Arkham Horror: The Living Card Game

A while back, I talked about Marvel Champions, a card game that allows players to take on the roles of their favorite Marvel comics characters. Today, I thought I’d discuss another of Fantasy Flight’s living card games: Arkham Horror.

If you need a quick reminder as to what a ‘living card game’ is, pop over to that Marvel Champions article to refresh your memory.

While Champions puts players in the shoes of powerful heroes, Arkham takes a decidedly different tack: you’re cast in the role of an investigator, a normal human being facing down perilous eldritch forces beyond mortal ken. This is a game inspired by the cosmic horror tales of H. P. Lovecraft, and so–much like the characters in Lovecraft’s work–you’ll have to rely on little more than your quick thinking (and the occasional lightning gun) to survive a universe that is hugely stacked against you.

One of the things that sets Arkham apart from other card games I’ve played is that it’s got a narrative focus. Your deck isn’t just a stack of cards–it represents a character, their abilities, and the assets available to them. Each investigator has a character card with stats, deck-building instructions, and a bit of backstory. That’s only the beginning of the narrative, though–each session tells a story, and the game is meant to be played as a campaign, linking multiple sessions together to form an overarching plot. Each expansion the game receives is a totally new story, introducing new characters, locations, and villains.

As a lover of stories in general, and cosmic horror stories in particular, I immediately clicked with this style of play. Not only do I enjoy watching the plot unfold over multiple sessions (and changing depending on player choice, which is quite impressive to pull off in a card game), the campaign structure also has a mechanical benefit: you earn experience at the end of every session that you can use to tweak and improve your deck. The system is not unlike a role-playing game a la Dungeons & Dragons, but in card game form. It’s highly unique and very, very fun!

The variety of campaigns is another wonderful aspect of Arkham Horror. While the core set’s short campaign about ghouls is more concerned with teaching you the game than telling a good story, subsequent campaigns have been fantastic. There’s The Dunwich Legacy, which serves as a spooky sequel to one of my favorite Lovecraft stories; The Forgotten Age, an enthralling-but-difficult trek through the jungle (and across eons); the witch-haunted Circle Undone campaign; and my personal favorite, The Path to Carcosa, which has the investigators questioning their sanity throughout every scenario. There’s also The Dream-Eaters, which I haven’t had a chance to try yet, and recently a new campaign was announced: The Innsmouth Conspiracy, which will take players to Lovecraft’s famous seaside town of Dagon-worshiping fish-people!

Gameplay is largely about two things: fighting monsters and gathering clues. Monsters are fought using an investigator’s physical traits, backed up by whatever gear you’ve got in your deck–guns, knives, and the like– while clues are found through careful investigation. This investigation can also be supplemented by equipment, such as magnifying glasses and flashlights. Generally speaking, you’ll need to gather a particular number of clues to advance the plot, often while being besieged by foes. As you work to find these clues, you slowly accrue Doom, and once you’ve hit a certain Doom threshold, it’s game over–you’ve either lost the campaign or, more likely, put yourself at a severe disadvantage in your next session. You automatically gain one Doom every round, and certain cards or enemies may cause you to gain it even faster, so you’re under a strict time limit in each scenario.

However, while gathering clues is the focus of an ‘average’ scenario, there are certainly scenarios that play much differently. For instance, one memorable scenario in the Dunwich Legacy expansion takes place on a train, and the player must quickly move from one car to the next while facing down various aberrations–it’s fun, memorable, and much different than a normal session!

It also helps illustrate another interesting facet of the game: locations. In most card games, locations aren’t really a thing–there’s not a board to move around, after all. However, in Arkham, each scenario has a set of location cards that are arranged almost like a board at the start of each session. Players can move from location to location (from train car to train car, for instance), gathering clues, fighting monsters, and taking special actions specific to each place. Although setup can be a bit annoying if there are lots of locations, and it’s occasionally hard to keep track of which areas are connected to each other, locations help reinforce the narrative elements of the game and make Arkham feel a little more involved and interesting than your average card game.

So, that’s the general gameplay loop of an Arkham session: move around the scenario-specific, card-based ‘map’ gathering clues and fighting monsters, all the while keeping an eye on your Doom level. But, you might be wondering, what tools do you have at your disposal to help you in your quest? What is an investigator (and their deck) like?

Each investigator is unique, but they have a few things in common: they each have four skills (though their skill levels vary) and two separate methods of tracking damage. The four skills are willpower, intellect, combat, and agility. The two damage tracks are health and sanity, Each investigator also has a unique asset and weakness that must be included in their deck; however, other than these cards and any specific deck-building instructions on their card, their deck can be built however the player wants.

