Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a Fantastic Wallet Killer
When I first dove into the world of modern board games, I purchased just about every game that was recommended. It was a rookie move and an expensive way to identify all of the games that I don’t enjoy. Ultimately, I sold or traded everything that didn’t click, but not until I wasted a good amount of money on games that fell flat. One of those games was Arkham Horror: The Card Game, often referred to as Arkham Horror LCG or AHLCG.
The premise of Arkham Horror LCG is one to two players each create and control a deck of cards that represents an investigator. The decks are constructed with cards like Plucky, Charisma, and Curiosity that represent the character’s skills and personality. Using these decks, players enjoy story arcs (referred to as cycles) over eight chapters loaded with surprises.
My first experience with Arkham Horror LCG was incredibly underwhelming. As someone who has never been very good at constructing Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering decks, I was out of my depth. Thankfully, the Learn To Play Guide included suggested starter decks to use for Roland Banks and Wendy Adams.
Following those guides, I was able to quickly dive into the experience I heard so much about. The Learn To Play Guide did little to prepare me for how each of these decks worked, so I struggled in the beginning. Roland Banks, a Guardian class character, is great at combat and is really effective at cleaning up the board and keeping Eldritch enemies at bay. Wendy Adams, on the other hand, a Survivor class character. The most reductive way I can describe her abilities is the use of cards to mitigate luck-of-the-draw failures. Survivors have a number of Event cards like Lucky! that boost the result of a skill check by a few points when it would have otherwise failed.
I found myself constantly referring back to the rulebook to clarify turn order and card key words. Despite how frequently I open rulebooks to learn a new game, something about AHLCG just was not clicking. I slogged through the first three scenarios, struggling at every step. After the second chapter, I felt I had a handle on the game, only for the third chapter to slap me back down to the ground.
As much as I felt Arkham Horror LCG fit well into my collection of challenging H.P Lovecraft games, I couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. I traded my copy of AHLCG for a copy of Dice Forge. After a lackluster first experience, I was convinced I’d never look back on my decision.
Fast forward to 2020. I was briefly working from home before being placed on furlough. U.S Politics were at peak shit-show and the determining factor of my monthly income. Many of my friends were forced to return home, further separating me from social ties. Family members were hospitalized with COVID-19. Things got pretty rough for a while, as they had for so many others.
In a moment of weakness and a sad, whiskey-fueled online shopping splurge, I purchased another copy of Arkham Horror: The Card Game core box. Even in my uninhibited spree, I remembered how much I disliked the base game and added the Dunwich Legacy expansion to my purchase hoping that it would improve the experience. There are so many stellar reviews for AHLCG that either everyone else is wrong, or I’m just an idiot who couldn’t understand a game. I assumed was the latter.
When my games arrived I sat down and thoroughly studied the rulebook until I felt confident not only in my own abilities, but my ability to teach my wife how to play. It took her awhile to wrap her head around the gameplay, mainly as a result of my incompetent bumbling through the rules, but eventually we both got a handle on it.
Recalling how disappointed I was with the Night of the Zealot campaign (core box), I took us straight into Dunwich Legacy. Dunwich Legacy immediately features more interesting options than the base game. After reading through the prologue, players are given the choice to pursue one of two paths. Players can choose to pursue a lead in an underground casino in the House Always Wins scenario, or they can search for clues at a prestigious university in Extracurricular Activity. Whichever chapter players don’t choose will become the second chapter in their story.
But time will pass as it tends to do. While investigators were off chasing one lead, the world continued on without them. Whichever location comes second will be in a dire state and the story will be forever changed. Where I found the core box to be an underwhelming experience, Dunwich Legacy showed me the clever things the AHLCG system is capable of.
Branching storylines create the opportunity to replay previous scenarios and experience a different outcome. While the first time around is the most impactful and surprising, replaying scenarios can still be good fun. The nature of random card draws means that even if you know what surprises a chapter has in store, players are still dependent on luck to draw the right cards from their deck. This element of randomness helps Arkham Horror maintain the same level of tension even after the third or forth play.
We completed our Dunwich Legacy adventure pretty quickly. Within two weeks, we fumbled through the story, barely scraping by in the final moments. The story comes to a close in Lost In Time and Space where we found the success of our entire story came down to the very last action. My investigator fell to madness while my wife came through with a clever combination at the very last possible moment.
We still lacked confidence in our ability to create our own investigator decks so we stuck with the recommended Roland Banks and Wendy Adams decks from the base game. I felt pretty pigeon-holed into certain roles with those decks in the base game. The Dunwich Legacy campaign taught us different and clever ways that even the most basic deck can interact with the game. With each new chapter our understanding of the game evolved and we discovered new and exciting card combinations.
