Gold .38, twin .45s--close enough.
Flappers and Great Old Ones sounds like a Smash Up deck.

Cardboard Critique: Arkham Horror The Card Game – Dunwich Legacy

Tabletop •

Arkham Horror: The Card Game gets a lot of love around these parts. It’s as flexible as a tentacle–it can be deeply thematic if you’re into that, or offer moderately involved deck-building and agonizing decisions during play for the more mechanically minded. It can be enjoyed solo (though I recommend playing two characters) or in groups of up to four, as a campaign or a one-shot. I’ve been extremely pleased with it as a solo experience playing both the original campaign and the full Dunwich Legacy cycle, and will here offer brief mini-reviews of each expansion in that cycle. While I’ll avoid spoiling anything beyond the initial setup in each, even the basic premise of some of the expansions gives information about the plot, so beware.

Arkham and Dunwich are fictional 1925 New England towns, populated by families who go back many generations. As it happens, most of my second run at the Dunwich Legacy campaign took place on land granted to the heirs of John Vaughan in 1828 for his service during the Revolutionary War with Great Britain. On one parcel at the north end of that land, in 1916, a luxurious summer cottage was built for a daughter of the old and wealthy Bradstreet family. As I was visiting family and have always been a night owl, I played primarily in the hours around midnight, with everyone else in the cottage asleep and the loons on the lake periodically calling. I allow the possibility that playing in the witching hour within a creaky New England house which was already a decade old in the era the game is set may have added somewhat to my appreciation of the atmosphere the game creates.

The Dunwich Legacy – The big expansion for this cycle gave us the reason I finally decided to take the plunge and buy into the game: Phryne Fisher Jenny Barnes. I don’t envy the problems that gives Fantasy Flight‘s writers in setting the mood–playful, improbably competent, and self-possessed aren’t the ideal traits to help sell incomprehensible dread. But they’ve done their job well enough that you mostly forget the pop culture inspirations present in the game (at least, until you think about the Lightning Gun as a Proton Pack, and realize that the Ghostbusters were dealing with an ancient, evil god trying to return to earth). Unfortunately, the deck-building requirements for the investigators in The Dunwich Legacy are more restrictive if you have a limited card pool than those from the original set, which makes them much more effective for players with a large card pool. The cards for investigator decks are largely unexceptional, but I’m quite fond of the design of Strange Solution, with its unexplained effect on the campaign log.

The two scenarios which come with the big expansion are solid designs which bring the party into contact with some of the naturally insular groups within Arkham (as opposed to those groups which are insular for more classically Lovecraftian reasons): college students and the mob. They do emphasize one of my disappointments with the game, though: mitigating randomness in games requires foreknowledge of the possibilities. On a first experience with a scenario, one has much less information about the mechanics involved, and so the result will tend to be much more reliant on random chance than it would on a later attempt. So you can have a narratively surprising and satisfying story (probably played on easy), or you can make use of clever strategies suited to a greater challenge, but it’s very difficult to get both.

The Miskatonic Museum
Encounters in the Arkham Horror Card Game often feel wholly random. In order to justify why I happened to run across a cultist or byakhee at one location rather than another, I usually punt to “well, that’s where they happened to run into me”, and give it no further thought. The Miskatonic Museum’s design stands out for switching that up, building a greater sense of being deliberately hunted into its structure. It also incorporates one of the most identifiable names from Lovecraft’s work as a MacGuffin, which helps make the whole arc of the campaign feel more thoroughly rooted in his work.

On the investigator side, MM offers some attractive, but often situational, options. “I’ve got a plan!” can help the investigators who chose to sit in the front row in school out of the occasional jam, and Adaptable is particularly alluring for players on a second campaign who enjoy deck-building. Oops! may not be played terribly often, but it’s a veritable engraved invitation to the wild-eyed dungeon master waiting to turn some prosaic chit pull into a memorable story.

The Essex County Express
I mentioned above that there’s a tension between a strong narrative with substantial surprise elements, and meaningful choices which contribute to a well-chosen strategy. ECE is the AHLCG’s most effective argument that I’m full of crap. It was a tremendous thrill to play, because the setting is so restrictive that it acts like the form of a sonnet: it forces creators out of their habits. It’s a thoroughly linear space, and entirely modern, technological, and devoid of mystery in its workings. Accommodating these facts in the context of the plot of the campaign resulted in some thematically and mechanically fascinating encounter cards, while making the investigator’s broader goals sufficiently clear that strategizing appropriately is possible from the outset. While that means that the decision about where to go is essentially trivial, deck construction to best meet the challenges along the way is very much not, nor are the tactics you’ll want to use to accomplish those goals. For example, how much time to spend pulling tools out of your bag of tricks before you start making progress is a rather more intense decision here even than in other scenarios, where time is always at a premium.

