Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Arkham Horror The Card Game

Hello again and welcome to the first review!

Today I'll be Investigating Arkham Horror The Card Game (hereafter characterized as AH).

Released by Fantasy Flight Games and designed by Nate French and Matthew Newman, AH was released just this year under FFG's Living Card Game umbrella, and is a stylish scenario driv....wait, what? What's an LCG, you say?

Here's an article - should you care to click through - that explains it far more succinctly than I could. 

Believe me, I tried.

Seriously, you would have spent the next 30 minutes or so reading about that distribution model and it would have been...


So go ahead on over to FFG's page on LCGs, and then come on back for the review!

Are you back? Swell!

As I was saying, AH is a scenario driven card game that...what? 
Yeah that's right, it's not technically a board game in the truest sense of the term, but as I go on you'll see that it kind of, sort of, can be counted among it's board game brethren by sheer dint of how the game is laid out.

In AH, you take on the role of one of the 5 Investigators included in the base set, making your way through a multi-part adventure investigating weird otherworldly goings-on in the small town of Arkham, Massachusettes. If this sounds remotely familiar, it's because the game is set squarely in a universe clearly influenced - indeed, based upon - the works of H. P. Lovecraft and his expansive Cthulhu Mythos.

Each player has his or her own deck of cards that they'll draw from, playing them as the game goes on, affording your character investigative prowess, weapons or other - stranger - equipment, or even the ability to draw upon otherworldly powers.
But you have to exercise caution, as everything in the game is either trying to kill you or drive you insane.

And this is where the game starts to shine. 

Most games require you to keep track of points gained as a way of measuring victory. In AH, you and your partners are doing your level best simply to stay alive, and sane!
And in another fantastic inversion of game mechanics, you're all working together!
Yes, AH is a cooperative game, in that all the players are not playing against each other, but against the game itself! Whaaaaat?!?

Brilliant, right?

And here's where we get into the meat of the thing : The Theme.
This game is simply dripping with theme, with the story being told across the Agenda cards, the Act cards (more on each later), and little sprinklings of flavor text throughout.
Our first game, we didn't read any of the cards beforehand, letting the story unfold as we played through it. It was, by far, one of the most compelling game sessions I've ever been involved in. I'm a fan of the "Mythos", as it's come to be called, so I'm exactly the target audience and therefore not a difficult sell, but that doesn't mean a game can be lousy and still expect me (or any of you) to enjoy it just because they jammed a theme up its gameside! No!

AH is a stupefyingly well designed game system that lends itself so well to this sort of story-telling scenario-driven gameplay. We even added some appropriate music in the background as we played : the damn near perfect 4 part H.P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Music Ambience project, available on YouTube here : 
These particular pieces simply transported us directly into the 1920s time period in which the game takes place.

It was, as the kids say, creepy as [redacted]!

Included in the cards are various Locations that are laid out as you move around the city, thereby earning its inclusion here by rubbing up against board game status even without a board proper. You could, I suppose, pick up the giant mat they've released with the areas the cards are placed in clearly laid out for you, but frankly, the design of the play area is so elegant you don't need it!
As your investigator moves through these locations, you'll move your cardboard token to each destination, marking where you are at any given moment. You'll gather clues, interrogate evil doers, and try to gain enough knowledge and evidence to stop the coming of...something.  And that's just the campaign from the base set!
This is told via the use of Agenda and Act cards, laid out in two decks across the top of the playing field, and in a nice touch includes artwork that evokes the feel of reading a book across the two decks.
The Agenda deck is the game's way of tracking the terrible things it wants to do to you, acting as a countdown clock, while the Act deck represents the progress your investigators are making as they seek to solve the mystery and stop whatever is trying to crash through and EAT THE WORLD


Which brings me to my next point : The Campaign System 
Holy cats was this a good idea! 
The base set campaign is broken down into three scenarios, each ramping up the tensions and dangers the investigators face as they go on, building the story to its absolute bonkers climax. 
But another cool aspect of this mechanic is that you get some breathing room between each scenario, allowing you to spend your gained experience points - yep, a tidy little RPG-like mechanic - to buy new cards or upgrade old ones to include in your deck, thereby shaping your deck to reflect your specific play style, and making it strictly your own.
On top of this (I know!) there's also a measure of accountability built in, as your decisions during the game can ALSO permanently alter your deck, your health, your sanity, or even how the next scenario is set up, thereby lending a tremendous amount of replayability to the game as your decisions change the way the rest of the campaign might play out!

