Emotions Running High in Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Recent Impressions

Between a consistent crew showing up to my weekly game night and a couple other events around town, I’ve had the good fortune of playing a bunch of games over recent months. I’ve played some new-to-me games (Clank!, 7 Wonders Duel, and Carcassonne) along with a bunch of favorites (Castles of BurgundyFive TribesBlood Rage), but the only game I’ve actively sought out opportunities to play is Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is designed by Nate French and Matthew Newman, and published by Fantasy Flight Games. For the purpose of this review, lets just call it AH:TCG.

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Alek, Olie, Dylan and I are playing through the Dunwich Legacy campaign, and man, it is really fun. Here are just a few events from our most recent play through (no plot spoilers):

  • Olie, trying to help fend off a monster, accidentally shot Alek in the face with a flare gun nearly killing him!
  • My own life was nearly ended by my weakness card, a rhapsody played to the dead, when I pulled the worst possible combination of tokens from the chaos bag (more on that later).
  • In a final battle, Alek was able to boost Dylan’s combat skill, allowing Dylan, with a little luck and an extra action on his side, to blast the monster four times in a row with duel wielded pistols.
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Jenny Barnes, certified badass. Also, look at that haunting, evocative art!

The low moments sunk us down into our chairs feeling defeated by our rotten luck. The high moments saw us popping off with high fives. So far AH:TCG has been one hell of a ride.


First Impressions

I picked up AH:TCG on a whim, which isn’t something I normally do or recommend. However, I made an exception after hearing Quinns, of Shut Up and Sit Down fame, nod to it as his game of the year, and after listening to Raf, from Ding and Dent (another top shelf gaming podcast), rave about the game around the same time.

I was underwhelmed by what I got in the base box – a handful of cards to sort, a few sheets of chits to punch out, and only one of each class player card. (This one player card thing really sucks because you’ll need two base games if you want a complete collection. I only have one and have been fine with that so far, but it does limit your deck construction options.)

After reading the rules and watching a run-through online, I wasn’t feeling much better about the purchase. The game follows a sequence familiar in many co-op games. The players take their turn, then the game gets a chance to hit back. Initially, all of this struck me as just your standard co-op fair.

Nonetheless, I went about setting up the game to run through solo as a way to teach myself how to play. (I’m not much of a solo game player, but a solo mode is still a nice perk as a learning tool.) I built the recommended Roland Banks deck and searched the stacks of sorted cards to build the encounter deck, the agenda deck, the act deck, set out appropriate location cards, and set aside other cards as indicated. I’m not going to lie here, the set up in this game is a pain in the ass. So far, not so good.

Finally, still not sold on this game, I begin to play, but my experience is about to change when I reach my hand into the chaos bag for the first time.

I have to tell you about the “chaos bag”. In AH:TCG, similar to other Lovecraft properties by Fantasy Flight Games (Mansions of Madness, Eldritch/Arkham Horror), you play as an investigator who has a base skill in several attributes. Here it is strength, intelligence, agility, and willpower. When you take an action that requires you to do a skill check to see if it is successful, rather than the traditional method of rolling a handful of dice to check success a la Dungeons and Dragons, AH:TCG has players pull a token out of what it calls the “chaos bag.” This is a literal bag –or cup as a desperate measure– (bag not included btw) filled with circular tokens that will modify the skill test. Most are simply numeric values, which can range from +1 to -8. Others are symbols whose effect will change from scenario to scenario. One is an auto fail, and one is an auto succeed.

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We play on easy and it is still damn hard.

Let’s say, for example, you want to punch a monster. You have a strength of 4 and the monster has a strength of 3. In order to be successful in your attempt to deal damage, you will need to pull a token from the bag that is no worse than a modifier of -1. If you don’t like those odds, there are tons of interesting ways you can utilize cards to boost your stat and improve your chances before you draw.

Okay. Let me set the scene. I’m sitting alone in my apartment in front of my coffee table, teaching myself a new, fairly complex card game. It’s after work and I’m a little exhausted and still unsure of my impulse purchase. I’ve just drawn my first encounter with a monster and decide I should try to fight it off, so I reach into the bag needing to draw modifier of -1 or better.

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Fate in the palm of your hand.