I didn’t even look at the investigator cards until after my first delightful play of the scenario, and I nearly pumped my fist in the air with glee. If I could have asked to have one card included in the set, it would have been Charisma, which opens up more opportunities to use the wonderful allies the game offers. I’m on record as having quite disliked Agricola because it felt like a pile of pieces for an awesome combo you never get to assemble. Final Fantasy VII‘s material struck me the same way–you could eventually find more ways to double your damage than would fit in any weapon, so the cool thing they seemed designed to do was simply impossible. With Charisma, you can start pulling together a posse, and it’s part of what makes ECE my favorite expansion for the game. I’d recommend it first for anyone interested in getting a single Mythos pack.

Blood on the Altar
What makes BotA unique is its control of tempo. The title alone tells you that you’re heading for an altar and that something awful awaits, but the scenario mostly allows that dread to build. With a cracking denouement which serves to tie together events from the first half of the campaign, BotA almost feels like the final episode before the hiatus of a show with a split season. Except, because it’s Arkham Horror, perhaps everybody dies.

A cycle of permanent talents make up most of the investigator cards in this set. Higher Education is the cleverest design among them, but they aren’t especially mechanically or thematically engaging. Then again, neither was Ancestral Recall in Magic, and apparently it’ll now run you about $1500. I’m not the sort of player to report accurately on card efficiency, so perhaps these would excite a more disciplined player.

These are the sorts of toys which await you. More dangerous even than Lego bricks to a barefoot parent in a dark room.

Undimensioned and Unseen
Though there are two mythos packs after this one, it felt to me like the true climax of my first play of the campaign, and most directly connected to the story which inspired it. Even at lower difficulties, it’s hard enough to truly succeed that you’ll be hoping to get lucky with the setup; some versions of the locations are much more helpful than others. Though it’s thematically pretty straightforward, the management of various resources is so tight that it was really a highlight for me. Players who find they’re losing interest in the campaign may reasonably stop here–there’s absolutely some neat stuff in the final two expansions, but it’s much easier to end after this chapter than the next.

Among the investigator cards, Dark Horse does something relatively rare in the game: it offers a sufficiently powerful effect when you have no resources that it suggests building a deck which allows you to re-prioritize. It feels a bit like shooting the moon, but by this point, there are a variety of cards which can make that possible. It’s probably good that the remainder of the cards are less demanding, but I found both Lucky Dice … Or Are They? and the Springfield M1903 thematically appealing. I sometimes expect more references to the Great War in 1925 Arkham, and the appearance of a weapon from that conflict subtly suggests quite a lot of backstory to the character wielding it.

Where Doom Awaits
I’m glad I have all the mythos packs in this campaign, but, both thematically and mechanically, Where Doom Awaits is probably my least favorite. On a thematic level, you’re literally climbing a hill. It’s not even a nice hill. Mechanically, the reveal effects of the hidden locations often feel like they’re deliberately designed to resist managing the randomness sensibly, so what’s distinctive about the setup feels unfortunately random. Similarly, I happened to hit some streaks of mutually-reinforcing encounters which combined to rob me of most of my ability to make meaningful decisions. I think that was just poor luck, but it left me much less enthused to try again to get to the top of that cursed hill.

The investigator cards go a long way toward redeeming the set, with a wide variety of appealing cards. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say nothing about my favorite, but Leadership is the first really interesting skill card I remember seeing, and “I’ve had worse …” really nails the mood of “I’m not locked in here with you (eldritch creatures of evil). You’re locked in here with ME!”. I find that best enjoyed in high doses, but widely spaced.

Lost in Time and Space
Befitting a period of exploration in a space which fails to obey normal physical laws, in which even the concept of location applies only loosely and temporarily, getting places presents unique challenges in LiTaS. As a result, it feels mightily original for a game which has already given us ten scenarios. The different resolutions are satisfyingly diverse, and the whole package makes a strong case for the narrative LCG model.

Plus, they’ve saved the best investigator cards for last, both in power and in intertextuality. Chicago Typewriter is a welcome allusion to Resident Evil 4 (nicely snatching it into a more appropriate setting), fans of Harry Potter may recognize an item inspired by the Time-Turner, and the aforementioned Lightning Gun first appears here. The Red-Gloved Man is not only powerful, but the sort of innovative card which rewards flexible play.

The Dunwich Legacy campaign, though uneven, offered me an experience unlike anything else I’ve played. I love how willing the game is to be what I need it to be, and numerous bits of clever design and a surprisingly well-communicated story have made it feel worth the investment.

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Notable Replies

  1. Thanks for another wonderful review!

    As the proud Dad of the designer (well, one of them), I should mention the game was just nominated for the IGA Best Two-player game of 2017.

  2. I just bought the core set to (hopefully) play with my wife.

  3. Thank you! I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to post it here.

  4. I don't mind!

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