Introduction, Disclaimer and Spoiler Warning
The Ancient Evils site was originally started out of my interest in the design behind ArkhamLCG (and games in general). With this new article series i want to go back to that original intent. In each article, i try to tackle a specific mechanic or design piece from Arkham and break it down. To do so, i do not just look at the mechanic from within Arkham LCG, but also compare it with how it is handled in Lord of the Rings LCG and Marvel Champions, which both share plenty DNA with Arkham to make such a comparison useful. I’ll then try to come to some sort of conclusion about which implementation i like best and whatever else i can draw out of the comparison.
I want to reiterate here again that these are purely opinion pieces. I do not have any special access to the thoughts of Jeremy, Maxine or Caleb aside from what they publically released. Nor am i a designer myself, merely an interested individual that likes to take things apart to see how they tick. Especially when it comes to designer’s intents, there is certainly room for speculation and interpretation and i want to make clear that i do not claim to have any sort of hard authority on the topic.
As for spoilers, i will try to keep it to a minimum. But of course i will have to grab specific examples from any of those games sometimes and that will absolutely include some encounter cards.
What are “Clocks” and why are they needed?
This article is about what i call a “clock”. What i mean by that is the mechanic that makes sure that a game doesn’t drag on forever. Aside from making sure that games actually end and resolving stalemates, this stops players from playing completely risk averse and instead forces them to engage whatever the scenario has in store for them head on. These timers are typically not reversible or only in a very limited way. Having a time limit increases the opportunity cost of every decision in the game and thus gives actions taken and cards played more importance than they would have otherwise.
Okay, let’s have a superficial look at the three different clocks in the LCGs before going into more detail.
The clocks in the three LCGs
Scenarios in Arkham LCG are time limited by doom. Doom (in other Arkham Files games sometimes depicted as an actual doom clock) accumulates on the agenda, at a base line of one doom token per turn. If a threshold noted on the active agenda card is reached, the game moves onto the next agenda card (possibly triggering a range of effects noted on the agenda backside) and all doom is cleared from the game, restarting the clock. If there’s no further agenda card to advance to, the game will move on to one of the resolutions, ending the game. Doom is binary, if it’s not currently reaching a threshold it has no innate effect on the game.
Lord of the Rings LCG also has a timer that advances per turn until a game end is triggered, however there are several notable differences between LotR’s “Threat” and Arkham’s “Doom”. First, every player has their own threat dial here. So if one player gets eliminated by threat, the others can continue. Also, the numbers work out much more granular due to being bigger. Arkham rarely goes into the double digits with its doom clock, meanwhile LotR players already start at a threat level depending on their chosen heroes that will usually range anywhere between 20 and 40. Should a player’s threat dial reach 50, they are eliminated. Another huge difference is that threat level has other innate gameplay effects as well, determining which enemies outright attack you. Also, it increases not only from turns passing, but also from failing to explore successfully.
Marvel Champions does not have a hard timer like the other two games, but that doesn’t mean it is completely untimed. Champions does have agendas that gain tokens each turn and will make the players lose when a threshold is reached, however players are able to remove these tokens with their base abilities and thus indefinitely prolong the game that way. So this isn’t really the equivalent to the Doom and Threat from the other two games, it’s more akin to clues and questing. However, the encounter deck itself is used as a sort of timer: Whenever the encounter deck runs out of cards, an acceleration token is put into play. Each acceleration token will add more threat to the main scheme each turn until the players are no longer able to keep up with it which will then force a game end. Compared to Arkham and LotR, this is a much softer clock that will not outright end the game, but it will continuously increase the difficulty over time. Acceleration tokens can not be interacted with.
Going into detail
So, how does Doom fare when compared to Threat and Acceleration? To determine this, let’s first take a look at the strengths of the system and relate them to the other two:
- Doom characteristics are set by the agenda deck. This is a big one where Arkham is ahead of LotR in particular. While the base line for doom is fairly rigid, it does gain some flexibility from being tied to the agendas. That means that thresholds can be tuned per scenario and are not set game wide. LotR’s final bar is set by the game rules and while the starting value is flexible, it is independent of the scenario. Champions timer depends on the decksize of the villain, so there is potential for tuning here… however this is barely used (if at all) and would get drowned out by the player scaling that happens from drawing multiple encounter cards per turn. Arkham also has the liberty of doing more fancy things here like multiple parallel doom clocks (Black Stars Rise) or an agenda deck that “races” with the act deck (Light in the Fog). These are things that are not an option for the other two games without great effort (Wrecking Crew is a very interesting one for Marvel in this regard).
