My doorbell rang at an ungodly hour, but it didn’t wake me; a raging tempest had been keeping me awake all night – having recently acquired a rare, handwritten copy of the abominable Cultes des Goules might also have had something to do with my lack of sleep. Upon reaching the hallway I noticed to my surprise that my feline companions were baring their teeth, hissing in the direction of the door. Hesitantly, I approached the door and as I reached for the doorknob I heard through the storm the sound of running feet on the cobblestone, echoing, then fading out. I carefully opened the door lest it would be caught by the wind. On the steps, wrapped in waxed cloth, was a small package. I picked it up, closed the door and locked it. I brought the strange package to my study.
I unwrapped the waxcloth and found inside it a black box, no bigger than the abridged edition of von Junzt’s Unaussprechliche Kulte. The cats, who usually accompany me when I work, were nowhere to be seen, but I could hear their fearful whining from elsewhere in the house. No doubt they shunned my study, avoiding the fiendish presence of the box and its otherworldly, odorous emanations; they had not been this distraught since I played the music of Erich Zann on the phonograph! Although an eager student of the macabre, I hesitated before opening the ominous box.
Background, Components, Graphics
Arkham Noir Case#2: Called Forth by Thunder is based on Arkham Noir Case #1: The Witch Cult Murders, and made by the same designer, Canadian Yves Tourigny. Tourigny is also responsible for the artwork. Both games have been released by Ludonova. The two cases are free-standing solitaire card games, but share the same source of inspiration: the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, when you play these games you take on the role of “private investigator Howard Lovecraft.” The games share most rules and mechanisms of play. Case #2: Called Forth by Thunder is based on the two short stories The Diary of Alonzo Typer and The Lurking Fear.
The game comes in a small box and consists of 69 cards and a fold-out rules sheet. The cards are thin, flexible and of good quality. The rules sheet contains all you need to know to play the game, and has answered all of my questions so far, but the sheet format is not the most practical. Scanning a two-sided sheet is not as easy as leafing through a book (such as the unspeakable Necronomicon). The many reference cards that are placed on the table as part of the setup are a great complement to the rules – without these the game would have been confusing during the first few plays. There is a lot to keep track of, especially it feels like that in the beginning before you learn how it all is connected.
The artwork is not good – it’s extraordinary! I’ve often thought that the glossy illustrations of Fantasy Flight’s Lovecraft-inspired Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror do not do the theme justice. Tourigny’s etching-like, black and white (well, mostly black) images are exactly what I want in a Lovecraft-inspired game.
On the back of the box it says “[g]ameplay consists of adding cards to open cases, creating lines of investigation, in an effort to solve them. The ultimate goal is to score five ‘puzzle’ Clue cards in order to piece together the Big Picture, before running out of time or mental stability.” The cases you’re investigating are people who’ve disappeared or died under unnatural circumstances, and the clues you’re trying to piece together are mostly of five kinds: Persons of interest, Threats, Artifacts, Evidence and Locations. The lines of investigation referred to on the back of the box are sequences of cards that can be tied together depending on four different investigative techniques: Collection, Surveillance, Interviews and Research. Whenever you can’t tie a clue to an open case, or for some other reason have to discard it, it might end up in the Time Penalty Area, bringing you closer to when the next victim is found, but also making it more likely to simply run out of time and lose the game because of that. Some clues – the particularly frightful discoveries – require a Stability Check. The more of these checks you have to make, the more likely it is that you lose your mind, and the game in the process.
On a turn you take the leftmost lead card and usually put it in your hand, play it to an open case or discard it to play a clue from your hand instead. Once you have at least five different kinds of clues in an open case you may close it. If you have some more clues to the case, some of which have the puzzle symbol, you may score those towards winning. When you’ve scored five of these you win the game.
There are many limiting factors. Hand size is a maximum of three and as soon as you have more you have to discard immediately. Discarding certain cards will make you run out of time faster. Straining yourself to solve a certain case (i.e. playing too many clue cards in that line of investigation) will have you do repeated Balance Checks and risking your sanity.
