Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a Living Card Game set in a Lovecraftian world full of monsters, cults, and old gods that seek to destroy the Earth. Truthfully, there are a lot of Arkham Files games from Fantasy Flight Games, so what makes this one unique? Arkham Horror: The Card Game offers an RPG-like sense of character progression while offering a good sense of exploration and narrative but with a reasonable playtime. Best of all, this game more strategic depth than any of its Arkham Files peers that I’ve played (Mansions of Madness and Arkham Horror: Second Edition).
That sounds great but what are you actually doing in the game? Well to simplify it a bit, you will be playing a character (or two if playing solo like I do) that is trying to prevent some kind of evil scheme in Arkham by either investigating various locations and gathering clues and/or destroying foul creatures that get in your way. If you’re playing with two or more characters, you’ll likely take on one of these roles instead of doing both, though there are utility investigators who are adept at both. To help you accomplish these tasks, you can arm yourself with weapons, spells, charms and trinkets and call upon allies to help as well. Each investigator has different abilities and will benefit from different types of assets so part of the fun is trying out new investigators and combinations.
So what are some of the strengths of this game? The theme is pretty strong, much stronger than the only other Living Card Game I have played, Lord of the Rings: Living Card Game. Being able to equip assets as I just mentioned helps with this and so does exploring locations. This is one of the fun parts of other Arkham Files games and it is cool traveling around seeing what surprises wait for you at each location. Personally, I love how you gain experience in most scenarios and then you can use that experience to upgrade cards in your deck in-between scenarios. You generally can only afford to change a card or maybe two in between each scenario so it isn’t too time consuming and yet, when you get to use those more powerful cards, it feels great and it makes a lot of narrative sense too. Fantasy Flight Games deserves a lot of credit for coming up with this cool idea. It is well implemented and fun.
That isn’t the only RPG element that is implemented in Arkham Horror: The Card Game. In a campaign, you have to make decisions on how to deal with difficult situations. You will record these decisions in your campaign log and those decisions will affect the game in different ways in future scenarios. Sometimes the effect is positive and sometimes negative. Not only is it fun to figure out but it makes you want to replay a campaign several times and try out all of the options to see what happens in each. I can see where some people might not be wild about having to write down notes as they play and if so, I would highly recommend the Arkham Cards app which will track all of this information for you and tell you what you need to know when setting up each game. Its really handy and I have enjoyed using the app instead of having to take down actual notes.
Another strength of this game is that there is a good amount of theme in the game’s five classes. Guardians have a lot of great combat cards just like you would expect a member of law enforcement to have. Seekers, who tend to be academic types, have a lot of card drawing and are great at investigating/gathering clues. The other three classes are just as characterful too. In many ways, the classes remind me a bit of colors in Magic: The Gathering. The theme for each class comes alive in the game pretty well, especially as you get more cards beyond the Core Set.
Of course, there are also weaknesses and a unique card for each investigator to up the theme further. Every investigator has their own weakness and a random one to start with and can get more as campaigns progress. Weakness cards go in the player’s deck but when you draw it, something bad happens often due to past physical or mental challenges. It is really clever, thematic, and something that makes drawing cards not always a good thing for you.
It doesn’t hurt that the components are high quality in this game too. The card designs are fantastic and look like occult tarot cards (which is a compliment!). While they don’t matter much to gameplay, I do often stop to appreciate the design of these cards. The artwork is also nice and while a good amount of it is recycled from other Arkham Files games, it is still of a high quality and easy to appreciate. I can’t think of many cards where I would say that I don’t like the art, which is obviously subjective, but that is testament to the quality. The cardboard tokens provided are also very evocative of the setting and are well-done. There is a downside to the tokens but I will save that for a bit later on.
Perhaps the most important quality of Arkham is that the gameplay is tense and full of decision-making. I alluded to this earlier but I think the strategic depth sets it apart from Mansions of Madness (which is a great game in its own right) because you’re faced with interesting options on most turns. The Encounter Deck and advancing Doom counters mean that you don’t want to wait around too long or your investigator(s) will succumb to the evil that each scenario presents. I’ve played through most of Dunwich Legacy and I generally find that the difficulty in this game is just about right thus far. There are different levels of difficulty you can choose from as well so you won’t be lacking in challenge if that is what you want. I’ve been playing on Standard and find that the difficulty is just about right. The game is certainly no pushover but it doesn’t feel unfair or extremely difficult either.
Finally, if you’ve played any card game before, then you probably know all about this but Arkham Horror: The Card Game really delivers a thrill each time you buy new cards. Instead of packs of random cards, everything you buy is pre-determined which surprisingly isn’t any less fun than buying booster packs. It is cool seeing what new cards you can add to your current deck(s) and often you’ll feel inspired to try new ones out too. Obviously, the fact that you don’t have to buy random cards (or singles off of eBay which can also be pricey) is a huge plus too. That isn’t to say that Arkham Horror is cheap, more on that shortly as well, but I think it gives you lots to buy and lots to look forward to if you enjoy that part of this hobby. I certainly do and have enjoyed adding to my collection as I can.