- Multiple doom thresholds can exist. Another consequence of the agenda deck, the doom clock can trigger developments midgame through progressing that deck. This gives doom some relevance beyond being just the countdown to the game end and allows it to be used as a timer for things like major enemies appearing (like the Harbinger in TFA), but also for much more involved things. This does not exist for LotR except when it relates to enemies as those all have their own threshold for when they engage the player on their own (the Hill Troll in Journey down the Anduin would be an example that comes close to the Harbinger one). As for Marvel, it does have only one threshold, but that one does repeat indefinitely. Neither Marvel nor LotR use passage of time to trigger major midgame developments the same way that Arkham does.
- Doom can trigger other things than a game end. An extension of the previous bullet, Arkham uses these additional thresholds to do all sorts of things. This can go from a mere “Reshuffle the encounter deck” to “Remove everything from the board, refer to the campaign sheet for how to completely re-setup the game.”
- Doom is simple. The current doom level can usually be determined fast with just a glance at the tokens on the board due to the numbers being small and the interactions being limited. That means that there’s limited amount of bookkeeping to be done and it doesn’t get in the way of the rest of the game. Arguably even simpler is the implementation in Marvel, where it’s rare that more than just a couple of acceleration tokens hit the board. Lord of the Rings does not use tokens, but requires a threat dial for each player that is adjusted and referred to very frequently. In turn, LotR has the most “clunky” version of the three, but of course that is the price for the high degree of interactivity that the threat system has compared to the other two.
Next up, we’ll do the same with some of the inherent disadvantages of Doom:
- Doom is a system of small numbers. This is actually true for nearly all of Arkham’s systems, but in case of the doom clock it has some consequences relevant to this discussion. Individual thresholds rarely reach double digits and are most often around 6-8. As a result, every card that interacts with doom is incredibly impactful because even an increment of 1 does a whole lot. Too much of these effects and the whole system becomes very swingy and can spiral out of control. We’ve seen this happen in scenarios like Essex County Express which combines doom effects with very low thresholds or in Before the Black Throne that has just a whole lot of those effects overpowering the player with the variance from the random encounter card draws. LotR’s threat counter is much more granular and cards that add threat as a penalty can be used much more freely, both on the player and on the encounter side without throwing the balance out of whack easily. Marvel allows even more leeway with this, thanks to its acceleration system not triggering a hard game over, but instead only increasing the difficulty incrementally.
- Doom is not very interactive. This is sort of a continuation of the previous point in some ways. The difference in how the games operate allow for a smaller design space for doom play than there is in LotR or arguably even in Champions. While there are a handful of player cards that allow gaining power for accepting doom in play, doom removal is almost nonexistent. At least it is when we are talking about doom on agendas, Arkham does use doom on other cards to force players into action fairly frequently. On the other hand, threat management is a huge deal in Lord of the Rings LCG: increasing your threat as additional cost (somewhat ironically, the keyword for that is called “Doomed”) or as an intentional way to draw enemies are both an important part of gameplay. And so is removing threat, with numerous player cards available. There’s whole archetypes and keywords built around staying above or below certain threat values. Champions started tapping into that space as well, with heroes like Scarlet Witch and Star-Lord having access to powerful cards that do burn through the encounter deck as a drawback to balance that power. The villain side even got into it with the Power Drain modular set that adds a set of cards to any villain that deal with melting down the encounter deck faster. At the time of writing, it needs to be seen how much more the designers can wring out of this for Marvel. Personally. i don’t see it being much more interactive than Arkham in the end. Maybe even a bit less because it’s really only tied to specific heroes, but we’ll have to wait and see on that.
