*Programming note – I wrote this weeks ago and forgot to publish it. So here is a bonus article for you this week. Getting it ready to publish put me in the mood to play Arkham again so I hope those of you with interest in the game find it fun to read.*
Before I talk about what improvements I think Fantasy Flight Games made with Arkham Horror: The Card Game, I want to preface this by saying that I don’t think that LOTR LCG is a bad game and I can understand why many people have and continue to enjoy it. I think there are a couple of areas where it didn’t meet my expectations and went in a direction I wasn’t anticipating. As a result, by the time I decided to stop playing the game, I was disappointed. At the same time, just because I felt let down, please do not let what I have to say about LOTR LCG offend you or take away from something you love. I just want to share why, for me, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is turning out to be everything I had hoped and has restored my faith in the Living Card Game format.
I should also briefly introduce myself and say that I am kind of the ideal candidate for the Living Card Game system. Like many millennials, I grew up playing Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon TCG along with dabbling in quite a few other card games. I eventually burned out on the tournament scene and stopped playing any kind of CCG. When I heard about the LOTR LCG, I was immediately interested as it sounded like it was going to fix a lot of the problems with CCGs. I am a solo gamer so the prospect of playing a card game (which almost always require two players) was also very appealing. I played through the Heirs of Numenor/Against the Shadow Cycle and bought most of the Saga boxes that came out as well so I had a pretty good-sized collection and had spent hundreds of dollars on LOTR LCG before deciding that it was no longer a good fit for me.
Let’s start with my biggest complaint about the Lord of the Rings LCG. It is a tough game and much more of a puzzle to solve than I was expecting when I started. Truthfully, I don’t mind a tough game. I like the Dark Souls/Bloodborne video games series as an example of this. However, the LOTR LCG was consistently challenging and many scenarios require you to tailor your deck to beat them. That obviously takes time and plenty of thinking in between games. More significantly, you often have to play a scenario to see how it works to try and pick apart how to beat it. Then you can adjust your deck and keep adjusting it until you manage to beat the scenario. The harder scenarios can take a minimum of 3-4 attempts to beat. While on one hand, there is something addicting about this. I’d often lose a scenario and be extremely driven to find a way to advance. On the other, it is also frustrating when you lose that second or third time because you STILL can’t figure out how to beat it. Some players may really enjoy this kind of challenge but the puzzle-y nature of the difficulty was not really what I wanted and as Fantasy Flight Games released more and more scenarios, the difficulty went up which caused my frustration to increase too.
Unfortunately, this frustration was also coupled with the fact that I feel like LOTR LCG, up until the point I stopped playing, never fully delivered on its promise that there would be a rich set of decks to choose from. In my experience, there is usually one or two decks that are clearly more powerful than the rest and you have to use those decks frequently to beat the hardest scenarios. For example, the Dwarves deck that uses Dain and the Glorfindel deck that can be played solo or with two players are great examples of this. It is no coincidence that I remember these two decks fairly well after not playing the game for roughly five years. I had to use them a lot which became boring and it was often unthematic like using a huge number of dwarves to quest in Gondor. When you couple this with the difficulty I previously mentioned, that is why I finally got to a point where I decided that I wasn’t having enough fun with LOTR LCG to justify buying more of it.
I think Arkham Horror improves on these problems in a couple of ways. Arkham Horror does not feel as much like a puzzle and while I’ve only played through Dunwich Legacy so I’m not as far into it as I was with LOTR LCG, I do find the difficulty on Standard to be pretty much spot on. I don’t win every scenario but I don’t need to try multiple times to beat them and I also don’t have to fiddle around with deck construction so much either. Best of all, the way Arkham uses investigator cards leads to more varied deckbuilding opportunities. While some investigators are clearly better than others, for example, Zoey Samaras would be preferred compared to Skids O’ Toole by most people, it still feels like there are more ways to arrive at a successful result in Arkham than there were in LOTR LCG.
Arkham makes some smaller improvements on its predecessor as well. I really like how locations function in Arkham compared to LOTR. While I want to give LOTR some credit and say that there were some interesting locations and innovative quests that help pave the way for Arkham, I love how Arkham uses the locations almost like a map in a board game where you can explore and gather clues. Once you move to a location for the first time, you flip the card and see what the location is like and any effects it has on you. While there is a formula to locations, I still enjoy the suspense of what does THIS location actually do and where do I need to go to advance in the scenario? In LOTR, locations tended to have a different effect. You usually asked yourself the following question: Does this location seem dangerous enough that I need to get it off the board or not? If a location didn’t dramatically make your enemies stronger or raise the threat against you considerably, there was no reason not to just ignore it since you were always racing against time to finish a given quest. This never felt as thematic or as satisfying as I wanted and I much prefer Arkham’s opportunities for exploration.
Another thematic improvement which is mostly due to the theme/subject matter of the two games is who can serve as allies. The Arkham Horror world borrows some from H.P. Lovecraft but a lot of it is populated by Fantasy Flight Games’ own creations. This works well in the card game because the Allies you call upon are often not significant characters in Lovecraft’s universe. You may call upon allies to take damage for you and be knocked out or driven insane and honestly, that’s too bad for them! It’s kind of inevitable in a Lovecraftian environment, in fact. In LOTR, big name characters can be used as allies. For example, Arwen can be an ally and then later removed from the game. Thematically speaking, it’s hard to imagine this happening to her in any circumstances. She faced down how many ringwraiths in the movies, for example? It is hard to reconcile this with how she can die to a wide variety of orcs, wargs, foul men, and other minor threats. This definitely causes some thematic disconnects when playing LOTR that I was glad to see were not an issue in Arkham.
A couple of other small improvements that I appreciated was how Arkham prevents the need to do lots of math each turn by only having simple skill checks where the value rarely gets above 10. In LOTR LCG you have to add up the threat against you and all of the characters who are questing that turn. While many turns it might be between 10 and 15, in later scenarios, you can easily get up to 30 or 40 and it takes a minute to add all that up. Sure, it’s just basic math to add everything and then subtract it from each other, but if you are at all distracted while playing, it may take a try or two to get the final number which becomes annoying.
While I alluded to this previously, I also really like the way deckbuilding is done in Arkham. You build a deck upfront that should be versatile and will hopefully carry you through an eight-scenario campaign. In each game, you will gain experience which you can use to either swap out a couple of cards or more likely, upgrade your deck to more powerful cards. This helps give the game an RPG feel and is extremely satisfying. Seeing your character grow over the course of a few games is a neat mechanic and it doesn’t cause you to have a bunch of extra rules to keep track of like in some board games where you’re constantly learning new skills. As I mentioned previously, LOTR can often require deckbuilding in between each scenario to prepare yourself for the challenges of each one. While I don’t mind deckbuilding too much, I didn’t enjoy having to tinker frequently to solve the puzzles that many scenarios present you with. There is also no upgrade system or “growth” in the deck until you buy new cards from Fantasy Flight Games so you’re left with a system that isn’t quite as rewarding. The main thrill in LOTR LCG is solving the puzzle and being able to move the narrative along too which is rewarding to be sure but I find the system in Arkham to be more fun and less frustrating.
As I said at the beginning, I enjoyed LOTR LCG overall and while I did get frustrated and eventually sell it, I appreciate the time I spent with it. When I think back, I remember the thrill of buying new cards and beating a difficult scenario (finally!) but I also appreciate how Arkham improves upon LOTR LCG. If you like solving puzzles and tweaking your deck often, LOTR might be the better game for you. However, if you favor narrative, exploration, and an RPG-like leveling system, then I think you’ll really enjoy Arkham Horror: The Card Game.