Decision Making in Arkham Horror

Guest Article written by Josh Parrish

When looking at games you have to find ways to balance risk and reward to ensure that you are taking the most efficient actions to get your desired outcome.  Even though this is a narrative game, the more successful you can be in the game, the more likely you are to get the desired outcome in the story.  Also, you have likely heard while listening to the Mythos Busters podcast the hosts use a lot of variations on the word economy while talking about card effects.  The economy of a game is directly related to how you make decisions within that game.

To begin this, a fair warning, we’re going to be talking a lot about some mathematical, psychological, and economic theories, but do not let that scare you away.  We are not going to get heavy in the academic side, just looking at how the design of Arkham Horror: the Card Game was influenced by psychology and some well known theories.  If there is a positive response, this may be made into a series of articles examining the math, statistics, and psychology of Game Theory and Arkham Horror in depth.

Also, to look more into the odds of the chaos bag in particular please check out community contributor Lockewood’s WordPress (link here) for a very detailed breakdown of the odds of any particular chaos draw.  It was very useful to me to not have to calculate the odds on the spot.  Because he already did all this wonderful work, I won’t go over it again.  Also Lockewood’s blog is just a great community resource and I recommend checking it out.

Game Theory

While Arkham Horror: the Card Game has not been released yet, Fantasy Flight has allowed enough leaks and has marketed it well enough we have a fairly good idea of the majority of player cards in the game.  With Arkham Nights having passed us by on the 14th of October, we now know the rest of the cards in the core set, as well as the special scenario Curse of the Rougarou.  What has been clear when going over them, FFG has applied a clear and distinct economy to the game based on “Game Theory”.

For those of you not aware, I’m not talking about the YouTube show (although I highly recommend that as well), but instead the mathematical models that are used to look at both competitive and cooperative work, usually based around how and why people decide between certain options.  I think we all know that strategies we use when we are working together are different than when we oppose others, even if our goal is the same each time.  But the hows and whys are what interest mathematicians and psychologists.

Without getting into to much of the hairy detail, our goals are not what drives our decisions, so much as making the best decision to get us to the next step towards our goal.  Which means that we shouldn’t play for the win, we should play for the situations that will organically bring us to the win.  This is why what we choose to do can vary even if our goals are the same each time.  Circumstances will be different.  Opposition may be present, or may not be.  There is both known and unknown information.  We take all this data, and decide (as best we can) what our next step is.

Shut up and Get to the Game Already

For those of us that play card games and/or board games regularly, you may hear the word “economy” thrown around a lot, or may even use it yourself.  What is the “action economy” of that game, or the “resource economy” of this game?  Good designers follow game theory, whether they realize it or not, to design these economies.  Arkham Horror is no different.

You can equate certain base choices with each other, and use that as a baseline to decide the usefulness of cards and combos.  The baseline in Arkham is easy, since you have a standard of three actions per turn, so the base economic unit is a turn.

1 turn = 3 actions = 3 resources = 3 cards (played or drawn)

When you use one action to collect a resource, you have used 1/3 your turn.  Anything that collects resources at a better ratio is more useful than the base action.  This is very simplified, but is the basis of building your deck and making decisions as you play.  You can even apply it to combos of multiple cards.  For example, if a combo includes three cards (drawn through FREE card draw), those three cards must net you more than three of any mix of actions, cards, or resources.

That is the most basic of analysis, and you must also look at how it positions you for future plays (strategic value), how it affects your ability to succeed at actions (adaptability), and how it affects yourself and other players (psychological impact).  For example, the inexperienced Leo DeLuca (The Mississippi Manatee) has a cost of six resources, meaning two FULL turns (six actions), and would have to be in play for six turns just to break even with basic analysis.  But that is excluding other factors, and we can’t forget about those.  Look at the positioning:  By allowing four actions in a turn, you can do more and respond faster to threats.  And don’t forget player effect:  Having an extra action each turn can improve player morale.

Hidden and Revealed

When playing a game with both random and strategic elements, there is both known and unknown variables that can affect decisions.  These are very important factors that must be taken into account by the players.  They must think about what is in front of them (the layout, the clues on the board, and their locations, the Act and Agenda).  This is where you can apply math and strategy to make the decisions that are most likely to be beneficial.

