Guest Article written by James Phillips
All the Fun of Despair
“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” – John Cleese, 1986
“Lord of the Rings should be hard, but you should be able to win: ultimately the heroes defeat the forces of evil. Lovecraft is different: the Elder gods are so powerful that you’re not supposed to really be able to comprehend them, let alone defeat them.” – A friend of mine, last week
The first thing you need to accept before you start playing any Arkham game is that the Cthulhu Mythos is a place you enter at risk of losing your very sanity. The first guest article here on Mythos Busters a few weeks back has already talked in some detail about the concept of Cosmic Horror, and what this game needs to do to stay true to that flavor, so I don’t want to go over the same ground again.
What I do want to do though, is to assume that they manage to capture the flavor right, and move on to the next logical question: how do you make a game that’s enjoyable to play at the same time it’s beating you down?
Like a lot of people interested in Arkham Horror LCG, I’ve been playing the Lord of the Rings LCG for years (if you play the Mythos Busters drinking game, you’re going to need a full glass!) LotR has fluctuated in difficulty over the years, and given everyone who played it a kick in the teeth from time-to-time. That said, I’m not convinced that the experience that game has given us has always been fun, and the low-points on the fun-scale have also tended to coincide with the high-points on the difficulty ladder (you can find more of my thoughts on this here). The main reason I think that this is relevant is that Matt Newman has been a main designer for that game for a while now, and is also one of the two credited designers for Arkham. It stands to reason to think that we might see mechanics and experiences that are in some way derived from or informed by experience designing LotR. So let’s think about what we want to see kept, and what can be thrown away…
Taking a Beating: No Fun
There are two things which really get me down in a game. The first is where you reach the end of turn 2 or 3 (or even 1) and think “We’re done for.” This is particularly the case if your doom has been sealed not by a freak synergy of bad events against you, or even by a mis-play on your part, but simply by being put in an impossible position from which there is essentially no point trying to recover: the situation is just too hard, and there was probably no point in having set up in the first place. Anyone who has played the Lord of the Rings scenario Battle of Carn Dum will recognize this feeling.
The other major NPE (Negative Play Experience) is getting stuck. Finding yourself in a position where you can’t go on, and you can’t go back: all you can do is stay more or less put and watch as things slowly unravel. Again, to take a Lord of the Rings analogy, this is getting stuck in location-lock – paralyzed and unable to interact with half the cards in play.
So these are the things I want to avoid, and everything I’ve heard about the Arkham LCG so far gives me hope in these areas. Having variable difficulty built into the game from the ground up is certainly a good starting point, although it will be interesting to see exactly how the variable difficulty is implemented- certainly in LotR, the encounter deck set-up is often fairly static, even when playing in a mode that has fewer of the really nasty cards coming off the deck as you go along. Everything we know about location design also seems to suggest that FFG have learned the lessons of location lock (again for a more in-depth discussion of this, see Kevin’s article from a few weeks ago).
House of Fun?
In August I picked up Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition, and it’s already a firm favorite in our house: we’ve already played it around 15 times, which may not seem like much, but quickly adds up when each game runs for 2-4 hours.
Last weekend, we successfully beat the 4th scenario from the base game – and as I did a quick flick back through my notes, I realised that this was the only time in the past 2-3 months where all the players have won the game: up until now we’ve either all lost and died horribly, or some players have been victorious, whilst others have been devoured, driven insane, or suffered some other unpleasant fate. Despite all this, Mansions of Madness is still fun. For me, there’s no higher accolade I could give to a cooperative game than to say that even when I keep losing, I want to come back, and keep trying again – there are moments of frustration, but you aren’t just destroyed from turn one: you always feel like you’re in with a chance, even when it turns out you’re not.
You know that things will continue to escalate, that a smooth start is no guarantee of victory, and that terrible things will happen to your character, yet you keep coming back to play it again. You will solve puzzles and defeat monsters, but that may not be enough – either for your own sanity, or for the fate of the world at large. Even victory is a little hollow: you’ve ended the ritual, but there are now 2 Star Spawn roaming the streets of Innsmouth.
That, in my opinion is what makes it a success as a game, and as a Lovecraftian game in particular.
Elder Sign, another of FFG’s Arkham games, is sometimes criticized for being a bit light on theme, but again, it does allow you those little victories. Most of the time, you’ll be able to solve the little puzzles: explore the broom-cupboard, or work out what’s going on in the cellar, to feel like you’re making some progress.
Of course, you will probably then still be devoured by the awakening of an Ancient One (I have never won a game of Elder Sign after the Ancient One awakes), and even when you do win that game, it’s with a gnawing sense that the force you have sealed away is still in there, and could be awakened the next time someone is foolish enough to meddle. Nonetheless, there was that moment when it felt like things were going to be ok, even though they weren’t.
From what we’ve seen of Arkham Horror LCG, it looks like monsters are going to be big, and problematic – this isn’t going to be one of those games where you mow down a dozen goblin or cultists a round: each encounter requires careful consideration and a decision to be made – is this a foe that can be defeated, or are you better off just getting out of its way?
Overall, I hope that Arkham Horror gives us enough in the way of little victories that we keep coming back for more – successfully investigating should feel like a victory, feel like it matters, and defeating enemies should be a big deal. The overarching campaign structure of the game offers them a great opportunity to have us winning some of the time, yet still being dragged slowly towards the inevitable cataclysm.
Obviously, the core set, the first deluxe, and probably the whole of the first cycle of this game have been locked down by now, but I want to offer a plea to the designers of this game, just in case they’re reading, for the game as it goes forward: give me the little victories! Let there be times when I can get my Tommy Gun out and obliterate an enemy in a single round, but give me other times when it turns out that the thing I’m fighting is not human, is immune to bullets and it stitches itself back together before my very eyes.
This is Lovecraft: I expect to lose (and not just because I’m a lousy deck-builder), I expect to go mad as my mind is subjected to things Man Was Not Meant To Know – I hope to win sometimes, or at least feel like I’ve won, but above all, let me have fun doing it!