First Thoughts on Arkham Horror: The Card Game

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I’m a tad humbled to tell you at this point I have only played Arkham Horror a handful of times and tragically we are still fighting to beat Night of the Zelalot, the first campaign in the series. So it would be trifle unfair to review a game where I’ve barely scratched upon the surface. However, I did want to write up some initial thoughts and perhaps answer a few questions for anyone who is considering getting into this. Here I will touch on a few points that certainly went through my mind before and since playing.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is the first in a new series of ‘Living Card Games’ by Fantasy Flight, a co-op horror immersed in Lovecraftian Mythos. For anyone who isn’t familiar (and bear with me because this is quite a convoluted explanation) a LCG is like almost like a trading card game without the randomisation, where new packs and expansions will be released as an ongoing series that you can choose to add to your repertoire as and when. Available so far we have: Arkham Horror- a two player card game that can play 1-4 with additional core sets, followed by Carnevale of Horrors- a standalone scenario pack that can be added as a sideline to the core game. Last week the expansion to Arkham, The Dunwich Legacy was released, which has several ‘Mythos’ packs lined up that integrate with both games. Are you still with me? I hope so. The concept of these games is to play along with the campaigns, survive intact and gain experience points that will allow you more cards to use in the next part of the story. You set up your game by each choosing a character and corresponding deck, with agenda/location/encounter cards and token bag at the ready. You have a starting hand of 5 cards (that can be increased to a maximum 8) that include assets, skills and weaknesses. You investigate locations, draw new cards, pick up clues, fight/evade monsters and advance the agenda cards to assist you in completing the campaign. Much of your success hinders on randomly drawn ‘Chaos’ tokens that will effect your action (e.g.- you play a willpower skill and need 4 willpower to succeed, your character has 3 and you draw a +1 Chaos token- success!) You are aiming to get to the end before the dreaded Doom tokens advance on the agenda before you do, then everything goes from bad to worse to dead and/or insane.

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I’m always a bit wary of LCGs, my main concern is once they are all played and achieved will I want to go back and play again, and the answer is probably not. Do I really want to pump money I haven’t really got into this Fantasy Flight moneymaker? This is the nature of a LCG, you either take it for what it is, enjoy the ride and spend the money, or say ‘nope, not for me’. I’m still very much in two minds. Part of me wants to get my moneys worth, but the greedy gamer in me says ‘but I want to try all of them’. And I certainly think part of the fun is looking forward to what’s coming next, mastering the game, exploring newly acquired decks, and building your own. But in terms of game play it’s an unusual experience- the thrill and intrigue of a campaign can be fantastic, but it will only come once then it’s lost. Until the next one.

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I come to realise this after my first couple of games of Arkham Horror, because apparently we kind of suck. Don’t get me wrong- I love a challenge. But the initial thrill of the first game has already got tired and I am concerned with how bloody annoying it’s going to be given a couple more failed attempts. The first play we read the narrative aloud to candlelight, delivered with dramatic flair, excited for the horrors in store. A couple of games later it was a bit (ok a lot) less enthused; ‘here we are in the parlor … again … sigh’. The problem is you want to persist and you desperately want those experience points. But if you already find making time for gaming difficult well let me say that Arkham Horror is an all-consuming time-eater.

Let’s move on to a positive note; what I loved about those initial first games and am excited for still is the story unfolding. Much like in a great work of fiction or good video game, the story starts slowly as you’re finding your feet and checking out your surroundings. During this time you are accumulating cards/resources, investigating locations and revealing further narrative. There’s no denying that the story telling element is strong here and when coupled with the evocative card art -a family game this is not. The real action begins when diabolical horrors starting spawning on locations left, right and center, and you soon find yourself in deep s**t with a hell of a lot to tackle. This is the part that I found really clever and wonderfully thematic. As soon as your sanity and health start chipping away it’s an uphill struggle to stay alive, sane and advance your agenda.

