Is Arkham Horror just a re-skinned LotR LCG? (Or, If I love LotR will I love AH?): Part One

In Arkham Horror, Cards, Lord of the Rings by Paul0 Comments

It’s not possible to read a review or listen to a podcast of Arkham Horror without it being compared to FFG’s other co-operative LCG, Lord of the Rings. Which is fine, as comparisons to something we already know help frame the new thing. However, I also think that those reviews don’t quite go into enough depth to help the avid LotR fan evaluate whether Arkham Horror is worth it.

This two-part guide is intended to take players of LotR through Arkham Horror to compare and contrast the two games to help inform that buying decision.

We’ll consider the following as part of the article. In the first part of this guide we’ll consider how the games are alike and how they differ:

  • The basic premises of the games
  • How they play at the table and the Roleplay Conceit

And in the second part we’ll cover:

  • The game lifecycle
  • Deck building
  • Multiplayer and the Community

As an aside, this isn’t an attempt to rate each game against the other. I’m certain that I’m going to either imply or explicitly call out where I think one game is better than the other in some element, but I’m going to try to stay as neutral as possible to allow the reader to form their own opinion.

As the emphasis here is to talk about moving from LotR to Arkham Horror, I’ll be using LotR to anchor the article. This may not be as useful for players of Arkham Horror thinking of moving to LotR, but I do hope that it may prove helpful to a degree.

I’m also going to touch on some card-game concepts that don’t necessarily exist within LotR, but do exist in Arkham. I’ll use some examples from other FFG LCGs where applicable to highlight these concepts.

The basic premises of the game, or the superficial similarities

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.

Both games are co-operative (i.e. multiple players are on the same side) and play against an “encounter deck”. The encounter decks vary from quest to quest (Scenarios in the Arkham language), though they both employ the concept of thematically linked encounter sets that are brought together for specific quests. LotR players will recognise building encounter decks from multiple sets, with the core or deluxe introducing sets complemented by future expansion packs.

Players play either a collection of heroes (LotR) or a single investigator (Arkham). Player cards follow the usual FFG construction: there are different types of player cards (Assets, Events, Equipment etc) and players spend resources to put into play the cards. In both games player cards are divided into different colours (Spheres in LotR, Classes in Arkham) with a set of neutral cards that are available to all.

Arkham Horror has the concept of unique cards, but these are linked to the classes rather than neutral cards. The nature of the game means that there is more restriction to having cards from multiple classes in a single deck, so the likelihood of a uniqueness clash at a multi-player event is much reduced (more on that in part 2).

The games run through structured play-turns where the players play cards to advance their board-state in some way; a phase where they have to draw from the encounter deck (analogous to the game building it’s own board state in opposition to the players); a phase where any enemies get to attack the heroes; a phase where the encounter cards get drawn once per player that introduce treacheries or enemies to the board.

The players visit locations, fight enemies and progress through various stages of the quest / investigation. There are artificial timers on these quests (threat in LotR, doom in Arkham) and though they are quite different in their application they provide external tension and a natural timer to how long a game can last.

Players can play true solo (a single deck), two-handed (one player running two decks) or theoretically multi-handed (one player running multiple decks), though that would start to get impractical. Of course multi-player with actual other people is a strong part of the game. Both games try to scale upwards based upon the number of decks started the game.

Players are required to have a pre-built deck and both games provide players with guidance (as well as what you can find from sites such as this one) on a ‘pre-constructed’ decks to save those players not into deck building the chore of doing this.

In truth there are only so many ways to skin the ‘co-operative card game’ cat without doing some flavour of the above so it’s no great surprise that these elements are shared.

However, it does mean that long-time players of LotR are going to feel familiar with the core framework that Arkham Horror operates within.

Let’s get into some of the more detailed differences and similarities, and let’s start with some of the basic gameplay differences, as they do play quite differently at the table.

How it plays at the table

We covered some of the generalities above, so let’s start to talk about some of the specific differences and how they affect the experience of playing the game.

Playing a single investigator

In Arkham Horror you play a single investigator as opposed to three (or less often two) heroes. Investigators are unique, which creates the same challenge as in LotR: there can only be one!

The investigator is more personalised, not just because of their specific ability but also because they have unique and individual cards in their deck: one a specific benefit and one a specific weakness. The weaknesses impact with the board when they are drawn but only really for that character and they emphasise the projected personality or history of the character.

The weaknesses and benefits are tied to the character.

The investigators draw from the Arkham Horror Files lore; basically if you’ve played an FFG ‘Cthulhu’ game then you’re likely to have encountered them in one of the other games.

