Solitaire board game reviewer Raz seems to know me well enough to regularly remind me that it’s about time I started playing Arkham Horror: The Card Game (AH:TCG). He knows that the core box is sitting on my shelf unopened. I get the impression that this bothers him. Being right and still not getting through – what a frustrating predicament!
What’s been deterring me from opening the box and getting started is certainly not a lack of interest. On the contrary; I’m a Lovecraft fan, I love deck construction and I like big games with lots of content. I’m really looking forward to sinking my teeth into this game – I’ve simply been postponing something that I know will require a big investment of both time and money. Also, I want to be prepared when I finally take the plunge. Since Raz is constantly nagging me about getting started, I thought he might help me getting prepared by answering some questions I have about the game. I also thought that whatever insights he shares with me, I’ll share with you.
If you’re not already familiar with Arkham Horror: The Card Game, as well as with Fantasy Flight Games’ (FFG) Living Card Game (LCG) system, I suggest having a look at the following texts and videos before reading any further:
- To learn about the game, watch either the brief introductory video by Roll For Crit or the official instructional video by FFG.
- To know what you’re getting into, read this summary text about Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Game system.
Also, keep in mind that once you’re into this game it will be like keeping your wallet next to a black hole.
Arvid: First things first; I’ve read that one requires two copies of the base game to get the most out of it. Is this true also when solitaire gaming is concerned?
Raz: The reason why you would want to purchase two copies of the base game is really consistency. You’ve mentioned being a former Magic: The Gathering player?
Arvid: A lifelong Magic player! Although I play less than I used to, these days.
Raz: Then you understand that when you have a plan and decide to include a card in your deck, you are likely to want as many copies of that card as possible.
Since you are allowed two copies of a card in your deck, and are only provided with one copy of the class-bound cards in a core, you would need a second copy to have a deck you can rely on, and not just be crossing fingers and fishing for any card that might help because you’re aware that the one card you needed has ended up in your discard pile.
Arvid: That makes perfect sense.
Raz: I feel that it is even more important when playing single-handed, as the game is more challenging and you’re more likely to be needing the right tools at the right time. More on that below.
The core cards are among the best in the game and that is the reason why you would want a second core. Even with the expansions, as a Guardian for instance, you will likely want two copies of Machete, two copies of Vicious Blow, two copies of Beat Cop, and possibly two copies of Guard Dog – especially when playing as Mark Harrigan (from The Path to Carcosa). While the expansions will provide you with great cards, they are not these exact ones.
Arvid: You just convinced me to pick up another core set before I get started. I might start out singlehandedly, and even if I don’t, I presume that having more cards would be useful if I were to play the game cooperatively.
Raz: Now I don’t think your money will be wasted on a second set. I find the second copy of most of the encounter sets quite useful, in that you become able to run two parallel campaigns without having to dismantle one encounter deck to build the other, are able to run two chaos bags (or even to customize the bag with a second auto-fail token if you want to play the optional Ultimatum rules provided in the Return to… boxes), and the additional resources and clue/doom/health/sanity tokens are welcome, especially in some scenarios like Dim Carcosa. It would make it a perfect situation for you, being able to run a solo campaign by yourself and another campaign cooperatively, keeping the two chaos bags and the two encounter decks ready at the same time.
Please note that the core box is the only product that doesn’t contain as many copies of each card as you’re allowed to play in you deck.
Arvid: Nobody, whether they like the game or not, seems to think that the base box is a complete game in itself. That’s obviously part of the LCG business model and to be expected. The game has been around since 2016 and it already has over 40 expansions. There are Mythos Packs, Scenario Packs, boxed expansions and also the Return to… boxes. How does one get started without getting overwhelmed? I feel the need for a long-term investment plan here…
Raz: One needs to understand how the releases work for a game such as Arkham Horror: The Card Game. The expansions work this way:
For everything, you need a core box.
Deluxe expansions are the start of a new cycle. They contain new investigators, new player cards, all new encounter sets used for this cycle, and two scenarios. You need the encounter sets to play the Mythos packs for this cycle.
Arvid: The Deluxe expansions are the ones that come in a box like the core?
Raz: They’re not exactly like the core box, in that they are but a folded piece of cardboard while the core is a telescopic two-parts box, but yes, they’re the bigger, square boxes. They also bear the name of the cycle they initiate.
Mythos packs are the continuation of a cycle. They come with new player cards and all the scenario-specific encounter cards, as well as a rulesheet. You need the Deluxe of the same color to play this Mythos pack.