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I also wondered if this would be ‘just another Lovecraft game’. I am actually a huge Lovecraft fan, but at this point there are so many board games and RPGs surrounding the Cthulu Mythos that it has become a little stale for some people, myself included. But the great thing about Lovecraft is that there is a wealth of material to inspire, so it doesn’t have to be all Shoggoths & Cthulu. So far Arkham Horror seems to be slightly subtler, with a focus on hidden horrors, a steady building madness and disorientation where your locations are transformed into ghastly backdrops, stuffed to the gills with the most horrible things a mind could conjure. Y’ know…as far as I can tell from attempting one campaign.

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I was also considering if this would be too similar to Eldritch Horror, a game that I’ve played quite a bit these past couple of years. But as I’ve touched on already I think it’s the clever story telling that sets it apart, and being a card game lends it a far smoother feel. I love the simple mechanics, and the way that you can move from one phase to the next with minimal fussy business in between. Aside from all the creatures trying to kill you.

Lastly I think that you really need to be willing to co-op to play, which seems like an obvious statement, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that you need to be utilsing your character’s skill set to help each other and take the focus away from yourself somewhat. Apparently we haven’t mastered this yet, and maybe that is something to do with not playing co-op games too often that we haven’t fully grasped how to co-op to win yet. Interesting.

And with that I’ll draw this post to a close.

In summary, Arkham Horror is a chilling co-op game with a lot to offer if and when you get to the good stuff. If you don’t mind an experience that needs repeated refreshing, that will eat into much of your gaming time and you’re happy to keep buying then you’re probably going to have a lot of fun.

I’m still on the fence contemplating…wish me luck for my next game???

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The Bloody Inn, Nicolas Robert

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The Bloody Inn. This game made such a big splash last year, and for the few months it was out of print I was desperate to get it. However as I knew it was a card game (no big board, too many components or miniatures etc) I refused to pay a completely unreasonable price for it since I knew it would be back for another print run. So I waited patiently until a couple months ago I finally bought it for its RRP. And this is what I thought.

I’ll start with….it’s an unusual one. It’s a grower. I think perhaps after that anticipation it fell slightly flat first time round (no huge surprise after months of coveting) but as I’ve played it more I’ve grown to like it more. It’s medium strategy, easy to get wrong if you’re not careful and does require a bit of brain burning.

Ok let’s go back to the start. So in a nutshell you’re running an Inn and you kill your guests. Dark right? But fun.

  •  You begin by randomly drawing 6 cards from the central deck, and these are guests frequenting your hotel of horrors. You pop them in their errr lovely little room (on the board) and each player owns rooms, represented by coloured key tokens, some of which are neutral and belong to no one.
  • Each card/guest has a pick up cost. You can spend your two starting cards (‘peasant’ cards) and can either kill guests outright or you can pick them up and use them to kill somebody else, or use them to build annexes (places to bury your corpses).
  • Some cards have instant monetary rewards, some give you money when you build an annexe or when you bury a body.
  • You move along the score track as you earn and can use an action to launder money, so you go back on the track and pick up cash tokens instead.
  • At the end of each round you can gain points for any of your rooms with guests still present and are deducted points for cards left in your hand.
  • All cards used go into a spent pile.
  •  Your only allowed two actions per turn
  •  Building up your annexes means you can use the card abilities/bonuses to help you gain more money and spend less cards.
  • The game ends when your guest cards have depleted and the player with the most money (in both money tokens and on the score track) wins the game.
And that’s the general game play!
So why is this game such a tricky little thing? Well the trouble starts when your Inn is populated by ‘the law’ (constables, sergeants and the like) because if you end your turn with any unburied bodies you pay a pretty hefty fine (lose money/points) and lose the body. Only having two actions per turn is tough, especially when you have to use an action to get your peasant cards back. You have to play carefully to get some necessary end of round points by having your rooms still populated, (and making sure your opponent doesn’t) and somehow end the round by having no cards, all bodies buried but minimising how many times you spend a precious action next round getting your peasants back. All whilst figuring out the best times to launder money and stay ahead of your opponent. How do you achieve this? I wish I knew, I still haven’t cracked it! And therein lies the fun, it seems the more I play the more I realise this game is a challenge. I tend not to play games to hammer other people but to better my score and improve my strategy. This is how I have concluded that it was worth the wait and worth the purchase. I still don’t think a price point about £20 would be reasonable, but I’m glad I held out for it.
My only criticism would be that I think it could have developed on the bribing/trading between players. You have to work together somewhat when the Inn is overrun with the law, and you can bury a body under another players annexe. It would of been cool if you could of bribed an opponent to use your annexe or kill a police officer for you, or traded a card someone else might need for money. But I guess the designers had their reasons for not taking it there. That’s it! More info here. Ps- the art is weird and gorgeous, all these abstract angular faces and beautiful colour. Always a plus!
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Escape From The Aliens In Outer Space

