After almost two months of ranking scenarios on a weekly basis, we are finally left with the Top15. The scenarios that are left are indeed all ones where I expect struggling, where I feel like i am more likely to fail than to make it through unharmed.
For this last bit, I am going to switch up how I am doing things just a bit. Instead of having a short talk about a difficulty related topic, we are going to power through all 15 of the remaining scenarios today. And the final article next week is going to go into some analysis of the full list. Sounds good? Let’s go.
Chunky enemies, a good amount of doom mechanics, lots of locations and backtracking that make movement important and a location mechanic that punishes players for being on their own without being able to find clues…. while also punishing them for following a player before that one finished picking up clues. Shattered Aeons has a lot going on, working hard to split up the players, both through the location mechanics and through encounter cards that push them back to central locations. Weirdly, the final encounter deck of the campaign stops caring much about agility like the rest of the campaign did and instead focuses back on willpower, which can make some of the cards you took to deal with the rest of TFA’s bullshit powerless here. To deal with the likes of Temporal Devourer or any of the unique enemies in this scenario you will also need a lot of firepower. Shattered Aeons is a worthy final scenario that truly tests the player group from all directions.
Robbing the player characters of their identity and abilities is cruel. For many investigators, their deck is focused all around that central identity and City of Archives can in turn your finely tuned deck into a pile of cards that do very little. Despite stranding you in a body with low stats that needs constant feeding of cards to even do basic tasks, the scenario isn’t shy of having you go through high shroud locations and making you pass all manner of tests. The enemies here would be no problem at all for a fighter on scenario 6, but when having to play as a fragile Yithian they suddenly become quite dangerous.
The scenario doesn’t offer a simple resign option and failing it is punished fairly hard. You might even end up stuck in the Yithian form for the rest of the campaign. You thought Shattered Aeons was hard before? Try it while cosplaying a bowling pin with arms.
I have little pleasant things to say about this piece of junk, so let’s keep it short instead. Devourer Below is simply unreasonable, considering that it comes as only scenario 3. Yeah, it’s technically a finale, but if you are going into it with 10XP, is it really?
It has an alternate win-condition and that is what pushes it out of the single digit ranks, but even with that in place, this is just an unpleasant experience and has no business being in the Core box that is meant to sell new players on this game.
#12: Without a Trace
Full disclaimer, I only played this one twice so far, so my impression of this one is not as fleshed out as it is for any other scenario. What stood out to me about Without a Trace is that it has some really tough enemies, high shrouds, lots of movement requirements. And all the while it is shredding your deck, being the one scenario that turns the hollowing mechanic up to a point where it actually matters.
That all makes it quite difficult to prepare for and your investigators will need to be generically strong because relying on certain cards is something that can just easily end in a painful crash-and-burn after going through all the trouble of unlocking this scenario in the first place.
Oh, how i struggle with this one. The combination of Haunted, the dreaded “Circle tests” and frigging Whippoorwills goes hard. This is one of the few encounter decks that feels incredibly coherent. The damage/horror treacheries that all link into each other can even feel like the encounter deck comboes out on you, as they create a downward spiral that can be hard to deal with.
Some investigators struggle more or less with certain circle tests and since you don’t know beforehand which ones you get, most investigators will find that they have problems with at least one or two of the locations.
And that is before even mentioning that the Watcher is around as an invulnerable Hunter on a very interconnected map or that the gang gets split up again at one point, potentially making anyone face a huge souped up spirit enemy.
It also takes forever! This is a scenario with reasonable challenges, but a lot of them stacked on top of each other.
There are a couple of achievements in this game that even veteran players will reach only rarely and that are legitimate reasons to brag about the decks you built. Capturing six cultists in Midnight Masks or clearing all three acts in Threads of Fate, for example. But arguably the most satisfying one to pull off is six ways in Boundary Beyond and in turn skipping Heart of the Elders #1. Doing this is incredibly difficult though. Getting the locations to their Ancient version requires a bit of luck as explore actions can easily fail (the biggest difference to the significantly more mellow Return to Boundary) and there is potentially a lot of doom around to cut the available time short. But even if you don’t shoot for the stars, Boundary Beyond has some really tough things in store. The enemies are without exception very relevant, the treacheries mostly pack a lot of punch. And the showdown with Padma on the final location is quite difficult, even if you don’t have to deal with the Serpent of Tenochtitlan or the Harbinger at the same time. Here’s a fun bit: There’s a 50/50 chance that the Templo Mayor which is the location where Padma spawns, is the one that puts a random Serpent into play from the encounter deck. Unless you are allied to Alejandro, the Serpent of Tenochtitlan is the only Serpent in the deck. So the double whammy of Serpent + Padma actually comes up more often than one would think.
