09 February 2017
This horror hybrid of the LCG and RPG genres is a beautiful nightmare
Arkham Horror: The Card Game stands as a magnificent union of the atmospheric storytelling expertise from Fantasy Flight’s Lovecraftian Arkham Horror Files franchise and the refined gameplay mechanics of its living card games such as Android: Netrunner and A Game of Thrones.
The co-op title returns players to the worn shoes of Arkham Horror’s various investigators as they once again take on cosmic horrors terrorising the titular town in the early 19th century. Two players can team up using the core set, with another copy required for three or four companions.
Players progress through series of scenarios defined by sets of act and agenda cards. The act deck essentially defines the current objective for the investigators, while the agenda deck represents the encroaching forces of evil seeping into Arkham. As each goal is reached, act cards are flipped and read to advance the story, with the ultimate aim to make it through the act deck before too many doom counters amass on the opposing agenda card, which is subsequently revealed and can lead to a failure of the mission. The relentless addition of doom counters at the beginning of each turn during the Mythos phase – often accelerated by the drawing of encounter cards and enemies – provides strong thematic tension in line with the Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror board games.
Three scenarios, comprising the Night of the Zealot campaign, are included in the core Arkham Horror: TCG set, which will take you around five or six hours to finish. It begins with a prologue-style chapter to ease newcomers into the game’s basics, and quickly picks up the pace with a time-sensitive race in the second chapter. Decisions made during and at the end of each scenario – as well as the group’s performance during the missions – impact the branching narrative, leading to locations being removed from the game entirely and tougher enemies or new allies appearing. The writing throughout the game – spanning the rulebook, campaign guide and flavour text on the cards – is consistently strong, conjuring up a thick layer of horror atmosphere as the story drives onto its conclusion.
The thematic richness is helped by the stunning artwork on all of the cards, which captures the brooding and oppressive nature of the world. As well as signature weapons and items, each investigator’s deck also includes a character-specific weakness, helping to deepen their characterisation and the complexity of their relationship to the story.
Story comes first in the game, which often resembles more of a card-driven roleplaying game than a typical LCG.
Experience earned by defeating specific monsters, exploring locations and achieving goals allows players to bolster their deck with new or upgraded cards at the end of each scenario, while the group can also suffer sustained mental or physical trauma caused by their experiences, leading to a strong sense of progression and continuity throughout the campaign.
Turn to turn, investigators can use their three actions to explore various settings around Arkham, covering many of Lovecraft’s best-known locales. Locations are represented by series of cards, with symbols showing which areas are connected, lending a sense of spatial realism to traversing the town. The face-up side of each location card shows a ‘locked’ description, with full details revealed by flipping the card when an investigator enters it – much like the movement mechanics in TIME Stories.
Clues – often vital to progressing through each objective – are uncovered by performing a skill test at a location. The challenges, which are also used to resolve combat, evasion and other events, are decided by drawing a chaos token randomly from a ‘chaos bag’, which modifies the player’s skill level – boosted by using equipped assets or discarding skill cards – and measures it against the total required in a number of attributes. The tokens in the chaos bag are defined by the adjustable difficulty level of the scenario, helping to balance the game for players frustrated by the often unforgiving objectives. Additional tokens randomly active each investigator’s special ability or adjust their skill level as a result of other factors – such as the number of enemies in play – introducing dynamic difficulty to each test.
Irritatingly, a suitable bag is not included in the set – an oversight given its price – meaning you’ll have to hunt one down; for one game, our group ended up using a Bananagrams bag that we dubbed the ‘Banana of Chaos’.
Players can also opt to draw extra cards, spend resource tokens to activate abilities or equip items or allies, move or fight enemies they are engaged with, who deal physical and mental damage automatically if they are not defeated or disengaged. Monsters vary from cultists to grotesque horrors and feel genuinely dangerous, making flight over fight a valid choice in many situations and requiring more tactical consideration to take down. When they finally fall, it feels immensely satisfying and rewarding.
The multiple characters and custom deckbuilding nature of Arkham Horror: TCG encourages replayability, but LCG stalwarts may find the deckbuilding options more limited than some of Fantasy Flight’s other titles – something that will presumably be remedied by ongoing expansions, or the purchase of an extra set. The insert for the box isn’t great, either, meaning you’ll have to come up with inventive ways to keep your custom decks and the encounter cards as they are at the end of each scenario. Combined with the relatively short campaign – though it can be repeated with different outcomes – this makes the core box a harder value proposition to justify on its own, despite its excellent gameplay.
Despite all this, ultimately, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a second-to-none narrative-driven horror card game with engrossing roleplaying elements, exceptional artwork and writing, and the ability to invoke the same ominous atmosphere as its board game predecessor. While a living card game in name, it’s likely to be less attractive to those used to fully customising their decks and is better seen as a Lovecraftian RPG in card form. The core set isn’t perfect in terms of contents, but if you’re able to commit for the long run, it looks like your loyalty will be more than rewarded.
Although it’s slightly let down by limited deckbuilding options and a short campaign, Arkham Horror: The Card Game’s core set nevertheless lays the foundation for outstanding mechanics and a genuinely gripping storyline. If you get hooked, you’re in for a treat – and it’s hard to resist when the overall concept is as good as this.
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Genre: Living card game
Time: 60-120 minutes
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