Mathos Busters

Guest Article written by Chris Mooney

If you’re a part of the online Arkham community, you’ve probably seen at least one person talk about what I call the “1:1:1 economy rule”, or the philosophy that 1 action = 1 card = 1 resource (since you can always spend 1 action to draw 1 card or get 1 resource). The idea is that by using this equation, you can do some simple math to determine how valuable a card is. For example, Emergency Cache costs [1 action + 1 card] to play and gives you [3 resources], so you’ve gotten a net of +1 from playing the card.

Most players would agree that the 1:1:1 rule is, at best, a shortcut: something that allows us to eyeball the value of a card while leaving out the nuances of actual play. I’m here today to argue that the 1:1:1 rule is just plain wrong, and to offer up an alternative method of card evaluation. It all starts with this: actions are the most valuable resource in the game, and it’s not close.

Every single scenario at a basic level requires actions to be taken. You are required to move, investigate, and sometimes fight enemies to resolve every scenario. So to succeed, you simply want to take as many actions as possible. Cards and resources help you along the way, but they’re ultimately not necessary to success. Plus, you can always turn actions into cards or resources when you need them, but that’s a one-way street. You can’t just turn extra cards or resources back into actions for free.

To think about it another way, imagine this: would you rather have unlimited card draw and resource generation but no actions, or unlimited actions with no cards or resources? Cards and resources are useless without actions to play them, and even if you got the standard 3 a turn you’d still be limited in how fast you could put them to use. But unlimited actions simply allow you to win the game immediately. You can move to any location and try any test any number of times to succeed. You can just keep pulling tokens from the bag until you eventually collect every clue and kill or evade every enemy.

On top of this, your actions are hard capped by the game itself. Through the ever-advancing agenda deck, you will always have a maximum number of turns (and thus actions) to complete a scenario. In comparison, resources and (to a slightly lesser extent) cards are bottomless. You can have literally as many as you want and they’re easy to replenish. The only limiting factor is, again, how many actions you have.

Obviously, my example will have some exceptions, but I think it does a good job at illustrating how actions are far more valuable than resources or cards. I believe that the 1:1:1 rule breaks down due to its criminal undervaluing of actions. We can see this illustrated clearly by some of the game’s most popular cards.

Perennial favorite Leo de Luca costs a whopping [6 resources + 1 action + 1 card] to play, and pays you back with [1 action] each turn. The 1:1:1 rule would tell us that our friend Leo won’t even break even for eight turns. While we all know opening with Leo is a lot better than drawing him late, does anyone actually believe that a Leo who’s been out for 4 or 5 turns hasn’t been worth the cost? Do we really consider it a loss to get 4 or 5 extra actions because we’re down a few extra resources? I believe that if Leo truly didn’t pay off until turn nine, he wouldn’t be as ubiquitous as he is today.

What about Lucky!? [1 card + 1 resource] to save [1 action] should be a negative tradeoff, but it seems most people agree Lucky! is a great card. Skids allows us to pay [2 resources] for [1 action], but according to 1:1:1 shouldn’t that be just as powerful as paying [2 actions] for [1 resource]? Are we saying Jenny wouldn’t be any stronger if she gave us an extra [1 action] each turn instead of [1 resource]? And what about Hot Streak? Surely trading [1 action + 1 card + 3 resources] to gain [10 resources] (a net total of +5) would make it one of the best cards in the game!

The 1:1:1 rule leads us to a lot of weird conclusions that I think we all agree contradict conventional wisdom. It’s silly to try and apply it to everything, but then why do we keep using it? It was never meant to be a perfect system, but can’t we at least form a better system? Maybe a system that focuses on the most important resources and tradeoffs to determine the value of cards?

The method I use to evaluate cards deals purely in actions, or “the action economy”. I didn’t invent this idea, but I do think it’s more useful to look at how cards interact with actions alone instead of trying to equate them to cards and resources. Under the action economy theory, the purpose of cards is to give you more actions. The value of a card comes purely from its ability to generate and/or save actions (i.e. “action advantage”). Let me show you some examples of cards evaluated using the action economy theory.

The first and most obvious way cards give you actions is by literally giving you extra actions. Cards like Police Badge and Ace in the Hole give you a burst of actions, while others like Leo de Luca and Pathfinder generate action advantage over time. These cards are straightforward to evaluate: Leo de Luca costs [1 action] to play, and generates [+1 action] each turn, so it’s easy to see how he starts netting you actions incredibly quickly.

The second way cards earn you actions is through “compression”, or cards that allow you to get more than one action’s worth of value from a single action. The most common of these are +1 damage weapons like Machete or the .45 Automatic. Every successful test with these cards earns you [+1 action], because that’s one less Fight action you must take to defeat the enemy. Other action compression effects include Vicious Blow, Deduction, Rex Murphy’s passive ability (conditionally), and Burglary (3 resources is much closer to the value of a full action than 1 resource). Some “softer” compression effects are things like Pickpocketing, Scavenging, and Dr. Christopher Milan.

