How I feel when playing solitaire games.

Cardboard Critique: Arkham Horror The Card Game

Tabletop •

While the Cthulhu Mythos burst like a purulent, racist boil from the twisted mind of H.P. Lovecraft way back in the 1920’s, it’s only been in the last 10 years or so that Fantasy Flight Games has managed to turn it into a means to print money. Fantasy Flight has mastered the genre and has created a handful of tabletop titles rife with existential dread and, of course, tentacles. Their latest recalls their first, and most popular, game to tread these dark paths: Arkham Horror. Only this time, there’s no board, no 8,000 cardboard chits, and no FAQ full of rules exceptions. Just cards. Lots and lots of cards.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is another LCG from Fantasy Flight. If you’re not aware, LCG stands for “Look! Cash Gone!” and is FFG’s brilliantly legal method of pilfering our wallets. LCGs resemble standard Collectible Card Games in that new cards are always just a drive to the game store away. The difference is that with an LCG there are no random booster packs. Every month or so a new booster is released and, when you buy it–and you will buy it–, you get every card released for that expansion. No searching for rare or legendary cards, you’re the proud owner of everything FFG has printed for the game. Now find a box to store it all in.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game begins with what they call the Core Set, which comes with enough cards and chits to play as 2 different characters and play through 3 interlinked scenarios–a campaign, if you will. In true FFG fashion, the game is listed for 1-4 players, but if you want to play with 3 or 4 you’ll need to buy a second copy of the core box, meaning you’ll have useless copies of all the scenario and story cards. Kind of a bummer, but I bought two copies so FFG wins again.

For an urchin, Wendy has a really nice house.

Each player controls a deck which represents their character similar to Sentinels of the Multiverse. Unlike SotM, here you can craft your starting deck to include thirty cards however you wish, with some rules laid down for good measure. These rules are pretty basic such as not allowing more than 2 copies of any one card in your deck and only including level “0” cards at the beginning. You’ll only get access to higher level cards by spending experience points between scenarios. Yes, Arkham Horror: The Card Game plays closer to an RPG than any of its other cardboard cousins.

Apart from the player decks, there is also an Act and Agenda deck in play. The Act deck tells the story of your character(s) as they progress through the story, while the Agenda deck tells the story of what the dark forces of the universe are getting away with. Basically, the Agenda deck is a timer and you’ll want to get through the Act deck before the Agenda deck runs out. The Agenda deck will advance on its own as Doom tokens are added to it, one coming automatically each round but others also adding as Bad Shit starts happening. Probably not a huge spoiler: there’s a lot of Bad Shit happening in Arkham, Massachusetts.

My wife’s reaction when I told her I was getting into another LCG.

The Act deck is advanced by different methods which are defined on the Act cards themselves. Sometimes it will be investigating areas on the map and finding a certain number of Clues, other times it will be destroying a specific hellbeast.

There’s also a Mythos deck which fulfills the role of every Mythos deck in every FFG Lovecraft game: kick you in the ass. Each round, every player will have to draw and deal with whatever nightmare pops up, be it a monster, trap, or creeping insanity. If they aren’t dealt with, they will pile up and you will either die a slow, torturous death or watch helplessly as your character’s mind cracks.

I mentioned a map before. There’s no board, instead locations are printed on cards in a rather brilliant fashion. The backs of each location card are identical except for title and flavor text (more on this in a second), only revealing a room-specific–and possibly spoilerish–image when the room is entered and the card is flipped. Cards are connected via icons, and you can move between cards with similar icons as much as you want, but you won’t know what’s in that unexplored room until you get there.

Each turn you will spend three actions (move, attack, investigate, draw cards, etc.) to try and fulfill the Act card’s requirements while staying sane and alive. Cards are played by spending resources, the game’s very generic currency, and Events fire immediately while assets are played on the table and remain in play. Assets can be weapons, allies, spells, and anything else you can think of that would fit into a 1920’s pulp-horror story. Regardless of whether the characters run out of health or sanity or even if they succeed or fail at getting through the Act deck, each scenario ends by reading a specific ending from the Scenario Guide. It’s a bit like Choose Your Own Adventure, only your adventure has been chosen by playing through the scenario. The Scenario Guide will tell you how the game changes for the next scenario. Did you succeed? Maybe the hostage you found will join you and enter your deck as well as other changes. Did you fail? That ally is gone forever and you also earn weaknesses which clog up your deck.