Investigators get ‘slots’ for their equipment , similar to how characters in an RPG might be able to equip two hands, a neck, a chest armour etc. An ally, for instance, takes over the ally slot and means that you aren’t playing one investigator and all of her friends in a fake troupe game.

The restriction of a single investigator is compensated by each player getting three actions a round as a default, though there are already cards that can grant extra actions to characters either explicitly or granting an additional one of the base actions (e.g. collecting an additional resource that turn).

In play this invests you much more in the investigator you’re playing than I am invested in the heroes in LotR. It also makes the investigator much more central to the game; some LotR decks (most?) use the heroes as a resource generator to get other cards into play, and then more as an ability than as a person.

Arkham Horror makes it feel the other way; your boardstate is your character being augmented rather than a party of adventurers. This makes the game feel more personal and this resonates with the roleplaying-narrative style.

The nature of the investigators being relative ‘nobodies’, as opposed to say a 7,000-year old Queen of the Elves also allows you to project your own personality or experience onto the characters.

The single investigator makes Arkham Horror play like a more personal experience; in contrast, for me LotR now feels like a more abstract experience. I feel more emotionally invested in whether my character – as opposed to I, as the player – succeed or fail in Arkham than in LotR.

Ticking Clocks: Making Progress and what happens if you don’t

It is not unusual in LotR to turtle for a few rounds, maintaining steady but small progress on the quest to enable you to build up a strong board-state. Heck, quests early in the game’s life incentivised this quite heavily.

Granted threat ratchets up and the staging area can start to get a bit hairy, but the board state that players can build (usually allies and attachments) escalates more quickly than the game can build its opposition. High starting threats are typically compensated by more powerful heroes and threating out isn’t realistic early on. In some quests there are specific timers, but this is unusual and other than a brief flurry of activity, the early game doesn’t drive the play forward.

This is apparently all going to plan!

In Arkham Horror the equivalent of progress on the quest is progress on the Act. Players retrieve clues from the locations and then spend those clues to progress to the next stage. Sometimes there’s more to just spending clues, such as encountering a particular NPC or being in a specific location.

However, the encounter deck is also making progress itself in the shape of Doom going on the Agenda card. The Agenda is essentially a quest card for the encounter deck and if sufficient Doom stacks on the card, the Agenda is advanced.

Advancing Agendas are rarely good news, and the story is usually much easier to navigate through if the investigators are ahead in the Act vs. Agenda race. Like threat, doom clicks over at a minimum of one per turn and like threat it can ratchet unexpectedly. However, unlike threat it’s not a game ender (usually) and unlike threat rising, the doom threshold has an immediate and usually bad impact on the investigator’s chance of success rather than possibly causing more enemies to be involved.

This makes each stage feel more compelling to move to – you can spend actions accumulating resources, but if you’re not out hunting clues – that is interacting with the board – then you are going to find yourself disadvantaged.

This ticking clock makes the decisions more impactful, focuses the mind on the efficiency of your actions (more on this later), drives the narrative more powerfully by creating the necessary conflict and also forces interaction with the board.

I know I’m writing this as if this is a good thing, but it means that you’re more focused in tactic and less on strategy. It also means that you can sometimes feel like you’re top-decking more than in LotR. By this, I mean that you’re more at the whim of whatever cards you draw naturally as you don’t want to waste actions drawing additional cards and not hunting down clues.

The cost of hanging around getting the cards you need has to be weighed over and above being behind the agenda. If this sounds like fun (more seat of the pants reactive play) then great; if not, then well, not great!

Failing Forward

In a recent podcast, I spoke about the concept of failing forward in roleplaying games: that is rather than outright failing something, the player just doesn’t succeed as well. This is a cornerstone of modern game design (and something good GMs have known for years), and it finds a place in Arkham Horror, whilst LotR is a more binary succeed or fail.

As Arkham Horror is trying to force a narrative across multiple expansions, it needs to allow branching paths to enrich the story as well as mean that players don’t get stuck on particular quests. This means that many quests will allow the investigators to Retire from the quest; they note this down in the quest log and usually some consequences apply.

In LotR cycles are joined by a narrative, mostly through the theme and the story in the rules insert. I’m actually really complimentary about how this has been done in the more recent cycles; the story of fighting to free Amarthiul in the Eriador cycle was excellent.

However, I’ve tried to play cycles in order before and got stuck on a particular quest. Often I lose the quest after an hour or so of play, or the quest drags on and I lose some of my momentum. This might be because the deck I’m playing isn’t suited to that particular quest, or I just don’t see the “right” cards. However, to move on I’m faced with the prospect of just skipping the quest, rebuilding the deck or having an unfun time.

