Set in the Lovecraftian world of Arkham, does this game instil a sense of fear? Does it make you quake in your boots? Will you end up running away with your pants on your head screaming wibble?
- Designer: Nate French and Mathew Newman
- Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
- Year Released: 2016
- Players: 1-2 (with one core set); 1-4 (with two or expansions)
- Playing Time: 1-2 hours
- Ages: 14+
- Recommended Retail Price: £36.99
Arkham Horror: The card game is a ‘Living Card Game’ (LCG) where players work together to solve mysteries; battling monstrosities and overcoming personal weaknesses, never quite sure where the story will take them or what’s lurking around the next corner. Each player chooses an investigator, builds a deck, and sets out to discover clues that will enable them to advance their objective. Meanwhile, the evil is spreading, they have their own agenda to keep and only you can stop them!
What’s in the box?
- 5 Investigator cards
- 5 Investigator mini cards
- 110 Scenario cards
- 119 Player cards
- 30 Resource tokens
- 44 Chaos tokens
- 18 Horror tokens
- 27 Damage tokens
- 30 Clue/Doom tokens
- 1 Campaign guide
- 1 Learn to play book
- 1 Rules reference book
Card stock is excellent quality and all the cards, with the exception of the investigator mini cards, are standard playing card size. The artwork is extremely atmospheric and representative of the H.P. Lovecraft world; added to this the card inscriptions are concise, and easy to read.
Tokens are all pretty standard, punch out, high-density grey board, and it’s clear what they represent; there’s more than enough included within for game play.
The Campaign guide is a small 8 page booklet called ‘Night of the Zealot’ and is broken down into 3 scenarios. There is a campaign log on the last page with permission to photocopy for personal use. This can also be downloaded from the Fantasy Flight web site.
The Learn to play book is a slightly larger 16 page booklet that will run you through the basics of gameplay. It includes suggested starter decks, game set up, key concepts and the round sequence. On the back cover is a quick résumé for once you’re up and running.
Rules reference: A 32 page booklet containing all the rules in a glossary form. There are appendices explaining initiation sequence, timing and gameplay, setting up the game, and card anatomy.
Once again the quality of the three booklets is extremely high – They are glossy, clear to read and contain some illustrations to highlight the examples.
It all comes in a small box that is beautifully illustrated by Ignacio Bazán Lazcano. There is a cardboard insert; you can keep tokens underneath the sides, and cards in the centre.
How does it play?
- If your familiar with the game play, feel free to sneak along to ‘What do I think?’
To start, each player selects one of the 5 investigators to play. Each is unique and has a value for willpower, intellect, combat, agility, health and sanity. They also each have 2 special skills, one is either an action, free action or reaction, the other occurs when the star is pulled out of the chaos bag. On the rear of each investigator card is some flavour text and their deck building requirements.
Once they have chosen their investigator, a deck of cards must be assemble with reference to the rear of the card. A deck size is 30 cards, assembled from the classes listed, plus the 3 required cards mentioned.
For example Wendy Adams can build a deck containing Survivor cards (lvl 0-5), Rogue cards (Lvl 0-2) and Neutral cards (lvl 0-5). She must also include Wendy’s amulet, Abandoned and Alone, and 1 basic weakness.
Each class of card; Survivor, Rogue, Guardian, Seeker, and Mystic, has its own style of play – for example: Seeker cards concentrate on investigation and gaining clues, whilst survivor cards are all about evasion and luck.
The 3 extra cards are usually – one that will aid, one ‘flavour’ weakness, and a random weakness, which should be added to the deck last.
It is advisable for first time players to use one of the starter decks listed in the learn to play booklet.
Next the ‘chaos bag’ is assembled depending upon the difficulty level selected. The campaign guide instructs you on which tokens are placed in the bag for each level. Tokens range from +1 down to -8 as well as various special tokens. Tokens are drawn when testing skills or fighting enemies, and the results are added to the skill under test and compared to a reference value. If a special token is drawn then a card included with the campaign is consulted for the effect.
Each investigator then takes 5 resource tokens, draws an opening hand of 5 cards and one investigator is chosen to be the lead investigator, and they will make the final decision if players can’t agree on something.
The scenario is then set up as per the campaign instructions. The introduction is read first, setting the scene and giving clues to what may be expected. Location cards may be set in play, unrevealed side up, and an encounter deck is formed. You will be directed as to where to place your investigator mini card for the start.
You will also set up the act deck – this indicates what you need to achieve to progress – and the agenda deck – which is representative of the dark forces working against you. Your aim is to progress the act deck to its conclusion, though you will often be given an option to resign rather than face the consequences of having the agenda deck reaches it’s end. Players are then ready to begin.