It’s not much, but it’s home.

There’s more than just mechanical resolutions to each scenario, though. In fact, AH: TCG is a huge success because it’s the first Lovecraft game I’ve played that manages to tell a cohesive, fun story. Every card is loaded with flavor text that you’ll actually find yourself reading instead of skipping over like most FFG titles. The Act and Agenda cards alone spew forth enough italicized text to fill a short novel. Not knowing where the story is going until cards are flipped or locations revealed is brilliant and makes AH: TCG the solo RPG I’ve always wanted. Characters will level up, earning more and more powerful cards. New campaigns will be released every few months with new scenarios filling the gap between the big box releases. As long as you’re willing to shell out the money, AH: TCG is the game that will keep on giving.

The game itself is simple, with little to no need to keep your nose in the rules once you begin and, while it works fine with 2 or 3 (I haven’t played with 4, yet), I really enjoy playing the game solo with a single character. The one downside I’ve had thus far is that some characters are far less combat-ready than others, and the intro campaign is very combat heavy making it hard for those solo characters to make it out alive. Then again, I’ve only used pre-constructed decks and could probably mitigate some of that if I spent the time to build my own decks. Also, skill checks are done without dice but instead use a unique method for randomizing encounters. A handful of predetermined chits are placed in a bag and one is drawn whenever a skill is tested. To make the game easier, simply remove some of the more punitive chits or add more positive ones. The game feels endlessly malleable.

As for replayability, I’ve heard complaints that scenarios are a one-and-done and there is little reason to replay a scenario once you’ve gone through it once. I can see the argument, but I’ve played through the first three scenarios multiple times with different groups and enjoyed it each time. I’ve also played through it solo with different characters with each play having a different feel based on that character’s strengths and weaknesses. True, second and third playthroughs lose the surprise factor, but there’s still a good game driving the story and it works even when the story’s resolution is known.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game isn’t just a brilliant Lovecraft game, it’s a brilliant game that just happens to have a Lovecraftian theme. I’ve already bought the Dunwich Legacy, the next major campaign launching point, and plan on picking up each scenario as they’re released. Yes, my wife is upset, but someone has to save the world. Why not me?

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Notable Replies

  1. I’ve been giving myself the “Don’t really care.” excuse since this has come out, but after the Mythos Tales debacle had me stood at a window sweating with a rifle in my hands, I’m looking for a Lovecraft game.

    The most interesting LCG, Doomtown Reloaded, rolled over and died a wee while ago, and that was the only one I was playing, apart from Game of Thrones where I never got past the core set. So I guess I could use a new bottomless hole to chuck my money down.

  2. rinelk says:

    Brilliantly done, Dave. I now really want this game. Screw you.

  3. I’m delighted to reveal that the lead designer* is Matthew Newman, my youngest son. This is his first lead design at FFG, so we may suppose bigger and better things may be in store down the road. How this came to be after $185k spent on seven years of University, a Juris Doctor and a member of the NY Bar, I dunno. I guess it’s hereditary. :smiley:

    *co-designed by Nate French

  4. rinelk says:

    Woohoo! Now I don’t have to punish Dave for making me buy it.

    Offer him our heartiest congratulations!

  5. yes! i hope so! the Arkham Horror Card Game App for instance!
    we should ruthlessly exploit personal relationships for once!
    please keep pushing for that, Alan :relaxed:

  6. tgl says:

    I’ve only played one game of AHTCG so far, so take this with an appropriately sized grain of salt… I agree with Dave’s review in large part, but not with his characterization of it as not needing much attention to the rules. Yes, the basic game mechanics are pretty simple, and that’s good. But it’s got the same kind of problem that original Arkham Horror has got, especially after you buy all the expansions (yeah, I’m that guy): most every card has some way in which it breaks the “basic” rules, and you have to figure out what you think is really supposed to happen.

