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Spooky Month part 5 - Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Spooky month is rapidly approaching its climax, but we have one more stop before the big finale! If you want to check out the earlier games in the Arkham Horror Files, you can read those reviews here, here, over there, and right here. Don't worry, I can wait while you catch up. I brought a book.

Welcome back! Today's game is Arkham Horror: The Card Game. And . . . a confession. I presented Arkham Horror: 2nd Edition as the first Cthulhu Mythos game published by Fantasy Flight Games. That's only half right: it was their first board game with that theme. But one year before Arkham Horror, Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game hit store shelves. I'm sorry to have led y'all astray!

There are a few reason I did this. Most importantly: I've never played it. I didn't even know it existed until I started writing this series! But from what I've read, it doesn't really fit in. Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game was originally a collectible card game, like Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, or Duel Masters. The game is a two player competitive duel where both players control human investigators and otherworldly monsters. But between games, players can purchase randomized booster packs of new cards to customize their decks and open up new strategies. Every game I've reviewed this month is cooperative, or at least team-based. And don't get me started on how strange the concept is thematically!

But then in 2008 Fantasy Flight completely changed their business model. Instead of selling randomized booster packs, they started selling all of the new cards from a new set in a single box. Now instead of buying tons of and tons of random boosters and getting dozens of extraneous commons and uncommons while you hunt for powerful, valuable rares, you can just buy one box and get all the cards you need. A full playset of every card in the set, all at once. These packs are more expensive than booster packs, but it completely eliminates luck (and the secondary market) from the equation. As an added bonus, it means there's less card waste. Fantasy Flight calls this model a "Living Card Game" or "LCG."

LCGs have been HUGE for Fantasy Flight. They've created a number of games based on a wide array of intellectual properties, from Warhammer to Star Wars to Game of Thrones to the enormously popular Android: Netrunner. But Call of Cthulhu: the Card Game was the first, and it stayed in print, as either a CCG or an LCG, from 2004 to 2015! 11 years! Very few games can claim that sort of longevity. But eventually they shut it down. And released a new game one year later.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a fully cooperative game for 1-2 players (or 3-4 if you have a second copy of the base set). Players must construct a deck of assets, events, and skills to guide their investigator through Arkham's deadly secrets, but each investigator brings their own weaknesses that are also shuffled into their deck. You'll search for clues and battle deadly monsters as your team of investigators navigate a multi-stage campaign. The base set comes with all of the cards you need to play an introductory three-scenario campaign.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game set up for two players
Two players sit down for the first scenario in the base game: The Gathering

Arkham Horror: the Card Game has two states: in-game and between-game. Between games, you'll likely spend between 30 and 60 minutes constructing your investigator's 30-card deck. There are tons of cards you could choose to use, but each investigator has some deck-building restrictions you must follow, and the game itself limits you to a maximum of two copies of any card. Once everyone's deck is ready, you'll set up and play a scenario from the campaign.

In-game, your turn follows a simple pattern. You'll start by refreshing any used assets sitting in front of you. Then you can take three actions, such as moving, attacking, playing a card from your hand, or investigating your location for clues. After you're finished, the other players take their turns. Once everyone has gone, the monsters (if any) have a chance to move or attack, then every player draws a card and gains a resource during their upkeep. Resources are generic tokens that represent the money, supplies, willpower, skill, or luck that your investigator needs to play assets and events from their hand. Then it's time for the Mythos phase. A lot happens here, so I'm going to dive into a bit more depth.

Each scenario comes with two sets of story cards: Agendas and Acts. The Agenda deck tracks the progress of the enemy plot. Each Mythos phase, you'll add a doom token to the Agenda, and once you reach the target value, you flip the card over, read it aloud, and then read the front of the next Agenda card. As the Agenda progresses, the scenario may become harder, new mysteries might appears, or the players may just lose outright. The Agenda deck is the timer that forces the investigators to act efficiently and make tough choices. The Act deck represents the progress the investigators have made toward solving this scenario's mystery. Once they fulfill the condition written on the card (usually by spending clue tokens they collected while investigating), the Act advances and the investigators can see their next objective, learn more about the scenario, or possibly win!

A close up on the Agenda, Act, and setup cards for the base game scenario "The Gathering"
I love how the Agenda and the Act are designed to look like a tome superimposed over some background art. It reinforces the idea that you are playing through a story, while also providing just enough art to convey the terror of the scenario.