After all of that praise, this game sounds like a no brainer, right? Well, there are some things to be aware of when it comes to Arkham Horror: The Card Game that might prevent it from being a great game for you. I think the first thing is that there is luck involved in this game and I know some people don’t want that in their gaming. The skill checks you have to take are randomized by pulling a modifier from a bag. This happens frequently in the game and at higher levels of difficulty, there are more auto-fail tokens you can pull out. At Standard difficulty, I find I have a pretty good idea of how high my skills need to be to pass (unless I draw the one or two tokens that are auto-fail but the odds of that aren’t too high) so you can certainly mitigate luck to an extent in the gameplay. Of course though, this is a card game. So everything is random and luck based in a sense from your starting hand to the cards you draw from the encounter deck. This is what gives the game so much replayability but if luck bothers you then that won’t matter and this game might be one to skip.
The other big potential downside to this game is the cost. The Core Set is a bit misleading because it is pretty affordable compared to later purchases. A campaign costs over $100 each just for the cards you need. There are already a number of campaigns for the game as well so spending $1,000 to get all of it, is certainly conceivable or it will be one day as more stuff comes out. I highly recommend sleeving your cards to protect their condition and ensure they hold up for many games to come and that adds even more expense. The aforementioned Chaos tokens require some extra spending to make them safely usable too. You need a cloth chaos token bag (which can be obtained cheaply) but you also will want to get coin capsules so that the cardboard doesn’t become damaged as you shuffle them up each time you take a skill test. These extra little expenses can, and certainly will, add up though I would once again recommend the Arkham Cards app if you don’t want to spend money making the Chaos tokens “playable”. I’ve used the app’s token draw mechanic to great success thus far. I plan on upgrading the physical components eventually but the app is letting me do so at my leisure. Regardless of all that, if you’re on a budget, there are certainly cheaper games out there. I think if you’re used to playing any kind of card game (outside of deckbuilders potentially which are fairly affordable), you won’t find the cost of this game too off-putting as it is still not as bad as playing most TCG/CCG games competitively but it is certainly something to mull over before you jump into Arkham.
Another aspect of the Core Set that some people might find a bit disappointing is that despite its strong value, it really is just a teaser or a taste of what the game offers. The three scenarios do not take long to play and after a single play through, I knew I wanted to get more cards before I played through the scenarios again. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that while you get five investigators in the box, there are very limited deck-building options and a couple of the investigators are just better than others in the Core Set so you have limited reasons to play around with the others. Simply put, you need to get a second core set or another campaign cycle’s cards to really expand your card pool. It is worth noting that the Revised Core Set which is coming out soon will mean you get better cards to start off with, but I still think it won’t take long at all until you want to get more cards. When you consider that the third scenario of the campaign is by far the toughest one I’ve played, I can pretty safely say that there is little chance that you’ll have fun trying to beat that scenario until you get more cards to beef up your deck(s).
The final thing to be aware of with Arkham is a potential complication with the campaign system. Because you need to own an entire campaign to ensure that you’ll experience the full narrative, you really need to buy all of the cards upfront if at all possible. You do not want to start playing an eight scenario campaign and get 6 scenarios in and realize you can’t finish it because the 7th scenario is sold out everywhere, for example. The need to buy each scenario individually has been a core part of Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Game format since the beginning and while it is thrilling buying each little pack of cards, it means there is A LOT to buy and any of the packs you need can be out of stock so I highly recommend that you only try to play a campaign once you have everything you need for it. You don’t want to stall out on a campaign because you can’t buy something you need for it. I should also mention that Fantasy Flight has realized this (or heard fans’ complaints) and the next expansion will have all of the Scenario cards in a single box and all of the Player cards in another to make it way easier to get everything you need in fewer purchases. That should nip this problem in the bud in the future thankfully.
So there is a detailed look at Arkham Horror: The Card Game with my thoughts on what is great and not so great about the game system. While I have gotten into the game later than many people, I have been tempted by Arkham for quite a while and I’m so glad that I finally tried it. If you like Lovecraft or card games and you aren’t on a tight budget, I can’t recommend this game highly enough. It has really exceeded my expectations and been a blast to play. I’ve played Arkham Horror: Second Edition and Mansions of Madness: Second Edition and for me anyway, this is my favorite way to get a Lovecraft fix of those three very different and very good options.
Those are just my thoughts though, for those of you who have played this game, what do you think of Arkham Horror: The Card Game?