Board Game Review: Arkham Horror The Card Game

ARKHAM HORROR THE CARD GAME

Arkham Horror Box Art

THE PREMISE

ARKHAM HORROR THE CARD GAME is a cooperative deck-building game from the Lovecraft enthusiasts over at Fantasy Flight Games (seriously, they love going back to this well), designed by Nate French and Matthew Newman. Players take on the role of an “investigator” who is looking into strange happenings around the town of Arkham. Each player begins with a deck of cards that represents their various skills, items and flaws. Throughout the game, by exploring locations and fighting bad (using the cards in their deck) guys, players can pick up more cards and improve their decks.

As you would expect, it shares some of the themes and mechanics of the earlier, similarly-titled ARKHAM HORROR board game, but it’s not really a sequel or a spin-off or anything. This game is it’s own thing, almost like Fantasy Flight decided to reboot the game franchise the way a blockbuster film series might be. The changes to the game, for the most part, would be welcome to anyone who has sat through setting up and playing the original behemoth of a board game. Instead of hours of tedium and handling hundreds of little pieces, with AH:TCG the play is more streamlined and the bits are fewer. There are still lots of bits, and lots of fiddly rules to keep track of, but it’s a vast improvement over the previous Arkham Horror game and expansions.

Still, it took several attempts at playing both solo and with another person before the rhythm and structure of the game started to take shape. I blame this partly on the instructions, which could do with more examples and descriptive pictures, along with a more informative sample scenario to follow. In fact, I had to watch a couple of YouTube videos before I really understood much of what the rulebook was trying to explain. As I said, I partly blame that for the difficulty in grasping the game mechanics, but I also partly blame the game design itself. The card games I enjoy are typically very simply designed, with only a few types of cards that can serve multiple purposes. To me, the elegance is the whole appeal of a card game. Even a game like the old Star Wars CCG is almost too fiddly because there is a dark side and a light side deck.

For me, too much of the set up of AH:TCG involved separating out the various types of cards, making sure the player decks were built correctly, stacking cards in the right order, etc. However, this is just my own experience. I know many people who not only enjoy the game immensely, but had absolutely no problem understanding how to play right out of the gate. As with any game, individual mileage may vary.

THE GAMEPLAY

One of the definite downsides I found to AH:TCG was the fiddly set up required. Because the game only uses cards to enact very complex and deep story options, battles, and mechanics, there are a LOT of types of cards. As I said, a large chunk of initial set up involves sorting the cards by type, stacking them in a certain order depending on the scenario you want to play, and then building the player decks. The rulebook lists what cards go into the two decks you start with in the first scenario, but the idea is that you will eventually build custom decks to suit your own play style. (However, it’s not quite that simple: each player has limitations about which cards can and can’t be in their deck, how many of each type, etc.)
After initial set up, you are presented with a setting and a card describing what you see.

Players can take turns opening doors to explore, fight cultists and other baddies that crop up, or investigating locations to gain clue tokens, which are then used to push the story along. Using a combination of strategic card-plays and lucky die rolls, players attempt to achieve their goals before the villains’ plans are enacted (using a separate deck that gets drawn at timed intervals).

It’s not a simple game by any stretch. In many ways, the gameplay is even more complex than the original ARKHAM HORROR, and certainly moreso than ELDER SIGN.

THE HOOK

The thing that I believe makes AH:TCG such an enduring favorite amongst fans is the incredible replayability. This is because one never really “loses” the game, one just has more or less favorable outcomes. (This was actually one of the rules that was hard to grasp the first couple of times I tried to play it, believe it or not. I kept thinking the game was broken or I was playing it wrong because I just knew it was too hard to pass one early challenge. Finally I realized the challenge was meant to be almost impossible, but that the game didn’t end just because I couldn’t beat it.)

This is the unique thing that sets AH:TCG apart from other similar deckbuilders, and what makes it transcend traditional categorization. Playing through a campaign feels more like an RPG experience than a board gaming one.

HOW LIL IS IT?

AH:TCG is definitely at the upper limits of what I would call a “li’l” game. The box is square, about a foot by a foot, but fairly skinny. Since there are no boards, the largest component in the box is actually the two rule books. (Yes, two. One is the “rules,” and one is the “rules reference,” which is essentially the real rulebook just not in any particular order.) One could downsize the game pretty easily to fit in a much smaller box, although you will pretty quickly want to add expansions.

THE SECOND OPINION

This certainly isn’t a glowing review like some of my previous ones have been, but I recognize that this game has some great, fun qualities to it. For proof that I’m in the minority, look no further than the game’s BGG rating of 8.4. High praise, indeed.

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