A single round is broken down into 4 phases –
- Mythos phase (This is skipped on the first round)
- Investigation phase
- Enemy phase
Beginning with the investigator phase as this is where you will start…
Choose an investigator to take a turn; they do not need to keep to the same order each round. They have the choice of doing three of the following actions and the same action may be repeated: Draw a card; Gain a resource; Play an asset or event card from their hand – these can range from weapons to allies or, in the case of events, gaining resources or healing (to play these cards costs an amount of resources, as indicated on the card); Activate a trigger ability – either one on their investigator’s card, or one on a card they have in play; Engage an enemy – putting it in their threat area; Evade an enemy currently engaged with; Fight an enemy at the current location – make a combat test against the enemy’s fight value; Investigate their current location – make an intellect test against the shroud value of the current location to discover clues; Move to a connecting location – the location all have symbols, matching symbols connect to each other.
The act may be advanced during an investigator’s turn and is generally done by spending the required amount of clues, though sometimes it can be advanced by carrying out an objective, as indicated on the act card.
The enemy Phase sees some enemies hunting the investigators down; others will attack dealing damage and/or horror to the engaged investigator.
The Upkeep phase sees investigators and enemies readying themselves for the next round. Each investigator gains a resource and draws a card, discarding down to 8 in hand.
The game round is now over and returns to the mythos phase. This is where all the bad things happen! A doom token is placed on the agenda forcing it to advance if there are enough on there. Then each investigator draws a card from the encounter deck and resolves it – this may involve taking a test, spawning an enemy or just doing something really bad to you.
Play continues until a resolution is reached. This may be favourable, if the investigators resolve all the acts, or not, if the agenda deck reaches its conclusion.
So, what do I think?
Okay, let’s start at the beginning, the contents of the box. Yes everything is of excellent quality, and so it should be for a premium game, but, they’ve missed something out… where’s the chaos bag! Place the tokens in a cup or bowl the rules say, for me, they should’ve included a bag.
The rules – Personally I found the rules taught the game quite well. The learn to play guide gives you the basics to get you going in the first scenario; going through game set up, round sequence and the basic operations. As you begin to play through a game you will have to refer to the reference guide quite regularly to start with, as the learn to play guide does really only give you the main mechanisms of the game. Again I had no problem with this; the reference booklet is an alphabetical order and whatever I needed was fairly easy to find. There were a few occasions when I ended up chasing a rule, i.e. you look one thing up, which leads you to look something else up and so on, though this didn’t occur very often.
I know that some people don’t like this way of presenting rules – Giving you sparse information in the form of a rulebook, and including all the ‘meat’ of the game in a rules reference book. It is something that Fantasy Flight Do with a lot of their games (at least all the ones I have!) and it really depends upon how you like to learn. I appreciate the fact that some people like rules that lead them through the first turn or so, explaining everything that could occur and presenting strategies for game play. If that is how you like things, then you may struggle with the rule-set for this game, having to look new things up as they present themselves; a common one is enemy abilities such as ‘Aloof’ or ‘Massive’.
Deckbuilding – well, with one core box there isn’t a great deal of deck building to achieve, and you probably won’t stray too far from the starting decks listed in the guide. However, the core box is ideal to give you a taster of the game and decide whether or not to invest further (more on this later). If you do, then a couple of expansions down the road and you’ll be able to start putting your own spin on your investigators. Going the whole hog and buying a second core box though? If you want to play 3 or 4 players straight off then you’ll need to (you can only create two decks at a time with one!), but otherwise you’ll end up paying for things you won’t use, like duplicate investigator cards and chaos tokens, but you will be able to make some pretty strong decks. You also gain experience from completing scenarios, this can be used to upgrade your cards from the initial 0 level, or purchase new ones (removing another card from your deck as you do, you have to maintain the deck size). This gives you a little bit more choice in how to tailor your deck.
Personally, you can get a lot out of this game without the need to focus on building strong decks; yes they can make the game easier (though you can adjust the difficulty anyway), and yes, building decks can be satisfying, but the strength of this game lies in its story telling, lets take a look…
Right from the start, when you select your investigator, a story starts emerging. Reading the flavour text on the back of the card and then putting the deck together builds up the image of the character you’re portraying, with their own strengths and weaknesses, especially the compulsory weakness. Using Wendy as an example: Wendy ended up in an orphanage after her mother was taken into an asylum. Wendy’s amulet, passed to her by her mother, can help protect Wendy; by playing the topmost event in her discard pile. But she also has the weakness ‘Abandoned and Alone’ – she ran away from the orphanage to take care of her self – when this appears she takes horror and removes all the cards in her discard pile.