- Doom effects scale with player counts. This is a bit of a weird one in Arkham. There is only one doom clock for everyone and the threshold on the agendas does not scale with player count (exceptions do exist, but they are very few). This does however mean that any additional doom effects are suddenly much more powerful when more players are involved, because instead of taking away only one turn, they take away one per player. At the same time, more players means more encounter cards drawn… and thus more doom effects, which as we just established are more potent in big groups. So these two things stack with each other immediately and can mean that a scenario that offers plenty of time to a 2-player group can be very tight and difficult for a full group. This is more relevant the more doom acceleration cards are in the encounter deck, so things like Ancient Evils or the various cultist themed sets because drawing multiples in the same turn will make it even worse still. Something similar is true for Champions, but by far less pronounced due to the lack of encounter card specific acceleration. You only dig through the encounter deck faster. Here, the faster accumulation of acceleration tokens is pretty well offset by having more heroes available to thwart threat from the schemes. LotR avoids this issue almost completely by having individual threat trackers per player. The “Doomed” cards do add threat to each players dial, but due to the leeway granted by the wider number range, this isn’t as much of a deal as it is for Arkham.
Examples: Encounter cards
Let’s check out a couple of encounter cards from the three games, to illustrate the points i made above:
We probably can not talk about doom in Arkham without mentioning Ancient Evils and Acolyte, the two poster-children for this mechanic that have been harrowing us since the core set. Evils is a great card to showcase the “small numbers” effect. Despite only adding the absolute minimum of doom counters (one…), it is often considered to be one of the most brutal things the encounter deck can throw at you. So to create weaker doom cards than Evils, the game has to do one of two things: Either present you with a treachery that gives you a choice to accept some other bad effect and only gain doom if you don’t. Or put the doom on a card that the players can try to remove from the game before the threshold if met. Aside from a couple non-enemy cards like Spires of Carcosa, that second option is usually represented by some sort of cultist. Acolyte was the first one, but almost every cycle has their own variants of the theme. I also want to highlight Brotherhood Cultist here because it is one of the few exceptions where something scales with the amount of doom. Due to the relevance of each doom token, such effects are very rare. The final card i want to show off is agenda 2a of Curtain Call. It’s an example of how the agenda cards can influence how the doom counter works, here it is introducing a way to reset the agenda, turning it more into a soft timer than in other scenarios. Of course, if you do eventually reach that threshold, you are still not going to like it…
Perhaps the most memorable card of the Lord of the Rings LCG Core Set, the Hill Troll can serve as an example for many of the things mentioned earlier. The scenario it is introduced in makes a big deal out of that engagement cost number in the upper left. As long as the players stay below 30 threat, the Troll won’t attack. What makes Hill Troll an even better example is that it also comes with an ability that can increase the threat of players trying to hold back the troll with expendable allies. The Core Set also made sure to introduce the Doomed keyword right away, as on the Endless Caverns location here. It’s easy to clear, but the combination of Doomed and Surge is one you really don’t want to see. The final highlight for LotR goes to Evil Storm, yet another Core Set card. This time a treachery, this is an example of how some powerful effects from the encounter deck will only hit players that are struggling to manage their threat.
Since the encounter deck itself is the timer in Marvel Champions, the interactions with the timer are often secondary to other effects. Klaw for example will boost himself with additional encounter cards when attacking, thus depleting the deck faster if he gets to attack a lot. Another thing that Champions does differently is how it handles search effects. Where LotR and Arkham usually ask you to search the encounter deck for something (like a Deep One enemy or whatever), pull out that one card and then shuffle afterwards, Champions usually just discards cards from the deck until it finds what it is looking for. This can potentially dump big chunks of cards, like with the Masterplan example above. Both Klaw and Masterplan are from the Core Set, but to find examples that burn the deck more consciously we have to look at expansions. Early on the Power Drain modular set gave us cards like Electromagnetic Pulse above. Not only does it dump 7 cards in one swoop, it can also potentially Surge. Note that while Surge is a keyword in all three games, it’s only in Champions that it also works towards speeding up the game by directly impacting the timer.