You'll start the Mythos phase by adding a doom token to the agenda and checking to see if it advances. Then each player draws an encounter card. These cards may require skill checks, add doom to the Agenda, hurt the players in unavoidable ways, or spawn monsters on the board. They're generally all bad. And that's it, the cycle resets back to the player turns again.

Most scenarios last about 60-90 minutes. Either a win or a loss will generally advance the story in some way, and the scenario epilogue will elaborate on how the consequences of the players' actions. You will probably also receive some experience points, which you can spend on upgrading the cards in your decks. It will usually take about 15-30 minutes to clean up the last scenario, upgrade your decks, and set up the next scenario. The introductory campaign in the base set generally lasts between 4-6 hours in total, so you can comfortably play the whole thing in one session, or spread it across several days.

What's nice about this game is that everything uses cards. Your player abilities are all based on cards. The map of locations that you investigate and visit? All cards. The monsters? Cards. Encounters, traps, and story elements? More cards. Even the pieces that mark where your character is on the board are cards. The only exception are tokens representing damage, clues, doom, and resources. That means when you're done with the scenario, you just gather up the scenario cards, sort them out, and then put them aside before grabbing the next scenario deck. Sure, after a few expansions you'll have enough cards to fill a shoebox, but they're still more compact than most board games!

More importantly, Fantasy Flight can create an almost endless number of scenarios thanks to the card-based mechanics. Location cards can depict anything, from the interior of a house to the network of streets in a bustling city to the impossible to comprehend shifting realities of the outer dimensions. This frees the designers to concoct scenarios that truly feel unique. In the base campaign, your first scenario takes place inside your house after the door to your study mysteriously disappears. The second scenario has you searching Arkham for six cultists before it gets too late and they all leave town for a dark ceremony. Then in the third mission, you must search the woods for the cult's hideout and stop the ceremony once and for all. Three different scenarios, all tied together with a connected narrative thread, but forcing the players to overcome different challenges. And every scenario has the potential to branch the story in surprisingly different directions.

In fact, "winning" or "losing" a scenario generally does not mean you fail the campaign. Only the most lucky, well-prepared, and experienced investigators will sweep through a campaign without losing a single scenario. But winning or losing will affect the progression of the story, and could make later scenarios easier or harder.

Speaking of difficulty, Arkham Horror: The Card Game does an excellent job of providing variable difficulty levels for players. The secret is the "Chaos Cup." In all of my other reviews of Arkham Horror files games, you've seen a strange white chalice on the table. This usually holds monster tokens, but in this game the monsters are all cards. Instead, the chalice holds Chaos Tokens, which serve the same role as dice in other Arkham games. When you make a skill test, you add up your skill value and any bonuses or penalties listed on our cards. Then you draw a token from the Chaos Cup and see how that affects your result. Most chaos tokens subtract from your skill value, and you'll see -1, -2, and -3 tokens often. Some tokens are positive, like the lovely +1 token or the blue Elder Sign. But there are also special tokens in there, such as the red doom token, or the skull tokens. Those special icon tokens have variable affects depending on the scenario, and you'll have to check the scenario cards to see how they impact you.

Close-up on the chaos tokens used in a standard difficulty game.
On higher difficulties, you'll add even worse tokens to the pool, like a -6 or even a -8!

This already gives the designers a lot of flexibility in how difficult to make a scenario since they no longer have to rely on the static probability of rolling a value on a die. You can think of the Chaos Cup as a sort of custom D14, if you like. But you can make the game easier or harder by simply adding or removing certain tokens. The game comes with suggested Chaos Cup contents for four difficulty levels, ranging from easy to insane. Generally, as campaigns progress, you'll add more negative tokens to the Cup to simulate the greater danger and higher stakes you face as you approach the end of the mystery.

I really like this game. My one annoyance has actually been fixed recently by Fantasy Flight themselves. See, the premise of a Living Card Game is that you just buy one box and it comes with all the copies of every card that you would need. But the base game box only comes with one copy of a lot of cards that it would be nice to have a full two copies of. And the base set box only has enough cards to play the game with 1 or 2 players, even though the rules fully support up to 4 players. So you really do need to buy two copies of the base set if you want to be able to build decent decks. But then you have too many copies of the scenario and encounter cards, which is an annoying waste.

