Introduction, Disclaimer and Spoiler Warning
This is the third article in a series in which 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 make clear here 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 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.
Why does round sequence matter?
Every round, the players take their actions and/or play their cards, whatever they need to do to advance their gameplan. Also each round, the scenario presents new challenges in the form of encounter cards. Enemies on the board take their predefined actions as well. This is all true for each of the three Living Card Games, however they all have their rounds structured in a different way.
The round sequence determines what sort of information the players have when they take their actions. Have the enemies already acted? Or do you need to hold back cards to deal with that? How much can you commit to certain actions when you might need some of those cards or resources later this round? Somewhere there’s going to be a step where all players earn their “income” and get to ready their exhausted cards. Where is that step in relation to the enemy phase? Are there maybe even multiple enemy phases?
All these things have considerable impact on the sort of decision making that is required from the player and by comparing the three games with each other this becomes readily apparent as they all work quite differently here. As a result, the games feel more or less urgent and decisions need to be more or less calculated. The player might have to act proactively, not knowing what comes up from the encounter deck. Or the player might already have that knowledge for this round and gets to react instead of just act. It’s a distinction that can make quite the impact on how the game plays.
So let’s start with a superficial overview of the round sequencing in the three games before we get into the implications of the differences:
First off, some conventions. I want to define a common start of the round for all three games to make it easier to compare them side by side. This is no issue because rounds are cyclical in nature, therefore it doesn’t matter where we start unraveling them. So for purposes of this article, a round starts with the players readying their cards and gaining their income. This refresh or upkeep phase is something that all three games have in common, making it a good common ground zero. Also, i will glance over some parts of the round that doesn’t have any relevance for what i am trying to discuss here.
After an Arkham investigator readies their cards, collects their resources and draws their cards in the upkeep phase, the game moves into the Mythos phase where doom ticks up and encounter cards are revealed. Treacheries resolve and enemies are added to the board. Then players get to have their investigation phase which allows them to play cards, move, investigate, attack monsters and whatever other actions are available to them. Players can take their turns here in any order, but a turn has to be finished completely before the next player gets theirs – they can’t be woven into each other. After that, any remaining enemies get to take the enemy phase, where they move (if they are Hunters) and/or attack (if they are engaged to an investigator). After that it’s upkeep again, looping back to the beginning.
LotR players also get to enjoy a refresh phase where their stuff readies, resources are earned and cards are drawn. Well, technically its two phases and threat also ticks up there but for the purposes of this article there’s little practical difference. Where Arkham players would go into Mythos next, in LotR it’s now the player’s turn though. And unlike the all-in-one big phase of Arkham, LotR employs a more structured sequence. First, everyone gets to play cards from their hands, like allies or items. Then, the players have to commit any number of heroes and allies from their board to questing. This exhausts those characters. Only after this happens, the encounter deck reveals the cards for this round, resolving treacheries and other cards, possibly influencing the result of the quest or putting enemies into play. Once the quest is done with, a new active location is traveled to if the old one was explored. Then, the remaining characters have to face enemies which now might engage (possibly including those just revealed) and immediately attack. Shadow cards are drawn here and players can declare blockers from the ready characters they still have. Doing so will exhaust those characters. Enemy attacks are then resolved, including shadow effects. Only once all of this is done, the characters that are still ready at this point get to attack the enemies. Afterwards, the game loops back to the refresh phase. Whenever the players have to decide their actions, they do so in player order, without the option to have overlapping turns.
In Marvel Champions, players get to ready their cards at the end of the player phase. At the same time, they get to draw new cards (which are simultaneously resources). With a full hand and everything ready, they go into the villain phase where threat ticks up and the villain either attacks or schemes against each player once, using a facedown boost card. Engaged enemies join into this attack/scheming. Players declare their blockers for the attacks, which will exhaust those characters. Then the attacks resolve, including the boosts. Afterwards, encounter cards are dealt out. Treacheries resolve while enemies, schemes and upgrades are added to the board. Then its the player turn which follows a similar model to the one of Arkham: Players are free to use their actions and play their cards in any order they desire. This includes attacks on enemies. There is a fixed player order that has to be followed. Once the players have done everything they want to, they ready their cards and draw a new hand, then proceed into the villain phase again.
The fixed sequence of phases in Lord of the Rings leads to a very structured way of playing the game. The players go from one phase to the next and at each point have a limited amount of things they can decide or do. I call these steps “decision points”, where the game asks for the players input before proceeding. This is sort of comparable to how a turnbased video game might take the control away from the players and hand it back in a set rythm.
A LotR player will find that different decision points vary in how much freedom of play they have and in how much information they possess. For example, the first decision point has them play cards (allies, items, events, etc) where they have a high degree of freedom to their actions. They can play whatever they have in their hand in any order. They are also not impacted by any enemies they are currently engaged with. However, they are still working off of incomplete information from going before the encounter phase happened. This last bit is especially relevant for the quest phase which immediately follows and asks the players not only to assess what’s on the board but also what might still come from the deck.
