Arkham Horror: The Card Game – Beginner’s Guide

Released in 2016, Arkham Horror: The Card Game has been a firm favourite of mine since I first ventured into that mysterious town. Its mix of cooperative gameplay, deckbuilding and RPG like elements was a unique package and a refreshing take on the Arkham experience. I’ve covered Arkham Horror: The Card Game a lot over the last couple of years from reviews of the core and deluxe boxes to diving into the mechanics of each scenario in my Beyond the Veil series.

The game is now approaching it’s fifth cycle of cards, that is a lot of content and it can feel overwhelming if you are coming to the game for the first time! As such, I thought it might be time to write a guide for new players as well as for people who haven’t kept up with everything that is going on. So let’s take a long, hard look at what Arkham Horror: The Card Game is, what has been released and how you should approach getting into it if you aren’t sure where to start.

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It’s not the destination, it’s the journey

First things first, why should you play this game and not one of the many iterations of the Arkham theme that Fantasy Flight Games(FFG) have put out over the years: Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign and Mansions of Madness?

Much as I have enjoyed Arkham Horror the Board game and Eldritch Horror, neither of those really capture the true spirit of the source material: normal people going up against unimaginable horrors, dimensions unknown and the darkest parts of the human psyche. Arkham Horror: The Card Game delivers this in spades and I’ve been consistently delighted with the game. It has managed to bring some emotional highs and genuine moments of horror to a genre that has perhaps become a little stale with the sheer number of Lovecraft tinged releases. On top of that it is quicker to play, takes up less table space and has a load more variety than any of the boardgame versions.

Every time I approach a session of Arkham Horror: The Card Game it feels like a challenge, even if it is part of the story I have experienced before. Every pack opened brings new strategies to my deck and a new chapter to experience. I get genuinely excited cracking open a new product, anticipating the horrors that the design team have chosen to expose me to this time.

If you are not familiar with this style of mechanics, where there can be many different interactions between cards, then there will be a lot to take on when you first get into Arkham Horror. There are some subtleties in the rules it can be easy to miss and I’ll cover those a little later on in this article. If you aren’t one for deckbuilding and still want to give it a shot there are pre-constructed decks suggested by FFG and you can find lots of help for decks, no matter the size of collection, on the excellent ArkhamDB (I’m linking a friend of mine who has put together some great decks, but there are loads of decks on there).

For a full rundown of the core release of the game I’ll point you towards my earlier review which is when I first made contact with the game. My enthusiasm for it is unabated and I honestly think it is the best game FFG currently have in their stable. Frankly I think it is one of the best games available, providing a real emotional core to the cooperative gameplay.

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It’s Alive!

There can be quite a lot of terminology around games of this nature, so I thought it might be useful to give a rundown of how the game is put together and how the release cycle works.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game falls under the Living Card Game (LCG) model from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). This means that there is no random boosters like you might find in a game like Magic:The Gathering, which is usually called a Collectable Card Game (CCG). When you buy a product for Arkham Horror: The Card Game you will know exactly what cards you are getting in it and everyone else who buys that product will get the same cards as you do.

The game presents a series of linked scenarios called a campaign where events from one scenario will often affect what happens in the next. Each player will build a deck that represents one of many different investigators each with their own special strengths, weaknesses, equipment and abilities. Together you will cooperate to try and overcome the various situations and encounters that the game will throw at you. Over the course of a campaign you will also gain experience which can be used to buy new cards for your deck or upgrade old ones. By the end of a campaign your character will have seen and done much, and all that will be reflected in the deck you play with.

May I interest you in some fine merchandise?

As previously mentioned, a lot of content has come out for the game over its lifespan. The game currently has a few different types of release and we are going to go through all of them starting with the core set.

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Where it all begins!

Core Set: This is the one you need to get going. It contains the main rulebook and rules reference, a 3 scenario campaign, The Night of the Zealot, and all the tokens you will need to play the game. It is worth noting that the core does not contain a complete playset of the cards within. When you build a deck in the game you can have up to two copies of a given card, but the core only contains one copy of each card. A second core will therefore give you a complete playset as you will then have 2 copies of each investigator card (I’ll touch on whether you need a second core a little later).

All the products below contain a playset of the investigator cards in them and as such you will only ever need to buy 1 copy of each. If you are the only person buying cards for a 4 person group you might want two copies of everything below.

Deluxe Box: These contain a couple of hundred cards each and signify the start of a new campaign. They will contain new investigators, a campaign book in which you are frequently instructed to note things down during play, and 2-3 scenarios to kick off the campaign. At the moment the 5 campaigns are, in release order:

The Dunwich Legacy

The Path to Carcosa

The Forgotten Age

The Circle Undone

The Dream-Eaters (at time of writing this is still to release)

Mythos Packs: After a deluxe box is released you get 6 Mythos Packs coming out approximately once a month (above are the 6 packs for Path to Carcosa). Each one will have a new scenario, a bunch more cards for players to put in their decks and a scenario sheet. The sheets are tucked into the box in such a way that sometimes people miss them and throw them out. Don’t worry if you do, you can find all the scenarios on FFG’s site. You should buy the packs in order, if you don’t you risk spoiling later scenarios for yourself.

