Arkham Horror: The Card Game – Strategy Guide for Beginners
The Beginner’s guide to the game I wrote for the Arkham Horror: LCG at the start of 2019 has proved really helpful for people finding out about the game and I hope the deck building guide will be similarly useful. One of the other things I have started to realise about the game is that there are a lot of strategy questions out there and that maybe I could come some way as to providing some basic tips for actually playing the game. This guide will assume you have played through at least the first scenario in the core set and have a basic understanding of the rules and terminology of the game. It will also assume you are playing with at least two investigators. Whilst some of this advice will be relevant to those playing true solo, only one investigator, I have little experience of playing that way so don’t want to overstep.
If you are really new to the game and just want to find out what it is all about, then please check out my Beginner’s guide that will give you the lowdown. If you want Deckbuilding advice, I discuss the basics in this article.
Along the way I’ll pull out the really fundamental lessons in a quote area like this.
Let’s start with some grounding in the absolute basics. What can you expect from a given session of Akrham Horror: The Card Game? In each game of Arkham Horror you will be playing through a scenario, following a narrative and trying to come out on top. On one side you have the Agenda deck, that drives the scenario forwards on the side of the bad guys. This fills up with doom, and does bad stuff to the investigators at intervals throughout the game. On the other side is the Act deck, filling up with clues as the investigators do their jobs, advancing when the conditions are met and hopefully bringing the game to a conclusion before your team succumbs to horror and death.
At some point you will reach a resolution to the scenario, a narrative and mechanical end. Generally speaking if the Agenda gets to a resolution first, things are going to work out badly, and if the Act gets there first, the story will go in your favour. Most of the time in a scenario the resolution will not stop you proceeding to the next scenario in the campaign, and will be a source of experience, trauma, new cards to your deck, and more.
Before we go any further it is worth noting that a lot of this article could have ‘most of the time’ written after various statements about how the game works. This is because the designers have a tendency to mess with the mechanics of the game. That can lead to fantastic moments that I don’t want to spoil. Just be aware that the advice I am giving here is occasionally superseded by the machinations of the designers and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is a long winded way of saying ‘Expect the Unexpected’.
Time to start dropping some terminology to make our conversation a little easier. As with anything, Arkham has its own set of terms that make understanding things simpler, at least once you have gotten over the initial learning curve. I’ve talked about advantage before in my deckbuilding article, and it is a fundamental of good strategy, so it is worth repeating here for good measure.
Imagine a tug of war competition. On one end are the mechanics of the scenario, pulling and tugging you towards failure. At the other end are the players and their decks trying to win. advantage is how much you are winning the tug of war.
Advantage is created in Arkham by another concept, Board State. This will be different for each investigator and scenario but is basically what it says on the tin: how much of your investigators tools do you have in play to allow them to do what they are good at. For the scenario it is how many monsters, treacheries and similar are in play, and the stage the agenda and act are at.
As the investigators build their board state, advance the act deck and can handle more of what the scenario throws at them, they gain advantage. As the scenario advances the agenda deck and things spiral out of control it gains advantage.
In order to become “good” Arkham players there is a certain extent to which we must be able to react to changes in advantage and predict when those changes are going to occur. Some of these are obvious, like when the Agenda deck is about to Advance, others are more subtle. We will come back to this idea of gaining and losing advantage over the course of this article. Fundamentally Arkham is a game about knowing when to build to gain advantage and when to push the advantage you already have.
Advantage is the measure of who has the upper hand in the game. Advantage is with the investigators when they have a better board state than the game. Advantage is with the game when it has a better board state than the players. Understanding when to build and when to push your advantage is fundamental to becoming a good Arkham player.
Act and Agenda deck
The main way for us to manage the advantage battle is to pay attention to the Act and Agenda deck. The first time through a given scenario you are not going to know what these decks are going to throw at you. The best thing you can do is brace for the impact as best you can. Although the Agenda deck will always advance, we can control when to an extent. When it comes to the Act deck the choice of when to move forward can be really important.
The Act and Agenda deck drive the game, they are the beating heart of each scenario. In order to form a good strategy you should always be aware of what the Act and Agenda are driving towards at any given moment. The Agenda will effectively tell you how many turns you have before more badness comes your way, the Act will tell you what you should be doing.
I would also urge you to check the FAQ for any older scenarios, as there have been a couple of mistakes on cards in the past that fundamentally change how a scenario plays out. You can check the FAQ by the scenario name so this is relatively easy to scan before you get going.
