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Arkham Horror Review – The Ghouls of Greatness

There are a lot of Cthulhu games on the market – Eldritch Horror, Cthulhu Wars, Arkham Noir, Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dice…the list goes on and on. Over the past 30 years there has been an explosion of games based in the HP Lovecraft world, ranging from board games to RPGS to dice games and beyond.

Although officially four years too late with this review, one of the games that has had the most longevity through the Cthulhu crazy, is that of Arkham Horror. This is where it can get a bit confusing.

Arkham Horror can refer to three different games…kind of. Firstly, there is the board game. Released in 1987, the board game was originally designed by Richard Launius to be considered part of the Call of Cthulhu mythology. In 2005, Richard Launius and Kevin Wilson re-released a second version of Arkham Horror. A third edition was released in November 2018 as the game that can currently be purchased from Fantasy Flight. It is a cooperative board game, and from what I hear, it is relatively

Then, in 2016, Arkham Horror: The Card Game was released. Designed by  Nate French and Matthew Newman, the card game was incredibly well received and currently sits as the 21st highest rated game of all time on BGG. What is more, it is the #1 customisable card game, and 8th highest rated thematic game. I’ll just let those stats sink in. They’re pretty impressive.

So, you can imagine the joy I felt when, when watching the Shut Up and Sit Down Marvel Champions review and mourning not having a good solo deck based game in my collection, I looked to my left and literally saw the box sitting there. It was more or less untouched since the UK Games Expo 2017. Genuinely – more than two freaking years ago I bought the 21st highest rated game of all time and had barely played it

With that in mind, and realising what a fool I am, I immediately tore it open once more and have spent the past week playing it nonstop. I’ve now played multiple characters, at multiple player counts, with multiple scenarios. This review has been a very long time coming.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game - Roland Banks
The Investigator Roland Banks, and my current player deck.

Now, before we continue, I feel the need to say this. Arkham Horror is not a legacy game; however, it is story driven. Throughout this article I will be using pictures from my play through of the first scenario in The Night of Zealot campaign – The Gathering. I’ve awkwardly cropped the images to cut out any specific details; however, you may see ever so slight hints throughout. Although these don’t give a huge amount away, I wanted to warn you just in case you want to keep it all super secret.

What is Arkham Horror?

Arkham Horror is a deck based, role playing, hand management, cooperative, story based motherlode of a game for 1-2 players with one core set, and 1-4 players with two. Designed by Nate French and Matthew Newman, Arkham Horror sees players take the place of investigators in the HP Lovecraft universe. With campaigns and various story elements, Arkham Horror evolves and changes as the players play the game, based on the choices they make.

Gameplay starts with players building their decks out of a set number of cards, depending on the character. Each investigator has their own unique abilities, and every single deck ends up differently by the end of play.

The game is story driven, and comes to life with the story telling aspect. That story telling aspect is simply excellent, and is one of the highlights in the core box, as you play through The Night of the Zealot campaign.

Arkham Horror is an LCG, or Living Card Game, meaning that additional content packs are released every few weeks. This can be quite expensive (said he having sunk a lot of money into A Game of Thrones: The Card Game back in the day, which is another LCG by Fantasy Flight Games), but it also means there is always stuff to play. Take that how you will. At time of writing I don’t own any expansions, as I wanted to review the base without muddling it up, but I will be buying a couple of expansions and seeing how it goes from there.

Unlike usual, where we explore the rules of a game in some depth, I will not be doing that with Arkham Horror: The Card Game. This is because the base rules are so variable depending on your character build that it could take hours to type out the minutia. Instead, here is a very brief summary.

The Investigators you can play as in the base game

You start the game with five cards in your hand out of a 33 card (ish) deck. There is an Agenda and an Act card visible at any one time, telling you what your objective for that mission is. The round progresses as –

  • Mythos Phase (ignored during round one) – in which stuff can go wrong, doom advances, and things come out of the woodwork to try to kill you.
  • Investigation Phase – in which you can do a series of actions as the Investigator such as attack, investigate, move, and a whole host of other things.
  • Enemy Phase – in which enemies can do a series of actions including making your life difficult.
  • Upkeep Phase – in which the board is upkeeped (Upkeepen? Upkeepified?), and you get to draw cards and get resources.

If you complete the scenario objectives you win. If you don’t complete the scenario objectives, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and sometimes it’s a win but not quite as good a win as it could be. This will affect the next scenario, and the next. You can gain experience which manifests as new cards for your deck, and everyone has a good time.

That’s a VERY quick overview of the concept of the game. I’ll post the official FFG video showing their full explanation below if you would like to watch that.

What’s it like playing Arkham Horror: The Card Game?