This may sound silly, but in that first moment of fishing around the bag for a token, I was shocked to feel a real emotion bursting forth. The moment before I didn’t care about the result, it was a teaching game after all. But now, with a hidden token in my hand, I really wanted to succeed! I found myself subconsciously thinking please, please, please be good! It was akin to the feeling I get watching the Kansas City Chiefs hike the ball on third and goal, or the Kansas Jayhawks put up a shot in the waning minutes of a tight basketball game. It was the same silent prayer of please, please, please, please work out. I snapped the token out of the bag, and, even before I saw the outcome, I knew I was playing a great game.

Maybe in the abstract this chaos bag mechanic is no different than rolling dice or a random number generator. Don’t get me wrong, there are a ways to mitigate your draw here that wouldn’t work with dice, but, at the end of the day, it is just another way to randomly determine the outcome. Even so, by forcing you to reach in and choose your fate with your own hands, it just feels somehow less abstracted than quickly chucking a handful of dice. In that moment, it gives you the feeling of agency even if you know you don’t – the same way we all have our traditions for our favorite sports teams, and say things like “If I don’t sit in this spot, we’ll lose.”

And so far, everyone I’ve played fishes around the bag, taking a moment to deciding on which token to grab or even tossing one back at the last moment in favor of another.

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My chaos bag solution. Plus, you may need a strong drink.

Let’s talk LCGs

(You can’t really review Arkham Horror: The Card Game without talking about the fact that it it’s an LCG. If you already know about LCG’s feel free to skip this section. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then this section is for you.)

AH:TCG is a living card game (LCG), which means that the game is supported by regularly scheduled expansion packs adding new cards for your investigator decks and scenarios to play through. There are small expansions with one scenario and a few investigator cards, which will cost you approximately $15, and larger expansions for $30, with more cards and multiple scenarios.

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My budget storage solution, fancy schmancy.

The LCG model is a reaction to the collectable card game (CCG) model popularized by the tabletop juggernaut Magic: the Gathering. In CCGs players have to buy randomly seeded boosters with the hopes of opening the few chase rares or pay premium prices on the secondary market. For my money, the LCG is clearly a superior model for the consumer. You get what you pay for, and only pay for what you want.

That said, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the LCG is a cheap alternative. It’s certainly cheaper than the cost to getting into competitive Magic: the Gathering and shelling out $200-800 for a viable deck. Still, LCGs are much more expensive than your average board game should you decide to expand your game at all. And if you do pick this game up, you should probably plan to expand it. The base box, which includes a campaign of three scenarios and five investigators, will give you a decent amount of play but hardly any deck customization options, which is half the fun. In that case, I’d be much happier just investing in a one time purchase of Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition.


Major Takeaways

I know I really like a game when I get this far into an article, and realize I still have so much more I want to say! Unfortunately, I just can’t squeeze everything into a written review and expect anyone to read it. So I won’t even delve into deck construction and how you gain experience for further deck customization throughout a campaign (awesome and awesome). I’ll also spare you from discussing how in love I am with my current Jim Culver deck, which I’ve optimized to fill a support role of tanking hits and gathering clues, while my fellow investigators deal the damage.

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Another example of the beautiful art.

Instead, I’ll leave you with my three biggest takeaways from AH:TCG so far.

Number One – Scenarios
I’m incredibly impressed by how different each scenarios is. Not only do they attack you in different ways, but the objectives to accomplish completely alter how you need to play the game. One players deck may really shine in one scenario and have limited effectiveness in the next. So far I’ve played six scenarios in total, the three scenarios in the starter set and the first three scenarios of the Dunwich Legacy campaign, and no two are anything alike. I’m optimistic that by virtue of the incredible core game Fantasy Flight has put together here, that this will remain true moving forward. There is just so much space for designers to play.

I haven’t talked about the story itself because #NoSpoilers, but I’ve pleasantly enjoyed it. You don’t get much more than a couple paragraphs before and after each game, but the writing is good. The descriptions on the cards do a great job of building out the place, and the plot does enough to present some great cinematic moments.

Number Two – Where have you been all my life?
As someone who’s come to board games from Magic: the Gathering, I wish this had been around to teach all the people I tried to get into Magic, but it never clicked with. Once you’re into a game’s competitive scene and have spent tons of time improving your play to a high level, it makes teaching the game to new players a losing proposition. Considering it takes brand new Magic players years of playing before they’re on equal footing with veteran players, it’s no wonder that the people I pressured into learning never seemed to enjoy playing with me that much.

