Horror on the Cards (Revisited)

 So some time in February I reviewed Fantasy Flight Games’ LCG (Living Card Game) Arkham Horror: the Card Game.

I said at the time that my second biggest complaint with the game was that you only really got half a set of cards, which made the experience of playing the base game super frustrating, and impossible with more than two players. My biggest complaint was that I was definitely going to buy a second set of the base game and resent the hell out of it.

I bought a second set of the base game and resented the hell out of it. Although what I especially resent is the fact that having bought a second copy of the base game, I am now really enjoying myself.

This, then, is something along the lines of a re-review of Arkham Horror: the Card Game, both of the base game with two sets, and of the first expansion The Dunwich Legacy. And I should probably add that this expansion is already pretty old now by LCG standards (I talked about the intense release schedule of LCGs in the original review) and some parts of the expansion cycle (of which more later) are out of stock, making them a bit hard to get hold of.

To do the tl;dr thing I’ve taken to doing with a lot of my recent game reviews, playing the core game with two sets is far more satisfying than playing it with one set, but not necessarily “buy a game you’ve bought once already” levels of satisfying unless you’re really into card games or the Cthulhu Mythos. The scenarios in the first expansion are surprisingly excellent and showcase the flexibility of the core systems, and have convinced me to at least commit to playing through the whole of the first expansion cycle.

On which subject, I should also say right now that expansions in Arkham Horror: the Card Game are released in “cycles” that only tell a complete story once you’ve played all of them, so while I thought the scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy were great, they were also just the beginning of a long-term story that unfolds over another six expansions. Each sold separately. For fifteen dollars apiece. This means that playing through the entire story of The Dunwich Legacy will set you back a full $120. Which is quite a lot for part of a card game. Although I suppose another way to look at it is that since the entire expansion cycle lasts about six months, it’s about a quarter of what you might spend in Starbucks over the same period of time.

Anyway, these are my more detailed thoughts on the game, now I’ve delved (very slightly) more deeply into it.

The Second Set Experience

I’ve now played the first mini-campaign about three times, with both two and three players. I’ve not played it solo, although from my usual poking around the internets, it seems like a lot of people actually really enjoy the solo experience (although it’s probably impossible to build a solo-capable deck without two base sets). My experience is that the game is very slightly easier with more players. It scales fairly well – a lot of enemies get health bonuses based on the number of players in the game, and since most of the stuff that messes you up comes from cards that every player draws every turn, the obstacles you face naturally scale with the number of players. But ultimately it’s almost impossible to make a game scale perfectly with player numbers, because party effectiveness doesn’t increase linearly with size. Adding a third character to the game doesn’t just mean that you get an extra three actions a turn to do generic “things”, it also means that you have access to a whole new set of specialisations – so where in a two player game you might have somebody who is really good at investigating stuff, and somebody who is really good at killing monsters, adding a third player means you might also get a character who is really good at exploring new locations, or facing supernatural horrors, or manipulating the Mythos deck – basically you not only get 50% more resources, you also get to distribute those resources more efficiently.

And I suppose ironically you could draw an interesting parallel between the way adding a third player makes your party more than 50% more effective and the way that adding a second base set makes the core game more than twice as good (from a certain point of view – again I’m absolutely not recommending you buy two base sets if you aren’t intending to invest in the game further). With one core set, Arkham Horror: the Card Game is a decent game for exactly two players. With two core sets it’s not only a much better game, but a much better game for one to four players.

Arkham Horror: the Card Game is a deckbuilding game at its core, and with two sets you can actually deckbuild – creating a genuinely customised character that feels genuinely yours, rather than just running a pregenerated character with no flexibility. But more than that, it’s a co-operative deckbuilding game, and with two core sets you can actually co-operatively deckbuild.

As you might recall, Arkham Horror: the Card Game includes five character “classes” – Guardian, Seeker, Rogue, Mystic and Survivor. Each of the characters in the base game is effectively dual-class, being able to mix-and-match cards from two of the classes, but having greater access to cards of their primary class. Because of the limited card pool, it was impossible for a character in the base game to team up with another character with whom they shared a class. So, for example, Roland Banks, the Fed (whose classes were Guardian and Seeker)couldn’t team up with either Daisy Walker, the Librarian (Seeker/Mystic) or Skids O’Toole, the Ex-Con (Rogue/Guardian). So in the base game not only was there little choice on how to build your character, there was also little choice on which characters could team up.