EXCEPT! Fantasy Flight just announced a new reprint of the base set. If you get the Revised Core Set box, it comes with all of the player cards from two copies of the base set, plus just one set of the scenario cards, and few other minor improvements. The Revised Core Set box costs about $15 more than the original base set, but if you keep in mind that you're getting two sets for slightly more than the price of one, it's worth it if you don't already have the base set. The biggest improvement is the box itself. The original base set comes in a small box like Elder Sign. There is no internal organization system, so while it has enough room for all of the cards it comes with, there's no room to expand. Or to put the second copy's cards in there. The Revised Box is much larger and contains plenty of space to store your cards. It's really the best way to go if you're just getting into the game now.

So, since Fantasy Flight fixed that issue, the only problem I have with the base set is that the three-scenario campaign is really short. The difficulty spikes heavily between scenario 1 and 2, and then again between 2 and 3. Scenario 1 is manageable, number 2 feels really difficult, and number 3 feels borderline impossible, especially if you had issues with the previous two. This makes it really clear how your actions in previous scenarios have significant consequences down the road, but it is also unforgiving. One one hand, that provides some nice replay value as it will take you multiple attempts to actually win the campaign. On the other hand, that difficulty spike might scare off players who would otherwise enjoy it.

But this is a Fantasy Flight game! And that means EXPANSIONS. In its initial run, each Arkham Horror: the Card Game expansion consisted of one larger box to set up a new campaign, and then six smaller "mythos packs" which each contain one scenario to continue the campaign. These mythos packs would release every 1-2 months after the new campaign expansion, so you could pick them up slowly and play one scenario at a time over the course of a year, or wait until they're all out and buy them all at once. The result is a game that's much more expensive than your standard board game, but you get to pay in smaller installments. Since 2016, Fantasy Flight released six full campaigns with this model. The campaigns function independently of each other, so you can purchase any that suit your interest.

In 2020, Fantasy Flight announced a change to this model. Now, expansions will come in just two boxes. You can buy the "investigator expansion", which contains all the new player cards found in the expansion box and mythos packs. And you can buy the "campaign expansion", which contains all the monster, encounter, and location cards necessary to play through the entire new campaign. This is a positive change overall. The total cost of the campaign is now lower than before, and you don't have to worry about a certain mythos pack being out of stock when you're trying to play the campaign. If you don't want more player cards taking up space in your boxes, you can choose to just get the new campaign and tackle it with the cards you already have. The first expansion using this new model, Edge of the Earth, releases later this year.

Before I start talking about individual expansions, I want to mention a few other miscellaneous extras for this game. If you want to expand your game in other ways, Fantasy Flight has a line of "investigator starter decks," which are standalone packs with unique investigators and a custom deck that you can just pick up and play. This is nice if you don't want to deal with building a deck before starting a campaign, and it also provides some more variety to the pool of investigators you can choose at the beginning of a campaign. You can also buy standalone adventure packs to play a short, one-off self-contained story. And, if you want to get "serious," you can get the "Return to . . ." expansion box for any of the other campaigns. This special expansion contains some new player and campaign cards, as well as a storage box for all of your cards from the expansion. It also provides a more challenging version of the campaign that you can play, complete with new plot twists that will surprise experienced players.

Okay, to be honest, I haven't played most of the expansions for this game yet. But I want to! So for now, we're just going to look at the ones I have played. And we'll start with the first campaign:

The Dunwich Legacy - 2016

The Dunwich Legacy is set several years after the events of The Dunwich Horror, one of Lovecraft's most well-known tales. One of the main characters from the story, Professor Armitage, has heard disturbing rumors that the someone is attempting to recreate the horrific experiments and rituals that spawned the eponymous Dunwich Horror, and also seeks revenge upon those who defeated his ancestor. He asks the investigators to seek out his comrades-in-arms before they befall some terrible fate. The first two scenarios in the expansion can be played in any order, but the players will experience slightly different encounters based on their decision. Afterwards, the story continues for six more scenarios that will take the investigators to other parts of Arkham, Dunwich, and beyond.

The Dunwich Legacy also introduces five new investigators and a host of new cards that enable new strategies and deck-building archetypes. If you don't mind being short on certain cards, you can use the Dunwich Legacy in place of a 2nd copy of the base set to enable a 3-4 player game.

