Lovecraft’s seminal works have been a well-used mine of inspiration for years. From Cthulhu Wars to DVG’s Hornet Leader expansion that drops our squid-faced friend into modern aircraft combat, these stories have made their mark on our pop culture. Given the propensity to portray them in cartoons or plush form, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that the source material is one of horror. Abject, utter, and mind-bendingly incomprehensible horror. Arkham Horror: The Card Game gets that.
This isn’t Fantasy Flight’s first foray into this world of nightmares, though it’s the Arkham Files game that hews closest to the source. I’ve played every released scenario so far and while my investigators have reduced a few monsters to their gibbly bits, they’ve run screaming from far more. Psychological traumas major and minor haunt these poor investigators and they haven’t even seen an Elder God yet. When they do, I doubt highly they’ll be taking it down with nothing but a tommy gun and a stiff upper lip.
These investigators are the iron-willed core of AH:TCG. Your deck is built around them and represents their friends, abilities, resources, and weaknesses. For the most part, there isn’t anything particularly novel about the deck construction. Like many of FFG’s Living Card Games you’ve got to work around the faction and card type restrictions of your character. What does differ are those weaknesses, and they’re a brilliant and perfectly thematic twist.
You are not embodying superheroes; your characters are waitresses, crooked cops, and drifters. They have baggage. Roland Banks, the police officer, always has the “Cover Up” card in his deck. Like all Weaknesses, the moment they’re drawn you have to start playing around them. Whether you’re trying to pay off hospital debts or traversing the playing area to track down information about your sister, those weaknesses are going to mess with you right when you can’t afford to deal with them. Because they come out of your deck, there is a palpable sense of dread every time you draw. It’s a card game, so getting cards is extremely important, but knowing that an enemy or Dark Memory could pop out at any moment gives you a dreadful pause every time you reach for that deck.
These touches of story are what define AH:TCG and make it such a good game. All the mechanics work in concert to deliver an RPG-lite experience that feels like you’re living a story. Locations have adjacency, which is used to drive a different feel to each scenario. The opening scenario is a simple crawl through a haunted house but The Essex Express lines each location up as train cars; you have to move from the back of the train to the front, car by car, in a race for survival reminiscent of mystery novels. The Carnivale of Horrors takes place during a street parade with movement that emulates moving with or against the flowing crush of people.
Things don’t stop there. Every scenario has a unique encounter deck that reinforces the setting. The first Mythos Pack expansion in the Dunwich cycle, The Miskatonic Museum, takes place after-hours in the titular gallery. Both the setup of the locations and the unique makeup of the encounter deck reinforce the idea that you’re desperately searching for something in an unknown location, stalked by a monster and assaulted primarily psychologically. This stands in sharp relief to the Core Set’s second scenario where you fight off waves of cultists and monsters.
All along the way you’re growing your deck as a character. After each scenario you’ll (probably) earn some experience used to purchase better cards. Some are unique; others are super charged versions of what’s already in your deck. Your experiences with the horrors beyond the veil may leave you with lasting mental and physical trauma, but they also make you stronger. By the end of a campaign, no one has been hurt more by the darkness than you. And no one is better equipped to handle it.
All of this grand epic story is held down by a relatively simple skeleton. There are lots of little rules and keywords to learn-necessary to provide variety, but fiddly nonetheless-but overall the core mechanics are simple. Move from location to location and investigate clues. Use these clues to advance the Acts, a narrative deck that drives the story forward in good ways. Doom is added to the Agenda pile every round. This narrative deck is working against you, escalating the evil and punishing investigators that take too long. Along the way you’ll make ample use of a bag of tokens, drawn any time you need to make a skill check. Even this is different scenario to scenario and campaigns can add or remove tokens. The world changes even as your characters do.
In short, it’s a brilliant system. I eagerly away each monthly pack with the anticipation of a Sherlock fan waiting through an extended break. My characters-Daisy, Agnes, and Ashcan Pete-wait in their deckboxes for their next trip down Arkham’s spooky and rain soaked streets. They’ll be expected to make tough choices, sacrifice their friends and family, and put themselves in harm’s way to protect the world. They’re ready for it, or at least I am.
What’s your favorite Arkham game? Which Elder God are you most afraid of? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Credits: Rafael Cordero
Image Credits: Fantasy Flight Games, Rafael Cordero