It was a dark night when I first played the Living Card Game by the name of Arkham Horror. A white hound barked like an angry phantom, warding off invaders from the abode I now called my home. Through the storm arrived Steven, my old friend whom I had been corresponding with via electronic mail earlier that day. We summoned Lee, my lodger, from the darkness he dwelled in. We steeled ourselves, put the kettle on and prepared for the oncoming madness…
Arkham Horror is a co-operative game set in HP Lovecraft’s Miskatonic Valley. I know, I know, you’ve heard this tune before. The original Arkham Horror board game was unintentionally more Lovecraftian than you would think. In that game you would wander around Arkham trying to stop a god you weren’t sure of and living a weird daily life in the city. Things would happen at random and you would be batted around like a pachinko ball or a toy being played with by a dispassionate cat. It wasn’t great, but it was the foundation. Eldritch Horror took those mechanics and made them actually interact with each other. Mansions of Madness turned an investigation into a kind of Scooby Doo but with more murder. Elder Sign… I’m not sure, I’ve not played much of it. Still, with each iteration the Fantasy Flight Games “Arkham Files” line seem to get closer to the doomed tone and the sense of horror. They become less ‘pulp dudes with guns’ and more a trio of women; a librarian, a waitress who dreams of strange past lives and an urchin who grips ever-tightly onto the elder sign her mother gifted her.
Like Lord of the Rings each player has a deck they build, only this time there are some limitations. The deck is thirty cards, plus two cards specific to your character, one good and one bad. These are flawed people and even though we’ve seen the likes of Wendy Adams, Jenny Barnes and Ashcan Pete in other games, this time they feel like their backstory is more ingrained into the mechanics. Wendy gets her inherited charm as one card, but the other is a sense of abandonment and despair which will pop up randomly at some point in the game. As someone who’s still a little uneasy with building a CCG-style deck of cards after being clean from the habit for a while, I was pleased to see fixed deck lists for each character. I bought two core sets of Arkham Horror in order to build three players’ decks. One set will see you fine for 1-2 players, but this is an FFG card game, multiple core sets is generally the way to go.
I played Wendy Adams, the Urchin. Out of the five types of character she had access to Survivor and Rogue type cards. The former were her strength and the latter a kind of secondary type for her. This meant that even though she was weak, she was lucky, good at running away and then stabbing things in the back. She would end up at times being the combat monster. The deck contains the usual types of cards. There are assets which are permanent items and skills you acquire. There are events which go off once and then skills, which are used only when you have to resolve a skill check and trigger special effects. As you play games, you get experience and can modify your deck with more powerful cards. There are levelled up versions of some cards which may make them cheaper or more effective. There may be brand new cards like shotguns which you can only get by levelling up.
So you have your character, armed with a flashlight, a knife and maybe a stray cat who’s your only friend. You have your personal weakness card and a second one randomly assigned from a stack. They could be amnesia, paranoia, maybe even a stubborn detective who’s hunting you down. Apart from the XP and the weakness cards, you could be mistaken in thinking this is pretty much like Lord of the Rings. The stories you play through change things up considerably.
There are three stories in the core set, each one leads on from the last to make a short campaign. Each one will have an effect on the next part. The main driving forces of the story, sometimes in opposition and sometimes in tandem are the Act and Agenda cards. There aren’t many, but they’re laid out like a book and will tell you what you need to do. The Act cards are what you want to advance, often with clues you find in the game or certain actions you take. The Agenda cards are what you don’t want to advance but will whether you like it or not. Doom (the evil reverse-side of the clues) get placed on them on every turn after the first, progressing the actions which will take place if you don’t interfere.
Then there are locations, the biggest difference from Lord of the Rings. You have a map, sometimes of a building, sometimes of a town or some woods. They have symbols showing which locations lead to which places. It’s odd at first, but I like that your investigator moves around looking for clues and avoiding unnameable horrors. Each visited location adds an XP at the end of the game, so that encourages running around, uncovering things and reacting to them.
You road around, acquiring assets from your cards, looking for clues on locations. Then after the first turn is over, you start to have Mythos phases which add doom and force you to draw from the encounter deck. This is a little more like Lord of the Rings. Monsters appear and may hunt people down. You may have a locked door blocking your way, a chill of cold or some hands grasping at you from under old floorboards. It’s all very evocative and very horrifying.
At some point, whether you’re avoiding those hands or maybe fighting a cultist, you’ll need to make a skill check. To do this, you get the stat on your character card for brain, book, pump or running away and add a token pulled from a bag. It’s an odd mechanic, but allows for customisation of the randomiser in each game as the bag gets modified. You have numbers from +1 to -9 (if you’re playing hard mode). There’s an auto-fail token and a critical success one, which has a different effect for each character. Then there are symbols which will have a different effect depending on the story you’re playing. Some stories ask you to add or remove tokens as you go. Most card in your deck will have the skill symbols on an allow a +1 modifier for each time they appear on a card. Suddenly that cat in your hand looks less appealing as a friend and more as +1 to your Speed skill check to avoid being pulled down by the ghoulish hands.