One thing discovered by many players at Arkham Nights was that you cannot simply focus on what the current Act and Agenda are.  You must be paying attention to the cards that have come up from the Encounter Deck, and the current clues available, or who has drawn what weaknesses from their decks.  If Skids’ or Roland’s unique weakness comes up in the last couple of turns of a scenario, there are lasting impacts to the campaign as a whole.  So drawing cards for them may not be a worthwhile risk late game

The card order in your deck is normally considered hidden information.  If you have a card effect that allows you to draw three cards, and you have 15 left, and have not drawn a weakness, then that means you have a high probability of drawing at least one weakness, maybe two.  So it is very much worth paying attention to the number of cards left as well as whose weaknesses have come up when, when you’re considering drawing cards.

Revealed information is important as well, and goes hand in hand with hidden information.  When deciding where a monster spawns (assuming the investigators have a choice) You can look at the different options available to you.  To avoid spoilers, lets assume you’re playing a scenario where you have nine locations, and an encounter comes up as a monster that tells you to spawn this monster at a location with a certain keyword, and there are three of those in play.  Now the investigator(s) have a chance to look where those locations connect to, which of them have clues, does the enemy have hunter, etc.  You have to balance the risks of placing the monster on each of these locations to figure out what you best (likely) decision is.

One key strategy to games that comes from Game Theory is to try to limit hidden information.  Unfortunately (or fortunately for the tone of the game) you have very few ways to discover hidden information without it effecting you negatively.  Hidden locations are not able to be revealed until you actually go there.  There are VERY limited ways in the core set to look at the top cards of your deck or the encounter deck without triggering any effects.  So, while this is an important part of Game Theory, it is not one that has made much of a splash in this game yet.

How Does That Make You Feel…

One thing that many people discount in board/card games (especially cooperative games) is the impact that a player’s mindset has on decision making and resource management.  If player morale is too high or too low, it can swing a game against you as you may make decisions that are too conservative or too risky.  One thing that may seem counter intuitive, is which way the morale swings does not necessarily lead to a particular line of thought.

When one group sees a situation spiraling out of control, and they feel like they are not going to be successful, the most common reaction is often to start taking more and more risks, hoping for bigger and bigger rewards.  This may seem logical at first, but may or may not be the best solution.  Especially when you look at the proverbial long game.  Arkham Horror is a campaign game, and it is easy to lose sight of that.  If you start taking riskier actions, hoping for that long shot win in the first scenario that happened to go sideways, you may end up losing a character (or all of them) taking trauma, making future scenarios much more difficult.  

On the other hand, some groups may respond to that same high stress situation by playing much more conservative.  If you have two turns left before a final agenda fills up with doom, and have to collect a large amount of clues, some players (myself included) might play as conservative as possible and resign, hoping the result for the scenario as not as bad as whatever may be on an agenda’s other side.  Thankfully when this situation arose, my group convinced me to press forward, and we were able to collect the clues and get the best possible result.  But this shows that sometimes you must try to remain calm in the face of adversity and try to find a middle of the road option.

Be forewarned though, that it is easy to run into the same situations when things are going too well.  In the unlikely situation you are dominating in an Arkham game, you may start getting cocky and taking too many risks.  This level of hubris will nearly always lead to a horrible, horrible fate.  But at the same time, you may start getting paranoid instead, expecting something horrible to happen.  And this may well turn into a self fulfilling prophecy if you slow down or start making mistakes.

Let’s Bring it All Together

When you look at all of these factors (and many more that cannot be covered in the scope of this article), you get a picture of how any why you make decisions in games that you may not have realized.  Many people choose to focus on one or more aspects of decision making when looking at how balanced a game is, or how they plan their “moves”.  But all of them impact every game greatly.  You must look at your own preconceptions and moods to make sure they do not impact your game, you examine the data you have available to you and what might be hidden, and weigh the odds and benefits to determine if it is a worthwhile move.

This is a VERY high level overview, but there are equations and data backing all of this up.  Game Theory is very important when designing games, and you can see how the factors discussed were leveraged in the design of Arkham Horror: the Card Game.  When looking at games, keep in mind how developers balanced these factors (or maybe didn’t) and you can get a glimpse into the mind of those working on the games.  I would encourage you all to examine why you make your decisions in this and other games more closely, and how they may have been manipulated by the way the games were designed.

3 thoughts on “Decision Making in Arkham Horror

  1. I think the intangibles of game economy are highly important as well. In LOTR, I’ve found myself hard-casting Resourceful, which takes 4 turns to pay for itself, violating basic ideas on economy; but without resource smoothing it allows me to balance if I find myself flush with resources in a sphere that turned out to not be useful given the current game state.


    1. I agree. That’s why I had to bring up that Leo is not simply an investment in actions, but also group morale. I was kind of crunched for space, so I had to cut some thoughts short. But I agree whole heartedly. Thanks for bringing it up.


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