Advancing the Agenda
Although the advancement of the Agenda deck is inevitable we can do certain things to slow it down. Doom will always accumulate one way or another, but the Doom on monsters can be suppressed by dealing with them however the scenario allows, most often by removing them from the game by fighting and killing them.
The other thing we can do to control the advancement of the Agenda is look to our investigator cards. Not all cards do this, but quite a few in the Mystic wheelhouse accumulate Doom in order to allow us to act. This means we must be cautious in using them, but also allows us to push the Agenda over when we want to. Always remember that all Doom will be cleared from play when the Agenda advances, with some notable scenario exceptions, so that includes Doom built up on cards like David Renfield. This means they can be used with no drawback as you hit the Doom threshold, allowing for a potentially powerful increase in advantage for the investigators on the eve of the Agenda advancing.
One more thing before we look at advancing the act. Many scenarios include Encounter cards that will accelerate the advancement of the Agenda, Ancient Evils being the most common. Always keep these in mind when calculating if you have another turn or not before the Agenda turns. The more investigators you have the more likely it is you are going to draw a card that advances the Agenda and messes with your plans.
Advancing the Act
The act we definitely have control over, and for the most part we want to get through it as quickly as possible before the Agenda deck comes and slaps us round the head for being too slow. That doesn’t mean we should just blindly advance it as soon as we can though. A lot of the time the Act tells us we can only advance once we have achieved a certain goal, not that we must. This is especially relevant to our first playthrough of a scenario, where we may guess what is coming next, but we can never be entirely sure.
Whatever is coming on the other side of an Act card is going to affect the board state and it is good to be in a position where you can handle that change in advantage, be it for or against you, when it comes. As such I think it is a good rule of thumb to not advance the Act with the last action of a round unless you can’t avoid it. It is usually much better to advance the Act in the first Investigator’s turn of the round, then the other players can deal with the consequences of it.
Using these ideas you can take control of the advantage of the game, making sure each investigator is in the right place at the right time and has as many of their tools ready to go as possible when the bell tolls and an Act or Agenda advance.
Be fully aware how long you have until the Agenda flips and what the Act requires you to do. When you have control over the advancement of the Act or Agenda, use that to gain advantage.
Action Economy and Compression
We know what we need to do, advance the Act before the Agenda catches up with us, and now we have some tools that we can use to manipulate those two decks if possible. Now we need to look at how we do that and fundamentally that comes down to actions. Like advantage, I’ve touched on this subject before in the Deckbuilding article but it is worth revisiting here. From that article:
“A card game like Arkham presents us with myriad ways to approach a problem and an action economy to deal with those problems. We get just 3 actions per investigator per turn and we can use those to do the basic actions of movement, investigate, fight, draw cards, and gain resources. The cards in our decks often allow us to change the number of effects we receive from a single action. For instance I could take 1 action to get 1 resource, or I could play the card Emergency Cache to get 3 resources for 1 action. The latter is more efficient and is an example of action compression, giving us the benefit of 3 ‘get resource’ actions in one. Doing more with each of your actions, and knowing when to not get caught up in being as efficient as possible, is another aspect of good play in all card games of this nature.”
What we are looking for here is to bring the scenario to a close as quickly as we can by making our actions as efficient as they can be. This means looking out for opportunities to do more than one thing with each of your actions, either through card play, or by allowing another investigator the space to do so.
We all know that Seekers are the Clue Gatherers de jour and so making sure there are no monsters or other obstacles in the way to them doing their job can be a vital task for the other investigators. Sometimes this means the actions of the non-seeker investigators aren’t as efficient, they may just be taking an action to engage an enemy for instance. This then allows the seeker to get two or more clues with each of their actions, which makes the party overall more efficient. It is this cooperation that will really make your strategy sing in Arkham, and it is worth watching for those moments where you can let other players be the most efficient and make the big plays.
The other aspect of the action economy is preparing for big turns where you need the action efficiency to advance the act, deal with particularly dangerous enemies, or whatever else the game throws at you. This means that some turns you are just going to be gathering resources, or drawing a card, and that is totally fine. You need turns where you build your board state in order to have the turns where you can really squeeze the most out of every action.
This comes back to our talk of advantage earlier in the piece. Building your board state so you can gain advantage later is important, but don’t ignore the pressing needs of the scenario. Finding a balance between these two forces is a key skill to learn.