Arvid: Do Mythos packs contain new scenarios?
Raz: Mythos packs contain a scenario each.
Arvid: What about the Return to… boxes and Scenario packs?
Raz: Return to… boxes expand on a cycle. You need the Deluxe and all its Mythos packs to play this product. What it does is give more variation to the cycle (by expanding encounter sets and providing with replacement sets) and up the difficulty. It provides no new narrative content, but it may fix some design issues from the cycle, such as locations being difficult to investigate for low-intellect builds, or making more use of certain underused story assets.
Scenario packs are packs you only need a core box to play. It brings no new player cards and shouldn’t be a priority if you aim at building decks. They provide one scenario each, sometimes two. These scenarios are typically longer and more difficult than your average scenario. They can be included in a campaign if you pay the XP cost and will give rewards in the form of new player cards you can only include when instructed to. But they can also have dreadful consequences on your campaign.
To invest properly, one should purchase a whole cycle if able. One might not be able to because of expansions currently being out of stock, which aside from the overall price, would be the main obstacle.
Arvid: If I get hooked right away and want to jump right into the most immersive campaign experience imaginable, what stuff should I make sure to get my hands on besides another base box?
Raz: In my opinion the best narrative campaigns are The Path to Carcosa and The Forgotten Age. To invest into these one would need either The Path to Carcosa Deluxe Expansion and the six purple Mythos Packs for that cycle, or The Forgotten Age Deluxe Expansion and the six corresponding burgundy colored Mythos Packs.
To better understand the cycles and which cycle each Mythos pack belongs to I encourage you to take a look at Fantasy Flight’s product page for the game, which breaks things down cycle-by-cycle in a rather comprehensive way, in my opinion, product-wise. The packs were released in the order presented on the site, and for each cycle, the packs should be played in the order depicted.
Arvid: I see. Regarding those Return to… boxes, you said they require a complete cycle of content and don’t add any new narrative. Is there any point in getting the Return to the Path to Carcosa, for example, if I start with that cycle? Would it enhance the experience? Or are those boxes rather meant to breathe new life into the narrative if you decide to go through it once more?
Raz: I wouldn’t advise getting the Return to… box at the same time as the cycle unless you really want a storage solution for this cycle. It would end up being more confusing than anything. I don’t think it would enhance the experience either, as it would make the game more difficult and would swap original encounter sets out, therefore preventing you from getting the originally designed experience. These boxes, in terms of content, are really designed for the very invested player who wants to breathe new life into their plays and want to face new twists and challenges.
But I don’t really believe they will breathe new life into the narrative unless you care more about the emergent story than the written one, in which case you could say that instead of being pursued by a Whippoorwill you were hunted by a Byakhee. This example is made up.
Arvid: I know you play the game two-handed, just like you play Aeon’s End. How come? What are the pros and cons with single-handed and two-handed solitaire play? Are you playing AH:TCG with two investigators for the same reasons that you play Aeon’s End with two breach mages, or are there other reasons?
Raz: Whenever possible I like controlling multiple characters rather than a single one. It of course is easier to manage and control a single character, but I appreciate the additional flexibility and interaction higher character counts bring.
You are correct that I play both games two-handed most of the time, but in both games, my favorite character count, when I can afford it, is three.
The reason why I don’t play Aeon’s End single-handed that much is because I find it to be more stressful in terms of health pressure. Having only 10 player life to spare in a game that, as it grows, keeps on putting more pressure on your life total, can be too intense and frustrating for me to manage, and while I do enjoy the fact that you are your own ally and get to build a leaner and more powerful deck than you do with more characters (even without that 4-cards/cycle aberration that became the rule in New Age), I do think it shows the game wasn’t designed and intended to be played that way at first, despite the fact that the team then did their best to make it work really well.
In AH:TCG, I find the pressure applies through the need to be able to do everything with a single deck. Investigating and dealing with monsters are the two most important things in the game, and when playing two characters you usually fall into the archetypes of the “cluerer” – the character gathering clues – and the fighter. There are ways around that of course, you could have two versatile characters doing their own thing on each side of the map, with for instance Ashcan (The Dunwich Legacy) and Akachi (The Path to Carcosa), or you could have an evader instead of a fighter (note that with three characters you can specialize even more and bring a utility/support/healer character. I like taking a “bait and lure” character myself). But the point is that having to do both things with a single deck introduces a higher amount of variability in a game that is already extremely random, and that you’re more likely to be drawing investigation cards when you need fighting cards, and vice-versa. Besides, many of the characters don’t have strong values in both Intellect and Combat/Agility.