As it stands at the moment the first 4 big boxes mentioned above have had their cycle complete: a deluxe box followed by 6 Mythos Packs. The Dream-Eaters cycle is yet to start at the time of this update to this article (13/09/19).

Standalone Adventures: These are scenarios that are nothing to do with the cycles. Each one contains a bunch of scenario cards and a scenario sheet. They do not contain investigator cards that you can simply add to your deck via experience, but they might have cards you can add by playing through the scenario. At the moment there are 6 of these released or about to release:

Curse of the Rougarou

Carnevale of Horrors

Labyrinths of Lunacy

Guardians of the Abyss

The Blob that Ate Everything (not released yet)

Murder at the Excelsior Hotel (not released yet)

It is worth noting that these packs are all printed in house by FFG and the cards will therefore look and feel different. This is nothing to worry about as for the most part the cards used are all scenario cards. If you do need to add an investigator card to your deck you will probably need to get some protective sleeves in order to make all your cards feel the same (I recommend Dragon Shield myself).

Return to….: These are a relatively new line of products for the game, kicking off in 2018 with Return to the Night of the Zealot. In these sets you get upgraded versions of some of the investigator cards that were in the original big box i.e. Return to Night of the Zealot has an upgraded copy of Dynamite from the core. You also get a ‘retelling’ of all the scenarios in that particular cycle with new encounters, different locations and a general increase in difficulty. So far there are only three of these out, with more expected:

Return to the Night of the Zealot

Return to the Dunwich Legacy

Return to Path of Carcosa

I’ve played through the Return to Night of the Zealot and it was a good time and an interesting way to revisit the campaign in the core of the game. I am looking forward to a playthough of Return to Path of Carcosa at the time of writing but am yet to play Return to the Dunwich Legacy.

Begin at the Beginning

Where should you start then? The Arkham Horror core box set contains just enough to give you a taster of the game and at this point I would recommend just picking up a single core. With 3 scenarios and 5 investigators to experiment with just one of these is enough to get you going and allows for just a little bit of wiggle room when it comes to deckbuilding.

If you are not used to deckbuilding, don’t worry. There are suggested decks in the box and you can find plenty of resources on the FFG site and community sites like ArkhamDB, where people have gone to the trouble of putting together decks with 1 or 2 cores. The game can play 1 – 4 people, but if you are wanting to play with 3-4 people you are really going to need a second core straight from the off, just to have enough cards to build 4 decks at once. To my mind the game really shines at 2 player and I’d recommend starting at that player count.

The first scenario, The Gathering, in the core is very much of a tutorial, designed to give you a straightforward situation to get yourself use to the mechanics of the game. The game kicks of properly in Midnight Masks and rounds out in the Devourer Below. Whilst these scenarios are by no means the best the game has to offer, they do give a good feel for the game and should give you an idea of the kind of tricks the designers are willing to play on you. It’s worth noting that for the most part you can ‘lose’ a scenario and still carry on.

The rulebooks for the game are pretty good by FFG standards. The Learn to Play guide will take you through your first game with few issues but there are a couple of points that are worth reading up on from the Rules Reference. This is the second booklet that delves much deeper into a lot of concepts from the game. There are two rules in particular that trip a lot of people up: Engagement and Hunting. The first details how you get into fights with enemies and vice versa and the second is one of the AI elements of the game, controlling how enemies move. Give both these keywords a read before your first game, you’ll thank me later. If you would prefer a deeper dive into Engagement I recommend this article by our friend Peter Hopkins.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game, can be quite a difficult game and you will often find yourself being defeated by a particular scenario. However, the game is very generous with its structure, allowing you to continue to the next scenario in the campaign despite your defeat. One of the joys of the game to me is continuing on regardless of how you have done previously, trying to overcome the mistakes made and set the world once more to rights. You cannot always get ‘the best’ outcome from each scenario, and if that is going to annoy you this game might not be for you.

If you aren’t feeling enthused by the game after playing the core I would recommend that you stop now. If you start buying into a new cycle without really liking the game, you are just going to be throwing good money after bad. The other reason you might want to throw in the towel now is the sheer time commitment the game asks from you. An individual scenario can easily last an hour and half including setup and breakdown, and may take longer if you play with more that two people. If you are playing solo then this is probably not as much of a concern.

If you’ve enjoyed the core and want to spend more time learning about the mythos, then welcome to the club!

