Arkham Horror: The Card Game Review

Arkham Horror: The Card Game Review Hot

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MattDPMattDP   September 11, 2017  
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You'd have thought there was only so much Lovecraft that gamers could stomach. Yet, year after, year release schedules continue to put a lie to that presumption. Arkham Horror: The Card Game, though, promises to be different. At night, in dreams, eldritch horrors whispered in my ear that it was new and exciting. At dawn, zombie-like, I staggered out under their baleful influence to secure and play a copy.

It promises to be a Living Card Game, and it both is and isn't. You do build a deck from the selection of cards in the box. At first, it's wise to go with the suggested starter decks. But when you come to build them, you'll find there's not actually that many. In fact, you don't have enough to make more than two decks. 

That's could be okay, though, because another way in which it differs from the standard LCG model is that it's solo or co-operative. So playing with no more than two is fine. And then there's the third key departure, which is the narrative element. To play, you choose and set-up a scenario. This includes two decks which track progress, one for the players and one for the monsters. The turn over at different rates, although safe is say that if the monsters progress runs much ahead of player progress, you're heading for a loss.

Yet that could also be okay, though, because of the novel and smart adventure-like structure. The game comes with a little booklet of paragraphs, a bit like a choose your own adventure. Except that instead of picking paragraph numbers, you're directed to them by combinations of the progress cards. The different order in which these come out can lead to different narrative outcomes. There are various end paragraphs, of various level of success. So it's possible to do badly and still complete the scenario and carry one. Adventures, you see, link together into campaigns. 

So, a poor result in your first scenario carries through to the next. This allows you the chance to pull some value from the ashes, albeit with a millstone around your neck. It also means that there's a lot of story based variety in the game. Between the different plays you can make, the different progressions you can see and the different ways a campaign can unfold, you'll never see the same game twice. I had reservations about the limited number of scenarios in the box, but they proved unfounded: there's plenty of stories in the base game alone.

Speaking of the plays you make, there's plenty of smart and novel design here, too. You build a map from location cards and move round it by taking actions, including drawing and playing cards. Instead of a dice there's the comical sounding "chaos bag" which contains a mix of counters specified by the scenario. Most are simple bonus or penalty values, but there are a few more specific effects which again depend on the scenario. Like the rest of scenario setup, building the bag is a pain. But the results are worthwhile: a careful tailoring of difficulty, a stitch of narrative and a thread of probabilities for players to ponder.

Better, though is the simple mechanic that the bag builds on to determine success in completing tasks. To succeed, you need to beat a difficulty. This is normally a specified stat like combat or willpower, modified by a token from the bag. Before you draw, though, you can discard cards to get a bonus. This, then, is the slavering squid beak with which the game ensnares you. How much do you really need to pass that test? Enough to throw away half your hand when you might need it for the next challenge? No? How about a quarter then? An eighth? Your soul?

Of course, it's gambling disguised inside a grand narrative structure. But what a structure, and what addictive gambling! By the time the ghouls have dragged your starting investigators down into their hideous burrows, you'll want to try again. And again. And then, win or lose, you're going to start tinkering with your decks. At which point, all that careful stitching begins to unpick a bit.

You might imagine this comes down to the limited number of cards in the box, and that's certainly a factor. You can only put two copies of a given card in your deck, and the base game comes with just one copy of some useful ones. For many others there aren't enough to make multiple decks which is why you can only have two players at once. Fine, the cards are cheap. Buy another copy of the core set. Better yet, buy one or more of the expansions. I had the Dunwich Legacy to play with, too, which as well as expanding your options starts another fun campaign. 

Yet even with more cards at your disposal, deck building still falls flat. At first, I thought it was the sheer administrative overhead. You're just juggling lots of confusing cards until you get familiar with the mix. Even when you do, you can improve certain cards between games by literally removing them from the deck and replacing them with better copies. It's a solid way to represent experience and character advancement, but it's in practice, it's a pain. You need to find right cards and swap them round, ensuring at all time that you're using the right level of card in your deck.

