Arkham Horror is a cooperative card game set in the world of the Lovecraft Horror mythos in which each player (1-2 with one core set, 2-4 with two core sets) plays as a single Investigator (from the 5 available in the core set) against a scenario where their enemies are controlled by the game itself. And while standalone scenarios can be played, the beauty of the game is that it provides a series of linked scenarios that create a complete narrative campaign.
The whole concept is really quite different than any other card game I’ve ever played. As in a role playing game, each player plays just one investigator . Each scenario is its own story, but all of them fit together into a larger narrative in a developing campaign. And each scenario has multiple endings which make every choice important to the overall campaign and makes the game highly replayable.
The deck you build at the start of a campaign continues to be used for the entire campaign. Between scenarios your Investigator spends experience points, gained during play based on events during the game, which can be used to upgrade cards in your deck or swap out old cards for new within character defined limitations. This gives AHLCG the feeling of almost a true RPG, where your character stays much the same through slowly developing and creating a unique experience.
This is one of the most interesting and engaging games I’ve ever played!
Investigators and Deck Building
Once you select your Investigator, you build a 30 card deck that includes a unique helpful card and a unique weakness, a random weakness, and a mixture of cards from two specific classes out of the five class decks.
For example, Daisy Walker, the Librarian, starts with her Tote Bag, the Necronomicon, 1 random weakness, Seeker class cards levels 0-5, Mystic cards levels 0-2, and Neutral cards level 0-5.
The core set comes with starter deck lists for all 5 Investigators to help you get right into the game, so you don’t have to make any deck building decisions for your first game (or any games if you don’t want!)
With only a single copy of the 10 different level 0 cards for each class (and 4 higher level cards which require experience to add) and 10 different neutral cards (with multiple copies of each), deck building is very limited with just one core set. Two core copies allows you the maximum of 2 copies of any given player card, and allows the game to be played with 3-4 players. But even with two sets the available choices are very narrow given the small card base and class limitations. No doubt future expansions will expand the potential starting card base for deck building.
The Learn to Play book guides you immediately into building the listed Investigator decks and setting up the first scenario (The Gathering). The Campaign Guide (Night of the Zealot), provides the story narrative and campaign setup information.
Your enemy consists of a Encounter deck, made up of specific, thematic encounter sets for each scenario (much like LotR LCG) and an Agenda deck. The Agenda deck represents what the enemy is trying to achieve and advances most turns as time steadily runs out, though various other effects might speed or delay its progress.
The Act deck represents what you, the Investigators, are trying to achieve and requires clues or other actions to advance. If the Investigators can complete their Acts before the Agenda completes, the outcome is usually much better for the Investigators!
Locations are really unique in AH:LCG. When these cards are put into play they form almost a game board of linked locations between which Investigators and enemies move. Each location may provide clues with varying difficulty to gain as well as unique effects building a thematic experience. The location cards can vary from rooms in a single house to many locations around a city!
The difficulty level can be adjusted by the token mix in the “Chaos Bag”. To resolve tests, a token is drawn from the chaos bag, so the mix used can increase or decrease your chance of success. Also, each Scenario has a reference card that defines the meaning of particular chaos bag tokens differently depending on the difficulty level chosen.
Once you’ve built your Investigator decks and setup the scenario (Encounter cards, chaos bag, Agenda and Act decks built) and at least one Location is in play, you’re ready to draw starting hands, take 5 resources, and place investigators’ mini-cards (which track where investigators are located and whether or not they have acted yet this turn) on a location.
You start by reading the narrative, which is critical since it gives clues as to what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re facing. Then you read the Agenda card to see what the enemy are going to do to you if they gain enough Doom tokens to trigger it. Then read the Act card to see what you’re trying to achieve and how many Clues it’s going to take to advance.
Each Round consists of:
1. Mythos Phase [skipped first round]
2. Investigation Phase
3. Enemy Phase
4. Upkeep Phase
At the start of the game, the Mythos Phase is skipped so the game can begin with Investigators acting first to prepare for the horrors to come! I’ll describe it after the Upkeep Phase.
Investigation is the phase in which each player (you can choose in what order every round) takes a turn performing 3 actions from among: Playing a card, Drawing 1 card, Gaining 1 resource, Investigating, Moving, Activating an ability (which might be on your card or on an encounter card or your location or on the current act or agenda card), and finally, Engaging, Evading, or Fighting enemies.