Then when you set up the scenario you’re playing, the introduction will feed you just enough information to get you going on your quest. It may even have a few clues in there, and maybe even a little misdirection, but it certainly sets the scene. One note about set up – Once you start collecting the expansions you really need to get smart with your storage, otherwise set up can be a lengthy process. I keep all the encounter sets, along with everything else, separately bagged… it helps!
When you do go to set things up, try not to read the rear of the location, encounter, act or agenda cards before you have to. The best experience will be the one that’s full of surprises as you reveal cards for the first time.
I especially like the location cards, not only the way they link together through the use of symbols, but the fact they have an unrevealed and a revealed side. On the unrevealed side it will give you a little information, for example… The attic location in the first scenario says ‘The smell of meat assaults your nostrils as you approach the attic stairs’, and sure enough when you move there to reveal the location there is a suitable image and a text to back this up.
And so the story continues, immersing you in your quest so that every decision you make adds to the building tension, especially as the agenda gets close to progressing. I must make the point though, that of all the scenarios I’ve played, in the core set and expansions, I found the first scenario the most disappointing, probably because it is an introduction in to the game, but it starts to fall down when you replay the game. Whatever you do, if you try this game out, persevere onto the subsequent scenarios; they’re great!
I really like pulling those tokens from the ‘bag’. It’s a great idea from a design point of view, enabling adjustment of the difficulty for each game simply by adding/removing tokens to the bag. It also gives more results than simply rolling a die or two, for example; other than pulling out a number modifier you could pull out a star, which then activates an action on your investigator card, such as automatically succeeding in the test.
Talking of tests… each time you test a skill, you can play a skill card from your hand to assist you. Each skill card has icons in the top left-hand corner depicting which skill they can be used to increase, they also have some innate ability, like draw 1 card if test is successful (you can play cards other than skill cards to boost your test, as they all have symbols, but you will be losing out in other ways by doing so). If another investigator is at the same location, they may also play a skill card to assist you. Throughout the game you will need to work together to solve the case, either discussing who does what or helping with tests – most of the time it does help if you split up to achieve different goals, but you must also come together at critical times to overcome particular obstacles.
Night of the Zealot, the campaign included gives an excellent insight to what this game is all about. Each scenario can end with a different resolution, impacting upon what happens in later chapters. The decisions you make during the game can often come back to haunt you, and this becomes more prevalent in the expansions, you really do feel like you’re at the centre of a story pushing the plot along a path of your making. The urgency and tension rises twofold as the agenda deck gets close to its conclusion, especially if you are also close to completing the acts deck. Do you try and go for that last clue? Do you head to this location so you can resign and get out safely? Make the wrong decision and it can all go horribly wrong, finding yourselves carrying over trauma’s into the next scenario or having that beast you failed to kill turning up again just at the worst moment… Terribly horrific fun!
Can I play it… all on my own?
Oh, yes! This is a game that not only scales well for player count, but it literally begs you to keep playing when everyone else has gone home…
Using one investigator though, that’s something I wouldn’t advise for a beginner. You really need a well-tuned deck to get close to beating the game, even on an easy level. Playing with any two that you can create with the core set though, offers a good experience at standard difficulty, just the same as playing two players.
Personally, I like to play with three investigators (using cards gained from expansions). I tailor the three decks differently…One purely aimed at investigating locations and gaining clues, another as a tank – armed to the teeth with weapons and cards that give a combat bonus – the other as a jack-of-all-trades, good at evading and causing enemies to become exhausted, some boosts for combat and some for investigating. I then play on hard (I’ve yet to try Expert!), depending on what kind of challenge I want.
The only real difference in playing solo to playing with others is the lack of player interaction. If anything you may find the game slightly easier solo, you can plan things out better, being aware of what’s in each investigators hand.
I can highly recommend this game, especially to fans of the Lovecraft theme; it gives a great thematic experience as well as offering a good challenge and, with five investigators, several scenario resolutions and different ways to build the decks, it offers a reasonable level of replayability. It plays nicely in around an hour per scenario and has a good pace to it. There really isn’t any player down time, you’re always discussing what to do or helping each other out – the components are very good quality and atmospherically rendered. It can be played solo and, with all the expansions, it will be a game you keep coming back to.
But… This is a Living Card Game (LCG). They are great if you buy the core set as soon as it’s released. That way you can buy the expansions as they come along and the expense is spread out a bit. Buy it now, become engrossed in its story telling, and before you know it you just have to buy everything… right now. And yes the Gaming Ape grabs hold of you (Empties your wallet, shoves loads of games in your hands… and tells your wife what you’ve just done!).
Official site – Fantasy Flight Games
Recommended video review – Sit Down and Shut up!
Board Game Geek Page – Arkham Horror: The Card Game
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