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I was looking forward to this for some time and having heard mixed opinions (along the lines of ‘brilliant, love this game’ to ‘doesn’t work very well in practice’) I was curious to try it myself and wanted the re print with the matte finish book-like box, the map/log manuals and wipe clean markers. It has a great design, the minimal art work is very fitting and the creatures are pretty horrible, it really does have that ‘Alien’/space horror feel. But is it any good? I won’t beat around the bush, yes, yes it is. In my opinion.

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Let’s start with the setting. You’re on a research mission in deep space. The bad news is that your craft has been badly damaged. You’ve been plunged into darkness. The worse news is that an alien plague has got on board and it’s going to creep about and pick you off one by one and transform you into a flesh eating monster too. Run.

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So how do you play? Well despite the slightly intimidating rule book (symbols everywhere…brain melting) it’s actually pretty straightforward. It’s bluffing/hidden movement basically. You randomly determine in secret who is playing the alien and who is the human. Each come with a special ability (optional) and you choose which map to play on (there’s a recommended beginners map and they all state the number of players they’re best used with). From here on you decide where to move on your map to escape the alien or hunt the human. The white sectors are silent sectors, so you can announce you’re located in a silent sector but don’t have to draw a card. Then there’s the grey ‘dangerous sectors’ where you randomly draw a card from the main deck. Green cards mean you have to declare a sector but not necessarily the one where you’re in, red cards means you have to be truthful about where you are. So there’s a fair amount of bluffing here. Which for some reason took me a while to get the hang of but when I did, I realised I’m actually pretty good at it! So you move around your map trying to get to an escape pod. If the alien player or players find you then they can attack and kill you! Then it’s ‘game over man, game over!’ So a pretty abrupt ending. You can also randomly draw ‘action’ cards from the deck instead of a noise card, you can keep these to yourself and play them on any turn once. This is also optional!
A few points:
  • The maps matter. I was playing a two player game with the starter map which is actually recommended for 4-8 players. The first two times I played I died within about three minutes (but was also not bluffing very well) and as soon as we started playing with the 2-8 player maps the game went on (for about 10 minutes) and was a lot tougher.
  • It works as a two player. This was a concern I had but it still works really nicely. Only with two players you both know who you are so there’s really no secret there and also a couple of cards that would be cool you aren’t able to use, like ‘mutate’ so you can change into an alien secretly and trick your opponents. It would also last longer with more players, so I really want to try it with 2+ to see how it differs.
  • I’d recommend playing with the character ability and events. It means there’s more going on, more options and you can (try) to get smart. For example one action card means that the human player can attack an alien. So I deliberately tried to trick my alien opponent by bluffing as to my whereabouts and was secretly following where I thought he was to kill him. Then I played the card at the wrong time and promptly died. Not so smart. But it was a fun way to play. Maybe next time!
  • It can be over pretty quickly. If you play with 2-3 players it’s more of a filler game.
  • I’ve never played a game that involves mapping and writing and I really enjoyed this aspect. But as much as I liked the laminated maps I found the pens to be fiddly. Also hiding your manual from the other player whilst writing and trying not to smudge your ink is tricky. Give me a mini pencil any day!
  • You have to announce ‘silent sector’ ‘dangerous sector’ ‘noise detected in sector X’ every single turn. After saying the phrases in various theatrical tones, like the whisper, the Dalek, the generic ship computer voice, it got a little annoying. It’s a small criticism, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment!
Overall I’d give it a 8/10. It’s a good game, fun with two, probably a ‘bigger’ game if played in a group, and with the lights down and some atmospheric music it’s even better. Maybe not worth paying over the odds for but definitely worth the RRP (£25-£30 depending on where you shop.) More Info

Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, Bruno Cathala Ludovic Maublanc

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I coveted Fantome d’le Opera for aaaaaaages. I saw it reviewed and thought it looked cool. That was about 18 months ago, and admittedly my tastes were a bit shallow. Recently I looked at the review again, and even though it wasn’t particularly glowing I thought ‘I still want this dammit!’. It looked to be out of print or at least hard to come by in the UK so my ‘covet-o-meter’ was going mad! After coming into some spare money (tax rebate!) I found it on eBay and decided to go for it. It’s in the same family as Mr Jack, which I’ve never played, and it’s a simple, but kind of tricky hidden movement game.
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You can choose to play as The Phantom or the other characters who are trying to escape his clutches. You move around the board using the movement ability and conditions on the character cards, to deduce who the Phantom is.  At the bottom of the board we have Carlotta and she moves up the track each round and can be ‘scared’ by The Phantom, and if she reaches the end before you’ve figured it out, you’ve lost! Personally I found playing as the characters and guessing too easy, it’s running away and disguising as The Phantom that is tricky!
 Now, in hindsight, maybe I should of taken heed with the video review I saw. It’s a bit thin. I don’t regret buying it, it’s a great game to have in the collection, and sometimes when the mood takes I could really fancy it. Also it’s worth remembering that since this was released in 2013 gaming has moved on somewhat, with small box games and print and play especially becoming more popular. It comes in a fairly large box (though not huge by any means) and has a nice board, big cardboard cards and chunky tokens. It definitely has an old school feel, which I really like. But because it’s quite ‘big’, you feel that there should be something more substantial to it, especially for a two player only game. But there really isn’t too much going on apart from what it says on the tin. It just seems quite unnecessary to have the board, the heavy cardboard etc, because it’s a filler game basically. It’s over really quickly, even when we house ruled to put the start marker two steps back so it takes a bit longer. I’m sure we never had a 30 minute game as estimated in the game overview. This could be a little card game or a print and play, it could probably be re-released as such, because it’s definitely a fun party or filler game.
Next time I play i’m lighting the candles and putting the soundtrack on! Not the one with Gerard Butler. That was weird. More Info
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A Study In Emerald, Martin Wallace

*Bear in mind that these thoughts are based on a two player game. And that it was mainly composed at 2am when my daughter wouldn’t sleep. 