In Arkham Horror I can accept the sub-optimal ending as being “part of the story” and move on, hopefully getting some XP for my trouble…

…Except I find that I really can’t. Emotionally I want to get the better resolution, or maximise the amount of XP I can get. It might be that I’m so used to trying to “win” the quest that I really struggle feeling satisfied with that outcome. And whilst I wouldn’t mind so much in a roleplaying game – it’s all part of the story right? – Arkham Horror isn’t quite rich enough for me to escape that.

Mileage will vary on this one, certainly, but if you are the kind of personality that wants to achieve the optimal outcome then this choice is actually something of an illusion.

Failing Forward towards… admin!

One of the things that I enjoy about LotR is how I can setup quickly and play in the odd hours of freedom that my schedule allows. I keep a couple of decks that I know can handle most quests pre-built, have my current quest cycles in a separate box next to the tokens and I can pretty much play anywhere.

If I’ve got a couple of hours to burn, I can hit up two possibly three quests in quick succession.

Not so with Arkham Horror, or at least not without having to miss out on some aspect of the game and potentially making my life more difficult. You see, one of the consequences of narrative style is that your investigator gains XP. And that can be spent for upgraded cards. Which help with the escalating toughness of the quest chains.

But what that does is mean that between each investigation I’ve got some admin: record the quest outcomes, note anything story related and then do some mini deckbuilding.

It stops my flow and I’m always worried that if I don’t do the admin immediately after a game I’m going to have lost track of my thoughts when I come to play the next quest.

Now on the one-hand this is a great feature of the game. On the other, I just wanna pull out my generalist deck and rock out a couple of quests. I don’t want to have to dig out my other player cards. I don’t want to wonder whether I should keep XP or not.

It means that I tend to play Arkham Horror when I have an afternoon to spare, and it therefore gets less play than I think it deserves. I know that I can play it in a standalone mode, but there’s admin involved in that. I also know that I can just not upgrade my deck, but, well, that feels like making life harder than it really needs to be!

Playing the game at the table

LotR is a game of heroes and their allies pitting their wits against the forces of Shadow throughout the epic lands of Middle Earth. You can lead the Rohirrim in sweeping charges, or call upon the Eagles to come to your aid. It feels heroic, much like its source material.

“Excuse me, you appear to have parked your creature on my King.”

It’s been well established that action economy, card draw, and resource generation are the cornerstones of successful decks. This isn’t to say decks without them completely fail; hey you can get away with some or all of them depending upon what decks others are bringing to the table!

Action economy sometimes comes from particular cards, but very often it comes from simply having more units. Having a single ally with a 2 willpower is the same as committing a hero of 1 willpower twice using unexpected courage.

Outside of card effects you are limited to 1-card per round and 1-resource per hero per round. This causes players to consider the efficiency and effectiveness of their actions, but it is usually advantageous to convert those cards and resources into additional actions in the shape of cards on the table.

Arkham Horror feels tighter. The action economy is not something that you can avoid by increasing the number of cards on the table. There are ways to increase your actions each turn, but they all come at some form of cost (usually an action to play the card in the first place, or resources that take actions to replenish).

You can use an action to draw a card, or add a resource of course. And this gives a benchmark to be able to evaluate the value of other cards; if you can take an action to play a card to gain a card and gain a resource that action is inherently more valuable than using two base actions.

This gives Arkham Horror a feel more aligned to Netrunner when planning out your turn. How can I use my actions the most efficiently? Should I play this card that lets me move with no action, or should I use a move action and keep the card for a skill check? If I take an action to get a resource am I going to be able to get to the location and get a clue, or is the risk that I will fail the clue check too high so I might need an action spare to re-try?

At its heart, Arkham Horror is a game about efficiently using the base action economy. Lord of the Rings cares about its action economy only until the player has enough allies or attachments that it no longer matters. Arkham Horror has yet to expand it’s power in that way.

The nature of Arkham Horror also means that players interact with the board or each other throughout each phase of the game. I’ve recently been playing a dedicated questing and cancellation deck in LotR and outside of the quest phase – where I do all the heavy lifting – the deck is quiet. Other people deal with all the combat and I sit back and passenger myself along.

That’s not to say that investigators in Arkham don’t have roles to play; Guardian classes are there to thwack monsters by and large. However, the nature of the stories and locations mean that they do need to use their actions in other ways to engage and interact with the game.

Location, Location, Location

Continuing the theme of interaction, the locations in Arkham Horror are laid out with a relationship to each other. The office is joined to the hallway which in turn is joined to the parlour. You can’t travel to the parlour without going through the hallway.

