Arkham Horror: The Card Game – review

Welcome to Arkham

A downtown diner waitress discovers she is the reincarnation of an ancient sorceress and flings a spell at a masked killer … an ex-Fed with a guilty secret is facing an advancing horde of ghouls and is down to his last bullet … a studious librarian has unearthed arcane secrets in dusty tomes which gnaw at her mind until only a sliver of her sanity remains …

H.P. Lovecraft may have had his faults, but he was matchless in evoking a world where unspeakable and nameless horror simmers beneath the surface of everyday life. Today, the evocative 1920s setting and the constant menace of annihilation combine into a ‘Mythos’ which appeals – and disturbs – on many levels. And Fantasy Flight Games have as few peers when it comes to taking Lovecraft’s unique vision and translating it into a physical gaming experience which captures the dark atmosphere, desperation and lurking horror like none other.

Their latest foray into the world of the Great Old Ones is Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Using nothing more than varied decks of cards and some cardboard tokens, the game transports one to four players into the midst of a desperate struggle to delay the destruction of the world, by thwarting events set in motion by a grotesque coterie of cultists, monsters and unspeakable things with too many tentacles.

Once upon a time, there was a nameless horror…

Arkham Horror is one of the growing breed of tabletop games that places its emphasis on storytelling. Able to be played solo or cooperatively with two players (or up to four if the group owns two copies of the core set), the focus of Arkham Horror: The Card Game is to have players take on the role of an investigator, with a deck of cards representing their items, skills and talents. These plucky 1920s souls are then pitted against the forces of the Mythos in a series of three linked campaign scenarios, each featuring its own decks of cards to represent locations, plot points and random monsters or traumatic events. Before long, you forget you’re staring at little bits of cardboard and imagine yourself as street survivor Wendy Adams or ex-con Skids O’Toole, rushing breakneck through Arkham’s shady streets in a desperate attempt to uncover the identities of cultists intent on bringing about the apocalypse.

The suspension of disbelief is aided by some fabulous and atmospheric artwork, and a game mechanic which successfully blends the randomness of a draw-based card title and the immersion of a role-playing game. Each scenario has an ‘act’ deck and an ‘agenda’ deck – both of which advance via player or Mythos actions. Generally, reaching the end of the act deck counts as a victory, whereas flipping the last card of the agenda deck will result in something not-very-pleasant happening to the investigators, potentially something which lingers and carries over into the next scenario.

It’s here that the storytelling and role-playing aspects of the title come into their own. Defeat the main Big Bad in the first scenario and he’s gone for good; avoid him, and he’ll likely crop up again in the next chapter, ready to make an already tricky situation even harder. Or undergo something particularly dreadful and suffer a trauma which stays with you throughout the course of the campaign, increasing your likelihood of a hideous demise or going irrevocably insane. Though it’s not all bad news for the investigators: complete a scenario and they gain experience, which can then be used to purchase new cards or upgrade existing ones in their deck, giving them that extra edge in their ongoing struggle against the darkness.

Hidden agendas

With scenarios taking at most an hour to complete and a finite number of player cards in the core set, there have been some concerns raised about the game’s replayability. Fantasy Flight’s response is to release a steady stream of expansions, featuring new cards, scenarios, campaigns and ways to make your investigators’ lives even more miserable (and the fact it gives them a steady stream of income from fans of the game is surely a coincidence…)

Even with the core set’s three scenarios, however, there is still replayability in abundance. Yes, the plot points and twists will no longer come as a surprise, but the random elements of the game – from the cards drawn to the skill test-modifying effects of the random ‘chaos tokens’ – ensure that no two games are ever the same. In three separate playthroughs of the first scenario, I experienced two crushing failures and one skin-of-the-teeth victory – all of which were unique and memorable. In fact, like Eldritch Horror and other Fantasy Flight Lovecraft games, I swear at times that Arkham Horror: The Card Game is possessed, turning up just the wrong card at precisely the wrong moment, such as the time my poor investigator needed to uncover one more clue to win, just as her flashlight ran out of batteries and a clue-obscuring fog descended on her attic…

In fact from a replayability perspective, you can think of the game’s scenario and agenda conditions as the strategy – the things you know in advance you must do to triumph or survive. The random draws of the cards and your reactions to their effects then become the tactics – and it’s here where the game more than holds it own, with a great deal of planning and risk assessment going on, based on the ever-changing effects of the draw.

Sign me up for the long haul (or: Fantasy Flight, please take all my money)

As a fast-paced and thematically-rich jaunt through Lovecraft’s Mythos, Arkham Horror: The Card Game scratches an itch which the other more lengthy and involved titles in Fantasy Flight’s range do not. I’ve found myself pondering card synergies and strategies in my head whilst away from the game, and the promise of deeper, more varied scenarios in the upcoming The Dunwich Legacy campaign expansion is hard to resist. Like the equally excellent The Lord Of The Rings card game, the expansions all have a prescribed set of cards in each – so the game won’t fall into the trap of forcing you to buy loads of booster packs hoping for that one rare card to complete your set (Star Wars: Destiny has a risk of this: more news as I dabble around with that one).

So for me, Arkham Horror is my New Favourite Tabletop Game™. I can see me spending a considerable amount of time (and a chunk of my disposable income) visiting and revisiting its shady locales, building up my magic-wielding waitress’ experience as she faces a never-ending torrent of horrors with her lucky rabbit’s foot and trusty baseball bat.

And – at least until an expansion comes out that allows me to play as Sister Mary on a motorbike with a shotgun – I couldn’t be happier.

5 Elder Signs out of 5

Images © Fantasy Flight Games 2016-2017

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