And should you think the game is too easy, there's an absolutely perfect difficulty system built in that both allows you to adjust how hard it will be to save the world, and eliminates the need for dice : The Chaos Bag.
This is a sack you dump a selection of tokens in chosen from an included large-ish pool based on your desired level of "Oh Jesus we're all doomed!" -iness. 
These tokens include  modifiers that will help or hinder your skill checks, such as firing a gun or escaping from some loony cultist who's trying to shank you, as well as other symbols that allow for scenario and difficulty-level-specific influences, such as an Elder Sign (good), or the Tentacles of The Other ( so bad). You give the bag a shake, and reach in drawing out one token at random. It came to the point where we feared reaching into that bag, as if something dark and otherworldly might be lurking there instead!

"But what about the components?", you might ask.
The cards are standard fare - think normal playing cards - but with a nice finish that holds up to repeated handling well. I've been playing this game A LOT and I've not noticed any wear on my cards. I DID sleeve them, however, in the interest of trying to prolong their life.

As for the tokens, they're of a fairly hearty cardboard stock, and should last a good long time, apart from the Chaos tokens, as those are shaken together in the bag and drawn on a regular basis throughout the game. I'm concerned this constant banging and handling might cause some wear, but the intarwebs once again came to the rescue, suggesting these slick little plastic "coin sleeves" used to protect rare coins. Apparently there's a size that's a perfect fit for the Chaos tokens.

The two included rule books - a Learn To Play and a Rules Reference Guide - are clear, concise, and intuitive, lending to a short learning curve so you can get playing.
If you'd care for a taste of the game without having to drop the cash, I suggest heading back over to FFG's support page for AH, where the Learn To Play and Rules Reference Guide have been made available for download, here : 

The base game, while providing many investigators to choose from, only supports two players (as some of the player deck cards are shared among archetypes), so if you have a largish game group, you might want to consider picking up a second core set. The scenarios are assembled using modular card sets, and these sets are also shared. This causes a slight inconvenience in that you have to tear one scenario apart and re-sort the cards into their respective modules before constructing the next, but I've come to understand that having the second core set mitigates this issue by allowing you to have all the scenarios built at the same time.

So what do I think? 
I LOVE this game. Love it love it love it!
The design, the component quality, the theme, all make for a ridiculously satisfying game experience that I find is difficult to obtain with heartier, meatier actual board games. The mystical cherry on this otherworldly sundae is the affordable price point : for about the cost of a couple's night out to the movies, you can be horrified again and again.

I even cracked open one of my other FFG Mythos-influenced board games to rob look-alike miniatures to use in place of the character cards. It just added a neat little flourish, and made it far easier to see - at a glance - just where each other's characters were.

But it's not all rainbows and sunshine. And the few complaints I do have are minor at worst.

Let's have a look at the box itself. 
Most game boxes these days are a standard 11.5 ish inches square, with a height of just about 3 inches (which is why the Kallax shelves are so popular as a storage solution), but this game comes packed into a slightly smaller, shorter box.
While all the cards and components fit nicely back into the box with a little room to spare, I foresee that once a good deal of the expansions are released we'll find ourselves up against finding an alternate storage solution. And that, kids, sucks.

I LOVE the boxes these things come in, and want to keep the game in its original box, but being so expandable doesn't really lend to keeping the original box as a viable storage option. Even if you removed the insert, the box is too short to allow for storing cards on their sides, or very tall stacks should you choose to lay them down. It's really too bad because the box carries such fantastic artwork!
I can only hope that eventually FFG will jump into the "Collector's Box" market, and we'll start seeing some handy ways to mitigate this issue.

My only other complaint is that there's no Chaos Bag included in the box! You get the tokens, but no bag! I had to rob the bag from my copy of Escape : Zombie City. Gah!
Oh, sure, there are themed bags available all over the darn place, but why not just chuck one in? It's a HUGE part of the mechanics, after all!

Plans for the game include announced chapter packs that each contain a scenario that can be played as a one-off, but, when bought and played in sequence, create another grand campaign

I wholeheartedly recommend Arkham Horror : The Card Game, and I hope you get as much fun and satisfaction out of playing it as I have.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and if some Old One hasn't eaten the world, I'll see you next time!

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