Guest Article written by Frank Brinkley
She had dreamt of darker times and distant places, but always viewed them as over there, things born of overwork and fractured nights. It never occurred to her that they would some day come to her. Come for her. That her home would transform before her very eyes.
I felt compelled to write this. I had the chance to play my first solo run-through of The Night of the Zealot campaign, contained in the core set of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and I was struck by – at the risk of hyperbole – what felt like comparable moments of revelation to those experienced by dear Agnes Baker, the unassuming waitress who realizes in visions that she was once a mighty sorceress. Sure, latent magical potentialities have not been unlocked in me. Perhaps it’s best just to say that my foundations have been rocked.
A brief note on what follows: this isn’t really a play-through report, and as such, I’ll try to avoid spoilers as best I can. I do, however, want to consider a couple of striking moments in the campaign. If you’d rather not risk my description coloring your own appreciation of those moments a first time through, STOP HERE.
Why Agnes? Well, she fascinates me as a playable character, as a play-style. She’s got a stat line that screams glass cannon to me, with its heavy emphasis on Will more or less to the exclusion of all else (pause and compare her to, say, Skids, who can make a good show of pretty much anything, except if his brain is dribbling out of his ears). Her starter deck – which I plumped to use – also has ways to use her obvious talents to smooth deficiencies elsewhere (namely Shrivelling, Blinding Light, Fearless, all the purple cards).
She also seems to invite misfortune. Her abilities request that she surrender her sanity to the mythos. Her cards encourage straying out into the night. My experience of living card games, particularly cooperative ones, has thus far suggested that high-risk strategies don’t pay off. As a player, you can easily become swamped in (delete as necessary) locations/enemies/nasty treacheries/spells, or whatever type of thing you’re not really ready to handle. Agnes says: let’s do that. I would never choose to do that; but like a moth to the flame, I had to give her a try.
One of my opening five cards was Arcane Initiate. Talk about the perfect illustration of dabbling with the darkness. But how bad, I wondered, can that one extra doom really be, especially if it means a swift hunt for all the necessary spells? No guts, no glory. Turn one, I play our magically-inclined chum and start doing a bit of spell-hunting, as well as sniffing up a couple of clues. (I like to think the initiate trails around behind Agnes, going ‘what about that one where you…?’, ‘but, but, but… what about that other one, where their flesh starts to…?’)
Mythos phase number one rolls around: I add a doom to the agenda (so we’re 2 of 3, thanks to the initiate), and I draw Ancient Evils. I knew – I knew – there was a reason not to hang out with my magic-school buddy! Here comes agenda part two before I’ve even had a second investigator phase. The thing is, I’m not complaining. I was taken aback, sure, but also sort of delighted: what barmy acceleration was this, that an occurrence I’d previously experienced around turn 4 had arrived ever so early?
It didn’t all go downhill from there. Agnes recalled some Hyberborean chant she had been warned never to use and promptly used it on a ghoulish apparition in the ‘hallway’ of her home. (Come on, it’s filled with dirt and the smell of rotting flesh now, how ‘hallway’ can it be? How ‘home’ for that matter, too?) Some chump waving a flaming brand showed up and Agnes listened to her, and asked, kindly, if she wouldn’t mind pushing off. But something she’d said, about some shit going down in Arkham, stayed with Agnes. It irked her. Armed with a musty old tome – the Book of Shadows, bought with hard-earned experience points – she set out into the world.
The second moment – the defining moment for me, the whole thrust behind wanting to share my experiences with you – came early in scenario two. [Again: if you haven’t played it yet, this could spoil the experience for you. Think carefully before you read on.] I’d done all the set up, which, by the way, is charming and chilling: there are so many moving parts, the ‘map’ is so wide open compared to the linearity of the previous scenario. It’s like the designers went: ‘okay, you’re on board with the functions of the game, now here’s freedom’, promptly slinging a heap of choices at your feet.
Agnes got off to a good exploratory start. There was something afoot in Arkham town, the murmur of chants on the air from all quarters, but she found and eliminated the dark believers with ease (cultists, cultists, everywhere!). The arcane initiate showed her face – how bad can she be? I mean, in scenario one… and I wound up flipping the first card of the agenda deck, again, pretty early.
Oh. My. Word.
I cannot remember the last time I was knocked back from the table. I’m not sure it’s ever happened to me before that I am stunned into stopping playing.
There was pure shock, like a layer had been peeled from my eyes and I was seeing the world with new eyes. Isn’t that exactly what so many of Lovecraft’s protagonists undergo? The gradual, shattering revelation that things are not what they seem.
There was excitement. I cannot wait for friends to play this game with me. I cannot wait to see how they react to this.
There was also a strong portion of me that just felt utterly impressed. Again, the design is astonishing. In the past, I’ve felt that messing with the structures of a game, perhaps by the introduction of new rules or concepts in later expansions, can feel a little bit like trying to scrape butter over too much bread. Not here. This was a deliberate act to disorient – and no doubt delight – the player, and it was, in my experience, wholly successful. Make no mistake: this seemed to me to be a message from the designers that nothing is sacred in this game. Our expectations as players are completely to be toyed with; to expect the mythos to adhere to LCG rules is utter folly.
Isn’t that brilliant? I think so.
Needless to say, things went to shit after that revelation. Agnes limped along, but she had not been expecting such heavy weather. By the third scenario, I was reeling. Sure, I’d expected it to be hard, but lost in the woods I felt utterly dazed, and the sense of dread, with a certain being waiting in the wings, was very present indeed. It didn’t end well; I can’t wait for more. That, to me, is a sign that Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a very special playing experience indeed.