Arvid: One more heavy argument for getting another core box!
Raz: Some people will still tell you that you’re fine with just one box, and they may be right.
Anyway, this isn’t to say the game doesn’t scale well. The game uses a “per investigator” keyword (well, symbol, really), mainly applied to clues, but sometimes to boss health and doom value, that works really well. What doesn’t work that well, though, is that if you’re unfortunate enough to draw a couple of monsters in a row without a way to deal with them, you’re likely to have lost anyway, a situation I have faced recently when my character got surrounded with four packs of oversized rats, and failed his evasion skill check, all that during Agenda 1. Which led to restarting the game.
With that said, and because of my new family situation, I am finding myself trying out one of the least single character-friendly campaigns, The Circle Undone, controlling only Ashcan, and having decent success and enjoying it.
Arvid: Congratulations on your new family situation!
Raz: Thanks. The Great Old Ones really have nothing on the Tiny New Ones. Now THOSE are something scary that will wreak havoc on your sanity!
Arvid: So playing just one investigator is a way of making the sessions shorter?
Raz: Each character you add adds 30+ minutes to your session, because each character you add is: 3 more actions to perform each round; 1 more encounter card to draw and resolve per Mythos phase; +1 clue value per location (not just +1 clue, it can be +2, +3 per investigator); +1 health value to some enemies (similar to locations, this could mean +5 life per investigator). Not to mention that you will have to take into consideration who you want to act first, thanks to the flexible turn order, and that you may want a character to commit cards to a fellow character’s skill test if they’re at the same location, all of which requires additional thinking and browsing of hands and play area.
Arvid: You mentioned being gnawed to death by rats during Agenda 1. That’s a loss at a very early stage of the game. To me this sounds like the result of the extreme randomness you mentioned earlier. As a gamer I take more pleasure in the journey than in the outcome and I usually don’t mind losing, yet I find failure very disruptive in Legacy games. What are your thoughts on abruptness like that in a game that has a strong narrative and campaign play?
Raz: This loss was mainly induced by my playing a single character and isn’t likely to happen with two characters, as in this instance I would have been able to decide who the rats would engage and attack and distribute damage evenly. I would also have had access to more ways to deal with them in the form of damage or evasion, and cards to commit to a test. It remains a rare occurrence, fortunately, and even solo, I usually am able to play the game until, if not completion, two thirds, at which point it can become too difficult for my character to withstand damage and horror.
There are many instances during which you won’t be able to gain access to the complete narrative content of a scenario, because you have made one decision that will prevent you to, or because there are branching paths, or because you simply do not have enough time. I think that this only increases replayability, making you want to try and go for what you couldn’t get this time around. In the case of early losses, I would say that they are somehow highly thematic and part of the game, as frustrating as they may be.
Sometimes, you just get gnawed by rats right after you enter a house you had no business entering in the first place. That’s the Mythos for you.
Failure is disruptive and the game can certainly have snowballing effects. The worse you do the more difficult things will become. That’s part of the challenge, though, and you will have to build and play accordingly, upgrading into defensive cards, being less reckless. In future playthroughs, it will also make you more cautious, or maybe bolder still.
Arvid: You said that some characters are more versatile, and some are more specialized and complement one another. I take it Ashcan Pete is of the former kind since you chose him for single-handed play?
Raz: Some characters are clearly better suited for solo play and that would include Roland Banks from the core game (despite having maybe the most crippling signature weakness in the game) thanks to his free clue-gathering reaction ability and Guardian/Seeker deckbuilding options; and Ashcan from The Dunwich Legacy thanks to Duke’s versatility.
Arvid: Duke, for the Mythos novice, is Ashcan Pete’s dog. Like many other characters in Fantasy Flight’s Lovecraft-inspired games, Ashcan and Duke first appeared in the second edition of the board game Arkham Horror. Some characters, like psychologist Carolyn Fern, have even been around since the 1987 first edition of that game. So are there any other popular all-rounders?
Raz: Some argue that Joe Diamond from The Circle Undone is a good all-rounder with his great deckbuilding options and a fantastic cost-reduction on Insight cards from his Insight deck – though this deck introduces its fair share of randomness, but I found him too random and fragile for solo myself, for reasons mentioned above of needing investigating and drawing weapons etc.