Action economy is fundamental in Arkham, but sometimes it means allowing other players to be efficient. Embrace the need to build your board state to build up to big turns when you need the action efficiency. Know when to build and when to use that foundation to gain advantage.
The Chaos Bag and Skill tests
The chaos bag sits there staring at you, taunting you with the unknown as you pull a disc from its innards. Will fortune smile on you or is it all going to fall apart? Should you commit that vital card in your hand to make this test succeed? Let’s break this down a little. This is going to get a little mathsy.
Every class and role is going to need to test multiple times over the course of the game. Outside of the ever inevitable auto-fail we can mitigate our losses as best we can by running the numbers a little. We don’t need to dive into all the probabilities here, but we can hedge our bets with some simple calculations.
First thing to know is what the bag looks like during any given scenario. If you can be aware of what the range of modifiers are then you can more accurately predict your chances of failure for a given test. This allows us to choose when we might take a hit, or when we want to try and push for success depending on the situation and our character.
For instance you’ve just drawn Rotting Remains in the first scenario of the core box, The Gathering, and you are playing as Roland Banks.
Your willpower is 3 and you need a 3 or better to pass the test. The bag is on normal mode meaning it has the following 16 tokens:
+1,0,0,-1,-1,-1,-2,-2,-3,-4, Skull, Skull, Cultist, Tablet, Auto Fail, Elder Sign
The scenario card for Night of the Zealot on standard turns the skulls into a variable based on the number of ghouls hanging around and the cultist and tablet to -1 and -2 respectively. What we actually have then is
+1, 0, 0, -1, ,-1, -1 ,-1 ,-2 ,-2, -2, -3, -4, -x, -x, Auto Fail, Elder Sign (where x is number of ghouls in play at your location)
Let’s say Roland is at a location with no Ghouls. If he doesn’t commit a card to the test for Rotting Remains then 6 out of the 16 tokens will let him pass the test (+1, 0 , 0, -x, -x and Elder Sign). That’s about a 37% chance of passing. If we commit even one willpower icon to the test then our odds jump massively as all the -1 tokens suddenly come into play for helping us pass, another 4 tokens. That’s 10 out of 16 now letting us pass taking us to 63% chance of passing. Do we push further to get the -2 into play as well taking us to 80%?
This last decision comes down to how much of that horror we think we can take. Looking at the card again we take 1 horror for every point we fail by. Roland doesn’t have a lot of horror to give so this can be a pretty harsh card for him. However if we are at the point of committing one card what we now have is a 63% token for passing and a 17% chance of taking just 1 horror damage. That isn’t too bad and probably means we don’t need to commit another card to this test.
This is just a brief example of the kind of calculation you want to be doing when you take tests and are deciding whether or not to commit cards. Of course lots of other factors can come into play, but I don’t want to go too far down that path. Learning when to push for the pass, or absorb a little bit of pain is another string in the bow of being a great investigator. Be aware of the limitations of your character, and be prepared to take the occasional hit. If you want to dive more into this topic my friend Andy has started a series you can read.
Learn when to commit cards and when to take the hit. Being aware of your limitations and when you need to push for success is a vital skill. Have a rough idea of the probabilities of a given outcome. You are going to fail sometimes and there is nothing you can do about it
Order of Play
One last piece of advice before we move onto looking at encounter cards. The order of play can be vitally important in a given turn and we can choose which order we resolve each Investigator’s turn.
It’s a good idea to prioritise the actions you need to do this turn: do you need to get the last clue to advance the act deck, or make sure that monster dies so it doesn’t kill your seeker? Have a look at the board state and decide what the most important thing that you need to do this turn is and take actions in an order that makes sure that thing happens. The chaos bag is always going to hit you when you really need it not to, so it is often a good idea to have a backup plan to complete vital actions if it throws bad luck in your face.
Once the absolutely vital actions are taken care of, you can get on with the business of building your own board state, chipping away at clue totals, taking care of monsters etc.
Take stock of your priorities at the start of a round and take actions in an order that is more likely to guarantee your success. Remember you can take your turns in any order every round.
Of course no conversation about how to play Arkham would be complete without a dive into the encounter deck. Every turn, apart from the first, you are going to get a card from this deck that is going to mess with your plans. Will it be a straight test, a burden to carry, or a monster set on seeing if you taste good.
With the straight test type we would be referring to the guidance above. Keep in mind that sometimes it might be better to take the hit rather than throw useful cards away.
