Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) is not sick of Cthulhu. Despite the ludicrous glut of Lovecraftian-themed board games crowding game-store shelves and Kickstarter pages, FFG has maintained its status as the chief evangelist of the Old Ones. The company released two games set in the horror-noir universe just last year.
And there are plenty more where those came from: globetrotting evil-smasher Eldritch Horror, dice game Elder Sign, two editions of RPG-lite Mansions of Madness (read our review of the latest edition here), and even a collectible card game, Call of Cthulhu, which was turned into a living card game (LCG) in 2008. (In contrast to the “blind buy” model of collectible card games (CCGs), LCGs are expanded by the regular release of fixed packs of cards.)
But much of Cthulhu’s enduring popularity goes back to the title that started most board gamers’ love affair with tentacled eldritch monstrosities: the huge, messy, indisputably classic Arkham Horror.
And now FFG has gone and made a card game out of it.
If you’ve played FFG’s other cooperative LCG, Lord of the Rings: The Card Game—or even the company’s recent Warhammer Quest card game—you’ll be familiar with the basics of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. You’re fighting cooperatively against the game itself—and, boy, does the game not want you to win.
In contrast to the LotR LCG, though, where you generally build decks to defeat one-off scenarios, the emphasis here is on ongoing storytelling. If Arkham Horror was the melding of board game and role-playing game, Arkham Horror: The Card Game wants to inject some role playing into your CCG habit. Scenarios link together to form campaigns, and decisions you make between sessions will determine which dark paths you’ll go down in the branching narrative. If you “lose” a scenario, you don’t replay it; you simply get a different ending and move on to the next one (though your scars may remain).
Players take on the role of investigators, each with different stats and special abilities. Your deck represents your character; it’s filled with skills, weapons and items, and allies you can bring in to fight by your side. You can, of course, customize your deck before a session. But even cooler is that you earn experience points during play, and you can spend those points to buy new or upgraded cards for use in subsequent scenarios.
Arkham is driven by two small, scenario-specific decks of cards: the agenda deck and the act deck. The game is essentially a race—you try to get through the act deck before the agenda deck advances, as the latter generally triggers all sorts of terrible effects. You advance the act deck by collecting clue tokens from various locations around Arkham. The agenda deck advances during the “Mythos phase”—basically the time each round when the game tries to make you cry. Monsters spawn and chase you down, random events stymie your progress, and the game just generally tries to ruin your day.
On your turn, you get three actions; you can use those actions to play cards, draw cards, get resources, or make a skill check. Location cards form the game’s “board,” and you move your character card around town in order to find the clue tokens you need to progress.
Making skill checks—the hallmark of most RPGs and a mainstay of FFG’s Lovecraft titles—forms the backbone of Arkham’s gameplay. Whether you’re firing a Tommy gun at a Nightgaunt or poking around in the old hospital for clues, you’re going to be making a lot of checks.
You can investigate your current location by making an intelligence check against the location’s “shroud” value—essentially, the number you need to hit to be able to claim one of the location’s clue tokens. Let’s say you’re at Miskatonic University, which has a shroud value of 4. Take your relevant stat—let’s say your intelligence is 3—and add any bonuses from cards you played earlier.
Maybe you activate your flashlight, which knocks a location’s shroud down by 2. So now you’re trying to hit a 2, and you’re swinging in with a 3. But before you actually make the check, you can commit cards from your hand to beef up your intelligence further. Most cards have a symbol in the upper left-hand corner that represents a certain stat. You can discard the card to boost your check, but doing so means you lose the ability to play that card for any other abilities it may have. It’s rarely an easy decision.
And then… you roll a die to see if you pass. Well, sorta. Arkham Horror doesn’t actually have dice. Instead, before you start a campaign, you seed an eerily named “Chaos Bag” with a spread of modifier tokens. The simplest just read “+1” or “0” or “-2,” while others are emblazoned with arcane symbols that do different things depending on the scenario. An auto-fail token ensures your confidence in success is never certain. When you’re ready to make a check, you pluck a token from the bag and modify your check accordingly.
This system is exceptionally clever. It allows the designers to assign different modifiers to different scenarios and assign varying effects to the symbols; new symbols could even be added in future expansions. And players have the freedom to adjust the game’s difficulty setting—from “no true Arkham fan would touch it” Easy to “OK, now you’re just messing with me” Expert level.
Listing image by Fantasy Flight Games
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