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I wanted to love A Study In Emerald. So that was possibly my first mistake. I’m rather into the Lovecraftian genre. Not on a massive scale but I’ve read quite a bit of Lovecraft over the years and enjoyed films and games based on the Cthulhu Mythos. So I thought this game is perfect for me; deck building, secret plotting, Sherlock and Cthulhu, I’m there!  There are some parts to this game I really like, for a start the art work is gorgeous. It looks like something out of an Oz book, and I love the board and cards, it’s just so darn attractive with some hideous Elder God cards to boot, perfect! But I found it hard to shake the initial disappointment after being so excited for it.
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I thought it was going to be one of those games I’d instantly click with, so I was a bit perplexed that I was struggling to grasp the concept during the first couple of plays. I really enjoy deck building and the mechanics seemed like familiar territory. I’m pleased to say that after a short while it all became clear. Well clear-ish. The rule book was slightly problematic, at first it seemed to be well written and but there are a few ambiguous parts that left us (and Jon being a big rules man) like ‘whaaaa?’ and having to look up online for rules explanations etc. I’m aware that the second edition is more streamlined, and a lot of er loyalists to the original think this version is a travesty. Having had no experience of the first edition and being that it’s no longer in print, that doesn’t really matter to people who have only just discovered the game. Anyway my point is that if this was an opportunity to improve on the original then why not make the rule book a bit better?
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Onto the game itself. I’m not going to talk in depth about the rules because you can find that information anywhere. But to give you a the general idea I’ll outline the basics. You spend most of ASIE as you would any other deck builder, by collecting cards that work for you and enhance your turns with weird and wonderful things. You have a secret ID, you’re either with the elders (Royalists) or you’re fighting against them as a Restorationist. You move your agents around the city spaces and grapple for influence to get the card you want (you need more pieces on the city to get first dibs). The symbols on the cards let you do certain things like move, pick up etc. You need influence cubes to pick up the cards and the cubes go into ‘limbo’ when spent, so ideally you want to claim a card that lets you retrieve all of them so you don’t spend all your turns just picking up cubes. You can also spend turns performing assassinations on your opponent or killing the creatures. If you’re a Loyalist you can get a card that means you ‘claim’ the creatures for final points.
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So this brings me to the pointy issue of points. Because the main aim of any game is to get points and win. So it’s a pretty big deal when it doesn’t quite work. The end triggers when you reach 28 on the score track, 10 on the influence track, if all your agents die or you lose sanity. You score by getting neutral points on city cards, performing assassinations, claiming certain character and creature cards. So there’s a lot to think about there. In a two player it’s quite difficult to keep your ID secret, but if you want to bluff you have to be careful not to get too many cards that will lose you points at the end. Because when the end triggers you deduct any points that were not helpful to your faction. E.g- you’re a Restorationist who wants to appear as a Loyalist so you’ve assassinated another agent but this will lose you points at the end for this. Likewise for the Loyalist, when you get Loyalist characters you have to roll the sanity dice. Lose three sanity and you go mad! So my issue is that in an already complex game with narrow time constraints, what is with the influence track? This was a real problem for us and my main bug bear. You can move the marker on this track up and down depending on whether your the Royalist or Restorationist faction and this affects how your points on the scoring track move. You can use it to speed up or delay the game pretty much using the number of difference on the track. Since reading a few posts on BGG I’m relieved it’s not just us that struggled with it! We ended one game on what I thought was a close call and then I lost all my points to the dreaded track and was a bit like ‘well why’s that happened?’ So I lost all the difference because I was one point behind on the Loyalist track?  I went down to zero? Still so confused! Is it meant to be evocative of the theme? Because it drove me mad! I felt a bit deflated and Jon felt a bit shitty and we were left thinking it would be far better without this odd mechanic. I personally think it doesn’t really achieve what it intended and should of been scrapped. Because it’s not that fun to use. But the rest of the game is good so it’s an irritant. I suggested that maybe we should house rule this in some way or leave it out entirely for future plays. But as Jon said, quite rightly, that with so many other games out there that are all round solid winners why would we play a game where we’ve had to change or leave out a main part of it because it sucks? Whilst this is true, I think as I enjoyed the rest of the game I want to make it work for us. But still  don’t really like the idea of changing the mechanics in place. I think we’d definitely have to give it a couple more turns using the influence track and perhaps finally figure out how this works to advantage without destroying yourself at the end. But if not I’d be happy to play without it. Kind of. In a nutshell;
The negative;
– Influence Track
– A WTF rule book
–  With two players it’s over very quickly and you’ve barely made a dent in the game. We house ruled to put the city cards at the bottom of the draw deck spaces because if you score the city points in the initial few rounds it’s all over in ten minutes.
– Generally with a lot to play around with it’s a shame that the end of game can trigger so quickly.
– Hard to keep your secret identity secret for long with a two player.
The positive;
– A gorgeous game.
– Secret Plotting is great fun.
– The deck building element.
– The theme.
– I like the fast pace, with sudden death imminent there’s lots to get done and turns are lightening fast.
– Much to think about and opportunity to secretly strategise (just not enough time to employ it all!).
– The character cards with some nice surprises (Freud! William Morris!).
– Some gruesome new elders like Gloriana.
If you’ve had a completely different experience in a 2 plus game please do share!

Fury of Dracula, Frank Brooks Stephen Hand Kevin Wilson

Fury of Dracula, my first hidden movement game. Waited for this for two years and got a third edition for Christmas. Fist game took about two hours with two players, I played this hidden movement game as both Dracula and the hunters and both are just as good, the only criticism I have is that if you’re Dracula you do have quite a bit of dead time (ugh pardon the pun!) after you have your move, waiting for the other player or players to take their turn which is considerably longer but it’s worth it when it comes to the ‘fighting’ stages and you can do cool vampire stuff. I love the artwork and the board, good quality pieces and definitely worth the higher price point. Very pleased to have added this to the collection at last. More Info