I have found that, in my old age (at the ripe age of 28) I have started growing cynical of certain types of games. LCGs and CCGs (Collectable Card Games) are amongst those types, with a recent love of Keyforge having developed off the back of not really wanting to buy more and more and more each time I want to play, just to keep up. It is one of the reasons that Arkham Horror has sat on our shelves for so long. My partner is not really a fan of deck based games, and I am not really a fan of having to buy loads of expansions. It balanced out.

That being said – wow – I need to be less cynical. Arkham Horror is amazing.

Okay, so let’s break this down into the core elements of the game, as there is quite a lot to digest with Arkham Horror to fully understand what it is that makes these cards so great.

Roland using the Magnifying Glass and Flashlight

Looking at the Characters and Decks

When you start off the game, when you first choose your investigator, there are five different types to choose from. Those five types each have their own personalities, and they have a card or two that make them physically unique within their deck. Each character then has their own selection of unique cards – a bit like how each house has unique cards in A Game of Thrones or Keyforge.

The selection, out of the box, is really good – and there are five super interesting and unique characters to play from. These include Roland Banks (the Fed and my current character at time of writing), Daisy Walker (the Librarian), Wendy Adams (the Urchin), Agnes Baker (the Waitress), and “Skids” O’Toole (the Ex-Con). To take an example, Roland (who is blue, or a Guardian Class) has a series of police related cards to choose from, including Police Dog and .45 Automatic. Daisy Walker (Seeker Class) gets the Magnifying Glass and Old Book of Lore amongst her cards.

The five characters all suit one type. As already mentioned, Roland Banks is a Guardian and Daisy Walker is a Seeker. Agnes Baker is a Mystic Class, “Skids” O’Toole is a Rogue, and Wendy Adams is a Survivor. These all play differently, and they also get to make use of lower level cards from one other set. Roland Banks, for instance, can use levels 0-3 of Daisy Walker’s cards. This allows for some beautiful synergy between decks.

To make them even more unique, each character gets special abilities, and they have different statistics for skill checks. Essentially, every play is different.

Now, the characters are amazing, and the customisation is also brilliant. You set your deck at the start of the campaign (I used a recommended configuration); however, you quickly adapt and amend you deck at the end of each scenario. As you gain more experience you can spend that experience to have the option to add or change cards and, what this means, is that you may start with a generic deck, but by the end of one scenario into the game, you have a deck that is already starting to adapt to what you want it to be.

What this does is give a feeling that the characters are growing, and you are in control of their futures. It’s really, really cool – and something that was kind of missing from A Game of Thrones. It adds a real narrative arc, and that is before the actual story.

Chaos Tokens play a really big part in the game, modifying the scenarios and their difficulty.

The Plot and Story

There is absolutely no doubt that one of the biggest draws around Arkham Horror revolves around the mythos. The HP Lovecraft myth and legend plays a huge part in the game, with allusions to all kinds of Lovecraftian horror throughout the Mythos and Monster cards. What is more, and this is where the campaign play really shines, there is a complex and overarching story to tie all the scenarios together. It is simply superb and deserves to be explored in more detail.

Every single scenario in Arkham Horror uses Agenda and Act cards to help drive the plot. Act cards are for the players – usually they are about overcoming challenges by unlocking clues. The Agenda cards progress when a set amount of Doom has been reached, and they determine the bad things that happen in the scenario.

Both the Agenda and Act cards, along with physical locations that you have to move between, help structure the narrative with really interesting objectives or events. They are fantastic in and of their own right, working perfectly to help convey the scenario. Additional flavour text on locations, monsters, and the likes just add additional descriptions to help flesh out the world.

And then there are the choices and the multiple outcomes. Throughout the game you have to make various choices, right from the very first scenario, that affect the set up of the games to come. This overarching story means that, once again, you can forge your own path, and it is seriously beyond awesome.

Arkham Horror, in one £30 box set, has provided a level of immersion that rivals any legacy or campaign game I have ever played. It is, without a doubt, more immersive than other comparable games (and by comparable I mean “fall into those two categories of legacy or campaign”) such as TIME Stories, Seafall, or Imperial Assault.

The story is just simply incredible.

I think the story is the reason why I’m going to continue playing the game, keep playing different characters, and look forward to the expansions.

Investigating….

The Gameplay

One thing I am growing both increasingly aware of and increasingly thankful for (in board and video games) is the difficulty level that games now present. Arkham Horror is no exception, and over the past ten days or so I have really overly enjoyed getting through scenarios by the skin of my teeth.

Arkham Horror is not an easy game. It is possible to lose and lose horribly, and part of that does come down to luck. If the wrong events happen to you at the wrong time, or if you draw a hand of shoddy cards, then it can be devastating to the game; however, Arkham Horror is also a game where you can start with a rubbish deck and grow it to something really good. It is a game where you can mitigate your own deck.