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Walk the Path

Ah I see you are wearing your new club jacket! Now gaze upon the sheer number of releases and despair! Actually let me help you out with that. There is a lot of content out there for the game with 3 complete cycles, 4 side stories, 2 “Return to” expansions and 1 cycle just started.

Let’s start with the first question a lot of people ask when they start to get into the game, “How many cores do I need?”. Honestly 1 will be fine initially especially if you jump straight in and start picking up an entire cycles worth of cards. However, if you are picking expansions up in a more piecemeal fashion, you might find problems with getting enough consistency across any deck you build.

What we mean by consistency, is that if you are building a deck to be a fighter, you might find that you don’t get weapons out often enough or just can’t do enough damage. In this case it is often the best place to buy a second core giving you a playset of a lot of the key cards, allowing you to include two copies of a vital weapon like machete and see it more often in play. I have known people who have played with 1 core for ages and still had a great time, and folks like myself who went and got a second core straight away. There is no wrong answer here, just the one that suits you best but you only need 1 core to get going.

Once you’ve decided to pick up a second core or not you need to know how to pick up the rest of the game. As mentioned earlier, a cycle is a big box plus the 6 mythos packs that follow. Each mythos pack is numbered from 1 to 6 and if you go on ArkhamDB you can look at the cards tab to see the name of each pack and in what order it was released. Now you could buy packs out of order just to get the investigator cards within, but I would strongly recommend buying them in release order. It is very easy to spoil yourself story wise by getting a glimpse of the scenario and encounter cards, and this problem is exacerbated if you are buying a pack further down the line than you have played to in the story.

In a cunning piece of design each Big Box only needs the core set to be played, it does not need cards from any previous campaigns. What this means is that if you wanted to get into Arkham right now then you could buy a core and then set out on the latest cycle, The Dream Weavers, along with everyone else, steadily buying new packs as they release and not worrying about older cycles unless you wanted to.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the cycles here so you can have a better idea of what they contain.

Dunwich Legacy: This is very much just a step up from the core set. There are some lovely surprises and great scenarios but it doesn’t stray very far outside the format of the core. It’s a really good next step as the investigators in it are just a little bit different deckbuilding wise with some funkier abilities. It’s a little more difficult than the core campaign but the curve is totally manageable.

Path to Carcosa: Hold onto your hats because this is where things start to get really strange. This is my favourite cycle so far with really interesting new investigators and a whole set of mechanics on how much your characters believe what is going on around them. It’s not much harder than Dunwich but the scenarios are much more varied and interesting.

The Forgotten Age: This has a much pulpier feel than the previous campaigns which I enjoy and the 2nd scenario in the big box ranks as one of my favourites. It is worth noting that the community at large considers this cycle much more difficult than previous efforts. The investigators have some fantastic abilities, but I don’t know how much you would be able to exploit them without cards from previous cycles. If you are just playing Core and this you may have a hard time.

Circle Undone: This cycle has only just begun at the time of writing and is so far looking really interesting. The investigators are providing for some really interesting decks and the core contains 3 scenarios, 1 prelude and 2 regular scenarios. If you want to be ‘in the know’ release wise then this may be the place to start. At the moment I think the investigators within really shine with a full card pool, not just the core and this big box. There are also concerns that this may end up being as hard as Forgotten Age, but the jury is still out on that one.

There you have it. If you are of a collector mentality then it is probably best to start with Dunwich and just work your way forward, keeping in mind that older cycles tend to have one or more packs out of stock at a given moment (but FFG are reprinting the missing packs). If you want to talk to the rest of the community about the most recent scenarios and cards then you might be better off starting with Circle Undone and then working gradually backwards.

The Standalone adventures and Return to are for those who really get into the game. If you want a complete playset of investigator cards then the Return to boxes should be picked up before any of the standalone adventures.

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The long and winding road

I hope this retrospective has been useful to you whether you are a new player looking to get back into the game or a someone who has missed out on some of the content for this fantastic game. I don’t know what the future holds for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, but I do know that I am still very much enjoying revisiting old scenarios with new investigators and I can’t wait to plunge back into Night of the Zealot and Dunwich Legacy with the Return to… boxes.

If you are looking for a game where you can approach problems from many angles, where story is paramount and the designers are always willing to surprise you then look no further. I don’t think there is a better cooperative game on the market, and if you give it a shot, I hope that you will join me in the dark corners of the world where cultists, monsters and hithero unexplored dimensions lie waiting to be discovered.

Changelog

As the Arkham Horror LCG expands I will periodically update this piece to include new information: cycles, standalones and any new rulings I think it is worthwhile knowing about.

13/09/2019

  • Minor updates to text to address where the game is right now in terms of releases.
  • Updated list of core boxes to include Dream-Eaters
  • Updated cycle information so that Circle Undone is now complete
  • Updated images across the article to reflect new releases

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