The burden to carry type, are all those cards that you can’t do anything about like Dissonant Voices from the core set. These cards have effects that will either be ongoing, immediate, or some combination of the two. Many of them will fall into the test category as well, maybe allowing you to test to get rid of them at the end of each turn or similar. Within these cards we get a sub type of cards that accumulate, like Daemonic Piping from the Circle Undone. Generally there will be two or three of these and the effects will get worse as they come out. If you have someone in your group that can cancel encounter cards happening, these are very good targets for such an effect.
Monsters are an entirely different matter. Without cancellation effects these cards are going to hang around, pushing the advantage in favour of the game as you have to work your way around them one way or another. Evading them might put them on the back burner for a turn or two, but sometimes that is just kicking the can down the road. What we really want to do is look at dealing with them long term, and there are a few ways to do that.
The first instinct is of course to punch them in the face. Killing monsters gets rid of them from the board state, so is a great solution. Hang on a minute though, timing this can be important. On repeat playthroughs of a scenario you will have an idea of when the encounter deck is likely to get reshuffled if at all. If you are near to such a juncture, then holding off on killing the monster can be a valid strategy if it is a really tough one you don’t want to see back too soon. Equally if you are dealing with something scrawny, then you might want to kill it as soon as possible, as putting easy to deal with enemies back into the encounter deck, can increase your chances of not pulling something more horrendous out.
When you do decide to kill it is worth doing some calculations before you start your turn. Take into account how much damage you can do with each success, the health of the monster, what failure might cost if it has Retaliate or Massive. A quick bit of maths like this can really help you make the correct decisions.
Kiting is the next possible option, a term I learnt from my time playing MMOs. This refers to running away from the enemy constantly and not allowing it to actually catch and hurt you, whilst forcing it to pursue you along a certain path. The simplest way to do this in Arkham is to have someone evading the enemy, a strategy that lacked a bit of oomph in the early days of the game but with the larger card pool and Investigators like Finn and Rita, has become a lot more viable. Depending on the scenario you might also be able to just run around locations, ending up where the monsters are not. Keep in mind that evading an enemy also turns off its ability to Retaliate.
Tanking it is up next. This means just taking the monster damage on the chin, absorbing what it is throwing at you. This is often done side by side with fighting, making a calculation on how many hits you can take before the monster goes down. I find this situation often comes at crux moments in the scenario, when there are bigger priorities than taking a monster down. Monsters can also be passed from Investigator to Investigator, ensuring that no one dies and makes it out of the scenario with no trauma.
There are other ways to deal with monsters in terms of cards that might despawn them, stop them coming into existence in the first place, and of course the occasional scenario specific methods like those found in “The House Always Wins” from the Dunwich Legacy core. These 3 general principles should help you deal with Monsters anyway you want, just be careful not to get too overwhelmed or all this advice will be for nought.
Encounter cards will always throw a spanner in the works, but you can prepare. Use the principles we have discussed to know when to test, when to take the hit. You can fight, kite, or tank enemies. How you deal with monsters will very much depend on your particular party composition.
Dealing with Weaknesses
Before we move on from dealing with encounter cards it’s probably worth taking a moment to talk about those hidden encounter cards nestling in our decks, Weaknesses. Every investigator is going to come with a signature weakness and a random one from your collection. I personally like not knowing what the random one is so get someone else to draw it for me and tell me if it is permanent or not. Whatever method you use, you are going to have one and at some point during the game one or more of them will come up amongst the investigators.
Of course the longer you play the more likely you are to see weaknesses, so making sure you are always moving to advance the Act and end the scenario is paramount in managing weaknesses. When they do inevitably show up there are lots of ways to mitigate them. Some of them are just not that bad and can be easily handled. Others will devastate your advantage when they turn up and cause real problems. I’m not going to go into each and every one here, as that could be an article all in itself. Instead I’m going to tell you to treat them just like encounter cards, taking them one at a time and deciding at the time what to do about them.
One really important thing to keep in mind is that when weaknesses enter someone’s threat area and have actions on them to remove them, those actions can be taken by any investigator round the table. This comes back to our discussion about action efficiency and economy. Sometimes it will be better for you to help someone out with their weakness, so they can do the most efficient thing this turn.
You are going to see some weaknesses round the table, they are just encounter cards in your deck. Remember that all investigators can help out when a weakness enters someone’s threat area.
