The Cost of Altruism in Arkham

Guest Article written by Derek Carroll

Admittedly altruism is not a phrase that immediately jumps to mind when one thinks about the universe of the Cthulu Mythos. Whether that be the universe that was first imagined by H.P. Lovecraft, and fleshed out by other writers, or the universe of Fantasy Flight Games Arkham Files, the Cthulu Mythos typically brings to mind a world of grim desperation, where only the strongest and most cunning survive, and even then the odds are stacked against the investigators. Where in this darkness, where untold horrors lurk around every corner, is there room for altruism? Where is there room for a selfless sacrifice for the betterment of others? Arguably the opportunity for altruistic play lies behind every corner as well. Altruism is clearly for sale in the Arkham universe, but at what price?

Having played a number of solo games of Arkham Horror, and also a number of multi-
player games, it is no secret that Arkham Horror the Card Game has different treasures to offer to each experience. The ability to cooperatively commit a card to a fellow investigator’s skill check is really just the beginning. Eventually, every player of Arkham will find themselves backed into a corner with seemingly no way out. Daisy is down to a single health point, hunter enemies are bearing down, and if she can get one more turn she’ll be able to advance the act, possibly win the scenario, but that turn is unavailable. The unrelenting clock of Arkham is ticking away and Daisy simply doesn’t have the time. It is likely that this scenario is one that is familiar to a number of players already. In fact, many true-solo players are probably shaking their heads and getting ready to pack up their decks. What if this wasn’t a solo game, Daisy wasn’t fighting the forces of darkness alone, and she had an unlikely ally in Skids O’Toole? If skids is around then no problem, simply swing in, pull the engagement of the hunter enemies, and drop an Elusive. You’re skating away as quickly as you arrived.

One problem, though, is that your Elusive was played rather spectacularly last round.

There are seemingly no options left, and all is lost. It is exactly within these moments that the opportunity for altruism presents itself.

Skids does have an option here. He can take the fall. If skids moves in, and engages the hunter enemies, it gives Daisy the time she needs to finish the act, next turn. Skids is undoubtedly going to be defeated during the enemy phase. What is the actual cost of this strategy? A mental or a physical trauma, perhaps both. The trauma mechanism really makes this a crunchier decision. How crunchy a decision is largely dependent on the investigator; Roland should be wary of taking a defeat by loss of sanity as a mental trauma would be a devastating blow to him, likewise Daisy and a defeat by way of physical damage. Skids and Wendy however are a little more suited to taking a fall when the team needs. Thematically do these outsiders place less importance on their own lives? That’s probably another article for another day. What FFG has done here with the trauma mechanism is really beginning to open up for me as I play with higher player counts.

Deciding to take trauma to finish a mission is a decision that early in a campaign might be easier or harder depending on a how a player views the penalty. Taking a single trauma on a fresh character may be an easier pill to swallow for some, but living with that decision for an entire campaign may cause others to consider the play a little longer. There has been a lot of talk on the BGG forums discussing variants to the trauma mechanism, with some suggesting that a weakness be added to the deck. These are interesting variants to be sure, and I’m not ready to dismiss them, as I’ve not played with them yet. The trauma mechanism as it was originally intended though does add a fair bit of strategy and flavor to the game. The best part is that it doesn’t really become apparent until you find yourself in the situation where it’s necessary.

Nowhere in the rulebook does it mention that you can choose to be defeated, but it makes an incredible amount of sense. Our investigators are trying their damnedest to hold back the darkness, they’re likely to take a few lumps along the way. Having to reconcile those decisions knowing that the cost is permanent trauma puts the player in an interesting position. After all, how detrimental is one point of trauma? Is it insignificant, or is it a siren song cleverly left in the rulebook by developers who knew exactly what they were doing? That one point of trauma probably isn’t a huge deal by itself. It’s only a single point after all, and won’t matter until the one time that it does, that one time where a single point of sanity or a single point of health is the difference between success and failure. It really is a delicious decision to have to make, and adds an amazing flavor to the theme of this game. The characters that we play are not only different in their deck constructions. This early on, if we’re being honest, they probably aren’t all that different in their deck constructions. How we choose to play those decks though makes my Skids very different from a Skids who would have run off leaving Daisy to fend for herself.

Is the cost of altruism too high in Arkham Horror? A lasting trauma on a character can be a significant penalty, and it is a penalty that lingers. A reminder of the mission that went wrong. It may be an annoyance, but it is not a penalty that is insurmountable. It’s something that makes each flip of an encounter card a tad more meaningful. At its very heart though, does it matter? Those investigators that will take the fall for the greater good, the altruistic of Arkham, they make their decisions regardless of the cost.

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