The back half of the turn, everything after the encounter phase, swings in the other direction. While players have more information to work with here, they are limited in what they can do at a given decision point, like only declaring blockers or deciding on where to travel next. In total, i count seven decision points for LotR: Play cards. Quest. Encounter response. Travel. Engage and block. Shadow response. Attack.
The other two games are much less restrictive on the player in terms of what they can do and what they know when they are doing it. For both games, the round starts with encounter draws right after the players ready their cards, so in the player phase they do not have to fear any nasty surprises inbetween their actions (well, unless they provoke it in some way). Marvel even has all attacks happen right at the beginning as well. So in the player phase, the heroes are completely undisturbed and can do their actions, card plays and attacks in any order they desire. Or in other words, there are only three decision points in Marvel Champions: Block. Encounter response. Player actions.
Arkham has one notable difference to Champions, however. While it does also have the big player phase where everything happens, enemies do in fact impact player actions there. Anyone engaged with an enemy will have to deal with that first or face attacks of opportunity. Basically, this puts another decision point right at the beginning of their turn, where they have to deal with enemies first before they can move onto other actions safely. The other major difference is the existence of locations which start out unrevealed, so there is a progression of information during the player turn as a result of moving around the board. This sort of leaves us with five decision points, even though the order between the three in the middle is not completely fix: Encounter response. Enemy handling. Movement. Player actions. Block.
Conclusions up to here
I’d like to point out here that this is just an observation about how the games operate differently in this regard. It’s not meant to be in an evaluating way, more (or less) is not better (or worse). What we can take away from this is that Marvel is the game both with the highest degree of player freedom and with the most information available. LotR is most “on rails”, very deliberately confronting the player with one specific problem at a time. Arkham is somewhere in the middle between the two, but a bit closer to Champions than to LotR.
Also, both Marvel and Arkham have the players mostly react to what happens in the encounter phase. And any actions left after dealing with the fallout can go towards advancing the scenario. Lord of the Rings on the other hand asks players to do the advancement first and then presents the player with new threats to overcome. As a result, some actions or resources might actually go to waste when the threat turns out to be less impactful than expected. Or worse, there’s more coming from the encounter deck than expected, catching the player off-guard.
While we are looking at the round structure, there are some other things worth noticing, even if i don’t want to make a bigger point based on them. In no particular order:
- Ready phase vs encounter phase: Champions goes back to how LotR did things for many of its mechanics, but there is one thing in particular that immediately stood out to me as a huge difference and that is how the ready phase happens right after player actions. As a result, players are free to spend everything they have in their turn, without having to worry about holding things back in case its needed later. Once the encounter deck gets to do its thing, players have drawn to full, readied everything – basically, they are at maximum strength during the enemy turn. This is opposite to LotR which frontloads the player turn and then has the enemy act afterwards, so there’s a lot more guesswork and risk management involved. Arkham is similarly “generous” regarding this, but since resources do not refresh in full every turn like they do in Champions, it still has a degree of pre-planning that is simply not present in Champions.
- Enemy attack vs player attack: In LotR, the enemy attack phase happens before the players get to retaliate. For the other two games, players always get a chance to kill the enemy first. I don’t want to go too deep into the role of enemies in the three games here (i’ll hold that one back for its own article), so for now i will leave it at the observation that having the enemy attack first in LotR is a huge part of why they are so much scarier than the ones in Champions and Arkham.
- Player windows: All three games have player windows scattered across the various phases. A player window allows the use of some cards and actions to increase the interactivity of that step. So while you are usually not allowed to do anything but declare blockers in a given step, some card might allow you to be played there to remove an attacker instead or ready exhausted characters for emergencies. Or a cancel might give you the option of not dealing with a treachery.
- Player order matters: Marvel, LotR and Arkham all ask that the current player finishes their turn before the next one gets to take theirs. Again, LotR plays this one very strict with only the player windows as a way to do something on another player’s turn. A first player token determines who goes first and it goes to the player to the left during the refresh phase. The same goes for Champions, but it does have a rule allowing to “request” actions or cards from other players that allow criss-crossing of turns in a limited fashion. This rule removes a significant part of the restrictiveness. Arkham does not allow such overlap between turns, but it does allow to choose the player order during the player phase freely. This is often relevant, because when enemies are around, you might want to use your fighters first. On the other hand, there are situations where it’s more important who goes into an unrevealed location first.
Ultimately, the types of available actions over the course of a turn aren’t all that different between the three games and they do obviously share a lot of mechanics. So a large part of the difference in gameplay has to come from the round sequencing. It’s obviously not the only contribution, but it’s certainly a large factor. The effect is deliberate, of course. For example, having the ready phase right after the player phase in Marvel encourages taking big turns and spending all your resources on high impact turns as is appropriate for a super hero game. Meanwhile, the fact that in LotR the enemies attack first hammers home how dangerous they are to the group and that the group needs to be ready for ambushes once their threat value goes too high.
I think it’s quite interesting how reordering the steps in a round can fundamentally change how a game plays and feels. For previous articles i chose a “winner”, a game where i most liked the implementation of what the article is about. I am going to skip on that for this article as i think these games all have their reason to be the way they are. They are different enough in how they work and their intention behind it that i don’t want to pick one as “the better one”.
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