actual turn-by-turn gameplay, it is fairly straightforward. Characters get 3 actions per turn to spend on moving around, fighting, evading, and investigating, as well as drawing, gaining resources, and playing cards. Any test is resolved by drawing a token from the bag and adding to it the appropriate character stat, with the option to discard cards with a corresponding symbol for a boost. The game offers different distributions of tokens to adjust difficulty, but I’ve never bothered moving away from the default, it is evil enough.

The token bag also contains several tokens with special symbols that have unique effects determined by the scenario. Some campaigns mess around with bag contents, adjusting these special tokens. This hasn’t been particularly effective: in a highly thematic game, having one abstract mechanical effect be replaced with another abstract mechanical effect doesn’t do much.

Despite these quibbles, Arkham Horror is an excellent game, offering thematic, engaging, and tense experience. But this is a campaign game, and individual game sessions are only a part of the whole story.

Campaign of terror

To talk about the campaign side of AH, we have to talk about how it is sold. It is a “Living Card Game”, an invention of Fantasy Flight Games meaning every year they put out a box starting a new campaign, called “cycle”, with two scenarios in it, then every couple of months a smaller box with the next scenario, for a total of 8 scenarios. All of these contain character cards as well. Unique to AH, a couple of years after the final release in a cycle FFG puts out a “Return to” capstone expansion, with, essentially, patches to all scenarios in a cycle, offering yet more cards. As the name suggests, these releases are a good excuse to replay the cycle.

The Living Card Game model is a definite improvement on the traditional Trading Card Game model from the consumer’s point of view: you’re guaranteed to get everything for a sane price so long as you keep up with the releases. It was great for Android: Netrunner! For AH, things are more complicated. We’ll get to the practical aspects later, for now let’s focus on the game itself.

While each scenario can be played individually, I doubt many people buy random scenarios to play them on their own. I certainly followed cycles, playing through The Dunwhich Legacy, The Path to Carcosa, and half way through The Forgotten Age (then current events made in-person games more complicated). Bear in mind I’m simply unaware of any developments and tweaks to the formula further cycles may have introduced.

The LCG model means every scenario can only reference cards from core set and the first box of its cycle – the players may not have bought the ones in-between. Moreover, it means the plot can’t actually branch. At most you get a choice which of the starting two scenarios to tackle first, as they come in the same box. And you certainly can’t have scenarios that don’t occur at all in a given playthrough: people paid good money for those scenarios!

This means the campaigns are linear. There’re still consequences to the choices you make and objectives you accomplish, but these affect relatively minor things: a card representing an ally you saved, a modification to setup if you previously managed to kill a monster. There are attempts to vary this up. In Path to Carcosa, you track your belief/skepticism, which had significantly affected at least one of the scenarios in the cycle. Likewise, in Forgotten Age you track just how much you’ve pissed off the snake god, though not pissing off the snake god seems like the strictly superior option: basically, you have to avoid killing snakes or snake people get buffed, meaning you can’t kill snake people and have to avoid them, but you chose characters that are bad at avoiding monsters which is why you were killing snakes in the first place. We’ve had to give up by the second scenario in that playthrough and start over.

Scenarios themselves go to some length to be replayable. A typical example would be including two versions of each location and randomly choosing one during setup. Thing is, that’s the wrong kind of replayability. A location that works differently, or a changed layout, is great if you’re going to replay the same scenario immediately. Short of failing a scenario utterly and deciding to redo it, we’ve never done this. Rather, you’re much more likely to revisit a cycle a year or two later, perhaps once you got the “Return to” box, at which point you simply won’t remember any of these minor variations.

The main distinguishing feature of AH are the distinct scenarios, threaded together into a narrative. I can’t say we played the game for the gripping plot – the writing in Dunwich Legacy was terribly cliched, though improved in Path to Carcosa and Forgotten Age. It’s not the story, but the ongoing story that makes AH special. There are stand-alone scenarios you can get, to be slotted anywhere in the campaign, and they’re fine as far as scenarios go, but we couldn’t wait to get back to the main story.

You could play these stand-alone scenarios, or even any scenario from a cycle, on their own, and it would be a good experience. But by definition it would be a lesser experience than what the game has to offer. Moreover, since AH can be said to emulate RPGs in a board game format, it is fair to compare its scenarios to published adventures. You wouldn’t play through the same published adventure or a linear campaign of such adventures over and over.