The phasing and Action options are very well organized in a Reference card provided for the players.
Playing cards brings your Investigator Assets (including Items and Allies) or can provide Skills and Events. Playing cards costs differing amounts of Resources as noted on each card. Assets are limited based on “slots”. For example, you can only have 1 Ally or 1 accessory card in play at a time. If you’re going to be fighting, you’re going to want that Knife. If you’re going to be investigating, you’ll want your Flashlight.
While all investigators draw one card and gain one resource during the Upkeep Phase, during your turn you may want to draw a card to have more options or gain more resources so you can put them in play.
Often you’ll want to Investigate a Location in order to gain Clues. If a Location has Clue tokens, you can use an action to Investigate. Usually this means you draw a token from the chaos bag, add (or subtract!) it to your skill, and see if you’ve discovered the clue based on the location’s “shroud value”. Gaining clues is how often how you advance the Act which is, after all, your goal. If you advance the last Act card, you’ll be directed to a Resolution in the campaign guide winning the scenario!
Usually you’ll also want to Move around the “map” created by Location cards in order to gain more Clues and also often for other scenario or encounter driven purposes. AH:LCG’s Locations and movement play give this card game an almost board game like feel.
Many cards will offer various Abilities which you can trigger using an Action. The type will often vary depending on Class and so different Investigators will be better at different things making the game feel, again, like an RPG.
Inevitably, you’ll face various mythos monsters and enemies. You can Evade them to get away, Engage them to pull them off comrades and get into combat, or Fight them to defeat them. Like most actions, Evade and Fight usually involve skill tests so the outcome is seldom certain. Having helpful Assets in play and having good cards with the right skill icons in hand can mean the difference between winning and defeat.
“Hunter” keyword enemies move to hunt you down! Then Enemies that are ready and engaged with an Investigator will attack, doing either physical damage, horror or both! The combat system is simple and deadly if you’re not careful.
A general clean up phase that includes readying exhausted cards, each player drawing 1 card and gaining 1 resource. Hand limit is checked at this point and is usually 8 cards.
Mythos Phase [skipped first round]
A Doom token is added to the Agenda, then the number of Doom tokens in play is compared to the Doom Threshold of the current Agenda card and if equal or more than the number required, the Agenda card is flipped (no doubt doing nasty things to the Investigators) and then the next Agenda card is put in play. If the final Agenda card is advanced, the game ends and you’ll be told which Resolution to read from the campaign guide (which basically explains what horrible things happen because you lost!)
Then each player draws a card from the Encounter deck. Enemies are placed into play (usually engaged with an Investigator). Treachery cards cause many evil things to happen, though sometimes you get a chance (skill test) to see if you can avoid them.
Build your character up by getting Assets in play. Gain a strong hand of events and skills. Gain Clues and advance the Acts to finish your goal before the enemy finishes their Agenda. Evade or defeat enemies. Gain Victory Point cards which turn into experience points at the end. Don’t let your Investigator get defeated by taking too much damage or horror. Keep Doom tokens to a minimum so they don’t advance the Agenda any faster than necessary.
HOW you do all those things varies depending on your Investigators, card draws, scenario, etc. Good luck!
One thing to keep in mind is that some cards offer a “Resign” ability. There will be times you’ll want to use it. If you’re about to lose because the Agenda is about to complete or your Investigator is about to be defeated, it can be better to give up and live to fight another day with fewer negative effects than to end the scenario in defeat.
Agenda Resolutions often come with campaign affecting negatives that will haunt you. And any defeated Investigator will take permanent Trauma which will make them start the next scenario with damage or horror before even beginning!
This game is really about the long campaign game, which reinforces the RPG-like feel.
The design is brilliant. Though the core set only includes a 3 scenario short campaign, it’s easy to envision what a longer campaign cycle will do for this LCG.
After each scenario, a Resolution is read (good or ill) and the Investigators are affected in various ways. You might note a detail in the campaign log which will come back to haunt you in a future game. You might gain cards for your Investigator deck (good or ill!) You might gain experience points and be able to add or upgrade cards in your deck.