So I’ve told you a bit about the mechanics both for the players and for the deck of nightmares which will peel your skull open and tinker with what little sanity remains. But is it any good?
Yes. It’s a weird model of distribution with only enough cards for 1-2 players, some people begrudge buying two core sets for more options, but it’s a very, very good game. Is it going to depose Lord of the Rings for me? I have no idea. Both are very different experiences and very interesting ones. This is definitely more refined and a lot smaller in scale. I still love Lord of the Rings, although finishing the Night of the Zealot campaign from the core box, I had the first inkling that this may surpass it. Only time will tell.
As a final note I’ll get into the adventures in the core set. First just a peek to tantalise, then after a gap, I’ll get into spoilers.
The group are trapped in a house and assaulted by ghouls. A short, simple adventure which will serve as a good introduction.
The Midnight Masks
That house we were talking about? It’s now one location card in a wider view of Arkham. You must wander around, looking for secret cultists. This felt the most like old Arkham Horror. But better. You gather clues to unlock suspects and then work out how to deal with them before the clock strikes midnight.
Okay, this isn’t a core story, but a bonus one which was Print on Demand. You can play this as a side story in any campaign or just as a one-shot. You wander the bayou, hunting for the dreaded Rougarou and ways to stop it.
The Devourer Below
Finally, as the clock draws closer to midnight, you enter the woods and try to stop the ritual. You also discover which cult has been doing this by randomly adding a mini-deck to customise things. We started off strong, fighting down anything which got in our way. Then we realised we wouldn’t be able to stop the ritual in time and had to find an alternate method of winning.
The nice thing about all of these adventures is that you can quit at any time, deciding things have become too rough. The problem is that if you do that, it’ll ripple down the campaign and cause problems in the future. We had to do that with the second of the adventures and it cost us dearly.
We started trapped in Wendy’s flat. How she had a house as a homeless urchin… we didn’t know. It was probably someone else’s. The door out of our office vanished, so we had to find clues to get out. Then the map expanded to show a few options of where to go. We fought basement and attic-dwelling ghouls, then murdered a ghoul priest and saved an ex-cultist who was in the building. At the end I had to decide whether to burn the building down or not.
The Midnight Masks
The location card for my home was double-sided, sadly we had to use the burnt down one and lost the benefits from that. On the upside I did have ex-cultist Lita Chandler>>> in my deck. We added XP and started scouting Arkham. There was a separate cultist deck which we used when we had enough clues to reveal them. Then the top agenda card was flipped and revealed a cultist! The plot turned into a monster! That was awesome. Then it attacked us. We were so damaged by the time we dealt with three cultists that we couldn’t stop the other three. I was a little underwhelmed when I saw that this simply meant more doom would be placed on the final adventure’s agenda.
I thought this would help us out before the finale. We’d get some XP, we’d maybe get an item in a deck for later on. We trudged through the bayou and the outskirts of New Orleans (I wrote this off as a flashback). As three women with magical, investigative and survival skills we should have attempted to find another way to deal with the Rougarou than with combat. Steve’s investigator kind of temporarily became infected with lycanthropy. We didn’t manage to kill it and fled to the pub to lick our wounds.
The Devourer Below
We wandered through the woods, which were kind of in a rough X shape. There was one area of it isolated from the rest, but there was a random set of forest locations and any other playthrough could change the layout. We split up, gathering clues and fending off ghouls. The cult turned out to be worshippers of Hastur, so the Yellow Sign started popping up everywhere.
My girlfriend Emma joined us as the fed Roland Banks. He was some much-needed firepower in the investigation. Steve, Lee and I had two consecutive turns of drawing all our weaknesses and suffering events which added more. Then the cultists who got away in Midnight Masks showed up! It was a surprise, but a really interesting one. We fended them off and got to the ritual site too late to stop the arrival of a god-monster. Emma and Lee managed to keep it in check, aware that it would chew through them and the rest of us. Steve helped me rinse through my deck for Lita as she was part of an alternate win condition. My character had two allies thanks to her ‘Charisma’ card and one gave extra actions. Even then, churning through my deck it took until the third from bottom card to find Lita. Lee’s character died at the last minute, crushed by the beast. Then Wendy Adams put on a cool leather jacket, added Lita to her entourage, walked into the ritual space and threw Lita into the maw of the beast. It was sated, the cultists stood down as their god left our plane.
We went back to our lives, irreparably changed and horrified at the actions we’d taken to save the day.
These characters were over, along with the campaign. Next up we’re starting the Dunwich Legacy cycle which has just started. I can’t wait to see what horrors we’ll see.