Bottom line is you will have a lot of fun playing through a cycle, but won’t have many reasons to revisit it, other than maybe with the “Return to” expansion. And if you’re looking to get into the game right now, there are multiple complete cycles with the capstone expansions out there, and there’s absolutely no reason (other than monetary) to deliberately exclude them from your playthrough. Further undermining any thought of replaying a cycle is the fact that you could simply buy another one, fresh and exciting. The machine that is FFG keeps pumping them out. Which is where we get to the aforementioned monetary issues.

A cycle gives you 8 scenarios to play through, each can be done in about an hour (more with greater number of players). All in all, about 4 evenings worth of play-time. To get a complete cycle, consisting of the “deluxe” starting box, 6 scenario packs, and the “Return to” box, you’d have to pay $150 USD before shipping. The LCG model deliberately obfuscates this, what’s $15 every couple of months for a game you love. After a few years – quite a lot, it turns out. If you’re like me, there’s also the cost of card sleeves, which adds up over the hundreds of cards you’ll be dealing with. As far as money to hours of entertainment go, this isn’t a great ratio for a board game.

The practicalities of getting all these boxes are quite ugly, too. There is no way to get the entire cycle as a single set. Scenarios from past cycles are frequently sold out in various outlets, and for whatever reason this is not uniform: when looking at getting another cycle, I ended up ordering boxes from 3 different stores. Which means more shipping costs and more headache.

Overall, Arkham Horror the Card Game (ugh) is a fantastic game that I just can’t recommend without significant caveats. Maybe your tolerance for replaying the same storylines is higher than mine. Maybe you simply have more disposable income. Knock yourselves out, you won’t regret it. I, however, looked at the cost of catching up after missing a couple of cycles, and understood the true meaning of horror.

In a perfect world

The review part is done, here comes pure self-indulgence. How would I change AH to make it not just a great game, but a good product? Let’s take the business model of releasing a pack every couple of months as a given from up high. Each such pack has 60 cards in it, consisting of scenario and character cards. First, I’d separate these, alternating packs of character cards and scenarios. I realise currently the character cards are used to pad out the total count if a given scenario doesn’t need that many cards for itself, but it’s just cleaner that way.

With the freed up space, we’d be able to fit more scenarios into a single pack. Act and Agenda cards are neat, but their function can just as easily be fulfilled by a piece of paper, or, better yet, an app. More space found! Without getting too greedy, and with changes to the role of “deluxe” boxes at the start of every cycle we’ll discuss in a moment, we could fit 4 scenarios into a 60 card pack. This obviously means extra design work, but the behemoth that is FFG can probably afford the static cost of hiring more designers.

These 4 or so scenarios would form their own campaign, so that each pack would actually make sense as an individual product. And because they’re all sold in the same pack, this mini campaign could branch, e.g. scenarios 2 and 3 representing different clues you could pursue after scenario 1, with the order in which you do them affecting scenario 4. Not only have we doubled the amount of scenarios, we created a reason to replay them.

The core box, as well as the expansions that kick off a cycle would contain not just sets of encounter cards but locations as well, grouped by a theme that unifies a cycle, to be used throughout. We almost have that already: Dunwich Horror is backwards villages and woods, Path to Carcosa is urban adventures, Forgotten Age is jungles and lost temples. This is where AH’s approach to replayability, different versions of locations and the like, would actually work: if you can build 20 different versions of Arkham, it doesn’t matter that you keep visiting it in various scenarios. And if most of the cards a scenario requires can be drawn from this “generic” pool, we can focus on the unique cards that set it apart. In effect, we’re sacrificing a bit of scenario uniqueness for a lot more use.

In addition to these releases, there would be free campaigns regularly published online/to the app, that mix up existing sets from different releases, thus incentivising their purchase while providing further value to those who bought them. FFG already has some free individual scenarios online, so they’re moving in the same direction. And of course, if the locations are actually designed to be slightly more generic, it’s much easier for fans to create their own campaigns.

Hell, since we’re fantasizing, let’s go further. The approach of mixing up card sets to create a scenario could be extended to mixing up scenarios to create a campaign. Suppose each scenario has tags: city, village, temple, woods, journey, hunted, mystery, invasion, artifact, other world, etc. Then a campaign could consist of scenarios defined along the lines of “city + Cthulhu + scenario specific cards” tied together by plot. As more sets are released, the number of permutations would grow. Again, somewhat more generic scenarios, but a lot more replayable.

This is the crucial element that I believe is missing in AH as it now stands, its unrealised potential: while the characters get new options with each set released, scenarios and cycles remain static. The game gets wider, but not deeper. It could be so much more.

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