Arvid: I’ve been toying with the idea of playing through the entirety of the game with the same one or two investigators, developing their decks gradually and experiencing an epic story. Is that possible? What are your thoughts on long-term campaign play versus shorter stints with different decks and investigators?
Raz: While it is technically possible, it isn’t recommended per the rules or per the community. By the time you reach the final scenario you are going to have one powerful deck per character and that would throw the balance off the first scenarios of the next campaign a lot, even with the added nasty consequences you may have garnered along the way. Besides, the narratives aren’t interconnected at all. In fact, each cycle was designed to be completely stand-alone (aside from needing the core of course): if a card coming from another cycle is needed, it will be reprinted in this cycle.
For reasons I cannot tell without spoilers I have a hard time imagining that you could do more than three cycles in a row using the same character anyway. Besides, you would be hard-pressed to spend experience. Many of the 0 XP cards (the ones you initially deckbuild with) are good enough to define archetypes, and would be lost if upgraded or replaced. It does happen sometimes that I have too much XP to know what to do with, yet nothing I want to spend it on because all the cards I have in my deck, upgraded or not, are key to my overall strategy.
Arvid: A complete cycle contains eight scenarios. That’s on the low end of what campaign or Legacy games usually offer. Doesn’t it feel too short?
Raz: I have found eight scenarios to be the sweet spot. That’s enough scenarios to feel involved and empowered, but short enough to not feel the lassitude I can feel from 12/24/30 sessions games such as the Legacy games or Kingdom Death: Monster. There are also six stand-alone expansions you can include in your campaigns if you want to make them longer, one of which is a highly challenging two-parter.
I personally used to include a couple of stand-alones in all my campaigns but have since stopped, as I like a more streamlined experience, and to experience cycles the way they were designed to be played, that is without the additional experience from those stand-alones, which I play at the end of the campaign if I feel like it, after the final scenario.
Arvid: Now to the most important question: what sets this game apart from other solo games and what makes you return to it time after time?
Raz: There is no other game I know that makes me want to come back to it and try new things as Arkham Horror: The Card Game does. As a player, I’m driven by the will to try new things out: new strategies, new cards, new characters, permutations, reaching for a different ending.
With its constant pushing of boundaries, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is the game that drives me the most. As opposed to Aeon’s End, which clearly stagnates in its design by being too shy in terms of breaking new design grounds, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is constantly pushing each part of its design out. You get scenarios that have no Act deck, scenarios that are basically Metal Gear Solid, scenarios with no map at the beginning, scenarios in which you cannot investigate, etcetera. You get characters with 0 in each skill which love traumas, characters with 1 in each skill that buy their way to success, characters that play like a deckbuilding game à la Ascension, Guardians that can’t use guns, bounty hunters… You get player cards that remove Chaos tokens from the Chaos bag, player cards that call for other cards to be added to your deck from your collection, some of them weaknesses (yikes!), player cards that get permanently removed from your deck on use, player cards that you decipher to upgrade between scenarios based on your success, player cards that begin the game in play and are never shuffled into your deck, player cards that flat out kill you… And what still amazes me: each Great Old One feels like an entirely different situation.
Each time I play I get the chance to aim for a different resolution and to experience the lasting consequences, to max out on XP while endangering myself, which sometimes pays off and sometimes doesn’t. There are always new things to try and with six campaigns released or being released, six stand-alone scenarios, three nightmare versions of previously released campaigns, something like 30 investigators, and counting, there will be no shortage of new things to try. There are many resolutions and endings I haven’t managed to get, a ton of investigators I haven’t played yet or only once, and so many player cards I need to play to see whether or not they’re good in the end. All of it being playable in from 30 minutes with a single character, to two hours and a half with three characters at the final scenario of a campaign.
The game has the best campaign system I have ever seen in a board game. Light enough to not be too involved, but deep enough to motivate the player. The design has clearly been thought out with campaign play in mind and it shows, but each game still manages to be self-contained with few, if any, effects asking to interfere with the flow of it by checking or writing in your campaign log. The impact your actions and the resolutions have on your deck, your health and sanity total, and some other parts I can’t mention, are really well designed, and there are more things I cannot speak of that you will have to experience for yourself to understand. While the initial deck building is simple enough thanks to the fact that you have only access to half the card pool (level 0 cards), allowing you to craft a deck in 10 minutes, upgrading in-between scenarios is where things become more involved and choosing will be difficult. Enough to motivate you to take greater risks to try and grab more experience, sometimes putting yourself at risk during deckbuilding by including high-risk cards that do nothing beside giving you additional experience. Such as Charon’s Obol (Dim Carcosa). Which can kill you.