In general, this expansion is solid. The campaign is interesting, compelling, but largely just delivers more of what the base set promised. One or two of the missions are very unique, but also incredibly difficult. The rest are more manageable and a little more mundane. Nonetheless, this campaign is a great way to get to know the card game and experience the twists and turns that even a simple campaign will throw your way. B+

The Path to Carcosa - 2017

Where the Dunwich Legacy feels like an expanded version of the base game, Carcosa feels like something entirely different. In The Path to Carcosa, the notorious play "The King in Yellow" has come to Arkham and seems to be driving the patrons mad. The story opens with the investigators noticing that something strange is happening during the intermission, and they need to see what they can find by exploring the theatre.

The Path to Carcosa is utterly confounding. The investigators will find themselves second-guessing every decision and doubting their senses as they push forward with their investigation. Where the Dunwich Legacy offered a couple branching paths along the journey, The Path to Carcosa is chock full of choices. Nearly every decision the investigators make will impact the progression of the story, the obstacles they will face later on, and the nature of the threat itself.

But a word to the wise: this expansion is also very difficult. My first attempt reached the midway point in the campaign before hitting a total party loss condition. As unusual as this expansion is, you will still need a strong deck to overcome its obstacles. This expansion also offers six new investigators and a host of new cards for your decks. This is my favorite expansion I've played so far, and one I highly recommend. A+

The Circle Undone - 2019

The fourth expansion (there's no narrative order to these, and we decided to skip the third one for now) finds Arkham in the grasp of a strange fog. Where it passes, people go missing. After four citizens disappear from a party, the investigators decide to search for them. Their investigation will bring them in between a conflict between two powerful occult organizations. Which side will the investigators take? Can anyone be trusted? And what fate has befallen the missing people?

This is the expansion my friends and I are currently playing, so we haven't quite reached the end yet. I can say one thing, though: this expansion is HARD. Carcosa was challenging enough, but felt doable with better luck or a better deck. Circle Undone just feels brutal. It feels like we got through each scenario by the skin of our teeth, and that's been a bit demoralizing. Still, the storyline is really compelling, so I'm still looking forward to coming back and giving it another shot. B-, so far.

Frankly, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is brilliant. The mechanics, setting, and characters all feel like traditional Arkham Horror. But instead of limiting the storyline to just a couple lines of flavor text on a couple cards, Arkham Horror: The Card Game tells a true story. Every scenario begins and ends with a few paragraphs of expostion, and then the story is carried on by text on the Agenda and Act cards, the flavor text on locations and encounters, and by the actions of the players themselves. Arkham Horror: The Card Game lets you truly feel like a character in the story, rather than a game piece experiencing the whims of random chance.

But even after you've played a scenario once, there are still plenty of reasons to go back! You can change the difficultly level, you can try a different investigator with a different deck archetype, or you could try keeping everything the same and simply making different decisions during branch points! You could easily play through a campaign multiple times, each with a different group of players, and have a surprisingly different experience. This is not a Legacy game where you'll play through the campaign once and never again. No, this is a game where you'll finish a campaign, look at your character, and think "hmm, I wonder what it would be like to play through the Dunwich campaign with this person?" or "that was something, but what if I used that other character next time?"

The one thing that might present an issue is that you need to spend considerable time building and maintaining your investigator deck between games. I suggest trying to adjust your perception: building and modifying your deck is just a different part of the game. You're still playing, it's just this is more of a puzzle as you try and include necessary tools while obeying the strict deck construction limitations. Then you get to test out your deck and see what works and what doesn't in the next scenario. I have to mention the excellent website, which is an invaluable tool for seeing other players' decks and for keeping track of your own deck between games.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game solved the Arkham Horror problem back in 2016. The game has been an immense success ever since, and it is easily one of my favorite games now. But there is one thing that I always maintain is essential for any good game: it has to be fun to lose. Cooperative games can struggle with this. Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, and to a lesser extent Elder Sign can all feel impossible after just af ew minutes. One or two bad mythos cards, a poor roll of the dice, or an unfortunate encounter could derail things so badly that there is no hope for recovery. But Arkham Horror: The Card Game manages to retain the feeling of overwhelming odds necessary for the tone while also helping the players feel like they've made progress. Even in defeat, the story advances, and you'll simply have to work harder in the next mission to do better. Maybe you'll be luckier, or draw better cards next time? Arkham Horror is by far the most fun game to lose in this series.

It probably goes without saying at this point: you should play Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

And so, Spooky month draws to a . . . what's that? Arkham Horror: 3rd Edition? Uhhh . . . but the card game is already perfect? Okay, well, this next game has some high standards to live up to! Join me next time as a I conclude spooky month!

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