We’ve been sceptical about whether it was real, we’ve been concerned whether it will be deep enough a game, we’ve compared it to Lord of the Rings… And now we have copies in our grubby paws (thanks to pre-orders!).
And now, after it has hit the table we’re going to talking about our first impressions. And let’s be clear about it: these are genuine first impressions. This isn’t an in-depth review of cards, strategy, deck building and such like. I’m certain those will follow.
This article captures the impressions and experience of playing the first couple of games: once as a genuine solitaire and the second using a two-handed playstyle that might be familiar to Lord of the Rings players. I’ve not seen this hit the table in a social environment yet, but I’ll also talk a little bit about what that might be like.
I’m also assuming that if you’re reading this then you’re at least familiar with FFG’s product quality (high), what an LCG is (non-random card distribution model), the Cthulhu mythos, and that Arkham Horror is a co-operative rather than a competitive game.
Useful background can be found at the developer’s introduction (link is a video).
Arkham Horror’s main selling point is that is an attempt to combine card games and roleplaying games, so that there is a strong narrative and decision point running through the game.
The core concepts are more similar to Warhammer ACQ than other FFG games, though it uses the standard LCG style card structure. All cards of various types (Events, Skills, Assets) and keywords (e.g. Uses (x), Surge) are used throughout.
Players play a single investigator, who is a particular character class and they get to deckbuild using cards from that class as the main number of cards. This is a stronger restriction than, say, Spheres in LotR but not much different in practice to the influence model in Netrunner or the faction-wheel in Conquest.
The Learn to Play guide has two standard decklists for the starting decks and I played these in my first couple of games.
As the game progresses, players take turns to take up to 3 actions with the aim of advancing the act deck faster than the agenda deck advances. The act deck is advanced usually by spending Clues, whilst the agenda deck advances by Doom tokens being placed. Doom tokens appear at least once per round and the threshold for advancement varies from each act and agenda card based upon the narrative.
The characters are motivated to go to linked locations to gather clues or otherwise advance the story-line. Unlike LotR locations, these locations are genuinely linked. For instance if you’re in a house then you can’t just randomly move from attic to cellar – you need to move through the hallway that joins them.
Monsters appear and need to be defeated. Some characters are going to be all machete and pistol, whilst other characters might be more sneaky, sneaky. This is a clear throwback to the Arkham Horror board game, and I think the LCG bears as much inspiration from that direction as it does from the LCGs that receive more attention.
And a bag of random horror is included, just like the boardgame. Instead of drawing monsters out, the chaos bag is key to the resolution mechanic. You add up your skill check and then modify it by the chaos tiles. And those chaos tiles are NOT stacked in your favour!
Playing the Game for the First Time
The Learn to Play guide is okay, but not that great at talking you through the game completely. If you’re an LCG aficionado, I would recommend being led by the Learn to Play guide initially, but after the first round or two start to rely more on the Rules Reference.
Setup is similar to the Lord of the Rings game – there are scenario sets that you combine together for the overall scenario you’re playing. Word to the wise here, card number 117 (Lita Chandler) is an objective ally and has the card back of a player card, and in fact appears in the player card pack. Be aware of this when you’re setting up the encounter deck as it is bloody annoying wasting twenty minutes looking, accepting you’re missing a card and then finding her!
Decksize is listed as 30-cards, but if you’re using this number to count at sleeves be aware that it can be a bit misleading as you add various cards to the deck that don’t count towards the deck size but do need to be sleeved as part of the player deck.
Some other tips / rules that emerged in play for me as I went through the play throughs:
- There’s no real concept of ‘first player’; each turn the players decide who’s going to execute their actions first and then that player spends takes their three actions. This is different to LotR and I only realised part-way through my game.
- Enemies that are engaged with you are at your location as well; so if your chaos tile says ‘X for each Ghoul at your location’ this includes any engaged with you
- If you are engaged with a monster you can only fight or evade, or it triggers an attack of opportunity as the monster attacks you (similar to Arkham Horror)
- You don’t need to be engaged with the monster to attack it if you’re at the same location and the enemy is engaged with someone else (LotR screwing me over again!)
- Monsters only attack in their phase; if they engage you they don’t then attack (LotR turn order confusing me again!)
