Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) is not tired of Cthulhu. Despite the ridiculous plethora of Lovecraft-themed board games crowding the game store shelves and Kickstarter pages, FFG has maintained its status as the Old Ones’ foremost evangelist. The company released two games set in the horror-noir universe last year.
And there are many more where they came from: globetrotting evil-smasher Eldritch Horrordice game parent signtwo editions of RPG-lite Mansions of madness (read our review of the latest edition here), and even a collector’s card game, Call of Cthulhuwhich was transformed into a living card game (LCG) in 2008. (In contrast to the “blind buy” model of collectible card games (CCGs), LCGs are expanded by regularly releasing fixed card packs.)
But much of Cthulhu’s enduring popularity goes back to the title that started most board players’ love affair with tentacled eldritch monsters: the huge, messy, undeniable classic. Arkham Horror.
And now FFG has gone and turned it into a card game.
If you’ve played FFG’s other cooperative LCG, Lord of the Rings: The Card Game-or even the company’s recent one Warhammer Quest card game – you are familiar with the basics of Arkham Horror: The Card Game. You’re fighting the game itself cooperatively – and, boy, the game doesn’t want you to win.
Unlike LotR LCG, where you generally build decks to beat one-off scenarios, the emphasis here is on continuous storytelling. if Arkham Horror was the fusion of board game and role playing, Arkham Horror: The Card Game want to inject some role play into your CCG habit. Scenarios link together to form campaigns, and decisions you make between sessions determine which dark paths you will take in the branching story. If you “lose” a scenario, you don’t replay it; you just get another ending and move on to the next (although your scars may remain).
Players take on the role of investigators, each with different stats and special abilities. Your deck represents your character; it’s packed with skills, weapons and items, and allies that you can deploy to fight by your side. You can of course adjust your deck for a session. But even cooler, you earn experience points as you play, and you can spend those points to buy new or upgraded cards to use in subsequent scenarios.
Arkham is powered by two small, scenario-specific card games: the agenda deck and the act deck. The game is essentially a race – you try to get through the act deck before the agenda deck progresses, as the latter generally produces all sorts of horrible effects. You progress through the act deck by collecting clue tokens at various locations in Arkham. The calendar deck continues during the “Mythos Phase” – basically the time in each round when the game tries to make you cry. Monsters spawn and chase you, random events hinder your progress, and the game just tries to ruin your day.
On your turn, you get three actions; you can use those actions to play cards, draw cards, get resources, or take a skill test. Location cards form the “board” of the game, and you move your character card around the city to find the clue tokens you need to progress.
Running skill checks – the hallmark of most RPGs and a mainstay of FFG’s Lovecraft titles – is the backbone of Arkhamthe game. Whether you’re shooting a Nightgaunt with a Tommy pistol or poking around the old hospital looking for clues, you’ll be running a lot of checks.
You can research your current location by taking an intelligence test against the location’s “shroud” value – essentially the number you need to hit in order to claim one of the location’s clue tokens. Let’s say you’re at Miskatonic University, which has a shroud value of 4. Take your relevant stat – let’s say your intelligence is 3 – and add any bonuses from cards you’ve played before.
You may activate your flashlight, lowering the veil of a location by 2. So now you’re trying to hit a 2, and you’re swinging in with a 3. But before you actually check, you can take cards from your hand to further boost your intelligence. Most cards have a symbol in the top left corner that represents a particular stat. You can discard the card to raise your check, but if you do, you lose the ability to play that card for any other skills it has. It is rarely an easy decision.
And then… you roll a die to see if you succeed. Well, sort of. Arkham Horror actually has no dice. Instead, before starting a campaign, you sow an eerily named “Chaos Bag” with a series of modifier tokens. The simplest just read “+1” or “0” or “-2”, while others are decorated with mysterious symbols that do different things depending on the scenario. An auto-fail token ensures that your confidence in success is never certain. When you’re ready to cash out a check, pick a token from the pocket and adjust your check accordingly.
This system is extremely smart. It allows the designers to assign different modifiers to different scenarios and assign different effects to the symbols; in future expansions, even new symbols can be added. And players have the freedom to adjust the game’s difficulty – from “not true” Arkham fan would touch it” Easy to “OK, now you’re screwing me” Expert level.