To give an example, hand refreshing can be really slow in Arkham as you only refresh one card per turn. In my current deck I have built it around the concept of drawing more cards. Out of every two cards I play, I want one to give me more.

Now, there is one thing worth noting. In most LCGs, CCGs, Deck Building, and Unique Deck games, it is usually possible to find synergy between cards. Realistically, in Arkham Horror, at least in the base set, that isn’t hugely a thing. There are certain cards that can help others, but there are few moments of incredible resource, where you can play card after card after card.

This is what one of the bad guys looks like…

Due to the board presence though, due to the fact that there is a location laid out on the table (in card form), that isn’t hugely noticeable as you are always focusing on more than one thing at any one time. Cards can also be used in more than one way as well, helping with the chain effect. That said, as you level up with more experience this means two things. Firstly, it does feel like your character gains synergy and becomes more experienced to play. It’s a nice feeling; however, with sometimes very little deck churn in the game it can be a feeling that comes decidedly infrequently. Luckily you can pick up additional cards on your turn, although due to the threat that is ever present, this can sometimes feel like a luxury you can’t afford. Secondly, once you’ve built a deck that synergises, it can be a little bit like looking at a completed puzzle and saying “now what?”.

I guess this is where the expansions come in, as well as the other characters.

When looking at Arkham Horror however, there is an immediate question that comes to pass, and that is “how many times can you play the game?”

Well, there are three scenarios in the campaign, and some of those do have choices. Others have various different ways to complete each mission, and obviously you can fail some. If you don’t mind a similar story, and you do one campaign mission per time, you can play the game 15x before it runs out of juice by playing every single character. That being said, if you are like me, then you’ll probably want to try out a couple of characters/investigators before continuing. At time of writing, I kind of want to try the campaign again with Agnes Baker because I am yet to really see that deck in play, but then I want to move on.

All in all, Arkham Horror has been, and will continue to be, incredibly enjoyable. I’ve just ordered the first expansion, The Dunwich Legacy, so we shall see how that plays out in due course.

More tokens…those who play Eldritch Horror or Elder Sign may recognise some of these…

TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Great Old Ones

Like with all games, we can now break Arkham Horror: TCG down into good, bad, and neutral points.

The Good

  • The characterisation and story telling elements to Arkham Horror: The Card Game are superbly done. The campaign is thrilling and engaging, giving other campaign based games (like TIME Stories as an example) a run for their money. This is one of the best story driven campaigns I have personally played in a board game.
  • The characters feel like they grow as you play them. It is not as simple as super optimising a deck, but rather it is a deck that grows with you as a player. You will find yourself switching cards in and out between games to complement your own play style, as well as unlocking more options for cards as you play.
  • Arkham Horror is a superb solo experience, and it plays in much the same way with two players. Although we haven’t played it with three or four players, having read the Campaign Book, bar a few tweaks, it doesn’t hugely change the game.
  • Aesthetically, Arkham Horror ticks all the boxes. It fits in with the rest of the FFG Arkham Universe. The artwork feels classic and recognisable whilst also being engaging.
  • Play is fast and engaging. It is difficult, but the difficulty level can be scalable.
  • This is definitely one of the best deck based games on the market.

The Neutral

  • Arkham Horror is an LCG, meaning that (if you want to keep playing and wanting new content) you have to shell out for additional expansions. You don’t have to buy additional expansions, but it is recommended to keep the game fresh. All scenarios can be played as one off scenarios as well, so that does add some replayability.
  • There can be a fair bit of randomness in the game. This can be mitigated against, but it is worth recognising that players who hate randomness may not enjoy Arkham Horror: TCG as much.

The Bad

  • There is limited playability. I’ve enjoyed trying a couple of different characters out, but, due to secrets you uncover it is never the same the second time around. If you don’t mind this that’s cool.
Roland with a Shotgun…

Arkham Horror: The Card Game Review – The Conclusion

All in all, I have really enjoyed playing Arkham Horror and am happy to give the game a bit of a longer go to continue the campaign. It is innovative and interesting. It contains some seriously cool ideas and has been incredibly enjoyable to play the first game. It is an excellent game that is worth playing.

I would highly recommend Arkham Horror. As we come into February, it stands out as one of the best games I’ve played this year so far. Genuinely, I’m still gutted it sat on my shelf for so long without me playing it properly. Really, really cool.

Wow, this has been a long review. So, what do you think? Are you fans of the Arkham Horror universe? Do you like the other HP Lovecraft themed games? Have you played and do you enjoy Arkham Horror? Let me know in the comments below.

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