In the final reckoning though, the enemy wasn't the Cthulhu mythos itself: it was me. In the first sense, as a co-operative game you're playing against yourself, so the game rewards the amount of effort you put in to it. In the second sense, I just didn't find that motivating enough to want to build decks. In a competitive LCG you're in an arms race, always trying to get one-up on the inventions of the people you're playing against. Here, you're just one-upping yourself. It's not enough to maintain interest, given the overhead of learning the card mix and maintaining your deck.

A mixed bag, then, for the game with the chaos bag. Actually playing the game is brilliant. All the stuff you need to do to actually play the game is not. If you're motivated than me by the prospect of self-improvement, you will likely find this game far, far more engaging than I did. Personally, I'm going to vegetate here on the sofa until the Great Old Ones awaken.

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Posted: 11 Sep 2017 08:11 by drewcula #254044
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Yes! Good review. I 'subscribe' to this LCG via my FLGS. That's a first for me on two fronts; subscribing to a game, and playing a LCG. At the end of the day, I find I enjoy the narrative element a lot. I don't care for deck building at all, and find that to be less interesting. I view AH LCG as a very good facsimile of a CoC scenario. A scenario that I can now play solo.*

* Also important since my board gaming group has ventured into RPGs more and more. I'm too old and impatient to sit there and watch/listen as they struggle through the GM role. I can't rewind the clock for memorable teenage RPG campaigns. AH LCG? That I can do, and it scratches a needling itch...
Posted: 11 Sep 2017 14:09 by Southernman #254063
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I agree that it is extremely well done to emulate a Cthulhu adventure in a card game and we enjoyed our first play through, unfortunately it is not for me because of the severe lack of replayability, after you play through the first campaign the narrative has gone and further play-throughs are just trying to beat the system as you pretty well know what is coming each time. And I am not going to dump money in to it by first buying the Dunwich big box expansion and only get three scenarios and then buy six more mini (but not cheap) expansions to finish the campaign, and rinse repeat.
I don't want hundreds and hundreds of cards and a couple of campaigns - I want more campaigns for the amount of cards I choose to buy. If they did very small expansions of new campaigns, maybe with variants on the existing locations (just like drawing different encounters at a location in big brother Arkham or Eldritch) so creating new campaigns could be easier and modular, similar I suppose to how Descent has small co-op campaign packs (even if it is a Print-on-Demand format) then I would probably be all over that.
Suppose the bottom line is that non CCG or LCG gamers like me are not their target audience.
Posted: 11 Sep 2017 14:14 by mads b. #254064
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You do know they've made two expansions that are only scenarios, right? One is Curse of the Rougarou and the other is called Carnivale of Horror. I don't know if they are good, but I remember that Massing at Osgilliath and the Lake Town scenarios for Lord of the Rings were very good and they were the same concept.
Posted: 11 Sep 2017 17:16 by Southernman #254074
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mads b. wrote:
You do know they've made two expansions that are only scenarios, right? One is Curse of the Rougarou and the other is called Carnivale of Horror. I don't know if they are good, but I remember that Massing at Osgilliath and the Lake Town scenarios for Lord of the Rings were very good and they were the same concept.

Nope, I stopped looking after going through the Dunwich expansions and then its following child cycle of six mini expansions. I will investigate the existence of scenario-only packs.
Posted: 12 Sep 2017 09:17 by ThirstyMan #254095
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It's an excellent game. Replayability off the core set is achieved using different pairs of characters which require different play styles. The chaos bag is easily skipped over by using an iOS app, which simulates the chaos bag, which is a real time saver.

Dunwich Legacy is a great story and deeply immersive. It is a perfect soloist game.

I've tried both stand alone packs and they allow you to tool up in between scenario plays of a large cycle. The core set is three linked scenarios while Dunwich Legacy is 6 or 7 scenarios. You take the same characters through each one. If they go insane in one scenario they have a permanent mental disability in the next scenario (ie they aren't dead yet). Hard to beat. If you don't play to the strengths of the characters you will get screwed.

You are a fucking idiot if you don't like this game.
Posted: 12 Sep 2017 14:07 by cranberries #254127
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It feels like you need to drop about $150 for the full experience. Cheaper than Kingdom Death: Monster, and Cthulhu Wars, certainly. But still.
You are a fucking idiot if you don't like this game.