I also enjoy the fact that I get to toy with my game in-between sessions, by upgrading my deck, building the next encounter deck, managing my collection, seeking out ways to upgrade my components; I’m using the coins from Cards of Cthulhu as resource tokens for instance.
Arvid: It sounds just like my kind of game! That wonderful tinkering in-between games is something I always enjoyed as a Magic player and one of the main things that made me buy the core box. Do you have any other wisdom to pass along to somebody new to the game?
Raz: The difficulty doesn’t come from the chaos bag but from the encounter deck and the way you use your actions. The game is hardcore enough on Easy. There is no shame in playing on Easy, because it isn’t easy. You’re probably going to get destroyed, but it’s okay and part of the experience. It’s not a “win/lose” game, it’s a game of being wrecked by outer forces and grasping your bloody side, taking a breath, uttering a curse, and moving on, leaving a bloody trail of Byakhees and your own vital fluids. It all ends in a blaze of glory! Or sometimes not. Sometimes it ends in a back alley with a pathetic knife in the ribs. Sad, really. We told you to pay your debts.
Arvid: Lets hope I don’t end up indebted! That seems to be one of the risks of getting into a Living Card Game. Speaking of spending money, what about paraphernalia? Storing and organizing a lifestyle game like this in a practical way must be challenging. Any advice on that? And is there anything else in terms of accessories that you’d recommend getting?
Raz: I like storing my player cards in a binder, to make it easier to browse through them. I have two currently and have invested in colored binder pages, 9 pockets each, to make it easier to know where each class is (blue pages for Guardians, orange pages for Seekers, and so on). As for the encounter cards, there are some decent Geekmod boxes out there that also have room for the different tokens in a tray you can remove to keep with you during the game, but you have the build the inner, wooden structure yourself and it’s quite a pain. These won’t hold the current collection entirely though. I don’t mind myself, as I use the Geekmod box for recent cycles and store the older ones in their Return to box.
I would advise investing in coin capsules. Chaos tokens get shuffled a lot each game, and after 80 sessions mine were becoming white. You need 44 capsules and it is recommended that you take some 26mm ones rather than 25mm as these are too tight and you wouldn’t be able to remove the token in case the capsule breaks (and break they do).
I would also strongly recommend you to purchase a bag. I’m using the one from Coffee Roaster or Edge of Darkness. Please note that you will need a bigger one (the ones I’m using) if you use coin capsules.
Aside from that you can pretty much get by without customizing your game, but anything else, such as metal coins, or playmats with slots for your card types (to remember that you can only have 2 hands items in play per character for instance – not the official ones, thus) are nice to have.
Arvid: Do I HAVE TO sleeve the cards?
Raz: I do believe that in this game it is worthwhile to sleeve, because there are cards that you will be using more often than others in both the encounter deck and your player deck. The encounter sets from the core game will be used in practically each campaign, and after a certain amount of plays, and as good quality as the cards are, it may become possible to tell core cards from expansion cards pretty easily. It is also worth noting that, in the French version at least, some cards are noticeably smaller than others. My Dunwich Legacy cards, for instance, are something like 0.1mm shorter on each side, and when holding your deck, it is easy to see the indentation.
With that being said, I’m someone who goes above and beyond to sleeve pretty much everything I can, so take this opinion with a (sleeved and capsuled) grain of salt.
Arvid: A HUGE thank you for sharing your insights! This has been a great help, and a pleasure. I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m back from Carcosa!
Yes, that’s right; as soon as I had read Raz’s answers to my questions, I went all in and ordered the entire Carcosa cycle, an extra core box, a velvet bag for the Chaos tokens and a ridiculous amount of sleeves. If I’m hard to reach over the holidays you’ll know why. I’m ready to take the plunge into the unnameable…
To learn more about the game and to add relevant links to this article, I’ve used the following online resources. I hope they can be of use to you as well.
For a concise overview of the AH:TCG products, check out Fantasy Flight’s product page.
ArkhamDB.com is a great resource for looking up rules, cards and decklists.
Fantasy Flight’s FAQ document is continuously updated and will answer some of the most common questions bout the game.
Fantasy Flight have published an article that explains more about the different investigator classes. It’s well worth a read.
Raz has published a review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game on his website Le Comboteur Fou. It’s written in French, a language I don’t know. I presume the review is both very entertaining and very thorough. Based on prejudice about the writer I recommend it highly.
Thank you for reading. Meow!