Sign of Hastur. Jesus. The Return To version certainly puts Oath to new heights, but the base version is honestly challenging enough already to keep you on the edge of your seat for all of its runtime. This scenario to me is the poster child for “difficulty done right”, it’s an incredibly tense affair that ramps up from just poking at the
player’s investigator’s sanity to utter chaos once the monsters that accumulated under the act are released. The combination of Straitjacket and Corrosion makes keeping a weapon in play an ordeal, something that is the case way too rarely. You can’t really take any of your assets for granted in this scenario.
A huge part of Oath’s impact is of course the knowledge that failing it spells Game Over for that investigator and resigning is not an option either. There are a couple scenarios like that, but they usually aren’t in the first half of the campaign.
Failing Oath the first time is not quite as iconic as failing Essex is, but i’d argue it has the more longlasting impact. Damn, do i respect this scenario in all the best ways.
So this is just Oath, but under water. While the mechanics are very different, the general feel is very similar. You are locked in the caves under the lighthouse with no option to resign (unless you bug out very early without achieving much) and there is two outcomes: You either get out of there or the campaign is over. Like Oath, this scenario can take a good while and it does hit you with lots of horror and damage along the way. Especially the signature card of A Light in the Fog, the Hatchlings, makes this tension very visible. Usually, when having to choose between taking a horror or losing an action, you’d easily take the horror. Well, during Light in the Fog, this dynamic changes as you get more and more beaten down by all sorts of effects until you cling to every bit of sanity and health you have.
Deep One Assault is a card that has been a huge menace all campaign but it goes into overdrive here, making those Hatchlings and Nursemaids that much more potent.
This to me feels like the actual finale of Innsmouth and with Oceiros Marsh it even has a boss that is … well … worth its salt. Honestly, i find Oceiros more frightening than Hydra and Dagon taken together. Light in the Fog is like Oath a showcase for how to do a difficult scenario right, the high point of Innsmouth and in my mind indeed the high point of the game’s releases of the last couple years.
And with that high note behind us, we have to look at the other end of the spectrum and talk about
Kevin Wages of Sin. Because this is also a showcase, but for how not to do difficulty. Wages is random and Wages is frustrating. The map leaves little room to get away from the many Hunters, some of which are even unkillable (or at least situationally so). At the same time, the Unfinished Business cards that players need to secure often force players to backtrack through the map (past all those Hunters) while pelting them with quite punishing effects every turn. The saving grace then is the option to resign once the board state becomes too overwhelming.
My discussions with other players suggests that there is a good amount of broken player scaling responsible for Wages being so difficult for me, but i honestly can neither confirm or deny that. All i know is that at two players i am happy to get just one Heretic, i might if i am very lucky with my reveals get a second one. A third seems near impossible and the fourth like a bad joke that i can’t laugh about. Maybe a full group can do this more easily.
Dead Heat is a trap laid out for first time players of TSK, ready to demolish anyone unprepared who goes here right after London. But that’s not what we are measuring scenarios by for this list, we are assuming a knowledge of what’s going on. And Dead Heat still makes it this far up the list because of its very specific challenge: Fighting. Lots of it. Constantly. Across multiple locations. Against multiple Elites at the same time. While fighting smaller dudes on connected locations. This is Arkham Horror: Horde Mode. And honestly, i am here for it. It’s a pity that the encounter deck mostly consists of straight action draining because that just feels miserable when you don’t get to actually play the game.
Amouranth Amaranth is a fantastic boss, both in theme (in my opinion it’s TSK’s best character) and in mechanics. Fighting and finally beating her is very satisfying. The consequences for failing are large. While it won’t outright kill you, being defeated and/or losing too many civilians to the horde will cost you XP and multiple trauma. Resigning is an option, but actually a trap as it will count the remaining civilians as defeated with all the consequences that brings with it.
This is a very enjoyable scenario to do if you have good fighters that just want to unleash their arsenal. For once, you can show up to a scenario with Nathan, Tony or Mark and feel like you need to actually put work into keeping the board under control.
Top 5! Return to Essex Express is an interesting case. Looking at its encounter deck and the new makeup of the agenda deck, there was clearly some effort done here to try and make this scenario a bit easier. The edge cases where you insta-lose are buffered by an extra agenda 0 and that’s appreciated, but imo doesn’t really do much for the actual difficulty as the total time frame is still the same. The encounter swaps remove Frozen in Fear and replace Ancient Evils with Resurgent Evils, both things that help towards making encounter draws less swingy. So why then is Return to Essex up here, with its own seperate entry? Well, because of the Conductor of course. Introducing a second fail condition (dying to this Massive Hunter enemy with 2 damage per hit) and in a way, a second timer is a huge deal in this scenario. When the Conductor catches up with the team, he will deal his significant attacks to anyone at the location but even worse, he will pin everyone there until defeated or evaded, stopping further investigations unless the seeker is willing to take some attacks of opportunity. This shifts the action economy in this scenario massively, the extra actions that will need to be spent on handling this enemy are very impactful.