    An example that I ran into in my first game: I drew a Dynamite event card, whose text said “play to cause 3 damage to every monster and investigator in your space or an adjacent space” (more or less, I don’t have card in front of me). Cool, I know how to use this. But it’s got icons in the upper left corner saying +2 Will. Um … what? Where in the midst of throwing a stick of dynamite into the next room would I perform a Will test? If it were an Asset card, I’d suppose that that meant I got a +2 Will bonus if I’d put it down in my Asset-card area, but it’s an Event card which (I think) you can’t do that with.

    So I can’t escape the feeling that there’s something fundamental I don’t understand here. The “Learn to Play” book is a once-over-lightly treatment that does zip to answer this question. The “Rules Reference” book is, in some ways, as OCD-ish as I am as a lifelong computer programmer, but it’s not very good at answering I-don’t-think-I’ve-grasped-the-concept questions either.

    In short, I think FFG hasn’t really fixed the inscrutable-rules problem that AH is justly infamous for. But I’ve played an awful lot of AH over the years, and I can already see myself buying a second copy of AHTCG so I can play it with my neighbors.

  7. would make sense to me.
    wouldn’t you need the utmost determination of strong willpower to decide on taking the risk of throwing explosive stuff into an adjacent room?
    maybe no complete overview. full risk to hurt innocents or companions.
    must happen in a split second of course.

  8. tgl says:

    wouldn’t you need the utmost determination of strong willpower to decide on taking the risk of throwing explosive stuff into an adjacent room?

    Sure, if the card text said “pass a Will (N) test to cause 3 damage…”, that would be very sensible and thematic. But it doesn’t say that; AFAICS you just lay down the card and KABOOM. Also, if it did have such a test, why would the card be annotated +2 Will? They could just have set the difficulty of the test in the card text to the right thing to begin with. I have to think that the icons mean that you can use the card to help you with other Will tests. But since it’s an Event card and not either a Skill card or an Asset card, I do not understand how you’d use it that way.

  9. I was going to mention how much I enjoyed the designer’s last name, but he misspells it just like his father. :slight_smile:

    In all seriousness, congratulate him for us. It’s a brilliant design, and will be my go-to Lovecraft game for a long, long time.

  10. There is already an independent app to replicate the Chaos bag and I believe there will be an official FFG app for deck building but I don’t think you’ll see a card game app. Before they do it, there would be a lot of other projects in their pipeline.

  11. @tgt
    If you have any questions at all, BGGs forum members will answer them more or less immediately. Within six weeks, there were already over 1000 forum threads, a lot of them for rules confirmations.

    Hey, seven years later, I’m still receiving questions about my game Dark Minions.

  12. I love the chaos bag! As much as I love using my phone or tablet, I can’t see replacing the physical bag anytime soon. I like it so much, I put my chits in coin holders so they clack around inside the bag like finger bones.

    A deckbuilder app, however…

  13. Yup! The second time we played (4 players), we started using the phone app and after two draws, went back to the Chaos bag. It’s a lot more fun that way.

    And yeah, we spell our name that way just to infuriate you but you’ve known that all along, eh? :laughing:

    I see you’ve gone the whole nine yards in pimping out your set. What about your box and dividers? Those too? Whatcha got? We wanna see!

  14. So I can’t escape the feeling that there’s something fundamental I don’t understand here. The “Learn to Play” book is a once-over-lightly treatment that does zip to answer this question. The “Rules Reference” book is, in some ways, as OCD-ish as I am as a lifelong computer programmer, but it’s not very good at answering I-don’t-think-I’ve-grasped-the-concept questions either.

    That’s the problem with the two-tier approach, there are inevitably gaps and places where they don’t agree. I’m thankful they’ve been relatively minor with the FFG stuff I’ve bought.