This was especially restrictive because although I’ve been impressed with the diversity of the scenarios so far, you can all but guarantee that winning an Arkham Horror: the Card Game scenario will require you to (a) collect clues and (b) fight monsters. The characters who are best at collecting clues are Seekers, and the characters who are best at fighting monsters are Guardians, which means that if you want to build a team with the best chance of responding positively to an unseen scenario, the most obvious pairing in the base game is Roland/Daisy. A combination that is mechanically impossible under the base game.

With two base sets, you can really co-ordinate your characters. You can say “okay, well if you’re taking character X, I’ll take character Y, and that way we’ve got a lot of bases covered, and I won’t need to use this card if you take that card.” And with a third player you get to have somebody in a flex slot, playing as one of the more versatile classes like Survivor or Mystic, allowing you to respond to unexpected turns of events.

Basically it’s a lot better with two core sets, is what I’m saying.

The Dunwich Legacy

This is a bit of an odd one, because I’ve only played three out of the eight scenarios in this campaign (two that come in the Dunwich Legacy box, plus the Miskatonic Museum). I’m probably going to see about getting hold of the remaining scenarios because, well, otherwise I’ve just played the first three parts of a story and won’t actually get to see it finished.

The way that expansions for Arkham Horror: the Card Game work (or at least, seem to be working so far) is that each “cycle” consists of a large boxed expansion, which adds five new Investigators, a bunch of new investigator cards, and two scenarios, followed by six smaller expansions, which add no new investigators, a smaller number of investigator cards, and one scenario each.

The nature of any kind of expandable card game (CCGs or LCGs) is that they have a kind of sigmoid quality curve, which is to say that you notice a very rapid increase in the quality of your experience when you first start playing, and then things begin to plateau. Basically because every new card you add is compatible with every card that has been released previously, each expansion dramatically increases the options available for deckbuilding, and so everything gets cooler and more flexible and just more fun. Right now I’m alt-tabbing between this document and the card lists for the new expansions, and I keep thinking “Wow! That would be so cool in this deck! OMG that would completely change the way that class plays! Wow that’s awesome!”. But obviously this rate of improvement isn’t entirely sustainable – eventually you’ve got so much stuff that new cards are just more of the same, so they’re still cool but they’re no longer quite so mind blowing because your mind has already been pretty comprehensively blown. And I’m actually pretty confident about Arkham Horror: the Card Game’s ability to sustain the quality of their new releases (because Fantasy Flight Games are really, really experienced at cranking out expansions for Cthulhu-themed games) but diminishing returns are an unavoidable part of the genre.

All of which is to say that right now I’m very much at the this is awesome stage of getting into a new expandable card game where it’s all novelty and possibility, and so please be aware that this review is a little coloured by that.

Oh, also, spoilers. Because obvs.

The first thing that struck me about the scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy is that they had a far clearer sense of theme and purpose than the Night of the Zealot campaign that comes with the base game. The problem with base games and introductory scenarios (and, thinking about it, of the first books in series and the pilots of TV shows) is that they have a lot of heavy lifting to do. There was basically no way that the introductory campaign of Arkham Horror: the Card Game wasn’t going to include every experience you could possibly want from a Cthulhu game, crammed into a three scenarios. So you start off in a haunted house full of ghouls (that is also weirdly your own house in a way that makes very little sense) and then you hunt down cultists in Arkham while fighting Hunting Horrors, and then you go into Spooky Woods where you face an Actual Great Old One while tangling with the servants of a randomly selected completely different Great Old One.

The scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy are more ambitious, and manage to be at once more diverse and more coherent. You are asked by Professor Armitage to look for one of his professors (last seen in his offices at Miskatonic University) and are also told that a different professor (last seen at a speakeasy called the Clover Club) might know where he is. Each of these leads will take you to a different scenario and, while you have to play both to progress the campaign, you can play them in either order, and which location you go to first makes a difference to the outcome of each.

Each scenario has a very different feel to it. The university-based scenario (Extra-Curricular Activities) sees you running around campus desperately trying to get access to locked rooms, while dealing with the consequences of the forbidden experiments that somebody has been carrying out in the Science Building. More interestingly to me as a fan of card games, the Mythos Deck for this scenario is constructed with what feels like an actual gameplan. Many of the events in the deck cause your character to discard cards from their deck, and one of the events hits your character with a condition meaning that they will take a massive amount of damage when they run out of cards. So it feels like the Mythos deck is really playing against you, rather than just spitting out random events. Extra-Curricular Activities also ends with a genuinely interesting decision which feels immersive, dramatic, and non-obvious (and which, contrary to my normal practice, I won’t spoiler).

There was some effort to include a Big Final Choice in the first scenario of Night of the Zealot as well, but that choice was “let a stranger burn down your house, or don’t”. Which was a bit less contextualised.