Now, i should point out here that my personal point of view comes from playing this game two-handed. The Conductor doesn’t scale with player count (aside from the Massive keyword), so in a full group he is much more reasonable to push back.
“Hey Wages of Sin, can i copy your homework?” – “Sure, just change a few things so it’s not obvious.”
Well, sorry to say but it’s pretty obvious. Sadly, Shades doesn’t fix the most glaring offense of Wages (the randomness behind the spirit’s requirements) but to be fair the geists are a bit easier to handle than the Heretics. This is more than counteracted by Umbrella Girl showing up at the end though. She hits HARD. That ability on the Shade Reaper goes against anything the campaign teaches you and punishes you with extreme amounts of damage and horror just for doing what you were doing before. Luckily, you do get the option to resign early (just like in Wages) if you feel not up for the task of meeting Tzu San… but since we are looking at these scenarios from a perspective of a player that has campaign knowledge, we hopefully only went to this scenario if we felt comfortable to beating it. Unlocking it takes quite some time, so this is more of a thing to do for bragging rights than anything else. Honestly, there’s very little to gain here and the scenario is hard as balls, so i struggle to come up with reasons on why you’d voluntarily do this to yourself. It’s not even required for any of the special endings to Scarlet Keys.
An easy skip in my book. I suppose it has at last that over Wages of Sin.
Well, place #3 to #1 are all campaign finales. Actually, we had two more already in todays Top15. While that seems about right at first glance there are some massive differences in why these scenarios are considered difficulty. And similar to the earlier Oath/Light vs. Wages/Shades examples, there’s a bit of a “difficulty done right” vs. “difficulty done wrong” thing going on with these three. First up is Lost in Time and Space. It’s where everything went great. As is appropriate for a final scenario, LiTaS has very tough enemies, lots of clues on non-trivial locations and challenges that we ran into in the campaign that went before it. Sure, Beyond the Veil is a bit cheap and frequently infuriating, but when you get to LiTaS you hopefully found a way to deal with it somehow. LiTaS then also introduces a fancy location mechanic to wow you and give players lots of room to interact with this mechanic and feel clever. It’s a very tough scenario, but at all times it allows players to interact with its bullshit and thus it feels satisfying to overcome.
Before the Black Throne takes all the components from Lost in Time and Space, but then fails to recapture the magic. You get chunky enemies again, both the Dancers and the Piper are terrifying. Love those guys. Sadly, past that the comparison to LiTaS lets Black Throne look less appealing. You also get a non-standard location thing with fancy rules and a definite wow factor to it. But there’s not a whole lot of play to it that would allow mitigating its randomness. Setup decides randomly where the right paths are and you either get them or you don’t. You also get a large helping of doom mechanics here that have a similar “That’s bullshit!” vibe to them as Beyond the Veil had in Dunwich. Except maybe even less interactive because those cultists tend to spawn in locations that can’t (reasonably) be reached so you need to tech for the ability to hit stuff across the map or just roll the dice and hope that it works out. Not great. In many ways, Before the Black Throne mirrors its challenges to those of Lost in Time and Space, but by increasing the non-interactive parts, players are afforded less opportunities to solve those challenges through their own play. This increases difficulty, but does so in a way that feels cheap and unearned.
Where the Gods Dwell is a bit of a tragic case. It’s mostly well designed (although i could’ve done without the first bit… it’s just a bit bland and railroaded), but the issue here is that there’s simply not enough time to do what you are supposed to. Unlike Black Throne which I think has some design issues, the issue with Gods is one of development and balancing. It simply needs more time on the doom clock or have its player count scaling fixed. Because it simply doesn’t work in solo or two-player out of the box. Even when you blitz through the first part, the confrontation with Nyarlathotep needs to go flawlessly on your part, there is no time at all for mistakes. For some godforsaken reason, the encounter deck even has two copies of a card, Myriad Forms, that partially resets your progress and basically loses you the game because there is little way to recover from that setback. And it’s really a pity because the idea behind how you defeat Nyarlathotep is great. Mechanically the scenario is fun. But if it’s balanced in a way that it is near impossible for certain group sizes and also has a card that might as well say “You Lose” on it, then that’s all a bit of a moot point.
And with that, we reached the end of the difficulty rankings. In the next and final article, i will put the whole list together so that we can analyze it in full. I’ll do some comparisons with my “scenario enjoyment rankings” so maybe I can see a trend on whether I gravitate more towards easy or difficult scenarios. We can check out how the campaigns placed on the difficulty scale, if something scored exceptionally on the easy or difficult side. Stuff like that.