Arkham Horror – living card game (core set)

What terrors are unleashed when Fantasy Flight Games introduce Lovecraft’s classic horror mythos to their phenomenally popular living card game formula and add in a heavy dose of roleplaying and campaign play?

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Authors/Artists: Nate French & Matthew Newman
Genre: Horror/Action
Type of game: Living Card Game

Concepts: Arkham Horror is a co-operative action/adventure game for one to five players which follows Fantasy Flight’s living card game model. This review discusses the core set alone, but I’ll talk a little about this model later. For now, it’s enough to mention that the game is very similar to the classic Arkham Horror board game, only with greater flexibility and includes session-to-session progression by means of campaign play.

Writing: It is the roaring 1920s. Against the backdrop of the great depression and the ruins of the Great War, things lurk in the shadows of the world – things that are unknowable and hungry. This is very much the Cthulhu mythos by Lovecraft as interpreted by Fantasy Flight Games that we have come to expect.

In the core set’s campaign, people have been going missing around the town of Arkham, with half-eaten bodies being discovered in the forests. So, basically any normal day in Arkham. You play as a group of investigators trying to uncover those responsible. This is a campaign that is divided over three sessions – other products in this line include different campaigns with their own storylines with significantly more sessions.

Mechanics: This box includes cards and tokens. The cards can be divided into two sections – investigator cards (which are usually good, except when they’re not) and mythos cards (which are almost always terrible).

To start with, you pick a character that you’d like to play – the core set comes with five to choose from. The investigator cards are used to build up a deck for your character, of roughly thirty cards – mostly these are things that your character can use, like pistols, magic tomes, abilities, friends who will help you, and so on. Those cards are divided into five categories – guardians (which emphasise combat skills), seekers (really good for discovering clues), mystic (spells to doom us all), rogue (stealth and stealing), and survivor (getting gnawed on by a Hound of Tindalos and not dying). Your character can include cards from two of those five bundles in their deck, depending on their individual skillsets, as well as a neutral bundle which any character can use. In addition, your character’s deck includes special items that are unique to them, and also a weaknesses – when you draw a weakness card, usually an insanity but sometimes an enemy from the character’s past. The weakness cards are always terrible for you.

Lastly, your character has some  basic skill scores, a number that measures how well they can think, run away, punch things and so on – so very much like the Arkham Horror board game.

Now that you have your character’s deck, it’s time to look at the mythos cards (also called the ‘oh shit’ cards). Most of these cards are monsters or supernatural things that happen to your characters which necessitate a skills test. Also included are location cards – these connect to each other to form a map. Finally, there are act and agenda cards, which move the story forward. Each of those is progressed when a number of tokens are gathered – agenda cards (which are bad, adding additional threat and bringing doom closer to an untimely end) are furthered when they reach their maximum number of doom tokens, while the acts further when they reach their required amount of clue tokens. Each location card has a set number of clue tokens that the players need to pass a skills test in order to pass in order to claim, and a doom token is generated at the start of each new game turn. Ooh dear. But that’s not all, puny mortals!

Those skills tests that I’ve mentioned? When you need to pass those, the cards give you a target number. You need to add your skill number to the value of a token pulled from the CHAOS BAG!! (dun dun dun!) and reach that number. The CHAOS BAG!! (and I never get tired of saying that) takes the place of a dice roll, full with tokens that either add to or subtract an amount from your skill – but also with additional tokens that can create an effect specific to the scenario you’re playing. And, like most things in this game, those effects are usually terrible for you.

Design: The artwork on the cards is consistent with the artistic style we have seen from Fantasy Flight’s Cthulhu-related products, emphasising the action aspect of the horror. Although it is not stylistically my preferred rendering of Lovecraft’s work, it is all presented to an exceptionally high standard. They truly are beautiful. The layout on each card may take a few minutes to get used to, but they are clear and crisp. The game comes with Fantasy Flight’s standard ‘rules summary’ and ‘learn to play’ pair of manuals and their equally standard lack of box inserts – come on guys, a little bit of useful storage for these cards inside the box itself would be lovely!

Playability: Oh, damn, where to begin? This game offers so much! As mentioned, campaign play is a huge factor. The core set comes with enough cards to play three sessions, each of which form part of a campaign’s story. As you play, your characters earn experience points, which you can use to buy new stronger cards to replace those already in your deck – upgrading your basic level card to its more powerful version feels fantastic! You keep the same character across the campaign, and can also gain lingering injuries and insanities which carry on throughout the story. If this sounds fantastically fun, it is.

Now to discuss the living card game model and how it applies to this game. Fantasy Flight have released three campaigns, called ‘cycles’. They are The Dunwich Legacy, The Path to Carcosa, and The Forgotten Age. Each cycle begins with a large box set which contains two sessions worth of the campaign, retailing at around £23. The campaign continues with six individual sessions in the campaign, which retail for around £12 apiece. While the cost is a factor that you would need to consider when you think about this game, it is worth noting that each cycle can be played in any order – for instance, I opted to play The Path to Carcosa first, as I love the Hastur mythology. There was no requirement for me to buy the Dunwich one unless I wanted to. There is also no requirement to buy multiple copies of the core set to play the game in a competitive tournament, which was a concern with other living card games – each copy of the Arkham Horror core set has enough for two players, so you’d only want to buy a second copy if you have a friend that wants to play and can’t afford a copy of his own. This makes this a rather economic choice for people who want the living card game experience but see the cost as a barrier to entry.

Conclusion: If you enjoy games with campaign play, and love your action-packed Lovecraftian horror, then you can’t go wrong with this. If you enjoy games that are heavily story-driven and allow for character progression, you’ll be overjoyed. If you want to play a game that will unfold and change over time to keep offering you new things, the living card game model provides that. Similarly, the mechanics of this game allow for a huge variety of situations for the players, whether it’s fighting hordes of ghouls, trying to escape a labyrinthine forest or interrogating cultists in the city. This game offers all of that, and the possibility for a lot more!

Concepts: 16/20 FINAL THOUGHTS: A fun and versatile game of Eldritch nightmares which is anything but a nightmare to play! Genuinely fantastic and scores as one of the best games of recent years.
Writing: 18/20
Mechanics: 18/20
Design: 16/20
Playability: 17/20
FINAL SCORE: 85%
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