Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Teaching Time: 20 mins
Playing Time: 60-120 mins
Setup Time: 20 mins
Value For Money: Low
Solo Play Review
Fantasy Flight have their proverbial product line game down when it comes to their Arkham Files IP and their LCG lines. As such noone who knows them will be too shocked by the Arkham Horror LCG. The main box contains the rules and token you’ll need to play the game and its future expansions and enough cards to run through a little mini campaign.
Gameplay consists of laying out a set of cards as locations which players move between using a built deck to grant either one time benefits or ongoing advantages, gaining clues and performing certain story related tasks as they go. As they do so a set of randomly drawn encounter cards throw spanners in plans and a clock like doom count ups the pressure and eventually brings failure.
The first issue is the IP itself. Arkham Files is a very pulp, shotguns VS Cthulhu version of Lovecraft which I personally don’t think is in the real spirit of Lovecraft, but its an IP and a very popular one at that. The upshot however is that almost every problem can be solved with the application of psychotic levels of violence. That old man can be convinced by story driven clues, or by being beaten to death with a baseball bat. That heiress can be paid off, or beaten to death with a baseball bat. You can decipher the runes so that the cult member’s mind clears and they walk free or… you get the idea. This has two problems, firstly you’re asked to either build a character to do a whole bunch of stuff fairly well or one thing very very well, and that one thing solving all problems rather maxes it as a choice. Not to mention that when your ‘hero’ starts to stack the bodies like cordwood in the town square the term starts to feel a little tarnished, and not in an interesting Lovecraftian way. The second problem is that the game lets you defeat elder gods and old ones with the judicious application of bat to tentacled face. I might be alone but I cannot see even the most two fisted fan of pulp being okay with the king in yellow folding to a woody haymaker.
The next issue will probably be the one that defines the difference between people being fans of this series or not. You get a deck of assets which you then apply in various situations and locations. Meaning that allies can turn up in strange situations. If figuring out the story behind them being there appeals then that will be a good sign for your enjoyment of the series. However even the most committed storyteller will take a second when a determined detective tracks you into the outer darkness or when a flashlight is significantly useful in breaching the secrets of a tear in reality itself.
Aside from the deck drawing gameplay much of the game is decided by the “Chaos Bag” a collection of tokens lowering (or very occasionally raising) player skill scores when attempting tasks. On the upside it provides a sort of control over a range of random results. On the downside it makes even the simplest tasks impossible to reliably judge and an attempt to make an event certain can quickly drain hands of cards and players of resources. Which would be fine if you only needed to make certain of a few big events, but very often adventures feel much more like a death by inches. The worst moment comes though when a character is doomed to death thanks to repeatedly failing at a task they are supposedly expert in.
A symptom of LCGs generally but worth mentioning here, Arkham Horror is a serious financial investment, and arguably not a great one. The base set works fine but most if not all players will want to pick up at least one cycle. The base set is about £30, but a full cycle from deluxe start to final mythos will set you back well over £70. Considering that the cards of a mythos cycle don’t match perfectly with the cards of the base set, in a narrative form, players may well consider a bespoke base set of higher cost, such as “This war of Mine” a comparable investment with more bespoke components. It’s a little like choosing between watching Avengers at the cinema or binging Daredevil on Netflix, both have strengths and weaknesses but the Netflix subscription will cost you more than the cinema tickets in the long run.
Arkham Horror is sold as a 1-2 player game and I’ve played it solo, however it’s not super balanced for solo play. The game attempts to balance challenges for multiple players and solo by multiplying the clues to be found or damage dealt by the number of players. But two characters can search two locations of two clues with one action left over each, one character searching two location with one clue each will need to use all three of their actions, making the game easier as player count rises. I’d go so far as to say that the game’s easy/normal/hard/expert difficulty ranking is balanced for two players with a shift up for one. Difficulty balancing aside the game is full of elements not built for solo play, an entire rule ‘peril’ is based on making choices hidden from other players and sections of adventures often refer to being read aloud or privately. So, playing on the single player count makes you feel like it’s not what things were designed for here. I play T.I.M.E. Stories solo, and it has some parts which don’t fully work solo, but I forgive that because the box states 2-4 players. Arkham Horror is marked and marketed as 1 player compatible so it’s a little harder to forgive the places where it isn’t really. I’d even suggest that solo players control two investigators when playing.
The base set comes with a 3 scenario linking campaign “Night of the Zealot”, the first two parts of which are some of the best scenarios from the entire series so far. “The Gathering” has players finding something rotten in the reaches of their own home, a regular Lovecraft device not often touched in gaming. “Midnight Masks” has players interrogating a range of different cultists around Arkham with interestingly differing abilities and requirements. “The Devourer below” has players working to stop a summoning and is the weakest of the three since players either end things heroically anti-climatically, stopping the summoning by chucking some dirt around or by feeding the Devourer some baseball bat based justice.
On balance I’d not at this point advise people to start on Arkham Horror unless they actively want something that’s main defining feature is regular requirements of invested time and money, which plenty of people do. Once you get started Fantasy Flight know just how to keep tapping up their customers and it can be tough not to give into the completionist drives, even on campaigns you’re not really enjoying. Sometimes the series creates good story moments, but just as often it creates ones that are jarring or just plain silly and the various scenarios are only consistent in their spotty quality.