Every investigator has 3 core pools to manage over the course of a scenario: Resources, Health, and Sanity. Managing these well can really give you the edge when you need it.
Resources management starts before you even deal your opening hand. In my deckbuilding article I talked about resource curves, and how you need to plan for what your board state is going to look like. As we touched on above you need to make sure that you have enough resources for the big turns, when every action is vital, and that this sometimes means just taking an action to get 1 resource now. Hopefully if your deck runs smoothly you won’t have to do this very much, but sometimes it is necessary and you shouldn’t shy away from that choice.
Health and Sanity pools need to be managed as well. We have a finite amount of both and running out of either ejects us from the game with some trauma for our troubles. Of course in ideal circumstances we would take no damage at all but of course that is very unlikely. Instead we need to make calculations when we go into fights, try and evade, or resolve an encounter card. How much damage can I take at this moment? How far into the scenario are we? How much will the damage I take now impact my ability to help later?
Using health and sanity as a resource to get things done is vital to getting you through any scenario. Unlike action efficiency which we can almost see as a group resource, health and sanity pools must be considered at an individual level. It’s up to the player to decide how much they are going to put their investigator in harm’s way, but this decision can always be chatted about amongst the party.
That said you don’t need to hoard health and sanity and they are a pool to be spent just like resources are for building your board state. This is especially so as the game draws to its conclusion. If you sacrifice too much early one you might find yourself with nothing in the tank for that final push at the end of the scenario, which is most likely to be the moment a really big bad turns up. Keep yourself as healthy as possible for the most part, and spend those pools as a last resort.
Health and Sanity are to be spent like any other resource. It is usually best to keep some back for the end of the scenario when the big bads start turning up.
Maximise your win
You are on the path to victory, you have the scenario under control and your board states are singing along, advantage is in your favour! Now is the time for some showboating! By this I mean that when you are well ahead in a scenario you can take some time to pick up that all important experience, and maybe even take some risks you normally wouldn’t take.
Go looking for that extra experience. Maybe you should take the time to take out that monster that seemed too much earlier, they are worth 1xp after all! Squeezing out all you can from a scenario can make things easier later on, allowing you to afford the really big guns, sometimes literally.
You are going to lose Arkham sometimes, that is absolutely inevitable. It happens to the most experienced players amongst us when the chaos bag and the encounter deck just don’t go your way. It’s one of the things we love about the game.
There are two things to consider when you know you are on a losing path: experience, and how you are going to go out.
On the experience side of things, you could decide to chuck in the towel and just squeeze as many victory points out of the scenario as possible. This can help you overcome later scenarios, in the knowledge that this one didn’t go so well but you managed to get an extra point or two out.
How you lose is almost as important. Many scenarios will have a Resign action somewhere on the board and that is always the best way to bring the scenario to an end if you aren’t going to manage it through the act deck. The Resolution you reach may be just as bad as if you had been defeated but at least you aren’t going to be carrying Trauma through to the next scenario.
If you are in a situation where you are going to be defeated then you may be able to manage how that happens: from physical or sanity damage. I’d always recommend taking the hit to your highest stat if possible, keeping in mind that both physical and mental damage are assigned at the same time from an attack.
If you are winning, seek out these extra xp. If you are losing, you may want to consider the same advice, squeezing as much out of the scenario as possible before running for the hills. If you are going to get defeated, try and manage how you go out, taking the trauma hit to your highest stat if possible
Arkham Horror: LCG, is a complicated game. There are lots of things to get right, triggers on cards to remember, scenario effects to implement. Sometimes you are going to forget something and in those moments I urge you to cheat a little if you want to. Rewind your turn if you forgot a trigger at the start of it, there is no harm in a little flexibility amongst the group with a game with so many moving parts. That said don’t cheat like this just when things go against you. Embracing the ebb and flow of success in the game will lead to you enjoying it more.
Tip of the Iceberg
I’ve tried here to give you a good overview of the very basics of Arkham Horror: LCG strategy and I hope I have succeeded. There are loads of other aspects to the game that I simply can’t cover in a single article, and you can find all sorts of analysis of the game and its strategies all over the web.
With this article I think I am done with all the beginner’s guides I intend to write. I hope you have found them useful and as with the other two I’ll be updating this one if anything substantially changes about anything I’ve said here. I think that’s unlikely so this is the one that is the most likely to stay as it is.
May the Chaos Bag always be kind to you (it won’t, it’s like that).