  15. The bling ends with the coin covers and card sleeves (and a bag…it’s cheap, though. I want a nice one with some Mythos symbol on it). Looking for a storage solution now. Leaning toward one of the Broken Token wood boxes, but not sure I want to drop that much coin on a box. They look nice, though…

  16. I have, for the most part, found the 2-book system to work quite well. Love having the rules reference to quickly look stuff up rather than digging through the usual rulebook. Find the Learn to Play less useful…wish that was less a “here’s how you play” and more of a standard rule book with the Rules Reference being just an alphabetized collection of everything.

  17. The LtP is usually redundant after your first couple of plays. I know they’re trying to streamline getting into their games but it’s counter-productive sometimes.

  18. For most games, I look to YouTube for LtP. There’s always something there.

  19. I’ve seen probably a dozen home made solutions on the .Geek. I’m amazed how much effort folks invest in pimping their games. But they sure look great.

  20. I think I’m the only person allergic to board gaming videos. Text any day of the week.

  21. tgl says:

    Sorry, it’s only +1 will (like I said last night, I didn’t have the card in front of me at the time). But that head icon at the upper left, just under the EVENT text, is definitely a Will buff unless I don’t understand the card symbology at all.

  22. Ah. Well, I think you’re understanding the card symbology, but not the function of the icons on the left side of each card. Those are Skill Icons and only come into play if you play the card to modify an existing skill test. So, if you were required to do a skill test, you could discard Dynamite Blast and get +1 to your Will test. The active player can discard as many cards as they like, whereas the other players may only discard 1 card when it’s not their turn.

    Page 8 of the LtP:

    Modifying Skill Value for Skill Tests:

    Before drawing a chaos token for a skill test, the investigator may boost his or her skill value. There are two ways to do this.

    First, the investigator may commit eligible cards from his or her hand to the test. An eligible card bears one or more icons matching the skill type of the test being performed. A wild icon (?) matches all skill types. Each matching icon committed to a test increases the investigator’s skill value by 1 for that test. The investigator performing the test may commit any number of cards from his or her hand to the test. Each other investigator at the same location as that investigator may commit 1 card from his or her hand to help.

    Do not pay a card’s resource cost when committing to a skill test…

    Thus, that icon does nothing if you’re playing Dynamite Blast as the event “Dynamite Blast”, it only comes into effect if you want to discard it to boost a Will skill check. This is the most “gamey” part of the design, because it keeps all investigators involved even when not their turn and offers some difficult decisions. You really need to pass this Will check, but you had plans for that Dynamite later. Do you discard it, or take your chances without the +1 on the Will check? It becomes an even harder decision when it’s not your turn and the other players do not know what cards you have in your hand. They may beg for some help on a Will check, and you’ll have to tell them you can’t because you REALLY want to use the Dynamite next turn. Fun stuff.

  23. Misunderstanding the rules like this is exactly why we need a digital version…

  24. I agree and you should code it, Gary. :wink:

  25. tgl says:

    That icon does nothing if you’re playing Dynamite Blast as the event “Dynamite Blast”, it only comes into effect if you want to discard it to boost a Will skill check.

    Hmm, wow, got it I think. So I suppose based on the way you stated that, that it also applies to skill buffs on Asset cards? That is, even after you’ve paid the resource cost to put an Asset card into play, the only way you can use its upper-left-corner skill buff is to discard it? That makes the game a great deal more evil than I’d supposed on my first playthrough :frowning:

    This seems like a pretty serious documentation fail though. I certainly didn’t get that tradeoff out of reading the LtP book, and the Rules Reference seems utterly uninterested in explaining strategic tradeoffs.

  26. That is, even after you’ve paid the resource cost to put an Asset card into play, the only way you can use its upper-left-corner skill buff is to discard it?

    It’s even more evil…one you’ve played it as an Asset, you can no longer discard it for that icon. It’s one or the other, making for some very tough decisions.