In any case the story you’ve written during your game play of the scenario WILL affect the next scenario. And with only a few experience points or specific cards added by the Resolution, your deck will slowly change, developing your character in true RPG fashion.
The campaign is only won or lost after the final scenario which is, of course, in many ways dependent on how you performed in the previous scenarios and how well you developed your Investigator to face the challenges.
While it is possible to play scenarios as stand-alone adventures, but the game really shines in campaign play.
Between the narratives at the start and end of each scenario, and the narrative on Agenda and Act cards, a story unfolds that is more engaging than any other card game I’ve experienced. The possibilities for future story telling are horrifyingly endless.
Yes, you can play just 1 Investigator with only 1 deck to manage. There are several game elements tied to the number of Investigators so they scale well. However, be aware each Investigator can be specialized so in a group you can have some better at fighting or investigating whereas a solo player needs a well-rounded character deck to somehow manage all things.
Luckily, the ability to add Neutral cards as well as often lower level cards of a second class, lets you create a fairly balanced Investigator that stands a chance at winning solo.
And of course if you really want to manage multiple investigator decks yourself, you can.
By now you no doubt realize that I’m a big fan of this game. It quickly became a favorite of mine and I have played about two dozen games upon which this review is based. But nothing is perfect…
The rules. This Learn to Play guide is the first I’ve seen that directs you to the Rules Reference for specific, needed rules. Usually the Learn to Play rules give you everything needed for the game and only when there are clarifications needed do you go to the Rules Reference, which is just a long glossary of terms. But not in this game where such common things as how to resolve a Weakness card requires you to see the entry in the Rules Reference from the start. Even some basics, such as the Card Anatomy illustrations explaining each card graphic and value, are ONLY located in the Rules Reference.
This is a great, light, cooperative game. But the rules, especially the Rules Reference, are a nightmare of tournament level competitive LCG game speak. This wonderful game, which will appeal to casual players new to LCGs (after all, it’s really not a competitive deck builder but a story driven card game), but its 48 pages of rules are likely to drive many novices away shrieking in horror once they open the Rules Reference.
As previously mentioned, the core set contains only a very limited numbers of cards. To build a non-starter list deck, you’ll probably want two core sets. And deck building fans may be disappointed. The game really revolves around playing more than deck building. With the small card selection, 2 copies maximum for any card, and a 30 card deck limit, there really aren’t a lot of major choices to make. And once your deck is built it stays mostly the same throughout the entire campaign, only slowly developing a few cards using experience points during campaign play.
As for buying two core sets, you won’t be able to use the extra chaos tokens, Investigator cards, unique cards, Agenda cards, Act cards, Location cards, Enemy cards, or Treachery cards. This means about half your second core set is useless. But, if you want to play with 3 or 4 Investigators, then you must have two core sets.
Arkham Horror : The Card Game is a spectacular game. Absolutely brilliant! If you’re looking for an RPG-like, cooperative, Lovecraft mythos game with an unfolding campaign story told over several sessions, this is IT.
The basic rules are not difficult and the game plays easily as long as you don’t get lost in the maze of the Rules Reference book.
One of the great things about this game is its versatility. You can play it solo or with up to 4 players. There are four difficulty levels. While playing solo, you can play it with a single investigator or play multiple hands if you prefer. You can build new decks and replay any scenario as a standalone game or develop your starting deck slowly as you progress through the entire campaign.
While you might think a heavily thematic, story driven campaign game would be limited in replay ability, but the designers have woven a series of possible outcomes with many variables into each scenario which make replaying the campaign or even individual scenarios exciting every time. You will make choices that will haunt you in later scenarios, or fail to deal with something immediately resulting in a card haunting you throughout the campaign, or trauma may limit your options, or your performance may gain more (or less) experience which fuels your investigator’s development.
If you’re a fan, you might as well pick up two core sets and prepare your wallet to buy every expansion and pack in the upcoming cycles. More Investigators, more player cards, more scenarios, more campaigns, all adding to replay ability. It’s simply too awesome to contemplate!
Though I believe this review to be fair and objective, I feel obligated to provide the following information. This review was written using a Beta test copy of the game provided by Fantasy Flight Games. I was a beta play tester for FFG on this game and have played about two dozen games on which this review is based. No compensation for this review was involved.