“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The waters are rising. Trapped in the deep cavernous warrens below the surface of the earth, unable to remember where you are, who you’re with, or why you’re here; you have mere moments before the water swallows you up. You flee for higher ground, frantically grabbing at a key from the ground as a freakish fish monster pursues you. Its black, unblinking eyes are fixed on you, its taloned hands and razor-sharp teeth ready to tear you to bits. You reach into your bag hoping to grasp anything to save you from the inevitable death that the creature will bring. And with mere seconds left, you draw out…a whistle.
You make some very nice whistling sounds as you are hideously devoured by an ancient monster from beyond human comprehension.
Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a 1-2 player card game (best enjoyed by 2, but up to 4 players can play by purchasing a second core set) from Fantasy Flight Games that follows the adventures of a group of investigators and adventurers in an H.P. Lovecraft inspired 1920s. You and your friends attempt to stop the machinations of a malevolent alien god, cult, or god-cult from destroying the world.
But, and here’s what makes it delightful, you don’t just have a deck of cards to represent your own character and your antagonists. You also lay out cards to represent a set of locations. This can be the flooding town of Innsmouth, the set of alleys and hideouts of a malevolent murderer, the cult-filled forests of Massachusetts, or a series of islands and reefs in a monster-filled sea.
(Warning: There are a lot of monsters in the world of Arkham Horror. Don’t live there.)
It’s this delightfully flexible engine that allows you to — using the same set of rules, cards, and tokens — simulate a chase on the high seas, a murder mystery, a climatic showdown in a darkened wood, or a mystic combat.
It’s an engine that’s particularly well suited to simulating the horror and uncertainty in the unlikely medium of card games. You see, every turn you get three actions. No more, no less. And trust me, there is always something more you want to do. Whenever you want to do something – shoot your gun, cast a spell, find a clue, or, most often, run for your life – you need to pass a test: you reach into the delightfully named “chaos bag,” draw a token, and if that token’s value added to your own value exceeds the test, you can proceed.
It’s straightforward and familiar to any fan of board games or role-playing games. But, let me tell you, there isn’t a lot in games more nerve-wracking then seeing the horrifying Shoggoth waiting just one card away, ready to eat you, and you need to grab the elusive key in order to survive. You throw two skills on the board, you’re feeling confident, you’re ready to go, and…you pull the instant fail out of the bag.
Arkham Horror is delightful mix of complexity, terror, and fun that you wouldn’t actually expect to go together so well. You’re going to lose. A lot. But every one of those losses are very, very fun.
But there’s another great little innovation in this Living Card game. It’s a campaign game that you can’t lose. Every year has a cycle of eight or so adventures, released once a month. There’s a story pamphlet that comes with your monthly set of new cards. If you manage to win the adventure, you read one paragraph in the story. If you lose, you read another. If you find the gem, solve the murder, remember your lost past, or read the unmentionable tome, you might read additional passages.
So, let’s say you and your buddies lost the last mission in the campaign. You took some hits, found some clues, and despite your best efforts and a couple hours, got eaten or went insane. You could choose to run the mission again, sure. But you could also just move on to the next adventure. You’re never stuck on a hard level unless you want to be.
But let’s take a moment to address the elephant in the room. H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t just a racist, he was such a racist that even the other racists at the time thought that he went too far. He named his cat a racial slur. And it’s not like, say, an Orson Scott Card, where the author’s personal prejudices can be somewhat separated from the work. Racist, sexist and xenophobic ideologies underlie the entire body of Lovecraft’s work.
To their credit, Fantasy Flight acknowledges this and they’ve worked hard to make a diverse cast of characters in the game. Of the five player character options available in the latest cycle, The Innsmouth Conspiracy, three are women, and the most significant NPC is a woman of color. Zooming out a little bit, the best character deck in the game by a pretty significant margin – which to my own personal frustration, has been sold out basically forever – is a trans woman of color.
But despite those efforts, I still think it’s hard to extract those xenophobic themes from anything Lovecraftian, despite the efforts of Fantasy Flight. Arkham Horror is still a good game, but I won’t blame anyone who passes because of that.
The other primary issue I have with the game is the price, it’s expensive. The core set, that provides the basic cards you need to play, along with three adventures, is about forty dollars and can be purchased at your local Barnes & Noble, game store, or online. The core set only comes with one copy of most cards, which makes it impossible to play with more then two players. To bump it up to 3-4 players, you need to purchase an additional core set, which brings you to over $80 for a single board game.
From there, the deluxe set that starts each new cycle is about thirty dollars, and each monthly mythos pack that expands the cycle with new adventures and cards, is $15 a pop. Both are also frequently out of print. Which means that if you can even manage to get your hands on these add-ons, you’re paying over a hundred dollars for one cycle.
And listen, I like the Arkham Horror: The Card Game. I like it a lot. But that price point means that unless I have a mysterious unknown wealthy relative who leaves me millions, I’m unlikely to ever go back and try the old cycles. For a hundred dollars, you can buy a year of Marvel Unlimited, multiple other board games, or a lot of drinks at the bar.
On the other hand, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and you can’t leave the house to spend your money on activities such as buying drinks at the bar. So if you can afford it Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a great way to spend your time.
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