But now we have AH:TCG, a game every bit as fun and challenging as Magic. A game where you can enjoy brewing and tweaking decks, with the bonus of testing them with a solo game. It is also a game that I think is essentially on par with Magic in terms of complexity to learn. Both games have a fairly simple core, obfuscated by lots of keywords to memorize. However, both games also have enough intricate timing interactions to guarantee that a players’ time and effort put in to learning the minutia of the rules will absolutely be rewarded in their play.

The big difference, obviously, is that now you are playing on a team with the buddy you just taught. Any skill gap between the two of you matters so much less in this case, and I’ve found that just makes all the difference in the world in reducing the barrier of entry to new players.

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Dylan and Alek throwing down.

Number Three – Ameritrash for Eurogamers
I often hear people say that Blood Rage is the Eurogame that you can get your Ameritrash friends to play. Well, in my opinion, AH:TCG is the Ameritrash game that Eurogamers will enjoy. Yes, the game is fundamentally built around a random chance mechanic in the chaos bag, but this is not a Mansions of Madness style dice chucking fest. (No offense! I love that game too.)

In AH:TCG the gameplay is all about resource management, and there are a lot of resources you are asked to manage here. You have your hand of multi-use player cards to manage, which present the very interesting decision of when you should spend resources to play the card for its ability, and when you should commit the card to a skill test — boosting the stat of yourself or a teammate, but discarding the card and foregoing its other ability. That’s enough to think about on its own, but there is also life (can I take a damage here?!)  resources/money (which of these do I play!), bullets (pew pew), and, perhaps most importantly of all, the precious resource of time. The game’s agenda deck is moving forward each turn, which really ramps up the pressure and intensity of each decision.


The Verdict

I’ve mostly been gushing about the game, so before giving my final rating, here are two things that I imagine some players will find problematic.

First, I’ve found in my plays that sometimes the narrative can get lost in the midst of so many brain burning decisions. The onus is definitely on the player here to marry mechanics with the theme. It does all make sense, but you have to take a second and think about it. For example, I’ll have to stop and remind myself that it makes sense that it would take extra time to search for clues in a massive library rather than the game spelling it out for me. This doesn’t bother me much because the reason this game I’m playing is the game play, but I imagine it would bother people that want a fuller narrative experience in their games. If that is you, then there are definitely better games out there for that.

The second is the randomness. I’ve talked a lot about the how cool the chaos bag is, and it is really cool. I haven’t even mentioned how it allows for endlessly customizable difficulty settings by curating the tokens however you want. But, no matter how you slice it, this is a mechanic that injects a lot of chance into the game. If you are someone who prefers games with no luck at all, then it is certainly possible that you won’t like it here. It can be hard to stomach pulling the one auto-fail token after sinking your entire hand into a crucial skill test. There have been times where I’ve felt extremely frustrated after playing for an hour just to lose to terrible luck at the very end. For me, these moments are the price you have to pay for the incredible elation of pulling the elder sign token in the clutch, or the satisfaction of making a brutal choice to sacrifice a great card to your buddy’s skill test and it pays off. At the end of the day, I love it for the emotion it injects into the game, but not everyone will feel the same.

Without further adieu, here is the scale I’ve decided on for rating games.

1: Won’t play – This game has nothing of value.
2: Begrudgingly Play – It’s not for me, but there are at least some good things about it.
3: Gladly Play – This isn’t a game that I need to own, but I like it overall.
4: Actively Play –  I want to own this game, and will seek out opportunities to play.
5: Need to Play – If I’m not playing this game, I’m probably thinking about playing it.
6: Will Die if I Don’t Play – The perfect game. I may never give out this score.

All things considered based on this scale, I’m giving Arkham Horror: The Card Game five stars.

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It’s a high recommendation from me, and I especially recommend jumping in if you are a Magic player looking for a way to get some friends into gaming with you, or you want your heavy euro game group to expand their horizons into something a bit more emotional and thematic.

This is easily my most played game of 2017 so far, and my excitement to get this back to the table is only growing as more cards come out to deck build with, and we get deeper into the first large campaign. I’m absolutely loving this game so far, and having a ton of fun with my first LCG experience.

Thanks for reading.


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All the best,

Jake Frydman

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