Set in the Lovecraft Mythos the core game is aimed at 1 or 2 players (you can have more players with an additional core set or with the deluxe expansions) and has them take on the role of an investigator in 1930’s Arkham, Massachusetts, investigating strange happenings.
Players choose from a selection of different investigators (the core game features five, with each deluxe expansion featuring another five) who all have different backstories, abilities and ratings for willpower, intellect, combat and agility. Investigators come under several different classes, Guardian, Mystic, Rogue, Seeker and Survivor. The class of an investigator determines the majority of the cards a player can choose from to make up their deck.
A player has a deck of 30 cards, with two or three additional cards depending on the investigator. Players use resources to put cards into play. Cards are generally broken down into Asset, Event and Skill. Assets are items, allies or spells, events are pretty self explanatory and skill cards have an impact on a skill test in a given context. The amount of assets an investigator can have in play is limited by slots broken down into Accessory, Ally, Arcane, Body and Hand.
Investigators also have weaknesses, which are either basic (which any investigator can have) or character specific. Drawing a weakness can seriously throw a spanner in the works.
Having a deck limited to 30(ish) cards with a maximum of two of any card makes things more streamlined, improving the chances of getting ‘that card’, which matters because Arkham Horror The Card Game is brutal.
The difficulty, even on ‘standard’, fits the themes of its inspiration, the Lovecraft mythos is all about how powerless and insignificant humanity is in the face of mind shattering eldritch horror. This game being in any way easy would be a massive disservice to thematic ideas of the setting even if it does become somewhat comically absurd in places.
Contrary to what you might think extra players make things harder rather than easier despite the game being a cooperative one. Some enemies have health determined by the amount of players, which at first seems game breakingly absurd, but in context works. Characters in a Lovecraftian world should be facing overwhelming odds and be on the verge of insanity due to the horrors they’ve seen.
The game basically breaks down into a race against time as players navigate locations and hunt for clues to advance the story before the ‘eldritch forces’ advance their own story. This is done via a two seperate sets of cards, the Act deck and the Agenda deck.
The right amount of clues moves the Act deck forward, whilst Doom moves the Agenda deck forward. The tension comes from Doom being generated automatically every turn whilst clues have to be found by investigators.
The eldritch forces are represented by the Encounter deck for that scenario. Each investigator draws an encounter card per turn. Arkham Horror The Card Game is a surprisingly deep game. Investigators have both health and sanity and losing too much of either is bad news, especially as the Agenda proceeds. The narrative element plays out a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Players actions in a given scenario impact how that scenario will end which can have a major impact on a campaign. The games story driven nature makes it ideal for solo play but equally it also means that the first time playing any scenario will always have the biggest impact.
There are two deluxe expansions available to date, The Dunwich Legacy has players investigating the disappearance of a trio of Miskatonic University professors and The Path to Carcosa has players investigating The King in Yellow a strange and notorious production put on by the Ward Theatre.
Both campaigns feature several additional seperate scenarios that play out the narrative of the campaign.
Arkham Horror The Card Game is marketed to be played in campaigns, and campaigns can add a lot to the appeal of a game but when investigators are either insane or on death’s door by the end of a single scenario in a campaign with several scenarios it makes me wonder how this plays out. If an investigator loses all their health or sanity in a scenario then they suffer physical or mental ‘trauma’ meaning they start the next scenario with one less health/sanity. Victory points earned by defeating powerful enemies during a scenario translate into experience. Experience allows players to get new or improved cards for their investigators deck for use in the next scenario of a campaign.
One of the impressive aspects of the game is how it removes the need for dice by using ‘chaos tokens’ which are drawn at random whenever a player has to make a skill test to look for clues, run away from a monster, etc. Chaos tokens determine whether a test has succeeded or not and can also have scenario specific effects. The difficulty can be increased or decreased by adding or removing counters.
There’s a few not so good things that stood out though besides the feasibility of campaigns.
A pretty big problem is you tend to spend a lot of time looking things up in the rules reference book and sometimes things are rather poorly explained or not explained at all, meaning you end up trying to find answers online.
This completely derails your game whilst someone tries to find out how something functions in the context of the game.
Another problem is that the set up of the game can become rather time consuming as investigator decks are assembled and scenarios are set up, this is drawn out even more if one of the players doesn’t have their own copy of the game and cards and isn’t familiar with the set up process . A bit like playing Magic The Gathering if one player doesn’t actually have any cards and has to assemble their deck using someone else’s cards.
Another thing is the core game (and subsequent expansions) only come with one campaign sheet in the box. Campaign sheets are used to record the status of investigators as a campaign progresses. This seems like Fantasy Flight Games is implying you’re only going to play this campaign, or any other campaign, once. Adding an additional, say, 5 campaign sheets would surely not have been a cripplingly expensive addition to the production cost of the game and definitely promoted a sense of replayability.