The skills can be found in the upper right, while the health and sanity are found near the bottom. Joe has great intellect and combat, low willpower and agility, high health, and mediocre sanity. You can also see that he’s got a unique ability, as well as a special method of resolving the Elder Sign token, which we’ll talk about in a few paragraphs.

Investigators come in five different classes: Guardians, Seekers, Rogues, Mystics, and Survivors. Each class specializes in a different aspect of the game. Guardians and Seekers are the most straightforward: the former is great in a fight (having high health and a good combat skill), while the latter excels at finding clues (usually having decent sanity and a great intellect skill). Beyond that, things get a little more complicated. Rogues are often sneaky, with a high agility skill that lets them avoid combat; they also have access to cards that help them generate resource tokens, which are spent to play cards from your hand. Mystics generally have high willpower skills, and can utilize a variety of spells that can have many different effects depending on your build–some are excellent for combat, others for finding clues, and still others have more unusual effects. Survivors are more of a wild card–their abilities often focus on survival (obviously) and sheer dumb luck, allowing them to get out of jams or stumble into useful clues and items. Each class has a distinct flavor, and it’s fun to try out different classes in different scenarios!

As for deck building, most investigators are restricted to cards within their class, and possibly low-level cards of one other class. Yes, low-level–cards in this game have levels, though characters don’t. This is where the RPG mechanics I mentioned earlier come into play. After each session, investigators are awarded experience which they can spend on new cards for their deck; a card’s level indicates how much experience that card costs. For instance, a level three card costs three experience points. Some cards have multiple variants at different levels–it’s possible to upgrade from one version to the next at a reduced experience cost (in other words, you can replace a level three card with a level four card for a single experience point).

Cards themselves come in three types: assets, events, and skills. Assets are items that usually get equipped to your character and have lasting effects. A gun would be an asset, for instance, which would give you some kind of combat bonus and would last until it ran out of ammo. Allies are also considered assets; they often have powerful effects, but can be killed by enemies. Events are more immediate; they often make one straightforward adjustment to the game-state, such as moving your investigator to a new location or allowing you to quickly gain a clue. Finally, skill cards augment your skills during skill tests–you ‘commit’ a skill card to a test to gain a bonus, giving you a higher chance at success. (Yes, I know–skills, skill cards, skill tests; it’s all a bit repetitive, but for better or worse, those are the terms the game uses.)

Skill tests are this game’s equivalent of rolling dice in D&D. As I said earlier, each investigator has the same four skills, and when they need to use one of them–say, using intellect to try to find a clue at a given location–they must make a skill test. To do so, one must reach into the chaos bag and pull out a chaos token.

Chaos tokens are small tokens with numbers and symbols that modify the result of your test. To give an example: let’s assume you want to search for clues at your current location. Searching for clues uses intellect. We’ll say that your investigator has an intellect of three. Looking at your location card, you see a Shroud value of two–that means you need to have a result of at least two on your test to successfully find a clue. Given that you’ve got three intellect, you’ve got a good shot at this. You reach into the chaos bag and pull out a random token. The token says “-1.” Apply this to your intellect skill and you’ll get your test result–in this case, two, which is enough to succeed and gain a clue!

Some tokens have symbols instead of numbers. There are two tokens in particular whose symbols are very important: the blue Elder Sign token is the best token in the bag, as it has a unique beneficial effect for each investigator (listed on that investigator’s card), while the red tentacle token is an automatic failure regardless of how high your skill is. There are also a few other symbols, such as a skull or a stone tablet, that have different effects depending on the scenario; each scenario includes a card with instructions on how to resolve these tokens.

The chaos bag is set up at the start of a campaign and can be affected by the player’s actions across different sessions. Remember how I said that losing a scenario can put you at a severe disadvantage in your next session? That’s because failing a scenario often causes you to add more negative tokens to the chaos bag, increasing the likelihood that you’ll pull a bad result on your tests.

I love the chaos bag mechanic because it adds a level of randomness to the game. It also allows for a sliding difficulty scale–each campaign has a variety of difficulty levels, achieved by adding different amounts of tokens to the chaos bag.

Between choosing the right investigators, building unique decks, and contending with the chaos bag, there’s a lot to juggle in Arkham Horror. It can certainly be overwhelming at times, and the difficulty curve can be brutal… but really, doesn’t that dovetail perfectly with the kinds of stories it seeks to emulate? If you can get past the complexity and punishing level of challenge, Arkham Horror is an absolute blast. I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of card games (especially LCGs) or cosmic horror.

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