The second scenario (The House Always Wins) sees you infiltrating a dingy speakeasy, and most of the enemies you encounter are mobsters. But these mobsters don’t attack you until it becomes clear that you’re doing things you shouldn’t be doing. The scenario also breaks from the usual way of generating clues – instead of just picking them up from locations by taking a generic “investigate” action, you have to actually buy drinks in a shady bar (which gives you clues but also provides the ominous instruction “remember that you have had a drink”) or gamble in the card room.

The third scenario (sold separately) sends you to Miskatonic Museum, where you creep around amongst silent exhibits looking for a copy of the Necronomicon. The Mythos deck for this scenario contains exactly one monster, but that monster is pulled from the deck early, and every time you kill it, it comes back stronger. So for this scenario you have a much spookier feeling of exploring an empty building while being stalked by a single unbeatable enemy. The scenario also gives you an ally that you have to take with you, and who you are horribly penalised for getting killed. Which is actually quite hard to avoid.

The other comment I should make about the scenarios in The Dunwich Legacy as opposed to Night of the Zealot is that they’ve felt somewhat easier. This might just be due to the fact that I first played NotZ with a single core set, and the starting decks are massively weaker than custom decks. It might be due to the fact that we’re just better at the game. But my strong suspicion is that the scenarios are genuinely tuned to be a little bit less punishing, and where the base game scenarios seemed to derive their replayability primarily from being hard to complete (or to complete optimally), the scenarios in the expansion seem to rely instead on being open-ended. I wonder if they also aren’t a little easier simply because failing hard in the last scenario of a three-scenario mini-campaign is annoying, but failing hard in the sixth scenario of an eight-scenario epic is infuriating. Basically the expansion campaigns have more time and space to play around in, which means they can take things slower, and rely less on jump scares and brick walls and more on atmosphere and surprising choices.

So, yeah. The Dunwich Legacy. I enjoyed the first three scenarios enough that I’m almost certainly going to spend far more money than is sensible on this game. I’m looking forward to completing the campaign but, perhaps more importantly, I’m looking forward to playing it again once we’ve finished, only with more players or different characters.

Conclusion

I was listening to a review of Android: Netrunner (another LCG from FFG) recently, and the advice that review ended with was “go core or go mad”. That is to say, recognise that you’re either going to  buy only the core game, and have an okay time with what’s in the box, or that you’re going to buy absolutely everything that comes out.

Perhaps the best way to think about Arkham Horror: the Card Game (and about LCGs in general) is that unlike the other games I’ve reviewed on this blog, they aren’t really games in the sense of being a single stand-alone product that you buy and put on your gaming shelf to play when you feel like it. Rather they’re better understood as hobbies. Getting into a customisable card game means committing to investing time, energy, and (let’s not forget) about $240 a year in keeping up with something that is just going to grow and grow and run and run and get bigger and deeper and more complicated as you go. I suppose in a way, the Cthulhu mythos is quite an apposite theme for a game like that, because like a Lovecraft protagonist, an LCG player basically dedicates quite a large chunk of their time and resources to an obsessive chase that will inevitably lead them spiralling down a path with no clear idea of what darkness lies at the end of it.

I made some recommendations at the end of my initial review about the sort of people who might like this game, and they haven’t really changed but I think they bear repeating.

I absolutely would not recommend that you buy this game as a stand-alone experience. The base game is fine, but it’s not more than fine, and the $40 it will set you back would be better spent on other games. The only reason I would recommend that you buy the base game is as a taster to see if you want to buy into the full experience. If it turns out you don’t like it, no harm no foul and you’ve still got a perfectly playable two-player card game (it’s just not as good as other two-player card games you could get) but if you don’t sign up for the full experience, you’re not really playing the game as it is intended to be played.

To put it another way, in terms of investments to make in this game, you should ideally be looking to spend $0 or $200 – you either want to not bother with the game and spend your hard-earned cash on something else instead, or else commit to buying two copies of the base game and the full expansion cycle. If that feels like too much time, money, and effort to pour into one card game, then it’s best to steer clear of it entirely.

Personally, I’m probably in for the long haul. Damn you, Fantasy Flight Games, you got me again.

people & cardboard

One Response to Horror on the Cards (Revisited)

  1. Pam/Peejakers says:

    “Damn you, Fantasy Flight Games, you got me again.” Aww, but you’re having fun, so it’s all good, right? <3

    I really like your comparison of a Lovecraft protagonist to an LCG player 🙂 I now have a mental picture of you making your way down a steep, winding path between eldritch trees, toward …

    Eep! No! Come back! *tugs your coat tails* I think I just scared myself; be careful out there 😉

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