Posted: 12 Sep 2017 14:28 by Southernman #254128
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ThirstyMan wrote:
It's an excellent game. Replayability off the core set is achieved using different pairs of characters which require different play styles. The chaos bag is easily skipped over by using an iOS app, which simulates the chaos bag, which is a real time saver.

Dunwich Legacy is a great story and deeply immersive. It is a perfect soloist game.

I've tried both stand alone packs and they allow you to tool up in between scenario plays of a large cycle. The core set is three linked scenarios while Dunwich Legacy is 6 or 7 scenarios. You take the same characters through each one. If they go insane in one scenario they have a permanent mental disability in the next scenario (ie they aren't dead yet). Hard to beat. If you don't play to the strengths of the characters you will get screwed.

You are a fucking idiot if you don't like this game.

I'm not in the zone where numerous small expansions just to complete one campaign are financially viable, and I do miss the narrative surprise once a scenario is played and it's just the mechanic left to beat the next time - not a biggie with the game itself, just how it affects me.
Posted: 12 Sep 2017 15:33 by ThirstyMan #254131
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I will repeat one more time. There is no necessity to buy all the expansions for a campaign. Each one works as an independent adventure. Only the truly OCD would go down that route. There are plenty of good fan made scenarios. You don't seriously think that people cannot possible play the game until all the expansion packs for that cycle have been released. That just does not happen.

Why is there an obsession in only playing a complete published campaign when this is not necessary?

Its exactly like LoTR LCG you don't HAVE to buy all the expansion decks for a cycle. It works perfectly well without the entire cycle and each pack can be dealt with independently.
Posted: 12 Sep 2017 17:55 by Southernman #254149
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Oh I realize what you're saying, unfortunately for me I lose interest in the campaign once I know what each scenario does and when you play it again you are just trying to beat the known challenge. it's why I bought lots of expansions for Arkham and all the small box expansions for Eldritch - so I would retain some surprise as most of the time we'd get different encounter cards, even then we still remember what choices do what on some cards that have randomly popped up more frequently. Again, nothing really wrong with the game, just how I get (or fail to get) fun from it.
Posted: 13 Sep 2017 10:48 by Varys #254180
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I finally started the Dunwich Legacy even though I had bought it back in February. I liked the first adventure, but it's just one adventure. We played Rex and Zoey. Both are pretty good and are an upgrade over the base set investigators. Then again, it could be the added cards from the expansions. I've heard Pete is bonkers and Jim and Jenny are also pretty good. So, if anything, the investigators in Dunwich are really cool.

I've also heard Curse of the Rougarou is meh and Carnevale of Horrors is pretty damn good but tough. I've been told Carnevale is good to play as a side mission after Miskatonic Museum.

Overall, I do like the game, but I definitely feel that it's overpriced for what you get especially if you have to buy two core sets. The base set campaign is a bit too difficult with just base set cards. The hardest part of that campaign is the last adventure. I don't think I will buy the Carcosa campaign for now. I may change my mind if it gets good reviews after all of the campaign has been released.

I will mention, finally, that I played my Dunwich Legacy adventure on OCTGN even though I own the physical game. I just wanted to try it out with my friend in Minnesota. I think this OCTGN is a good way to try out the game. It's better than the Tabletop Simulator version. I may just end up playing this game through OCTGN in the future. You do have to wait 6 months to get the card images if you don't want to scan them in yourself. That's probably fine with me. If you're interested in the OCTGN version, here's the link to the mod:

octgngames.com/ahlcg/
Posted: 13 Sep 2017 14:58 by ThirstyMan #254195
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It is absurd that people think you have to buy two core sets. YOU ABSOLUTELY DO NOT. Buy Dunwich and use those characters or just play better and use a core set. Yeah, it's hard, it's supposed to be. It's Cthulhu. I have beaten the base adventure campaign with one core set using as many different pairs of characters I could use, while waiting for Dunwich Legacy, so don't tell me you need two core sets.

Agree with OCTGN though. It's a good way play remotely. I think AH LCG is really designed for solo play unlike LoTR LCG.

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