Examples: Player cards
Arkham allows players to add their own cultist to their deck in the form of Arcane Initiate and that includes the doom on it of course. A couple of other cards that accept doom in exchange for power exist, mostly in the domain of the Mystic class. Marie Lambeau even exists as an investigator for that playstyle and there are a few cards like Sacrifice and the above Moonlight Ritual that can help with it. When it comes to preventing or removing doom, options are very slim. After all, it’s only thematic that the workings of the Elder Gods can not just be reversed that easily. Fortune of Fate and Marie’s signature event Mystifying Song can stall for a turn, but it took until Innsmouth’s Hallow to give us a card that can actually undo doom from the agenda. And that one has quite a few hoops to jump through as well.
Unlike Arkham, LotR allows rewinding the clock, and sometimes (like with The Galadhrim’s Greeting) in big chunks. There are a good amount of effects like this around in the game, mostly in the Lore and Spirit spheres. The other side of the coin, increasing threat for personal gains, was initially not as developed but got a huge shot in the arm with the Voice of Isengard deluxe and its Ringmaker cycle. There, the use of Doomed on player cards was a major theme that spawned some really powerful cards like Legacy of Numenor above. It also introduced Grima Wormtongue as a playable hero who can reduce the cost of cards in exchange for raising everyone’s threat. As mentioned, threat does some other things in LotR as well, but i will stick with these examples to things that relate to the use of threat as a clock. Otherwise we’d be here a lot longer than we already are.
The hero Scarlet Witch does exactly what the Doomed playstyle from LotR does: By advancing the game’s internal timer, she gains additional power for her cards. This ranges from her iconic Hex Bolts that use the discarded cards to determine the outcomes of her spells to more impactful cards like Chaos Magic which trade discarded cards for power, ignoring what is actually printed on those cards. So far, she is the only one who plays this mechanic so straight. As with the encounter effects, player card effects usually only advance the timer as a secondary effect to something else. As an example, Star-Lord has a theme where he cares about encounter cards played against him. By using his own hero effect and a few of his cards, he puts enough extra encounter cards into play that everyone will notice going through the villain deck faster than usual. In terms of rewinding the clock, i am actually not aware of anything existing in the card pool yet. Doing so in a meaningful way would probably mean reshuffling the discard pile into the encounter deck, as just skipping single card draws or reshuffling just a few cards isn’t likely to do much. There are also no cards so far that directly add or remove acceleration tokens, which could be another venue that future heroes (or villains) might explore.
I’ve played a lot of LotRLCG before i even started getting into Arkham. I am pretty much fully converted now and do consider Arkham to be the superior game overall, but i have to say… that threat system of LotR is really something else. All three of the LCGs do have their timer so the game doesn’t spin into a stalemate, but LotR managed to have that timer be something that the player also interacts with, something that pulls double duty for engagement mechanics and tons of player and encounter card effects. It’s just a delight and i can’t help but feel like something got lost in translation when the other two LCGs got developed.
The doom clock of ArkhamLCG has its roots in the other Arkham Files games as well, of course. And i am not saying that it’s a bad mechanic. I just don’t think it’s very deep. It’s a binary thing that does its job. So the heavy lifting for the scenario has to be done by the agenda cards instead and that’s fair enough. There are a lot of cool and unexpected things that have been done with agendas and it’s safe to say that Arkham’s designers are using this space the best way possible. I mean… we’ve seen enemies and locations on the other side of agenda cards as early as the core set and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What i like most about the Marvel Champions system is that its open ended. This very much fits what the game is trying to do. You really don’t want your fight between Iron Man and Ultron be decided by some timer that tells you to pack up. So instead the game just escalates over time until Ultron overpowers Iron Man eventually… or not, after all there is the possibility to fight through this and that makes exactly for the type of story telling you want from a superhero game. Neat. Right now, there isn’t a whole lot of ways to interact with the system from the player side, but some of the recent releases have at least shown that the game has room for such things.
All three systems have their charm and are certainly well adjusted to the needs of their game. I do personally enjoy the LotR threat system the most because i value interactivity, but the others aren’t bad either. For all the frustration that Arkham players sometimes have with doom in general and with Ancient Evils in particular, there’s no denying that the game would be worse off without them.
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