I enjoy the complexity of the game’s mechanics and my wife loves how the game allows her the freedom to experiment with play styles. Sometimes she’ll focus on building characters that grant her more actions with Asset cards like Leo Deluca; other times she’s more interested in generating of clues and resources with cards like Dr. Milan Christopher. Either way, we both have a blast discovering the story’s twists and turns together.
Regardless of the campaign, the world players encounter will grow stranger with each new chapter. The beginning of each cycle offers a grounded story that features noir PI cases with a hint of the macabre. But Arkham Horror: The Card Game adjusts player expectations at every turn with stranger and stranger encounters. Eventually, players are introduced to a Lovecraftian Great Old One hiding behind the events of the story for a final horrifying encounter.
Retrospectively, I’ve come to understand the core box is essentially just a tutorial. In the first scenario, The Gathering, players gain a sense of the turn structure and game mechanics in a shorter than average scenario. In most scenarios, players will find their attention divided between fending off eldritch enemies, investigating existing locations, and uncovering new ones. The Gathering has a lower level of difficulty and complexity than other scenarios by reducing the strength of the scenario’s enemies and number of locations to explore. These design choices give players the space to linger in a location, thoroughly and spend less time in combat than a standard chapter. The reduced pressure really lets players take their time, to be familiar with their investigator and their decks.
The second scenario, The Midnight Masks, is a little less forgiving. Arkham Horror LCG assumes that players have already experienced The Gathering and the only freebie they’ll ever get. At this point, AHLCG steps it up by increasing the size of the scenario with a larger pool of locations and a larger encounter deck. While the enemies remain at a lower difficulty, The Midnight Masks begins to divide players’ attention between more locations. This might seem like a small change, but it introduces one of Arkham Horror‘s core challenges: balancing action spend.
Each scenario gives players an ever changing objective represented by the act deck that typically divides a scenario into two or three digestible sections. These act cards will give players some contextual story details and an objective. These objectives can be as clear as “Spend X number of clues to advance,” or as vague as “Find a way to advance.” With only three actions each per turn, players will find that exploring to discover clues can be a more difficult task than it sounds. Treachery cards can restrict player movement or present a challenge that costs investigators one of their valuable actions to overcome.
Increasing the number present in The Midnight Masks forces players to familiarize themselves with action economy and how this influences their decision making each round. As players begin to grasp this concept and how the Encounter deck throws wrenches in even the best laid plans, they’ll also begin to understand the types of player cards that mitigate these threats. While it’s not the most helpful nugget of knowledge in the immediate, it does help players make more informed choices when they are constructing their investigator deck.
The Devourer Below closes out the core box cycle and teaches what is arguably the most important lesson to learn in Arkham Horror: defeat is not failure. The final scenario has a crazy difficulty spike and slaps players in the face with a notoriously difficult challenge. Everyone who has played a game before is familiar with the feeling of loss or the sight of a game over screen and knows that sense of disappointment. But those feelings are (mostly) invalid in Arkham Horror: LCG.
Instead of telling players that they’ve outright failed, AHLCG simply presents them with a different story resolution. Of course the nature of multiple endings means that there are good, bad, and middling conclusions, but never does Arkham Horror deny players and end to their story. It’s an important lesson to learn early on. As players dive into stories beyond the base game, surprise twists and overwhelming odds may result in a lesser ending than desired.
But I would argue that this is an aspect of the game that only strengthens its value. At no point will Arkham Horror: The Card Game ever force players to repeat a scenario before progressing. Even when all investigators are defeated and players receive the worst possible ending, AHLCG lets players continue their adventure with their defeat simply becoming a part of the narrative. This feature aids in maintaining a sense of excitement and wonder, even as ethereal tentacles tear your rookie cop limb from limb.
It’s fairly rare that players succeed on their first attempt of The Devourer Below. In my first time through, I was pretty discouraged. It was my traditional understanding of loss that likely contributed to me parting with the game the first time around. But as my wife and I experienced the challenges of the Dunwich Legacy campaign, we quickly learned that the optimal ending is pretty damn hard to come across when you blindly play each scenario.
Even after Dunwich was over, our excitement for Arkham Horror LCG didn’t die down and we were eager for more. With all of Dunwich so fresh in our minds, we didn’t want to replay it just yet. Instead, we picked up the second expansion campaign, The Path to Carcosa.
Even after all of the other content we’ve enjoyed thus far, The Path to Carcosa is our favorite experience that AHLCG has to offer. The story begins in Arkham, Massachusetts on the opening night of The King In Yellow, an exciting play straight from Paris. A dull and confusing first act leaves the audience perplexed as they go into intermission. Before the second act can begin, the audience falls into a deep slumber and awakes only after the production has concluded. But the theater they awaken in is in a state of disrepair and rot.
