That night is one that has been forever burned upon my memory, and it is with a trembling hand that I type these words. It was a scant few days before that I had taken receipt of a copy of Arkham Horror The Card Game, a game described by experts in both the occult and board games as “living”. It appeared as though, with the post man’s shaking grip and sheet white face as he delivered this parcel to me, that he might have some idea of what lay inside, though at the time I was sure it was merely the cold English winter and my over active imagination.
I ripped apart the packaging to reveal my prize. I couldn’t believe that at last I held it in my hands. Across its cover was emblazoned all manner of unspeakable imagery and eldritch script, yet I barely considered reading it before tearing through the protective seal and prying off the lid, such was my eagerness to discover the mysteries that lay within. Dozens of cards and tokens poured forth, a wealth of riches to explore. But everywhere the text made reference to a “chaos bag”, a component essential to the ritual we were about to perform. But no doubt through some dark and monstrous magic, the chaos bag, was gone!
Players: 1-2 (4 with 2 copies)
Time: 60 – 120 mins
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is the latest of Fantasy Flight’s dark young to be set in the pulp 1920s world of H.P. Lovecraft, full of strange magic, stranger monsters and the existential horror that humanity is a worthless speck in the eyes of creatures that are beyond our imagination. ‘Tis a happy place. Anyone who has been in the hobby for any length of time can’t help but come across reference to Cthulhu and his… Her, um its cousins, hell even Pandemic has a Cthulhu version now. But none of those games seem to understand what Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s worlds are meant to mean. Cthulhu isn’t some enemy to be overcome, it’s a manifestation of the universe’s unknowable, unconquerable nature, of the existential dread that all of our efforts are eminently futile. To merely look upon him is enough to drive a human being insane. There is no way to win, only the hope that you can survive with your sanity more, or less, intact. Arkham Horror The Card Game is one of the first games that I think gets that. I have no compunction in calling this the best Lovecraft game I’ve ever played. If you feel brave enough to risk your sanity (and your wallet) perhaps you’d like to join me in delving a little deeper…
The case of the missing bag
Frantic, I searched through the flat for a suitable container. How could the bag be missing!? Fantasy Flight were not even selling a novelty Elder sign inscribed bag for desperate players! Might the package have been intercepted by sinister agents bent on preventing my work? I settled on an old cloth bag whose cavernous interior dwarfed the tokens that would be housed within, but with good fortune that should have little impact on the ritual…
Arkham Horror: The Card Game pits one or two brave investigators against the mysteries of a scenario deck while doing everything it can to keep you on the edge of your seat. You will be attempting to complete a series of objectives, but all the while the malignant forces will steadily advance through their own series of cards, driving the scenario onwards to its invariably unpleasant conclusion. In each round you will place a doom counter on the current Act card and as soon as there are as many as some target number, you flip it to reveal the next part of the story, and face some terrible consequence. The backs of these Agenda cards are always bad, but some are downright devious! Watching the doom piling up as the rounds go by… It’s always in the back of your mind.
At the start of each round each player must also draw a card from the mythos deck, constructed each game from various sets of enemies and nasty encounters, often with a few scenario specific treats thrown in for good measure. Drawing from this deck is never pleasant, the question is only how bad it’s going to be. To face these horrors you are armed with your character’s deck of cards, representing the items they find, their capacity to exert themselves, and friends you can feed to the monsters to save yourself. But even here you aren’t safe as buried within your deck are weakness cards, the suppressed guilt or sorrow from tragic events in your past. The stress of the events you’re facing will almost certainly bring these weaknesses to the fore and they can be debilitating. I love that in this game, you can’t even trust yourself!
I longed to begin but first I needed to decipher the arcane text that would reveal how to perform the ritual. My first few attempts were halting, requiring constant re-reading and searching for terms that appeared to be left to the readers imagination. How the cards, bearing frightful images of monstrous creatures, were to be moved, when exactly certain cards were meant to be played. But with perseverance the system unveiled itself to me and I was ready, at last to begin.
Arkham’s final, devilish treat is in its skill tests. Anyone who has played an FFG Arkham game will be familiar with skill tests, trying to do anything in these games requires some check, whether it’s trying to punch a cultist, flee a Nightgaunt or find a clue, you’ll check the relevant stat on your investigator card and in any other game roll some dice. Here, you face the chaos bag, an item no less terrifying for not being included in the box. Feeling like that scene with the tree stump in Flash Gordon, you’ll reach inside this bag…
And draw from it a token. These tokens will modify your base stat. If you’re playing on one of the easier difficulty settings you might draw a ‘+1’ but far more likely it will be negative. The only question, as always, is how bad it’s going to be… This system is genius. Not only does it allow different difficulty levels to be created simply by varying the tokens in the bag, the tactile experience, the slow withdrawing and final revealing of the token in your hand, is enormously tense. It takes on elements of a ritual. You face it with real dread. Because even if it is a blind draw… You chose that token. The blood is on your hands.