Speaking of Dr. Milan, the next method cards earn you actions is by making tests easier. Both passive stat boosts (Dr. Christopher Milan, Peter Sylvester, Holy Rosary, etc.) and one-time boosts (like most skill cards) increase your chance of success and thus “save” you actions that you’d otherwise have to spend retaking the test. It’s important to note that these effects are generally weak on their own because they don’t actually generate or save a full action, and thus you often see them paired with other effects. Allies like Dr. Milan and Peter Sylvester have other abilities to add value, and skill cards include card draw or other effects to make them more appealing. Cards that only boost stats, particularly weapons that increase combat but don’t increase damage, are often considered to be pretty bad, which makes sense since according to the action economy theory, a card that doesn’t generate or save actions is a dead card.

There are also cards that save you actions by allowing you to skip tests (thus eliminating the chance of actions wasted on retests). Look what I found! and Lucky! both allow you to “save” a test that would otherwise be wasted on failing, and Drawn to the Flame lets you skip tests entirely (while also compressing two investigates into one action). The absolute all-star of this category is Elusive, which can give you a boat load of free actions in the form of moves and “evades”.

Now, none of this is to say that we can completely ignore the resources and cards we have to spend to play all of these cards, I’m merely proposing that we should be focused on how to most efficiently turn those resources and cards into extra actions. The more efficient that exchange is, the more valuable a card is. For instance, even if my pal Leo is only on the board for 4 turns, Then I’ve spent [1 action + 6 resources] to generate [4 actions]. That’s pretty good: basically, a [2 resources] for [1 action] trade off like Skids’ passive. Look what I found! turns [2 resources] into [1 saved action + 1 extra action], which is a 1:1 ratio. That’s great! I mean, who wouldn’t want to buy extra actions for 1 resource apiece. If I use Elusive to dodge 2 enemies and move 2 spaces away, I’ve effectively turned [2 resources] into [4 saved actions], a ratio of 1:2!

Remember, if you’re out of cards or resources, you can always choose to spend actions getting more, but if you’re out of actions then you’re also out of luck. So in essence, the action economy theory lets us look at cards as “resource to action converters”. A card like Lucky! is good because I can spend it to convert [1 resource] into [1 action]. A card like Leo is good because I can spend it to convert [1 action + 6 resources] into potentially [6+ additional actions]. A card like Blackjack is bad because I’m spending [1 resource + 1 action] to generate what will probably be less than [1 action]’s worth of saved fights.

Ok, but how do we evaluate cards that don’t save us actions one way or another? What about card draw? And economy cards? And allies with health/healing effects? Let’s go over each of these quickly.

Card draw is inherently action-negative, but card draw (and its cousin, tutoring) are very important to finding the right situational cards when you need them. If you’ve got to fight a tough enemy and you don’t have a weapon, then finding a weapon with something like Prepared for the Worst does generate action advantage. Without that weapon you would be stuck wasting actions on bad fight tests (or wasting actions drawing cards manually). The exception here is Higher Education, which makes card draw a key part of your strategy (and in this case, Higher Education is what turns your card draw into a hyper action-efficient engine). In a similar vein, economy cards become action efficient only when you can’t afford to play your real action efficiency cards. This is why you almost always play your emergency cache when you’re at 0 or 1 resource, not 6 or 7. The burst of economy allows you to play your cards out immediately, saving precious time/turns/actions.

Healing cards/allies with health gain action advantage by extending your life. If healing allows you to stay in the game for even a single extra turn, it’s earned you 3 actions! This is why healing cards that spend actions (First Aid, Medical Texts) aren’t very popular, since the actions you’re spending don’t ever really get paid back. However, cards that can heal you for “free” in terms of actions (Most allies, Bulletproof Vest, Medical Texts in Daisy, even Smoking Pipe/Pain Killers) become much better options.

I don’t know if this will help pull anyone away from the 1:1:1 economy rule, but at very least I hope it’s given you an alternative method of analyzing and evaluating cards. Arkham is a young game with very deep mechanics, and we owe it to our community to continue expanding our discourse. After all, arguing on the internet is the backbone of all great card game communities, and Arkham Horror truly is a great card game community.

One thought on “Mathos Busters”

1. Buhallin says:

“But unlimited actions simply allow you to win the game immediately. You can move to any location and try any test any number of times to succeed. You can just keep pulling tokens from the bag until you eventually collect every clue and kill or evade every enemy.”

While I generally agree with your premise, this just isn’t true. All it takes is one test where you’re 2 points down, or one enemy with Relatiate, and you are now completely blocked without cards, or you’re just going to get counterattacked to death. There are also plenty of nasty effects in the special tokens that could make this a bad idea, if not outright impossible – anything that damaged you on a pull would kill you long before you drew enough +1s to finish.

“It’s important to note that these effects are generally weak on their own because they don’t actually generate or save a full action”

I think you undersell the importance here, and it’s a place where your “Actions Are All” mentality breaks down a bit. With only a few exceptions, most of your tests need help to get into a range to reliably pass. This requires cards or resources, which may not have a cap but are limited. Every consistent stat boost means less resources required for every single test, which stretches them farther. So their value isn’t solely in the odds of passing a specific test (or not), it’s in the lighter resource requirement that stretches the natural upkeep card/resource farther.

I think the Upkeep draw/resource really throws the 1:1:1 into the bin all by itself. It worked well enough in Netrunner, but if you aren’t using actions to gain the cards/resources you’re using, then the parallel is already broken.

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