5 Chits, 4 Giggles
Cthulhu has been, forgive the pun, done to death. It feels like every couple of weeks we're hearing about the latest take on a Cthulhu game, whether it's a cute little party game, a remake of a classic or even a peculiar word based game. Based on our latest 'Board Game Knock Out' video, it seems it's not just us lot who are tiring of the Lovecraft mythos. So when another game was announced last year by Fantasy Flight Games, and it was to be the newest entry in their Living Card Game (LCG) genre based on the original Arkham Horror game, we were a little perturbed to say the least.
However, let's not forget that Arkham Horror was one of the original Lovecraftian board games to ever exist, so if anybody deserved the right to give the theme another shot, it was these guys. Enter Arkham Horror: The Card Game, a cooperative scenario and campaign based series of adventures, featuring elements of deck building and action selection. Is it any good though? Or to put it other terms; did we go mad for it? Read on to find our spoiler (and pun) free opinion.
In the base set of AH:TCG, which comes with five different characters and three subsequent scenarios to guide them through, you play as residents of Arkham, a by the by American town in the 50's or 60's with a northeast feel. You are confronted with a bizarre but innocent enough situation at first, but as you progress and delve deeper, you realise that there is way more going on than you first suspected. The three scenarios form a continuing storyline, so whatever the result, once you finish the first you will be able to continue onwards, with decisions and results directly impacting the gameplay moving forward. It's not legacy, but it feels more legacy inspired than other LCG's such as Netrunner and Lord of the Rings.
Enough cards are provided in the base set to build decks for two players, but adding another copy will let you play each campaign with up to four investigators. The game is certainly better as a shared experience due to the myriad of choices you'll face in each situation, but even as a solo gamer it doesn't leave you high and dry as the game has been carefully balanced in such a way that makes each player count a challenge. This goes a lot deeper than you think too, with some enemies having different health values depending on the number of players, and certain set up elements and cards working differently with less or more people playing beside you. It's extremely clear that a lot of work has been done to present a balanced experience, and it's hard to imagine anybody but a huge publisher like Fantasy Flight accomplishing a complex system like this with such ease.
The story in each scenario is told through 'Agenda' and 'Act' cards, with the former dictating the bad stuff and the latter stating your current objective which, when achieved, allows you to progress to the next act and ultimately the conclusion of the story. Similar to the board game on which this is based, doom represents the threat level, and the more you get, the closer you are to advancing the current Agenda which eventually triggers the end of the game as well as other nasty surprises along the way. Clues make a return too, and must be gained through investigation actions in order to complete objectives. It's simplistic but it suffices, and the gameplay is where the real storytelling occurs.
Each round takes place over four phases, in a basic good/bad/good/bad format. The first adds doom to the current agenda and triggers something bad if the current limit is reached, the second is the player action phase, the third is where the enemies fight back and the final is to reset cards and gain some helpful stuff including cards and resources. Each player gets to do things like drawing and playing cards, moving to new locations, gaining resources or using abilities, as well as the fighting and evading that make up a huge portion of the game. This is mostly done in the form of a skill check, which for those who don't know is the comparing of two values to see whether the check succeeds or fails. Each character has a value in four different areas; willpower, intellect, combat and agility, but these can be added to before each check by discarding cards with the relevant symbols on them. Some cards are purely used for skill check purposes, but sometimes discarding a weapon will help you or a player at the same location as you out in a fight. And often this is a very good idea.
You see, many results come down to drawing a random token from the chaos bag*, a pool of pre-selected chits with numeric or symbolic values printed on them. When attacking a foe, you'll tot up your combat skill as well as any modifiers from weapons or discarded cards, and compare it to the foe's combat, but adding, or should I say subtracting, the value from the chaos bag. Should you be fortunate enough to get a 0 or greater result, you'll succeed. Any negative total will result in failure, and often a wasted turn or worse. As a result, a lot of tension is created in this game when reaching into this bag, but it is also responsible for some absolute crap too. That's how luck operates in a game like this; one minute you're on top of the world when your life is saved by a really unlikely boost, the next you've wasted a whole turn because of three bad tokens in a row. C'est la vie.
While this is a deck builder by its nature, this element thankfully isn't as mind boggling as Netrunner, and you can get into it much more quickly as a result. This is because the deck size is smaller, and doesn't rely on as many complex requirements or things to consider when building it. Everybody starts with a fairly basic deck filled with half neutral cards (the game does offer a suggested starter deck but there are plenty of online resources where you can find deck builds to help you if you're lazy and just want to get playing) which is then finished up with cards specific to their characters deck building requirements. The ex-con character for example can use lower level Guardian cards (the equivalent of law enforcement, so very police/weapon heavy) but higher level Rogue cards (think sneak attacks and changing the odds style gameplay). At the end of each scenario, investigators will gain a small number of experience points, variable depending on how well they did, which can be spent on replacing a very few existing cards with their upgraded equivalent or one or two brand new cards of the right type for their character. These new cards can make a huge difference though, for in my second scenario I was saved thanks to using an upgraded card right at the end of the game.
Speaking of which, the cards are a major component and there are a few different types. I won't list them all but there are ally cards that you can equip to give you added protection or passive abilities, as well as arcane items, weapons and events that you can trigger to give you boosts during the game. However, one fascinating thing they've done is rig each characters deck with one special item as well as one character weakness. The item is exclusive to your character and gives you a unique bonus during the game, but the weakness is a cheeky bugger, which when drawn must be immediately activated, usually by removing some of your benefits or having to discard things you really wouldn't choose to. It turns what should be a good thing, the drawing of cards, into a game of push your luck. As the deck starts emptying, you'll begin to dread drawing cards, which is fantastically thematic yet definitely cheeky and certainly a bugger.
However, while the game is thoroughly balanced and incredibly solid structurally, it's not all sunshine and rainbows in Cthulhu's world. This is much like other Living Card Games, in that it isn't cheap. It is difficult to get hold of expansions too for the time being due to the games popularity (which is fair enough for smaller publishers but not so much for FF) As a result, I haven't yet worked out whether this being story based means that either of the following two situations will occur; either you will have to purchase all the major expansions of the game in order to follow the story fully, which will set you back a little arm and a tiny leg which is certainly frustrating if you only buy one game a month as many do, or the alternative scenario is that the way expansions will work is that they will be individual, self contained stories, which won't really impact you if you miss out on one, but won't be as enticing to buy more. Or a mix of both, which sounds like a nightmare for completionists.
The game mechanics are solid, and having played a number of times, it's safe to say that the game often does come down to that last exciting 'all or nothing' moment which games rarely capture in a satisfying way, but the risk of this moment is that if the metaphorical coin doesn't land the right side it is an awful come down, though it's hard to blame a good game for making you so invested that you feel bad if you lose. You could always start again (because hey, who's watching?) or plough on with only some minor repercussions into your second game. Either way, it never feels so disheartening really.
So that's it. Yes, it is entertaining. Yes, it is a good workout for the strategic part of your brain. No, it isn't cheap to play through the entire campaign. No, it isn't fun to lose because lady luck says so. But ultimately, so I recommend it? The answer is a resounding yes.
Review by Russell Chapman
*Weirdly there is no bag provided with the game, but we grabbed our own from another game.