There is more to the game than that of course. The assets you bring into play from your hand can offer ways of boosting your stats, and before drawing you can spend cards for the symbols on their side to improve your stat for this draw. Other players at the same location can also spend a card to help you (some healthy cooperation). But you decide on this before you draw. You might spend a ton of valuable cards only to draw a zero, like painstakingly examining a statue only for the answer to be written on the wall in front of you, in blood, and surrounded by flashing lights. But at the same time, you might throw yourself and your cards at a problem only to hit the dreaded tentacly red token, the auto fail. It’s brutal, and in another game I might have called it unfair, but here there is nothing more appropriate than sometimes, no matter what you do, being doomed to failure.
This balancing of resources, and time, against risk is the central mechanical puzzle of the game. Because new cards, and the resources you need to access their effects, do not come easily, unless you spend precious actions gathering them. But the regular flow of enemies, who will attack you if you do anything more than hit them or try to evade, make even that hard to do. It is, in a word, excellent! Impossible to solve, with enough luck to keep you on edge but enough control that you can hope to be able to press on and win against the odds. But what makes this a game you absolutely need to experience is not its mechanics, it’s the story. And I don’t just mean the scripted scenarios either (although those are superb too!) I mean the stories that arise from the cards you play and the events that occur.
Let me tell you a story. It was the start of the first scenario (minor spoilers of the first turn of the first game you’ll play…) and the first card I draw from my deck was a weakness: a stubborn detective, convinced that I was behind the towns murders had come to confront me. Mysterious chanting outside the house began and the door to my study disappeared. I was trapped inside with a man who was determined to subdue me. I dodged and tried to discover the clues I needed to escape, but that only bought me a turn. The next round, he was on me again (such is how enemies act in this game). I realised that I couldn’t afford to keep dodging him for the entire scenario… Was I going to be forced to kill a man who is only trying to solve the same mystery I was…? To what extent must I be willing to sacrifice my own humanity for the sake of winning, or surviving? The game made me ask questions about myself. And as you’ll see in the third scenario’s tantalising conclusion, this isn’t the only time either.
Even when card combinations seem a bit strange at first glance, a gaggle of ghouls appearing in your study whose door just disappeared, the thematic justification is never far away. As you’ll soon find out in that scenario, the idea of them bursting through the walls themselves is far from far fetched. You’ll find yourself firing guns desperately at point blank range, being haunted by shadows seen from the corner of your eye and desperately searching your deck for cards as you might search your mind for ideas. And how you combo cards together, or how you realise you can use this card to do a) while your friend does b) makes you feel like these actions you play were your brilliant idea. In so many ways, they were. The game has given you tools, but you figure out how to put them together.
Falling into madness
Which smoothly segues into the topic of deck building. This is a living card game like The Lord of the Rings Card Game or Android: Netrunner, which sets an expectation that you’ll be able to choose the cards that go into your decks and explore different strategies for taking down the scenarios. This isn’t entirely true here. Instead, Arkham Horror: The Card Game focuses on campaign play, linking scenarios together by a coherent narrative. This is great as the choices you make and how well you play has a direct effect on later scenarios. Between scenarios, you get the opportunity to upgrade the cards in your deck, but only if you do well enough. It’s quite possible to not gain anything. So to allow this, there is a small selection of more effective or powerful unique cards for each of the card types, giving each investigator a selection of maybe 15 cards to chose from, with a single box? It’s not a huge part of the game and wasn’t the most exciting part to me, although some of those higher levelled cards are quite fun to play with!
The options for constructing your initial deck are virtually nonexistent with only a single copy of the core game. Each investigator is only allowed cards of specific types, representing their backgrounds. So Roland the Fed gets investigative and law and order style cards. There is literally a single copy of each starting card necessary to build the recommended decks for 2 characters in the starting box. So you need two boxes (or some expansions) to start tailoring your decks. Even then there’s not a huge amount of choice due to the investigators’ restrictions, but then for someone like me who’s never tried deck building in this style, those more limited options make it much easier to get started, even if the results thus far suggest I should be tried for incompetence. Hey, hard mode is hard, OK?
Look, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is absolutely getting my recommendation! It’s a great game, and a phenomenal story driven experience. You only get these stories once, but the gameplay challenge and diverse mix of investigators to try out (in gameplay terms at least) gives you plenty of reasons to comeback again and again. The real question you need to ask is whether you should get two copies, or only one! I think that, unless you’re super keen to try deck building, you’re probably better off just getting the one, or one and the recent big box expansion. Two sets will let you play with 4 players, but I think I like it most at 2. It just feels that much tighter and focussed.
Undoubtably an FFG living card game is not for the feint of heart. Especially with such strong stories you are going to be pulled into wanting more and more content. The scope of this world is such that with the current rate of expansion pack release, by starting you are going to be falling into a hole of Stygian dimensions. But you also know that when you stare into the abyss that it stares back, and whispers… “Jump”.
Rating: Indescribably Good
I withdrew my hand clutching the token that would determine all our futures. I could barely bring myself to look but achingly released by deathlike grip. With dawning horror I realised I could see the red gleam of the token’s edge! It’s tentacled image writhing as the madness took me. I had failed! And doomed us all…!
My copy of Arkham Horror The Card Game was a review copy provided by Esdevium Games. You can hopefully still pick up a copy from your local game store, for £36.99 RRP, though if it has sold out again, it’ll be back soon!
If you enjoyed this review, check out my review of the first expansion, The Dunwich Legacy, here!