See how the locations all hang off the hallway. The coloured icons at the bottom of the cards show the joins.

LotR abstracts locations out and they sit in the staging area with no relationship to each other. Whilst a narrative can be built out of the way you travel to the active location, it never really feels like you’ve gone there. And when you engage enemies in the next phase, it never really feels like you’ve engaged them at that location.

In Arkham Horror enemies are located in space; they are at particular locations. Investigators move away from them and they (sometimes) follow. This makes the story feel more compelling and the locations more tightly tied to the narrative. If you’re searching for the professor it makes sense to try his study first.

The Chaos Bag and Skill Checks

One of the key differences between LotR and Arkham Horror is the nature of conflict resolution. Both games have some elements of hidden information when it comes to resolution of the various tests. For instance, drawing cards with unknown threat into the staging area in LotR, or shadow card effects introducing uncertainty in combat.

In LotR these checks tend to happen within a much more bounded manner: for instance a card might have two or three threat but it’s not going to have ten threat. A shadow card might add some attack to an enemy but it’s not going to massively overhaul the damage printed on the card. It means that decisions can be arrived at with a degree of certainty, and part of the emphasis on playing the game is neutralising the threat by moving outside of the possible boundaries.

This is again most obvious when questing (“Twenty willpower vs four threat already and we’ve got to draw three cards…? That feels alright”), in part because the game gives you tools to manage this as a core part of the experience. Recent expansions have increased the ability to manage shadow cards as the impact of shadow effects on the game has also ramped up. In essence, the boundary of risk expanded, so the players have more tools to manage that greater impact.

Arkham Horror approaches conflict resolution through a chaos bag. Tokens go into the bag and when resolving a test, the player draws tokens out which act as a modifier to the skill check. Some of these are straight, plus or minus. Others are tied to the scenario, so it might be a minus one per ghoul enemy in play. There’s an auto-succeed and an auto-fail token in there as well, and cards can key off how much you pass or fail a skill check by. Depending upon the difficult you want to play the scenario on you add or remove tokens to the bag.

This does a couple of things. Firstly, it makes skill checks much more tense and impactful; whilst you can always do the maths and plan accordingly, there is always the risk of failure and therefore the need to manage that failure. This risk feels much more likely than in LotR, where the outcome is typically more predictable. Drawing from the chaos bag just feels more emotionally intense than revealing an encounter card, and therefore you feel more invested in the impact it has on your character. The closest LotR experience I can think of is revealing a shadow card when taking damage undefended and knowing an adverse shadow effect could leave a dead hero.

Secondly, it means that the game has a built in way to control the difficulty to accommodate for power-creep over the course of the game without having to replace cards as LotR has with the Nightmare encounter packs. As your experience increases, or your deck building gets more refined, or the cards more powerful, you can rebalance the game by moving to a different difficulty level and adding different tokens to the chaos bag.

The Chaos Tiles aren’t there to help you out… Look at all those negative modifiers!

The chaos bag seems to move the game towards the same level of risk assessment that I enjoy in Netrunner. It means that there are more meaningful options and you do have to accommodate for a potential failure state. That sometimes means that I take an action a bit earlier than I would so that I can have another bite of the cheery, or I know I’m taking a risk and gingerly pull out the chaos token to see whether the fates are smiling… or not.

At the table summary

Joining all that up we have Arkham Horror as a more personal, story-driven game with a tight action economy and a naturally restricted board-state. The investigators aren’t some of the biggest names to be found in fiction, and they live in a world that is more bounded in a similar way to ours.

You’re constantly aware of a ticking clock and must use more of your wits to battle against the relentless forces of doom aligned against you.

LotR is a more strategic game, with the epic sweep of the whole of Middle Earth. Each of the cards you play resonates with the craft of Tolkein and it feels like the forces of Good battling it out against Evil; sometimes when the tale being told should perhaps be a little more personal.

However, in drawing you into the unfolding story more tightly Arkham Horror also places a greater load on the player between quests. It’s not (as) possible to fire up a deck, grab a handful of quests and kill an hour or two without regard to anything else.

The multiple branches create differing play-throughs, unless your the personality type that wants to achieve the optimum outcome even when it might not necessarily be clear what the best one is.

Decisions in Arkham Horror feel more about getting the value from the actions you have and therefore have greater weight; decisions in Lord of the Rings feel more about playing the cards you have to build your board state.

Arkham Horror feels, to me, more twitchy than LotR, but at the same time much more interactive throughout the whole of the game. Do I feel more like I’m telling a story in Arkham Horror than LotR? Yes, I think I do. But it’s a story that is more personal and less epic than the stories of LotR.

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