    You’re right about the documentation fail. I would have missed it to if I hadn’t watched some “how to play” videos before I sat down to play the first time (actually, I stopped in the middle of my first game to watch them because it didn’t feel right…it wasn’t, I was messing a bunch of stuff up). That said, once you “get” the rules it’s a much simpler and less convoluted game than AH or even EH (both of which I love, btw.)

  27. I’m of the opinion that Gary should code everything, just start at BGG #1 and work your way down. Well, actually, considering the #1 is Pandemic Legacy, you can skip that one.

  28. I have no doubt it’s a wonderful game – and it’s cool we have a connection to it though @Zebracadabra – but it’s at least 10 years too late for me.

    I just don’t “do” rules any longer, especially after my children were born. Plus, so many good games coming out over the years on iOS has made me totally lazy. I want my rules enforcement done for me, please and thank you.

    It’s a complete 180 degrees from when I was a lad. I used to spend hours makign sure I was playing Advanced Squad Leader the right way.

  29. I knew Netrunner had one (or several), but so does Arkham Horror:

    Helps with the deckbuilding.

  30. Thanks for that! Just what I needed.

  31. I don’t blame you for a second. When they were young, they took total and absolute precedence. I even gave up my NY Ranger season tix. And the only rules I read were games they could play.

  32. [quote=“Zebracadabra, post:33, topic:276, full:true”]
    When they were young, they took total and absolute precedence. I even gave up my NY Ranger season tix.[/quote]
    I would hope you got the Ranger seats back once they started publishing their own games?

  33. Nah. The kids took up a lot of time for a lot of years. Sports, Scouts, trips, vacations, even weekends to take them to places like the fish hatchery. Omg, a thousand different places. I never missed the Rangers. The kids were way more fun. The only problem was they grew up.

    Funny. The day they turn 13, you become dumb as shit and they are the smartest people in the universe.

  34. I’ll recommend Hand of Glory, a short story found in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, a collection by Laird Barron. It’s a Lovecraftian tale of a gangster in the 1930s, and the sort of thing I imagine O’Toole got up to. There’s also Bulldozer, in The Imago Sequence, about a Pinkerton chap. Not quite Roland Banks, but close.

  35. Okay, so I’ve got a newbie question. I understand the benefit of the coin holders; they make the chits feel more substantial. But card sleeves for this game, why? It seems i’ll need about 250 sleeves and spend about $25 or more for the sleeves. The game itself cost me $32. Why make such a substantial investment when if the cards end up messed up, I could just buy another game. I don’t think I’m that hard on cards.

    Are there cheaper sleeves? Am I being penny-wise and pound-foolish? Will I be disappointed that I didn’t sleeve these cards? In addition to the coin holders (about $22), I’ll be spending more for the plastic protection than the game itself.

  36. rinelk says:

    With you. I’ve seen some people suggest that they wanted card sleeves for the investigator decks, so that they would remember to swap out a card each time they added one. But I didn’t sleeve anything.

  37. I sleeve some games, usually if I know I am playing with my wife or others who aren’t always good to the cards. I also sometimes sleeve shuffle-heavy games or games where it is vital that a card not show wear, like a hidden-role type game. Penny sleeves are nice if you need a quick solution, but they feel super cheap. I sleeved a full Pathfinder adventure with penny sleeves for a weekend of camping, fishing, and gaming.

  38. Would it be worth getting any expansions before starting the game primarily for a greater pool of investigators to pick from?

  39. I tend to sleeve my LCGs because it can be hard to find some of the expansions down the road so if cards get messed up they can be hard to replace. I don’t sleeve any other games (unless they’re rare or something).

    It’s really not a big deal and I probably shouldn’t, but I have it in my head that, someday, When these games are out of print, I’ll sell my pristine copy and get my money back. Of course, I’ve never sold any of my Lcg cards, so this is merely a way for me to justify buying all these god damned sleeves.

  40. I had the same idea with Netrunner. I even went so far as to sleeve all the corporation cards in one color, runner cards in another, and reference cards in a third…

    I’ve not sold it, either.

  41. Here is an Arkham Bag app. Free:

  42. But…but…but…my plastic coin covers!

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