As the investigators look deeper into the The King in Yellow they uncover a long history of disappearances, suicides, and manic episodes. Their journey takes them to the oddest corners of the earth where realities blend, truth becomes subjective, and the denizens wear the mark of madness.
Where Dunwich Legacy introduced players to the consequence of player choice, Carcosa introduces multiple types of threats that follow investigators through the story if not dealt with early on. Unfortunately, my wife and I didn’t recognize that until it was too late so we played through the entire cycle with our mistakes haunting us until the very end. It was brutal but it helped the story feel alive. The recurring elements only existed because of our earlier mistakes and it left a sense of dread as we approached each scenario knowing that they lurked somewhere around the corner.
Despite my start beginnings with Arkham Horror: The Card Game, it’s become a favorite of mine and not just because it’s a game my wife and I agree on. In fact, we’ve come to enjoy it so much that I eventually managed to pick up the entire collection.
And that’s where the problem lies. Arkham Horror LCG is a financial monster. At first it’s not so bad. The core box sits at a fairly accessible $30-35 but it only includes three scenarios and the base set of player cards. The first three scenarios are so much simpler in their design than the system is capable of.
To begin really experiencing the best of Arkham Horror, consumers will need to spend another $30 on one of the Deluxe boxes that begins a story arc. Deluxe boxes add new investigators and an abundance of new player cards. Each new set of player cards gives players the tools to create interesting decks and experience old content in fresh new ways. The more content you own, the greater the game’s variability.
Even after investing $60 this way, it’s an incomplete experience. The Deluxe boxes add a large number of player cards, but they only include the first two chapters of the eight chapter story arc. In order to complete a cycle, players will also have to purchase the remaining six chapters individually in what are called Mythos Packs at $15 each. Altogether that puts the cost of a complete cycle at $120. Suddenly, AHLCG isn’t all that affordable anymore.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game has quickly become the most expensive game that I own, surpassing even Kingdom Death: Monster. KD:M‘s core box is a whopping $400. But as high as that is, it doesn’t even cover the cost of three cycles of AHLCG content. At the time of writing this, a full collection would set players back just over $1,000.
Arkham‘s packaging isn’t large enough or sturdy enough to store all those cards. Anyone looking to get more than just a cycle or two is going to need to get creative with storage. There have been some people who have the space to do some woodwork and have created really beautiful storage cases like this chest and suitcase look. But if you live in a small apartment like me, you don’t have the space to make something. Instead, I purchased a few of these box files and have been able to store my entire collection in three boxes with room to grow. It’s by far the cheapest thematic storage that I was able to find.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game became is most expensive game I own, but it’s worth it. The range of scenarios and mechanics is incredible. Scenarios have a way of sticking with you long after the game is packed up. Essex County Express has players racing to the front of a train, pushing passed threats and passengers as the train collapses around them. Carnevale of Horrors places investigators in the midst of a parade that forces them to move with around the map with the traffic of the parade route. If players miss something, they’ll have to rush forward through the parade loop to double back. Or The Pallid Mask that sends players blindly wandering through labyrinthian French catacombs.
It’s rare to play a scenario that doesn’t feel one-of-a-kind. Even when it does happen, I don’t feel I’ve ever played an objectively bad scenario. There have been some that I didn’t like for one reason or another. Some scenarios can feel too difficult to get the “good” ending like in The Devourer Below and those don’t feel great, but they still deliver a quality experience.
With a larger collection of player cards, I can replay old scenarios and experience them in new ways. I played The Path to Carcosa as the Survivor class Ashcan Pete who used Dark Horse as a way to gain stat boosts whenever he was out of resources. I’m getting ready to replay The Path to Carcosa as the Rogue Jenny Barnes who can generate a ton of resources and easily play cards from her hands. It’s possible that in my replay, I’ll experience the exact same story, but by changing the core mechanics of my investigator, I’ll have to approach challenges from a different angle
AHLCG is a dangerous place for completionists to go; though I’m ultimately happy that I did. This is a game that my wife and I can enjoy together and she enjoys it as much as I do. That’s not the case with some of my other favorites like Gloomhaven and Nemesis. Those have well worn off their welcome for here. For me, it’s an investment in an activity with my wife that we exclusively enjoy together. I’ve been able to find an expansive game that my wife and I exclusively play together and have been able to pack the next two or three scenarios into a small portable box to take with us on parental visits so we can have a little bit of time to ourselves.
While chasing a complete collection is great fun, it’s costly and not for everyone. For that reason, if AHLCG interests you, start with the core box and one of the deluxe boxes from any cycle. Play through those, and then incrementally add the mythos packs. Not sure which one to start with? Google is your friend, and so am I. Send me an email, ask questions in the comments below. I’d be happy to help you start somewhere you’d enjoy.