Arkham Noir Case#2: Called Forth by Thunder is not a story driven, super-thematic game where you immerse yourself in a character’s mind. I feel I have to point that out. It is an atmospheric, well made solitaire puzzle of sorts, which has theme when you activiey look for it. The fantastic illustrations are a great start, and they definitely set the mood. Connecting the clues can feel like trying to match up enough symbols before you have five cards with a stylized man in a hat on them in a certain area of the table. Or it can feel like needing to speak to a journalist about the recent death of a researcher of the occult, because you’re so close now but about to lose your mind… But the latter takes some work on part of the player. I read both The Diary of Alonzo Typer and The Lurking Fear the day before I opened the box, and I would highly recommend that to any reader looking for a somewhat more immersive experience. When you’ve read the short stories all of the illustrations will seem eerily familiar.
On a mechanical level the game is about collecting sets of cards. In this, the game is of course reminiscent of many other designer games but also of the solitaire or patience games played with an ordinary deck of cards. But there are many twists that make this game way more interesting than a game of Klondike, and in the end it doesn’t feel like any other card game I’ve played. For example, there are some minimum requirements for what kinds of cards you need to close a case, but the clues will be different every time, and sometimes you’ll close a case with just six clues, sometimes with eight or nine. Apart from fulfilling the requirements to close a case, the cards also do other things when they are played. They might allow you to search through the draw stack for a card, to remove a card from the Balance Check area easing the strain on your mind temporarily, or to pick up a card from the discard pile. Also, the different constraining elements I mentioned above (Time Penalties, Balance Checks and hand size) bring a great amount of tension to the game. Since you are often working on several cases at a time, this tension grows further. Playing this game sometimes has you thinking along these lines: “if I discard this card I’ll get a Time Penalty, but then I can keep that card in my hand until next turn, playing it to the first case, and if I finish that case before the deck runs out I might be able to move the third clue to the second case instead, and if the top card is not one of those cards I might not go insane quite yet…” I try to slow down in a moment like that, but I kind of enjoy getting caught up in the intensity and excitement of planning and executing different clever combinations. This game has interesting mechanisms for sure.
Not long ago I reviewed The Lost Expedition and Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth, and there are some similarities between those two games and this one. The similarities are not in the rules, but rather in my experience playing them and in my thoughts regarding the target audience. Some of the commonalities are fantastic illustrations, a rather simple set of rules that make for a puzzly challenge, constraining mechanisms that give the player an impending sense of urgency, and, lastly, sound but not obvious connections between the theme and the mechanisms of play. In my review of Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth I wrote that “I often get caught up in the intriguing puzzle mechanism that is at the core of the game, rushing through the turns in a frenzy. When that happens I tell myself to slow down, sit back, look at the beautifully illustrated cards, read the card names, and think about how the events and choices in the caption boxes tie to the story.” That goes for this game as well. But in this case it’s probably more about the mood, the atmosphere, than the story. If you want to get thematic with this game, read the stories I linked to above, put some candles on the table, and play the soundtrack to The Ninth Gate in the background when you play. That’s what I did.
+ Truly superb illustrations with a strong connection to the stories that inspired the game.
+ The game offers a fun challenge.
+ A turn has just a few steps to go through, but still offers a lot of choices.
+ The reference cards make an initially slightly un-intuitive game pretty easy to grasp.
+ An intense solitaire gaming experience due to the different ways you can lose the game.
+ Pretty challenging for a half-hour game.
– The choice of rules sheet instead of rulebook makes referencing the rules slightly obnoxious.
– If you’re not actively looking for the theme the game can feel somewhat mechanical. Luckily, the illustrations are a great help here.
– First play was pretty slow, partly because of the rules sheet layout, partly because this game does a lot with few components. There are many things to learn, initially, but after my first play it all made sense.
– Takes up a lot of table space. You often have at least 20 cards spread out in a grid. Not a game for the train-ride!
To Sum It Up
If you’re mainly a thematic gamer looking for some role-playing immersion, you will be disappointed, especially since this game has the looks of an incredibly thematic game and thus might make you think it is one. On the other hand, if you are open to a well designed game with a sense of urgency in a great package, where you have to connect the dots of the story yourself, this might be for you. You might not get a linear story, but the game has a lovecraftian mood and a sense of urgency. I enjoy it. I love the illustrations and the gameplay is strong in itself, story or no story. I will keep it on my shelf. Maybe not next to the fabled Necronomicon, but perhaps between The Book of Eibon and the Pnakotic Manuscripts.
Other People’s Opinions
I hope you enjoyed reading this review, despite that it opened on a somewhat humorous note. The cats have been hiding while I’ve been working on this review, but they say “Meow!”