- You can use each of your actions as many times as you want (e.g. attack three times in the same round)
- The base damage you do is 1 damage; weapons might add damage additional to this
- There’s no normal defense against a monster’s attack; it deals wounds and horror automatically
- If you think you’re going to draw or take resources early in the turn, then do that as your first actions so they’re available to you later on in the round
- You can overdraw but be aware, that you take 1 additional card before your handsize is checked at the end of the round, so if you finish the enemy turn on 8 cards you’re still going to discard one as you draw in the upkeep phase
- Be aware of the highest –ve in the chaos bag as that will affect how high you want your skill check to be
- If you need to pass a test then do it first so you can try again when the auto-lose tentacles come out of the chaos bag
I would also stress that italicized text is a bit more than ‘flavour text’ in the game, as it provides the narrative upon which the rest of the game hangs. It gives you clues of what you should / could be doing as well as adding massively to the story. In many LCGs the flavour text is cute, inspiring but doesn’t add to the overall gameplaying experience. In this game it very definitely does.
FFG’s production and artwork is generally top-tier and it is here as well. But you as a player need to invest some time in reading through the narrative and putting yourself into that role. Skipping the flavour text (a habit many of us have developed over the years) will impact your experience of the game.
I also found that the game had more depth than I had thought it would possess based upon similarity to Warhammer Adventure Card Game. I can see a lot of the tactical elements coming from a tense discussion in multi-player about who should act first and what they could do. Should I clear the enemies and you reveal the new location first, or should I just take them with me?
Sadly this might be a challenge for pick-up games, as it has the real risk to fall into the trap of the alpha-player who knows the game so well that they want to lead everyone else at the table in a particular direction. In particular, if players have gone through the story once before I can see that ‘player knowledge’ bring brought to multiplayer. For instance, on my second play through I knew one location impacted in a particular way so sent my most optimal character in first rather than face-checking as I had done in the first game. Not so much a problem in single-player but I can see the potential for it to be a challenge multi-player.
I also think that the additional assets, events and skills leave quite a bit of design-space and deckbuilding. The restriction by slots meant that I could’ve played the ‘Beat Cop’ card, but I already had out a useful ally and I didn’t want to lose him at that point. These meaningful decision create an interesting game at the table and also in the theory-crafting of deckbuilding.
Finally, the resolution mechanic, relying upon a random draw of a tile from a bag is an excellent innovation. It creates “bounded uncertainty” (if I know the largest negative is -2 then I know that over achieving by 3 is highly likely to win so I don’t need to overspend), fear of calamity (there’s only one auto-lose but I’m bound to draw the damn thing), but also euphoria when it does help you out once in a while.
By having a range of tiles in the bag to affect the difficulty is an excellent idea as it means that you aren’t adding or taking away cards, again helping with design of the encounter and the experience of the game. That, combined with a smaller deck size, makes the whole thing more consistent which supports a narrative story as the designers have less randomness to contend with.
For me it also makes it feel like you’re involved in your own downfall – rummaging around to pull out the wrong –ve really feels like you brought that on yourself far more than, say, rolling a dice.
Does it feel like a story? How about the branching complexity of infiniteness?
It does feel like a story, albeit in the first play through I only did the first scenario. I can see the potential though and I have faith as the story that is told as part of the latter LotR quests is strong.
The designers have also controlled for complexity by allowing only two or three resolutions at the end of the scenario. I suspect that will ebb and flow as the campaign is played through and some adventures may have less resolution paths to bring the branches back in alignment. This provides a good sense of consequence without making the game so complex it falls down.
There are very few unique cards, so the challenge of uniqueness is not as present as in, say LotR where players can contend each other for many key cards.
However, the uniqueness is present in the characters available to play. You can only have one Roland Banks at a time and if two players want to play him then someone’s going to lose out. That being said, you can say that about any roleplaying game (“No, I want to play the Drow Ranger dual-wielding scimitars!”) and I think that the problem largely becomes solved with co-ordination in the gaming group, a larger card pool and some etiquette on the part of the player community.
So, my first impression is very favourable. I do have some concerns about longevity and a lot of that will depend upon the campaign cycles being released. If they are of consistently high-quality, add in new player cards that explore available design space and are frequent enough then I won’t mind so much.
I am not sure that the more structured, narrative aspect of the game will mean I will want to return to the scenarios as much as, say, I have played Journey Along the Anduin however.
Those concerns are outweighed by the fun of the game; the chaos bag mechanic helps support the design goals of the game whilst keeping the resolution fun. It’s not as deep a rabbit hole to get into as Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones or Netrunner in either complexity of the game or available card pool, but it feels like it has been designed as a co-operative game first and foremost.
I’ll certainly be picking up a second core and aiming to get as many of the scenario packs as possible. I’m also certain that Mostly Off-topic will be adding Arkham Horror articles to our weekly (ish) RTFC and RYDKE series and you’ll hear more from us on this game in the next podcast!
If you’ve got any comments or questions, hit us up at the normal places!