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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Davidson

Cthulhu is the Nickelback of the Board Game World

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

As an avid tabletop gamer, after countless numbers of games bought and played, there is one truth I have come to understand: Cthulhu is the Nickelback of the board game world, an entity of unwaning commonplace despite the seeming lack of audience interest. With the literary world of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos on the “public domain” chopping block, the board game industry, wrought with Lovecraft oversaturation, is filled with games about Cthulhu: Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, Mountains of Madness, Elder Sign, Call of Cthulhu. These are only a few notable mentions drifting within an ocean of games surrounding H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos.

The stage is crammed. The novelty is gone. The inspiration long retired.

Akin to a new Nickelback album (“Who is buying these albums?”) another Lovecraft game joins the ranks (“Seriously, who is buying these games?). Frankly, a new Arkham Horror game would need a lot to impress its audience, especially this writer.

The young and scrappy newcomer, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, published in 2016 by Fantasy Flight Games, came at a time with less demand than any other theme within a board game (stalked closely by zombie games—pun intended).

In Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Nate French, the designer, offers players a new type of “narrative” card game. Not only would French’s game provide an overarching story in the campaign mode, but personal narratives for the characters of Arkham. In transparency, the game has received loads of buzz and high praise. Critics such as Zee Garcia from The Dice Tower and the fine gents over at Shut Up & Sit Down celebrate the game. However, upon the game’s release in 2016, it was too little, too late, in this writer’s opinion.

Arkham is a cooperative narrative game that deliberates a story to the players and allows them to make essential decisions. Player’s accomplish objectives—narrative events that drive the scenario—by playing cards, investigating for clues, exploring different locations, and, sometimes, slaying horrific creatures. Atypical of other two-player cooperative card games—such as the Lord of the Rings card game—there is no defined win or lose situation. Instead, Arkham narrates unique narratives based on how well the players perform within any given scenario. For example, if the scenario tasks the players with rescuing a young girl and they are unsuccessful in saving her, the players fail the scene, reshuffle, and repeat. However, in Arkham, players do not fail; instead, they continue on and receive a diverging narrative.

Gameplay: In Arkham Horror: The Card Game, players take the role of a character ripped directly from the horror-dipped pages and lunatic lines of Lovecraft’s stories. They customize a deck of cards for their chosen character-style and use them for a standalone scenario or for an entire campaign (a series of seven or eight interconnected games where choices and narrative carry over from game to game).

On the surface, Arkham is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to the Lord of the Rings LCG (Living Card Game). How turn-order and rounds, now divided into phases, peppered with player actions (windows of opportunity), is practically identical. The allocation of resources, cards, deckbuilding, and card synergy make a strong showing, too. However, Arkham takes another step towards the deep end of the thematic narrative by allowing players to “purchase” (by spending experience points) upgraded cards for their deck. These enhanced cards come in the form of new allies, spells, weapons, or talents (skills). This element of “leveling up” within the character’s chosen classes (one dominant class, one minor class) rings with the sweet music of classic roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. For fans of deckbuilding games, there is no fruit more delicious than biting into a completely personalized, customized, deck and watch it get results. Arkham has no shortage of card pool to let players roll up their sleeves and deck build all through the night until unforgiving light of dawn peeks over their bedroom window.

We all have guilty pleasures. For some, it is enjoying the Vanilla Ice song “Ice, Ice, Baby” every time it gets played, even though it is a blatant and direct musical copy of David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” For others, it is rejecting the Twilight novels as works of literary genius, even though owning every single first edition hardback copy, the complete series on Blu-Ray and a giant poster of Edward and Jacob tacked to the back closet wall.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is this writer’s guilty pleasure (and is growing less guilty with every strike of the keyboard). While not always keeping its duration lower than the board game version of its kind, Arkham’s narrative element is incredibly fun and addicting.

For fans of two-player card games such as Magic: The Gathering, Netrunner, and the Lord of the Rings LCG, the game offers plenty to keep them awake at night, looking for card synergy and combos.

Also, for those who love narrative within games, there is a lot here, too. The writing is fabulous—all of the game’s imagery is well-executed in the prose. Each scenario plays differently.

· One situation may be about discovering monsters and engaging in combat, while others are about finding more narrative clues.

At times, Arkham can be intense. The campaign play can be punishing, but satisfying (the game offers several different difficulty modes for players to attempt campaign play: Easy, Standard, Hard, and Nightmare). Moments of tension offer players the opportunity to stand and shout, high-five, and pat each other on the back when achieving a narrative objective.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game offers a little something for everyone, from the gamer to the roleplayer to the casual fan. With two complete campaign cycles released, along with the mini-campaign included in the base game, another campaign cycle on the way in 2018, players can enjoy the game for hours and hours without any diminishing returns of excitement.

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